Yemenite Jews

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Yemenite Jews (Hebrew language: תֵּימָנִים, Hebrew language#Modern Hebrew Temanim Tiberian vocalization Têmānîm; singular תֵּימָנִי, Hebrew language#Modern Hebrew Temani Tiberian vocalization Têmānî) are those Jews who live, or whose recent ancestors lived, in Yemen (תֵּימָן, Hebrew language#Modern Hebrew Teman Tiberian vocalization Têmān; "far south"), on the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula. They are sometimes considered to be Mizrahi Jew.

History of the community

Local Yemenite Jewish traditions have traced the earliest settlement of Jews in this region back to the time of King Solomon. One legend has it 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 neighboring Ethiopia) have a sister legend of their origins that places the Queen of Sheba as married to King Solomon. Parts of Yemen and Ethiopia at that time were jointly ruled by Sheba, with its capital in Yemen, adding some plausibility to the story.

Map of Yemen

The Sanaite Jews have a legend that their ancestors settled in Yemen forty-two years before the destruction of the Solomon's Temple. It is said that under the prophet Jeremiah (prophet) some 75,000 Jews, including priests and Levites, travelled to Yemen. The Jews of Habban in southern Yemen have a legend that they are the descendents 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.[1]

Also, 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 History of ancient Israel and Judah. 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.[2]

The immigration of the majority of Jews into Yemen appears to have taken place about the beginning of the 2nd 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 6th century C.E. In the 3rd century C.E. a Himyarite king named Abu-Kariba Asad-Toban (c. 390 - 420 C.E.) converted to Judaism and was successful in spreading the religion throughout the region. Even more dramatic was the conversion of Abu-Kariba's grandson, Zar'a, who reigned from C.E. 518 to 525. Legend ascribes his conversion to his having witnessed a rabbi extinguish a fire worshiped by Arab magi, merely by reading a passage from the Torah over it. After changing his religion, he assumed the name Yusef Ash'ar, but gained notoriety in history by his cognomen Dhu Nuwas.

It was around the 3rd century that the Himyarite ruling family converted to Judaism. Jewish rule lasted until 525 CE, when Christians from the Aksumite Kingdom of Ethiopia took power in Yemen. After the advent of Islam, large numbers of Jewish communities converted en masse. Diasporic migrations of Yemeni Jews can also be traced through settlement patterns of Yemenis in general.

Religious traditions

File:Yemenite Jews1.jpg
Yemenite Jewish children from the early 1900's

The Yemenite Jews are the only Jewish community 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 line of the Torah read in Hebrew is followed by the Aramaic translation.

The Yemenite Jews practice a special chant when reading from the Torah, a different chant when reading from the Prophets (Haftara), and yet another melody or chant when reading from the Psalms. Likewise there is a special chant for readings from Megillat Aicha (Lamentations), and yet still a different chant for readings from Mishle (Proverbs), and another melody for Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), the latter of which is read during the Sukkot holiday. So too, there is a totally different chant taken up by them when reading from the Zohar. Megillat Esther (the Scroll of Esther) which is read on Purim also differs in its reading from all the rest. Only by repetitive hearing of these different melodies, year in and year out, can one become accustomed to their sounds, and automatically associate oneself with the book which is being read. For the mood of the book is characterized by its chant. This tradition finds its source in the Talmud (Tractate Megillah 32.a), which says: "Anyone who reads without a melody, or who recites without a chant, the scripture says of him, 'I have also given unto thee precepts which are not good.' " – cf. Ezek. 20:25[3]

The Kassar synagogue in Sanaa, Yemen (ca. 1930's)
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.[4]

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.

The Dhamari synagogue in Sanaa (ca. 1944)

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. People also sat on the floor instead of chairs. This is in accordance with what Rambam (Maimonides) wrote in his Mishneh Torah:

"We are to practice 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 the Jews of Yemen continued to practice until very recent times [7]. There are still a few Yemenite Jews who prostrate during the part of every-day Jewish prayer called Tachanun (Supplication), though such individuals usually do so in privacy. 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 practice among all Jews until some point during the late Middle Ages or Renaissance period.

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

The daughter of Yoseph Haiby in wedding regalia with bridesmaids - Sanaa, Yemen (ca. 1944)

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.[5]

The henna ceremony is an ancient ceremony performed by Yemenite and other Eastern Jewish communities. The henna is actually a plant that is ground up. Here are pictures from our henna ceremony. It took place in Rehovot 10 days before our wedding. Henna comes from the Arabic: hinnâ' . Henna is a cosmetic paste that is solely used for decoration, and is not connected to any health advantages. Henna comes from the leaves of the plant with the same name. These are crushed into a green powder, that is being sold in suqs all over the Arab world. To this powder, water is added, so that it becomes a dough that is put to the body. After leaving the dough on the body for some time, up to 2 hours, a deep orange color is left on the skin that will slowly fade away over a period of 2- 3 weeks. The henna is often arranged to intricate patterns, and it is the hands or the feet that are decorated.[6]

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.[7]

Yemenite Jews and Maimonides

Yemeni Jew in traditional vestments.

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 12th 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 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, and effectively stopped the new religious movement.

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.[8]

At the beginning of the 19th century, they are said to have numbered 30,000, and to have lived principally in Aden (200), Sanaá (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)
  • 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 Igeret Taiman, the messiah of Bayhan (c.1495), and Suleiman Jamal (c.1667), in what Lenowitz[9] (p.229) regards as a unified messiah history spanning 600 years.

Religious groups

The three main groups of Yemenite Jews are the

  1. Baladi
  2. Shami
  3. Maimonideans or "Rambamists" (who were strict followers of Talmudic law as compiled by Maimonides, aka "Rambam"), though the Maimonideans are typically considered a type of Baladi Jew. In fact, they are the original archetype of the Baladi Jews.
  • The Baladi generally follow the halakha of the Rambam (Maimonides) as codified in his work the Mishneh Torah.
  • The Shami generally follow the halakha of the Rambam (Maimonides) or the Shulkhan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law). In the 1600s, they accepted the Zohar (which had made its way to Yemen), and modified their siddur (prayer text) to accommodate Kabbalistic beliefs.

The Dor Daim

Mori Yehiya al-Qafih leader of the Dor Daim (1853-1932)

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 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 Yehiyeh Qafih. As a result of his contact with Halévy and Glaser, Qafih 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.[10]

In the early part of the 20th century, a group of Maimonideans called Dor Daim (the "generation of knowledge") became a strong sub-group of the original surviving Maimonideans. Their goal was to bring Yemenite Jews back to the original Maimonidean method of understanding Judaism that existed in pre-1600s Yemen. For them, it was about being true to the Talmud.

The liturgy of most Baladi Jews was developed by a rabbi known as the Yihhyah Salahh (Mori Ha-Rav Yihye Tzalahh). He attempted to break the deadlock between the pre-existing followers of Maimonides and the new followers of the mystic, Isaac Luria. Before promoters of the Zohar gained influence in Yemen, the Baladi Jews had all been Maimonideans.

Dor Daim are followers of Maimonides who, for the most part, did not accept the Maharitz's compromise, although most do follow the same basic nusach (prayer text) as codified in their siddur the "Tiklal." They reject the Zohar, a book of esoteric mysticism; in this they are similar to the old-time Spanish and Portuguese Jews (Western Sephardi Jews), who are also skeptical about the Zohar.

In terms of liturgy and of interpreting halakha Shami Yemenite Jews were strongly influenced by Syrian Jews Sephardi Jews, though on some issues they rejected the later European codes of Jewish law, and instead followed the earlier decisions of Maimonides. Unlike the Baladi Jews, they accepted the validity, authenticity and content of the Zohar, and modified the original Yemenite nusach to incorporate changes based on Kabbalah.[11]

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 alphabet 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.

  • Pronunciation Chart 1 [8]
  • Pronunciation Chart 2 [9]

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.[12]

While Jewish boys learned Hebrew since the age of 3, it was used primarily as a liturgical and scholarly language. Yemenite Jews spoke in regional Judeo-Arabic languages.


File:Yemenite scroll.jpg
Yemenite "Taj" i.e. Torah scroll in a Torah "Tiq" case.

The oldest Yemenite manuscripts are those of the Tanakh, which the Yemenite Jews call "Taj" ("crown"). They date 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, Judah ha-Levi 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.

File:Midrash hagadol manuscript.png
Manuscript page from Yemenite Midrash ha-Gadol on Genesis.

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."[13]

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."[14]

DNA Testing

DNA testing between Yemenite Jews and various Jewish communities shows a common link with all communities having similar genetic profiles. The Y-chromosome signatures of the Yemenite Jews are also similar to those of other Jewish and Semitic populations.[15]

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. [16]

A study performed by the Department of Biological Sciences at Stanford University did find 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.[17]

Emigration of communities to Israel

There were two major centers of population for the Yemenite Jews, one in Aden and the other in Hadramaut. The Jews of Aden lived in and around the city, and flourished during the Brittish protectorate. The Jews of Hadramaut lived a much more isolated life, and the community was not known to the outside world until the 1940s. The most part of both communities Aliyah after the declaration of the state. The State of Israel in beginning of 1948 initiated Operation Magic Carpet (Yemen) and airlifted most of Yemen's Jews to Israel.



  1. Jewish Communities in Exotic Places," by Ken Blady, Jason Aronson Inc., 2000, pages 6-7
  2. "The Jews of Yemen", in Yemen: 3000 Years of Art and Civilization in Arabia Felix, edited by Werner Daum, page 272: 1987
  3. Yemenite Jewry: Origins, Culture, and Literature, page 6, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986)
  4. Yemen: A Land of Pure Dreams, by Stanley Mann, 2003 [1]
  5. Yemenite Jewish Wedding, MSN Encarta, [2]
  6. The Henna Ceremony, by Shlomo and Orit Kirschner, [3]
  7. Henna: Lawsonia Inermis, by Catherine Cartwright-Jones, The Henna Page, 2004[4]
  8. Yemenite Midrash - Philosophical Commentaries on the Torah, translated by Yitzhak Tzvi Langermann: Harper Collins Publishing, pages 292-294
  9. Lenowitz, Harris (1998), The Jewish Messiahs: From the Galilee to Crown Heights, New York: Oxford University Press
  10. The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in Modern Times, by Reeva Spector Simon, Michael Menachem Laskier, Sara Reguer editors, Columbia University Press, 2003, pages 403-404
  11. Rabbi Yitzhaq Ratzabi, Ohr Hahalakha: Nusakh Teiman Publishing, Bnei Braq
  12. Encyclopedia Judaica, vol 13 col 1122-24, "Pronunciation of Hebrew", by Dr. Shlomo Morag, Keter Jerusalem 1971,
  13. Yemenite Midrash-Philosophical Commentaries on the Torah, translated by Yitzhak Tzvi Langermann, Harper Collins Publishing
  14. Chakhamei Teiman (Sages of Yemen), by Yeshivat Hod Yoseph, volume 1
  15. DNA Evidence for Common Jewish Origin and Maintenance of the Ancestral Genetic Profile, By Rabbi Yaakov Kleiman [5]
  16. (M.F. Hammer, Proc. Nat'l Academy of Science, June 9, 2000)
  17. Distinctive genetic signatures in the Libyan Jews, Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2001 January 30; 98(3): 858–863, 2001, The National Academy of Sciences [6]

Prayer books

  • Siahh Yerushalayim, Baladi prayer book in 4 vols, ed. Yosef Qafahh
  • Tefillat Avot, Baladi prayer book (6 vols.)
  • Torat Avot, Baladi prayer book (7 vols.)
  • Tiklal Ha-Mefoar (Yihhyah Salahh) Nusahh Baladi, Meyusad Al Pi Ha-Tiklal Im Etz Hayim Ha-Shalem Arukh Ke-Minhag Yahaduth Teiman: Bene Berak : Or Neriyah ben Mosheh Ozeri: 2001 or 2002
  • Siddur Tefilat HaChodesh - Beit Yaakov (Nusahh Shami), Nusahh Sepharadim, Teiman, and the Edoth Mizrakh
  • Rabbi Shalom Sharabi, Siddur Kavanot HaRashash: Yeshivat HaChaim Ve'Hashalom

Other works

  • Halikhot Teiman - The Life of Jews of Sana'a, by Rabbi Yosef Qafih, Machon Ben-Tzi Publishing
  • The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa In Modern Times, by Reeva Simon, Michael Laskier, and Sara Reguer (Editors), Columbia University Press, 2002, Chapters 8 and 21
  • Template:Harvard reference

See also

  • Operation Magic Carpet (Yemen)
  • Dor Daim
  • Mizrahi Jews
  • Demographics of Yemen
  • Jewish exodus from Arab lands
  • List of Jews from the Arab World
  • Kfar Tapuach, founded by Yemenite Jews in the late 1970s
  • Jews of the Bilad el-Sudan (West Africa)

External links

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