The precious heritage of Yemeni Jews

Without divulging too much about my personal history, suffice it to say that Yemeni Jewry holds a very special place in my heart.  Their traditions, when kept faithfully, have always provided me with great pleasure.  The sound of Yemeni children chanting as their forefathers have taught them is the most wonderful music to my ears.  Even their appearance, at least as it is most commonly found among them, represents the ultimate harmony of features.  Because of their beauty and character, Yemeni women have often been sought as wives by Ashkenazi men.  More recently, even Yemeni men have been sought as husbands by Ashkenazic women.  As far as I could tell, Yemeni men make good husbands and rarely abuse their wives (obviously I am speaking of Jews here).
Aside from the aesthetic aspects of Yemeni Jewry, it is a fact that their set of traditions is the most faithful to our ancient roots.  During the period of massive Jewish exodus from Spain, prior to and during the inquisition, Spanish Jews culturally dominated Oriental Jews wherever they settled.  These Sephardic Jews were white, educated, haughty and very literate.  They typically became the elite in Middle Eastern nations where they settled.  This did not happen in Yemen.  In Yemen, those Sephardic Jews who arrived assimilated to Yemeni culture and their children, aside from having European racial features, became Yemeni in every sense.  Literary traditions were so strong in Yemen that even the Sephardic juggernaut was stopped in its tracks there.  In later centuries, however, many Yemeni Jews did adopt Sephardic liturgy for their prayers.  Spanish cultural pressure was not the only obstacle however.  Yemeni Jewry was subject to various famines, persecutions and exiles as well.  These sometimes entailed wholesale destruction of holy books and widespread death.  Through it all, the ancient traditions held fast.
I will spare my readers the details of religious practice that set Yemeni Jews apart.  To do so would only alienate most readers as an intimate familiarity with Jewish traditions would be necessary to understand them.  Still, I shall gladly elaborate if anybody wishes me to do so.  In general terms, however, some of the highlights are as follows:
1)  Yemeni Hebrew is, along with some Iraqi dialects, the most conservative of all forms of Hebrew.  The finest grammatical distinctions, long forgotten in other communities, are zealously guarded in Yemeni congregations.  In modern Israel, unfortunately, there is degradation among the youth.
2) The parchment, upon which the Torah scrolls (and other holy scripts) are written, is tanned according to authentic ancient tradition.  This in not the case with most other communities.  Unfortunately, this tradition is only kept by a handful of congregations currently – as will be later elaborated upon.
3) Generally speaking, Yemeni Judaism places less emphasis on rabbinical authority insofar as qualifications for certain duties and functions.  Any man was considered fit to bake his own unleavened bread for Passover.  Each man would read the Torah scroll for himself in synagogue and (if memory serves me correctly) many people would slaughter their own animals for their meat.
4) Certain dubious traditions, which spread throughout the rest of Jewry, never caught on in Yemen.  One example is the superstitious ritual of “kapparoth”, where a live chicken is waved over a person’s head before Yom Kippur in the voodoo-like belief that the chicken would absorb the person’s sins (or something to that effect).
5) There are actually textual differences between the Yemeni Torah and the Torah of other communities.  To be sure, these differences are minor but we should bear in mind that, according to Jewish law, even a difference of one letter is enough to disqualify a Torah scroll.  My guess would be that the Yemeni version is more accurate.
6) Until fairly recently, Yemeni Jewry used the “Babylonian” system of vocalization, where the vowels were placed above the letters (“niqud ‘elyon”) as opposed the the “Tiberian” system, used by all other Jews, where the vowels were placed (usually) beneath the letters.  Note: there are no vowel letters in Semitic languages but special signs (“vocalizations”) were sometimes added to aid children and for religious liturgy.  Even though it is unclear which system is older (in ancient times it is likely neither one was used), I wanted to list this distinction here to emphasis the uniqueness of Yemeni tradition.

A page from tiklal (prayer book) “Mashta” (a famous manuscript, here in facsimile) illustrating this alternative vowel system

Yemeni Jewry, as found in Yemen, could be divided into three major sects: Shami, Baladi and Darda’i.
“Shami” literally means “of the vicinity of Syria, including the land of Israel.”  Syria is, in Arabic, called “Sham”.  This sect had adopted the Sephardic liturgy in prayer and many of their customs but, to a large extent, still remained Yemeni in character.  They retained many Yemeni customs and did not follow the Sephardic liturgy 100%.  They tended to follow the “Code of Jewish Law” (Shulhan ‘Arukh), which was written by R. Yosef Karo (a Sephardic Jew) – but according to Yemeni interpretation.
Baladi means, in Arabic, “local” or “regional” to be more exact.  This sect was more traditional and, though they adopted certain outside practices, remained by and large untainted.  They did, however, accept the “Kabbalah” and they did have deference to outside rabbinical authorities.  The most notable outside authority, and the most influential among them, was the Rambam (Maimonedes).
Darda’i is reportedly derived from a scriptural reference and started out as a derogatory term.  Another interpretation is that it is a compound word: “Dor” + “Dea'” = generation of knowledge.  Either way, this sect began in the early part of the 20th century under the leadership of a certain fearless man by the name of Mori Yihyeh al-Gafih .  “Mori” is the Yemeni term, roughly speaking, for “rabbi”.  Mori Yihyeh wrote a book exposing the Kabbalah, and its primary source, the Zohar, as both fraudulent and contrary to traditional Judaism.  It is difficult for modern Westerners to appreciate the courage necessary to do such a thing but let it suffice to say that his audacity was on par with that of Galileo or Copernicus.  His followers more or less follow the teachings of Maimonedes and they are, by far, the strictest adherents to the ancient traditions.  In Israel today, they are forced to congregate secretly and to remain an underground movement.  They number only a handful.  Of this handful, only very few conscientiously keep the finer aspects of their tradition – including the ancient formula for tanning the leather to be used for Torah scrolls.

Mori Yihyeh al-Gafih

In Yemen, Arabic was considered a quasi-holy language and Yemeni Jews continued to write in Arabic (in Hebrew characters) until fairly recently.

A writ of mourning dated 1942.  The last part is mostly in Arabic

There was a Yemeni Jewish presence in India and, from the 1880’s in the Land of Israel as well.  Remnants of their presence bear their distinctive signature.

The hand-crafted binding of a book, printed by the ‘Iraqi family (actually of Yemeni origin) in Calcutta, India dated 1851

The same book showing the seal of the ‘Iraqi family, which is of the priestly caste.  On the right, we can see that the book was bound using old Yemeni manuscripts (most of which have been removed)

In the early days of the State of Israel, the vast majority of Yemeni Jews were airlifted to Israel, where they were forcibly stripped of their outward traditions.  For all practical purposes, they were no longer allowed to dress traditionally and their children were educated in European “Hebrew”.  Their traditional ear locks were shaven off – ostensibly to rid them of lice and their valuables were often stolen from them.  Through all this, of all Oriental Jewish groups in Israel, the Yemenis have made the greatest effort to preserve their identity and to educate their children in the ways of their forefathers.  Sentiments vary among Yemenis in Israel.  Many became completely estranged from their roots as a result of military service (where overwhelming peer pressure was exerted to turn religious young people into hedonistic slaves of the Zionist state).  Others, while retaining some vestiges of their heritage, loath the concept of Yemeni Jews trying to maintain a “people within a people”. They buy into the idea that Israel is a place where all Jews must shed the identities of exile and unify themselves into one people with one culture.  Some value their continuity but take a fatalistic attitude.  They seem to be at peace with the idea that they are the last guardians of their traditions, their children marrying outsiders and forgetting the old ways.

The long term prospects of Yemeni Jews in Israel are not promising.  Too many forces are aligned against them.  It will be a sad day when the only remnants of their rich traditions are to be found in museums.

This entry was posted in Jewish stuff and Israel. Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to The precious heritage of Yemeni Jews

  1. Patrick says:

    Maybe some of the Israelis are jealous of the deep cultural roots possessed of by the Yemeni’s.

  2. Valkea says:

    Interesting topic. Several questions comes to mind.
    1. How Yemeni Jews survived as a minority in such an hostile environment for so long? (I know comprehensive answer would require a book, but some salient factors could give an sufficient answer)
    2. What kept Yemeni Jews together as a community? (As in previous)
    3. How Yemeni Jews solved free rider problem? (As in previous)
    4. What kind of rules and rituals guided Yemeni Jews in ordinary days and were they part of everything Yemeni Jews did – work, trade and business transactions, free time, interactions with ingroup and outgroup members, holidays, etcetera? (As in previous)
    You don’t have to answer if you feel that it would be inappropriate.

    • jewamongyou says:

      You are right; books have been written on the topic. But the short answers, to the best of my knowledge, are:
      1 &2) Their religion kept them together. This and sporadic persecution.
      3) I’m not sure how they dealt with free riders. I do know that the vast majority of them worked hard for a living. Gold and silver smithing were traditional Jewish trades.
      4) I’m afraid I don’t know enough to describe their everyday lives (off the top of my head) and their relations with non-Jews. I do know that their relationships with non-Jews varied greatly from place to place and from time to time. They certainly did business with non-Jews. For the most part, their religion guided them on ordinary days, just as during Sabbath and holidays.

    • victor says:

      Their mere survival tell us you are wrong about your hostile claim.

  3. Valkea says:

    Ok, thank you.
    To make the questions more understandable, they were selected along the lines of these kinds of studies (agreement with all the views and conclusions of the researchers is not implied; disagreement with anti-religious and anti-community views is explicit):
    Tradition of communities does not contain only beauty, but essential knowledge about cooperation; survival; problem solving; intense efforts exceeding individual efforts; methods of defining the ingroup-outgroup borders; etcetera.
    Much more can be learned by analyzing community traditions for one year than a lifetime of reading all those sites that say they defend the West, Western culture, nations, whites, etc.

  4. TheBlack says:

    The Teimanin are not completely white. Get your facts together.
    DNA testing between Yemenite Jews and various other of the world’s 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.[32]
    Despite their long-term residence in different countries and isolation from one another, most Jewish populations were not significantly different from one another at the genetic level. The results support the hypothesis that the paternal gene pools of Jewish communities from Europe, North Africa and the Middle East descended from a common Middle Eastern ancestral population, and suggest that most Jewish communities have remained relatively isolated from neighboring non-Jewish communities during and after the Diaspora.[33]
    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 maternally-transferred gene types which have entered their gene pools. One study found that some Arabic-speaking populations—Palestinians, Jordanians, Syrians, Iraqis, and Bedouins—have what appears to be substantial mtDNA gene flow from sub-Saharan Africa, amounting to 10-15% of lineages within the past three millennia.[34][35] In the case of Yemenites, the average is actually higher at 35%.[34] Of particular historic interest might be the finding that with almost no exceptions the sub-Saharan gene flow was exclusively female,

    • jewamongyou says:

      It’s always been obvious to me that the Yemeni Jews have some sub-Saharan blood in them. Tradition has it that, in ancient times, some local Arabs had converted to Judaism. No doubt, the mtDNA is from black slaves who had entered the Arab gene pool prior to them converting.

      • David says:

        Actually it was more than just “some local Arabs”. During pre-Islamic times, Judaism was one of the mainstream religions in Yemen along with Christianity, Rahmanism, and paganism, and during the reign of the Jewish zealot Yousef Asar Dhu Nawas, Judaism became thee dominant religion in Yemen. Another thing is that some of the mtDNA found in the Arabian peninsula dates to ancient even stone age times and thus has nothing to do with slavery.

  5. Benjamin says:

    I’d be interested in any information you may have of Yemenite Jews’ connection with and attitudes toward Dhū Nuwas and his Himyarite Kingdom.

    • jewamongyou says:

      I’m not privy to any inside information on this, though I’ve known about this king and his civilization for a long time. Of course, this piece of history implies that many Yemenite Jews are descended from converts. Most of the Yemenites I knew rejected such notions, preferring to think of themselves as descended from ancient Jews who had settled in Yemen during the time of the first temple. I think it’s a little of both.

      • amonamon2 says:

        ..Yemeni Jew are ,even Arab sources, are people who converted to Judaism by Yemeni king’s order… after that some kept their religious and some converted to Islam … you can check the Arabic tribes. for that reason I saw some jewihes tribe share the same name with Arab tribes!! !
        the true Bani Israel are not in Yemen but in Arabian peninsula and in north who converted to Islam … my grandmother’s uncle until today tell us about his family story.
        By the way , are you European Jew? If Yes then stop talking about a history you don’t know about? European Jew might suffered at the hand of European so they treated everybody as enemy which was not the case in Yemen!

  6. George Mathew (Mathai Varghese) says:

    I am a Nazerene from India, from the very south west of India, called ‘Kerala’ or Malabar which is it’s historic name. Yemen and Malabar had strong links. The Nazerene population in Malabar, has Yemenite inflence. The Cohen Y DNA amongst us is supected to be Yemenite Cohens/Cantors who immigrated to Malabar centuries ago. Please go to facebook and see me at!/profile.php?id=735603379 and may I have your opinion, particularly from the Yemenite Jews. We Nazerenes also had kinship with the Black Jews of Malabar, who are themselves strongly suspected to be of Yemenite origin, atleast morderatly. My email is
    I am at present studying Biblical Hebrew and I hope to study Eastern Syriac too.

  7. victor says:

    It is a shame that the Askinazi infiltrators are breeding with the last purest Israelite of Yemen. They will be gone soon, and disappear. Arabia has kept them safe for the world and now these Nazis want to buy their DNA

  8. Hi wanted to discuss a few things considering I’m a Yemeni myself. one would be the claim regarding that most of us descend from early converts, most of the elders I know always claimed that the only Yemeni Jews that descended from converts are the Habani, which were more similar to beduin than the other jews. Secondly, historically we know only the elite in the Dhu Nuwas Kingdom truly converted. and to anyone asking yes we detest being considered as non pure jews, we trace our heritage mostly the tribe of juda and a large portion to levites.

    • jewamongyou says:

      I’ve heard that claim. We can only guess how much Yemeni blood is from converts. I seriously doubt there is any such thing as a “pure Jew” though. Even if we define a “pure Jew” as somebody entirely descended from ancient Palestinian Jews, the odds of this bloodline remaining pure are slim to none. So what part of Yemen is your family from? What are your thoughts on the rest of my post?

      • My family from my father’s side is from Shar’ab, my mother’s side is from Heidan, if it interests you many if not most of the Yemenis preserve their origin in their Family name(my full family name is melaem al-sharabi). Regarding genetics that would be kinda hard considering there should be a significant flow of “Jewish” DNA in the arab yemenis, you see over the ages there was much forced conversion especially of orphans to the point families would “marry” children bellow 10 to prevent the child from being taken. By the way, I believe Yemenis will survive cultural force, at keast on the religious level, that is the reason most of the religious jews are making so much effort to concentrate in large communities, we are unlike other Jews such as Iraqi Jews which upon arriving to Israel completely assimilated religiously under the Sepharadim.

  9. jewamongyou says:

    Re: Zaher,
    Cool! I’m familiar with the Shar’abi Jews and, if memory serves me right, the Jews of Heidan were known for being very dark (sawda). Shar’abi Hebrew (or the South of Yemen in general) is more correct than that of the rest of Yemen in that y’all pronounce the Qof correctly and the hard Gimal is like “g” in “Gary”. But that just follows the local Arabic dialect. I can also assume you have no connections to the Darda’im, since the Shar’abim were very much into Kabbalah. That’s about the extent of my knowledge; I’m no expert.

  10. Indeed, as Shar’abi Jews are of the shami sect although the Shar’abi preserve some of our own liturgical traditions. Regarding my skin color you may be surprised but nither side of my family has any dark skin at all (expanded family included), most people are dumbfounded though when they hear I’m Yemeni at all. but just as a note most Shar’abi yemeni I know at least aren’t particularly dark skinned.

    • jewamongyou says:

      For a while, when I lived in Jerusalem, my best friend was Yemeni. He was very light-skinned and I was brown as could be. When we walked around, everybody assumed he was Ashkenazi and I was Yemeni. His family was from the Sana’a area.

  11. Btw, regarding the “Dor De’aa”, I believe most of the practicing ones are concentrated in Jerusalem, it’s kinda hard to tell anything about them as they keep a rather low profile. that is their policy since yemen itself, Yemenis in general are firm believers in the “to each his own” moto which enbaled rabbis of all sects including “dor de’aa” to serve at the same rabbinical court in-charge of all of Yemen’s Jewry.

  12. Dudeman says:

    Regarding the whole Yemenite Jew DNA thing, I find that in Yemen and most Jewish communities the father line is of Israelite origin, and the mother line was also of Israelite origin but significantly less so, a lot of Jews would convert local woman, usually poor women whenever they went to these new areas. And for the Habbani, I have a great respect for them, these guys knew how to survive, and fight. They were regarded as heroes in Yemen, but when I ask my father about them (my fathers’ a Yemenite Jew) he’d always refer to them as being extremely primitive.

    • If you want to know more about the Habbani Yemenite Jews, you might try interviewing the Aluf Abir, Mori Yehoshua Sofer Ma’atuf Doakh. He teaches the Abir Qesheth Hebrew Warrior Arts Classes at Teddy Malkha Stadium in Jerusalem, Israel.

  13. You can find out more about the Habbani Jews of Yemen from the Aluf Abir Yehoshua Sofer.

  14. sam says:

    regarding the origin of Yemeni jewish, at one time in Yemen there was a king who converted to judaism . his name dhu nwas alhamyari . he loved the jewish religion so much that he forced every Yemeni to convert to judaism. In some part of Yemen the christians refused to convert, and the king sent his warriors to slaughter them all. During that period much immigration was taken to North Africa and part of Middle East by these converts. After islam came, the population in Yemen converted to islam but those who already immigrated to North Africa and the Middle East stayed jewish. The king converted to judaism at that time after he met the jewish tribe who came from Israel to settle in Yemen. As for the Habbani, its a village called habban in Yemen, and from that village are the best fighters and warriors whether jewish or muslim. I hope the yemenite jewish in Israel do not lose their tradition which they have held on for thousand of years. they are truly a treasure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *