Rabbinical Judaism regards an Oral Law (codified and recorded in the Mishnah and Talmuds) as being equally binding on Jews, and mandated by God. In Rabbinical Judaism, the Oral Law forms the basis of religion, morality, and Jewish life. Rabbinical Judaism looks toward the Oral law codified in the Talmud, to provide the Jewish community with an accurate understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Yehudim (Hebrew), also known as the Jewish people, are an ethno-religious group originating in the Israelites or Hebrews of the Ancient Near East. The Israelite ethnicity, nationality, and religion are strongly interrelated, as Judaism is the traditional faith of the Israelite nation.
There are distinct ethnic divisions among Israelites/Jews, most of which are primarily the result of geographic branching from an originating Israelite population, and subsequent independent evolutions.
Ashkenazi Jews: Ashkenazim are the descendants of Israel who migrated into northern France and Germany around 800-1000 AD, and later into Eastern Europe. Ashkenazim comprise the overwhelming majority of Jews, with approximately 80 percent of the Jewish total (prior to the Holocaust, they were an even greater percentage of world Jewry).
Sephardic Jews: Sephardim are Israelites whose ancestors lived in Spain or Portugal, where they lived for approximately two millennia before being expelled in 1492 by the Catholic Monarchs (Alhambra decree). They subsequently migrated to the Islamic North African Maghreb and Ottoman Empire (both at the time considered safe havens for Jews).
In the Ottoman Empire the Sephardim mostly settled in the European portion of the Empire, and mainly in the major cities such as: Constantinople, Thessaloniki and Bursa. Thessaloniki, which today is to be found in modern-day Greece, had a large and flourishing Sephardic community as was the community of Maltese Jews in Malta. Others settled in Italy, the Netherlands and Latin America.
Among those who settled in the Netherlands, some would again relocate to the United States, establishing the country’s first organized community of Jews and erecting the United States’ first synagogue. Other Sephardim remained in Spain and Portugal as anusim (forced converts to Catholicism), which would also be the fate for those who had migrated to Spanish and Portuguese ruled Latin America.
Mizrachi Jews: Mizrahim are Jews descended from the Israelite communities of the Middle East, Central Asia and the Caucasus. The term Mizrahi is used in Israel in the language of politics, media and some social scientists for Jews from the Arab world and adjacent, primarily Muslim-majority countries. This includes Iraqi Jews, Syrian Jews, Lebanese Jews, Yemenite Jews, Persian Jews, Afghan Jews, Bukharian Jews, Maghrebi Jews, Berber Jews, Kurdish Jews, Mountain Jews, Georgian Jews and Ethiopian Jews.
Yemenite Jews: Temanim are Oriental Jews whose geographic and social isolation from the rest of the Jewish community allowed them to develop a liturgy and set of practices that are significantly distinct from other Oriental Jewish groups; they themselves comprise three distinctly different groups, though the distinction is one of religious law and liturgy rather than of ethnicity.
Karaite Jews: Karaim are Jews living mostly in Egypt, Iraq, Crimea and Israel. They are distinguished by the form of Judaism they observe. Rabbinic Jews of varying ethnicities have affiliated with the Karaite community throughout the millennia. As such, Karaite Jews are less a Jewish ethnic division, than they are members of a particular branch of Judaism. Karaite Judaism recognizes the Tanakh as the single religious authority of the Jewish people. Linguistic principles and contextual exegesis are used in arriving at the correct meaning of the Torah. Karaite Jews strive to adhere to the plain or most obvious understanding of the text when interpreting the Tanakh. Karaite Jews rely on the use of sound reasoning and the application of linguistic tools to determine the correct meaning of the Tanakh.
There are approximately 50,000 adherents of Karaite Judaism, most of whom live in Israel, but exact numbers are not known, as most Karaites have not participated in any religious censuses. The differences between Karaite and Rabbinic Judaism go back more than a thousand years. Rabbinical Judaism originates from the Pharisees of the Second Temple period. Karaite Judaism may have its origins in the Sadducees of the same era. Unlike the Sadducees who recognized only the Torah as binding, Karaite Jews hold the entire Hebrew Bible to be a religious authority. As such, the vast majority of Karaites believe in the resurrection of the dead. Karaite Jews are widely regarded as being halachically Jewish by the Orthodox Rabbinate. Similarly, members of the rabbinic community are considered to be Jews by the Moetzet Hakhamim, if they are patrilineally Jewish.
Samaritans: The Samaritans, who were once a comparatively large group but are now a very small ethnic and religious group of not more than about 700 people who live in Israel and the West Bank, regard themselves as descendants of the tribes of Ephraim (named by them as Aphrime) and Manasseh (named by them as Manatch). Samaritans adhere to a version of the Torah, known as the Samaritan Pentateuch, which differs in some respects from the Masoretic text, sometimes in important ways, and less so from the Septuagint.
Samaritans regard only Moses as a prophet. They have their own version of Hebrew and their own script for writing Hebrew, which, in actuality, is descended directly from the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet, unlike the Jewish script for writing Hebrew which is a stylized form of the Aramaic alphabet the Jews adopted during their captivity in Babylonia (prior to this, the Jewish Torah was written in paleo-Hebrew script, related to the script used in the Samaritan Torah).
The Samaritans consider themselves Bnei Yisrael (“Children of Israel” or “Israelites”), but do not regard themselves to be Yehudim (Jews). They view this term “Jews” as a designation for followers of Judaism, which they assert is a related but altered and amended religion brought back by the exiled Israelite returnees which is not the true religion of the ancient Israelites, which according to them, Samaritanism is. Since 539 BCE, when Jews began returning from Babylonian captivity, many Jews have rejected the Samaritan claim of descent from the Israelite tribes, though some regard them as a sect of Judaism.
Modern DNA evidence has proven both most of the world’s Jews and the Samaritans have a common ancestral lineage to the Israelites, largely on the paternal lines in both cases. Maternally, both Jews and Samaritans are respectively admixed with local host (for Jews, local populations in their host diaspora regions) or alien (for Samaritans, foreigners resettled in their midst in attempts by ruling foreign elites to obliterate national identities) populations.
Beta Israel: The Beta Israel, otherwise known as the Falasha, is a group from Ethiopia, most of whom now live in Israel. They have a tradition of descent from the lost tribe of Dan. They have a long history of practicing such Jewish traditions as kashrut, Shabbat and Passover. For this reason, their Jewishness was accepted by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Israeli government in 1975. They emigrated to Israel en masse during the 1980s and 1990s, as Jews, under the Law of Return. Some who claim to be Beta Israel still live in Ethiopia.
Bnei Menashe: The Bnei Menashe is a group of people in India who claim to be descendants of the half-tribe of Manasseh. As of 2005, members who have studied Hebrew, observe the Sabbath, and adhere to other Jewish laws, received the support of the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel in arranging formal conversion to Judaism. Recently a very large percentage of Bnei Menashe males have been found to carry the Cohen-gene, strengthening their claim of Jewish origins. Some have converted and emigrated to Israel under the Law of Return.
Black Hebrews: The Black Hebrews, believe that the biblical Israelites were actually of a dark skin, and that they are their ethnic descendants. They also believe that modern Jews are actually descendants of both the Edomites and Khazarians intermarriages. The black Hebrew Israelites claim that the word “Jewish” merely pertains to Judah and that the use of the term is the result of a mistranslation of “Judah” in the Christian King James Bible.
The presumption that the Israelites were black is based on a historical ethnic view of Egyptians. It is based on the premise that ancient Egyptians were a dark skinned people, and asserts that Moses and Joseph must have been dark-skinned because they were mistaken for Egyptians. Ancient Egyptian iconography such as the images on the thrones of Tutankhamen and grave images, shows a people of olive brown complexions and Hamito-Semitic features.
Bnai Israel: There is an ethnic-religious group in Pakistan and Afghanistan which refers to itself as the Bnai Israel, House of Israel, or Beit Israel. In English, the group is called the Pashtuns. Some Pashtuns claim to be the patriarchal historical descendants of the “ten lost tribes” of the northern Kingdom of Israel which were taken into captivity by Assyria. Additionally, certain groups of Jews in India are referred to as Bene Israel.
Rastafari: Some Rastas believe that some black races are the lost Israelites literally or spiritually. There are some Rastafarians that believe they are Jews by descent through Ras Tafari, Ras Tafari being a descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba via Menelik I.
One Rastafari order named The Twelve Tribes of Israel, imposes a metaphysical astrology whereby Aries is Reuben, Aquarius is Joseph, etc. The Twelve Tribes of Israel differ from most Rastafari Mansions (sects) because they believe that Jesus Christ is their Lord and Savior. Other Mansions claim that Haile Selassie I is the true God. They interpret the Bible as implying that Haile Selassie was the returned Messiah, who would lead the world’s peoples of African descent into a promised land of full emancipation and divine justice. With his famous early reggae song The Israelites, Desmond Dekker immortalised the Rastafari concept of themselves as the Lost Children of Israel.
However, sometimes people native to Africa are identified with descendants of Ham, whereas the Bible states that Abraham is descended from Shem.