Ukrainian Jewish Heritage – Karaite Jews

Halych is a historic city on the Dniester River in western Ukraine. The town gave its name to the historic province and the Kingdom of Galicia–Volhyn, of which it was the capital until the early 14th century.

Today Halych is a small city which preserves its former name. It also is the administrative center of the Halych Raion (district) of the Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast.

Halych is also home to a museum dedicated to the Karaite Jews, a Jewish sect that had been living in Eastern Europe since the Middle Ages
Karaite Judaism  is characterized by adherence to the divine commandments handed down to Moses that were recorded in the written Torah, without additional Oral Law. Karaite Jews do not accept the written collections of the oral tradition in the Mishnah or Talmud. As well, Karaite Judaism follows patrilineal descent, unlike Rabbinical Judaism which follows matrilienal descent.

At one time the number of Jews affiliating with Karaism comprised as much as 40 percent of world Jewry, and debates between Rabbanite and Karaite leaders were not uncommon.

It is not known exactly when the Karaite community appeared in Halych. According to one legend, 100 Crimean Karaites were allowed to live in Halych under the Agreement of 1246 between the King Danylo Halytskyi and Batu-khan of the Golden Horde.

According to the first accurate historical record, in 1578 the Polish King Stephen Báthory allowed Karaites from Lviv to settle in Halych, and to have equal rights with locals, including the  sizable Jewish community already established in the city.

The main Karaite occupation was trade. The first Karaite families settled along the right bank of the Dnister river, close to the wharf and the ships with goods.

It was never a large community in Halych. In the nineteenth century many Galician Karaites emigrated to the Crimea. In the twentieth century the community was decimated by typhus and cholera epidemics as well as migration during and following World War Two. Today there are only two Karaites in Halych.

Fortuntely, the rich heritage of this unique community has been preserved and is on exhibit in the Museum of Karaite History and Culture.

The museum was founded in 2004, and is a department of the “Ancient Halych” state preserve. It is located near the Karaite street which once teemed with rows of trade and crafts stalls. The exhibits are in three halls and represent cultural and religious traditions, and the public and private life of the Karaite community in Halych.

In the first hall are Karaite ritual items, religious books, and implements of the Karaite temple, called a kenasa. There is also a book for guests with their impressions. Its first note comes from 1926, August 21.

The second hall is dedicated to the history of the Karaite community in the twentieth century. This hall exposition contains personal items and documents connected with life and ceremonies of Halych Karaites.

The third hall display covers the Karaite’s migration in the world, their population and ways of life.

Karaite kenesas are vitually indistinguishable from Rabbinic Jewish synagogues  The last kenesa in Halych was destroyed by the Soviets in 1985. A Karaite Kenasa dating back to 1830 has been rebuilt and now houses a court.

Also there is a Karaite cemetery in Halych, with some 200 tombs dating back to the 18th century.

At this fascinating museum, you will get a close look at the features of everyday life, traditions, religious and cultural life of the mysterious Halych Karaites.

Until next time — Shalom!

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