UCL Hebrew & Jewish Studies


Qaraite and Rabbanite calendars: origins, interaction, and polemic

snapshot of the new moon crescent moon at dusk
Qaraite and Rabbanite calendars: origins, interaction, and polemic (2018–2021) is headed by Prof. Sacha Stern (UCL) and Prof. Ronny Vollandt (LMU Munich), with Dr. Nadia Vidro (UCL) as a postdoctoral research associate and is funded by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation.

The Qaraites broke off from mainstream Rabbanite Judaism in 9th-century Iraq, and became a powerful Jewish movement in subsequent centuries, in the Near East, Byzantine Empire, and other Jewish-populated regions. Their main tenet was to reject the authority of the Talmud and rabbinic tradition, and to rely instead on a fresh reading of biblical scriptures, which led to substantially different interpretations and practices in many areas.

Among the most conspicuous differences between Qaraites and Rabbanites was how they reckoned the calendar. Whereas mainstream Rabbanite Jews followed a fixed calendar based on calculation, medieval Qaraites in Muslim lands determined the calendar by empirical factors, such as new moon sightings and the state of ripeness of the crops. These fundamental differences often led to festivals being celebrated on different dates, and hence, to considerable polemic and controversies.

This project investigates the origins of the Qaraite and the fixed Rabbanite calendars, which arose in the 8th-9th centuries and which, in our hypothesis, were closely intertwined. It studies the calendar disagreement between Qaraites and Rabbanites, its significances on each side of the debate, and its polemical uses. This research also reflects on how people run their lives with different timeframes and calendars, and on the impact this exerts upon the sense of social belonging and identity.

Image: New Moon crescent. Photo by Mauro Perani.