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Total population
70,000+ (estimated)
Regions with significant populations
South Africa (esp. Limpopo Province), Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique

Formerly Lemba (now extinct), today Venda and Shona and English and Portuguese


Judaism, Christianity Islam

The Lemba or Lembaa are an ethnic group numbering 70,000[1] in southern Africa who claim a common descent and belonging to the Jewish people.[2]

Although they are speakers of Bantu languages related to those spoken by their geographic neighbours, they have specific religious practices and beliefs similar to those in Judaism, which have been transmitted orally through the generations.[2] It has been common for most Jews in the diaspora to speak languages of their regions (see Jewish languages) Today, many Lemba are Christians or Muslim, though they seem to maintain several Jewish practices. Recent genetic analyses have established a possible Middle-Eastern, Semitic origin for a portion of the Lemba population.[3]

The name "Lemba" may originate in chilemba, a Swahili word for turbans worn by East Africans or lembi an African word meaning "non-African" or "respected foreigner".[4]


Judaic links

Many Lemba beliefs and practices can be linked to Judaism. According to Dr. Rudo Mathivha,[2] this includes the following:

  • They are monotheists (they call their creator God Nwali).
  • They hold one day of the week to be holy and praise Nwali (similar to the Jewish Shabbat).
  • They praise Nwali for looking after the Lemba, considering themselves a chosen people.
  • They teach their children to honor their mothers and fathers.
  • They refrain from eating pork or other foods forbidden by the Torah, or forbidden combinations of permitted foods.
  • Their form of animal slaughter, which makes meats fit for their consumption, resembles Jewish shechita.
  • They practice male circumcision.
  • They place a Star of David on their tombstones.
  • Lembas are discouraged from marrying non-Lembas, as Jews are discouraged from marrying non-Jews.

Lemba traditions

The Lemba have oral traditions of being a migrant people with clues pointing to an origin in the Middle East. According to the oral history of the Lemba, they had male ancestors who were Jews who left Judea about 2,500 years ago and settled in a place called Senna, later migrating into East Africa.[5] According to the findings of British researcher Tudor Parfitt, the location of Sena was more than likely in Yemen, specifically, in the village of Sanāw within the easternmost portion of the Wadi Hadhramaut[6]. The city had a vibrant Jewish population since ancient times, but it dwindled to a few hundred people since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.[7]

After entering Africa, the tribe is said to have split off into two groups, with one staying in Ethiopia, and the other traveling farther south, along the east coast. The Lemba claim this second group settled in Tanzania and Kenya, and built what was referred to as "Sena II". Others were said to have settled in Malawi, where descendants reside today. Some settled in Mozambique, and eventually migrated to South Africa and Zimbabwe, where they claim to have constructed or helped construct the great enclosure.[5] Most academics agree, though, that for the most part, the construction of the enclosure at Great Zimbabwe is attributable to the ancestors of the Shona.[8]

The Lemba prefer their children to marry other Lembas, with marriage to non-Lembas being discouraged. The restrictions on intermarriage with non-Lemba make it particularly difficult for a male non-Lemba to become a member. A woman who marries a Lemba male must learn the Lemba religion, dietary rules and other customs. She may not bring any cooking equipment from her previous home, as it may have been tainted by inappropriate use (see Kashrut). Initially, she may have to shave her head. Her children must also be brought up as Lembas. Lemba men who marry non-Lemba women are expelled from the community, if the women refuse to live according to Lemba traditions. Normative Judaism only recognizes matrilineal descent; however, patrilineal descent was the norm among the Israelites who lived prior to its adoption.

Lemba tradition tells of a sacred object, the ngoma lungundu or "drum that thunders", that was brought with them from Sena, Yemen. Tudor Parfitt, Professor of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, has theorised that it was the Ark of the Covenant, lost from Jerusalem after the destruction by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC.[9] In a Channel 4 programme, Parfitt claimed he had traced a missing copy of the artefact to a museum in Harare, Zimbabwe. Radiocarbon dating showed it to be over 600 years old, and Parfitt suggested that it was a replica made while the Lemba were in Yemen, after the original Ark had been destroyed.[10] In February 2010 the Lemba ngoma lungundu, believed to be a nearly 700-year-old replica of the Ark of the Covenant, went on display in a museum in Harare, Zimbabwe. It was rediscovered a few years ago.[11]

DNA testing

A genetic study in 1996 suggested that more than 50% of the Lemba Y chromosomes are Semitic in origin;[12] a subsequent study in 2000 reported more specifically that a substantial number of Lemba men carry a particular haplotype of the Y chromosome known as the Cohen modal haplotype (CMH), as well as, a haplogrup of Y-DNA Haplogroup J found amongst some Jews and in other populations across the Middle East.[13][14]

One particular sub-clan within the Lemba, the Buba clan, is considered by the Lemba to be their priestly clan, while among Jews, the Kohanim are the priestly clan. The Buba clan carried most of the CMH found in the Lemba. Among Jews the marker is also most prevalent among Jewish Kohanim, or priests. As recounted in Lemba oral tradition, the Buba clan "had a leadership role in bringing the Lemba out of Israel" and into Southern Africa.[15]

Halakhic status as Jews

Halakhic Jewish status (Jewish status according to Jewish law) in modern rabbinic Judaism is determined by an unbroken matrilineal line of descent or by conversion to Judaism. Jews who adhere to modern rabbinism therefore believe that Jewish status by birth is passed by a Jewish female to her children (if she herself is a Jew by birth or by conversion to Judaism) regardless of the Jewish status of the father. It is therefore very unlikely that mainstream Orthodox Judaism would recognize the Lemba as Halakhically Jewish.

South African Jews have been aware of the Lemba but have never regarded them more than an "intriguing curiosity"[4]

The case for the Lemba being accepted as Jews is generally rejected, but has been advocated by several rabbis and Jewish associations who view them as one of the "lost tribes of Israel". The Lemba Cultural Association has approached the South African Jewish Board of Deputies asking for the Lemba to be recognized as Jews by the Jewish community. The Association complained that "we like many non-European Jews are simply the victims of racism at the hands of the European Jewish establishment worldwide" and threatened to start a campaign to "protest and ultimately destroy 'Jewish apartheid'".[4]

According to Gideon Shimona in his book, Community and conscience: the Jews in apartheid South Africa[4]:

In terms of halakha the Lemba are not at all comparable with the Falasha. As a group they have no conceivable status in Judaism.

Rabbi Bernhard stated that the only way for a member of the Lemba tribe to be recognized as a Jew is to undergo the formal Halakhic conversion process, after which they "would be welcomed with open arms."[4]

See also


  1. ^ Heppner, Max Amichai (1999) "Science Ties the Lemba Closer to Mainstram Jews" Kulanu 6(2): pp.1,13
  2. ^ a b c Wuriga, Rabson (1999) "The Story of a Lemba Philosopher and His People" Kulanu 6(2): pp.1,11-12
  3. ^ Kleiman, Yaakov (2004). DNA and Tradition - Hc: The Genetic Link to the Ancient Hebrews. Devora Publishing. pp. 81. ISBN 1930143893. 
  4. ^ a b c d e Shimona, Gideon (2003). Community and conscience: the Jews in apartheid South Africa. United States of America: Brandeis University Press. p. 178. ISBN 1584653299. Retrieved 2010-03-13. 
  5. ^ a b The Story of the Lemba People
  6. ^ Lost Tribes of Israel NOVA Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) February 22 2000
  7. ^ "Tudor Parfitt's Remarkable Journey" NOVA Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) November 2000 accessed 26 February 2008
  8. ^ Great Zimbabwe (11th–15th century) Thematic Essay | Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  9. ^ A Lead on the Ark of the Covenant, Time, 21 February 2008
  10. ^ Indiana Parfitt and the temple of ‘hmm’, The Herald, 14 April 2008
  11. ^ "Zimbabwe displays 'Ark of Covenant replica'", BBC News, 18 Feb 2010, accessed 7 Mar 2010
  12. ^ The origins of the Lemba "Black Jews" of southern Africa: evidence from p12F2 and other Y-chromosome markers.,, retrieved 2008-06-15 
  13. ^ "Y Chromosomes Traveling South: The Cohen Modal Haplotype and the Origins of the Lemba — the “Black Jews of Southern Africa”", American Journal of Human Genetics 66 (2): 674, February 1, 2000, PMID 10677325,, retrieved 2008-06-15 
  14. '^ Schindler, Sol "The genetics of Jewish ancestry" which is a review of Abraham's Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen People by Jon Entine The Washington Times [1]
  15. ^ "The Lemba, The Black Jews of Southern Africa" NOVA Public Broadcasting System (PBS) November 2000 accessed 26 February 2008

External links



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