While Jews finish reading the Torah in synagogues around the world on Simhat
Torah, it is worth pointing out that while all Jews share the same written
Torah, different communities possess a variety of religious customs that have
been passed down orally through the generations.
In fact, even what are
considered to be common practices by the vast majority of Jews today are in fact
just a dominant subset of some of the customs from a diverse and sometimes
isolated number of Jewish communities throughout history and across the
Because of the work of a number of Jewish “missionaries,” the
consensually accepted religious traditions of the Jewish community were spread
far and wide to distant groups of Jews who had grown isolated from the main
centers of Jewish culture as rabbinic Judaism developed over the centuries. The
actions of these “missionaries,” some rabbis and some not, helped to maintain
Jews’ knowledge and practice of Judaism around the globe while also reinforcing
the beliefs and opinions of some of the larger and more prosperous centers of
Two communities that successfully reconnected with the
Jewish Diaspora after visits from such “missionaries” are the Bukharan Jews of
Central Asia and B’nei Israel of the Indian subcontinent.
The origins of
the Jews of Bukhara in Central Asia are shrouded in legend.
one oral tradition among Bukharan Jews, the long-established Jewish population
in present-day Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and the other states of Central Asia are
the descendants of the lost Israelite tribes of Issachar and Naphtali who were
exiled from the Land of Israel by the Assyrian kings Tiglath-Pileser III and
Sargon II between the years 735 and 720 BCE.
However, most Jews in the
community are commonly believed to be descended from Jews who left Israel during
the Babylonian exile and moved further east to take advantage of trading
opportunities that arose as the Persian Empire expanded eastward into Central
Today, the Bukharan community numbers close to 160,000 individuals,
mostly concentrated in Israel and greater New York City with few members left in
the former Soviet states of Central Asia.
Because of the Muslim Edict of
Omar, Bukharan Jews originally were not allowed to build a synagogue for prayer
services in Bukhara under the rule of the Islamic emirs of the region. Instead,
the community tradition states that the Jews of the city prayed in one of the
main mosques of the city, the Magak-i Attari Mosque – Mosque of the Pit and
Rosewater in Persian – after the Muslims had finished their prayers. A synagogue
was finally established in Bukhara around 1620 as the result of a complex
real-estate deal between an elderly Jewish widow and the Muslim vizier of
Bukhara at the time.
Despite the establishment of the synagogue, the
distance from other established Jewish communities and discrimination practiced
led to the gradual assimilation of Bukharan Jewry, until the arrival of the
Moroccan-born Rabbi Yosef Maimon from Safed in 1793.
Maimon, a respected
kabbalist, taught in one of the yeshivot of Safed and went to Bukhara as a part
of a regional fundraising trip for the school. Upon discovering that the Jews of
Bukhara had just two Torah scrolls that only included three of out of the five
books of the Pentateuch, and the community was largely illiterate in Hebrew, the
rabbi decided to stay with the people permanently to serve as its spiritual
Until Maimon’s arrival in Bukhara, the Jews of the region loosely
practiced their religion based on the prayer book of Sa’adia Gaon, the famed
head of the Babylonian Academy of Sura who died in 952 in Baghdad. With the help
of other Sephardi immigrants who moved into the region as traders, Rabbi Maimon
helped introduce traditional Sephardi Jewish practices within the Bukharan
Nevertheless several traditions specific to the Bukharan
community have still been maintained.
“If a couple are planning to become
engaged around the time of Passover, they will wait until the seventh night upon
which the holiday ends to formally announce and celebrate the engagement,”
Bukharan Rabbi Eliyahu Yakubov says. “The reason for this is that traditionally
Passover can be considered the beginning of the New Year and couples would like
to celebrate their engagement on the New Year.”
“Also, and perhaps this
has a bit more to do with it, many sweets in Bukhara are made with leavening.
Because becoming married is considered a sweet thing, Bukharans usually eat
sweets as part of engagement celebrations and in order to celebrate [the event
properly], the couple waits until Passover is over.”
another custom called chile (pronounced chee-lai) practiced by the Bukharans,
which he says fell out of use approximately 300 years ago around the time Maimon
settled in Bukhara. According to the custom of chile, “any woman who has given
birth or been married within the previous 40 days should not meet with another
bride who was married within 40 days or attend their wedding,” says
He explains, “Many people would say that if a woman violated the
custom she could become infertile or have a miscarriage.
was probably just one of the explanations they gave when these tragedies
occurred from time to time.”
Bukharan Jews are adamant that they have
always kept the commonly observed Jewish holidays since their inception.
“Believe me,” says Tel Aviv fruit juice seller Avraham Gadaloff, “from the very
beginning until now we have always kept every holiday there was and maintained
the Jewish traditions to one degree or another.”
community is the B’nei Israel, a group of Indian Jews who were once concentrated
largely around the cities of Mumbai and Karachi in what are now India and
Today they can be found spread throughout Jewish
communities in Englishspeaking countries as well as in Israel, concentrated
heavily in the cities of Beersheba, Ramle and Lod.
The B’nei Israel claim
descent from a group of Jewish refugees who fled the Galilee sometime between
the destruction of the First Temple and the persecutions of Seleucid King
Antiochus IV Epiphanes, made infamous to Jews worldwide through the story of
According to legend, the refugees set sail from Israel heading
east until they were shipwrecked somewhere near the middle of the Gulf of Konkan
on India’s western coast. The handful of survivors from the wreck then proceeded
to found the first B’nei Israel community in isolation from their Jewish
brethren back home in Israel and in the rest of the Diaspora.
It was only
in 1676 that a Jew named David Rahabi from Amsterdam rediscovered the B’nei
Israel as a lost group of Jews. After ascertaining their Jewish character
through their customs, Rahabi dedicated several years of his life toward
teaching members of the community Hebrew and reconnecting them with the
post-talmudic Jewish world that had developed further west.
the B’nei Israel community adopted the Livorno prayer book as the source for
traditional prayers and follows the rulings of the Sephardi chief rabbi in
Israel. Into the 19th century, the B’nei Israel began intermixing with Baghdadi
and Cochin Jews, who were also present in India at that time. The Cochin Jews
were also said to have been invited by the community to serve as prayer leaders
for the B’nei Israel, helping to standardize Jewish practices among the
Having been isolated from other Jewish communities for
so long, the B’nei Israel are notable for some of the religious traditions they
developed in isolation, passing them down from one generation to the next, and
other features of Western rabbinical Judaism which they lacked until the time of
Mostly conspicuously, the B’nei Israel did not celebrate
the holiday of Hanukka, which is one of the factors that helped academics
studying the group date their exile from the Land of Israel.
Two of the
most interesting traditions specific to the B’nei Israel are the use of water in
mourning the dead and the melida ceremony.
During the initial seven days
of mourning after a loved one’s death, they place a glass filled with water in
the house of mourning to commemorate the spirit of the deceased relative. At the
end of the initial week-long mourning, the water is poured on the grave of the
deceased. This practice is derived from the story of creation described in
Genesis 1:2, where it says, “and the spirit of God hovered over the surface of
After the traditional year of mourning is observed B’nei
Israel Jews mark its passing with the melida ceremony.
Performed also on
all joyous occasions, such as bar mitzvas, circumcisions and weddings, during
the melida the participants display delicious fruits and other foodstuffs to be
eaten and welcome the presence of the prophet Elijah in song to implore him to
join the celebrations.
The practice is considered to be one primarily of
thanksgiving toward God during a period of rejoicing. Family members of the
deceased use the melida to publicly demonstrate regaining their ability to join
community celebrations after mourning.
These and other small differences
from more widely known Jewish communities in the Diaspora do not strike some
B’nei Israel members as unusual but as signs of greater
Yossi Daniel, an active member in the B’nei Israel
community in Israel, puts it plainly. “I know it’s impossible to say with
certainty, but I would like to think that we have kept closer to the way Judaism
was practiced in ancient times.”
As the Jewish communities around the
globe finish reading the written Torah on Simhat Torah, it is worth remembering
two distinct Jewish communities that received the Torah twice, not just from
Moses, but also from Rabbi Yosef Maimon and David Rahabi as well.
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