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YEMEN, country in S.W. corner of the Arabian Peninsula; capital, Sanʿa.

The Land and the People

The southern part of the Arabian Peninsula is called al-Yaman (the south), after which the country is named in the West. In pre-Islamic times there were five separate political entities in this area, the history of which is known only in epigraphic sources from the tenth century B.C.E.: Ma'īn (with the capital Qarnāw), Ḥimyar (ʿAfar), Sabā (Mārib), Katabān (Tamnā), and Ḥaḍramawt (Shabwah). The country was politically united under the Ḥimyari kingdom from the fourth century C.E. The Ḥimyari king Abūkarib adopted the Jewish religion in 384, which was retained until 525/530, when *Dhū Nuwās, the last Ḥimyari king was defeated and killed by the invading Christian army from Abyssinia. In 570 the country was conquered by the Sassanid Persians and in 629 was taken over without a fight by the Muslim army. Since then Yemen has been a Muslim country, although its ruling dynasties have changed many times and almost never has Yemen constituted one political entity. After being a remote province of the *Umayyads and the *Abbassids it was actually ruled by different local families, until it fell under the rule of a Zaydī imām, Yaḥyā al-Hādī ilā al-Ḥaqq. His successors became the main political and religious power except for relatively long intervals: 1173–1229 (Egyptian Abbassids), 1229–1454 (Rasūlīs), 1454–1526 (Banū Ẓāhir), 1536–1636 (*Ottoman Turks), 1872–1918 (Ottoman Turks). But even during these intervals the Zaydīs kept their power in the northern part of the country. Since *San'a was the political and religious center, except during the Rasūlī period with the capital Ta'izz, the far southeastern region of Yemen, Ḥaḍramawt was never under the control of the central government but only under that of various local sultans. Part of the country with its important seaport of *Aden was actually under British control between the years 1839 and 1967. In 1962 the Zaydī imamate came to its end in consequence of the republican revolution and since then Yemen has been a Muslim republic. In 1990 Yemen and the State of South Yemen, established after the British had evacuated Aden, were united into one state for the first time in history to include all south Arabia, up the border of Oman in the east. Religiously the country is evenly divided between Zaydīs in the north and the central plateau and Shāfi'īs in the southern lowlands and Ḥaḍramawt.

As an orthodox Muslim state Yemen was always hostile to the Jewish settlement in the Holy Land since the first mass aliyyot from Yemen in 1882 and actually tried to prevent them. Later, after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Yemen was one of the seven Arab states who sent their armies against the newborn Jewish state. Yemen never recognized Israel de jure or de facto and in the early 21st century was one of the radical Arab and Muslim states in terms of its political relation to Israel.


There are no documents or other reliable sources about the beginning of Jewish existence in Yemen. The traditions of the Jews of Yemen themselves relate that a large group of Jews left Jerusalem some years before the destruction of the First Temple following the prophecies of Jeremiah. They first came to some localities in Yemen, called Resh Galut, such as San'a, Tan'im, and Dhamār. According to their tradition, the Jews of Yemen rejected the call of Ezra to return to the Holy Land since they anticipated that the Second Temple would be destroyed as well. This tradition may be supported by their pronunciation of Hebrew, which fits that of Judea, like that of the medieval Jews of Babylonia, and differs from the Galilean (Tiberian) pronunciation maintained by all other Jewish communities; and the counting of the years from the ninth of Av since the destruction of the First Temple, a unique custom not existing in any other Jewish community. However, the first certain evidence of Jewish life in Yemen is the tombs of Ḥimyarī Jews in Beth She'arim, dated to the beginning of the third century C.E., which means that at least in the second half of the second century C.E. there already were Jewish settlements in Yemen.

Jewish communities in Yemen before the mass emigration to Israel, 194950. Jewish communities in Yemen before the mass emigration to Israel, 1949–50.

One may conclude, then, that Jews left Judea southward after the destruction of the Second Temple (70 C.E.) and eventually arrived in Yemen to build their new life.

Judaism in pre-Islamic Yemen gained more and more power and influence. The crucial step was in early 380, when the Ḥimyarī king Abūkarib adopted Judaism as the formal religion of the kingdom. Polytheism was completely rejected and for 150 years all inscriptions, the almost ultimate source for pre-Islamic history, were monotheist or Jewish. During that time, a bitter struggle developed between Judaism and Christianity in Yemen, culminating with Yūsuf Dhū Nuwās (522–525/530). But when the foreign army of Aksūm, the Christian power in Ethiopia, intervened and invaded the country, as a response to the punitive expedition of Yūsuf against the rebellious Christians in Najrān, the Jewish regime of Ḥimyar came to its end and the Jews lost their strong standing in the country. From early Muslim sources, however, we learn that Judaism spread out among many Arab tribes, especially in Ḥaḍramawt. The next big step in the degradation of Judaism and Jews in Yemen took place in 629, when the country was taken by the victorious Muslim army of *Muhammad. Suddenly the Jews became *dhimmīs, namely second-degree subjects protected by the government in return for paying a special tax (only for adult males) – the jizyah. It seems that only a few of the Jews of Yemen converted to Islam, although there is not the slightest information in terms of numbers. However, early Muslim sources are quite informative about Yemeni Jews – or about those Jewish scholars who converted to Islam and enriched it with endless Jewish traditions and stories, frequently lost in genuine Jewish sources. To name just a few we may mention *Ka'b al-Aḥbār, 'Abd Allah ibn Sallām, 'Abd Allah ibn Sabā', and Wahb ibn Munabbih.

We know almost nothing about the Jews in Yemen during the Umayyad and first Abbassid periods up to the end of the 9th century, when the Zaydi imamate was established in northern Yemen in 897 by Yaḥyā al-Hādī ilā al-Ḥaqq. From a rare document preserved in his sīrah (biography) we know that basically he did not adopt discriminatory and humiliating regulations against the Jews but forbade Jews to build synagogues and hold Muslim slaves. It is notable that he did not prevent Jews from owning lands and even confirmed their right to buy new lands from Muslims.

Again, for more than 250 years, Jewish and Arab sources are almost completely silent regarding Yemeni Jews, but from the scarce information we have it is clear that the Jews of Yemen maintained close relations with the geonim in the Babylonian Jewish centers. However, as a result of the growing importance of Yemen and especially of its southern seaport of Aden in international commerce from the Mediterranean basin to *India, the Jewish community of Yemen rises from oblivion, particularly in the documents of the Cairo *Genizah. During the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries, Yemen and its Jewish community were like a suburb of *Egypt and its large Jewish Egyptian community. Yemenite Jewry of that time was an integral part of the Jewish world in the vast Muslim area from the shores of the Atlantic to India. In the 12th and 13th centuries, in the course of which Yemen constituted an important part of the Ayyubid dynasty in Egypt, it had special communal and religious relations with *Maimonides and his son Abraham, both of them heads of the Jewish community in Egypt and close to the government. These special relations were first shaped when Maimonides acted on their behalf in the Ayyubid court in Cairo and sent them his famous Epistle to Yemen (1172) to lead them away from their belief in the false messiah who appeared at that time in Yemen and to comfort them. Generally the Ayyubid period (1172–1254) was quite happy for the Jews, except for a short time when Mu'izz al-Dīn Ismāʿīl (1196–1201) forced them to convert to Islam, a tragic episode ending with his sudden death.

The transition of the government in Yemen from the Ayyubid to the Rasūlī dynasty (1254–1454) did not radically change the political and economic conditions of the Jews. Despite the sparse details in Muslim sources about some Jews who had converted to Islam, there is a good likelihood that in general the Jews lived calmly and securely. They could maintain their close relations with Egyptian Jewry under the rule of the *Mamluks and excel in their literary production, which was the richest and the most diverse in their history. Matters changed with the rise of Banū Ẓāhir in 1454, particularly as a result of another Jewish false messiah who attracted many Jews as well as Muslim followers. Not only was the rebellious messiah killed, but Jews were no longer allowed to dwell in the vast area of Ḥaḍramawt, claimed by the fanatic Muslims to be the land of the pre-Islamic prophet Hūd. This ban was only the first in an unceasing trend to limit the boundaries of Jewish settlement in Yemen. No wonder, then, that the Jews of Yemen looked with hope to Portuguese activities on the seacoast of southern Yemen during the first decade of the 15th century, and some of them even helped them as spies.

Shortly after that, the Zaydī imams, who for several centuries had been pushed to their strongholds in the north, gained power and took control of larger territories in the central plateau where large Jewish communities lived. It should be noted that the Zaydī attitude towards Jews had been greatly altered during the 15th century under the impact of the writings of Ḥanbalī scholars, becoming less tolerant, as attested in legal books of Zaydī scholars. But then came the Ottoman Turks who pushed the Zaydīs back to the north after gaining control of the central plateau, including Sanʾa. In spite of the formal improvement of living conditions of the Jews under the Turks, as the new strict regulations against them were abrogated, they suffered severely from the unceasing war between the Ottoman armies and the Zaydī rebels. This situation came to a head in late 1620, when Faḍlī Pāsha, the Turkish governor in the southern lowlands, arrested the leaders of the Jews, trying to win the sympathies of local Muslims. Nevertheless, the Jews were accused by the Muslim Yemenis of being collaborators of the Turks. When eventually the Yemenis, led by the Qāsimīs, the new dynasty of imāms, succeeded in driving the Turks out of the country in 1636, the Jews were submitted to new anti-Jewish Zaydī regulations.

It was just a question of timing for the fanatically religious Imām al-Mutawakkil Ismāʾīl (1644–1676) as to when to act to bring about the total annihilation of Jewish existence in Yemen, a question regularly discussed in Zaydī legal writings since the middle of the 16th century. This occured in 1667, in the wake of the messianic expectations of Shabbateanism throughout Yemen, as well as all over the Jewish world, when a group of Sanʾanī Jews, led by Slaymān Jamāl, one of their scholars, asked the governor of Sanʾa to hand the government over to him. The reaction of Imām Ismāʾīl was quick and harsh. He legally abrogated the status of the Jews as a protected minority and applied to scholars of both the Zaydī and Shāfiʾī schools regarding the question of whether Yemen is like the Ḥijāz where non-Muslims are not allowed to dwell. After years of hesitation he adopted the ruling of these scholars, who believed that Yemen was a part of the Ḥijāz, and on his deathbed he instructed his heir, Imām al-Mahdī Aḥmad (1676–1681), to carry out this ruling. The immediate meaning was unequivocal: the Jews could no longer live as Jews in Yemen; they had to choose between Islam and death. The new imām chose a third alternative, to expel the Jews from Yemen. But eventually, for logistic reasons, they were expelled to *Mawzaʾ, a small town in the west of the country, not far from the seaport of Mochā, where living conditions were almost unbearable.

After about a year and a half, the Jews were allowed to return to their towns and villages, although not to same quarters and houses, all of which had been confiscated by the government. They had to build new houses in new neighborhoods, outside the wall in walled cities. For more than two generations the social, economic, and spiritual situation of the Jews was quite bad. It was only in late 1720, under the community leadership of Shalom Iraqi, who served three imāms as collector of taxes and was responsible for the mint house, that the Jews rehabilitated their life, particularly economically as the Jews took part in the new commerce with British India. But that was only for a short time, owing to the jealousy of the Muslims over the growing wealth of the Jews. In 1762 Iraqi was thrown into prison, when he was more than 80 years old, his wealth and property were confiscated, and all synagogues in San'a were closed for 30 years. It was then that the spiritual leadership, headed by R. Yiḥye (d. 1805), held the reins of the Jewish community and rescued it from moral and communal decline. But this could not help the politically and economically deteriorating status of the Jews, a trend which continued and even worsened during the 19th century, up to 1872, when Yemen was conquered by the Turks.

For many years after the British had taken over Aden (1839) and the Turks had invaded Yemen (1849), the Jews of Yemen looked forward to the total occupation of the country by a Western power and tried hard to involve other Jewish communities, especially in England, on their behalf. This could be attained only after the Turks had entered Sanʾa in 1872. In principle, the new rulers canceled the traditional Muslim anti-Jewish regulations, in accordance with Ottoman policy in the entire Empire. Indeed, the situation of the Jews improved during the Turkish occupation and their ties with coreligionists in Europe were strengthened, especially with Jewish settlements in the Holy Land to which the Jews of Yemen started to immigrate in mass beginning in 1882.

These two trends opened a completely new period in the history of the Jews of Yemen during which immigration to the Holy Land was a main political and social factor with a decisive impact upon all aspects of life. Another major factor was the centralist and ultra-orthodox regime of Imām Yaḥyā (1904–48), who led the rebellion against the Turks after his father's death in 1904. He wrested significant authority from the Turks in 1911 regarding internal and religious issues (Jews included), and eventually obtained the entire governing authority in 1918 after the Turks had evacuated the country. Yaḥyā strictly implemented the traditional Zaydī policy regarding the Jews, including two harsh edicts: (a) the orphans' edict, according to which every Jewish orphan was to be taken by the government from his family and raised as a Muslim; (b) the latrine decree, according to which the Jews had to clean the streets and the public baths and lavatories (in order to humiliate them). As an expression of identification and sympathy with Arabs in their conflict with the Jews in the Holy Land, he published a regulation prohibiting Jews from leaving Yemen for that country. But on the other hand he followed a very firm policy of protecting the Jews and severely punished any Muslim, either a regular citizen or a government officer, who harmed them.

However, what had a greater effect on the worsening conditions of life of the Jews during Yaḥyā's reign was his general despotic conduct toward his subjects, Muslims as well as Jews. To gain maximum control over his subjects and to prevent any possibility of revolt against him, Yaḥyā imposed extremely high taxes on the Muslims, particularly the peasants, and set up many factories and companies to deprive Jews of their main source of income, the crafts, which were the primary occupation they were allowed to practice. The Jewish community grew poorer and poorer and instead of the financial help sent by the Jews of Yemen to the new Yemenite communities in the Holy Land during the Ottoman occupation, the Yemenite Jews in the Holy Land collected money and sent it to their brethren in Yemen. Understandably, many Jews tried hard to escape from Yemen and immigrate to the Holy Land, despite the prohibition of the imām. Thus, almost more than a third of the Yemenite Jews had settled in the Holy Land prior to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

Thus, the Jewish community in Yemen experienced much turmoil during the years 1900–1951. In the beginning of the 20th century Yemen was severely afflicted by famine caused by three years of drought (1903–1905), and many Jews died or left in order to find food. The circumstances were particularly terrible in Sanʾa, which was besieged by the rebellious army of Yaḥyā, where more than half (according to one estimate almost 90%) lost their lives. This event, remembered by the Jews of Yemen as ḥawzat al-nafar (the siege during which a handful of wheat was sold for one real), triggered the internal immigration of Jews, a phenomenon strengthened in the time of Imām Yaḥyā because of the worsening economic conditions and the immigration to the Holy Land or to British Aden, where the Jews lived in improved conditions. In consequence of this turmoil the traditional social structure of Jewish communities in Yemen was weakened and the negative results could be felt in different aspects of life.

Another factor which shook the communal structure in San'a and in its vicinity was the scandalous controversy over the *Kabbalah. Influenced by the enlightenment movement of Jewish Europe (Haskalah), either by scholars visiting Yemen, such as Joseph Halévy (1869/70) or Eduard *Glaser (1882–1894), or by publications that reached Yemen, some relatively young Sanʾani Jews, headed by R. Yiḥye, established a kind of reform group, completely negating the Kabbalah or any mystical element in Judaism. This controversy resulted in rich literary productions (see below), but on the social level it was highly destructive, as the community of Sanʾa was splintered in 1910 into two hostile factions, avoiding intermarriage or eating the meat slaughtered by the other side. This controversy was the main social issue in the Sanʾani community up to its total immigration in 1949–1951. It was transferred to the Holy Land, where it still exists in the 21st century.

Social Position

The basic factor which determined the social status of the Yemenite Jews was the religious-political arrangement imposed on them by the Muslim regime since 629, the *dhimma, namely, the protection they got from the government in return for the *jizyah, the tax each male adult had to pay. This arrangement was more effective in the center than in the remote regions of the country, where Jews lived among the tribes and their relations were based on the tribal pre-Islamic social institute of jār. The protection bestowed by the sheikh and his men upon the Jew, as upon any other weak person within the tribal community, was based on the issue of honor and had nothing to do with Islam. The general trend in the social status of Jews among Muslims in Yemen was one of deterioration, since even the Zaydī regime eventually adopted all anti-Jewish restrictive and humiliating regulations established by the most extremist Sunnī religious scholars or rulers. Although on the declarative level Jews were not compelled to convert, the entire history of the Jews in Islamic Yemen was an unceasing struggle with the attempts of the government and Muslim society to turn them into Muslims. Indeed, conversion to Islam was a distinct phenomenon among the Jews of Yemen, even though it never stemmed from a real and deep conviction of the truth of Islam.

Basically, the Jew was considered by Yemeni Muslims as an inferior human being, devoid of any rights. Jews were not allowed to build more than two-story houses, carry arms, wear light-colored garments, ride mounts except donkeys (and even then only sidesaddle like a woman), or live among Muslims; also they were ordered to wear sidelocks so as to be recognized as Jews, speak humbly to Muslims, and walk only to the left of a Muslim. The Jew had to be very careful when speaking about Islam or Muslim institutions, as any sign of criticism or disparagement against them might end in capital punishment. In principle Muslim and Jewish communities did not interact; but in contrast to cities and towns, where Jews were completely secluded in neighborhoods, there was a more lenient approach in villages, where the style of life produced more diverse possibilities for social or other kind of encounters between Jews and Muslims. No wonder then that the cultural distance in all aspects, spiritual as well as material, between village Jews and Muslims was much less clear-cut and decisive than that between townfolk Jews and Muslims.

Economic Situation

By and large, Yemeni Jews were very poor. Only rarely do we hear about rich Jews in Yemen, when they could freely deal in international or nationwide trade, as in the 11th, 12th, and 18th centuries or during the second Ottoman occupation (1872–1918). The outcome of the ceaseless social and religious pressure on the Jews was their being the poorest component of the Yemeni population. It is true that almost all the citizens of Yemen were poor because of endless military struggles and the despotism of the rulers, as in the time of Imām Yaḥyā (1918–1948), but the Jews suffered also due to their social inferiority and their exclusion from the main source of livelihood – agriculture. Most Jews were artisans and could make quite a good living in days of peace and calm. However, this situation was rare and in the customary situation of political turmoil and disorder or during frequent years of natural afflictions like drought and locusts, there was no demand for the crafts of the Jews. The best proof of the poverty of the Jews of Yemen is the list of the jizyah payers, where most of them are recorded as adnā (lowest), and only a small number as a'lā (highest). There were only a few families who could boast of their wealth, made via international commerce through Aden or Ḥudaydah, such as the Ḥibshūsh family or Israel Ḥubayri, who made his fortune as the exclusive importer of arms from Germany and Belgium for Imām Yaḥyā's army. Famine was then the main reason for conversion to Islam, particularly because Jews were not helped by the government with food as were Muslims.

Messianic Expectations

The messianic activity of the Jews of Yemen was one of their most characteristic features even in pre-Islamic times, from the fall of Yūsuf Dhū Nuwās in 525/530 in the war against Ethiopian Christians to the rise of *Muhammad. The appearance of Muhammad stimulated messianic expectations among the Jews. Some scholars ascribed to 'Abdallah ibn Sabā, the Jewish convert to Islam at the start of the new religion, and similarly to other proselytes, an important role in conveying messianic notions to Islam, particularly the Shīʿī branch. On the other hand, the Zaydi sect, which was the foremost religious-political force in Yemen from the end of the 9th century, and which belonged to the Shīʿa, elevated the Imām to a meta-human level and did not adopt the idea of the Hidden Imām, existing in abstentia (ghaybah), whose advent was awaited by all (al-mahdī al-muntaẓar). Yet Muslim Yemen was not free of messianic tension throughout the generations, especially among the Sunni (Shāfiʿi) section of the population, most of it in the south; and often Jewish and Muslim messianic activities nurtured each other. For example, some Muslims followed Jewish messiahs. Moreover, the strong Jewish belief that on a certain day, Messiah, the Son of David, would be revealed, would redeem the Jews of Yemen, and bring them to their land seeped into Muslims in Yemen, and indeed made them fearful lest they be punished for their unfavorable treatment of Jews. By contrast, the authorities, whether Zaydī or Sunnī, were highly suspicious of the Jews' messianic faith, regarding any activity stemming from it as rebellion against the government requiring a swift response. Such reactions to the display of messianism in Yemen since the 12th century contributed to the continuous decline in the political and social status of the Jews of Yemen and the shrinking of the areas of their settlement.

Immigration and Settlement in Ereẓ Israel

Throughout their history, the Jews of Yemen had ties with the Jewish settlement in Ereẓ Israel. From the Genizah documents and *Alḥarizi's Taḥkemoni we learn about the Yemenite community in Ereẓ Israel. Many years later, R. Obadiah of *Bertinoro reports on Jews of "the Land of Aden," namely Yemen, who immigrated to Ereẓ Israel, probably in the middle of the 15th century. Since then we have little evidence about individuals or solitary families from Yemen making aliyah. It was only in 1881 that the flow of Jews left Yemen for Ereẓ Israel, in consequence of three factors: (a) encouraging information about the living conditions there and the rumors about land distributed there to any Jew who came on aliyah; (b) improvement in sailing conditions from Yemen to Ereẓ Israel, then both provinces of the *Ottoman Empire; (c) the disappointment with the Turkish government in Yemen.

The first immigrants came to Jerusalem in August 1881 to establish a separate community there; in contrast to previous immigrants from Yemen they blended with the Sephardi community. Many others from Yemen joined this community, most of them from San'a and settled first in the Old City of Jerusalem and from 1885 in new neighborhoods built specially for them outside the walls, like Kefar ha-Shiloaḥ, Mishkenot, and Naḥalat Ẓevi. In 1908, Yemenite Jews in Jerusalem numbered more than 2,500, constituting an independent community after attaining a firman from the Ottoman government. Some of the immigrants settled in *Jaffa and there established a smaller community (350 in 1903). In 1908 village Jews of north Yemen started to immigrate and settle in young Hebrew moshavot like Reḥovot. Like them, thousands of immigrants who came from the south of Yemen (Shar'ab), following the mission of Shemu'el Yavne'eli, settled in most of the moshavot in Judea and the Galilee, numbering about half the total population and making their living from agriculture, either as hired laborers or independent farmers. At the end of World War I there were 4,500 Yemenite Jews in the country. The flow of emigrants from all over Yemen was renewed after World War I, this time more to the urban center of Jaffa-Tel Aviv and the new Hebrew towns, as small businessmen, laborers, and retailers. Between the two world wars more then 15,000 left Yemen illegally for Ereẓ Israel through Aden, where they obtained immigration certificates from the British Mandatory government. By the outbreak of World War II there were about 28,000 Yemenite Jews in Ereẓ Israel.

In early 1920 the Zionist movement in Ereẓ Israel started to act in Aden and later in Yemen, in order to encourage and help Jews to emigrate. But owing to the hostile attitude of Imām Yaḥyā to Zionism nothing could be done. It was only in the mid-1940s, that the imām eased his policy, responding to the grave economic situation of his Jewish subjects. Emissaries of the Zionist institutions in Ereẓ Israel acted in Yemen on the eve of the establishment of the State of Israel. Thousands wandered on the routes from all over Yemen to Aden, the only seaport in south Arabia from which Jews could emigrate. With the help of the British authorities in Aden, there was built, next to the city of Aden, Camp Ge'ullah in which the refugees from Yemen were received and well treated by Zionist emissaries and even got a modern Zionist education to facilitate their absorption in the Promised Land. This activity was the basis of the overall emigration of Yemenite Jewry following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the murder of Imām Yaḥyā, who was considered the ultimate protector of the Jews, in the same year. Aḥmad, the new imām, decided to let the Jews leave his country to Israel, on two conditions: they had to sell all their property to Muslims and to teach the Muslims their crafts. Both conditions were not properly fulfilled, but in any event more than 50,000 Jews left the country in 1949–51, through Aden, except for some several thousands who preferred to stay, clinging to their property or hoping to collect on loans owed by Muslims. A thin trickle of emigration continued until 1954 and even later in 1962, on the eve of the republican revolution. Since then, up to the early 1990s, an iron curtain had fallen on the Jews of Yemen. Some left, however, nominally to the U.S., but most to Israel. No more than 200 Jews still live in Yemen.

Since their first emigration to Jerusalem in 1881, Yemenite Jews dreamed of settling in their old-new homeland as farmers. That was the hope when they settled in Kefar ha-Shiloaḥ and that was what stimulated their leader R. Avraham Naddāf (1891–1920) to purchase land for agricultural settlement and to establish the Shivat Zion society designed for the same goal. Actually Yemenite Jews lived as farmers in Naḥalat Israel Rama not far from Jerusalem for about a year (1895/6). In addition to their agricultural settlements next to the Hebrew moshavot, they established prior to the founding of the State of Israel two independent moshavim – Elyashiv (1933) and Ge'ulim (1945). But the archives of the Hitaḥadut ha-Teimanim, the main Yemenite organization in Ereẓ Israel, inform us that the Zionist organizations did not respond positively to their initiatives to establish agricultural settlements. However, after the mass immigration of Yemenite Jews in 1949–51, the policy was to take them out of the transit camps (ma'barot) and settle them in abandoned Arab villages and later in new localities as farmers, in more than 50 places. Soon it became clear, however, that not all Yemenite Jews were fit or wanted to be farmers, and many of them left for the urban settlements, leaving only about 35 Yemenite moshavim. Since then, Yemenite immigrants and their descendants practice all kinds of professions marking their increased social and political acculturation in the State of Israel.

Literary and Scholarly Activities

It is impossible to present a complete picture of Jewish literature in Yemen, as a considerable part is still hidden in unpublished manuscripts. Available sources do not attest that there existed a Jewish literature in Yemen prior to the 10th century. However, it is probable that the writings of the Sages in Ereẓ Israel and Babylonia, namely the Talmud (Babylonian, not Palestinian) and the Midrashim arrived in Yemen and were preserved there in carefully copied manuscripts. Jewish Yemenite literature constitutes an integral part of Jewish literature in the Muslim-Arabic realm from *Spain to *Persia. In its first steps Jewish literature in Yemen echoes Jewish literature produced in the major Jewish spiritual centers: *Italy, *Iraq, Ereẓ Israel, Spain, North Africa, and Egypt. Thus its first work is probably a Judeo-Arabic translation made by Zechariah ben Sa'īd al-Yamanī of Josippon's History of the Jews during the Second Temple, a Hebrew work composed in Italy in 933, or the anonymous Maḥberet ha-Tijān, a compendium of the reading rules of the Bible as known from the Eastern tradition and *Saadiah. The third work is a Judeo-Arabic commentary of *Alfasi's compendium to the Talmud tractate Ḥullin, by an anonymous author, seemingly of the 11th century. A fourth work of the same time is the enlarged adaptation of the Ereẓ Israeli scholar Rav Nathan ha-Yeshivah's Commentary on the Mishnah. The first original work is the ethical-philosophical Bustān al-ʿUqūl, written again in Judeo-Arabic by Nethanel berav Fayyūmī around 1150. It is not, then, an accident that all the aforementioned works are in Judeo-Arabic, as since the 10th–15th centuries Yemen Jewry was culturally well immersed in Arab-Muslim culture, just like other Jewish communities in Spain, North Africa, and the East. But there is a highly significant difference, because for all the other communities the proximity to Arab-Muslim culture had been curtailed around 1250.The period from 1150 to 1500 was the most productive for Jewish literature in Yemen in various fields: (a) Poetry – Hebrew poetry in Yemen started in the second half of the 12th century, first by Sa'īd ben Marḥab, who was still influenced by ancient Ereẓ-Israeli piyyut, then by his contemporary Daniel berav Fayyūmī, probably Nethanel's brother, who was already influenced by the Spanish school of Hebrew poetry. They both wrote liturgical poems. A later poet who lived before the beginning of the 13th century was Abraham ben Ḥalfon, from whom we have remnants of his dīwān of both liturgical and secular poems. The latest poet in that period was David ben Yesha' ha-Levi (around 1500). (b) Biblical Commentary – this is the richest field of literary activity in that period in Yemen, of which we mention here only four works. The earliest is Nur al-ʿĀlam by Nethanel ben Yesha (1329) on the Pentateuch, but two other more important commentaries on the Pentateuch are Midrash ha-Ḥefeẓ by Zechariah ha-Rofeh (first half of the 15th century) and al-Wajīz al-Mughnī, still in manuscript, by David ben Yesha ha-Levi. A commentary on the early Prophets was compiled by Abraham ben Solomon (14th century), only partly published. (c) Midrashic Compilations – the most comprehensive of which is Midrash ha-Gadol by David ha-Adani. (d) Halakhah – most of the works are commentaries on *Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, like that by Zechariah ha-Rofeh. (e) Philosophy – in this category, too, most of the works are commentaries on Maimonides' works, especially Guide of the Perplexed. But there were many other works, characterized by their allegoric tendency regarding the aggadah of the Sages and even biblical figures and stories. This tendency was influenced on one side by the Maimonidean school in Spain and on the other by Ismā'īlī writings which flourished in Yemen. The most interesting work of this Yemeni school is Kitāb al-Ḥaqā'iq, compiled by the rabbis of Ẓā'dah, who were harshly criticized by the rabbis of San'a. Another kind of philosophical compositions, unique to Yemen, is masā'il, short discussions providing answers to philosophical questions, like that of Ḥoker bi-Shelomo (first half of the 15th century). (f) Lexicography – most of the compilations in this category were Hebrew-Arabic lexicons, aimed at enabling the understanding of the Mishnah and Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, such as al-Jāmi' by David ben Yesha ha-Levi. (g) Science – mainly astronomy, needed for establishing the Hebrew calendar, and lists of medicines, like kitāb al-wajīz by Zechariah ha-Rofeh. The most prolific writers who acted in almost each of the above-mentioned fields and more are Sa'adiah ben David ha-Adani, David ben Yesha ha-Levi, and Moses al-Balīdah (1475–1525). Most of the works in the period under discussion, except poetry and Midrash ha-Gadol, were in Judeo-Arabic.

The 16th century was a transitional period between two major schools of Jewish literature in Yemen: the medieval one focused on Midrash, halakhah, and philosophy, mostly in Judeo-Arabic, with a rationalistic orientation, while the other focused on poetry and Kabbalah, mostly in Hebrew and with strong mystical nuances. The most important character in that transitional time was Yiḥye (Zechariah) al-Ẓāhirī, mainly known for his Sefer ha-Musar, of the maqāma genre, strongly influenced by Al-Ḥarīzī's Taḥkemoni and Immanuel's Maḥbarot, but also for his poems and Ẓedah la-Derekh, the commentary on the Pentateuch, both with rich kabbalistic motifs borrowed from the new school of *Safed which he visited himself. The new school of Jewish Yemeni literature started with the poet *Joseph ben Israel (d. in the 1620s), the founder of classic Jewish poetry in Yemen, characterized by the growing importance of its Arabic element and its openness to the Yemeni Muslim poetry in terms of structure (muwashshaḥ) and literary motifs. However, the most prominent figure in Jewish Yemenite poetry, who overshadowed his predecessors as well as his successors, is Shalom Shabazī (1619– after 1680), a younger relative of Joseph ben Israel, both of the Sharabi Mahsta family in southern Yemen. Shabazī was a prolific and gifted poet from whom we have about 850 poems. But it should be stressed that Arabic completely disappeared from the new school, except in poetry and a very few folklore-type works or those aimed for less-educated people.

The closer relations between Yemenite Jewry and Jewish spiritual centers and the reinforced encounter with their different traditions and customs resulted first in a comprehensive attempt to adjust Yemenite traditions with these foreign but prestigious traditions. The major scholar who dedicated almost all of his writings to that end was Isaac Wannah (first half of the 17th century), a prolific writer, mainly known for the prayerbook he compiled (Pa'amon Zahav) and the commentary he attached to it (ḥiddushin), being a dedicated propagandist of the Kabbalah. However, the tendency of neglecting the genuine ancient Yemenite traditions provoked strong resistance among Sanʾani scholars in the 18th century, who tried to find the golden mean. This was worked out primarily by Yiḥye Ṣaliḥ (d. 1805), the president of the Sanʾani Jewish court, who was the unchallenged spiritual and communal leader of Yemenite Jewry for more than 40 years. To support his work he searched ancient manuscripts and documented oral and written traditions on all aspects of religious and communal life. He was accepted in Yemen as the ultimate religious authority and his numerous works are so considered until today.

The 19th century presents in general a very pale image of Jewish Yemenite literature, since most of the production by that time was chiefly additions to and commentaries on Ṣāliḥ's works. No wonder, then, that under the alleged impact of Jewish European scholars, some young Sanʾani scholars, headed by Yiḥye Qāfiḥ (*Kafaḥ) set out to improve the spiritual level of Yemenite Jewry by a complete rejection of kabbalistic literature and customs, including the Zohar, and a return to the medieval school, based on the Talmud and the Judeo-Arabic philosophical literature of Saadiah Gaon and Maimonides. The trend of this new school, very active in the first half of the 20th century and severely criticized by the "orthodox" majority of the Jewish community, yielded a rich literary production, the culmination of which was that of Rabbi Joseph *Kafaḥ, the grandson of Yiḥye Qāfiḥ, already in Israel (he left Yemen in 1943, d. 2000), who was awarded the Israel Prize (1969). In the framework of this production one field should be specifically noted, that of chronological works, which had already been started in the 18th century by Sā'īd Ṣa'dī and Yiḥye Ṣāliḥ. The tendency of searching Yemenite tradition and history continued in Ereẓ Israel, first by Yemen-born scholars like Abraham Naddāf and later by younger scholars, natives of the new land. Close to this kind of cultural activity one may mention the Yemenite poets and prose writers, whose prominent figure is Mordechai *Tabib, who were spokesmen of their communal brethren and described the difficulties of their cultural and economic acculturation.

Culture and Art

Yemenite Jewry had developed a very particular and rich tradition in all aspects of material culture: music, dance, architecture, clothing, embroidery, gold and silver crafts, and so forth. Although we may find not a few common characteristics with the neighboring material culture of the immediate close circle of the Muslims in Yemen or of farther circles like that of India or East Africa, it is convincingly clear that material Jewish culture was different from the Muslim one. This is much more unequivocal regarding what is connected to religious life, such as the music of the synagogue or the shaping of ceremonial objects like Ḥanukkah candles or Torah cases. All that unfamiliar culture, brought to the Holy Land when Yemenite Jews first came en masse in 1881, attracted scholars and artists, like A.Z. Idelsohn and Boris Shatz in Jerusalem. The former established there around 1910 the Shirat Israel (Poetry of Israel) institute, designed to train young Yemenites in their musical traditions, while the latter established in 1906 an association named Bezalel with the goal of promoting Yemenite gold and silver craft, embroidery, and other handicrafts. To that end he set up workshops in Jerusalem and in the moshavah of Ben-Shemen, where Yemenite artists worked and trained for industrial production. In general, Yemenite material culture was sympathetically welcomed in Ereẓ Israel, and the latter's newly shaped culture derived some of its representative elements in music, dance, and artistic works from Yemenite tradition.

The Yemenite community had scores of artists of all kinds, some of them expressing Yemenite tradition, others more rooted in general Israeli culture. The most active field is music. Since the first woman singer, Brachah *Zefirah, a native of Jerusalem, who had a magnificent career in Ereẓ Israel as in Europe, there were, and still are, scores of Yemenite singers, mostly women, who stand in the forefront of light music in Israel. The most famous name is that of Shoshana *Damari (d. 2006), who left Yemen in 1930 when she was a year old and received the Israel Prize in 1988. A much more diversified artist was Sarah *Levi-Tannai, born in Jerusalem in 1911, poetess, composer, and choreographer, and the founder of *Inbal, the most important Yemenite artistic institution in Israel (1949); for many years, this dance theater was the best artistic representative of the young State of Israel in the U.S. and Europe, performing scores of musicals about the folklore of Yemenite Jews. While Yemenite singers in Israel could derive their tradition from the folklore of their families in Yemen, Yemenite painters could not, as painting or any kind of plastic art had not existed in Yemen, excluding a limited engagement with manuscript illumination. This explains why this field of art came relatively later than others to Yemenites in Israel. Two names out of fewer than 20 may be mentioned here: Avshalom Ukkashi and Itamar Siyani, who hold an honored place among Israeli painters. Of all fields of art, only one is still vital and flourishing in its original form after two thousand years: singing. This widely requested cultural product is performed not only by Yemen-born singers like Aharon Amram, but by scores of Israeli-born singers, of the second and even the third generation of people who came from Yemen. Admittedly, this cultural element, along with the traditional Yemenite performance of the prayer in the communal synagogue (and Yemenite dishes as well), symbolizes the intense wish of many of the Yemenites not to be over-acculturated in Israel and completely lose their unique cultural emblems.


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Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.