Jimmy Breslin: My Word Is My Bond

Binyamin L. Jolkovsky: Passing (it) On

Rabbi Yaakov Bleich: Questions Most Can't Answer

Julia Gorin: Confessions of a Refusenik Gone Secular

Ellen Small: Fireflies Light Up The Sky At Night

Dr. Jacob Mermelstein: Depressed Kids, Good Lives

Josh Pollack: A Divided Cyprus Mounts the World Stage

Nehama C. Nahmoud: The Jews of Yemen

Susan Rubin Weintrob: The Greening of American Jewry

Reader Response

Past and Present
December 10, 1997 / 11 Heshvan, 5758

This tight-knit community was recently thrust onto the front pages of newspapers the world over after it was revealed that, in all likelihood, the Israeli government participated in the kidnapping of its young. But few, it seems, were familiar with the extraordinary history of

The Jews of Yemen

Part I of a Series by Nehama C. Nahmoud

THE YEMENITE GOLUS (exile) is possibly the most exotic story in the annals of Jewish history. The first question that comes to mind is: How -- and why -- did Jews get to such a backwater as Yemen?

From antiquity (i.e., the times of Jerusalem's First Holy Temple) well into the Middle Ages, the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries were the center of civilization in the world, while Northern and Eastern Europe were large, untouched, heavily forested expanses inhabited by wild animals and equally wild and barbaric primitive tribes.

Yemen, far from being an out-of-the-way spot, was a central point on an important trade route between India, Africa, and the other Middle Eastern Mediterranean countries. As in New York and Marseilles today, merchant ships sailed in and out of Yemen's ports constantly. Camel caravans came and went by land routes through the Arabian desert.

America was discovered because Columbus was looking for a direct sea route from Spain to India. But why was India so essential to this period?

India was actually the backbone of the medieval international economy, since many of its products were necessities in the daily lives of the people of the epoch. In an age when there were no refrigerators, they used pepper and spices to preserve meat (and to reduce its stench) and other foods. Medicines came from plants (as many still do today) and India and the Middle East were then the prime sources of these herbs. "Well dressed" meant "colorful" in those days and, not having our synthetic dyes, they turned to natural sources, which came mostly from India and Muslim countries.

Oriental and Sephardic Jews were very active in this commerce, which reached its peak in the 12th century as far as their participation was concerned. They were merchants and they served as intermediaries between the East and Europe, Iran and Egypt, Iraq, Palestine, Syria, and the countries of the Western Mediterranean: Spain, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, and the islands of Majorca (now Spanish) and Sicily (now Italian).


There are several ancient legends and modern theories about the arrival of Jews in Yemen.

Most with a cursory knowledge of the Torah, are aware of the visit of the Queen of Shvah (Sheba) to King Shlomo (Solomon). But there is a question that has never been answered: Where exactly did she come from? The Ethiopian royal family, living just across a hannel from Yemen, always claimed descent from the Queen of Shvah. The king's official title is the "Lion of Judah" for this reason.

However, the Yemenites have a legend that posits that when the Queen of Shvah returned from her visit to Shlomo, she brought back educated Jews from the Holy Land with the goal of educating her child, thus establishing the first Jewish presence in the Arabian peninsula, which includes Yemen.

The modern view is that, as Jews were always merchants and traders, they established a commercial outpost in Yemen even before the destruction of the First Holy Temple, building the framework of a Jewish community there.

When the first rumblings of impending trouble with Babalonia were felt, it's believed that more Jews made their way to Yemen and then, at the time of the invasion itself, a very large wave of immigration took place. It is told that at the time of the destruction of the First Holy Temple some 8,000 Kohanim (members of the priestly caste) escaped and joined a settlement in the Arabian peninsula. Indeed, the prophet Jeremiah (38:2) repeatedly advised Jewry to escape to the region for safety.

Among the exiles were all classes of Jewry: Kohanim, Levi'im, and ordinary Yisraelim, as well as converts and slaves. Even today, Jewish residents of Yemen's capital city of San'a say that residents of some of the hamlets in Yemen's different districts are descended from converts and slaves of that era.

The Levites, too, settled in particular towns, modeling their new communities after a similar caste structure that existed in ancient Israel. In fact, there were areas in Yemen inhabited only by people with the surname "Levi" (or HaLevi).

During the subsequent Persian rule -- the era of Queen Esther, protaganist of the Purim story -- many Jews immigrated to to Yemen from Persian-dominated Babylonia, as well. Still another joined the Yemenite community follwing the Bar Kochba rebellion, after the destruction of the Second Holy Temple.

Next issue: The Jewish Kings of Yemen


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

©1997, Jewish World Review