In This Article The Jews of Yemen

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Travel Logs
  • Photographic Logs
  • Pre-Islamic History
  • Jewish-Muslim Relations
  • Family and Gender
  • Messianism
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Immigration to Palestine and Israel

Jewish Studies The Jews of Yemen
by
Bat-Zion Eraqi Klorman
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0168

Introduction

A vibrant Jewish community lived in Yemen until the mid-20th century, when almost all the inhabitants emigrated from Yemen and settled in Israel. Yemeni Jewish traditions claim that the Jewish settlement goes back to biblical times. The available evidence is from the 3rd century. Also evident is Jewish influence on the South Arabian Himyarite Kingdom (115–525 CE), whose royal dynasty adopted Judaism in the late 4th century. Throughout their hundreds of years in Yemen, the Jews developed a culture that synthesized ancient Jewish values with new concepts arriving from the Jewish world abroad (in halakha, philosophy, messianism, poetry, Kabbalah, and the enlightenment), together with elements of the Muslim culture. Like the Muslims, the Jews were dispersed throughout the country and settled primarily in the tribal-rural areas, in more than twelve hundred small settlements. Only around 15 percent of the Yemeni Jews lived in towns, primarily in San‘a. Until the Republican Revolution in 1962, the Jews’ legal and civil status derived from Islamic law (shariʿa), which defined them as protected minorities (dhimmis). The state granted them freedom of religion and extended its protection over their personal security and property in exchange for their acknowledgment of Muslim political and social superiority and adherence to a number of discriminatory rules. Jewish life in the tribal areas functioned primarily according to the tribal patronage laws and other customary laws, which ignored some of the shariʿa regulations that discriminated against Jews. The majority of the Jews made their living through handicrafts. However, during the second half of the 19th century, with Yemen’s occupation by the Ottoman Empire (1872), the growing influence of world powers in the Red Sea basin, and the opening of Yemen to the global economy, Jews were being pushed from the crafts to retail trade and peddling. The late 19th century marked the beginning of a large-scale emigration from Yemen to Palestine, which reached its culmination between 1949 and 1950. There is only a modest amount of information about the history of this community in early centuries. For the 12th century to approximately the 14th century, more data is emerging from outside community sources, from community documentation, and through its literary production. This trend increases from the 17th century onward, and more so since the mid-19th century. The late 19th and early 20th centuries mark a growing interest in Yemeni Jews by outside scholars, who laid the foundation for further study. Since the first half of the 20th century, individuals from within the community have joined this scholarly work and contributed to the ongoing research. This bibliographical essay focuses on the history, society, and culture of Yemeni Jews in Yemen (and not on their life following emigration).

General Overviews

Although there is an impressive number of studies on this community, only a few have attempted to present a comprehensive work on its history, society, and culture. Scholarly works that centered on Yemeni Jews began in the early 20th century. Some of these studies, best represented by Goitein 1972 (cited under Folktales) and Goitein 1983, express a romantic, even Orientalist, view that perceives this community as the oldest Jewish community, embodying unchanged ancient tenets of Judaism from the Talmudic period, and resembling an “authentic” old Jewish society. Later scholars, including some from within the community, adopted this view, yet recent scholarship presents a more critical approach, pointing to a dynamic and complex society; such works include Eraqi Klorman 2004 and Eraqi Klorman 2014. Ahroni 1986 gives a general chronological overview of Jewish history in Yemen; Zadoc 1983 discusses Jewish life from antiquity to the mid-20th century, emphasizing central events and distinct personalities; Shivtiel, et al. 1983 focuses on Jewish San‘a, its history since the beginning of Islamic time, and the relations of the Jews with the authorities and their Muslim neighbors. Bar-Maoz 2005 argues that a culture of controversies is characteristic of the Yemeni Jews and portrays this phenomenon from the 17th to the 20th centuries.

  • Ahroni, Reuben. Yemenite Jewry: Origins, Culture, and Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is the first scholarly monograph to give a wide general overview of Jewish life in Yemen, organized chronologically around political changes in the country. This book’s scope begins in biblical times and extends through the pre-Islamic period, Islamic early and high medieval ages (which are its main concern), up to the beginning of the 20th century.

  • Bar-Maoz, Danny. Yiqov ha-Din et ha-har: Mahaloqot ve-palganut bi-qhilat yehudei Teman. Tel Aviv: E‘ele be-Tamar, 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    Claims that the Yemeni Jews are characterized by a culture of controversies, and sets out to portray this phenomenon from the 17th to the 20th centuries. Among the topics discussed are disputes over leadership in various settlements, among the worshipers in the synagogue, over a desired version of the prayer book, over the study of Kabbalah, and between San‘a leadership and leaders of other communities.

  • Eraqi Klorman, Bat-Zion. The Jews of Yemen: History, Society, Culture. Vol. 2. Raanana, Israel: Open University Press, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    This work integrates diverse aspects of the Yemeni Jewish community, such as history, society, women and gender, economy, ethnography, religious and spiritual life, demography, and immigration. Vol. 3 published in 2008 in Hebrew.

  • Eraqi Klorman, Bat-Zion. Traditional Society in Transition: The Yemeni Jewish Experience. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2014.

    E-mail Citation »

    Begins by discussing early Jewish settlement in Yemen, and concentrates on the Jewish community in the wake of major changes since the mid-19th century and its transition from a traditional patriarchal society to a group adjusting to the challenges of a modern society, first in Yemen and then in Palestine. Among the discussed subjects: enlightenment and the Kabbalah dispute, immigration to East Africa, immigration to Palestine, challenging the Zionist enterprise and ethos, family values in transition.

  • Goitein, Shelomo Dov. Ha-Temanim: Historia, sidrei hevra, hayei ruah. Edited by Menahem Ben Sasson. Jerusalem: Makhon Ben-Zvi, 1983.

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    Although never producing an integrated work of his Yemeni studies, Ha-Temanim’s absorbing and innovative articles from 1931 to 1980 present Goitein’s overall view of the Yemeni Jewish community; its history, social, and spiritual life; and its folk stories. Some of these pioneering essays laid the foundation for later research.

  • Shivtiel, A., Wilfred Lockwood, and R. B. Serjeant. “The Jews of San‘a’.” In Şan‘ā': An Arabian Islamic City. Edited by R. B. Serjeant and Ronald Lewcock, 391–431. London: World of Islam Festival Trust, 1983.

    E-mail Citation »

    Included in Serjeant and Lewcock’s monumental volume, this article gives a remarkable account of Jewish life in San‘a through the ages. Among its topics: history of the Jewish community from early Islamic time until mid-20th century, relationships between the Jews and the Imams, Muslim-Jewish relations.

  • Zadoc, Moshe. Yehudei Teman: History and Customs. Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1983.

    E-mail Citation »

    This volume attempts to present a basic narration of Yemeni history from antiquity to the 20th century. A smaller part of the book addresses communal life, life-cycle customs, and religious holidays. In Hebrew.

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