The Jews of Yemen

Yosef Tobi, The Jews of Yemen: Studies in their History and Culture. Études sur le Judaïsme Médiéval, 21. Brill: Leiden, 1999, x, 302 pp. ISBN 90 04 11254 0.

Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 41 (1999)

In the past decade several books have appeared in English on the history of the Jews of Yemen. However, as Yosef Tobi (p. ix) indicates in his preface, "the lack of research studies on Yemeni Jewry is still greatly felt, especially in light of the fact that this research has developed immensely in recent years in Israel; but since almost all of it has been published in Hebrew it is inaccessible to most scholars around the world." This volume by Tobi, originally a series of lectures delivered at the University of Vienna but also including several of the author's articles in Hebrew, is a very good and needed text. The sixteen chapters are arranged according to three parts: (1) history, (2) society, and (3) culture and Judeo-Arabic Literature. There is something here for everyone and no one interested in the subject should fail to read this book. The $99 price tag is unfortunate, but if you can not afford your own copy, make sure your university library orders one. This will be a standard reference for years to come.

One of the aims of Tobi's study is to go beyond the history of Yemeni Jews to "the entire complex of their life" (p. ix) in Yemen. In these studies there is much original research on documents preserved in Israel and on relevant Arabic sources. A major strength of this work over some earlier surveys is that Tobi is not only aware of Arabic sources on the history of Yemen, but shows his ability to use and translate these. For example, in his analysis of the first Zaydi imam, al-Hâdî ila al-Haqq Yahyâ, both the Arabic text and the French translation of Van Arendonck/Ryckmans are used. Most of the chapters deal with either Judaism in the Zaydi imamate or under Ottoman Turkish influence, although chapter twelve deals with a dispute among Yemeni Jews over chronology from the year 1336 C.E. during the Rasulid era.

Since this book is a collection rather than planned out from the start chapter by chapter, some of the chapters take on the character of very general surveys and others probe into details on a particular subject. Chapters one and eleven, for example, are very brief accounts of the overall history and culture, respectively, without footnotes. Several of the chapters have extensive footnotes and a few also contain translations of documents as appendices.

One of the history chapters that I find particularly interesting is the study on the attitude of the first Zaydi imam, al-Hâdî ilâ al-Haqq, toward the Jews of Yemen. The pact made between this Muslim leader and the Jews of Najran (see excerpt) is provided in English translation. Tobi (26-27) shows that al-Hâdî, far from being antagonistic to Jews in Yemen, carried on the honorable tradition of Muhammad and the early caliphs, no doubt due to the economic position of the Jewish community and his own weak state. Tobi (p. 26) argues: "His (al-Hâdî) example was the early Arab-Islamic model in the age of Muhammad -- protection in return for payment of a tax and nothing more. The roots of this model were entrenched in the pre-Islamic custom of Arabian protection -- the protection by the strong of the weak, the protection that put to the test the good name and integrity of him who extended it." Discriminatory laws by Zaydis against Jews only appeared later, starting in the fifteenth century Kitâb al-Azhâr of al-Murtadâ. In this regard Tobi refutes the assertion by Hayyim Hibshûsh of early Zaydi antagonism toward Yemeni Jews.

So when did things turn bad for Yemeni Jews? The Ayyubids issued a decree in 1199 that all the Jews of Yemen should convert to Islam, but this was short-lived when the Ayyubid ruler in Yemeni died some six months later. Tobi argues that there is no major persecution of Jews in Yemen until 1454 when the Bani Tâhir dynasty rose to power. Jews were uprooted and punished apparently in retalation for a messianic movement that had attracted some Muslims. The Ottomans, arriving in 1536, afforded some protection, but when the Zaydis drove them out in 1635 conditions were often dismal. This culminated in 1667 with the banishment of the Sanaa Jewish community to Mawza' on the Red Sea coast, not unlike the "Trail of Tears" for the American Cherokee. Persecution was continual in the 19th century due in large part, Tobi states, to the general breakdown in order rather than an exclusive anti-Jewish sentiment. When the Ottomans returned in 1872, a little protection was again provided. For example, the Ottomans had abolished the poll-tax (jizya) as early as 1855 in their reforms. As he was driving out the Turks prior to World War I, Imam Yahya imposed harsh discriminatory laws on Jews. After Yahya's death in 1948, the new Imam Ahmad allowed a large number of Jews to leave for Israel.

No study of Yemeni Jews would be complete without consideration of the many messianic movements in the country. While other authors, such as Bat-Zion Eraqi Klorman, have focussed on the overall messianic issue, Tobi gives a chapter on the "Sabbaten" movement centering on Zerubabel ben She'alti'el in the 17th century. Tobi analyzes a unique composition, Ge Hizzayon, on this movement that may be the only surviving example from Yemen. According to this text, the messiah would be revealed in Yemen and take the Yemeni Jews to Israel around 1666. Using both Hebrew and contemporary Arabic sources, Tobi examines how this movement played out in both the Jewish and Muslim communities.

In his brief, but interesting, survey on the culture of Yemeni Yews, Tobi (p. 205) shows that it was not just a product of Jewish and Arabic roots in Yemen, but also drew from Persia, India and Abyssinia. For example: "It is known that Jews pronounce the Hebrew qof or the parallel Arabic qaf as g, while Jews from southern Yemen pronounce it as q. What about Jews from Aden? The pronounce it as gh. The source for this, surprisingly, is the Persian rendering of the consonant. If we bear in mind that in the twelth and thirteenth centuries many Persian Jews lived in Aden, including the family of the negidum (Presidents) of the community, we shall understand why this pronunciation is more natural." (p. 205).

There are a number of annoying transliteration slips, including a tendency to not properly indicate the long i (î) in words like 'Alî and Ayyûbî. A few typographic errors slipped by the editors as well, e.g. "ides" for "idea" (p. 27).


Preface . . . ix


Chapter One: The History of Yemenite Jewry . . . 3
Chapter Two: The Attitude of the Imam al-Hadi, Founder of the Zaydi Kingdom to the Jews of Yemen . . . 8
Chapter Three: The Jews of Yemen under Muslim Rule in the Seventh-Twelfth Centuries . . . 34
Chapter Four: The Sabbatean Activity in Yemen and its Consequences: The Headdress Decree and the Mawza' Exile . . . 48
Chapter Five: The Yemeni Jewish Community under Turkish Rule (1872-1918) . . . 85


Chapter Six: The Life of the Jewish Community in Radâ' in Eighteenth Century . . . 85
Chapter Seven: The Countrywide Power of the San'a Court in the Eyes of the Muslim Government . . . 128
Chapter Eight: Jewish-Muslim Relations in the Tribal Regions in North Yemen . . . 142
Chapter Nine: A Yemeni-Muslim Short Register of Jewish Religion . . . 157
Chapter Ten: Activities toward Establishing a Modern Educational System for Yemeni Jewry as a Mirror for Political and Social Change . . . 164


Chapter Eleven: Culture and Ethnography of Yemenite Jews . . . 205
Chapter Twelve: The Dispute in Yemeni Jewry over the 247 Years Cycle (1336) . . . 211
Chapter Thirteen: Quadilateral Verbs in the Spoken Arabic of the Jews of San'a . . . 277
Chapter Fourteen: A Judeo-Arabic Version of the Predictive Book: Malhamat Dâniyâl . . . 242
Chapter Fifteen: An Arabic- Hebrew Muwashshah about the Events of 1836 in Yemen . . . 255
Chapter Sixteen: Trends in the Study of Yemenite Jewry . . . 267

Bibliography . . . 279

Index . . . 295

List of Sources . . . 302

Search Site

Search Library Collection