Yemenite Jews have a unique religious tradition that marks them out as separate from both Ashkenazi, Sephardi and other Jewish groups. It is debatable whether they should be described as "Mizrahi Jews", as most other Mizrahim have over the last few centuries come to adopt the Sephardic rite, largely as a result of Sephardic expelees joining their communities so that their previously distinctive rites came to be influenced, superimposed or altogether replaced by the more prestigiously perceived Sephardic rite. (This was also true of the Shami sub-group of Yemenite Jews.)
One local Yemenite Jewish tradition dates the earliest settlement of Jews in the Arabian Peninsula to the time of King Solomon. One explanation is that King Solomon sent Jewish merchant marines to Yemen to prospect for gold and silver with which to adorn the Temple in Jerusalem. In 1881, the French vice consulate in Yemen wrote to the leaders of the Alliance in France, that he read a book of the Arab historian Abu-Alfada, that the Jews of Yemen settled in the area in 1451 BCE. Another legend places Jewish craftsmen in the region as requested by Bilqis, the Queen of Saba (Sheba). The Beta Israel or Chabashim (Jews in neighboring Ethiopia) have a sister legend of their origins that places the Queen of Sheba as married to King Solomon. Parts of Yemen, Eritrea and Ethiopia at that time were jointly ruled by Sheba, with its capital in Yemen.
The Sanaite Jews have a legend that their ancestors settled in Yemen forty-two years before the destruction of the First Temple. It is said that under the prophet Jeremiah some 75,000 Jews, including priests and Levites, traveled to Yemen. The Jews of Habban in southern Yemen have a legend that they are the descendants of Judeans who settled in the area before the destruction of the Second Temple. These Judeans supposedly belonged to a brigade dispatched by King Herod to assist the Roman legions fighting in the region.
Another legend states that when Ezra commanded the Jews to return to Jerusalem they disobeyed, whereupon he pronounced a ban upon them. According to this legend, as a punishment for this hasty action Ezra was denied burial in Israel. As a result of this local tradition, which can not be validated historically, it is said that no Jew of Yemen gives the name of Ezra to a child, although all other Biblical appellatives are used. The Yemenite Jews claim that Ezra cursed them to be a poor people for not heeding his call. This seems to have come true in the eyes of some Yemenites, as Yemen is extremely poor. However, some Yemenite sages in Israel today emphatically reject this story as myth, if not outright blasphemy.
The immigration of the majority of Jews into Yemen appears to have taken place about the beginning of the second century C.E., although the province is mentioned neither by Josephus nor by the main books of the Jewish oral law, the Mishnah and Talmud. According to some sources, the Jews of Yemen enjoyed prosperity until the sixth century C.E. In the 3rd century C.E. a Himyarite king named Abu-Kariba Asad-Toban (c. 390 - 420 C.E.) converted to Judaism and was successful in spreading the religion throughout the region. Moreover, the Himyarite King, Abu-Karib, converted to Judaism at the end of the 5th century, while laying siege to Medina. His army had marched north to battle the Aksumites who had been fighting for control of Yemen for a hundred years. The Aksumites were only expelled from the region when the newly Jewish king rallied the Jews together from all over Arabia. Until recently Dhu Nuwas was regarded as the first king who was zealous for Judaism, but a chronicle of saints in the British Museum gives the name of the martyr Arkir, who was condemned to death by Shurahbil Yakkuf at the instigation of his counselors, the rabbis.
Even more dramatic was the conversion of Abu-Kariba's grandson, Zar'a, who reigned from C.E. 518 to 525. Legend ascribes his conversion to his having witnessed a rabbi extinguish a fire worshiped by Arab magi, merely by reading a passage from the Torah over it. After changing his religion, he assumed the name Yusef Ash'ar, but gained notoriety in history by his cognomen Dhu Nuwas. Jewish rule lasted until 525 CE, when Christians from the Aksumite Kingdom took power in Yemen.
As the only visible "outsiders" (though their presence in Yemen predated the introduction and mass conversion of the population to Islam) the Jews of Yemen were treated as pariahs, third-class citizens who needed to be perennially reminded of their submission or conversion to the ruling Islamic faith. The Zaydi enforced a statute known as the Orphan's Decree, anchored in their own 18th century legal interpretations and enforced at the end of that century. It obligated the Zaydi state to take under its protection and to educate in Islamic ways any dhimmi (i.e. non-Muslim) child whose parents had died when he or she was a minor. The Orphan's Decree was ignored during the Ottoman rule (1872-1918), but was renewed during the period of Imam Yahya (1918-1948).
Under the Zaydi rule, the Jews were considered to be impure, and therefore forbidden to touch a Muslim or a Muslim's food. They were obligated to humble themselves before a Muslim, to walk to the left side, and greet him first. They could not build houses higher than a Muslim's or ride a camel or horse, and when riding on a mule or a donkey, they had to sit sideways. Upon entering the Muslim quarter a Jew had to take off his foot-gear and walk barefoot. If attacked with stones or fists by Islamic youth, a Jew was not allowed to defend himself. In such situations he had the option of fleeing or seeking intervention by a merciful Muslim passerby.
The Jews of Yemen had expertise in a wide range of trades normally avoided by Zaydi Muslims. Trades such as silver-smithing, blacksmiths, repairing weapons and tools, weaving, pottery, masonry, carpentry, shoe making, and tailoring were occupations that were exclusively taken by Jews. The division of labor created a sort of covenant, based on mutual economic and social dependency, between the Zaydi Muslim population and the Jews of Yemen. The Muslims produced and supplied food, and the Jews supplied all manufactured products and services that the Yemeni farmers needed.
The average Jewish population of Yemen for the first five centuries C.E. is said to have been about 3,000. The Jews were scattered throughout the country, but carried on an extensive commerce and thus succeeded in getting possession of many Jewish books. When Saladin became sultan in the last quarter of the twelfth century and the Shiite Muslims revolted against him, the trials of the Yemenite Jews began. There were few scholars among them at that time, and a putative prophet arose; he preached a syncretic religion that combined Judaism and Islam, and claimed that the Bible foretold his coming.
One of Yemen's most respected Jewish scholars, Jacob ben Nathanael al-Fayyumi, wrote for counsel to renowned Sephardic Jewish theologian, philosopher, and physician from Spain resident in Egypt, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides. Maimonides replied in an epistle entitled Iggeret Teman (The Yemen Epistle). This letter made a tremendous impression on Yemenite Jewry. It also served as a source of strength, consolation and support for the faith in the continuing persecution. Maimonides himself interceded with Saladin in Egypt, and shortly thereafter the persecution came to an end.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century the condition of the Jews of Yemen was miserable. They were under the jurisdiction of the local Muslim Imam, and they were forbidden to wear new or good clothes, nor might they ride a donkey or a mule. They were compelled to make long journeys on foot when occasion required it. They were prohibited from engaging in monetary transactions, and were all craftsmen, being employed chiefly as carpenters, masons, and smiths.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, they are said to have numbered 30,000, and to have lived principally in Aden (200), Sana (10,000), Sada (1,000), Dhamar (1,000), and the desert of Beda (2,000). Other significant Jewish communities in Yemen were based in the south central highlands in the cities of: Taiz (the birthplace of one of the most famous of Yemenite Jewish spiritual leaders, Mori Salem Al-Shabazzi Mashtaw), Ba'dan, and other cities and towns in the Shar'ab region. The chief occupations of the Yemenite Jews were as artisans, including gold-, silver- and blacksmiths in the San'a area, and coffee merchants in the south central highland areas.
According to the Jewish traveler Jacob Saphir, the majority of Yemenite Jews during his visit of 1862 entertained belief in the messianic proclamations of Shukr Kuhayl I. Earlier Yemenite messiah claimants included the anonymous 12th-century messiah who was the subject of Maimonides' famous Iggeret Teman, the messiah of Bayhan (c.1495), and Suleiman Jamal (c.1667), in what Lenowitz regards as a unified messiah history spanning 600 years.
The Yemenite Jews are the only Jewish community (other than the Aramaic speaking Kurdish Jews) who maintain the tradition of reading the Torah in the synagogue in both Hebrew and the Aramaic Targum ("translation"). Most non-Yemenite synagogues have a hired or specified person called a Baal Koreh, who reads from the Torah scroll when congregants are called to the Torah scroll for an aliyah. In the Yemenite tradition each person called to the Torah scroll for an aliyah reads for himself. Children under the age of Bar Mitzvah are often given the sixth aliyah. Each verse of the Torah read in Hebrew is followed by the Aramaic translation, usually chanted by a child. Both the sixth aliyah and the Targum have a simplified melody, distinct from the general Torah melody used for the other aliyot.
Like most other Jewish communities, Yemenite Jews chant different melodies for Torah, Prophets (Haftara), Megillat Aicha (Book of Lamentations), Kohelet (Ecclesiastes, read during Sukkot), and Megillat Esther (the Scroll of Esther read on Purim). Unlike in Ashkenazic communities, there are melodies for Mishle (Proverbs) and Psalms.
In larger Jewish communities, such as Sana'a and Sad'a, boys were sent to the Ma'lamed at the age of three to begin their religious learning. They attended the Ma'lamed from early dawn to sunset Sunday through Thursday and until noon on Friday. Jewish women were required to have a thorough knowledge of the laws pertaining to Kashrut and Taharat Mishpachah (family purity) i.e. Niddah. Some women even mastered the laws of Shechita, thereby acting as ritual slaughterers.
People also sat on the floors of synagogues instead of chairs, similar to the way many other non-Ashkenazi Jews sit in synagogues, and the way Yemeni Muslims sit in mosques. (In fact to this day, chairs are quite rare in Yemen) This is in accordance with what Rambam (Maimonides) wrote in his Mishneh Torah:
The lack of chairs may also have been to provide more space for prostration, another ancient Jewish observance that the Jews of Yemen continued to practise until very recent times There are still a few Yemenite Jews who prostrate themselves during the part of every-day Jewish prayer called Tachanun (Supplication), though such individuals usually do so in privacy. Jews of European origin generally prostrate only during certain portions of special prayers during Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). Prostration was a common practise amongst all Jews until some point during the late Middle Ages or Renaissance period.
Like Yemenite Jewish homes, the synagogues in Yemen had to be lower in height then the lowest mosque in the area. In order to accommodate this, synagogues were built into the ground to give them more space without looking large from the outside. In some parts of Yemen, minyanim would often just meet in homes of Jews instead of the community having a separate building for a synagogue. Beauty and artwork were saved for the ritual objects in the synagogue and in the home.
During a Yemenite Jewish wedding, the bride is bedecked with jewelry and wears the traditional wedding costume of Yemenite Jews. Her elaborate headdress is decorated with flowers and rue leaves, which are believed to ward off evil. Gold threads are woven into the fabric of her clothing. Songs are sung as a central part of a seven-day wedding celebration and their lyrics often tell of friendship and love in alternating verses of Hebrew and Arabic.
Yemenite and other Eastern Jewish communities also perform a henna ceremony, an ancient ritual with Bronze Age origins, a few weeks or days before the wedding. In the ceremony the bride and her guests hands and feet are decorated in intricate designs with a cosmetic paste derived from the henna plant. After the paste has remained on the skin for up to two hours it is removed and leaves behind a deep orange stain that fades after two to three weeks.
Yemenites, like other Middle Eastern and North African Jewish communities, had a special affinity for Henna due to biblical and Talmudic references. Henna, in the Bible, is Camphire, and is mentioned in the Song of Solomon, as well as in the Talmud.
Rashi, a Jewish scholar from 11th c France, interpreted this passage that the clusters of henna flowers were a metaphor for forgiveness and absolution, showing that God forgave those who tested Him (the Beloved) in the desert. Henna was grown as a hedgerow around vineyards to hold soil against wind erosion in Israel as it was in other countries. A henna hedge with dense thorny branches protected a vulnerable, valuable crop such as a vineyard from hungry animals. The hedge, which protected and defended the vineyard, also had clusters of fragrant flowers. This would imply a metaphor for henna of a "beloved", who defends, shelters, and delights his lover. In the first millennium BCE, in Canaanite Israel, henna was closely associated with human sexuality and love, and the divine coupling of goddess and consort.
The three main groups of Yemenite Jews are the
The differences between these groups largely concern the respective influence of the original Yemenite tradition, which was largely based on the works of Maimonides, and of the Kabbalistic tradition embodied in the Zohar and the school of Isaac Luria, which was increasingly influential from the 1600s on.
Two Jewish travelers, Joseph Halévy, a French-trained Jewish Orientalist, and Edward Glaser, an Austrian-Jewish astronomer, in particular had a strong influence on a group of young Yemenite Jews, the most outstanding of whom was Rabbi Yihhyah Qafahh. As a result of his contact with Halévy and Glaser, Qafahh introduced modern content into the educational system. Qafih opened a new school and in addition to traditional subjects, introduced arithmetic, Hebrew and Arabic and the grammar of both languages. The curriculum included subjects such as natural science, history, geography, astronomy, sports, Hebrew, Arabic, and Turkish.
The Dor Daim and Iqshim dispute about the Zohar literature broke out in 1913, inflamed Sanaa's Jewish community, and split into two rival groups, that maintained separate communal institutions until the late 1940s. Rabbi Qafahh and his friends were the leaders of a group of Maimonideans called Dor Daim (the "generation of knowledge"). Their goal was to bring Yemenite Jews back to the original Maimonidean method of understanding Judaism that existed in pre-1600s Yemen.
Similar to certain Spanish and Portuguese Jews (Western Sephardi Jews), the Dor Daim rejected the Zohar, a book of esoteric mysticism. They felt that the Kabbalah based on the Zohar was irrational, alien, and inconsistent with the true reasonable nature of Judaism. In 1913, when it seemed that Rabbi Qafahh, then headmaster of the new Jewish school and working closely with the Ottoman authorities, enjoyed sufficient political support, the Dor Daim made its views public and tried to convince the entire community to accept them. Many of the non-Dor Daim elements of the community rejected the Dor Daim concepts. The opposition, the Iqshim, headed by Rabbi Yahya Yitzhaq, the Hakham Bashi, refused to deviate from the accepted customs and the study of Zohar. One of the Iqshim's targets in the fight against Rabbi Qafahh was the modern Turkish-Jewish school. Due to the Dor Daim and Iqshim dispute, Rabbi Qafahh's Turkish-Jewish school closed 5 years after it was opened, before the educational system could develop a reserve of young people who had been exposed to its ideas.
Rabbi Mazuz postulates this hypothesis through the Jerban (Tunisia) Jewish dialect's use of gimmel and quf, switching to jimmel and guf when talking with Gentiles in the Gentile dialect of Jerba. Some feel that the Shar'abi pronunciation of Yemen is more accurate and similar to the Babylonian dialect since they both use a gimmel and quf instead of the jimmel and guf. While Jewish boys learned Hebrew since the age of 3, it was used primarily as a liturgical and scholarly language. In daily life, Yemenite Jews spoke in regional Judeo-Arabic.
The oldest Yemenite manuscripts are those of the Hebrew Bible, which the Yemenite Jews call "Taj" ("crown"). The oldest texts dating from the ninth century, and each of them has a short Masoretic introduction, while many contain Arabic commentaries.
Yemenite Jews were acquainted with the works of Saadia Gaon, Rashi, Kimhi, Nahmanides, Yehudah ha Levy and Isaac Arama, besides producing a number of exegetes from among themselves. In the fourteenth century Nathanael ben Isaiah wrote an Arabic commentary on the Bible; in the second half of the fifteenth century Saadia ben David al-Adani was the author of a commentary on Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Abraham ben Solomon wrote on the Prophets.
Among the midrash collections from Yemen mention should be made of the Midrash ha-Gadol of David bar Amram al-'Adani. Between 1413 and 1430 the physician Yaḥya Zechariah b. Solomon wrote a compilation entitled "Midrash ha-Ḥefeẓ," which included the Pentateuch, Lamentations, Book of Esther, and other sections of the Hebrew Bible. Between 1484 and 1493 David al-Lawani composed his "Midrash al-Wajiz al-Mughni.
Among the Yemenite poets who wrote Hebrew and Arabic hymns modeled after the Spanish school, mention may be made of Yaḥya al-Dhahri and the members of the Al-Shabbezi family. A single non-religious work, inspired by Ḥariri, was written in 1573 by Zechariah ben Saadia (identical with the Yaḥya al-Dhahri mentioned above), under the title "Sefer ha-Musar." The philosophical writers include: Saadia b. Jabeẓ and Saadia b. Mas'ud, both at the beginning of the fourteenth century; Ibn al-Ḥawas, the author of a treatise in the form of a dialogue written in rimed prose, and termed by its author the "Flower of Yemen"; Ḥasan al-Dhamari; and Joseph ha-Levi b. Jefes, who wrote the philosophical treatises "Ner Yisrael" (1420) and "Kitab al-Masaḥah.
One point in which Yemenite Jews appear to differ from Ashkenazi Jews and most Near Eastern Jewish communities is in the proportion of sub-Saharan African gene types which have entered their gene pools. One study found that some Arabic-speaking populations — Jordanians, Syrians, Iraqis, and Bedouins — have what appears to be substantial gene flow from sub-Saharan Africa, amounting to 10-15% of lineages within the past three millennia. In the case of Yemenites, the average is actually higher at 35%. Yemenite Jews, as a traditionally Arabic-speaking community of local Yemenite and Israelite ancestries, are included within the findings for Yemenites, though they average a quarter of the frequency of the non-Jewish Yemenite sample. In other Arabic-speaking populations not mentioned, the African gene types are rarely shared. Other Middle Eastern populations, particularly non-Arabic speakers — Turks, Persians, Kurds, Armenians, Azeris, and Georgians — have few or no such lineages.
A study performed by the Department of Biological Sciences at Stanford University found a possible genetic similarity between 11 Ethiopian Jews and 4 Yemenite Jews who took part in the testing. The differentiation statistic and genetic distances for the 11 Ethiopian Jews and 4 Yemenite Jews tested were quite low, among the smallest of comparisons that involved either of these populations. Ethiopian Jewish Y-Chromosomal haplotype are often present in Yemenite and other Jewish populations, but analysis of Y-Chromosomal haplotype frequencies does not indicate a close relationship between Ethiopian Jewish groups. It is possible that the 4 Yemenite Jews from this study may be descendants of reverse migrants of African origin, who crossed Ethiopia to Yemen. The result from this study suggests that gene flow between Ethiopia and Yemen as a possible explanation. The study also suggests that the gene flow between Ethiopian and Yemenite Jewish populations may not have been direct, but instead could have been between Jewish and non-Jewish populations of both regions.
There were two major centers of population for Jews in southern Arabia besides the Jews of Northern Yemen, one in Aden and the other in Hadramaut. The Jews of Aden lived in and around the city, and flourished during the British protectorate. The Jews of Hadramaut lived a much more isolated life, and the community was not known to the outside world until the early 1900s. In the early 20th century they had numbered about 50,000; they currently number only a few hundred individuals and reside largely in Sa'dah and Raydah.
From 1881 to 1882 a few hundred Jews left Sanaa and several nearby settlements. This wave was followed by other Jews from central Yemen who continued to move into Palestine until 1914. The majority of these groups moved into Jerusalem and Jaffa. Before World War I there was another wave that began in 1906 and continued until 1914. Hundreds of Yemenite Jews made their way to Palestine and chose to settle in the agricultural settlements. It was after these movements that the World Zionist Organization sent Shmuel Yavne'eli to Yemen to encourage Jews to emigrate to Palestine. Yavne'eli reached Yemen at the beginning of 1911 and returned to Palestine in April 1912. Due to Yavne'eli's efforts about 1,000 Jews left Yemen left central and southern Yemen with a several hundred more arriving before 1914.
In 1922, the government of Yemen reintroduced an ancient Islamic law requiring that Jewish orphans under age 12 be forcibly converted to Islam.
The most part of both communities emigrated to Israel after the declaration of the state. The State of Israel in beginning of 1948 initiated Operation Magic Carpet and airlifted most of Yemen's Jews to Israel.
In 1947, after the partition vote of the British Mandate of Palestine, Arab Muslim rioters, assisted by the local police force, engaged in a bloody pogrom in Aden that killed 82 Jews and destroyed hundreds of Jewish homes. Aden's Jewish community was economically paralyzed, as most of the Jewish stores and businesses were destroyed. Early in 1948, the unfounded accusation of the ritual murder of two girls led to looting.
This increasingly perilous situation led to the emigration of virtually the entire Yemenite Jewish community between June 1949 and September 1950 in Operation Magic Carpet. During this period, over 50,000 Jews emigrated to Israel.
A smaller, continuous migration was allowed to continue into 1962, when a civil war put an abrupt halt to any further Jewish exodus.
According to an official statement by Alaska Airlines:
It turned out some people stayed behind during Operation Magic Carpet because family members did not want to leave sick or elderly relatives behind. These Jews were forbidden from emigrating and not allowed to contact relatives abroad. They were isolated and trapped, scattered throughout the mountainous regions in northern Yemen and lacking food, clothing, medical care and religious articles. As a result, some Yemenite Jews abandoned their faith and converted to Islam.
For a short time, Jewish religious organizations were allowed to travel openly within Yemen, distributing Hebrew books and materials to the Jewish community.
At present the tiny Jewish community that remains in the northern area of Yemen is tolerated and allowed to practice Judaism. However, its members are still treated as second-class citizens and cannot serve in the army or be elected to political positions. Jews are traditionally restricted to living in one section of a city or village and are often confined to a limited choice of employment, usually farming or handicrafts. However, Jews have been granted the right to own property.
The Jews are scattered and a communal structure no longer exists. Yemenite Jews have little social interaction with their Muslim neighbors and are largely prevented from communicating with Jews of foreign nationalities. It is believed that there are two synagogues still functioning in Saiqaya and in Amlah.
Religious life has not changed much in Jewish dietary laws, Jews are not allowed to eat meals with Muslims. Also, marriage is absolutely forbidden outside of the religion.
During the past few years, about 400 Jews have immigrated to Israel, despite the official ban on emigration.
The persecution of Yemenite Jews has continued to occur in some parts of Yemen. For instance, in 2007, the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan reported that Jewish residents of the Sa'dah region in northern Yemen had received letters containing explicit threats to leave the area within ten days from followers of radical Shiite cleric Hussein Badr Eddin al Houthi.
One of the threatening letters said: "They (the Jews) have taken part in actions and movements that serve global Zionism first and foremost, and are working diligently at corrupting people and making them abandon their values, their moral and religious values, and spread all kinds of abominations throughout society."
According to the letter, this conclusion was reached "following meticulous surveillance of the Jews living in the Al-Hid region in Sa'dah and that Islam religion compels us to fight the corrupt and denounce them."
The letters also warned that those who refused to leave their home within ten days would be killed and have their children taken away from them.
Following complaints from the threatened Jews, a meeting of the local authorities and the district's sheikhs was held. The Jews demanded they be treated as equal Yemeni citizens, and at the end of the meeting a religious verdict determining the relationship between them and the Muslims was given. However, this verdict, which was also signed by Jews, did not guarantee them immunity from threats.
Many Jews had also complained about harassment from the believers' youth organization's members and its chief, Yahya Al-Hadir threatened them with kidnappings and also threatened to steal their money and cars.
A small Jewish enclave also exists in the town of Rayda, which lies approximately 45 mile north of Sana'a. The town hosts a yeshiva (Jewish school) funded by a New York based Chasidic organization.
The Yemeni defense forces have gone to great lengths to try and convince the Jews to stay in their towns. These attempts, however, failed and the authorities were forced to provide financial aid for the Jews so they would be able to rent accommodation in safer areas.
The Yemeni State Department reported that in mid-2000 "the Government suspended its policy of allowing Yemeni-origin Israeli passport holders to travel to Yemen on laissez-passer documents. However, Yemeni, Israeli, and other Jews can travel freely to and within Yemen on non-Israeli passports.
In January 2001, the ruling General People's Party placed a Yemeni Jewish citizen on the slate for parliamentary elections for the first time. The candidate, Ibrahim Ezer, was reportedly recommended by President Ali Abdallah Salah as a gesture to the incoming Bush administration in a bid to receive economic aid for Yemen. The General Election Committee, subsequently rejected Ezer's application on grounds that a candidate must be the child of two Muslim parents. Political analysts speculated that the true reason was a desire not to establish a precedent of allowing a Jew to run for office.