One Jewish understanding of the messiah is based on the writings of Maimonides, (also known as Rambam). His views on the messiah are discussed in his Mishneh Torah, his 14 volume compendium of Jewish law, in the section Hilkhot Melakhim Umilchamoteihem, chapters 11 & 12. Maimonides writes:
“The anointed king is destined to stand up and restore the Davidic Kingdom to its antiquity, to the first sovereignty. He will build the Temple in Jerusalem and gather the strayed ones of Israel together. All laws will return in his days as they were before: Sacrificial offerings are offered and the Sabbatical years and Jubilees are kept, according to all its precepts that are mentioned in the Torah. Whoever does not believe in him, or whoever does not wait for his coming, not only does he defy the other prophets, but also the Torah and Moses our teacher. For the Torah testifies about him, thus: “And the Lord Your God will return your returned ones and will show you mercy and will return and gather you… If your strayed one shall be at the edge of Heaven… And He shall bring you” etc.(Deuteronomy 30:3-5).”
“These words that are explicitly stated in the Torah, encompass and include all the words spoken by all the prophets. In the section of Torah referring to Bala’am, too, it is stated, and there he prophesied about the two anointed ones: The first anointed one is David, who saved Israel from all their oppressors; and the last anointed one will stand up from among his descendants and saves Israel in the end. This is what he says (Numbers 24:17-18): “I see him but not now” – this is David; “I behold him but not near” – this is the anointed king. “A star has shot forth from Jacob” – this is David; “And a brand will rise up from Israel” – this is the anointed king. “And he will smash the edges of Moab” – This is David, as it states: “…And he struck Moab and measured them by rope” (II Samuel 8:2); “And he will uproot all Children of Seth” – this is the anointed king, of whom it is stated: “And his reign shall be from sea to sea” (Zechariah 9:10). “And Edom shall be possessed” – this is David, thus: “And Edom became David’s as slaves etc.” (II Samuel 8:6); “And Se’ir shall be possessed by its enemy” – this is the anointed king, thus: “And saviors shall go up Mount Zion to judge Mount Esau, and the Kingdom shall be the Lord’s” (Obadiah 1:21).”
“And by the Towns of Refuge it states: “And if the Lord your God will widen up your territory… you shall add on for you another three towns” etc. (Deuteronomy 19:8-9). Now this thing never happened; and the Holy One does not command in vain. But as for the words of the prophets, this matter needs no proof, as all their books are full with this issue.”
“Do not imagine that the anointed king must perform miracles and signs and create new things in the world or resurrect the dead and so on. The matter is not so: For Rabbi Akiva was a great scholar of the sages of the Mishnah, and he was the assistant-warrior of the king Bar Kokhba, and claimed that he was the anointed king. He and all the Sages of his generation deemed him the anointed king, until he was killed by sins; only since he was killed, they knew that he was not. The Sages asked him neither a miracle nor a sign…”
“And if a king shall arise from among the House of David, studying Torah and indulging in commandments like his father David, according to the written and oral Torah, and he will impel all of Israel to follow it and to strengthen breaches in its observance, and will fight Hashem’s [God’s] wars, this one is to be treated as if he were the anointed one. If he succeeded and built a Holy Temple in its proper place and gathered the disperesed ones of Israel together, this is indeed the anointed one for certain, and he will mend the entire world to worship the Lord together, as it is stated: “For then I shall turn for the nations a clear tongue, to call all in the Name of the Lord and to worship Him with one shoulder (Zephaniah 3:9).”
“But if he did not succeed to this degree, or if he was killed, it becomes known that he is not this one of whom the Torah had promised us, and he is indeed like all proper and wholesome kings of the House of David who died. The Holy One, Blessed Be He, only set him up to try the public by him, thus: “Some of the wise men will stumble in clarifying these words, and in elucidating and interpreting when the time of the end will be, for it is not yet the designated time.” (Daniel 11:35).”
Jews have been present in Italy from the Roman period until today. The first attested Jews in Italy were the ambassadors sent to Rome by Judah Maccabee in 161 BC, Jason son of Eleazar and Eupolemus son of John. According to I Maccabees they signed a treaty with the Roman Senate. An embassy was sent later by Simon Maccabees to Rome to strengthen the alliance with the Romans against the Hellenistic Seleucid kingdom. The ambassadors received a cordial welcome from their coreligionists who were already established there.
Large numbers of Jews lived in Rome during the Roman Republican period.In Rome, the community was well organized and presided over by heads called (archontes) The Jews maintained in Rome several synagogues, whose spiritual leader was called in Latin (archisunagogos). Jewish tombstones inscriptions were in Greek, Hebrew/Aramaic or Latin and were decorated with the ritual menorah (seven-branched candelabrum). Rome had increased contact with military and trade dealings in the eastern Mediterranean, during the second and first centuries BCE, and since many Jews spoke several languages they came to Rome to increase commercial enterprize as traders and merchants. The Romans recognized and respected the antiquity of their religion and the fame of their Temple. Romans did not know much about Judaism, including the emperor Augustus who, according to his biographer Suetonius, thought that Jews fasted on the Sabbath. Julius Caesar was alleged as a great friend to these Jews.
The fate of the Jews in Rome and Italy fluctuated, with partial expulsions being carried out under the emperors Tiberius and Claudius. After the successive Jewish revolts of 66 and 132 CE, many Judean Jews were brought to Rome as slaves which were the norm in the ancient world for prisoners of war and inhabitants of defeated cities who were sold as slaves. These revolts caused increasing official hostility from the reign of Vespasian onwards after the destruction of Jerusalem. The most serious measure taken against the Jews was that they were forced to pay the tithe that had formerly been sent to the temple in Jerusalem; was now paid to the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus in Rome.
When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire by Constantine I in 313, the position of Jews in Italy and throughout the empire declined rapidly and dramatically. Constantine established oppressive laws for the Jews. There was some reprieve when these laws were abolished by Julian the Apostate, who showed his favor toward the Jews to the extent of permitting them to resume their plan for the reconstruction of the Temple at Jerusalem. However, this concession was withdrawn under his successor and the oppression escalated where there were periods of persecution followed by periods of quiescence, until the fall of the Roman Empire.
At the time under Theodore, there were flourishing communities of Jews in Rome, Milan, Genoa, Palermo, Messina, Argumentum, and in Sardinia. The popes of the period were not seriously opposed to the Jews. This accounts for the ardor with which the latter took up arms for the Ostrogoths against the forces of Justinian at Naples, where the remarkable defense of the city was maintained almost entirely by Jews. After the failure of various attempts to make Italy a province of the Byzantine empire, the Jews suffered severe oppression from the Eparch of Ravenna; but it was not long until the greater part of Italy came into the possession of the Lombard’s, under whom they lived in peace.
The Lombard’s passed no laws relative to the Jews. Even after the Lombard’s embraced Catholicism the condition of the Jews was favorable, because the popes of that time not only did not persecute them, but guaranteed them more or less protection. Pope Gregory I treated them with much consideration. Under succeeding popes the condition of the Jews did not grow worse; and the same was the case in the several smaller states into which Italy was divided. Both popes and states were so absorbed in continual external and internal dissensions that the Jews were left in peace. In every individual state of Italy a certain amount of protection was granted to them in order to secure the advantages of their commercial enterprise. The fact that the historians of this period scarcely make mention of the Jews, suggests that their condition was tolerable.
There was an expulsion of Jews from Bologna in 1172; but they were soon allowed to return. A nephew of Rabbi Nathan ben Jehiel acted as administrator of the property of Pope Alexander III, who was amicable towards the Jews at the Lateran Council of 1179, where he defeated the designs of hostile prelates who advocated anti-Jewish laws. Under Norman rule the Jews of southern Italy and of Sicily enjoyed freedom and were considered the equals of the Christians. They were permitted to follow any career and had jurisdiction over their own affairs. A later pope either Nicholas IV (1288-1292) or Boniface VIII (1294-1303) had for his physician a Jew, Isaac ben Mordecai, nicknamed Maestro Gajo.
Among the early Jews of Italy who left behind them traces of their literary activity was Shabbethai Donnolo (died 982). Two centuries later (1150) there were known writers such as Shabbethai ben Moses of Rome; his son Jehiel Kalonymus, once regarded as a Talmudic authority even beyond Italy; and Rabbi Jehiel of the Mansi (Anaw) family, also of Rome. Nathan, son of the above-mentioned Rabbi Jehiel, was the author of a Talmudic lexicon (“‘Arukh”) which became the key to the study of the Talmud.
Solomon ben Abraham ibn Parhon during his residence at Salerno, compiled a Hebrew dictionary which fostered the study of Biblical exegesis among the Italian Jews. The liturgical author of merit was Joab ben Solomon, some of whose compositions are extant. Toward the second half of the thirteenth century signs appeared of an improved Hebrew culture and of a more profound study of the Talmud. Isaiah di Trani the Elder (1232-1279), a Talmudic authority, was the author of many celebrated responsa. David, his son, and Isaiah di Trani the Younger, his nephew, followed in his footsteps, as did their descendants until the end of the seventeenth century. Meïr ben Moses presided over an important Talmudic school in Rome, and Abraham ben Joseph over one in Pesaro. In Rome two famous physicians, Abraham and Jehiel, descendants of Nathan ben Jehiel, taught the Talmud. One of the women of this gifted family, Paola dei Mansi, also attained distinction; her Biblical and Talmudic knowledge was considerable, and she transcribed Biblical commentaries in a notably beautiful handwriting.
During this period the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, the last of the Hohenstaufen, employed Jews to translate from the Arabic philosophical and astronomical treatises; among these writers were Judah Kohen of Toledo, later of Tuscany, and Jacob Anatoly of Provencal. This led to the study of the works of Maimonides, the favorite writer of Hillel of Verona (1220-1295). Hillel practiced medicine at Rome and in other Italian cities, and translated into Hebrew several medical works. The liberal spirit of the writings of Maimonides had other votaries in Italy inclusive of Shabbethai ben Solomon of Rome and Zerahiah ben of Barcelona, who migrated to Rome and contributed to spread the knowledge of his works. The effect of this on the Italian Jews was apparent in their love of freedom of thought and their esteem for literature, as well as in their adherence to the literal rendering of the Biblical texts and their opposition to fanatical cabalists and mystic theories. Among other devotees of these theories was Immanuel ben Solomon of Rome, the celebrated friend of Dante Alighieri.
The rise of poetry in Italy at the time of Dante influenced the Jews also. The wealthy and the powerful, partly by reason of sincere interest, partly in obedience to the spirit of the times, became patrons of Jewish writers, thus inducing the greatest activity on their part. On the initiative of the Roman community, a Hebrew translation of Maimonides’ Arabic commentary on the Mishnah was made. At this time Pope John XXII was on the point of pronouncing a ban against the Jews of Rome. The Jews instituted a day of public fasting and of prayer to appeal for divine assistance. King Robert of Sicily, who favored the Jews, sent an envoy to the pope at Avignon, who succeeded in averting this great peril. This period of Jewish literature in Italy is indeed one of great splendor.
The Vatican’s position on Jews in Italy worsened considerably under Pope Innocent III (1198-1216). This pope threatened with excommunication those who placed or maintained Jews in public positions, and he insisted that every Jew holding office should be dismissed. The deepest insult was the order that every Jew must always wear, conspicuously displayed, a special badge. In 1235 Pope Gregory IX published the first bull against the ritual murder accusation. Other popes followed his example, particularly Innocent IV in 1247, Gregory X in 1272, Clement VI in 1348, Gregory XI in 1371, Martin V in 1422, Nicholas V in 1447, Sixtus V in 1475, Paul III in 1540, and later Alexander VII, Clement XIII, and Clement XIV.
The Jews suffered much from the relentless persecutions of the Avignon-based “antipope” Benedict XIII. They hailed his successor, Martin V, with delight. The synod convoked by the Jews at Bologna, and continued at Forlì, sent a deputation with expensive gifts to the new pope, begging him to abolish the oppressive laws promulgated by Benedict and to grant the Jews those privileges which had been accorded them under previous popes. The deputation succeeded in its mission, but the period of grace was short; for Martin’s successor, Eugenia IV, at first was favorable toward the Jews, but ultimately reenacted all the restrictive laws issued by Benedict. However, his bull was generally disregarded.
The great centers, such as Venice, Florence, Genoa, and Pisa, realized that their commercial interests were of more importance than the affairs of the spiritual leaders of the Church; and accordingly the Jews, many of whom were bankers and leading merchants, found their condition better than ever before. It became easy for Jewish bankers to obtain permission to establish banks and to engage in monetary transactions. In one instance the Bishop of Mantua, in the name of the pope, accorded permission to the Jews to lend money at interest. All the banking negotiations of Tuscany were in the hands of a Jew, Jehiel of Pisa. The influential position of this successful financier was of the greatest advantage to his coreligionists at the time of the exile from Spain.
The Jews were also successful as skilled medical practitioners. William of Portaleone, physician to King Ferdinand I of Naples, and to the ducal houses of Sforza and Gonzaga, was one of the most competent of that time. He was the first of the long line of illustrious physicians in his family.
When Jews were exiled en masse from Spain in 1492 a great number of them took refuge in Italy, where they were given protection by King Ferdinand I of Naples. Don Isaac Abravanel received a position at the Neapolitan court, which he retained under the succeeding king, Alfonso II. The Spanish Jews were well received also in Ferrara by the Duke, Ercole d’Este I, and in Tuscany through the mediation of Jehiel of Pisa and his sons.
However, at Rome and Genoa they experienced severe oppression and were forced to accept baptism in order to escape starvation. In some cases the immigrants exceeded in number the Jews already domiciled, and gave the determining vote in matters of communal interest and in the direction of studies. From Alexander VI to Clement VII the popes were indulgent toward the Jews, having more urgent matters to occupy them. The popes themselves and many of the most influential cardinals openly violated one of the most severe enactments of the Council of Basel, namely, prohibiting Christians from employing Jewish physicians, yet they gave these same physicians positions at the papal court. The Jewish communities of Naples and of Rome received the greatest number of appointments; but many Jews passed on from these cities to Ancona, Venice, Calabria, and Padua. Venice, imitating the odious measures of the German cities, assigned to the Jews a special quarter (ghetto).
The orthodox-Catholic party tried to introduce the Inquisition into the Neapolitan realm, then under Spanish rule. Charles V, upon his return from his victories in Africa, was on the point of exiling the Jews from Naples, but deferred doing so owing to the influence of Benvenida, wife of Samuel Abravanel. A few years later, however (1533), such a decree was proclaimed, but upon this occasion also Samuel Abravanel and others were able through their influence to avert for several years the execution of the edict. Many Jews went to the Ottoman Empire, some to Ancona, and still others to Ferrara, where they were received graciously by Duke Ercole II.
After the death of Pope Paul III, a period of strife, of persecutions, and despondency set in. The Jews were exiled from Genoa and among the refugees being Joseph HaKohen, physician to the doge Andrea Doria and eminent historian. The Marranos, driven from Spain and Portugal, were allowed by Duke Ercole to enter his dominions and to profess Judaism without molestation. Thus, Samuel Usque, also a historian, who had fled from the Inquisition in Portugal, settled in Ferrara; and Abraham Usque founded a large printing establishment there. A third Usque, Solomon, merchant of Venice and Ancona and poet, translated the sonnets of Petrarch into excellent Spanish verse, which was much admired by his contemporaries.
The return to Judaism of the Marrano Usques caused much rejoicing among the Italian Jews. This was counterbalanced by the deep grief, by the seductive conversion to Christianity of two grandsons of Elijah Levita, [Leone Romano and Vittorio Eliano]. One became a canon of the Church; the other, a Jesuit. They slandered the Talmud to Pope Julius III and as a consequence the pope pronounced the sentence of destruction against this work, to the printing of which one of his predecessors, Leo X, had given his sanction. On the Jewish New Year’s Day (September 9), 1553, all the copies of the Talmud in the principal cities of Italy, in the printing establishments of Venice and even in the distant island of Candia (Crete), were burned. The worse fate of the Jews under Pope Marcellus II, who wished to exile them from Rome because of a charge of ritual murder but he was restrained from the execution of this project by Cardinal Alexander Farnese who succeeded in bringing to light the true culprit.
The most serious misfortune for the Jews was the election of Paul IV as Marcellus’ successor. This pontiff confirmed all the more severe of the bulls against the Jews issued up to that time and added others still more oppressive and containing all manner of prohibitions, which condemned the Jews to the most abject misery, deprived them of the means of sustenance, and denied to them the exercise of all professions. They were finally forced to labor at the restoration of the walls of Rome without any compensation whatsoever.
Upon one occasion the pope had secretly given orders to one of his nephews to burn the quarter inhabited by the Jews during the night; but Alexander Farnese, hearing of the infamous proposal, succeeded in preventing it. Many Jews then abandoned Rome and Ancona and went to Ferrara and Pesaro. Here the Duke of Urbino welcomed them graciously in the hope of directing the extensive commerce of the Levant to the new port of Pesaro, which was, at that time, exclusively in the hands of the Jews of Ancona. Among the many who were forced to leave Rome was the illustrious Marrano, Amato Lusitano, a distinguished physician, who had often attended Pope Julius III. He had been invited to become physician to the King of Poland, but had declined the offer in order to remain in Italy. He fled from the Inquisition to Pesaro, where he openly professed Judaism.
The tolerant pope Pius IV was succeeded by Pius V, who took an opposite stance. He brought into force all the anti-Jewish bulls of his predecessors—not only in his own immediate domains, but throughout the Christian world. In Lombardy the expulsion of the Jews was threatened, and, although this extreme measure was not put into execution, they were tyrannized in countless ways. At Cremona and at Lodi their books were confiscated; and Carlo Borromeo, who was afterward canonized, persecuted them mercilessly. In Genoa, from which city the Jews were at this time expelled, an exception was made in favor of Joseph HaKohen. In his Emek Halakha he narrates the history of these persecutions. He had no desire to take advantage of the sad privilege accorded to him, and went to Casale Monferrato, where he was graciously received even by the Christians.
In this same year the pope directed his persecutions against the Jews of Bologna, who formed a prosperous community well worth despoiling. Many of the wealthiest Jews were imprisoned and placed under torture in order to force them to make false confessions. When Rabbi Ishmael Hanina was being racked, he declared that should the pains of torture elicit from him any words that might be construed as casting reflection on Judaism; they would be false and null. It was forbidden to the Jews to leave the city; but many succeeded in escaping by bribing the watchmen at the gates of the ghetto and of the city. The fugitives, together with their wives and children, escaped to the neighboring city of Ferrara. Then Pius V. decided to banish the Jews from all his dominions, and, despite the enormous loss which was likely to result from this measure, and the remonstrance’s of influential and well-meaning cardinals, the Jews (in all about 1,000 families) were actually expelled from all the Papal States excepting Rome and Ancona. A few became Christians. The majority found refuge in other parts of Italy such as Leghorn and Pitigliano.
A commotion was caused in Italy by the choice of a prominent Jew, Solomon of Udine, as Turkish ambassador to Venice who was selected to negotiate within that republic during July of 1574. There was a pending decree of expulsion of the Jews by the leaders of several kingdoms within Italy, thereby making the Venetian Senate concerned if whether there would be difficulties collaborating with Solomon of Udine. However, through the influence of the Venetian diplomats themselves, and particularly of the Patrician, Marc Antonio Barbaro of the noble Barbaro family, who esteemed Udine highly, Solomon was received with great honors at the Doge’s Palace. In virtue of this, Udine received an exalted position within the Republic of Venice and was able to render great service to his coreligionists.
Through his influence Jacob Soranzo, an agent of the Venetian Republic at Constantinople, came to Venice. Solomon was influential in having the decree of expulsion revoked within Italian kingdoms, and he furthermore obtained a promise from Venetian patricians that Jews would have a secure home within the Republic of Venice. Udine was eventually honored for his services and returned to Constantinople, leaving his son Nathan in Venice to be educated. Nathan was one of the first Jewish students to have studied at the University of Padua, under the inclusive admission policy established by Marc Antonio Barbaro. The success of Udine inspired many Jews in Turkey, particularly in Constantinople, where they had attained great prosperity.
Persecutions and confiscations on the Jews continued and the position of the Jews of Italy at this time was pitiable. The bulls of Paul IV and Pius V had reduced them to the utmost humiliation and had materially diminished their numbers. In southern Italy there were almost none left; in each of the important communities of Rome, Venice, and Mantua there were about 2,000 Jews; while in all Lombardy there were hardly 1,000.
Gregory XIII was more fanatical than his predecessors. He noticed that, despite papal prohibition, Christians employed Jewish physicians; he therefore strictly prohibited the Jews from attending Christian patients, and threatened with the most severe punishment Christians who should have recourse to Hebrew practitioners; and Jewish physicians who should respond to the calls of Christians. In addition, the slightest assistance given to the Marranos of Portugal and Spain, in violation of the canonical laws, was sufficient to deliver the guilty one into the power of the Inquisition, which did not hesitate to condemn the accused to death. Gregory also induced the Inquisition to consign to burn a large number of copies of the Talmud and other Hebrew books.
Special sermons, designed to convert the Jews, were instituted; and at these at least one-third of the Jewish community, men, women, and youths above the age of twelve, were forced to be present. The sermons were usually delivered by baptized Jews who had become friars or priests; and not infrequently the Jews, without any chance of protest, were forced to listen to such sermons in their own synagogues. These cruelties forced many Jews to leave Rome, and thus their number was still further diminished.
Under the following pope, Sixtus V, the condition of the Jews was somewhat improved. He repealed many of the regulations established by his predecessors, permitted Jews to reside in all parts of his realm, and gave Jewish physicians freedom to practice their profession. David de Pomis, an eminent physician, profited by this privilege and published a work in Latin, entitled De Medico Hebraeo, dedicated to Duke Francis of Urbino, in which he proved to the Jews their obligation to consider the Christians as brothers, to assist them, and to attend them. The Jews of Mantua, Milan, and Ferrara, taking advantage of the favorable disposition of the pope, sent to him an ambassador, Bezelel Massarano, with a present of 2,000 scudi, to obtain from him permission to reprint the Talmud and other Jewish books, promising at the same time to expurgate all passages considered offensive to Christianity. Their demand was granted, partly through the support given by Lopez, a Marrano, who administered the papal finances and who was in great favor with the pontiff. Scarcely had the reprinting of the Talmud begun, and the conditions of its printing arranged by the commission, Sixtus died.
His successor, Gregory XIV, was well disposed to the Jews as Sixtus had been; but during his short pontificate he was almost always ill. Clement VII, who succeeded him, renewed the anti-Jewish bulls of Paul IV and Pius V, and exiled the Jews from all his territories with the exception of Rome, Ancona, and Avignon; but, in order not to lose the commerce with the East, he gave certain privileges to the Turkish Jews. The exiles left for Tuscany, where they were favorably received by Duke Ferdinand dei Medici, who assigned to them the city of Pisa for residence, and by Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga, at whose court Joseph da Fano, a Jew was a favorite. They were again permitted to read the Talmud and other Hebrew books, provided that they were printed according to the rules of censorship approved by Sixtus V. From Italy, where these censored books were printed by thousands, they were sent to the Jews of other countries.
It was odd that under Philip II, that the Jews exiled from all parts of Spain were tolerated in the duchy of Milan, then under Spanish rule. Such an inconsistency of policy was designed to work ill for the interests of the Jews. To avert this misfortune an eloquent ambassador, Samuel Coen, was sent to the king at Alexandria; but he was unsuccessful in his mission. The king, persuaded by his confessor, expelled the Jews from Milanese territory in the spring of 1597. The exiles, numbering about 1,000, were received at Mantua, Modena, Reggio, Verona, and Padua.
The princes of the house of Este had always accorded favor and protection to the Jews, and were much beloved by them. Eleonora, a princess of this house, had inspired two Jewish poets; and when she was ill public prayers were said in the synagogues for her restoration to health. But misfortune overtook the Jews of Ferrara as well. When Alfonso I, the last of the Este family, died, the principality of Ferrara was incorporated in the dominions of the Church under Clement VII, who decreed the banishment of the Jews. Aldobrandini, a relative of the pope, took possession of Ferrara in the pontiff’s name. Seeing that all the commerce was in the hands of the Jews, he complied with their request for an exemption of five years from the decree, although this was much against the pope’s wish.
The Mantua Jews suffered seriously at the time of the Thirty Years’ war. The Jews exiled from the papal dominions had repeatedly found refuge in Mantua, where the dukes of Gonzaga had accorded protection to them, as they had done to the Jews already resident there. The next to the last duke, although a cardinal favored them sufficiently to enact a statute for the maintenance of order in the ghetto. After the death of the last of this house the right of succession was contested at the time of the Thirty Years’ war, and the city was besieged by the German soldiery of Wallenstein. After a valiant defense, in which the Jews labored at the walls until the approach of the Sabbath, the city fell into the power of the besiegers, and for three days was at the mercy of fire and sword. The commander-in-chief, Altringer, forbade the soldiers to sack the ghetto, thereby hoping to secure the spoils for himself. The Jews were ordered to leave the city, taking with them only their personal clothing and three gold ducats per capita.
There were retained enough Jews to act as guides to the places where their coreligionists were supposed to have hidden their treasures. Through three Jewish zealots these circumstances came to the knowledge of the emperor, who ordered the governor, Collalto, to issue a decree permitting the Jews to return and promising them the restoration of their goods. Only about 800, however, returned, the others having died.
The victories in Europe of the Turks, who brought their armies up to the very walls of Vienna (1683), incite the Christian population in Itally against the Jews, who remained friendly to the Turks. In Padua, in 1683, the Jews were in great danger because of the agitation fomented against them by the cloth-weavers. A violent tumult broke out; the lives of the Jews were seriously menaced; and it was only with the greatest difficulty that the governor of the city succeeded in rescuing them, in obedience to a rigorous order from Venice. For several days thereafter the ghetto had to be especially guarded.
Under the influence of the liberal religious policy of Napoleon I, the Jews of Italy, like those of France, were emancipated. The supreme power of the popes was broken: they had no longer time to give to framing anti-Jewish enactments, and they no longer directed canonical laws against the Jews. Among the first schools to adopt the Reform projects of Hartwig Wessely were those of Trieste, Venice, and Ferrara. To the Sanhedrin convened by Napoleon at Paris (1807), Italy sent four deputies: Abraham Vita da Cologna; Isaac Benzion Segre, rabbi of Vercelli; Graziadio Neppi, physician and rabbi of Cento; and Jacob Israel Karmi, rabbi of Reggio. Of the four rabbis assigned to the committee which was to draw up the answers to the twelve questions proposed to the Assembly of Notables, two, Cologna and Segre, were Italians, and were elected respectively first and second vice-presidents of the Sanhedrin. But the liberty acquired by the Jews under Napoleon was of short duration; it disappeared with his downfall.
Pope Pius VII, on regaining possession of his realms, reinstalled the Inquisition; he deprived the Jews of every liberty and confined them again in ghettos. Such became to a greater or less extent their condition in all the states into which Italy was then divided; at Rome they were again forced to listen to proselytizing sermons.
An edict of the Emperor Francis I, in 1829 opened in Padua, with the cooperation of Venice, Verona, and Mantua, the first Italian rabbinical college, in which Lelio della Torre where Samuel David Luzzatto taught. Luzzatto was a man of great intellect; he wrote in biblical Hebrew on philosophy, history, literature, criticism, and grammar. Many distinguished rabbis came from the rabbinical college of Padua. Zelman, Moses Tedeschi, and Castiglioni followed at Trieste the purposes and the principles of Luzzatto’s school. At the same time, Elijah Benamozegh, a man of great knowledge and the author of several works, distinguished himself in the old rabbinical school at Leghorn.
The Revolution of 1848, which shook up all Europe, brought great advantages to the Jews. Although this was followed by restoration of the Papal States only four months later, in early 1849, the persecutions and the violence of past times had partially decreased towards the Jews. One outrage against the Jews of Italy was connected with the case of Edgardo Mortara, which occurred in Bologna in 1858. In 1859 most of the Papal States were annexed into the United Kingdom of Italy under King Victor Emanuel II.
In and near Rome, where oppression lasted until the end of the papal dominion (September 20, 1870), the Jews obtained full emancipation. On behalf of their country the Jews with great ardor sacrificed life and property in the memorable campaigns of 1859, 1866, and 1870. Of the many who deserve mention is Isaac Presario Maurogonato. He was minister of finance to the Venetian republic during the war of 1848 against Austria, and his grateful country erected to him a memorial in bronze. There was erected in the palace of the doges a marble bust of Samuel Romanin, a celebrated Jewish historian of Venice. Florence commemorated a modern Jewish poet, Solomon Fiorentino, by placing a marble tablet upon the house in which he was born. The secretary and faithful friend of Count Cavour was the Piedmontese Isaac Artom; while L’Olper, later rabbi of Turin, and also the friend and counselor of Mazzini, was one of the most courageous advocates of Italian independence. The names of the Jewish soldiers who died in the cause of Italian liberty were placed along with those of their Christian fellow soldiers on the monuments erected in their honor.
Italian Prime Minister Luigi Luzzatti, who took office in 1910, was one of the world’s first Jewish heads of government. Another Jew, Ernesto Nathan served as mayor of Rome from 1907 to 1913.
Pope John Paul II gave access to some formerly secret Vatican archives to scholars. David Kertzer, used this information obtained in his book The Popes Against the Jews. According to that book, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the popes and many Catholic bishops and Catholic publications consistently made a distinction between “good anti-Semitism” and “bad anti-Semitism”. The “bad” kind directed hatred against Jews merely because of their descent. That was considered un-Christian, in part because the church held that its message was for all of humankind equally, and any person of any ancestry could become a Christian. The “good” kind denounced alleged Jewish plots to gain control of the world by controlling newspapers, banks, schools, etc., or otherwise attributed various evils to Jews. Kertzer’s book details many instances in which Catholic publications denounced such alleged plots, and then, when criticized for inciting hatred of Jews, would remind people that the Catholic Church condemned the “bad” kind of anti-Semitism.
Pope Pius XI issued many criticisms of Jews for many years, and shortly before his death in early 1939 during the Nazi Holocaust. After the overthrow of fascism in 1943, Pope Pius XII asked the new Italian government to repeal those sections of Italy’s race laws that held marriages between persons reared Catholic and formerly Jewish converts to Catholicism were not valid. He did not object to other provisions of the discriminatory race laws.
During the Holocaust, Italian Marranos took in many Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. However, with the creation of the Nazi-backed puppet Italian Social Republic, about 15% of Italy’s Jews were killed, despite the Fascist government’s refusal to deport Jews to Nazi death camps. A small community of around 45,000 Jews remains in Italy today.
Synagogue in Florence, built in 1847
The treasures of Jerusalem (detail from the Arch of Titus)
NOTABLE JEWS IN ITALY
Religious and Communal leaders
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