The Kaifeng Jews are members of a small Jewish community that has existed in Kaifeng, in the Henan province of China, for hundreds of years. Although Jews in modern China have traditionally called themselves Youtai (from Judah) in Mandarin Chinese, also the predominant contemporary Chinese language term for Jews in general, the community was known by their Han Chinese neighbors as adherents of Tiaojinjiao, meaning, loosely, the religion which removes the sinew (a reference to kashrut).
Prior to 108 BCE, these Jews had migrated from northwestern India to the Ningxia region of modern day Gansu province, China and were spotted by a Chinese general, Li Guang, who was sent to invade the “western region” (Xīyù in Chinese) to expand the borders of Han Dynasty China. From this time until the latter part of the Tang Dynasty, the Jews slowly dispersed throughout China, taking Chinese wives, and siring “half-Chinese, half-barbarian” children. In the “Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution” (845-46), Buddhism and other foreign religions; Zoroastrianism, Manichaeanism, Nestorian Christianity, Islam and Judaism, were forced from China proper back to its outlying territories under the supervision of the Khitan tribes (including the Ningixa region) and all foreign temples were burnt to make way for their Confucian and Taoist counterparts, the native religions of China.
According to historical records, a Jewish community with a synagogue built in 1163 lived in Kaifeng from at least the Southern Song Dynasty until the late nineteenth century. It is surmised that the ancestors of the Kaifeng Jews came from Central Asia. The uninterrupted existence of this religious and ethnic group, living for over 700 years in socio-cultural surroundings strongly dominated by Confucian moral and ethical principles, is a unique phenomenon in Chinese and Jewish history.
Three stelae with inscriptions were found at Kaifeng. The oldest, dating from 1489, commemorates the construction of a synagogue in 1163 (bearing the name, Qīngzhēn Sì, a term often used for mosques in Chinese). The inscription states that the Jews came to China from India during the Han Dynasty period (2nd century BCE-2nd century CE). It cites the names of 70 Jews with Chinese surnames, describes their audience with an unnamed Song Dynasty emperor, and lists the transmission of their religion from Abraham down to the prophet Ezra. The second tablet, dating from 1512 (found in the synagogue Xuanzhang Daojing Si) details their Jewish religious practices. The third, dated 1663, commemorates the rebuilding of the Qingzhen si synagogue and repeats information that appears in the other two steles. Two of the stelae refer to a famous tattoo written on the back of Song Dynasty General Yue Fei. The tattoo, which reads “Boundless loyalty to the country” (simplified Chinese: traditional Chinese: jìn zhōng bào guó), first appeared in a section of the 1489 stele talking about the Jews’ “Boundless loyalty to the country and Prince”. The second appeared in a section of the 1512 stele talking about how Jewish soldiers and officers in the Chinese armies were “Boundlessly loyal to the country.” The same source even claims that Israelites served as soldiers in the armies of Yue Fei.
Interior of the Kaifeng synagogue.
Bird's eye view of the synagogue of Kaifeng.
It was not until the early Northern Song Dynasty, when Emperor Taizong, a man with a great thirst for knowledge, sent out envoys to every corner of Asia to learn from and recruit foreign scholars, did the Jews return to China. According to former translations of the stelae, the Chinese word Guī (in the Emperor’s speech to the Jews) was wrongly translated as “come,” leading most western and Chinese historians to believe the Jews first came to China during the Song dynasty. However, Weisz translates Guī as the proper “return,” meaning the Emperor was aware of the Jews’ former Chinese citizenship and was welcoming them back to China. He then allowed them to stay under the protection of the Song Empire and to continue to practice the religion of the fore-fathers.
The Taiping Rebellion of the 1850s led to the dispersal of the community, but it later returned to Kaifeng. Despite their isolation from the rest of the Jewish diaspora, the Jews of Kaifeng preserved Jewish traditions and customs for many centuries. In the seventeenth century, assimilation began to erode these traditions. The rate of intermarriage between Jews and other ethnic groups, such as the Han Chinese, and the Hui and Manchu minorities in China, increased. The destruction of the synagogue in the 1860s led to the community’s demise.
Due to the political situation, research on the Kaifeng Jews and Judaism in China came to a standstill until the beginning of the 1980s, when political and economic reforms were implemented. The establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Israel in 1992 rekindled interest in Judaism and the Jewish experience, especially in light of the fact that 25,000 Jewish refugees fled to Shanghai during the Nazi period.
Little of the written works of the Kaifeng have survived. A significant portion, however, are kept in the library of the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. Among the works in that collection are a siddur (a Jewish prayer book) in Chinese characters and a Hebrew codex of the bible. The codex is fascinating in that, while it ostensibly contains vowels, it was clearly copied by someone who did not understand them. While the symbols are accurate portrayals of Hebrew vowels, they appear to be placed randomly, thereby rendering the voweled text as gibberish. Since Hebrew is generally written without vowels, a literate Hebrew speaker can disregard these markings, as the consonants are written correctly, with few scribal errors.
The Kaifeng Jews intermarried with local Chinese, and are thus indistinguishable in appearance from their non-Jewish neighbors. Within the framework of contemporary rabbinical Judaism, only matrilineal transmission of Jewishness is recognized, while Chinese Jews based their Jewishness on patrilineal descent. As a result, they are required to undergo conversion in order to receive Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. Most descendants of Kaifeng’s Jewish community are only vaguely aware of their ancestry. Some, however, say their parents and grandparents told them that they were Jewish and would one day “return to their land.” The one trait that differentiated them from their neighbors was not eating pork.
While the official attitude toward the descendants of Kaifeng’s Jewish community is comfortable, their treatment by their fellow-citizens is not always so. Kaifeng is home to a dynamic Muslim community, which is very cohesive, having survived 50 years of isolation and officially sanctioned hostility (largely, presumably, because of the relationship between the Hui, Uyghur, and Kazakh ethnicities and the Chinese government). In that period, the descendants of Kaifeng’s Jewish community were protected and helped by Muslims, to the point that they became largely indistinguishable from the Muslim community. That changed with the opening up of China, when Kaifeng’s Muslims reestablished links with Muslims elsewhere. The community received assistance from Muslim nations, and adopted much of the prevailing anti-Israeli, anti-Jewish attitude. The Kaifeng mosque propagates “Conquered Jerusalem” anti-Israeli propaganda, and the local Muslim population has developed an increasingly hostile attitude toward Jews. Since few outside Jews ever visit Kaifeng, this hostility is channeled toward the descendants of the Kaifeng Jewish community. There are rumors of pogroms, information about which is reportedly censored by the Chinese government. Because of this situation, many descendants of the Kaifeng Jewish community prefer to pass as ethnic Han.
The last census revealed about 400 official Jews in Kaifeng, but that number may be suspect. It is difficult to estimate the number of Jews in any country, but in China it is nearly impossible. Numbers may change simply because of a change in official attitudes. For example, the number of ethnic Manchus during the reign of the last Manchu emperor was estimated at 2 million; after the fall of the Manchu Empire, Manchus, fearing persecution, virtually disappeared and only 500,000 were counted in the succeeding census. When official policies regarding minorities were changed, affording them protective rights, the number of ethnic Manchus jumped to 5 million. There are potentially hundreds of thousands in Kaifeng and its environs that may claim Jewish ethnicity. Thus far, most overseas Jewish communities have been indifferent toward the putative descendants of the Kaifeng Jews. Recently, however, a family of Kaifeng Jewish descendants have formally converted to Judaism and have become Israeli citizens. Whether or not more Kaifeng Jewish descendants will follow in this family’s path remains a matter of speculation. The upcoming documentary film, Kaifeng, Jerusalem, by Dr. Noam Urbach, describes the ordeal of this family.
In his 1992 documentary series Legacy, historian Michael Wood walked down a small lane in Kaifeng that he said is known as the “alley of the sect who teach the Scriptures”, that is, of the Jews. He mentioned that there are still Jews in Kaifeng today, but that they are reluctant to reveal themselves “in the current political climate.” The documentary’s companion book further states that one can still see a “mezuzah on the door frame, and the candelabrum in the living room.” Similarly, in the documentary Quest for the Lost Tribes, by Canadian filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, the film crew visits the home of an elderly Kaifeng Jew who explains the recent history of the Kaifeng Jews, shows some old photographs, and his identity papers that identify him as a member of the Jewish ethnic group. A recent documentary, Minyan in Kaifeng, documents and covers the present-day Kaifeng Jewish community in China during a trip to Kaifeng that was taken by some Jewish tourists.
In the book, The Kaifeng Stone Inscriptions: The Legacy of the Jewish Community in Ancient China, Tiberiu Weisz, a teacher of Hebrew history and Chinese religion, presents his own translations of the 1489, 1512, and 1663 stone stelae left by the descendants of the Kaifeng Jews. These stelae were left to preserve their religion and to briefly touch on their origins, since the Jewish community was slowly dying out from Chinese assimilation. His translation reveals one of many proposed origins of the Kaifeng Jews. According to Weisz, after the Babylonian exile and Diaspora of the sixth century BCE, disenchanted Levites and Kohanim parted with the Prophet Ezra because of a prohibition against taking foreign wives and the decree encouraging “intermarriage” within the Jewish tribes and disappeared never to be heard from again. Weisz believes these Jews settled in Northwestern India or Tiānzhú (“Heaven India,” as it is called in one of the Kaifeng steles), where they lived for centuries.
Today, 600-1,000 residents of Kaifeng trace their lineage back to this community. After contact with Jewish tourists, the Jews of Kaifeng have reconnected to mainstream Jewry. With the help of Jewish organizations, some members of the community have emigrated to Israel.
Chinese Jews reading the Torah from a "chair of moses."
Kaifeng city map, 1910. It shows the exact placement of the Kaifeng synagogue on the site now occupied by Number 4 People's Hospital.
Earth Market Street, Kaifeng, 1910. The synagogue lay beyond the row of stores on the right.
Ink rubbings of the 1489 stele (left) and 1512 stele (right)
Jews of Kaifeng, late nineteenth or early twentieth century.
Yemenite Jews (Temanim, Temani, Teman – far south) are those Jews who live, or whose recent ancestors lived, in Yemen on the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula. Yemenite Jews have a unique religious tradition that marks them out as separate from Ashkenazi, Sephardi and other Jewish clans. It is debatable whether they should be described as “Mizrahi Jews”, as most other Mizrahi groups have over the last few centuries undergone a process of total or partial assimilation to Sephardic culture and liturgy. (While the Shami sub-group of Yemenite Jews did adopt a Sephardic-influenced rite, this was for theological reasons and did not reflect a demographic or cultural shift.)
One local Yemenite Jewish tradition dates the earliest settlement of Jews in the Arabian Peninsula to the time of King Solomon. One explanation is that King Solomon sent Jewish merchant marines to Yemen to prospect for gold and silver with which to adorn the Temple in Jerusalem. Another legend places Jewish craftsmen in the region as requested by Bilqis, the Queen of Saba (Sheba). The Beta Israel or Chabashim (Jews in nearby Ethiopia) have a sister legend of their origins that places the Queen of Sheba as married to King Solomon. Parts of Yemen, Eritrea and Ethiopia at that time were jointly ruled by Sheba, with its capital in Yemen.
The Sanaite Jews have a legend that their ancestors settled in Yemen forty-two years before the destruction of the First Temple. It is said that under the prophet Jeremiah some 75,000 Jews, including priests and Levites, traveled to Yemen. The Jews of Habban in southern Yemen have a legend that they are the descendants of Judeans who settled in the area before the destruction of the Second Temple. These Judeans supposedly belonged to a brigade dispatched by King Herod to assist the Roman legions fighting in the region.
Another legend states that when Ezra commanded the Jews to return to Jerusalem they disobeyed, whereupon he pronounced a ban upon them. According to this legend, as a punishment for this hasty action Ezra was denied burial in Israel. As a result of this local tradition, which can not be validated historically, it is said that no Jew of Yemen gives the name of Ezra to a child, although all other Biblical appellatives are used. The Yemenite Jews claim that Ezra cursed them to be a poor people for not heeding his call. This seems to have come true in the eyes of some Yemenites, as Yemen is extremely poor. However, some Yemenite sages in Israel today emphatically reject this story as myth, if not outright blasphemy.
The immigration of the majority of Jews into Yemen appears to have taken place about the beginning of the second century C.E., although the province is mentioned neither by Josephus nor by the main books of the Jewish oral law, the Mishnah and Talmud. According to some sources, the Jews of Yemen enjoyed prosperity until the sixth century C.E. The Himyarite King, Abu-Karib Asad Toban converted to Judaism at the end of the 5th century, while laying siege to Medina. His army had marched north to battle the Aksumites who had been fighting for control of Yemen for a hundred years. The Aksumites were only expelled from the region when the newly Jewish king rallied the Jews together from all over Arabia, together with pagan allies. But this victory was short-lived.
In 518 the kingdom was taken over by Zar’a Yusuf, who “was of royal descent, but he was not the son of his predecessor Ma’di Karib Yafur.” He too converted to Judaism, and prosecuted wars to drive the Aksumite Ethiopians from Arabia. Zar’a Yusuf is chiefly known in history by his cognomen Dhu Nuwas, in reference to his “curly hair.” Jewish rule lasted until 525 CE (some date it later, to 530), when Christians from the Aksumite Kingdom of Ethiopia defeated and killed Dhu Nuwas, and took power in Yemen. Legends hostile to Dhu Nuwas certainly betray the viewpoints and self-justifications of those who defeated him and later Muslim historiographers (who tend to downplay the presence or positive nature of Jewish communities in Arabia immediately preceding and influencing Muhammad), and therefore need to be taken with the due grain of salt. What is clear is that the Jewish Yemenite kings did not force Judaism on their subjects, following the Talmudic view that righteous peoples exist in all cultures and religions and need not convert to Judaism to be saved. As a consequence, it is not clear what percentage of the population was or became Jewish. San’a, however, was said to be a chiefly Jewish city.
Rise of Islam in Yemen: As Ahl al-Kitab, protected Peoples of the Scriptures, the Jews were assured freedom of religion only in exchange for the jizya, payment of a poll tax imposed on all non-Muslims. Active Muslim persecution of the Jews did not gain full force until the Shiite-Zaydi clan seized power ,from the more tolerant Sunni Muslims,early in the 10th century.
As the only visible “outsiders” (though their presence in Yemen predated the introduction and mass conversion of the population to Islam) the Jews of Yemen were treated as pariahs, second-class citizens who needed to be perennially reminded of their submission or conversion to the ruling Islamic faith. The Zaydi enforced a statute known as the Orphan’s Decree, anchored in their own 18th century legal interpretations and enforced at the end of that century. It obligated the Zaydi state to take under its protection and to educate in Islamic ways any dhimmi (i.e. non-Muslim) child whose parents had died when he or she was a minor. The Orphan’s Decree was ignored during the Ottoman rule (1872-1918), but was renewed during the period of Imam Yahya (1918-1948).
Under the Zaydi rule, the Jews were considered to be impure, and therefore forbidden to touch a Muslim or a Muslim’s food. They were obligated to humble themselves before a Muslim, to walk to the left side, and greet him first. They could not build houses higher than a Muslim’s or ride a camel or horse, and when riding on a mule or a donkey, they had to sit sideways. Upon entering the Muslim quarter a Jew had to take off his foot-gear and walk barefoot. If attacked with stones or fists by Islamic youth, a Jew was not allowed to defend himself. In such situations he had the option of fleeing or seeking intervention by a merciful Muslim passerby.
The Jews of Yemen had expertise in a wide range of trades normally avoided by Zaydi Muslims. Trades such as silver-smithing, blacksmiths, repairing weapons and tools, weaving, pottery, masonry, carpentry, shoe making, and tailoring were occupations that were exclusively taken by Jews. The division of labor created a sort of covenant, based on mutual economic and social dependency, between the Zaydi Muslim population and the Jews of Yemen. The Muslims produced and supplied food, and the Jews supplied all manufactured products and services that the Yemeni farmers needed.
Yemenite Jews and Maimonides: The average Jewish population of Yemen for the first five centuries C.E. is said to have been about 3,000. The Jews were scattered throughout the country, but carried on an extensive commerce and thus succeeded in getting possession of many Jewish books. When Saladin became sultan in the last quarter of the twelfth century and the Shiite Muslims revolted against him, the trials of the Yemenite Jews began. There were few scholars among them at that time, and a putative prophet arose; he preached a syncretic religion that combined Judaism and Islam, and claimed that the Bible foretold his coming.
One of Yemen’s most respected Jewish scholars, Jacob ben Nathanael al-Fayyumi, wrote for counsel to renowned Sephardic Jewish theologian, philosopher, and physician from Spain resident in Egypt, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides. Maimonides replied in an epistle entitled Iggeret Teman (The Yemen Epistle). This letter made a tremendous impression on Yemenite Jewry. It also served as a source of strength, consolation and support for the faith in the continuing persecution. Maimonides himself interceded with Saladin in Egypt, and shortly thereafter the persecution came to an end.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century the condition of the Jews of Yemen was miserable. They were under the jurisdiction of the local Muslim Imam, and they were forbidden to wear new or good clothes, nor might they ride a donkey or a mule. They were compelled to make long journeys on foot when occasion required it. They were prohibited from engaging in monetary transactions, and were all craftsmen, being employed chiefly as carpenters, masons, and smiths.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, they are said to have numbered 30,000, and to have lived principally in Aden (200), Sana (10,000), Sada (1,000), Dhamar (1,000), and the desert of Beda (2,000). Other significant Jewish communities in Yemen were based in the south central highlands in the cities of: Taiz (the birthplace of one of the most famous of Yemenite Jewish spiritual leaders, Mori Salem Al-Shabazzi Mashtaw), Ba’dan, and other cities and towns in the Shar’ab region. The chief occupations of the Yemenite Jews were as artisans, including gold-, silver- and blacksmiths in the San’a area, and coffee merchants in the south central highland areas.
19th-century Yemenite messianic movements: During this period messianic expectations were very intense among the Jews of Yemen (and among many Arabs as well). The three pseudo-messiahs of this period, and their years of activity, are: Shukr Kuhayl I (1861–65); Shukr Kuhayl II (1868–75) and Joseph Abdallah (1888–93)
According to the Jewish traveler Jacob Saphir, the majority of Yemenite Jews during his visit of 1862 entertained belief in the messianic proclamations of Shukr Kuhayl I. Earlier Yemenite messiah claimants included the anonymous 12th-century messiah who was the subject of Maimonides’ famous Iggeret Teman, the messiah of Bayhan (c.1495), and Suleiman Jamal (c.1667), in what Lenowitz regards as a unified messiah history spanning 600 years.
The Yemenite Jews are the only Jewish community (other than the Aramaic speaking Kurdish Jews) who maintain the tradition of reading the Torah in the synagogue in both Hebrew and the Aramaic Targum (“translation”). Most non-Yemenite synagogues have a hired or specified person called a Baal Koreh, who reads from the Torah scroll when congregants are called to the Torah scroll for an aliyah. In the Yemenite tradition each person called to the Torah scroll for an aliyah reads for himself. Children under the age of Bar Mitzvah are often given the sixth aliyah. Each verse of the Torah read in Hebrew is followed by the Aramaic translation, usually chanted by a child. Both the sixth aliyah and the Targum have a simplified melody, distinct from the general Torah melody used for the other aliyot.
Like most other Jewish communities, Yemenite Jews chant different melodies for Torah, Prophets (Haftara), Megillat Aicha (Book of Lamentations), Kohelet (Ecclesiastes, read during Sukkot), and Megillat Esther (the Scroll of Esther read on Purim). Unlike in Ashkenazic communities, there are melodies for Mishle (Proverbs) and Psalms. Every Yemenite Jew knew how to read from the Torah Scroll with the correct pronunciation and tune, exactly right in every detail. Each man who was called up to the Torah read his section by himself. All this was possible because children right from the start learned to read without any vowels. Their diction is much more correct than the Sephardic and Ashkenazic dialect. The results of their education are outstanding, for example if someone is speaking with his neighbor and needs to quote a verse from the Bible, he speaks it out by heart, without pause or effort, with its melody.
In larger Jewish communities, such as Sana’a and Sad’a, boys were sent to the Ma’lamed at the age of three to begin their religious learning. They attended the Ma’lamed from early dawn to sunset Sunday through Thursday and until noon on Friday. Jewish women were required to have a thorough knowledge of the laws pertaining to Kashrut and Taharat Mishpachah (family purity) i.e. Niddah. Some women even mastered the laws of Shechita, thereby acting as ritual slaughterers.
People also sat on the floors of synagogues instead of chairs, similar to the way many other non-Ashkenazi Jews sit in synagogues, and the way Yemeni Muslims sit in mosques. (In fact to this day, chairs are quite rare in Yemen) This is in accordance with what Rambam (Maimonides) wrote in his Mishneh Torah: “We are to practise respect in synagogues… and all of the People of Israel in Spain, and in the West, and in the area of Iraq, and in the Land of Israel, are accustomed to light lanterns in the synagogues, and to lay out mats on the ground, in order to sit upon them. But in the cities of Edom (portions of Europe), there they sit on chairs.” Hilchot Tefila 11:5 “..and because of this (prostration) all of Israel is accustomed to lay mats in their synagogues on the stone floors, or types of straw and hay, to separate between their faces and the stones.” Hilchot Avodah Zarah 6:7
The lack of chairs may also have been to provide more space for prostration, another ancient Jewish observance that the Jews of Yemen continued to practise until very recent times. There are still a few Yemenite Jews who prostrate themselves during the part of every-day Jewish prayer called Tachanun (Supplication), though such individuals usually do so in privacy. In the small Jewish community that exists today in Bet Harash Prostration is still done during the tachnun prayer. Jews of European origin generally prostrate only during certain portions of special prayers during Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). Prostration was a common practise amongst all Jews until some point during the late Middle Ages or Renaissance period.
Like Yemenite Jewish homes, the synagogues in Yemen had to be lower in height then the lowest mosque in the area. In order to accommodate this, synagogues were built into the ground to give them more space without looking large from the outside. In some parts of Yemen, minyanim would often just meet in homes of Jews instead of the community having a separate building for a synagogue. Beauty and artwork were saved for the ritual objects in the synagogue and in the home.
Weddings and marriage traditions: During a Yemenite Jewish wedding, the bride is bedecked with jewelry and wears the traditional wedding costume of Yemenite Jews. Her elaborate headdress is decorated with flowers and rue leaves, which are believed to ward off evil. Gold threads are woven into the fabric of her clothing. Songs are sung as a central part of a seven-day wedding celebration and their lyrics often tell of friendship and love in alternating verses of Hebrew and Arabic.
Yemenite and other Eastern Jewish communities also perform a henna ceremony, an ancient ritual with Bronze Age origins, a few weeks or days before the wedding. In the ceremony the bride and her guests hands and feet are decorated in intricate designs with a cosmetic paste derived from the henna plant. After the paste has remained on the skin for up to two hours it is removed and leaves behind a deep orange stain that fades after two to three weeks.
Yemenites, like other Middle Eastern and North African Jewish communities, had a special affinity for Henna due to biblical and Talmudic references. Henna, in the Bible, is Camphire, and is mentioned in the Song of Solomon, as well as in the Talmud. “My Beloved is unto me as a cluster of Camphire in the vineyards of En-Gedi” Song of Solomon, 1:14
Rashi, a Jewish scholar from 11th c France, interpreted this passage that the clusters of henna flowers were a metaphor for forgiveness and absolution, showing that God forgave those who tested Him (the Beloved) in the desert. Henna was grown as a hedgerow around vineyards to hold soil against wind erosion in Israel as it was in other countries. A henna hedge with dense thorny branches protected a vulnerable, valuable crop such as a vineyard from hungry animals. The hedge, which protected and defended the vineyard, also had clusters of fragrant flowers. This would imply a metaphor for henna of a “beloved”, who defends, shelters, and delights his lover. In the first millennium BCE, in Canaanite Israel, henna was closely associated with human sexuality and love, and the divine coupling of goddess and consort.
Religious groups: The three main groups of Yemenite Jews are the Baladi, Shami, Maimonideans or “Rambamists”
The differences between these groups largely concern the respective influence of the original Yemenite tradition, which was largely based on the works of Maimonides, and of the Kabbalistic tradition embodied in the Zohar and the school of Isaac Luria, which was increasingly influential from the 1600s on.
The Baladi Jews (from Arabic balad, country) generally follow the legal rulings of the Rambam (Maimonides) as codified in his work the Mishneh Torah. Their liturgy was developed by a rabbi known as the Maharitz (Mori Ha-Rav Yihye Tzalahh), in an attempt to break the deadlock between the pre-existing followers of Maimonides and the new followers of the mystic, Isaac Luria. It substantially follows the older Yemenite tradition, with only a few concessions to the usages of the Ari. A Baladi Jew may or may not accept the Kabbalah theologically: if he does, he regards himself as following Luria’s own advice that every Jew should follow his ancestral tradition.
The Shami Jews (from Arabic ash-Sham, the north, referring to Tzfat or Damascus) represent those who accepted the Zohar in the 1600s and modified their siddur (prayer book) to accommodate the usages of the Ari to the maximum extent. The text of their siddur largely follows the Sephardic tradition, though the pronunciation, chant and customs are still Yemenite in flavour. They generally base their legal rulings both on the Rambam (Maimonides) and on the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law). In their interpretation of Jewish law Shami Yemenite Jews were strongly influenced by Syrian Sephardi Jews, though on some issues they rejected the later European codes of Jewish law, and instead followed the earlier decisions of Maimonides. Most Yemenite Jews living today follow the Shami customs. The Shami rite was always more prevalent, even 50 years ago.
The “Rambamists” are followers of, or to some extent influenced by, the Dor Daim movement, and are strict followers of Talmudic law as compiled by Maimonides, aka “Rambam”. They are regarded as a subdivision of the Baladi Jews, and claim to preserve the Baladi tradition in its pure form. They generally reject the Zohar and Lurianic Kabbalah altogether. Many of them object to terms like “Rambamist”. In their eyes, they are simply following the most ancient preservation of Torah, which (according to their research) was recorded in the Mishneh Torah.
Dor Daim and Iqshim dispute: Towards the end of the nineteenth century new ideas began to reach Yemenite Jews from abroad. Hebrew newspapers began to arrive, and relations developed with Sephardic Jews, who came to Yemen from various Ottoman provinces to trade with the army and government officials.
Two Jewish travelers, Joseph Halévy, a French-trained Jewish Orientalist, and Edward Glaser, an Austrian-Jewish astronomer, in particular had a strong influence on a group of young Yemenite Jews, the most outstanding of whom was Rabbi Yihhyah Qafahh. As a result of his contact with Halévy and Glaser, Qafahh introduced modern content into the educational system. Qafih opened a new school and in addition to traditional subjects, introduced arithmetic, Hebrew and Arabic and the grammar of both languages. The curriculum included subjects such as natural science, history, geography, astronomy, sports, Hebrew, Arabic, and Turkish.
The Dor Daim and Iqshim dispute about the Zohar literature broke out in 1913, inflamed Sanaa’s Jewish community, and split into two rival groups, that maintained separate communal institutions until the late 1940s. Rabbi Qafahh and his friends were the leaders of a group of Maimonideans called Dor Daim (the “generation of knowledge”). Their goal was to bring Yemenite Jews back to the original Maimonidean method of understanding Judaism that existed in pre-1600s Yemen.
Similar to certain Spanish and Portuguese Jews (Western Sephardi Jews), the Dor Daim rejected the Zohar, a book of esoteric mysticism. They felt that the Kabbalah based on the Zohar was irrational, alien, and inconsistent with the true reasonable nature of Judaism. In 1913, when it seemed that Rabbi Qafahh, then headmaster of the new Jewish school and working closely with the Ottoman authorities, enjoyed sufficient political support, the Dor Daim made its views public and tried to convince the entire community to accept them. Many of the non-Dor Daim elements of the community rejected the Dor Daim concepts. The opposition, the Iqshim, headed by Rabbi Yahya Yitzhaq, the Hakham Bashi, refused to deviate from the accepted customs and the study of Zohar. One of the Iqshim’s targets in the fight against Rabbi Qafahh was the modern Turkish-Jewish school. Due to the Dor Daim and Iqshim dispute, Rabbi Qafahh’s Turkish-Jewish school closed 5 years after it was opened, before the educational system could develop a reserve of young people who had been exposed to its ideas.
Form of Hebrew: There are two main pronunciations of Yemenite Hebrew, considered by many scholars to be the most accurate form of Biblical Hebrew, although there are technically a total of five that relate to the regions of Yemen. In the Yemenite dialect, all Hebrew letters have a distinct sound, except for the letters ס sāmekh and ש śîn. The Sanaani Hebrew pronunciation (used by the majority) has been indirectly critiqued by Saadia Gaon since it contains the Hebrew letters jimmel and guf, which he rules is incorrect. There are Yemenite scholars, such as Rabbi Ratzon Arusi, who say that such a perspective is a misunderstanding of Saadia Gaon’s words.
Rabbi Mazuz postulates this hypothesis through the Jerban (Tunisia) Jewish dialect’s use of gimmel and quf, switching to jimmel and guf when talking with Gentiles in the Gentile dialect of Jerba. Some feel that the Shar’abi pronunciation of Yemen is more accurate and similar to the Babylonian dialect since they both use a gimmel and quf instead of the jimmel and guf. While Jewish boys learned Hebrew since the age of 3, it was used primarily as a liturgical and scholarly language. In daily life, Yemenite Jews spoke in regional Judeo-Arabic.
The oldest Yemenite manuscripts are those of the Hebrew Bible, which the Yemenite Jews call “Taj” (“crown”). The oldest texts dating from the ninth century, and each of them has a short Masoretic introduction, while many contain Arabic commentaries.
Yemenite Jews were acquainted with the works of Saadia Gaon, Rashi, Kimhi, Nahmanides, Yehudah ha Levy and Isaac Arama, besides producing a number of exegetes from among themselves. In the fourteenth century Nathanael ben Isaiah wrote an Arabic commentary on the Bible; in the second half of the fifteenth century Saadia ben David al-Adani was the author of a commentary on Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Abraham ben Solomon wrote on the Prophets.
Among the midrash collections from Yemen mention should be made of the Midrash ha-Gadol of David bar Amram al-’Adani. Between 1413 and 1430 the physician Yaḥya Zechariah b. Solomon wrote a compilation entitled “Midrash ha-Ḥefeẓ,” which included the Pentateuch, Lamentations, Book of Esther, and other sections of the Hebrew Bible. Between 1484 and 1493 David al-Lawani composed his “Midrash al-Wajiz al-Mughni.”
Among the Yemenite poets who wrote Hebrew and Arabic hymns modeled after the Spanish school, mention may be made of Yaḥya al-Dhahri and the members of the Al-Shabbezi family. A single non-religious work, inspired by Ḥariri, was written in 1573 by Zechariah ben Saadia (identical with the Yaḥya al-Dhahri mentioned above), under the title “Sefer ha-Musar.” The philosophical writers include: Saadia b. Jabeẓ and Saadia b. Mas’ud, both at the beginning of the fourteenth century; Ibn al-Ḥawas, the author of a treatise in the form of a dialogue written in rimed prose, and termed by its author the “Flower of Yemen”; Ḥasan al-Dhamari; and Joseph ha-Levi b. Jefes, who wrote the philosophical treatises “Ner Yisrael” (1420) and “Kitab al-Masaḥah.”
DNA testing: DNA testing between Yemenite Jews and various other of the world’s Jewish communities shows a common link, with most communities sharing similar genetic profiles. Furthermore, the Y-chromosome signatures of the Yemenite Jews are also similar to those of other Semitic populations. Despite their long-term residence in different countries and isolation from one another, most Jewish populations were not significantly different from one another at the genetic level. The results support the hypothesis that the paternal gene pools of Jewish communities from Europe, North Africa and the Middle East descended from a common Middle Eastern ancestral population, and suggest that most Jewish communities have remained relatively isolated from neighboring non-Jewish communities during and after the Diaspora.
One point in which Yemenite Jews appear to differ from Ashkenazi Jews and most Near Eastern Jewish communities is in the proportion of sub-Saharan African gene types which have entered their gene pools. One study found that some Arabic-speaking populations, Jordanians, Syrians, Iraqis, and Bedouins, have what appears to be substantial gene flow from sub-Saharan Africa, amounting to 10-15% of lineages within the past three millennia. In the case of Yemenites, the average is actually higher at 35%. Yemenite Jews, as a traditionally Arabic-speaking community of local Yemenite and Israelite ancestries, are included within the findings for Yemenites, though they average a quarter of the frequency of the non-Jewish Yemenite sample. In other Arabic-speaking populations not mentioned, the African gene types are rarely shared. Other Middle Eastern populations, particularly non-Arabic speakers, Turks, Persians, Kurds, Armenians, Azeris, and Georgians, have few or no such lineages.
A study performed by the Department of Biological Sciences at Stanford University found a possible genetic similarity between 11 Ethiopian Jews and 4 Yemenite Jews who took part in the testing. The differentiation statistic and genetic distances for the 11 Ethiopian Jews and 4 Yemenite Jews tested were quite low, among the smallest of comparisons that involved either of these populations. Ethiopian Jewish Y-Chromosomal haplotype are often present in Yemenite and other Jewish populations, but analysis of Y-Chromosomal haplotype frequencies does not indicate a close relationship between Ethiopian Jewish groups. It is possible that the 4 Yemenite Jews from this study may be descendants of reverse migrants of African origin, who crossed Ethiopia to Yemen. The result from this study suggests that gene flow between Ethiopia and Yemen as a possible explanation. The study also suggests that the gene flow between Ethiopian and Yemenite Jewish populations may not have been direct, but instead could have been between Jewish and non-Jewish populations of both regions.
Emigration of communities to Israel: There were two major centers of population for Jews in southern Arabia besides the Jews of Northern Yemen, one in Aden and the other in Hadramaut. The Jews of Aden lived in and around the city, and flourished during the British protectorate. The Jews of Hadramaut lived a much more isolated life, and the community was not known to the outside world until the early 1900s. In the early 20th century they had numbered about 50,000; they currently number only a few hundred individuals and reside largely in Sa’dah and Rada’a.
First wave of emigration: 1881 to 1914: Emigration from Yemen to Palestine began in 1881 and continued almost without interruption until 1914. It was during this time that about 10% of the Yemenite Jews left. Due to the changes in the Ottoman Empire citizens could move more freely and in 1869 travel was improved with the opening of the Suez Canal, which reduced the travel time from Yemen to Palestine. Certain Yemenite Jews interpreted these changes and the new developments in the “Holy Land” as heavenly signs that the time of redemption was near. By settling in Israel they would be a part in what they believed could precipitate the anticipated messianic era.
From 1881 to 1882 a few hundred Jews left Sanaa and several nearby settlements. This wave was followed by other Jews from central Yemen who continued to move into Palestine until 1914. The majority of these groups moved into Jerusalem and Jaffa. Before World War I there was another wave that began in 1906 and continued until 1914. Hundreds of Yemenite Jews made their way to Palestine and chose to settle in the agricultural settlements. It was after these movements that the World Zionist Organization sent Shmuel Yavne’eli to Yemen to encourage Jews to emigrate to Palestine. Yavne’eli reached Yemen at the beginning of 1911 and returned to Palestine in April 1912. Due to Yavne’eli’s efforts about 1,000 Jews left Yemen left central and southern Yemen with a several hundred more arriving before 1914
The second wave of emigration: 1920 to 1950: In 1922, the government of Yemen, under Imam Yahya reintroduced an ancient Islamic law entitled the “orphans decree”. The law dictated that, if a Jewish boy or girl under the age of twelve was orphaned, they were to be forcibly converted to Islam, their connection to their family and community was to be severed and they had to be handed over to a Muslim foster family. The rule was based on the law that the prophet Mohammed is “the father of the orphans,” and on the fact that the Jews in Yemen were considered “under protection” and the ruler was obligated to care for them.
A prominent example is Abdul Rahman al-Iryani, the President of the Yemen Arab Republic who was alleged to be of Jewish descent by Dorit Mizrahi, a writer in the Israeli ultra-Orthodox weekly Mishpaha. She claimed to be his niece due to him being her mother’s brother. According to her recollection of events, he was born Zekharia Hadad in 1910 to a Yemenite Jewish family in Ibb. He lost his parents in a major disease epidemic at the age of eight and together with his 5-year-old sister, was forcibly converted to Islam and put under the care of separate foster families. He was raised in the powerful al-Iryani family and adopted an Islamic name. al-Iryani would later serve as minister of religious endowments under northern Yemen’s first national government and became the only civilian to have led northern Yemen.
However, yemenionline, an online newspaper claimed to have conducted several interviews with several members of the al-Iryani family and residents of Iryan, and allege that this claim of Jewish descent is merely a “fantasy” started in 1967 by Haolam Hazeh, an Israeli tabloid. It states that Zekharia Haddad is in fact, Abdul Raheem al-Haddad, Al-Iryani’s foster brother and bodyguard who died in 1980.
The most part of both communities emigrated to Israel after the declaration of the state. The State of Israel in beginning of 1948 initiated Operation Magic Carpet and airlifted most of Yemen’s Jews to Israel.
In 1881, the French vice consulate in Yemen wrote to the leaders of the Alliance in France, that he read a book of the Arab historian Abu-Alfada, that the Jews of Yemen settled in the area in 1451 BCE.
In 1947, after the partition vote of the British Mandate of Palestine, Arab Muslim rioters, assisted by the local police force, engaged in a bloody pogrom in Aden that killed 82 Jews and destroyed hundreds of Jewish homes. Aden’s Jewish community was economically paralyzed, as most of the Jewish stores and businesses were destroyed. Early in 1948, the unfounded accusation of the ritual murder of two girls led to looting.
This increasingly perilous situation led to the emigration of virtually the entire Yemenite Jewish community between June 1949 and September 1950 in Operation Magic Carpet. During this period, over 50,000 Jews emigrated to Israel.
A smaller, continuous migration was allowed to continue into 1962, when a civil war put an abrupt halt to any further Jewish exodus.
According to an official statement by Alaska Airlines: When Alaska Airlines sent them on “Operation Magic Carpet” 50 years ago, Warren and Marian Metzger didn’t realize they were embarking on an adventure of a lifetime. Warren Metzker, a DC-4 captain, and Marian Metzker, a flight attendant, were part of what turned out to be one of the greatest feats in Alaska Airlines’ 67-year history: airlifting thousands of Yemenite Jews to the newly created nation of Israel. The logistics of it all made the task daunting. Fuel was hard to come by. Flight and maintenance crews had to be positioned through the Middle East. And the desert sand wreaked havoc on engines. It took a whole lot of resourcefulness the better part of 1949 to do it. But in the end, despite being shot at and even bombed upon, the mission was accomplished – and without a single loss of life. “One of the things that really got to me was when we were unloading a plane at Tel Aviv,” said Marian, who assisted Israeli nurses on a number of flights. “A little old lady came up to me and took the hem of my jacket and kissed it. She was giving me a blessing for getting them home. We were the wings of eagles.” For both Marian and Warren, the assignment came on the heels of flying the airline’s other great adventure of the late 1940s: the Berlin Airlift. “I had no idea what I was getting into, absolutely none,” remembered Warren, who retired in 1979 as Alaska’s chief pilot and vice president of flight operations. “It was pretty much seat-of-the-pants flying in those days. Navigation was by dead reckoning and eyesight. Planes were getting shot at. The airport in Tel Aviv was getting bombed all the time. We had to put extra fuel tanks in the planes so we had the range to avoid landing in Arab territory.”
Many of the Yemenite Jews were brought to Israel during the Operation Magic Carpet on a wave of Messianic expectation. Inevitably they found that the reality fell short of their dreams. On arrival they were placed in transit camps (ma’abarot) in which basic amenities were often lacking, where they often had to stay for years. They were also subjected to a deliberate process of secularization in order to fit them for modern Israeli society, and few if any succeeded in preserving their traditional Yemenite way of living. Many children unaccountably “disappeared” or were said to have died, and were later discovered to have been sold for adoption. More recently, however, there has been a revival in Yemenite Judaism, principally under the auspices of Rabbi Yosef Qafih, and many Israelis take an interest in it from an antiquarian and folkloristic point of view.
In Yemen itself, there exists today a small Jewish community in the town of Bayt Harash (2 km away from Raydah. They have a rabbi, a functioning synagogue and a mikvah. The also have a boys yeshiva and a girls seminary, funded by a Satmarer affiliated Hasidic organization of Monsey, NY.
A small Jewish enclave also exists in the town of Raydah, which lies approximately 45 mile north of Sana’a. The town hosts a yeshiva, also funded by a Satmar affiliated organization.
The Yemeni defense forces have gone to great lengths to try and convince the Jews to stay in their towns. These attempts, however, failed and the authorities were forced to provide financial aid for the Jews so they would be able to rent accommodation in safer areas.
In December 2008, 30 year old Rabbi Masha Ya’ish al-Nahari of Raydah was shot & killed by an Islamic extremist.
Virtually the entire Jewish population emigrated from Yemen between June 1949 and September 1950 in what was deemed Operation Magic Carpet. Most now live in Israel, with some others in the United States, and fewer elsewhere. Only a handful remain in Yemen, mostly elderly.
Operation Magic Carpet (Yemenites). In the course of the operation "Magic Carpet" (1949-1950), the entire community of Yemenite Jews (called Teimanim, about 49,000) immigrated to Israel. Most of them had never seen an airplane before, but they believed in the Biblical prophecy: according to the Book of Isaiah (40:31), God promised to return children of Israel to Zion "on wings of eagles".
Midrash Hagadol Manuscript
Yemenite Jew sounding the Shofar.
Yemenite Jewish Man
Elderly Jewish Man 1920
Yemenite Jewish Bride
Yemenite Jew in traditional vestments
Sephardic Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, known and respected among Yemenite Jews for the impact of his Epistle on the community at their time of need.
Map of Yemen Jewish Communities
Introduction: This article is written according to the Iraqi historical documents and from the Iraq –Babylonia perspective and their relationship to their Jewish population.
Iraqi Jews are Jews born in Iraq or of Iraqi heritage. The history of the Jews in Iraq is documented from the time of the Babylonian captivity 800 BCE. Iraqi Jews constitute one of the world’s oldest and most historically significant Jewish communities. The Jewish community of Babylon included prophets and priests, whose return to Judea was associated with significant changes in Jewish ritual observance. The Talmud which was compiled in Babylonia, identified with modern Iraq.
Babylon and the country of Babylonia are not always clearly distinguished, in most cases the same word being used for both. In some passages the land of Babylonia is called Shinar; while in the post-exilic literature it is called the land of the Chaldeans. In the Book, Babylonia is described as the land in which are located Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh which are declared to have formed the beginning of Nimrod’s kingdom. In this land was located the Tower of Babel and here also was the seat of Amraphel’s dominion.
In the historical books of Babylonia as it is frequently referred to and there are no fewer than thirty-one references in the Books of the Jews, though the lack of a clear distinction between the city and the country is sometimes puzzling. Allusions to it are confined to the points of contact between the Israelites and the various Babylonian kings and Nebuchadnezzar as well as Israelite prophets. The interest is transferred to Cyrus though the retrospect still deals with the conquests of Nebuchadnezzar and Artaxerxes.
In the poetical literature of Israel, Babylonia plays an insignificant part and especially it fills a very large place in the Prophets. The Book resounds with the “burden of Babylon” though at that time it still seemed a “far country”. In the number and importance of its references to Babylonian life and history, the Books of the prophets dominate in the Hebrew literature. So important are the references to events in the reign of Nebuchadnezzar that within recent times has become a valuable source in reconstructing Babylonian history. The inscriptions of Nebuchadnezzar are almost exclusively devoted to building operations and the Book relates to his campaign against Jerusalem.
From the Babylonian period to the rise of the Islamic caliphate, the Jewish community of Babylon thrived as the center of Jewish learning. The Mongol invasion and Islamic discrimination in the middle Ages led to its decline. Under the Ottoman Empire, the Jews of Iraq fared better. The community established modern schools in the second-half of the 19th century.
Three times during the 6th century BCE, the Jews of the ancient Kingdom of Judah were exiled to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar. The first was in the time of King Jehoiachin in 597 BCE, when, in retaliation for a refusal to pay tribute, the Israelite temple of Jerusalem was partially despoiled and a number of the leading citizens removed. After eleven years, in the reign of King Zedekiah who had been enthroned by Nebuchadnezzar, a fresh revolt of the Judeans took place, perhaps encouraged by the close proximity of the Egyptian army. The city was razed to the ground, and a further deportation ensued. Finally, five years later, the prophet records a third captivity. After the overthrow of Babylonia by the Persians, Cyrus gave the Jews permission to return to their native land (537 BCE), and more than forty thousand are said to have availed themselves of the privilege.
The earliest accounts of the Jews exiled to Babylonia are furnished only by details of their Books; certain not quite reliable sources seek to supply this deficiency from the realms of legend and tradition. Thus, the “Small Chronicle” (Seder ‘Olam Zuṭṭa) endeavors to preserve historic continuity by providing a genealogy of the Princes of the Exile (“Reshe Galuta”) back to King Jeconiah. Indeed, Jeconiah himself is made a Prince of the Exile. The “Small Chronicle’s” statement is that Zerubbabel returned to Judea in the Greek period, can not be regarded as historical. Only this much can be considered as certain; that the descendants of the Davidic house occupied an exalted position among their brethren in Babylonia, as, at that period, in Palaestina likewise. At the period of the revolt of the Maccabees, these Judean descendants of the royal house had immigrated to Babylonia.
It was with Alexander the Great’s campaign that accurate information concerning the Jews in the East reached the western world. Alexander’s army contained numerous Jews who refused, from religious scruples, to take part in the reconstruction of the destroyed Belus temple in Babylon. The accession of Seleucus Nicator, 312 B.C., to whose extensive empire Babylonia belonged, was accepted by the Jews and Syrians for many centuries as the commencement of a new era for reckoning time, called “minyan sheṭarot,”æra contractuum, or era of contracts, which era was also officially adopted by the Parthians.
This so-called “Greek” era survived in the Orient long after it had been abolished in the West; according to Sherira’s “Letter,” Neubauer, p. 28. Nicator’s foundation of a city, Seleucia, on the Tigris is mentioned by the Rabbis; while both the “Large” and the “Small Chronicle” contain references to him. The important victory which the Jews are said to have gained over the Galatians in Babylonia must have happened under Seleucus Callinicus or under Antiochus III. The last-named settled a large number of Babylonian Jews as colonists in his western dominions, with the view of checking certain revolutionary tendencies disturbing those lands. Mithridates (174-136) subjugated, about the year 160, the province of Babylonia, and thus the Jews for four centuries came under Parthian domination.
Jewish sources contain no mention of Parthian influence; the very name “Parthian” does not occur, unless indeed “Parthian” is meant by “Persian,” which occurs now and then. The Armenian prince Sanatroces, of the royal house of the Arsacides, is mentioned in the “Small Chronicle” as one of the successors (diadochoi) of Alexander. Among other Asiatic princes, the Roman prescript in favor of the Jews reached Arsaces as well; it is not, however, specified which Arsaces. Not long after this, the Partho-Babylonian country was trodden by the army of a Jewish prince; the Syrian king, Antiochus Sidetes, marched, in company with Hyrcanus I., against the Parthians; and when the allied armies defeated the Parthians (129 B.C.) at the River Zab (Lycus), the king ordered a halt of two days on account of the Jewish Sabbath and Feast of Weeks.
In 40 B.C.E. the Jewish puppet-king, Hyrcanus II, fell into the hands of the Parthians, who, according to their custom, cut off his ears in order to render him unfit for ruler ship. The Jews of Babylonia, it seems, had the intention of founding a high-priesthood for the exiled Hyrcanus, which they would have made quite independent of Palaestina. But the reverse was to come about: the Israelites received a Babylonian, Ananel by name, as their high priest which indicates the importance enjoyed by the Jews of Babylonia. Still in religious matters the Babylonians, as indeed the whole Diaspora, were in many regards dependent upon Palaestina. They went on pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the festivals.
How free a hand the Parthians permitted the Jews is perhaps best illustrated by the rise of the little Jewish robber-state in Neharda’a (Anilai and Asinai). Still more remarkable is the conversion of the king of Adiabene to Judaism. These instances show not only the tolerance, but the weakness of the Parthian kings. The Babylonian Jews wanted to fight in common cause with their Palaestinia brethren against Vespasian; but it was not until the Romans waged war under Trajan against Parthia that they made their hatred felt; so that it was in a great measure owing to the revolt of the Babylonian Jews that the Romans did not become masters of Babylonia too. Philo speaks of the large number of Jews resident in that country, a population which was no doubt considerably swelled by new immigrants after the destruction of Jerusalem. Accustomed in Jerusalem from early times to look to the east for help and aware, as the Roman procurator Petronius was, that the Jews of Babylon could render effectual assistance, Babylonia became with the fall of Jerusalem the very bulwark of Judaism. The collapse of the Bar Kochba revolt no doubt added to the number of Jewish refugees in Babylon.
In the continuous struggles between the Parthians and the Romans, the Jews had every reason to hate the Romans, the destroyers of their sanctuary, and to side with the Parthians, their protectors. Possibly it was recognition of services thus rendered by the Jews of Babylonia, and by the Davidic house especially, that induced the Parthian kings to elevate the princes of the Exile, who till then had been little more than mere collectors of revenue, to the dignity of real princes, called Resh Galuta. Thus, then, the numerous Jewish subjects were provided with a central authority which assured an undisturbed development of their own internal affairs.
After the fall of Jerusalem, Babylon would become the focus of Judaism for more than a thousand years. The rabbi Abba Arika, afterward called simply Rab, was a key figure in maintaining Judaism after the destruction of Jerusalem. Rab left Palaestina to return to his Babylonian home, the year of which has been accurately recorded (530 of the Seleucidan, or 219 of the Common Era), marks an epoch; for from it dates the beginning of a new movement in Babylonian Judaism—namely, the initiation of the dominant rôle which the Babylonian Academies played for several centuries. Leaving an existing Babylonian academy at Neharda’a to his friend Samuel, the Rab founded a new academy in Sura, where he held property.
Thus, there existed in Babylonia two contemporary academies, so far removed from each other, however, as not to interfere with each other’s operations. Since Rab and Samuel were acknowledged peers in position and learning, their academies likewise were accounted of equal rank and influence. Thus both Babylonian rabbinical schools opened their lectures brilliantly, and the ensuing discussions in their classes furnished the earliest stratum of the scholarly material deposited in the Babylonian Talmud. The co-existence for many decades of these two colleges of equal rank (though the school at Neharda’a was moved to Pumbaditha, now Fallujah) originated that remarkable phenomenon of the dual leadership of the Babylonian Academies which, with some slight interruptions, became a permanent institution and a weighty factor in the development of Babylonian Judaism.
The key work of these academies was the compilation of the Babylonian Talmud, started by Rav Ashi and Ravina, two leaders of the Babylonian Jewish community, around the year 550. Editorial work by the Savoraim or Rabbanan Savoraei (post-Talmudic rabbis), continued on this text for the next 250 years; much of the text did not reach its final form until around 700. Mishnah and Babylonian Gemara together form the Talmud Bavli (the “Babylonian Talmud”). Manuscripts to this day are held in high esteem in the great museum of Babylon.
The three centuries in the course of which the Babylonian Talmud was developed in the academies founded by Rab and Samuel were followed by five centuries during which it was zealously preserved, studied, expounded in the schools, and, through their influence, recognized by the whole Diaspora. Sura and Pumbaditha were considered the only important seats of learning: their heads and sages were the undisputed authorities, whose decisions were sought from all sides and were accepted wherever Jewish communal life existed. In the words of the haggadist, “God created these two academies in order that the promise might be fulfilled, that the word of God should never depart from Israel‘s mouth” according to the prophets. The periods of Jewish history immediately following the close of the Talmud are designated according to the titles of the teachers at Sura and Pumbaditha; thus we have “the time of the Geonim and that of the Saboraim. The Saboraim were the scholars whose diligent hands completed the Talmud in the first third of the sixth century, adding manifold amplifications to its text. The two academies lasted until the middle of the eleventh century, Pumbaditha faded after its chief rabbi was murdered in 1038, and Sura faded soon after.
The Persian people were gain to make their influence felt in the history of the world. Ardashir I destroyed the rule of the Arsacids in the winter of 226, and founded the illustrious dynasty of the Sassanids. Different from the Parthian rulers, who were northern Iranians following Mithraism and Zoroastrianism and speaking Pahlavi dialect, the Sassanids intensified nationalism and established a state-sponsored Zoroastrian church which often suppressed dissident factions and heterodox views.
Shapur I (Shvor Malka, which is the Aramaic form of the name) was a friend to the Jews. His friendship with Shmuel gained many advantages for the Jewish community. Shapur II’s mother was Jewish, and this gave the Jewish community a relative freedom of religion and many advantages. Shapur was also the friend of a Babylonian rabbi in the Talmud called Raba, and Raba’s friendship with Shapur II enabled him to secure a relaxation of the oppressive laws enacted against the Jews in the Persian Empire. In addition, Raba sometimes referred to his top student Abaye with the term Shvur Malka meaning “Shapur [the] King” because of his bright and quick intellect.
Christians, Manicheans, Buddhists and Jews at first seemed at a disadvantage, especially under Sassanian high-priest Kartir; but the Jews, dwelling in more compact masses in cities like Isfahan, were not exposed to such general discrimination as broke out against the more isolated Christians. Generally, this was a period of occasional persecutions for the Jews, followed by long periods of benign neglect in which Jewish learning thrived. By 600, the Jews were increasingly persecuted, and they welcomed the Arab conquest of 632-634.
The first legal expression of Islam toward the Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians after the conquests of the 630s were the poll-tax (“jizyah”), the tax upon real estate (“kharaj”) was instituted. The first caliph, Abu Bakr, sent the famous warrior Khalid bin Al-Waleed against Iraq; and a Jew, by name Ka’ab al-Aḥbar, is said to have fortified the general with prophecies of success.
The Jews may have favored the advance of the Arabs, from whom they could expect mild treatment. Such services secured the Exilarch Bostanai the favor of Umar I, who awarded him a wife, the daughter of the conquered Sassanid Chosroes II as Theophanes and Abraham Zacuto narrate. Jewish records “Seder ha-Dorot,” contains a Bostanai legend which has many features in common with the account of the hero Mar Zuṭra II. The account reveals that Bostanai, the founder of the succeeding Exilarch dynasty, was a man of prominence, who received from the victorious Arab general certain high privileges, such as the right to wear a signet ring, a privilege otherwise limited to Muslims.
Omar and Othman were followed by Ali (656), with whom the Jews of Babylonia sided as against his rival Mo’awiyah. A Jewish preacher, Abdallah ibn Saba, of southern Arabia, who had embraced Islam, held forth in support of his new religion, expounded Mohammed’s appearance in a Jewish sense and to a certain extent, laid the foundation for the later sect of the Shiïtes. Ali made Kufa, in Iraq, his capital, and thither went Jews who had been expelled from Arabia (about 641). The Arabic language rapidly gained ground among the Jews of Babylonia, although a majority of the population of Iraq was of Arab descent. The capture by Ali of Firuz Shabur, where 90,000 Jews are said to have dwelt, is mentioned by the Jewish chroniclers. Mar Isaac, chief of the Academy of Sura, paid homage to the caliph, and received privileges from him.
The proximity of the court lent to the Jews of Babylonia a species of central position, as compared with the whole caliphate; so that Babylonia still continued to be the focus of Jewish life. The time-honored institutions of the exilarchate and the gaonate—the heads of the academies attained great influence—constituted a kind of higher authority, voluntarily recognized by the whole Jewish Diaspora. But unfortunately Exilarch and geonim only too soon began to rival each other. A certain Mar Yanḳa, closely allied to the Exilarch, persecuted the rabbis of Pumbaditha so bitterly that several of them were compelled to flee to Sura, not to return until after their persecutor’s death (about 730). “The exilarchate was for sale in the Arab period” (Ibn Daud); and centuries later, Sherira boasts that he was not descended from Bostanai. In Arabic legend, the resh galuta (ras al-galut) remained a highly important personage; one of them could see spirits; another is said to have been put to death under the last Umayyad caliph, Merwan ibn Mohammed (745-750).
The Umayyad caliph, Umar II, (717-720), persecuted the Jews. He issued orders to his governors: “Tear down no church, synagogue, or fire-temple; but permit no new ones to be built”. Isaac Iskawi II (about 800) received from Harun al-Rashid (786-809) confirmation of the right to carry a seal of office. At the court of the mighty Harun appeared an embassy from the emperor Charlemagne, in which a Jew, Isaac, took part. Charles (possibly Charles the Bald) is said to have asked the “king of Babel” to send him a man of royal lineage; and in response the caliph dispatched Rabbi Machir to him; this was the first step toward establishing communication between the Jews of Babylonia and European communities.
Although it is said that the law requiring Jews to wear a yellow badge upon their clothing originated with Harun, and although the laws of Islam were stringently enforced by him to the detriment of the Jews, the magnificent development which Arabian culture underwent in his time must have benefited the Jews also; so that a scientific tendency began to make itself noticeable among the Babylonian Jews under Harun and his successors, especially under Al-Ma’mun (813-833).
Like the Arabs, the Jews were zealous promoters of knowledge, and by means of translations of the Greek and Latin authors contributed essentially to their preservation. They took up religio-philosophical studies (the “kalam”), siding generally with the Mutazilites and maintaining the freedom of the human will (“chadr”). The government meanwhile accomplished all it could toward the complete humiliation of the Jews. All non-believers Magi, Jews, and Christians were compelled by Al-Mutawakkil to wear a badge; their places of worship were confiscated and turned into mosques; they were excluded from public offices, and compelled to pay to the caliph a tax of one-tenth of the value of their houses. An utterance of the caliph Al-Mu’tadhel (892-902) ranks the Jews, as state servants, after Christians.
The Caliphate hastened to its end before the rising power of the Mongolian Empire. As Bar Hebræus remarks, these Mongol tribes knew no distinction between heathens, Jews, and Christians; and their Great Khan Kublai Khan showed himself just toward the Jews who served in his army, as reported by Marco Polo. Hulagu, the destroyer of the Caliphate (1258) and the conqueror of Palaestina (1260), was tolerant toward Muslims, Jews and Christians; but there can be no doubt that in those days of terrible warfare the Jews must have suffered much with others. Under the Mongolian rulers, the priests of all religions were exempt from the poll-tax. Hulagu’s second son, Aḥmed, embraced Islam, but his successor, Arghun (1284-91), hated the Muslims and was friendly to Jews and Christians; his chief counselor was a Jew, Sa’ad al-Daulah, a physician of Baghdad.
After the death of the great khan and the murder of his Jewish favorite, the Muslims fell upon the Jews, and Baghdad witnessed a regular battle between them. Gaykhatu also had a Jewish minister of finance, Reshid al-Daulah. The khan Ghazan also became a Muslim, and made the Jews second class citizens. The Egyptian sultan Naṣr, who also ruled over Iraq, re-established the same law in 1330, and saddled it with new limitations.
Mongolian fury once again devastated the localities inhabited by Jews, when, in 1393, Timur captured Baghdad, Wasit, Hilla, Basra, and Tikrit, after obstinate resistance. Many Jews fled to other areas during this time. The cumulative effect of the Mongol incursions is that most of the existing Jewish community either died or fled, and the later Jewish community consisted largely of immigrants from other places, principally Aleppo. For this reason the traditions of Iraqi Jewry cannot be regarded as continuous with the Babylonian tradition of Talmudic times, but are a variant of those of Middle Eastern Jews generally.
After various changes of fortune, Mesopotamia and Iraq came into the hands of the Ottoman Turks, when Sultan Suleiman II in 1534 took Tabriz and Baghdad from the Persians, leading to an improvement in the life of the Jews. The Persian reconquest in 1623 led to a much worse situation, so that the re-conquest of Iraq by the Turks in 1638 included an army with a large population of Jews, some sources say they made up 10% of the army. The day of the reconquest was even given a holiday, “Yom Nes” (day of miracle).
Over time, the Turkish rule deteriorated and the situation of the Jews worsened, but the population continued to grow. The persecutions of Daud Pasha, caused many members of the Jewish community, such as David Sassoon to flee. In 1884 there were 30,000 Jews in Baghdad and by 1900, 50,000. The community also produced great rabbis, such as Joseph Hayyim ben Eliahu Mazal-Tov (1834 – 1909).
Before the anti-Jewish actions of the 1930s and 1940s, overall Iraqi Jews viewed themselves as Arabs of the Jewish faith, rather than as a separate race or nationality. Additionally, early Labor Zionism mostly concentrated on the Jews of Europe, skipping Iraqi Jews because of their lack of interest in agriculture. The result was that until World War II, Zionism made little headway because few Iraqi Jews were interested in the socialist ideal of manual labor in Palaestina.
During the British Mandate from 1918, and in the early days after independence in 1932, well-educated Jews played an important role in civic life. Iraq‘s first minister of finance, Sir Sassoon Eskell, was a Jew, and Jews were important in developing the judicial and postal systems. Records from the Baghdad Chamber of Commerce show that 10 out of its 19 members in 1947 were Jews and the first musical band formed for Baghdad‘s nascent radio in the 1930s consisted mainly of Jews. Jews were represented in the Iraqi parliament, and many Jews held significant positions in the bureaucracy.
In the late 1930s, the situation of the Jews in Iraq deteriorated. Previously, the growing Iraqi Arab nationalist sentiment included Iraqi Jews as fellow Arabs, but these views changed with the introduction of Nazi propaganda and the ongoing conflict in the Palaestina Mandate. Despite protestations of their loyalty to Iraq, Iraqi Jews were increasingly subject to discrimination and harsh laws. On August 27, 1934 many Jews were dismissed from public service, and quotas were set up in colleges and universities. Zionist activities were banned, as was the teaching of Jewish history and Hebrew in Jewish schools. Following Rashid Ali’s pro-Axis coup, the Farhud (“violent dispossession”) pogrom of June 1 and 2, 1941, broke out in Baghdad in which approximately 200 Jews were murdered (some sources put the number higher) and up to 2,000 injured with damages to property estimated at $3 million. There was also looting in many other cities at around the same time. Afterwards, Zionist emissaries from Palaestina were sent to teach Iraqi Jews self-defense, which they were eager to learn.
According to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Sa’id, who was influenced by leaders of western democracies stated, “The Jews have always been a source of evil and harm to Iraq. They are spies. They have sold their property in Iraq; they have no land among us that they can cultivate. How therefore can they live? What will they do if they stay in Iraq? No, no my friend, it is better for us to be rid of them as long as we are able to do so.” (A.al-Arif p.893). In 1948, the country was placed under martial law, and the penalties for Zionism were increased. Courts martial were used to intimidate wealthy Jews were detained, Jews were again dismissed from civil service and quotas were placed on university positions; Jewish businesses were boycotted and Shafiq Ades (one of the most important anti-Zionist Jewish businessmen in the country) was arrested and executed for allegedly selling goods to Israel, shocking the community.
Additionally, like most Arab League states, Iraq forbade any legal emigration of its Jews on the grounds that they might go to Israel and could strengthen that state. However, intense diplomatic pressure brought about a change of mind. At the same time, increasing government oppression of the Jews fueled by anti-Israeli sentiment, together with public expressions of anti-Semitism, created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty. With very few exceptions, only Jews wore watches. On spotting one that looked expensive, a policeman had approached the owner as if to ask the hour. Once assured the man was Jewish, he relieved him of the timepiece and took him into custody. The watch, he told the judge, contained a tiny wireless; he’d caught the Jew, he claimed, sending military secrets to the Zionists in Palaestina. Without examining the “evidence” or asking any questions, the judge pronounced his sentence. The “traitor” went to prison, the watch to the policeman as reward.” (Haddad p.176).
By 1949, the Iraqi Zionist underground had become well-established (despite many arrests), and they were smuggling Iraqi Jews out of the country illegally at a rate of 1,000 a month. Hoping to stem the flow of assets from the country, in March 1950 Iraq passed a law of one year duration allowing Jews to emigrate on condition of relinquishing their Iraqi citizenship. They were motivated by “economic considerations, chief of which was that almost all the property of departing Jews reverted to the state treasury and also that Jews were seen as a restive and potentially troublesome minority that the country was best rid of. Israel was initially reluctant to absorb so many immigrants, but eventually mounted an airlift operation in March of 1951 called “Ezra and Nehemiah” to bring as many of the Iraqi Jews as possible to Israel, and sent agents to Iraq to urge the Jews to register for immigration as soon as possible.
From the start of the emigration law in March 1950 until the end of the year, 60,000 Jews registered to leave Iraq. In addition to continuing arrests and the dismissal of Jews from their jobs, this exodus was encouraged by a series of bombings starting in April 1950 that resulted in a number of injuries and a few deaths. Two months before the expiry of the law, by which time about 85,000 Jews had registered, another bomb at the Masuda Shemtov synagogue killed 3 or 5 Jews and injured many others. The law expired in March 1951 but was later extended after the Iraqi government froze the assets of departing Jews, including those who had already left. During the next few months, all but a few thousand of the remaining Jews registered for emigration, spurred on by a sequence of further bombings that caused few casualties but had great psychological impact. In Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, some 120,000 Jews were airlifted to Israel via Iran and Cyprus.
The true identity and objective of the masterminds behind the bombings has been the subject of controversy. A secret Israeli inquiry in 1960 found no evidence that they were ordered by Israel or any motive that would have explained the attack, though it did find out that most of the witnesses believed that Jews had been responsible for the bombings. The issue remains unresolved: Iraqi activists still regularly charge that Israel used violence to engineer the exodus, while Israeli officials of the time vehemently deny it. Historian Moshe Gat reports that “the belief that the bombs had been thrown by Zionist agents was shared by those Iraqi Jews who had just reached Israel“. Sociologist Phillip Mendes backs Gat’s claims, and further attributes the allegations to have been influenced and distorted by feelings of discrimination. Journalist Naemi Giladi’s position that the bombings were “perpetrated by Zionist agents in order to cause fear amongst the Jews and so promote their exodus to Israel is shared by a number of anti-Zionist authors, including the Israeli Black Panthers (1975), David Hirst (1977), Wilbur Crane Eveland (1980), Uri Avnery (1988), Ella Shohat (1986), Abbas Shiblak (1986), Marion Wolfsohn (1980), and Rafael Shapiro (1984). In his article, Giladi notes that this was also the conclusion of Wilbur Crane Eveland, a former senior officer in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who outlined that allegation in his book “Ropes of Sand”.
The affair has also been the subject of a libel lawsuit by Mordechai Ben Porat, which was settled in an out-of-court compromise with an apology of the journalist who described the charges as true. Iraqi authorities eventually charged three members of the Zionist underground with perpetrating some of the explosions. Two of those charged, Shalom Salah Shalom and Yosef Ibrahim Basri, were subsequently found guilty and executed, whilst the third was sentenced to a lengthy jail term. Salah Shalom claimed in his trial that he was tortured into confessing, and Yosef Basri maintained his innocence throughout.
Gat reports that much of the previous literature “reflects the universal conviction that the bombings had a tremendous impact on the large-scale exodus of the Jews. To be more precise it is suggested that the Zionist emissaries committed these brutal acts in order to uproot the prosperous Iraqi Jewish community and bring it to Israel. However, Gat argues that both claims are contrary to the evidence.
As summarized by Mendes: Historian Moshe Gat argues that there was little direct connection between the bombings and exodus. He demonstrates that the frantic and massive Jewish registration for de-naturalization and departure was driven by knowledge that the de-naturalization law was due to expire in March 1951. He also notes the influence of further pressures including the property-freezing law, and continued anti-Jewish disturbances which raised the fear of large-scale pogroms. In addition, it is highly unlikely the Israelis would have taken such measures to accelerate the Jewish evacuation given that they were already struggling to cope with the existing level of Jewish immigration. Gat also raises serious doubts about the guilt of the alleged Jewish bomb-throwers.
A Christian officer in the Iraqi army known for his anti-Jewish views was arrested, but apparently not charged, with the offences. A number of explosive devices similar to those used in the attack on the Jewish synagogue were found in his home. In addition, there was a long history of anti-Jewish bomb-throwing incidents in Iraq. Secondly, the prosecution was not able to produce even one eyewitness who had seen the bombs thrown. Thirdly, the Jewish defendant Shalom Salah indicated in court that he had been severely tortured in order to procure a confession. It therefore remains an open question as to who was responsible for the bombings, although Gat suggests that the most likely perpetrators were members of the anti-Jewish Istiqlal Party. Certainly memories and interpretations of the events have further been influenced and distorted by the unfortunate discrimination which many Iraqi Jews experienced on their arrival in Israel.
Many years later, the Zionist emissary Yehuda Tager stated that while the main bombings were carried out by the Muslim Brotherhood, later smaller attacks were staged by Yosef Beit-Halahmi, on his own initiative, in an attempt to make it seem as if the activists on trial were not the perpetrators.
Iraqi Jews left behind them extensive property, often located in the heart of Iraq‘s major cities. A relatively high number found themselves in refugee camps in Israel known as Ma’abarot. Most of the 10,000 Jews remaining after Operation Ezra and Nehemiah stayed through the Abdul Karim Qassim era when conditions improved, but Anti-Semitism increased during the rule of the Aref brothers and later the Ba’ath Party era, culminating in the 1969 public hanging of 14 Iraqis, nine of them Jews, who were falsely accused of spying for Israel, which led to the departure of most of the remaining Jews.
In the 20th century, Iraqi Jews played an important role in the early days of the Iraq‘s independence. The Iraqi Jewish community, numbered at around 120,000 in 1948, and almost all left the country due to persecution following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Most of them fled to the newly founded state of Israel, and today, fewer than 100 Jews remain.
Jewish weaver in Ramadi Iraq, 1918
Emblem of Sassoon Kadoorie, President of the Jewish Community of Baghdad, 1933
Kurdish Jews in Rawanduz, northern Iraq, 1905