Past & Present / Living History
February 3, 1998 / 7 Shevat, 5758

The Jews of Yemen, Part III

The Islamic Period

by Nehama C. Nahmoud

THE ADVENT OF ISLAM PUT AN END to further conversions to Judaism from among the Yemenite Arabs, and Jewish immigration to Yemen diminished to a great extent as well. The expansion of Islam also brought about a decline in the political and cultural importance of the Arabian Peninsula generally, and in particular of Yemen.

Thus, for about 400 years after Mohammed's conquests, information from Yemen dwindled, and we hear hardly anything of value on the life of the Yemenite Jews.

The imams of Yemen, the Muslim religious leaders, were notorious for their fanaticism and intolerance towarrd all other religions. Officially called the "People of the Book," the Jews had permission to live in Muslim lands, but within a second-class-citizen framework of limitations. For instance:

  • every non-Moslem male over certain age was obligated to pay a head tax

  • Jews were prohibited to build houses higher than the houses of Muslims

  • touching a Muslim while walking in the street, or walking on a Muslim's right, was prohibited

  • Jews were compelled to stand in the presence of a Muslim

  • Jews were forced to live in ghettos

  • Jews had to wear special clothing, usually dark colors such as black and brown; white, red, and green were considered the colors of gentlemen

  • the sworn testimony of a Jew was not accepted in any Muslim court

  • Jews had to take off their sandals or slippers when passing a mosque; in some places, they had to remove them when leaving the ghetto walls.

    Any breach of the rules brought forth immediate disciplinary measures, the least of which was a blow on the head.

    All in all, however, the fate of the Jews actually depended on the whims of the individual Arab ruler, and not all Arab rulers were tyrants.

    Under a kindly ruler, it was possible to live in peace and even enjoy life to a certain extent, even under these conditions of second-class citizenship. But an unmerciful iman or sheikh could add to these restrictions any other unjust caprice, including outright murder.

    During the era of Rambam (Maimonides), in the 12th century, Yemenite Jewry was bowed under a heavy burden of unjust decrees and heavy taxes. Rambam used his influence as physician to the Arab ruler Salah ad-Din to intercede effectively on behalf of Yemenite Jewry. Their suffering is mentioned in his famed Letter to Yemen.

    Frequently, drought and hunger joined these man-made sufferings to make the Yemenites' living conditions nearly intolerable. Due to such conditions over a long period of time, a messianic nostalgia was very active among the people. Rambam's Letter to Yemen was written because of the appearance of a false Messiah in Yemen who had a large following among the Jews and the local Arabs; his failure caused widespread disappointment among the people and aroused the wrath of the imam.

    Work and Learning

    Engaging in the trades and crafts of the Muslims was forbidden. The Arabs felt that all the crafts which we now consider as artistic and creative were second-class occupations, fit only for second-class citizens. Yemenite Jews were, thus, the jewelers, workers in precious metals, weavers, saddle makers, sword makers, ceramists, potters, shoemakers, painters, and carpenters for the whole country.

    And not only were these crafts creative; they had two other great advantages. The first was independence. If someone ran a little weaving or ceramic studio with members of his family or some partners, he did not have to report to work at any fixed time, and there was no gentile supervision, which in turn made possible the second advantage. That was the possibility of learning Torah all day as one worked: The workshops and studios were actually yeshivas in disguise. The talmidei chachomim (Torah sages) wrote their treatises at night, after work.

    Torah teaching as a source of livelihood was very much frowned upon by Oriental Jews generally and was nearly never done in Yemen. A great many of the aforementioned craftsmen were actually, in their other lives, rabbinic judges, mystics and saints, and Halachic arbiters.

    One of the best descriptions of how this system worked comes from the travel book Even Sapir, by Ya'akov Sapir who was commissioned by Jerusalem's rabbinic authorities to travel to Egypt, Yemen, and India between 5617 and 5623 (1856-7 to 1862-3).

    This little town has a great rabbi. In Yemen the rabbi is called mori; the mori can be a judge, preacher, ritual slaughterer, cantor, and sexton, all in one.

    This mori, Yusif ben Sa'adya, is full of Torah, of fear of Heaven, of wisdom and the knowledge of life. He has a wonderful knowledge of the Tanach and its commentaries and also of the Talmud, the Rambam, and the later commentaries, as well as one of our greatest teachers in Poland. In addition, he is a thorough master of the Kabbalah, and he knows by heart every page of the writings of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the holy Ari, ZT"L. On the whole, his memory is remarkable. He himself has written on Kabbalah, and he is highly thought of by the (Arab) authorities.

    By profession he is a blacksmith and makes swords, plows, shovels, hammers, hoes, and in general all the tools used by farmers. His workshop is a vaulted room on the slope of a hill on which the town is built. His old father and his younger brother, who are equally educated, help him in his work. The father looks after the bellows and holds the iron while the brother uses the hammer. And even during this hard work they talk of the Torah and other edifying things. Here in this vaulted room he makes rulings on Halacha, judges, and gives advice to all who desire it.

    Toward evening he takes his working tools and carries them on his back up to his house, then he goes to the beith k'nesseth (communal synagogue) and studies as is the custom here after the evening prayer. Even during the night he does not rest, but rather for him the night becomes a vigil of the Torah and of wisdom.

    Shar'ab and the Shar'abi family

    The name Shar'abit means "an inhabitant of the town of Shar'ab." The Jews of Shar'ab were known for their learning an piety. In that town they were all weavers by trade. This kind of manual work was particularly favored by Yemenite Jews, as it was mechanical and repetitive, leaving minds free for Torah. As the weavers, many of them distinguished Torah scholars, worked their looms, they conversed on Torah topics.

    Shar'abi is a very old Yerushalmi (Jerusalemite) name, going back 400 years to the time when Mori Sar Shalom Shar'abi came to the Holy City to the Beith-El Yeshiva for Kabbalah scholars.

    How did Mori Sar Shalom get to Jerusalem? That is another favorite Yemenite story:

    Once Sar Shalom Shar'abit went to the city of the Muslims to sell his handwoven cloth. There the wife of a very important personage saw him from the window and found him attractive, for his face was beautiful with the light of Torah. She had him brought to the upper story of the house, ostensibly to buy cloth. But he soon realized that her intentions were sinful. He prayed, vowing that if he escaped unharmed spiritually and physically from this situation, he would go to live in the Holy City.

    Pretending to humor the woman, Mori Sar Shalom asked to go up to the roof, as the windows in the room were too narrow to jump through. As soon as they reached the roof, he threw himself down into the courtyard below -- landing unharmed from his five-story leap. From there he made his way on foot to Jerusalem via Iraq.

    On his arrival in Jerusalem, he sat modestly in a corner of the Beith-El synagogue, but was soon recognized as the great scholar that he was.

    The Turkish Regime

    Yemen's great gaon and poet, Mori Salim (Sholom Shabazi), describes the degradation of the Yemenite Jews under the Turkish regime, when the Jews were caught in the middle of the feuds between the Turkish governors and the native imams.

    In the second half of the 1600's, a period of famine and pestilence, the Arabs finally threw the Turks out of Yemen. To celebrate their victory they deported the Jews from the capital of San'a to Mauza, a fever-ridden wasteland on the shores of the Red Sea. Over two-thirds perished.

    Mori Salim worked as a weaver and, in spite of his material difficulties, he learned, wrote, and became the leader of the community. He bewailed the plight of the exiles in many poems and, it is said, through his influence with the ruler of the country, or as others say, because the imam and his household were afflicted with great suffering by a miracle of Mori Salim, the imam recalled the Jews. Mori Salim's songs from this period are still sung by the Yemenites in Israel today -- over 600 have been preserved.

    Mori Salim's tomb became a pilgrimage spot for all Yemenite Jewry, and many miraculous cures have been reported. His daughter is buried beside him and is equally renowned as a tzadekess (saint) who took her own life rather than agree to forced conscription into an Arab ruler's harem.

    Next issue, the conclusion: Into Judaism's mainstream.

    Nehama C. Nahmoud is the author of several works on Oriental, Middle Eastern and Sephardic Jews. She lives in Jerusalem.


    © 1998, Jewish World Review