Retracing their steps

The 13 Bnei Menashe families who recently arrived in Israel have finally ended their 2,700 year exile.

exiles come home 521 (photo credit: Herbert Kelly/ICE)
exiles come home 521
(photo credit: Herbert Kelly/ICE)
The 13 Bnei Menashe families who recently arrived in Israel, and the more than 7,000 members of this Israelite tribe still waiting in India for their turn, have been on a long and eventful 2,700-year journey in exile.
The story of the Bnei Menashe begins in 732 BCE, when the Assyrian Empire began to take captive the tribe of Menashe and other Israelite tribes and resettle them in what is today Iraq and Iran.
The Bible writes that they were placed “in Halah, on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.”
(2 Kings 17:6; 1 Chronicles 5:26) There they remained until about the time of the conquest of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, according to 1st Chronicles and other sources. When Alexander started to conquer Persia, the Bnei Menashe fled to the north and then to the east to avoid being enslaved by the Greeks. Legend has it that they journeyed along the Silk Road and eventually ended up in China, forming part of what came to be known as the Kaifeng Jewish community. According to the early stone tablets of the Kaifeng Jews, there were Israelites in China during the period of the Han Dynasty, from around 206 BCE to 220 CE. One stele erected in 1512 detailed the earlier presence of Jews in the western part of China near the border of Uzbekistan.
This helps corroborate the unconfirmed forensic DNA tests done in India in 2004 which showed the similarity of the female mitochondrial DNA in some of the Bnei Menashe women to the women of Jewish communities in Central Asia.
Uzbekistan lies in Central Asia and the Silk Road runs from Kaifeng to Jerusalem right through the heart of this region. Indeed, Jews were considered some of the most successful traders along the Silk Road.
There is also a map on the wall of the Kaifeng Jewish Museum in China which shows the locations of the earliest Jewish communities in China and Central Asia.
According to the 1512 Kaifeng Stele, the Jewish community identified their home in western China, a settlement at the outskirts of the Taklimakan Desert, as prophetic according the scripture found in Psalms 104:8-10. It was here that Han General Li Guangli discovered them during a military expedition in 108 BCE.
The Han Empire began to decline in the 2nd century CE and as the Han army began to withdraw from the Western regions, the Jews migrated to more central regions of China, preferring the protection of the Han rulers to the risks of living under the Tatars. So they moved eastward to the area of what is called Gansu province today. According to Bnei Menashe accounts, the tribe then moved to Kaifeng in 231 CE.
The post-Han period was a time of warfare and trouble with the neighboring tribes and the narrative of the Bnei Menashe tells us that they were exiled and that a Chinese emperor took their holy book, namely their Torah scrolls.
After the loss of their Torah, the Bnei Menashe wandered again. Not much is known about this period other than their lore, which says they lived in caves for a while before coming to India and Burma.
Thus they came to be called the “Shinlung,” referring to the valley of caves where they once sought refuge.
Eventually settling in the Mizoram and Manipur provinces of northeast India, they were without any holy books or written histories, but their priests continued to hand down their traditions orally, including ritual observances of worship, until the early 19th century.
It was there that they were rediscovered in 1813 by British missionaries who were allowed to enter the area. It was Baptist missionaries who first reported the discovery of possible descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes. Later, at the end of the 19th century, missionaries sent out from the Great Welsh Revival arrived and many peoples in the region soon converted to Christianity, including many among the Shinlung.
But in the Bnei Menashe, the missionaries encountered a people with oral traditions of biblical stories, such as a great flood and a dramatic separation of languages, along with tales of patriarchs that fit biblical figures.
As the British missionaries translated the Bible into the local dialects and taught them how to read, the Bnei Menashe discovered with great joy that their stories, legends and songs matched the biblical accounts. In their minds, this confirmed they were descendants of the tribe of Menashe, and certain clans decided to cling to their Israelite traditions. In the 1950s, a small group of Bnei Menashe decided that they should move to Israel, and tried to journey on foot but failed in their attempt.
The Bnei Menashe did manage, however, to make contact with Jewish communities in India’s larger cities, and word of their existence eventually piqued the interest of Israeli Rabbi Eliezer Avichail, who ventured to the region in the 1980s to explore the community’s origins.
Avichail eventually brought along an Israeli author, Hillel Halkin, whose celebrated work Across the Sabbath River recounts his own quest to discover who these people truly were.
Avichail and Halkin found that among the Bnei Menashe customs and traditions passed down through the generations were certain communal songs which predated their contact with the missionaries – songs which spoke of biblical events connected to ancient Israel.
For instance, the annual festival of Sikpui, one of the most important Bnei Menashe holidays, could not commence until the whole community had finished singing a sacred song which has clear references to the exodus from Egypt, the pillar of cloud and fire, and the parting of the Red Sea.
In the documentary film This Song is Old, Halkin insists that this ancient communal song was one of the most convincing proofs for him that the Bnei Menashe have Israelite origins.
Michael Freund, founder of the Shavei Israel organization, later became the community’s main advocate for rejoining the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, and in April 2005 Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar accepted the Bnei Menashe’s claim of Israelite origins, primarily because of their devotion to Judaism. His decision paved the way for the Bnei Menashe to gain entry to Israel.
An initial wave of 1,750 Bnei Menashe arrived by 2007, while another 7,200 have been waiting anxiously back in India to make the trek home. Their wait – and their long journey – is now almost over. A. Howard Flower serves as director of aliya operations for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem;