Yemenite Jews (תֵּימָנִי, Standard Hebrew Temani, Tiberian Hebrew Têmānî; plural תֵּימָנִים, Standard Hebrew Temanim, Tiberian Hebrew Têmānîm) are those Jews who live, or whose recent ancestors lived, in Yemen (תֵּימָן "far south", Standard Hebrew Teman, Tiberian Hebrew Têmān), a nation on the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula. They are considered to be a subdivision of Mizrahi Jews.
History of the community
Local Yemenite Jewish traditions trace the earliest settlement of Jews in this region back to the time of King Solomon. Interestingly enough, the Chabashim (Jews in neighboring Ethiopia) have a sister legend of their origins that places the Queen of Sheba as married to King Solomon. The Sanaite Jews have a legend that their ancestors settled there forty-two years before the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem. It is said that under the prophet Jeremiah some 75,000 Jews, including priests and Levites, travelled to Yemen; when Ezra the scribe commanded the Jews to return to Jerusalem they disobeyed, whereupon he pronounced a ban upon them. Tradition states, however, that as a punishment for this hasty action Ezra was denied burial in Israel. As a result of this local tradition, which can not be validated historically, no Jew of Yemen gives the name of Ezra to a child, although all other Biblical appellatives are used. The Yemenite Jews claim that Ezra cursed them to be a poor people for not heading his call. This seems to have come true in the eyes of many Yemenites, as Yemen is extremely poor.
The actual immigration of Jews into Yemen appears to have taken place about the beginning of the second century C.E., although the province is mentioned neither by Josephus nor by the main books of the Jewish oral law, the Mishnah and Talmud. According to some sources, the Jews of Yemen enjoyed prosperity until the sixth century C.E., and the fourth sovereign before Dhu Nuwas was a convert to Judaism.
Yemenite Jews and Maimonides
Yemeni Jew in traditional costume.
The average Jewish population of Yemen for the first five centuries C.E. is said to have been about 3,000. The Jews were scattered throughout the country, but carried on an extensive commerce and thus succeeded in getting possession of many Jewish books. When Saladin became sultan in the last quarter of the twelfth century and the Shiite Muslims revolted against him, the trials of the Yemenite Jews began. There were few scholars among them at that time, and a putative prophet arose; he preached a syncrectic religion that combined Judaism and Islam, and claimed that the Bible foretold his coming.
One of Yemen's most respected Jewish scholars, Jacob ben Nathanael al-Fayyumi, wrote for counsel to Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides. Maimonides replied in a epistle entitled Iggeret Teman (The Yemen Epistle). This letter made a tremendous impression on Yemenite Jewry, and effectively stopped the new religious movement.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century the condition of the Jews of Yemen was miserable. They were under the jurisdiction of the local Muslim Imam, and they were forbidden to wear new or good clothes, nor might they ride a donkey or a mule. They were compelled to make long journeys on foot when occasion required it. They were prohibited from engaging in money transactions, and were all mechanics, being employed chiefly as carpenters, masons, and smiths.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century they are said to have numbered 30,000, and to have lived principally in Aden (200), Sana (10,000), Sada (1,000), Dhamar (1,000), and the desert of Beda (2,000). The chief industry of the Jews of Yemen at this time was the making of pottery.
The three main groups of Yemenite Jews are the Baladi, the Shami and the Rambamists. Although now, the Rambamists are basically considered a type of Baladim. In the early part of the 20th century, a group of Rambamists called Dor Daim (the generation of Knowledge) became strong sub-group of the original surviving Rambamists. Their goal was to bring Yemenite Jews back to their original Rambam method of understanding. This is the method of Judaism that existed in old (pre-1600's) Yemen.
The liturgy of most Baladim Jews developed were developed by a rabbi known as the Maharitz. He attempted to break the deadlock between the followers of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides) and the followers of the mystic, Isaac Luria. Before this point, the Baladim were actually Rambamists--before the Zoharists influence Yemen.
Dor Da'im are followers of Maimonides who did not accept the Maharitz's compromise (for the most part). Although most do follow the same basic nusach (prayer text). They reject the Zohar, a famous book of esoteric Jewish mysticism. They are similar to the old-time Spanish Portuguese (Western Sefaradic Jews), who are also known to be strict Rambamists that reject the Zohar.
In terms of liturgy and of interpreting Jewish law Shami Yemenite Jews were strongly influenced by Syrian Sepharadi Jews, though on some issues they reject the later European codes of Jewish law, and instead follow the earlier decisions of Maimonides. Unlike the Baladiim, they accepted the validity, authenticity and content of the Zohar. They had no problems in changing the original Yemenite nusach (prayer book) into their own newly-created mystical concoction. They also had no problem in infusing Yemen with their Kabalistic outlook--which made social progress out of poverty a non-goal.
Form of Hebrew
There are two main pronunciations of Yemenite Hebrew, considered by many to be the most accurate form of Hebrew. Although there are technically five in total that relate to the regions of Yemen. In the Yemenite dialect, all Hebrew letters have a distinct sound, except for the letters ס sāmekh and ש śîn. The Sanaani Hebrew pronunciation (used by the majority) has been indirectly critiqued by Saadia Gaon since it contains the Hebrew letters jimmel and guf, which he rules is incorrect.
Rabbi Mazuz postulates this hypothesis through the Jerban (Tunisia) Jewish dialect's use of gimmel & quf, switching to jimmel & guf when talking with Gentiles in the Gentile dialect of Jerba. Some feel that the Shar'abi pronunciation of Yemen is more accurate & similar to the Babylonian dialect since they both use a gimmel and quf, instead of the jimmel and guf.
The oldest Yemenite manuscripts are those of the Hebrew Bible, which the Yemenite Jews call "Taj" ("crown"). They date from the ninth century, and each of them has a short Masoretic introduction, while many contain Arabic commentaries.
Yemenite Jews were acquainted with the works of Saadia Gaon, Rashi, Kimhi, Nahmanides, Yehudah ha Levy, and Isaac Arama, besides producing a number of exegetes from among themselves. In the fourteenth century Nathanael ben Isaiah wrote an Arabic commentary on the Bible; in the second half of the fifteenth century Saadia ben David al-Adani was the author of a commentary on Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Abraham ben Solomon wrote on the Prophets.
Among the midrash collections from Yemen mention should be made of the "Midrash ha-Gadol" of David bar Amram al-'Adani. Between 1413 and 1430 the physician Yaḥya Zechariah b. Solomon wrote a compilation entitled "Midrash ha-Ḥefeẓ," which included the Pentateuch, Lamentations, Esther, and other sections of the Hebrew Bible. Between 1484 and 1493 David al-Lawani composed his "Midrash al-Wajiz al-Mughni."
Among the Yemenite poets who wrote Hebrew and Arabic hymns modeled after the Spanish school, mention may be made of Yaḥya al-Dhahri and the members of the Al-Shabbezi family. A single non-religious work, inspired by Ḥariri, was written in 1573 by Zechariah ben Saadia (identical with the Yaḥya al-Dhahri mentioned above), under the title "Sefer ha-Musar." The philosophical writers include: Saadia b. Jabeẓ and Saadia b. Mas'ud, both at the beginning of the fourteenth century; Ibn al-Ḥawas, the author of a treatise in the form of a dialogue written in rimed prose, and termed by its author the "Flower of Yemen"; Ḥasan al-Dhamari; and Joseph ha-Levi b. Jefes, who wrote the philosophical treatises "Ner Yisrael" (1420) and "Kitab al-Masaḥah."
Operation "Magic Carpet"
Yemenite Jews in flight on their way from Yemen to Israel.
In the course of the Operation Magic Carpet (1949-1950), the majority of Yemenite Jews (about 49,000) immigrated to Israel. Most of them had never seen an airplane before, but they believed in the Biblical prophecy: according to the Book of Isaiah (40:31), God promised to return the children of Israel to Zion "with wings".
The Jews of Yemen Homepage (http://www.chayas.com/)