The Yemenite Jewish community has a unique history that distinguish them from Jews of other Arab world countries. The way they migrated to the country is different, the relationship they had to the Arab rulers and the Arab populous was
different, and the Jewish culture and traditions that developed in Yemen are uniquely distinct. Today, the Jewish community of Yemen is teetering on the brink of extinction as most Yemenite Jews have left the country or been airlifted to Israel since the creation of the State.
- Ancient Rule
- Muslim Rule
- Jewish Community Today
We do not know exactly how Jews came to settle in
Yemen. According to Yemenite tradition, a group of well-off Jews left Jerusalem after they heard Jeremiah predict the destruction of the Temple in 629 BCE, 42 years before the destruction of the city. Historians
believe that King
Solomon's trading and naval networks brought Jews to Yemen from
Judea around 900 BCE.
The first evidence of Jewish presence in Yemen can be traced to the
third century CE.
In the early part of Jewish settlement in Yemen, the
Jewish presence in the country was very strong. Many Himyaties, who
ruled at the time, converted to Judaism. Sometime after the third century
CE, the Himyarite ruling family converted to Judaism,
making Judaism the ruling religion. Jewish rule lasted until 525 CE,
when the Christians from Ethiopia took over.
Ethiopian rule ended in the 7th century with the Muslim conquest, which changed Jewry in this area forever. Jews went from being
equal to dhimmis (second-class citizens). They were required to pay a poll tax, a standard
tax for Jews, Christians and other protected peoples in the Muslim world.
They did not have much contact with other Jewish communities. Over the
years, they absorbed elements of Yemeni Arab culture. Little is known
about this early part of Arab rule in Yemen, but we know from letters
in the Cairo Genizah that the Yemeni Jewish community was in distress.
From the 1200s to the 1600s, the hardship of Yemenite
Muslim rule was brought to a temporary halt by the Rasulides, a tribe
from Africa. In 1547, the Turks took over the region from the Rasulides.
This allowed the Jews a chance to have contact with the Kabbalists in Safed,
which was a major Jewish center at that time. The Yemenite Jews were
also able to connect with other Jewish communities under Ottoman
In 1630, the Zaydis took over Yemen from the Turks.
This brought about a dark period in Jewish history, when, in 1679, part
of the Jewish community of central Yemen was expelled to Mawza, a city
on the southern shore of the Red Sea. Many of the exiles died there
from disease and starvation. About a year later, the surviving Jews
were taken back to central Yemen, for economic reasons. The Jews were
a vital asset the economy in Yemen because they made up a majority of
the craftsmen and artisans. The exiles came back to a different country
then the one they left. Most of their houses and religious articles
had been destroyed They were forced to live in quarters outside cities
and they were told that they could not build their houses higher then
the Muslims houses in the area.
The 18th century brought about a brief resurgence
of Jewish life in Yemen with the rule of the Imamics. Synagogues were rebuilt and some Jews achieved important positions. For example,
Rabbi Shalom ben Aharon became responsible for minting and for the royal
coffers. In the 19th century the Imamics lost power and the Jews were
once again subject to harsh rule. They were humiliated by being forced
to give up Jewish customs and by having Jewish orphans taken away from
them and converted to Islam.
In 1872, the Turks took
over Yemen again and the Jewish condition
improved. Just like with the first Ottoman
rule, Jews were allowed more contact with
other Jewish comminutes. They were also allowed
to practice their religion more freely.
In 1882 Jewish immigration
to Palestine from Yemen began. In 1883, Jews
were barred from leaving Yemen for this purpose,
but they continued to emigrate anyway. It
was a small number, with peaks in 1908, 1911,
1929 and 1943. The number climaxed in 1948
when Israel was declared a
state. By 1950 almost all of the Yemenite
Jews had relocated to Israel.
Jewish Community Today
In recent years, Jewish community leaders in Yemen
have stressed the importance of immigration, primarily to Israel or the United States, due to safety concerns
because of the Muslim extremist presence in the country
- particularly Al-Qaeda. On May 22, 2012, Aaron
Zindani was stabbed to death in the capital city
of Saana, his friend believes Al-Qaeda may have been behind the
attack. In 2009, Yemeni authorities moved 70 Jews from northern Yemen
to a compound in Sanaa, openly admitting they could not protect them
In 2009, the Jewish population of Yemen numbered around 400. Today, however, there remains only approximately 90 Jewish people in Yemen, the majority of whom live in the Sanaa compound. Like the rest of the country, they have adopted Western styles in dress
and crafts. The only time you see truly traditional clothing and jewelry
is at weddings. The Yemenite community in Israel, however, has held on to many
of the community's historical traditions - women sometimes wear headdresses and
jewelry or use artifacts that were made in Yemen and there are also many Yemenite
synagogues throughout the country. The Yemenites also
introduced their arts and crafts styles into modern Israeli culture.
Since 2009, 151 Jews have been airlifted to Israel through the support of the Jewish Agency and various Israeli government ministries. Many others have been smuggled out of the country to Argentina or the United States.
There are currently less than 200 Jews living in Yemen, with some estimates placing the community at less than 100 individuals. In October 2015 the Yemeni government handed down an ultimatum to the tiny Jewish community: convert to Islam, or leave. Yemen's Jews sought out asylum in Israel and the United States due to the country's ongoing war with Houthi rebel tribes. The government ultimatum stated that they would not be able to protect the Yemeni Jews if they remained in the country as Jews.
The Yemenite Jews are sometimes classified as Sephardi Jews, Jews who lived under Muslim rule. It would be more accurate, however,
to refer to Yemite Jews as Mizrachi - Jews from the East. However, Yemen was different culturally from the
rest of the Muslim world, as was the Jewish community. The rulers in
Yemen tried to isolate their country from the rest of the world. This
also isolated the Jews from other Jewish communities. Therefore their
culture went in a different direction from the rest of Sephardi Jewry.
Their culture slowly came to be parallel to their Shuni Muslim rulers.
Jewish Yemenite clothing and dwellings developed to be plainer versions
of what their Muslim neighbors had.
Jewish Role in Society
In Yemen, Jews dominated
the professional fields of arts and crafts.
Some Yemenites believed that jewelry made
by Jews had healing powers or other magical
powers. In 1679, the Jews were expelled from
Yemen and let back in a year later because
of the horrible effect on the economy with
out this professional field. Since the mass aliya in
the mid-20th century of Yemenite Jewry, Yemen
has not had the same quality of craftsmanship.
Several objects that were
common in Yemenite culture, both for Jews
and non-Jews, were made by Jewish craftsmen
and artisans. Every house had rose water
flacks that were used to store perfume. These
were made with beautiful colors and have
very modern looking designs. They had these
in all Oriental countries. Almost all jewelry
was made by Jews. Most jewelry was silver
but there was also lots of gold available.
Both Muslim and Jewish women wore a lot of
jewelry. They would wear necklaces with several
rows made out of silver and beads. These
were often part of a women's dowry that a
women would take with her if a marriage ended.
They wore earrings and bracelets that had
very ornate designs. Just like with clothing,
there were certain things Muslim women were
allowed to wear that Jewish women were not.
One example of this is amber. However, since
Jews made the jewelry, the jewelry worn by
Jewish women was more elaborate, especially
jewelry worn by brides.
There were also crafts
made by Jewish craftsmen that Jews could
not have for themselves. In Yemen, Muslim
men wore daggers with decorated handles,
often made of silver. These daggers were
a sign of prestige and the design of the
dagger represented the man's status in society.
Jews also made seal rings for the Muslims.
These rings were used instead of a signature.
If a Jew was caught in possesion either of
these objects they could be put to death.
What is remarkable about
the Yemenite Jewish community is that they
made their own ritual objects. In most other
Jewish communities the raw materials were
usually supplied by others and often other
people made objects. In Yemen the Jews did
everything from mining materials to carving
the finished product.
Like Yemenite Jewish homes,
the synagogues in
Yemen had to be lower in height then the
lowest mosque in the area. The Jews took
an extra precaution not to make their synagogues
fancy to avoid jealously among the Muslims.
In order to accommodate this, synagogues
were built into the ground to give them more
space without looking large from the outside.
People also sat on the floor instead of chairs.
They did this so that they could maximize
the small space and also because Muslims
pray on the floor. Often, minyanim would
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.
There are two main trends
in Jewish artwork in Yemen. One type of art
is painting, the other is carved stone. There
is also some ritual work that involved cloth
and silver. Most of these have been lost.
Painting was used to decorate
ritual objects that were not made out of
stone. The most common examples are Torah scrolls
and Ketubot (Jewish wedding contracts). The
painting on both were done in designs that
were geometric and symmetrical. They also
used only primary colors, common to all Yemenite
art. Flowers and animals were common designs,
but it was rare to have images of people
incorporated into ritual objects. The designs
were probably influenced by Persian and Indian
art, nations that the Yemen did a lot of
The most common ritual
object for Yemenite Jews, were Shabbat lamps.
However Shabbat lamps
were not always called this. Before electricity
was widely available these lamps were used
by all people in Yemen for the purpose of
seeing, not for any ritual. Once electricity
came into use, Jews still used these lamps
on Shabbat. The Shabbat lamps were round
shallow cups made of stone with ridges on
the side. The cup was filled with oil, and
wicks were put in the ridges. They then had
a metal handle in the center of the cup for
carrying the candle, and it also might have
been used to hanging the candle. There is
some evidence that these candles might have
been used instead of the traditional Shabbat
candle sticks that most Jews are used to.
Stone Hanukkah lamps
were used during the eight-day festival of
Hanukkah. The Hanukkeot (the nine-branched menorah)
were the plainest of all Yemenite ritual
objects, but they have the greatest historical
significance. The Hanukkeot, were made of
different types of stone and were usually
not decorated. As with all Hanukkeot there
were eight holes for the wicks and a hole
in a separate place for the shammash. They
would then put the menorah on the window
sill to publicize the miracle of Hanukkah.
The Hanukkeot were probably plain so that
the Yemenite Jews could avoid displaying
wealth to their Muslim neighbors. Some historians
think that the design of the Yemenite Hanukkeot
might be the same as the original Hanukkeot
used by Jews in ancient Judea.
Cloth was used mostly to
decorate Torah scrolls and to make dolls
for children. Torah scroll cases were usually
made out of wood and sometimes were painted
and sometimes had a cloth covering over it.
Many cloth Torah scrolls have survived and
are now in use in Israel. Dolls in Yemen
were made for two different purposes. One
purposed was to be a toy for children. These
dolls were usually made with old cloth and
beads and were made up to look like brides
and grooms. The idea was to get children
excited for marriage. The other purpose was
Around the holiday of Purim, children would
make dolls that resembled Haman and Zeresh,
the arch-villains in the Book
of Esther. On Purim children would carry
their dolls with them, play with them and
eventually burn or destroy them. This custom
stopped once the Yemenite
Jews immigrated to Israel.
Jews designed their houses
to give an impression of poverty. This was
partly because of Yemenite law, and partly
because the Jews did not want to make their
Muslim neighbors jealous of their riches.
The outside of the houses were very pain,
usually one color. The mezuzah was usually
put into a hole in the door post and covered
so that there were not any extra decorations
outside the house. The Pact
of Omar in 637 stated that Jewish houses
in the Arab world could not be taller then
Muslim houses. In 1761, Imam al-Mahdi al-Abbas
determined that this meant Jewish houses
could not be any taller then 9 meters. In
a culture where extended families lived together,
this made life very difficult.
To accommodate the height
restriction, Jews in Yemen made modifications
to their houses that were not imposed by
their rulers. Jewish houses had a basement
which Muslim houses did not. This basement
was used for storage that would have otherwise
been done in another part of the house. Muslims
had a courtyard on top of their houses as
a meeting place for families. Jews built
a courtyard in the middle of the second floor
instead, so they could maximize the height
of 9 meters that the house had to be.
The basic structure of
the Jewish houses was set up very similar
to Arab houses. The ground floor was used
for storing animals and for the kitchen.
Steep staircases led to the floors above
that were for dwelling. These floors contained
the sleeping rooms, the ceremony rooms and
the dining rooms.
As in all Muslim countries,
distinctive dress was imposed on the Yemenite
Jews. Jews were not allowed to wear bright
colors, except on their wedding day. They
were also not allowed to carry daggers or
wear belts that were fancier then what the
Muslims wore. Both belts and daggers were
considered signs of one's prestige in Muslim
countries. From this the Yemenite Jewish
style of plain colors accented by a little
brightness with nice jewelry evolved.
Jewish women wore dresses
that were long and covered their arms. They
also wore a hood that fastened under their
chin. They had several different outfits
for various occasions. They had clothing
for leisure, for special occasions, for going
out in public and their wedding day.
Women had two different
everyday outfits for work and leisure. For
work they wore a very plain black dress and
plain head gear. For leisure Jewish women
wore dark colored dresses with silver embroidery
around the edges and the collar. The headgear
they wore was usually a dark color to match
the dress they were wearing with silver embroidery
on the inside. In southern Yemen Jewish women
wore net head coverings and wore white, a
custom reserved for Shabbat in Northern Yemen.
Under their dresses, women wore trousers
and leggings. The leggings were made of stretchy
fabric that slipped over the ankles that
one could see at the bottom of the dress.
Jewish women usually had dark color with
stitching in bright colors on the bottom
that could be seen from far away.
In public Jewish women
had to conform more to Muslim mores. They
had to wear black in public and hide their
face whenever they were in the presence of
a man. Muslim women had their face covered
all the time. To respect Muslim standards
of modesty and dress differently, Jewish
women would wear a scarf over the lower half
of their face in public. Whenever they saw
a man come, they would cover their face,
crouch down and let the man pass.
For special occasions women
were allowed to change their basic dress.
In particular, after childbirth women were
honored with special clothing. They wore
a bright colored dress and a long headgear
decorated with gold thread and gold ornamentation.
This hood is similar to what a bride wore.
The new mother also wore very fancy jewelry.
She wore a very big necklace and many rings
on her fingers.
Jewish brides stood out
among all other women. All Muslim restrictions
on Jewish dress were lifted which resulted
brides dressing very similarly to Muslim
brides. Brides wore a white undergarment
with a red dress over it, that symbolized
fertility. The bride wore a lot of gold jewelry
and a very heavy headdress. This head dress
formed a triangle on her head that was decorated
with flowers and ornaments. Her hands were
decorated with henna and she held rue branches
in her hand to ward off the evil eye.
The clothing Jewish men
wore was much simpler then what the Jewish
women wore. They did not have as many variations
in what they wore for special days and they
had much less ornamentation.
The basic outfit for Jewish
men was a knee length shirt with a longer
dress over it. On the side there was a pocket
that was embroidered with gold thread. The
embroidery was left incomplete as a reminder
of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
A long coat with one button was worn for
going outside and for special occasions.
On their heads men wore a plain felt cap,
for halachic reasons and for stylistic reasons.
Most Jewish men in Yemen
wore tzitzit in
some form. In most parts of Yemen, men wore
a talit katan over the their clothing. In
some parts of Yemen, men wore a talit only
when they prayed. The garments that men wore
their tzitzit with were similar to the ones
one in Europe. The look of the talit was
one of the few cultural things that was able
to penetrate Yemen from another Jewish community
The Yemenite Jews had more variety and color
in their talitot.
The Yemenite Jewish men
wore payot that distinguished them from Muslim
men. In 1667, the wearing of payot was made
mandatary by the rulers at that time. The
Yemenite Jews considered this part of their
identity, and still wear their payot proudly
to this day.
The most decorative outfit
a man ever wore was on his wedding day. The
groom wore a white gown, with a coat over
with metal bottons. On his head he wore a
silk handkerchief. Around his neck he wore
a triangle amulet to ward off the evil eye.
Like the bride, he also carried a rue branch
in his hands to keep the evil eye away.
Sources: Ester Muchawsky-Schnapper, The Jews of Yemen. Highlights of the
Israel Museum Collection, Jerusalem 1994; Ester Muchawsky-Schnapper: The Yemenites. Two Thousand Years of
Jewish Culture, The Israel Museum,Jerusalem, Jerusalem 2000; Gabe Kahn, "Yemeni Jew Murdered in Sanaa," Israel
National News, May 22, 2012; "17 Yemeni Jews Secretly Airlifted to Israel," JTA (August 14, 2013); J. L. Kraemer. “War, Conquest and the Treatment of Religious
Minorities in Medieval Islam,” in Violence and Defense in the
Jewish Experience. ed. S. W. Baron and G. S. Wise. Philadelphia. 1977; N. A, Stillman. "The Jews of Arab Lands", Philadelphia. 1957; The Israel Museum; S. D. Goitein. “Jews and Arabs: Their Contacts through the Ages,”
New York. 1955; Picture of Sana'a courtesy of Ferdinand Reus