Most of Yemen is parched desert. But its congenial west coast and mountains were ideal for growing frankincense and myrrh that were as valuable as gold in the world of two thousand years ago. Yemen was a good place for Jews to live. Old time geographers called the area Arabia Felix (Happy Arabia), and happy it may have been were it not for the violent tribal squabbles. Each tribe warred for the other’s land and rule went to the ruthless.
During the early centuries of the Common Era, the Himyarite tribe became dominant in Yemen after defeating the Sabea, Raidan, Hadramut, and Yammat tribes. The Himyarites ruled over most of modern day Yemen and spread over most of the Arabian Peninsula at the zenith of their power. This empire would little concern us except that it was ruled by Jewish kings for many years, and, according to some historians, its population was comprised of converted Jews.
No one knows when Jews first arrived in Yemen. Legends date the first arrivals in a bewildering variety of times. An old Arab legend relates that Jews first arrived in the Arabian peninsula in the days of Moshe Rabbeinu after he sent them to attack Amalekites living in the city of Medina. Like King Shaul in later centuries, the emissaries failed to kill every Amalekite, and as punishment, they were barred entry to Eretz Yisroel and settled in Arabia. It goes without saying that this legend is mentioned in no Torah source and smacks of fiction from Arabian Nights.
A local Jewish tradition dates the settlement of Jews to the time of King Shlomo who sent Jewish ships to Yemen in search of gold and silver for the Bais Hamikdosh, while other legends claim that Queen Sheba imported the first Jews. Jews of Sana’a in north Yemen had a legend that forty-two years before the Churban, 75,000 Jews, including Kohanim and Levi’im moved to Yemen. Years later, it was said, Ezra visited the vicinity, bringing the joyous news that the Bais Hamikdosh was being rebuilt and urging them to trek back to Yerushalayim. But they refused to heed his call. This, according to legend, is why the name Ezra is never used among Yemenite Jews. Yemenite Jews of Habban in the south of the country claimed to be descendants of Jews who moved there before the second Churban. Historians suspect they may be descendants of a brigade of soldiers Herod sent to help Roman legions in the area. The brigade never made it back to Eretz Yisroel and perhaps settled in the area.
Historians presume that most Yemenite Jews emigrated there after the second Churban. The local pagans were accepting of the new arrivals. The Jews dwelled convivially in their midst, but kept themselves separate by the laws and customs of the Torah and their contact with the sages of Eretz Yisroel and Bavel.
The presence of Jews in the area eventually led to the creation of a Jewish Yemenite kingdom. How did this happen?
Hospitality Above All
In those days Arabia was constantly threatened by the Christian Byzantium Empire and the Zoroastrian Persia. Another enemy was Christian Ethiopia lying just over the narrow Persian Gulf. Keeping them out of Arabia was high on the Himyar’s shopping list. Nervous of Christian encroachment on his northern territories, the Himyar king, Tub’a Abu Kariba As’ad set out with an army and reached Yathrib, nowadays the Muslims’ city of Medina. Things seemed peaceful there, so leaving one of his sons behind in Yathrib the king forged on. Some days later, the Yathrib citizens killed the king’s son. Furious, the king turned back, cut down the town’s palm trees that supplied a good part of their livelihood, and began a ruthless siege. The Yathrib pagans fought back, helped by their loyal Jewish neighbors. Legend makes much of the people of Yathrib’s hospitality, claiming that the town fought Kariba As’ad by day and served their royal besieger banquets at night. This went a long way towards quieting the king’s hostility.
Then the king fell ill. Two Jewish residents of the town, Kaab and Assad, went out and healed him, urging him to leave the town alone and warning that he might incur Divine wrath if he failed to leave.
“After six days,” Arab writers tell us, “the king and his army left Yathrib and set off to their birthplace in Yemen, the two Jewish sages accompanying him on his way. When the king returned to Yemen, he called upon all the citizens of the land to accept the Jewish religion. At first they refused, but in the end they agreed on condition that he took part in the ordeal of fire that was customary in Yemen.” Although the story’s continuum sounds like something from the Arabian Nights, it vividly indicates the veneration some early Muslim historians had for the Torah.
“So his people (i.e., the Himyarites) went forth with their idols and with other sacred objects they were accustomed to utilize in their religion, while the two rabbis went forth with their sacred writings hanging round their necks until they halted in front of the fire by the place where it blazed forth,” the story continues. “The fire leapt out toward them, and when it neared them they withdrew from it in great fear. But those people present urged them onward and instructed them to stand firm.
“So they stood their ground until the fire covered them and consumed the idols and the sacred objects they had brought along, together with the men of Himyar who were bearing them. The two rabbis then went forth with their sacred writings round their necks, with their foreheads dripping with sweat but the fire did not harm them at all. At this, the Himyarites agreed to accept Tubba’s [Kariba As’ad’s] religion. From this time onward and because of this episode, was the origin of Judaism in Yemen.”
The king also permitted the two sages to destroy his country’s most popular idolatrous temple. Exactly what proportion of the population became Jewish is subject to speculation. Some historians maintain that it was mostly the ruling class that switched over to Judaism.
The Empire Sinks
Abu Kariba was succeeded by a corrupt leader unrelated to the king’s family who let the empire run to ruin. News of the Jewish kingdom had reached Christian countries and aroused fear and worry. Too much Jewish power in Yemen might interrupt the trade routes between Byzantium and India and in any case, they were not the greatest lovers of Jews. Ethiopian Christians encroached into Yemen, taking over major towns and turning shuls into churches. The Himyarite kingdom sank to a low point.
The next Jewish king to lead the dynasty was Abu Kariba’s son or grandson, Yussuf ‘As Ar Yath’ar Dhu-Nuwas (517-525 CE), the last Jewish ruler in Yemen. Dhu-Nuwas, according to some Arab historians, means Lord Sidelocks, signifying that the king grew prominent peyos. Others translate it as “Curly Head.”
Some sources claim that Dhu-Nuwas was a non-Jewish relative of Kariba As’ad and needed to be persuaded to convert. Arab legend relates that one pagan belief at the time was the service of fire, and particularly a certain fire claimed to be inextinguishable. Jews came to Dhu-Nuwas and said: “Our lord, the king! There is no reason you should worship the fire for it is worthless.” The king agreed to convert on condition the Jews extinguish the fire. The Jews began reading from a Torah scroll and did not cease until the fi re shrank into nothing.
Dhu-Nuwas was a fierce warrior who loved nothing better than a good war. He began picking fights with Christian Byzantium, which drew in Ethiopia as well. Part of his campaign involved an attack against Najran, a hotbed of Christian agitation against the king, where Jews had been killed. Reports of the fall of Najran and the slaughter of some of its Christians shocked the Christian world and stirred up lust for revenge.
In 525 CE, the Christian allies struck and invaded from the Red Sea, capturing Dhu-Nuwas’s capital, its treasures, and his wife. According to legend, this last Jewish monarch of Yemen was last seen racing his steed from a jutting rock into the Red Sea. Although Jews and their allies eventually drove the Christians from the interior, the monarchy had come to its end. Later, Himyar lost its independence and became a vassal state of Ethiopia. The Muslims seized the area in the 7th century, and within two centuries the Jews had plunged from being members of the ruling class, to becoming dhimmis (second class citizens) of the Muslim world.
Traces of the Past
Today, little remains of Yemen’s Jewish monarchy except a few inscriptions in Yemen bearing traditional Jewish names of Hashem. One inscription speaks of a building erected by a man named Yehudah and continues: “With help and charity of his G-d, the creator of his soul, the G-d of the living and the dead, the G-d of heaven and earth, who created everything; and with the support of His people, Israel, and by the authority of the King of Sheba, and by the authority of his tribal lord.”
There is also an Israeli connection to the old Jewish empire. During 1936-1937, archeologists digging in the ancient Beit Shearim cemetery near Chaifa found a four-roomed site with small burial niches. Pictures and inscriptions on the walls made it clear that this place was set aside for the burial of Himyar nobles. A Greek inscription over one of the burial niches described those interred there as “people of Himyar” and pottery and shards at the location date back to the second-half of the third century CE. Historians theorize that these Himyarites did not die during a tour of Eretz Yisroel, but were sent from Yemen to be buried there.
The most modern memorial to the Himyar Empire is found in downtown Yerushalayim. Branching off Yaffo Street, a street named Dhu Nuwas honors the memory of Yemen’s Jewish kings who burst into the arena of history 1,500 years ago and sank back into the sands of Yemen without a trace.
(Credit: Joseph Adler. The Jewish Kingdom of Himyar (Yemen): Its Rise and Fall. Gale, Cengage Learning, 2000.)