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Yemenite Jews
Achinoam Nini
Total population
400,000 (est.)
Regions with significant populations
 Israel 300,000
 United States 30,000
 United Kingdom 5,000
 Yemen 150
Hebrew, Arabic, English
Related ethnic groups
Mizrahi Jews, Sephardi Jews, Knanaya

Yemenite Jews are those Jews who live, or whose recent ancestors lived, in Yemen. Between June 1949 and September 1950, the overwhelming majority of Yemen's Jewish population was transported to Israel in Operation Magic Carpet. Most Yemenite Jews now live in Israel, with some others in the United States, and fewer elsewhere. Only a handful remain in Yemen, mostly elderly.

Yemenite Jews have a unique religious tradition that marks them out as separate from Ashkenazi, Sephardi and other Jewish groups. It is debatable[by whom?] 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).

Early history

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 [1] 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 [2] Another legend says that Yemeni tribes converted to Judaism after the Queen of Sheba's visit to king Solomon [3] 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.[4] 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.[5]

Archaeological records referring to Judaism in Yemen started to appear during the rule of the Himyarite Kingdom [6] Various inscription in Musnad script in the second century CE referring to constructions of synagogues approved by Himyarite Kings[7] 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 [8] 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 Jewish. [9] 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. [10] In any case, inscriptions documented by Yousef himself shows the great pride he expressed after massacring more than 22,000 Christians in Zafar and Najran. [11]

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 Le 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 Ḥimyarites 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.

Byzantium emperor Justinian I sent a fleet to Yemen and Joseph Dhu Nuwas was killed in battle in 525 CE [12] 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 [13]

Jewish - Muslim relationship in Yemen through time

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 Muslim persecution of the Jews did not gain full force until the Zaydi clan seized power, from the more tolerant Sunni Muslims, early in the 10th century.[14]

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).[15]

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.[16]

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.[17] While a popular local Yemenite Jewish preacher called Jews to choose martyrdom, the Maimonides sent what is known by the name "The Yemen Epistle" and advised Yemenite Jews to convert to Islam and secretly continue to practice Judaism.

In the 13th century, persecution of Jews subsided when the Rasulids, a tribe from Africa, took over the country, ending Muslim 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.[18]

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 province of Mawza, and many Jews died there of starvation and disease as consequence. Their houses and property were seized, and many synagogues were destroyed or converted into mosques.[19] 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.[18]

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 Yemini 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.[18]

Yemenite Jews and Maimonides

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 Mashtaw), 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.

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:

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, the messiah of Bayhan (c.1495), and Suleiman Jamal (c.1667), in what Lenowitz[20] regards as a unified messiah history spanning 600 years.

Religious traditions

Yemenite Jews and the Aramaic speaking Kurdish Jews[21] 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.[22]

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.[23]

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 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:

"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.[24] 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 tzitzits are tied with chulyot, based on the Rambam.

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.[25]

Yemenite and other Eastern Jewish communities also perform a henna ceremony, an ancient ritual with Bronze Age origins,[26] 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.[27] 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 in 11th-century France, interpreted this passage to mean 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.[28]

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.[29]

Religious groups

"Shami" redirects here. For the actual Jews of Damascene origin—as opposed to the Yemenite Jews who adopted the Jewish rituals of Damascus/Palestine, see Syrian Jews#Halabi/Shami divide in diaspora.

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.

  • 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 Palestine or Damascus) represent those who accepted the Sephardic/Palestinian rite and lines of rabbinic authority, after being exposed to new inexpensive, typeset siddurs brought from Israel and the Sephardic diaspora by envoys and merchants in the late 17th century and 18th century.[30][31] The "local rabbinic leadership resisted the new versions....Nevertheless, the new prayer books were widely accepted."[31] As part of that process, the Shami accepted the Zohar and modified their rites to accommodate the usages of the Ari to the maximum extent. The text of the Shami siddur now 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.[32]
  • 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 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.[33]

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 Dai elements of the community rejected the Dor Dai concepts. The opposition, the Iqshim, headed by Rabbi Yaḥya 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.[33] 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.[34]

Form of Hebrew

Main article: Yemenite Hebrew

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.

  • Pronunciation Chart 1[35]
  • Pronunciation Chart 2[36]

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.[37] 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.[38]

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."[39]

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 14th 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."[40]

DNA testing

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.[41]

Despite their long-term residence in different countries and their 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 are descended from a common Middle Eastern ancestral population, and they suggest that most Jewish communities have remained relatively isolated from neighboring non-Jewish communities during and after the Diaspora.[42]

It can be said that the Jewish communities of southern Arabia in terms of their origin are not homogeneous. Immigrants came from the same areas Land of Israel, Babylon, Iran, Egypt, Syria and Spain and North Africa. They completed the management of the community and brought Jewish customs into the country. Information on the circumstances and the context of the time allowed the settlements of Jews in the South Arabian space to be not as dependent on the interpretation of oral traditions as Jews elsewhere. Yemenite Jews are descended from Israelites. North African Jewish and Kurdish Jewish paternal lineages are passed down from Israelites. Jewish Y-DNA tends to come from the Middle East, and studies that take into account mtDNA show that many Jewish populations are related to neighboring non-Jewish groups maternally. All existing studies fail to compare modern Jewish populations' DNA to ancient Judean DNA and medieval Khazarian DNA, but in the absence of old DNA, comparisons with living populations appear to be adequate to trace geographic roots [43]

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 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.

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 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.[44]

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 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.[45]

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 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.[45][46]

However, yemenionline, 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.[47]

The largest part of both communities emigrated to Israel after the declaration of the state. The State of 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 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 rumour of the ritual murder of two girls led to looting.[48]

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.[49] Part of the operation happened during the Israeli war of independence (30 November 1947 – 20 July 1949) and the 1948 Arab-Israeli War (15 May 1948 – 10 March 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.[50] 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.[49] By September 1950, almost 50,000 Jews had been successfully airlifted to the newly formed state of Israel.[51]

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 that they were embarking on the adventure of a lifetime. Warren Metzger, a DC-4 captain, and Marian Metzger, 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 throughout 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."[52]

Missing Yemenite children in Israel

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.[53]

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.[53]

Present situation

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.[54] In 1983 and 1984, 5,000-6,000 additional Yemenite Jews immigrated to Israel, and a further 550-600 left in 1993 and 1994.[55]

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.

A small Jewish enclave also exists in the town of Raydah, which lies approximately 45 miles north of Sana'a. The town hosts a yeshiva, also funded by a Satmar affiliated organization.

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.[56]

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.[57] The court found Abadi mentally unstable and ordered him to pay only a fine, but an appeals court sentenced him to death.[58] 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.[59] 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.[60]

In February 2009, 10 Yemeni Jews emigrated to Israel, and in July 2009, three families, or 16 people in total, followed suit.[61][62] On November 1, 2009 the Wall Street Journal[63] 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.[64] In 2010, it was reported that 200 Yemeni Jews would be allowed to immigrate to the United Kingdom.[65]

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.[66][67][68]

In January 2013, it was reported that a group of 60 Yemenite Jews had emigrated 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.[69]

Participation in Israeli Culture

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.

Prayer books

  • Siaḥ Yerushalayim, Baladi prayer book in 4 vols, ed. Yosef Qafih
  • Tefillat Avot, Baladi prayer book (6 vols.)
  • Torat Avot, Baladi prayer book (7 vols.)
  • Tiklal Ha-Mefoar (Maharitz) Nusaḥ Baladi, Meyusad Al Pi Ha-Tiklal Im Etz Ḥayim Ha-Shalem Arukh Ke-Minhag Yahaduth Teiman: Bene Berak: Or Neriyah ben Mosheh Ozeri: 2001 or 2002
  • Siddur Tefillat HaḤodesh — Beit Yaakov (Nusaḥ Shami), Nusaḥ Sepharadim, Teiman, and the Edoth Mizraḥ
  • Rabbi Shalom Sharabi, Siddur Kavanot HaRashash: Yeshivat HaChaim Ve'Hashalom

Other works

  • Halikhot Teiman — The Life of Jews of Sana'a, by Rabbi Yosef Qafahh, 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
  • Parfitt, Tudor (1996) The Road to Redemption: The Jews of the Yemen 1900-1950. Brill's Series in Jewish Studies vol. XVII. Leiden: Brill.

See also

External links

  • "Tzanaa," Jewish Ideas Daily, by Aryeh Tepper [5]
  • Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906
  • The Yemenite step: Judaism and Islam in Yemen: A Cast Study in Historical and Cultural Interaction
  • The Jews of Yemen Homepage
  • The Jews of Yemen, The Last Generation by Zion Ozeri (review)
  • The Yemenite Jews - Jewish-Yemenite Diwan AUVIDIS/UNESCO D8024 (Reissue) Anthology of Traditional Music 2003
  • Yemen: A Land of Pure Dreams
  • Naphillath Panim A historical perspective on Tachanun from a Yemenite and Maimonidean perspective.
  • Ynetnews 01.22.07 (Includes two photos)
  • Video news report of threatened Jews of Sanaa
  • Yemenite Jews arrive in Israel 1950, Hashed camp for Yemenite Jewish refugees (photos)
  • Reuters 8 May 2007
  • Yemenite Jewish traditional well being blessing
  • Haaretz 20/02/2009
  • Yemen's Jews uneasy as Muslim hostility grows By Hamza Hendawi – Apr 26, 2009
  • Death sentence for the murderer of Moshe al-Nahari June 21, 2009
  • Reuters Aug 23, 2009



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