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|Regions with significant populations|
|Hebrew, Judeo-Yemeni Arabic, English|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Mizrahi Jews, Sephardi Jews, Arabs, Knanaya|
|Regions with significant populations|
|Hebrew, Judeo-Yemeni Arabic, English|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Mizrahi Jews, Sephardi Jews, Arabs, Knanaya|
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|Jews and Judaism|
Yemenite Jews (Hebrew: יהודי תימן Yehudei teiman, Arabic: اليهود اليمنيين) are those Jews who live, or lived, in Yemen. The term may also refer to the descendants of the Yemenite Jewish community. Between June 1949 and September 1950, the overwhelming majority of Yemen's Jewish population was transported to Israel in Operation Magic Carpet. After several waves of persecution throughout, most Yemenite Jews now live in Israel, with some others in the United States and fewer elsewhere. Only a handful remain in Yemen. The few remaining Jews experience intense, and at times violent, anti-Semitism on a daily basis.
Yemenite Jews have a unique religious tradition that marks them out as separate from Ashkenazi, Sephardi and other Jewish groups. Yemeni Jews are generally described as belonging to "Mizrahi Jews", though they differ from the general trend of Mizrahi groups historically which have 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 in no small part due to it essentially being forced upon them and did not reflect a demographic or cultural shift).
There are numerous accounts and legends concerning the arrival of Jews in various regions in Southern Arabia. One legend suggests that King Solomon sent Jewish merchant marines to Yemen to prospect for gold and silver with which to adorn the Temple in Jerusalem In 1881, the French vice consulate in Yemen wrote to the leaders of the Alliance in France, that he read a book by the Arab historian Abu-Alfada, which stated that the Jews of Yemen settled in the area in 1451 BCE. Another legend says that Yemeni tribes converted to Judaism after the Queen of Sheba's visit to king Solomon. 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. 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.
Archaeological records referring to Judaism in Yemen started to appear during the rule of the Himyarite Kingdom. Various inscription in Musnad script in the second century CE refer to constructions of synagogues approved by Himyarite Kings. The kingdom's aristocracy was eventually to convert to Judaism in the 6th century CE. The Jews became especially numerous and powerful in the southern part of Arabia, a rich and fertile land of incense and spices and a way station on the routes to Africa, India, and the Orient. The tribes in Yemen did not oppose Jewish presence in their country. By 516, tribal unrest broke out and several tribal elites fought for power, one of those elites was Joseph Dhu Nuwas or "Yousef Asa'ar" as mentioned in ancient south Arabian inscriptions. Yousef was a converted Jew. Syriac and Byzantium sources claim that he fought his way because Christians in Yemen refused to renounce Christianity, which some scholars think is unlikely because Judaism is not missionary in nature, and it is believed that Syriac sources were reflecting a great deal of hatred toward Jews. In 2009 the BBC defended a claim that the villagers had been offered the choice between conversion to Judaism or death and that 20,000 Christians had then been massacred stating that "The production team spoke to many historians over 18 months, among them Nigel Groom, who was our consultant, and Professor Abdul Rahman Al-Ansary [former professor of archaeology at the King Saud University in Riyadh]." Inscriptions documented by Yousef himself shows the great pride he expressed after Killing more than 22,000 Christians in Zafar and Najran. Historian Glen Bowersock described this as "savage pogrom that the Jewish king of the Arabs launched against the Christians in the city of Najran. The king himself reported in excruciating detail to his Arab and Persian allies about the massacres he had inflicted on all Christians who refused to convert to Judaism. There were also reports of massacres and destroying place of worship by Christians too.
According to ‘Irfan Shahid’s Martyrs of Najran – New Documents, Dhu-Nuwas sent an army of some 120,000 soldiers to lay siege to the city of Najran, which siege lasted for six months, and the city taken and burnt on the 15th day of the seventh month (i.e. the lunar month Tishri). The city had revolted against the king and they refused to deliver it up unto the king. About three-hundred of the city’s inhabitants surrendered to the king’s forces, under the assurances of an oath that no harm would come to them, and these were later bound, while those remaining in the city were burnt alive within their church. The death toll in this account is said to have reached about two-thousand. However, in the Sabaean inscriptions describing these operations, it is reported that by the month Dhu-Madra'an (between July and September) there were “1000 killed, 1500 prisoners [taken] and 10,000 head of cattle.”
There are two dates ascribed in the “letter of Simeon of Beit Aršam.” One date puts its writing in Tammuz in the year 830 of Alexander (518/519 CE), from the camp of GBALA (Jebala), king of the ‘SNYA (Ghassanids or the Ġassān clan), in which he tells of the events that transpired in Najran, while the other date puts the letter’s composition in the year 835 (523/524 CE). The letter is merely a Syriac copy of the original, copied in the year 1490 of the Seleucid Era (= 1178/79 CE). Today, it is largely agreed that the latter date is the accurate one, seeing that it is confirmed by the Martyrium Arethae, as well as by epigraphic records, viz. Sabaean inscriptions discovered in the Asir of Saudi-Arabia (Bi’r Ḥimâ), photographed by J. Ryckmans in Ry 507, 8 ~ 9, and by A. Jamme in Ja 1028, which give the old Sabaean year 633 for these operations (said to correspond with anno 523 CE).
Jacques Ryckmans, who deciphered these inscriptions, writes in his La Persécution des Chrétiens Himyarites, that Sarah'il Yaqbul-Yaz'an was both the tribal chief and the lieutenant of Yûsuf ’As’ar (the king) at the time of the military campaign, and that he was sent out by the king to take the city of Najran, while the king watched for a possible Abyssinian incursion along the coastal plains of Yemen near Mokhā (al-Moḫâ) and the straights known as Bāb al-Mandab. It is to be noted that the Aethiopian church in Ẓafâr, which had been built by the king of Yemen some years earlier, and another church built by him in Aden (see: Ecclesiastical History of Philostorgius, Epitome of Book III, chapter 4), had been seen by Constantius II during the embassage to the land of the Ḥimyarites (i.e. Yemen) in circa 340 CE. This church was set on fire and razed to the ground, and its Abyssinian inhabitants killed. Later, foreigners (presumably Christians) living in Haḏramawt were also put to death before the king’s army advanced on to Najran in the far north and took it.
Byzantine emperor Justinian I sent a fleet to Yemen and Joseph Dhu Nuwas was killed in battle in 525 CE western coasts of Yemen became a puppet state until a himyarite nobility managed to drive out the occupiers completely and those nobles were Jews as well
There are also several historical works which suggest there existed a Jewish kingdom in what is now Yemen during pre Islamic late antiquity.
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 certain non-Muslim monotheists (people of the Book). In exchange for the jizya, non-Muslim residents are then given safety, and also are exempt from paying the zakat which must be paid by Muslims once their residual wealth reaches a certain threshold. Active persecution of Jews did not gain full force until the Zaydi clan seized power, from the more tolerant Sunni Muslims, early in the 10th century.
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 youth, a Jew was not allowed to fight them. In such situations he had the option of fleeing or seeking intervention by a merciful Muslim passerby.
Yemenite Jews also experienced violent persecution at times. In the 12th century, the Yemenite ruler 'Abd-al-Nabī ibn Mahdi left Jews with the choice between conversion to Islam or martyrdom. While a popular local Yemenite Jewish preacher called Jews to choose martyrdom, Maimonides sent what is known by the name Iggeret Teman (Epistle to Yemen), requesting that they remain faithful to their religion, but if at all possible, not to cast affronts before their antagonists.
In the 13th century, persecution of Jews subsided when the Rasulids took over the country, ending Zaydi rule and establishing the Rasulid dynasty, which lasted from 1229 to 1474. In 1547, the Ottoman Empire took over Yemen. This allowed Yemenite Jews a chance to have contact with other Jewish communities; contact was established with the Kabbalists in Safed, a major Jewish center, as well as with Jewish communities throughout the Ottoman Empire.
Ottoman rule ended in 1630, when the Zaydis took over Yemen. Jews were once again persecuted. In 1679, under the rule of Al-Mahdi Ahmad, Jews were expelled en masse from all parts of Yemen to the distant province of Mawza, and many Jews died there of starvation and disease as consequence. As many as two-thirds of the exiled Jews did not survive. Their houses and property were seized, and many synagogues were destroyed or converted into mosques. This event was later known as the Mawza exile, and it is recalled in many writings of the Jewish-Yemenite rabbi and poet Shalom Shabazi, who experienced it himself. About a year after the expulsion, the survivors were allowed to return for economic reasons; Jews were the majority of craftsmen and artisans, and thus a vital asset in the country's economy. However, they were not allowed to return to their former homes and found that most of their religious articles had been destroyed. They were instead resettled in special Jewish quarters outside the cities.
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.
During the 18th century, Yemenite Jews gained a brief respite from their status as second-class citizens when the Imamics came to power. Yemen experienced a resurgence of Jewish life. Synagogues were rebuilt, and some Jews achieved high office. One of them was Rabbi Shalom ben Aharon, who became responsible for minting and for the royal coffers. When the Imamics lost power in the 19th century, Jews were again subjected to persecution. In 1872, the Ottoman Empire again took over, and Ottoman rule would last until Yemeni independence in 1918. Jewish life again improved during Ottoman rule; Jewish freedom of religion was more widely respected, and Yemenite Jews were permitted to have more contact with other Jewish communities.
|463 BCE||According to tradition, Jews first settled in Yemen 42 years before the destruction of the First Temple.|
|68 CE||The Jewish Diaspora at the time of the Temple’s destruction, according to Josephus, was in Parthia (Persia), Babylonia (Iraq), Arabia, as well as some Jews beyond the Euphrates and in Adiabene (Kurdistan). In Josephus’ own words, he had informed “the remotest Arabians” about the destruction and who are believed to be the progenitors of the Jews of Yemen.|
|ca. 250 CE||Jewish elder from Yemen (Himyar) buried in Beit She'arim, burial site of Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Nassi.|
|524 CE||Jewish king, Yûsuf ’As’ar Yath'ar, known also in the Islamic tradition as Dhū Nuwās, lays siege to the city Najran and takes it.|
|1165||Benjamin of Tudela, in his Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela, mentions two Jewish brothers, one who lives in Tilmas (i.e. Sa’dah of Yemen) who traces his lineage to king David|
|1174||Maimonides writes his Iggeret Teman (Episte to Yemen) to the Jews of Yemen|
|1457||Old Synagogue in Ṣanʻā’ destroyed because of warring between Imam Al-Mutawakkil al-Mutahhar and Az-Zafir ʻAmir I bin Ṭāhir |
|1488||Rabbi Obadiah di Bertinora encounters Jews from Yemen while in Jerusalem.|
|1567||Zechariah (Yaḥya) al-Ḍāhirī visited Rabbi Joseph Karo's yeshiva in Safed|
|1666||Decree of the Headgear (Ar. al-‘amā’im ) in which Jews were forbidden by an edict to wear turbans (pl. ‘amā’im) on their heads from that time forward|
|1679–80||the Exile of Mawzaʻ|
|1761||Destruction of twelve synagogues in Ṣanʻā’ by Imam Al-Mahdi Abbas|
|1763||Carsten Niebuhr visits Yemen, describing his visit with the Jews of Yemen in book, Reisebeschreibung nach Arabien und andern umliegenden Ländern (Description of Travel to Arabia and Other Neighboring Countries)|
|1805||Rabbi Yiḥya Saleh (Maharitz), eminent Yemenite scholar, jurist and exponent of Jewish law, dies|
|1859||Yaakov Saphir visits Yemen, describing his visit with the Jews of Yemen in book, Even Sapir.|
|1882||First modern mass emigration of Jews from Yemen, who walked by foot to the Land of Israel. This immigration was popularly given the mnemonics, aʻaleh betamar (literally, ‘I shall go up on the date palm tree,’ a verse taken from Song of Songs). The Hebrew word “betamar” = בתמר has the numerical value of 642, which they expounded to mean, ‘I shall go up (i.e. make the pilgrimage) in the year 642 anno mundi (here, abbreviated without the millennium), or what was then 1882 CE.|
|1902||Rabbi Yihya Yitzhak Halevi appointed judge and President of court at Ṣanʻā’|
|1911||Abraham Isaac Kook, Chief Rabbi in Ottoman Palestine, addresses twenty-six questions to the heads of the Jewish community in Yemen|
|1949–50||Operation On Eagles’ Wings (also called Operation Magic Carpet) brings to Israel some 48,000 Yemenite Jews|
Yemenite Jews 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 Yemenite Jewish spiritual leaders, Mori Salem Al-Shabazzi Mashta), Ba'dan, and other cities and towns in the Shar'ab region. Yemenite Jews were chiefly artisans, including gold-, silver- and blacksmiths in the San'a area, and coffee merchants in the south central highland areas.
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:
According to the Jewish traveler Jacob Saphir, the majority of Yemenite Jews during his visit of 1862 entertained a 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, or Epistle to Yemen, the messiah of Bayhan (c. 1495), and Suleiman Jamal (c. 1667), in what Lenowitz regards as a unified messiah history spanning 600 years.
Yemenite Jews and the Aramaic speaking Kurdish Jews are the only communities who maintain the tradition of reading the Torah in the synagogue in both Hebrew and the Aramaic Targum ("translation"). Some non-Yemenite synagogues have a 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 Ashkenazic communities, there are melodies for Mishle (Proverbs) and Psalms.
In larger Jewish communities, such as Sana'a and Sad'a, boys were sent to the M'lamed at the age of three to begin their religious learning. They attended the M'lamed from early dawn to sunset on 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 sitting on chairs, similar to the way many other non-Ashkenazi Jews sat in synagogues. This is in accordance with what Rambam (Maimonides) wrote in his Mishneh Torah:
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 everyday 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 than 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.
Yemenite Jews also wore a distinctive tallit often found to this day. The Yemenite tallit features a wide atara and large corner patches, embellished with silver or gold thread, and the fringes along the sides of the tallit are netted. According to the Baladi custom, the tzitzits are tied with chulyot, based on the Rambam.
During a Yemenite Jewish wedding, the bride was bedecked with jewelry and wore a traditional wedding costume, including an elaborate headdress decorated with flowers and rue leaves, which were believed to ward off evil. Gold threads were woven into the fabric of her clothing. Songs were sung as part of a seven-day wedding celebration, with lyrics about friendship and love in alternating verses of Hebrew and Arabic.
In Yemen, the Jewish practice was not for the groom and his bride to be secluded in a canopy (chuppah) hung on four poles, as is widely practiced today in Jewish weddings, but rather in a bridal chamber that was, in effect, a highly decorated room in the house of the groom. This room was traditionally decorated with large hanging sheets of colored, patterned cloth, replete with wall cushions and short-length mattresses for reclining. Their marriage is consummated when they have been left together alone in this room. This ancient practice finds expression in the writings of Isaac ben Abba Mari (c. 1122 – c. 1193), author of Sefer ha-'Ittur, concerning the Benediction of the Bridegroom: "Now the chuppah is when her father delivers her unto her husband, bringing her into that house wherein is some new innovation, such as the sheets… surrounding the walls, etc. For we recite in the Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah 46a (Sotah 9:15), 'Those bridal chambers, (chuppoth hathanim), they hang within them patterned sheets and gold-embroidered ribbons,' etc."
After immigration to Israel, the regional varieties of Yemenite bridal jewelry were replaced by a uniform item that became identified with the community: the splendid bridal garb of Sana'a.
Before the wedding, Yemenite and other Eastern Jewish communities perform the henna ceremony, an ancient ritual with Bronze Age origins. The family of the bride mixes a paste derived from the henna plant that is placed on the palms of the bride and groom, and their guests. After the paste is washed off, a deep orange stain remains that gradually fades over the next week.
A Yemenite Jewish wedding custom specific only to the community of Aden is the Talbis, revolving around the groom. A number of special songs are sung by the men while holding candles, and the groom is dressed in a golden garment.
The three main groups of Yemenite Jews are the Baladi, Shami, and the 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 on the Kabbalistic tradition embodied in the Zohar and in the school of Isaac Luria, which was increasingly influential from the 17th century on.
Towards the end of the 19th 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 Eduard Glaser, an Austrian-Jewish astronomer and Arabist, in particular had a strong influence on a group of young Yemenite Jews, the most outstanding of whom was Rabbi Yiḥyah Qafiḥ. As a result of his contact with Halévy and Glaser, Qafiḥ introduced modern content into the educational system. Qafiḥ opened a new school and, in addition to traditional subjects, introduced arithmetic, Hebrew and Arabic, with the grammar of both languages. The curriculum also included subjects such as natural science, history, geography, astronomy, sports and Turkish.
The Dor Daim and Iqshim dispute about the Zohar literature broke out in 1913, inflamed Sana'a's Jewish community, and split it into two rival groups, that maintained separate communal institutions until the late 1940s. Rabbi Qafiḥ 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-17th century 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 which was based on the Zohar was irrational, alien, and inconsistent with the true reasonable nature of Judaism. In 1913, when it seemed that Rabbi Qafiḥ, 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 Deah elements of the community rejected the Dor Deah concepts. The opposition, the Iqshim, headed by Rabbi Yiḥya Yiṣḥaq, the Hakham Bashi, refused to deviate from the accepted customs and from the study of the Zohar. One of the Iqshim's targets in the fight against Rabbi Qafiḥ was his modern Turkish-Jewish school. Due to the Dor Daim and Iqshim dispute, the 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.
There are two main pronunciations of Yemenite Hebrew, considered by many scholars to be the most accurate modern day 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 Arabic 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 9th 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 14th century Nathanael ben Isaiah wrote an Arabic commentary on the Bible; in the second half of the 15th 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 Zechariah (Yaḥya) al-Dhahiri and the members of the Shabazi family. Al-Dhahiri's work, which makes use of the poetic genre known as maqāmah, a style inspired by Ḥariri, was written in 1573 under the title Sefer ha-Musar. Herein, the author describes in 45 chapters his travels throughout India, Iraq, Turkey, Syria, the Land of Israel and Egypt, including a description of Rabbi Yosef Karo's seat of learning in Safed. The philosophical writers include: Saadia b. Jabeẓ and Saadia b. Mas'ud, both at the beginning of the 14th century; Ibn al-Ḥawas, the author of a treatise in the form of a dialogue written in rhymed 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 between Yemenite Jews and members of the world's other various Jewish communities shows a common link, with most communities sharing similar paternal genetic profiles. Furthermore, the Y-chromosome signatures of the Yemenite Jews are also similar to those of other Middle Eastern populations.
According to several genetic studies, Yemenite Jews are genetically related to Saudis, Bedouins and Palestinians, who all have ancestry from Arabia; this may be via an ancestral origin in southwestern Arabia of Yemenite Jews through conversions of Bedouins and southwestern Arabians in pre Islamic antiquity.
The two major population centers for Jews in southern Arabia were Aden and 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 20th century. 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.
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 Palestine they would play 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 central and southern Yemen with several hundred more arriving before 1914.
In 1922, the government of Yemen, under Yahya Muhammad Hamid ed-Din (Imam Yahya) reintroduced an ancient Islamic law entitled the "orphans decree". The law dictated that, if Jewish boys or girls under the age of twelve were orphaned, they were to be forcibly converted to Islam, their connections to their families and communities were to be severed and they had to be handed over to Muslim foster families. 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 former 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 his 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, he was forcibly converted to Islam and they were 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 he became the only civilian to have led northern Yemen.
However, YemenOnline, an online newspaper claimed to have conducted several interviews with several members of the al-Iryani family and residents of Iryan, and alleges 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. Abdul Raheem is survived by tens of sons and grandsons.
The largest part of both communities emigrated to Israel after the declaration of the state. Israel initiated Operation Magic Carpet in June 1949 and airlifted most of Yemen's Jews to Israel by September 1950.
In 1947, after the partition vote of the British Mandate of Palestine, Arab Muslim rioters, assisted by the local police force, engaged in a 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 rumour 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.
Operation Magic Carpet (Yemen) began in June 1949 and ended in September 1950. Part of the operation happened during the 1948 Palestine war (November 30, 1947 – July 20, 1949) and the 1948 Arab-Israeli War (May 15, 1948 – March 10, 1949). The operation was planned by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The plan was for the Jews from all over Yemen to make their way to the Aden area. Specifically, the Jews were to arrive in Hashed Camp and live there until they could be airlifted to Israel. Hashed was an old British military camp in the desert, about a mile away from the city of Sheikh Othman. The operation took longer than was originally planned. Over the course of the operation, hundreds of migrants died in Hashed Camp, as well as on the plane rides to Israel. By September 1950, almost 50,000 Jews had been successfully airlifted to the newly formed state of 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:
There was a story that, between 1949 and 1951, up to 1,033 children of Yemenite immigrant families may have disappeared from the immigrant camps. It was said that the parents were told that their children were ill and required hospitalization. Upon later visiting the hospital, it is claimed that the parents were told that their children had died though no bodies were presented and graves which have later proven to be empty in many cases were shown to the parents. Those who believed the theory contended that the Israeli government as well as other organizations in Israel kidnapped the children and gave them for adoption to other, non-Yemenite, families.
In 2001 a seven-year public inquiry commission concluded that the accusations that Yemenite children were kidnapped by the government are not true. The commission unequivocally rejected claims of a plot to take children away from Yemenite immigrants. The report determined that documentation exists for 972 of the 1,033 missing children. Five additional missing babies were found to be alive. The commission was unable to discover what happened in another 56 cases. With regard to these unresolved 56 cases, the commission deemed it "possible" that the children were handed over for adoption following decisions made by individual local social workers, but not as part of an official policy.
Today the overwhelming majority of Yemenite Jews live in Israel.
Some Yemenite Jews stayed behind during Operation Magic Carpet and were left behind, many of them not wanting to leave sick or elderly relatives behind. Another wave of emigration took place in 1959, with some 3,000 Yemenite Jews moving to Israel and many others moving to the United States and United Kingdom. Those Jews that remained behind were forbidden from emigrating and were banned from contacting relatives abroad. They were isolated and scattered throughout the mountainous regions of northern Yemen, and suffered shortages of food, clothing, and medicine, and lacked religious articles. As a result, some converted to Islam. Their existence was unknown until 1976, when an American diplomat stumbled across a small Jewish community in a remote region of northern Yemen. For a short time afterward, Jewish organizations were allowed to travel openly in Yemen, distributing Hebrew books and materials. In 1983 and 1984, 5,000–6,000 additional Yemenite Jews immigrated to Israel, and a further 550–600 left in 1993 and 1994.
Currently, there exists a small Jewish community in the town of Bayt Harash (2 km away from Raydah). They have a rabbi, a functioning synagogue and a mikveh. They also have a boys yeshiva and a girls seminary, funded by a Satmar affiliated Hasidic organization in Monsey, New York, USA.
Yemeni security forces have gone to great lengths to try to 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 accommodations in safer areas.
Despite an official ban on emigration, many Yemenite Jews emigrated to Israel, the United States, and the United Kingdom in the 2000s, fleeing antisemitic persecution and seeking better Jewish marriage prospects. Many of them had initially gone there to study, but had never returned.
In December 2008, Moshe Ya'ish al-Nahari, a 30 year-old Hebrew teacher and kosher butcher from Raydah, was shot and killed by Abed el-Aziz el-Abadi, a former MiG-29 pilot in the Yemeni Air Force. Abadi confronted Nahari in the Raydah market and shouted out "Jew, accept the message of Islam", and opened fire with an AK-47. Nahari was shot five times, and died. During interrogation, Abadi proudly confessed his crime, and stated that "these Jews must convert to Islam". Abadi had murdered his wife two years before, but had avoided prison by paying her family compensation. The court found Abadi mentally unstable and ordered him to pay only a fine, but an appeals court sentenced him to death. Following al-Nahari's murder, the Jewish community expressed its feelings of insecurity, claiming to have received hate mail and threats by phone from extremists. Dozens of Jews reported receiving death threats and claimed that they had been subjected to violent harassment. Nahari's killing and continual antisemitic harassment prompted approximately 20 other Jewish residents of Raydah to emigrate to Israel. In 2009, five of Nahari's children moved to Israel, and in 2012, his wife and four other children followed, having initially stayed in Yemen so she could serve as a witness in Abadi's trial.
In February 2009, 10 Yemeni Jews immigrated to Israel, and in July 2009, three families, or 16 people in total, followed suit. On November 1, 2009 the Wall Street Journal reported that in June 2009, an estimated 350 Jews were left in Yemen, and by October 2009, 60 had emigrated to the United States and 100 were considering following suit. The BBC estimated that the community numbered 370 and was dwindling. In 2010, it was reported that 200 Yemeni Jews would be allowed to immigrate to the United Kingdom.
In August 2012, Aharon Zindani, a Jewish community leader from Sana'a, was stabbed to death in a market in an antisemitic attack. Subsequently, his wife and five children emigrated to Israel, and took his body with them for burial in Israel, with assistance from the Jewish Agency and the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
In January 2013, it was reported that a group of 60 Yemenite Jews had immigrated to Israel in a secret operation, arriving in Israel via a flight from Qatar. This was reported to be part of a larger operation which was being carried out in order to bring the approximately 400 Jews left in Yemen to Israel in the coming months.
Yemeni Jews predominate among Israeli performers of Oriental music. At the Eurovision Song Contest, 1998, 1979 and 1978 winners Dana International, Gali Atari and Izhar Cohen, 1983 runner-up Ofra Haza, and 2008 top 10 finalist Boaz Mauda, are Yemenite Jews. Harel Skaat, who competed at Oslo in 2010, is the son of a Yemenite Jewish father. Other Yemenite Jewish figures include Zohar Argov, Daklon, Gali Atari, Inbar Bakal, Mosh Ben-Ari, Yosefa Dahari, Gila Gamliel, Becky Griffin, Meir Yitzhak Halevi (the Mayor of Eilat), Saadia Kobashi, Yishai Levi, Sara Levi-Tanai, Bo'az Ma'uda, Avihu Medina, Achinoam Nini, Avraham Taviv, Shimi Tavori, Margalit Tzan'ani, Tomer Yosef of Balkan Beat Box and Shahar Tzuberi.
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"The story of the Jews, finding the words" by Simon Schama. part two, chapter 6 "Among the believers" page 233 "By the late fourth century, just as life for Jews in Christendom was beginning to turn starkly harsher, Judaism made its spectacular conquest in Arabia, when the kingdom of Himyar (corresponding, territorially, to present-day Yemen, and the dominant power on the Arabian peninsula for 250 years) converted. For a long time, it was assumed that the Himyar conversion was confined to a narrow circle around the king-the last of the Tubban line, Tiban As'ad Abu Karib- and perhaps the warrior aristocracy. There is still a lively debate around the extensiveness of Himyar Judaism, but the evidence of both inscriptions and, more significantly, excavations at the mountain of the capital of Zafar uncovering what seems likely to be an ancient mikvah purification bath, suggests to many recent scholars (though not all) that the dramatic conversion was more profound, widespread and enduring. It may have been that the Himyarites were devotees of the 'sun and moon' as well as practicing eighth day circumcision, but then the cult of the sun, as we have seen from synagogue mosaics of the period, was also uncontroversial in Jewish practice.
Two additional factors played a crucial role in the eventual adoption by the majority of Yemenite Jewry of the new traditions, traditions that originate, for thee most part, in the land of Israel and the Sefardic communities of the Diaspora. One was the total absence of printers in Yemen: no works reflecting the local (baladi) liturgical and ritual customs could be printed, and they remained in manuscript. By contrast, printed books, many of which reflected the Sefardic (shami) traditions, were available, and not surprisingly, more and more Yemenite Jews preferred to acquire the less costly and easier to read printed books, notwithstanding the fact that they expressed a different tradition, rather than their own expensive and difficult to read manuscripts. The second factor was the relatively rich flow of visitors to Yemen, generally emissaries of the Jewish communities and academies in the land of Israel, but also merchants from the Sefardic communities.... By this slow but continuous process, the Shami liturgical and ritual tradition gained every more sympathy and legitimacy, at the expense of the baladi
Part 2, chapter 6 "Among the believers" page 234 "Recent studies of modern Yemeni Jews by the geneticist Batsheva Bonne-Tamir have confirmed their ancestral origin in southwestern Arabian and Bedouin conversions."
Many Yemenite Jews have also sacrificed their cultural heritage on this Zionist-Israeli altar. The Yemenites' religious traditions and their very distinct customs were initially perceived as an obstacle to their integration into the evolving Israeli society. They were led to believe that by adopting the ideologies and identity of the Zionist enterprise (which bore the imprint of the secular, Labor-dominated leadership), they would facilitate their entry into the mainstream. […] Many Yemenite Jews assimilated themselves gradually into the newly formed secular Zionist culture, while others resisted the pressures for such "Israeli" acculturation.
The Jewish Agency welcomed the great Aliya of the Yemenite Jews with open arms. They set up transit camps for them to care for all their needs with warmth and concern. But there in the transit camps, the joy of the immigrant settling foot on the Promised Land was mixed with pain and confusion. The Jewish Agency considered it a duty to absorb the immigrants into Israel and to integrate them into the economic and social life of their new land. It therefore included education in its programme. As a strongly secular Zionist organisation, it believed that religion was a hindrance to proper integration. The educational program they set up for the adults and children of the Yemenite families was for the most part, not religious. Very often the supervisors and madrichim carried out their mission of education with a zealousness that caused great pain to the immigrants. Word of the treatment of the Yemenite Jews filtered out of the camps: non-religious madrichim, denial of religious education, discrimination in providing facilities for religious practice, religious visitors and teachers being denied entry to the camps, assignment of families to non-religious settlements, and cutting off of the traditional peos, or earlocks, of the Yemenite Jews. Cries of shock and protest poured in from every corner of the Jewish world.