Jews far and wide

The customs of B’nei Israel and Bukharan Jews have been influenced by Jewish ‘missionaries,’ but these groups also maintain distinctive practices.

Bukhran Market 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Bukhran Market 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
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 globe.
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 Jewish life.
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.
According to 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 Asia.
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 leader.
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 community.
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.”
Yakubov describes 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 Yakubov.
He explains, “Many people would say that if a woman violated the custom she could become infertile or have a miscarriage.
Although, this 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.”
THE LESSER-KNOWN 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 Pakistan, respectively.
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 Hanukka.
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.
Post-Rahabi, 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 different groups.
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 Rahabi’s visit.
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 the water.”
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 authenticity.
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.