Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

12 Iyar 5762 - April 24, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Yemenite Renewal

by Refoel Berlson

Last week we discussed the unfortunate past of the Yemenite community in the early days of the State of Israel. This week we discuss the present and future of the Yemenite community.

When Rav Shimon Kahalani went to visit the Yemenite community in London, he found among them "Jews who pasken halocho from the siddur." They have almost completely forgotten their traditions.

The community in London is made up of immigrants who have left Yemen in the last few years. Following the spiritual disintegration of their community in Yemen its members found themselves without a leader. In London they were taken under the wings of Rav Meir Schlesinger, now head of "Kehillas Yotzei Teimon."

Rav Kahalani: "The Jewish community in Yemen had been isolated for several decades. One of them told me, `Before the Satmar activists came to Yemen we thought that we were the only Jews left in the world. We heard that there had been a Holocaust and assumed that we were the only Jews left alive.' While they were still in Yemen strange incidents took place, such as when someone who had received an aliyah laTorah presented the sum pledged to the gabbai right over the bimah on Shabbos -- in cash. Of course, they were not all like that, but such was the spiritual level of the lower classes."

The spiritual level of the Yemenite Jews in London still far exceeds that of their compatriots who were absorbed by the State of Israel, where they fell victim to the Zionist shmad. Even those members -- several thousand in number -- of the community who did not bow down to the false idol, retaining their levels of observance, paid a price: the disintegration of the communal framework made many of them forget the customs of this holy and glorious community.

According to data published by the Central Bureau of Statistics in Israel there were 37,000 first generation Yemenite Jews in Eretz Yisroel in the year 2000. The second generation -- those born in Eretz Yisroel -- numbers some 148,600. Members of the third generation are already defined as "Israeli" by the authorities and are not counted separately, so it is difficult to tell how many of them there are. It is estimated that the Yemenite community in Eretz Yisroel consists of some 400,000 people! It is the largest Sephardic group [group of Jews of Middle Eastern origin] after the Moroccan community.

The Yemenite Dance

A Yemenite writer once complained that the traditional Yemenite simchah dance has been replaced by the Ashkenazi one at weddings which he has attended: "There is an admixture of customs from other communities, especially Ashkenazi ones. I have nothing against the customs of other communities, but the style that has been adopted even by traditionally observant Yemenite Jews is harmful to our Yemenite tradition and identity. A glorious and unique Jewry and tradition that we maintained for more than two thousand years is being extinguished because we are permitting our customs to be taken over by those of another community, which knows how to preserve its traditions and identity zealously. It was painful for me to hear the distorted tunes of the songs, [I miss] the special dances, whose every movement is significant. Now people dance with a different style. I asked myself: what has happened to us?"

We must stress the difference between holy Jewish traditions and "folklore." The preservation of the halachic tradition is of paramount importance: this is the aim of a small, dedicated group of avreichim and this article is solely concerned with this holy task. You do not have to be Yemenite to enjoy jachanoun and koubana! Even a Polish Jew can enjoy the taste of ga'ath leaves.

Nevertheless, it turns out that the Yemenite style of dancing is not just folklore but also has holy sources. Rav Meir Levi, author of Or Hahalocho: "I looked into the special style of dancing customary amongst Yemenite Jews, and it turns out that it is a specifically Jewish way of dancing, fundamentally different from the dances of Yemenite Arabs. And the tunes are also authentic Jewish ones."

Another member of the Yemenite community says: "Our dances have their origins in holy sources. Yemenite Arabs dance holding swords, whereas with us all our movements join together to fulfill `all my bones shall sing.' "

The exiled Yemenite Jews accepted on themselves not to play musical instruments so as not to divert their attention from the destruction of Yerushalayim. An exception to this was the drum or the metal plate (tsahn), which was used on joyous occasions. This custom is the background for the saying that a Yemenite Jew can't work as a blacksmith, since as soon as one of them would start working, his colleague would start dancing.

For the same reason, the Yemenite tunes for Shabbos are also quiet and relaxed: so that people will not start dancing on Shabbos to the beat of a snappy tune!

Baking Matzos on Pesach

Already at the time when the first Yemenite immigrants started settling in Yerushalayim they were told to observe the customs of the Sephardic community in Yerushalayim. A dispute arose around the issue of baking matzos on Pesach itself. The "Beis Din Tzedek of Kehilla Kedoshoh San'a and All the Towns of Yemen" sent a letter to the Yemenite Jews in Yerushalayim telling them that they could continue with their previous custom. The end of the letter contained a request from Hatzair Suleiman ben David Zarom S"T [Sephardi tahor]: "Anyone who will be in possession of this responsum after us must be exceedingly careful that it does not get lost, since it should serve as a sign and reminder for coming generations, for the truth is destined to return as in former times."

(He also cites proof for this Yemenite custom: "The Lechem Haponim were baked every erev Shabbos as it says about them, `They shall be arranged on Shabbos before Hashem always,' and they were certainly also baked on erev Shabbos on Pesach, because they were made of matzoh as the Rambam says in chapter 5 of Hilchos Temidin Umusofin.")

The Diwan

Their book of songs is called the Diwan. In Yemen it was customary for anyone getting married to make the effort to hire a scribe to write a Diwan. It was a rectangular, narrow, and elongated book. It had this special shape because it needed to be easy to carry and to fit into a garment. The songs of the Diwan mourn whatever needs to be mourned and mock whatever deserves to be mocked, and they always contain an element of encouragement and consolation stemming from a flowing and believing heart.

At every seudas mitzvah the participants trill their voices. Sometimes they will have a friendly argument about the correct trill or kvetch for a particular tune.

On Shabbos at the beginning of the meal some ja'ala is served, a generous concoction serving as an appetizer. The various kinds of targima are interwoven with holy tunes.

The day after the wedding, family members gather for a seudas mitzvah full of meaty dishes and divrei Torah. A mori is usually invited to honor the gathering and give a speech. Once a guest at a seudas mitzvah refused to eat, saying that he had come to hear divrei Torah not to eat. The mori responded: "The soul has also not come to the world to eat, but if we don't feed it, it runs away . . . "

Continue the Customs of Your Ancestors

HaRav Chaim Kanievsky replied to a questioner: "Continue the customs of your ancestors."

This was the question put to HaRav Chaim (published in Or Hahalacha: a collection of Yemenite customs on the Mishna Berurah): "I am a member of the Yemenite community here in Eretz Yisroel and our forefathers in Yemen had many customs. Should I continue with these customs . . . (he mentions a few examples) or should I change them since my ancestors left their homeland and came to settle in Eretz Yisroel for good, and to prevent machlokes, lest the Torah look like two Toros? Do we say that the earlier customs have to make way for those practiced by the Sephardim who were already settled in Eretz Yisroel?"

A young man from the Yemenite community asked HaRav Chaim what he should do since several shidduchim had turned him down because he grew his payos (simonim) in a conspicuous way. Rav Chaim ruled that he should continue to grow them the same way and blessed him that he should find his zivug.

Shfar Gizecha

"Yemenite customs" include many details of everyday life. Even commonplace greetings go beyond a "How are you? -- Boruch Hashem". There is long list of phrases based on certain times and situations. We shall quote some of them (taken from Or Hahalacha):

Before davening the appropriate greeting is Zafra tav and the reply Zafra tav umevoroch. After davening: Tishoma tefilathecho, and the reply: Ve'atoh te'aneh vete'ater batefilloh.

Someone who has been honored with a cup from his friend says, Boruch mi shehakose miyodo and his friend replies: Boruch shoteihu.

When wine or another alcoholic beverage is drunk during a meal, the appropriate statement is Kos ve'achiloh and the response: Shetei besimchoh vegiloh.

If you meet someone who has had a haircut you wish him, Shfar gizecha and the response: Vegizecha yishofar. on Friday night the greeting is Shabboth Sholom, in the second meal Shabboth tov umevoroch and in the third meal, Shabboth Sholom tov umevoroch.

Upon parting from a chosson one wishes him Elokim yivne beithecho. If the well-wisher is married the chosson replies, Beithecho lo yechsar; and if he is not, Beithecho yiboneh.

It is interesting to note that they also count sefiras HaOmer in Aramaic.

The Convention

Eight years ago, about eight thousand members of the Yemenite community gathered at a big convention "to strengthen and bolster religion amongst our brethren from the Yemenite community and to return the sons to their source in accordance with the ancient traditions of their fathers." The convention was organized by Mori Chaim Shmuel Kassar zt"l and Mori Yechia Alshich zt"l.

The following rabbonim also called on people to participate in the gathering: HaRav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt"l and ylct"a HaRav Eliashiv shlita, HaRav Wosner shlita and HaRav Nissim Karelitz shlita.

HaRav Yehuda Ratzabi says that when HaRav Nissim Karelitz signed the proclamation, "I asked him to express his opinion about the customs of various communities today. He replied that every community certainly should preserve its traditions. I asked him, if that was so, what is the definition of a kehilla, since the Mishna Berurah (in Bi'ur Halochoh 468 d"h Vechumrei) writes: "Moreh tzedek umikve -- this does not apply in our times since the botei dinim and mikvo'os are not divided according to communities." HaRav Nissim added with a smile that in their time the same applied also to cemeteries (which in previous generations also belonged to individual communities, as is still the case in Yerushalayim today) but in our time it would appear that the relevant criterion is the shul that people attend, and whether the community has a spiritual leadership. Each such community is considered a kehilla nowadays, in practice."

HaRav Michel Yehuda Lefkovitch wrote the following (in a letter dated 1 Tammuz, 5761, responding to a questioner): "It appears to me in my humble opinion that since the holy Yemenite communities, may they be long preserved, have an ancient tradition untainted by the external influence of the maskilim, who were responsible for the destruction of the Jewish nation in the Diaspora, they have to preserve their tradition and not change it, because the slightest breach can chas vesholom extend and develop to other areas of being moreh heter as Chazal stressed (Sanhedrin 7a) about the severity of strife and disputes, as Rashi explains there, so must we be very wary of any breaches of leniency creating changes in the customs of your community, may it be long preserved.

"And since due to the troubles of golus in Yemen there was a break in the continuity of yeshivas studying Shas and Shulchan Oruch, which became the preserve of only a select few amongst you, therefore here in Eretz Yisroel there should be an expansion of cheders to teach the young ones and educate them to observing Torah and mitzvos. In addition, yeshivas for younger and older boys must be established, as well as kollelim for avreichim in order to restore the spiritual splendor of Yemenite Jewry that the Shechinoh may rest upon every home."

We Rolled our Reish

The clear speech and special accent of Yemenite Jews fell victim to Israeli "culture." A member of the Yemenite community laments as follows: "We have done our best to remove any trace of our Middle Eastern origin -- we roll our reish into our throat, we bring our ches closer to the palate, and we have merged the ayin, alef and he into one letter."

Yemenites distinguish between the noun shethiyoh, which has a chirik underneath the sov, and the noun Even Shethoyo, which is read with a komatz underneath the sov. In a grammar booklet on Maseches Yomo "according to the tradition of Yemenite Jewry" the author recalls how he read the words as Even Shethiyoh to his father in his youth. His father told him jokingly: "My son, on Yom Kippur there is no drinking!"

Already fifteen years ago chadorim for the Yemenite community were established, such as Torat Avot in Bnei Brak and Mevasser Tov in Yerushalayim, and the trend has increased since then. The Peulat Zaddik organization has set up institutions throughout Eretz Yisroel where children learn the Yemenite way of reading in the afternoon.

Even secular Jews send their children for lessons with the mori, because the Yemenite custom is for the person who gets an aliya to read the whole portion in the Torah and the parents want the child to have the option of going to shul on yomim tovim. Children get an aliya for shishi.

In Beit Shemesh

Anyone going through Rechov Hamishlat in Beit Shemesh is treated to the sounds of delicate tones stemming from the children of Medrash Torat Chaim. Medrash is what the Yemenites call a cheder and Medrash Chaim is named after Mori Yechia Alshich and Mori Chaim Kasar zt"l.

HaRav Shimon Kahalani, founder of the cheder: "The two rabbonim after whom the Medrash is called were very distressed about the decline of the community. They would ask, crying: `Where are the children?' In the shuls there were already children who could not read from the Torah. During his last fifteen years I had the privilege of being a close student of Mori Yechia Alshich zt"l (and especially in the last three years of his life). After he passed away five years ago, on that bitter day, 21 Cheshvan 5757 (1996), I took it upon myself to ensure the continuity of the traditions of the community by setting up the Medrash. We want the children to learn how to read and about other customs lechatchiloh and not as supplementary studies for the afternoon hours.

"Our aim is for the children to live the tradition and not just to be able to recite it. Within three to four years a child must know the whole Chumash. This knowledge has to be inside the child's head and not just in books."

This is actually a similar system to the one adopted by chadorim which stress a lot of repetition of material, based on the methods of Zichru Torah Moshe cheder!

"Yes, but you can't compare. With us the child, in addition to learning the material, also has to "exercise his tongue" until he learns the correct pronunciation according to the original Yemenite tradition. He has to distinguish between a stressed and "weak" gimmel and daled and so on. This does not come easily. Sometimes the teachers also need to be guided in the correct rules of pronunciation.

"Some of the children have no background in Yemenite pronunciation even though they come from Yemenite homes. Many people think that the Yemenites `read everything with a komatz.' This is not true at all. Not only the Yemenite pronunciation is different but even the punctuation itself. For example, the word rebbi has a chirik underneath the reish (that is, ribbi) and tarnegol has a shuruk underneath the tov, not to mention the shevo noch and shevo no."

Is a five-year-old capable of being a grammarian?

HaRav Kahalani: "At the first stage, the child learns how to read without understanding the rules. Sometimes he notices a contradiction and asks, `Why is the shevo different here from there?' But he will only learn the rules after he is totally proficient in reading. In our Medrash a boy in second grade has a thorough knowledge of the whole of Bereishis. If I tell my six-and-a-half-year-old son the beginning of a posuk he will continue it with the correct notes and accents. After my son got his first aliya LaTorah and read the pesukim, the older members of the congregation hugged him warmly.

"I myself grew up in a Yemenite family with deep roots. I had the privilege of knowing my grandfather who came from San'a, but I became cut off from the Yemenite tradition. I was an Ashkenazi or a Sephardi, but not a Teimani. I related to the traditions of my ancestors as something of marginal importance, as `spice' and not meat. After I got married I lived in Canada and I felt the urge to return to my ancestral roots and customs. A lot of avreichim undergo the same process. A person can't just decide that he has no connection with the past, and our generation is the last one capable of preserving our original traditions."

In a picture of Medrash Torat Chaim the children are seen reading the sefer upside down . . .

HaRav Kahalani smiles: "In Yemen this was forced on them by circumstances, `A boy had to read from whichever direction he happened to be facing.' In our Medrash they also do that sometimes, but only as a joke before the lesson.

"Have our children inherited this ability from their ancestors? In Medrash Torat Chaim we feel that they have, but this has not been proved in any in-depth study."

What about the traditional clothes?

"If a child is not part of a community consisting of several dozen families all dressed the same way, then it is inappropriate [for the child to dress this way]. I myself do wear the Yemenite clothing on Shabbos -- shelo shinu es levushom! I remember my grandfather with his tachtani, kuftan, matzar and the kufia, but there is obviously no point in dressing up a child with Yemenite clothes before he has adopted authentic Yemenite traditions."

Both Canny Sharpness and Naivete

In Yemen all the crockery was made of clay. Once two Jews hired a furnace from a Muslim in which they manufactured pots. There was a drought that year and pots weren't very much in demand, and so they were unable to afford the rent. Once an argument broke out between the two partners about a klub (bread baked on a pan). Each one claimed ownership over it. Because there was a drought, the argument was a vociferous one. Just then the owner came past demanding his rent.

The argument immediately changed tone. The first one argued, "My brother, you look so gaunt, I beg you to take this loaf and eat it." The other one responded: "Chas vesholom, your family is starving!" The owner of the furnace heard this argument and, feeling sorry for them, told them that he was forgiving them the rent.

It was this innocent aspect of the Yemenite character that was exploited by the Israeli establishment. Anyone who wanted to protect himself from the Zionist calamity was forced to contend with numerous spiritual and material obstacles. It was of paramount importance that a Yemenite kehilloh become established in Eretz Yisroel, but the establishment destroyed the whole framework mercilessly.

In Rechasim there is an elderly Yemenite lady who kashers [nikur] the sheep meat that is shechted, from time to time, on her own. She recalls how her father taught her to kasher meat: "When I was learning it, my father asked me to kasher some meat. I did what I could, and when I made a mistake my father slapped me on the face -- in order to teach me the severity of making a mistake in the halochos of kashering meat! Ever since then, until today, whenever I am kashering meat and feel pain on my face, I know that I have made a mistake with the kashering and I immediately look to see where I went wrong. According to the level of pain, I know whether the meat is kosher." That is the lady's innocent account of how she establishes whether meat is kosher. Hashem yerachem.

The old lady wholeheartedly believes what she is saying, and genuinely does not intend to make anybody transgress. But this is not a reliable measure of kashrus. This proves that in our time only a communal framework built on the foundations of pure halocho can prevent stumbling blocks, when ignorance is prevalent inside the house. Such frameworks are increasingly being built across the country.

Halichos Teimon

Six years ago the Bnei Hayeshivos organization started halocho tests aimed at increasing knowledge of Yemenite halocho and customs. In the first cycle more than 300 yeshiva bochurim participated!

Yeshiva ketanoh boys are tested on Orach Chaim and yeshiva gedoloh bochurim on Yoreh Deah. Each stage of the test takes about half a year, finishing before chol hamoed Pesach and Succos. At a special gathering held on yom tov, four prize winners with the best halachic knowledge are announced, and they are given a large financial stipend. Those on the team of examiners say that the talmidim attain a high level of proficiency in the halochos.

Many yeshiva bochurim of Yemenite origin meet on Shabbosos with rabbonim from the community. These Shabbosos are filled with Torah, yiras Shomayim and songs. We are only describing the tip of the iceberg and many other excellent frameworks exist today based on the Yemenite tradition, but these are beyond the scope of this article.

Chakima DeYehudo'i

The longing for ancestral roots has also given rise to a leaflet, serving to connect yeshiva bochurim [of Yemenite origin]. In one issue we found an incident about the wisdom of the last Chief Rabbi of Yemenite Jewry, HaRav Yitzchok Halevi zt"l:

One of the wealthy Muslims lost his wallet while he was walking in the streets of San'a. A Jew found it and decided to return it to its owner because of kiddush Hashem, but the Muslim started shouting at him, "You thief! Give me back another 100 rials! There were 200 rials in here and you've only given me back 100!"

They went to court and since the judge was unable to reach a decision, the Muslim got up and swore by his religion and his prophet that the wallet had indeed contained 200 rials. The King of Yemen heard about the court case and summoned HaRav Halevi. This King was famous for his kindly disposition towards the Jews. He was also a great admirer of the Chief Rabbi and often consulted with him. HaRav Yitzchok would sit close to him and they would speak in whispers. The non-Jewish ministers were jealous that the rabbi's curly payos touched the king when they spoke together.

HaRav Yitzchok asked to see the wallet. He looked at it and asked for 100 rials to be brought from the Royal Treasury. He put them into the wallet and demonstrated to all those present that the wallet was not large enough to hold 200 rials.

The proper ruling was now clear. On the one hand the wallet was not large enough to hold 200 rials. On the other hand it was unthinkable that a Muslim would take a false oath. Consequently, this could not be the stolen wallet and it had to be returned to the Jew. The Muslim had to continue looking for his lost wallet, and the Jew was to hold on to the wallet until it was claimed by its owner!

Anyone who Makes Changes is at a Disadvantage

100 years ago members of the Yemenite community in Yerushalayim were suffering from a gezeiroh of children dying, Rachmono litzlan. While this was occurring, a moving letter was sent from San'a addressed to Yemenite Jews living in Yerushalayim and dated 25th Adar II 5602 (1902). It encouraged members of the community to improve their ways, and says, inter alia, "In matters of tefillah and brochoth everybody makes their own regulations as he sees fit, causing much dissension and dispute in each community from the fury of the Matzik - - anyone who makes changes really has the lower hand, but he thinks that he has the upper hand . . . "

They say that in the middle of one of the disputes one mispalel went up to a mori and asked him for a ruling about what he should do. The mori replied, "Act in accordance with the minhag hamokom." The mispalel objected, "But that's what the whole dispute is about!" The mori replied, "Indeed, that is the minhag hamokom here."

There were arguments between elderly Jews who remembered the original Yemenite customs and younger members of the community who mixed in customs from other communities. Since then many years have passed, and nowadays Chanichei Hayeshivos minyonim are to be found throughout Eretz Yisroel, which follow the Yemenite minhogim faithfully: In Brachfeld, Beit Shemesh, Beitar, Elad, and several shuls in Kiryat Sefer.

In these shuls they use Yemenite sifrei Torah made out of gevil, which are heavier than Sifrei Torah made out of parchment (klaf). They say that when an old mori walked with the heavy sefer Torah and one of the mispalelim offered to help him, the mori told him, "When you look at the sefer Torah it does look heavy. But when you hold it, it doesn't feel heavy anymore."

This story may serve as a moshol for all the Yemenite customs. They make a very "heavy" impression: the tefillos are long, on Shabbos you have the Targum, the selichos during Elul take many hours to recite and so on. But when you remain attached to ancient minhogim, they no longer seem heavy!


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