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Since Biblical times, the Jewish people have had close ties with Africa, beginning with Abraham's sojourns in Egypt, and later the Israelite captivity under the Pharaohs. Some Jewish communities in Africa are among the oldest in the world, dating back more than 2700 years. African Jews have ethnic and religious diversity and richness. African Jewish communities include:
Although not all African Jews are religious, most of the practices found in African Jewish communities are Orthodox.
Largely unknown in the West until quite recently are communities of the African Jews such as the Lemba (Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Northern South Africa) and the Beta Israel in (Ethiopia). Some among the Igbo of Nigeria, the Annang/Efik/Ibibio of Akwa Ibom State and Cross River State of Nigeria, Cameroon, and Equatorial Guinea) claim descent from East African Jewish communities.
In the seventh century, many Spanish Jews fled persecution under the Visigoths to North Africa, where they made their homes in the Byzantine-dominated cities along the Mediterranean coast. Some, however, moved further inland and actively proselytized among the Berber tribes. A number of tribes, including the Jarawa, Uled Jari, and some tribes of the Daggatun people, converted to Judaism. Ibn Khaldun reported that Kahina, a female Berber warlord who led the resistance against the Arab invaders of North Africa in the 680's and 690's, was a Jew of the Jarawa tribe. With the defeat of the Berber resistance, none of the Jewish tribes were initially forced to convert to Islam. Remnants of longstanding Jewish communities remain in Morocco, Tunisia and the Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla. There is a much-diminished but still vibrant community on the island of Djerba in Tunisia. Many Jews emigrated to North America in the early 20th century. Most other Jews emigrated to Israel, France and Spain, since 1948.
In 1975, the Israeli government recognized the Beta Israel of Ethiopia as legally Jewish . Many who wanted to emigrate were air-lifted to Israel under the leadership of Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Significant immigration continues into the 21st century. Begin had obtained an official ruling from the Israeli Sephardi Chief Rabbi (or Rishon LeTzion) Ovadia Yosef that the Beta Israel were descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes. Rabbis believed they were probably descendants of the Tribe of Dan, as rabbinical responsa that discuss issues concerning them dated back hundreds of years.
Historical and DNA evidence, however, suggested different origins. Rabbi Yosef therefore ruled that upon arrival in Israel, the Beta Israel had to undergo a pro forma conversion to Judaism. They had to declare their allegiance to a halachic way of life and the Jewish people, in conformity with practices followed by Orthodox Rabbinical Judaism. He did not demand the normal rigid requirements that the halacha imposes on potential gentile proselytes, (such as a brit milah or immersion in a mikveh). (Ashkenazi Orthodox rabbis do require that members of Beta Israel undergo a formal conversion and, without reliable proof of Jewish ancestry, regard them the same as converts.) Many rabbinic authorities consider the conversions to be actual conversions, not pro forma.
The practices of the Beta Israel differed significantly from those of other forms of Judaism. In Ethiopia, the Beta Israel community was for the most part isolated from the Talmud. They did, however, have their own oral law. In some cases there were practices similar to those of Karaite Judaism, and in others more similar to rabbinical Judaism.
In many instances their religious elders, or priestly, class known as kessim or qessotch, interpreted the Biblical Law of the Tanach in a way similar to the Rabbinite Jewish communities in other parts of the world. In that sense, the Beta Israel had a tradition analogous to that of the Talmud, although at times at variance with the practices and teachings of other Jewish communities.
Today, they are a community in flux. Some of the kessim accept the rabbinic/Talmudic tradition that is practiced by non-Ethiopian Orthodox Jews. Many of the younger generation of Ethiopian-Israelis have been educated in yeshivas and received rabbinical semikha. A certain segment of traditionalist kessim insist on maintaining their separate and distinct form of Judaism, as it had been practiced in Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Many of the Ethiopian Jewish youth who have immigrated to Israel have either assimilated to the dominant form of Orthodox Judaism as practised in Israel, or to a secular lifestyle.
One significant difference is that the Beta Israel lacked the festivals of Purim and Hanukkah, probably because they branched off from the main body of Judaism before these non-Biblical holidays began to be commemorated. Today, most members of the Beta Israel community living in Israel do observe these holidays.
In Ethiopia the community known as Beit Avraham has some 50,000 members. This community also claims Jewish heritage. Several scholars think that they broke off from the Beta Israel community several centuries ago, hid their Jewish customs, and outwardly adopted Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity.
Beit Avraham have traditionally been on the lower rungs of Ethiopian social life and have held occupations similar to those of the Beta Israel, such as crafts. Recently, the Beit Avraham community has made attempts to reach out to the world Jewish community. They formed the Ethiopian North Shewa Zionist Organization in an attempt to save their Jewish identity. Another name of this group is Falashmura. Without reliable proof of Jewish ancestry, they are required to complete a formal conversion to be recognized by Israel or other Jewish communities as Jews and are considered converts.
According to Muslim records the Tarikh el-Fettash (16th cent.) and the Tarikh el Soudan (17th cent.), several Jewish communities existed as parts of the Ghana, Mali, and later Songhay empires. One such community was formed by a group of Egyptian Jews, who allegedly traveled by way of the Sahel corridor through Chad into Mali. Manuscript C of the Tarikh el-Fettash described a community called the Bani Israel that in 1402 CE existed in Tindirma, possessed 333 wells, and had seven princes as well as an army.
Another such community was that of the Zuwa ruler of Koukiya (located near the Niger river). His name was known only as Zuwa Alyaman, meaning "He comes from Yemen". According to local legends, Zuwa Alyaman was a member of one of the Jewish communities transported from Yemen by Abyssinians in the 6th century C.E. after the defeat of Dhu Nuwas. Zuwa Alyaman was said to have traveled into West Africa along with his brother. They established a community in Kukiya near the Niger River. According to the Tarikh el-Soudan, after Zuwa Alyaman, there were 14 Zuwa rulers of Kukiya before the rise of Islam in the region.
Other sources stated that other Jewish communities in the region arose from migrations from Morocco, Egypt, and Portugal. Some communities were said to have been populated by certain Berber Jews, like a group of Kal Tamasheq known as Iddao Ishaak, who traveled from North Africa into West Africa for trade. In addition, some migrated into the area away from Muslim rule in North Africa.
The Lemba are a group of people in southern Africa. Although they speak Bantu languages similar to their neighbours, they have specific religious practices similar to those in Judaism and other Semitic traditions. They also have a tradition of being a migrant people, with clues pointing to an origin from Yemeni Jews.
They have restrictions on intermarriage with non-Lemba. It is difficult for male non-Lemba to become part of the community. A significant number of individuals carry a genetic signature on the Y chromosome known as the Cohen modal haplotype, indicative of a Semitic patrilineal ancestry. Amongst Jews, this Y chromosome trait is particularly associated with the Kohanim or priests, a distinct subgroup of Israelites. It can also be found in other non-Jewish Y-DNA Haplogroup J populations across the Middle East and beyond.
Whether or not the Lemba are descended from Jewish ancestors, they have not practised Judaism for many centuries. Although the vast majority of Lemba do not see a contradiction in proclaiming their Hebrew heritage while practising Christianity or Islam, lately some have wanted to shift towards mainstream Judaism.
The Igbo Jews of Nigeria are one of the components of the Igbo ethnic group. They are said to have migrated from Syrian, Portuguese and Libyan Israelites into West Africa. Historical records shows that this migration started around 740 C.E. According to amateur Historian and Forensic Science investigator Chinedu Nwabunwanne of Aguleri, who resides in Los Angeles and has researched this subject for more than 15 years at the UCLA libraries in Los Angeles, "Ibo Jewish migration started when the forces of Caliph Mohammed leader of Qaysi-Arab Umayyads of Syria defeated the Yamani-Arab Umayyads of Syria in 744 C.E. and sacked the Yamanis and their Jewish supporters from Syria.This initial migrants were the tribes of Gad, Asher, Dan, and Naphtali. Later, they were joined by Judean migrants from Portugal and Zebulonian migrants from Libya in 1484 and 1667 respectively.These six Israelite tribes constitute the House of Judah or The House Of Jacob. Moses mentioned their names twice when he blessed the children of Israel. The remaining six tribes not mentioned in this write up constitute the House of Ephraim or The House Of Israel."
Certain Nigerian communities with Judaic practices have been receiving help from individual Israelis and American Jews who work in Nigeria, out-reach organizations like Kulanu, and African-American Jewish communities in America. Jews from outside Nigeria founded two synagogues in Nigeria, which are attended and maintained by Igbos.
Because no formal census has been taken in the region, the number of Igbos in Nigeria who identify as either Israelites or Jews is not known. There are currently 26 synagogues of various sizes. Some researchers estimate there may be as many as 30,000 Igbos practicing some form of Judaism.
The Annnag, Efik and Ibibio people of Akwa Ibom and Cross River States of Nigeria have had ancient religious practices that strongly resembled some of the Jewish Torah. These include their traditional sacrifice of animals (rituals) by the presiding male of each village, or of a group of villages, for purification, especially during times of sickness. According to Nair (1975), in early history of Nigeria, the Efik people (people of old Calabar Kingdom were often referred to as Efik Eburutu. Eburutu being a term that came into being as a result of the curruption of the word "Hebrew", and Ututu. Ututu being one of the early settlements of the Efik people in the coastal southeastern Nigeria. Hence, the Efik/Ibibio/Annang people were known in early history as being of Hebrews who settled in Ututu.
European missionaries arriving in their land in the early 1400s AD called their religious practices "traditional religion". However, they identify their religious practices and heritage with the Jews. They are believed to be members of the Northern Kingdom of Israel who left before the Babylonian captivity and migrated to the Efik/Ibibio/Annang land of Nigeria from Egypt via Ethiopia and Sudan. They have active synagogues in the area. Synagogue services (Shabbat Services) of this region of Nigeria can be seen on the Internet, including the YouTube website.
There are some who believe that a Jewish presence may have at one time existed in Cameroon via merchants who arrived from Egypt for trade. According to some accounts these communities observed rituals such as separation of dairy and meat products as well as wearing tefillin. There are also claims that Jews migrated into Cameroon after being forced southward due to the Islamic conquests of North Africa.
The claims of a Jewish presence in Cameroon are made by Rabbi Yisrael Oriel. Rabbi Oriel, formerly Bodol Ngimbus-Ngimbus, was born into the Ba-Saa tribe. The word Ba-Saa, he said, is from the Hebrew for 'on a journey' and means blessing. Rabbi Oriel claims to be a Levite descended from Moses. Reportedly, Rabbi Oriel made aliya in 1988 and was ordained as a rabbi by the Sephardic Chief Rabbi and appointed rabbi to Nigerian Jews.
Rabbi Oriel claims that in 1920 there were 400,000 'Israelites' in Cameroon, but by 1962 the number had decreased to 167,000 due to conversions to Christianity and Islam. He admitted that these tribes had not been accepted halachically, although he claimed to prove their Jewish status from medieval rabbinic sources.
American actor Yaphet Kotto's parents were Cameroon Jews and Kotto himself maintains his Jewish identity.
The largest influx of Jews to Africa came after the Spanish Inquisition and expulsion of the Jews in Spain in 1492, and Portugal and Sicily soon afterwards. Many of these Sephardic Jews settled in North Africa.
Additionally, King Manuel I of Portugal exiled about 2,000 Jewish children to São Tomé and Príncipe around 1500. Most died, but in the early 1600s "the local bishop noted with disgust that there were still Jewish observances on the island and returned to Portugal because of his frustration with them." Although Jewish practices faded over subsequent centuries, there are people in São Tomé and Príncipe who are aware of partial descent from this population. Similarly, a number of Portuguese ethnic Jews were exiled to Sao Tome after forced conversions to Roman Catholicism.
There are several thousand people of undoubted Jewish ancestry in Timbuktu, Mali. In the 14th century many Moors and Jews, fleeing persecution in Spain, migrated south to the Timbuktu area, at that time part of the Songhai empire. Among them was the Kehath (Ka'ti) family, descended from Ismael Jan Kot Al-yahudi of Scheida, Morocco. Sons of this prominent family founded three villages that still exist near Timbuktu—Kirshamba, Haybomo, and Kongougara. In 1492, Askia Muhammed came to power in the previously tolerant region of Timbuktu and decreed that Jews must convert to Islam or leave; Judaism became illegal in Mali, as it did in Catholic Spain that same year. As the historian Leo Africanus wrote in 1526: "The king (Askia) is a declared enemy of the Jews. He will not allow any to live in the city. If he hears it said that a Berber merchant frequents them or does business with them, he confiscates his goods."
The Kehath family converted with the rest of the non-Muslim population. The Cohens, descended from the Moroccan Islamicized Jewish trader El-Hadj Abd-al-Salam al Kuhin, arrived in the Timbuktu area in the 18th century, and the Abana family came in the first half of the 19th century. According to Prof. Michel Abitbol, at the Center for the Research of Moroccan Jewry in Israel, in the late 19th century Rabbi Mordoche Aby Serour traveled to Timbuktu several times as a not-too-successful trader in ostrich feathers and ivory. Ismael Diadie Haidara, a historian from Timbuktu, has found old Hebrew texts among the city's historical records. He has also researched his own past and discovered that he is descended from the Moroccan Jewish traders of the Abana family. As he interviewed elders in the villages of his relatives, he has discovered that knowledge of the family's Jewish identity has been preserved, in secret, out of fear of persecution.
There is an extremely tiny Jewish community in Côte d'Ivoire. In history, most of the Jews from Côte d'Ivoire have emigrated to nearby Ghana and have settled there.
The House of Israel community of Sefwi Wiawso and Sefwi Sui in Western Ghana claim that their Sefwi ancestors are descendants of Jews who migrated south through Côte d'Ivoire. The continuous practice of Judaism in this community, however, dates back to only the early 1970s.
A relatively small emergent community has been forming in Laikipia District, Kenya, abandoning their Christian beliefs in exchange for Judaism. There are an estimated 5,000 of them at the present time. This group has connections to the Black Hebrews movement. Although at first Messianic, they concluded that their beliefs were incompatible with Christianity and are now waiting to be instructed in traditional Judaism. Some of the younger children of this community have been sent to the Abayudaya schools in Uganda to be instructed in Judaism and other subjects. There are also some amongst the ethnic groups in Kenya that claim to be one of the lost tribes of Israel.
In addition to the established Jewish communities in Nigeria described above, other communities are forming Messianic congregations. Unlike other places, where Messianic Judaism leads Jews away from their faith by believing in Jesus, in Africa, Messianic Judaism is often the first step in the path towards normative Judaism, as Messianic communities gradually abandon their belief in Jesus.
The Jews of Rusape, Zimbabwe claim ancient Hebrew tribal connections—in fact, they claim that most Black Africans (especially the Bantu peoples) are actually of Ancient Hebrew origin. However, the active practice of Judaism in the Rusape community dates back only to the early twentieth century; in this case, to 1903. (Despite the chronological proximity of the beginnings of observance in these two communities, a historical relationship between them should not be inferred: there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate the existence of any relationship between them, aside from their interest in Judaism.) This community, although no longer believing in Jesus as the Messiah like Christians do, does believe that Jesus was a prophet, however the community also believes that all people on Earth are prophets as well and so Jesus had no high or special status. Currently the community is moving towards more mainstream Judaism. This group believes that the majority of African peoples are descendants of the 12 lost tribes of Israel and that most Africans have Hebraic practices.
The Zimbabwe Jewish Community was established with the first white colonialists in the 1890s and at its peak in the early 1970s numbered some 7,500 people (80% of Ashkenazim descent) - split between communities in Harare and Bulawayo. Smaller country communities did exist for short periods in Kwe Kwe, Mutare and Kadoma. For a full history of the this community which now (2007) numbers a total of 270 - see Zimbabwe Jewish Community. Other references on the history of this community until the 1960s include MAJUTA, by Barry Kosmin (Mambo Press). The community has traditionally had strong links with Israel, financial contributions to Palestine later Israel were the highest in the diasapora up until the 1970s. Tragically, the Bulawayo Shul was burn down in an anti-semitic act of violence in 2003.
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