Crimean Karaites – Krymkaraylar

The Crimean Karaites or Krymkaraylar, also known as Karaims and Qarays, are an ethnic group derived from Turkic-speakingadherents of Karaite Judaism in Central and Eastern Europe, especially in the territory of the former Russian Empire. “Karaim” is a Russian, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, and Polish name for the community.

Turkic-speaking Karaites (in the Crimean Tatar language, Qaraylar) have lived in Crimea for centuries. Their origin is a matter of great controversy. Some regard them as descendants of Karaite Jews who settled in Crimea and adopted a form of the Kypchak tongue (Karaim language). Others view them as descendants of Khazar or Cuman, Kipchak converts to Karaite Judaism. Today many Karaim deny ethnic Semitic origins and identify as descendants of the Khazars. Some specialists in Khazar history question the Khazar theory of Karaim origins, noting the following:

  • the Karaim language belongs to the Kipchak linguistic group, and the Khazar language belongs to the Bulgar group; there is no close relationship between these two Turkic languages;
  • According to the Khazar Correspondence, Khazar Judaism was, most likely, Talmudic. The tradition of Karaite Judaism ranks only the Tanakh as a holy book and does not recognize the Talmud; and
  • Khazars disappeared in the 11th century. But, the first written mention of the Crimean Karaites was in the 14th century.

Some modern Karaim resist being identified as Jews, emphasizing their Turkic heritage and claiming they are Turkic practitioners of a “Mosaic religion” separate and distinct from Judaism. Miller says that Crimean Karaites did not start claiming a distinct identity apart from the Jewish people before the 19th century, and that such leaders as Avraham Firkovich and Sima Babovich encouraged this position to avoid the strong anti-Semitism of the period.

From the time of the Golden Horde onward, Karaites were present in many towns and villages throughout Crimea and around the Black Sea. During the period of the Crimean Khanate, they had major communities in the towns of Çufut Qale, Sudak, Kefe, and Bakhchisaray.


Middle Ages

According to most opinions, the upper stratum of the Khazar society converted to Judaism in the 8th–9th centuries CE. The extent of this conversion and its scope is not known. With the collapse of the Khazar Khanate, a group of the Khazars who took part in a failed rebellion, joined the Magyars in the invasion of Hungary; they settled there at the end of the 9th century CE. An archeological relic of this Khazar settlement was discovered in Transylvania (today Romania) in the 20th century. Known as the Alsószentmihály Rovas inscription, it was transcribed by the archaeologist-historian Gábor Vékony. According to the transcription, the two-row inscription means the following: (first row) “His mansion is famous.”
(second row) “Jüedi Kür Karaite.” or “Jüedi Kür the Karaite.”

Scholars take this as evidence that at least a part of the Khazars were Karaites. (Inscription in Khazarian Rovas script)

According to Karaite tradition, Grand Duke Vytautas of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania relocated one branch of the Crimean Karaites to Lithuania. There they continued to speak their own language. But the Lithuanian dialect of the Karaim language differs significantly from the Crimean one. The Lithuanian Karaites settled primarily in Vilnius and Trakai, as well as in Biržai, Pasvalys, Naujamiestis and Upytė – smaller settlements throughout Lithuania proper.

The Lithuanian Karaites also settled in lands of modern Belarus and Ukraine, which were part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The Karaite communities emerged in Halicz and Kokizow (near Lwów) in Galicia, as well as in Łuck and Derazhne in Volhynia. Jews (Rabbinites and Karaites) in Lithuanian territory were granted a measure of autonomy under Michel Ezofovich Senior’s management. The Trakai Karaim refused to comply, citing differences in faith. Later all Jews, including Karaites, were submitted to Rabbinite “Council of Four Lands” (Vaad) and “Council of the Land of Lithuania” taxation (1580–1646). The Yiddish-speaking Rabbinites considered the Turkic-speaking Karaites to be apostates, and kept them in a subordinate and depressed position. The Karaites resented this treatment. In 1646 the Karaites gained expulsion of the Rabbinites from Trakai. Despite such tensions, in 1680 Rabbinite community leaders defended the Karaites of Shaty (near Trakai) against blood accusation. Representatives of both groups signed an agreement in 1714 to respect the mutual privileges and resolve disputes without involving the Gentile administration.

According to Crimean Karaite tradition, which developed in the 20th century inter-war Poland their forefathers were mainly farmers and members of the community who served in the military forces of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, as well as in the Crimean Khanate. According to the historical documents of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the chief occupation of the Crimean Karaites was usury. They were granted special privileges, including exemption from the military service. In the Crimean Khanate, the Karaites were repressed like other Jews, with prohibitions on behavior extended to riding horses.

Some famous Karaim scholars in Lithuania included Isaac b. Abraham of Troki (1543–1598), Joseph ben Mordecai Malinovski, Zera ben Nathan of Trakai, Salomon ben Aharon of Trakai, Ezra ben Nissan (died in 1666) and Josiah ben Judah (died after 1658). Some of the Karaim became quite wealthy.

During the times of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Karaim suffered severely during the Chmielnicki Uprising of 1648 and the wars between Russia and Commonwealth in the years 1654–1667. The many towns plundered and burnt included Derazhne and Trakai, where only 30 families were left in 1680. The destruction of the Karaite community in Derazhne in 1649 is described in a poem (both in Hebrew and Karaim language) by a leader of the congregation, Hazzan Joseph ben Yesh’uah Ha-Mashbir. Catholic missionaries worked to convert the local Karaim to Christianity, but were largely unsuccessful.

Russian Empire

19th-century leaders of the Karaim, such as Sima Babovich and Avraham Firkovich, were driving forces behind a concerted effort to alter the status of the Karaite community in eyes of the Russian legal system. Firkovich in particular was adamant in his attempts to connect the Karaim with the Khazars, and has been accused of forging documents and inscriptions to back up his claims.

Ultimately, the Tsarist government officially recognized the Karaim as being of Turkic, not Jewish, origin. Because the Karaim were judged to be innocent of the death of Jesus, they were exempt from many of the harsh restrictions placed on other Jews. They were, in essence, placed on equal legal footing with Crimean Tatars. The related Krymchak community, which was of similar ethnolinguistic background but which practiced rabbinical Judaism, continued to suffer under Tsarist anti-Jewish laws.

Solomon Krym (1864–1936), a Crimean Karaite agronomist, was elected in 1906 to the First Duma (1906–1907) as a Kadet (National Democratic Party). On November 16, 1918 he became the Prime Minister of a short-lived Crimean Russian liberal, anti-separatist and anti-Soviet government also supported by the German army.

Since the incorporation of Crimea into the Russian Empire the main center of the Qarays is the city of Eupatoria. Their status under Russian imperial rule bore beneficial fruits for the Karaites decades later.

During the Holocaust

In 1934, the heads of the Karaite community in Berlin asked the Nazi authorities to exempt Karaites from the anti-Semitic regulations based on their legal status as Russians in Russia. The Reich Agency for the Investigation of Families determined that from the standpoint of German law, the Karaites were not to be considered Jews. The letter from the Reichsstelle für Sippenforschung (de) officially ruled:

The Karaite sect should not be considered a Jewish religious community within the meaning of paragraph 2, point 2 of the First Regulation to the Reich Citizenship Law. However, it cannot be established that Karaites in their entirety are of blood-related stock, for the racial categorization of an individual cannot be determined without … his personal ancestry and racial biological characteristics


This ruling set the tone for how the Nazis dealt with the Karaite community in Eastern Europe. At the same time, the Nazis had serious reservations about the Karaites. SSObergruppenfuhrer Gottlob Berger wrote on November 24, 1944:

“Their Mosaic religion is unwelcome. However, on grounds of race, language and religious dogma… Discrimination against the Karaites is unacceptable, in consideration of their racial kinsmen [Berger was here referring to the Crimean Tatars]. However, so as not to infringe the unified anti-Jewish orientation of the nations led by Germany, it is suggested that this small group be given the opportunity of a separate existence (for example, as a closed construction or labor battalion)…”

Despite having exempt status, groups of Karaites were massacred in the early phases of the war. German soldiers who came across Karaites in Russia during the invasion of Operation Barbarossa, unaware of their legal status under German law, attacked them; 200 were killed at Babi Yar alone. German allies such as Vichy France began to require the Karaites to register as Jews, but eventually granted them non-Jewish status after getting orders by Berlin.

When interrogated, Ashkenazi rabbis in Crimea told the Germans that Karaites were not Jews, in an effort to spare the Karaite community the fate of their Rabbanite neighbors. Many Karaites risked their lives to hide Jews, and in some cases claimed that Jews were members of their community. The Nazis impressed many Karaites into labor battalions.

In Vilnius and Trakai, the Nazis forced Karaite Hakham Seraya Shapshal to produce a list of the members of the community. Though he did his best, not every Karaite was saved by Shapshal’s list.

After the Soviet recapture of Crimea from Nazi forces in 1944, the Soviet authorities counted 6,357 remaining Karaites. Karaites were not subject to mass deportation, unlike the Crimean Tatars, Greeks, Armenians and others the Soviet authorities alleged had collaborated during the Nazi German occupation. Some individual Karaites were deported.

Assimilation and emigration greatly reduced the ranks of the Karaite community. A few thousand Karaites remain in Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and Poland. Other minor communities exist in Israel, Turkey, the United States, and Great Britain.

Geographic distribution

The name “Crimean Karaites” has often been considered as something of a misnomer, as many branches of this community found their way to locations throughout Europe.

As time went on, some of these communities spread throughout the region, including to Crimea. According to Karaite tradition, all the Eastern European Karaite communities were derived from those in the Crimea, but some modern historians doubt the Crimean origin of Lithuanian Karaites. Nevertheless, this name, “Crimean Karaites” is used for the Turkic-speaking Karaites community supposed to have originated in Crimea, distinguishing it from the historically Aramaic, Hebrew, and Arabic-speaking Karaites of the Levant, Anatolia, and the Middle East.For the purposes of this article, the terms “Crimean Karaites”, “Karaim”, and “Qarays” are used interchangeably, while “Karaites” alone refers to the general Karaite branch of Judaism.


Kenesa in Vilnius

The local Karaim communities still exist in Lithuania (where they live mostly in Panevėžys and Trakai regions) and Poland. The 1979 census in the USSR showed 3,300 Karaim. Lithuanian Karaim Culture Community was founded in 1988.

According to the Lithuanian Karaim website the Statistics Department of Lithuania carried out an ethno-statistic research entitled “Karaim in Lithuania” in 1997. It was decided to question all adult Karaim and mixed families, where one of the members is a Karaim. During the survey, for the beginning of 1997, there were 257 people of Karaim nationality, 32 of whom were children under 16.


Until the 20th century, Karaism was the only religion of the Karaim, During the Russian Civil War a significant number of Karaim emigrated to Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary and then France and Germany. Most of them converted to Christianity. The Karaim’s modern national movement philanthropist M.S. Sarach was one of them.

The Crimean Karaites’ emancipation in the Russian Empire caused cultural assimilation followed by secularization. This process continued in the USSR when most of the kenesas were closed.

In 1932 Star of David was removed from Trakai Kenesa cupola by Shapshal’s’ order. Some years later it was also removed from the iron gate 

In 1928 secular Karaim philologist Seraya Shapshal was elected as Hacham of Polish and Lithuanian Karaim. Being a strong adopter of Russian orientalist V. Grigorjev’s theory about the Khazarian origin of the Crimean Karaites, Shapshal developed the Karaim’s religion and historical dejudaization doctrine

In the mid 1930s, he began to create a theory describing the Altai-Turkic origin of the Karaim and the pagan roots of Karaite religious teaching (worship of sacred oaks, polytheism, led by the god Tengri, the Sacrifice). Shapshal’s doctrine is still a topic of critical research and public debate.

He made a number of other changes aimed at the Karaim’s Turkification and at erasing the Karaite Jewish elements of their culture and language. He issued an order canceling the teaching of Hebrew in Karaite schools and replaced the names of the Jewish holidays and months with Turkic equivalents.

According to Shapshal, Crimean Karaites were pagans who adopted the law of Moses, but continued to adhere to their ancient Turkic beliefs. In addition, he claimed that the Karaites had revered Jesus and Mohammed as prophets for centuries. In the Post-Soviet period, Shapshal’s theory was further developed in modern Karaylar publications (e.g. “Crimean Karaites legends”) and was officially adopted by the Crimean Karaim Association “Krymkaraylar” (Ассоциация крымских караимов “Крымкарайлар”) as the only correct view of the Karaim’s past and the present in 2000.

Evolution of Crimean Karaite holiday names in the 20th century

Traditional Hebrew name (1915) Secondary name Modern Turkic name Turkic name translated to English.
Pesach Hag ha-Machot (Unleavened bread festival) Tymbyl Chydžy Unleavened bread («Tymbyl») festival
Omer Sefira (Counting of the Omer)
San Bašy Counting Beginning
Jarty San Counting Middle
Shavuot Hag Shavuot (Feast of Weeks) Aftalar Chydzy Feast of Weeks
The 9th of Tammuz Fast Chom Hareviyi (4th month fast) Burunhu Oruč First Fast
The 7th of Av Fast Chom Hahamishi (5th month fast) Ortančy Oruč Middle Fast
The 10th of Av Fast” Yom hа-Churban – The Destruction Day (of the Solomon’s Temple). The other name: “Nedava”(offering) Kurban Sacrifice
Rosh HaShana Yom Teru’ah (The blowing of horns day) Byrhy Kiuniu Horns Day
Yom Kippur literally “The Day of Atonement” Bošatlych Kiuniu The Day of Atonement
Fast of Gedalia Chom Hashviyi (7th month fast) Omitted
Sukkot literally “Tabernacles”. The other name: “Hag Ha Asif” (“Harvest festival”) Alačych Chydzy or Oraq Toyu Tabernacles festival or Harvest festival
Tenth of Tevet fast Chom Haasiri (10th month fast) Oruč Fast
Purim “Lots”. Kynyš Three-cornered shaped sweet filled-pocket cookie.
Was not considered a holiday Jyl Bašy The beginning of the Year


Leon Kull and Kevin Alan Brook led the first scientific study of Crimean Karaites using genetic testing of both Y chromosomal DNA and mitochondrial DNA and the results showed that Crimean Karaites are indeed partially of Middle Eastern origin and related to the descendants of rabbinic Jews.



Karaim is a Kypchak Turkic language being closely related to Crimean Tatar, Armeno-Kipchak etc. Among the many different influences exerted on Karaim, those of Arabic, Hebrew, and Persian were the first to change the outlook of the Karaim lexicon. Later, due to considerable Polish, Russian, and Ukrainian influence, many Slavic and Baltic words entered the language of Polish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, and Russian Karaim. Hebrew remained in use for liturgical purposes. Following the Ottoman occupation of Crimea, Turkish was used for business and government purposes among Karaim living on the Crimean peninsula. Three different dialects developed: the Trakai dialect, used in Trakai and Vilnius (Lithuania), the Lutsk or Halych dialect spoken in Lutsk (until World War II), and Halych, and the Crimean dialect. The last forms the Eastern group, while Trakai and Halych Karaim belong to the Western group. Currently only small minority of Karaim can speak the Karaim language (72 Crimean dialect speakers, 118 Trakai dialect speakers, and about 20 Halych dialect speakers).



The most famous Crimean Karaite food is Kybyn (Russian: Кибина pl. Кибины, Karaim: kybyn pl. kybynlar, Lithuanian: Kibinai). Kybynlar are half moon shaped pies of leavened dough with a stuffing of chopped beef or mutton, baked in dutch oven or baking sheet. Other meals common for Crimean Karaites and Tatars are ChiburekkiPelmeniShishlik (These are most often made from mutton).

Ceremony dishes, cooked for religious holidays and weddings are:

  • Tymbyl is Pesach round cakes flat of unleavened dough, knead with cream and butter or butter and eggs, reflected in modern name of this festival (Tymbyl Chydžy),
  • Qatlama is Shavuot (Aftalar Chydžy) cottage cheese pie, which seven layers symbolizing seven weeks, past after Pesach, four layers of yeast dough, three – of pot cheese,
  • Wedding pies are Kiyovliuk (on the part of the groom) and Kelin’lik (on the part of the bride).

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