Jews, Arabic-Speaking

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Jews, Arabic-Speaking

ETHNONYMS: Names among Jewish groups of the Fertile Crescent are based on locale. Examples are Halabiye (Aleppians) and Shawam (Damascenes). Among Arabic speakers, Arabic-speaking Jews are referred to as "Yahud awlad al-ʿarab" (lit., "Jews who are children of the Arabs," or Arabophone Jews).


Identification. From the beginnings of the Diaspora until 1948, there were substantial Jewish communities throughout southwestern Asia. The Jewish communities in Arabic-speaking areas of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt, as well as those in southeastern Anatolia, were predominantly Arabic speaking, as were some Jews in pre-1948 Palestine. No single name encompasses these communities. They are ritually Sephardic. Jews in most locales have Arabic speakers of other religions as coresidents-In southeastern and south-central Anatolia, coresidents include Turks and Kurds. Formerly, there were also considerable numbers of Armenian Christians in Anatolia and Aleppo. The Jewish communities are discontinuously distributed.

Location. Arabic-speaking Jews lived in villages, towns, and cities in an area extending from Baghdad (33°20 N, 44°30 E) to Cairo (30°01 N, 31°14 E) in the west and south, and as far as Diyarbakir (37°55 N, 40°18 E) in the north.

Demography. Figures for the premigratton period are in dispute, but the early twentieth century was marked by lowering infant-mortality rates, and also by emigration and high death rates in the period from 1910 to 1920, owing to war, famine, and influenza. The Ottoman census in 1893 can serve as a baseline, although it may be an underestimate. Females sometimes were not counted, and the considerable number of minority members carrying foreign passports were not included with local Jews or Christians. For the Arab provinces (excluding Egypt), there were 32,867 Jews out of a total population of 1,965,085. Estimates of the numbers of Jews in Iraq, Egypt, and Syria-Lebanon total 180,000 in 1917, 261,000 in 1947, and 5,700 in 1972 (5,000 of whom were in Syria and Lebanon). After the almost total emigration from Lebanon, this population is lower today. Figures for the earlier period include the Jews of Iraqi Kurdistan and the Ashknenazic Jews in Egypt but exclude the Jews in Palestine/Israel.

Linguistic Affiliation. The traditional domestic language was Eastern Arabic. The dialects that were spoken by Jews in Syria and Egypt were urban dialects of those areas, whereas an Iraqi urban dialect was spoken in Baghdad and by eastern Anatolian Jews. The dialects spoken by the Jews were also based on Hebrew as a source of vocabulary. Because of immigration, large numbers of Jews in Egypt and Palestine were non-Arabic speakers. After 1920, Hebrew became the language of Palestinian Jewry.

History and Cultural Relations

The Fertile Crescent is the region where Judaism originated. With the beginnings of the Diaspora in the sixth century b.c., and, certainly by the second century b.c., there were Jewish populations throughout the region, especially in Babylonia (now southern Iraq). From the beginning to the present, Jews have lived side by side with peoples of other religions.

From the sixth century b.c. until well after the Arab conquest in the seventh century of the Christian Era, Aramaic was the primary language of Jews in the Fertile Crescent, whereas Egyptian Jewry was Greek speaking. Although there were some Jews living in cities, most Jews in this period were rural cultivators. By the ninth century, Jews were increasingly becoming urbanites, specializing in crafts and trade. There were, at that time, some speakers of Arabic.

Jews, like their coresidents, flourished during the Umayyad and ʿAbbāsid periods, but the Fertile Crescent in general went into a decline with the breakup of the ʿAbbāsid and Fātimid monarchies in the eleventh century and suffered from internal disorder and invasions by the Turks, the Crusaders, and the Mongols. During the late fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries, communities of Jews in Egypt, Palestine, and Syria were augmented by the settlement of Jews from Spain and Sicily. These newer immigrants helped to give the Jewish communities importance in trade relations with Europe.

In the nineteenth century the European Industrial Revolution caused Middle Easterners to import more and more products from Europe. Many artisans were forced out of business as local merchants imported increasing quantities of foreign goods, beginning with textiles. A substantial number of non-Arabic-speaking Jews emigrated to Egypt and Palestine during the nineteenth century. There were many emigrants from the Jewish communities of the Fertile Crescent. Many Baghdadi Jews moved to India and the Far East. Both Aleppo and Baghdadi Jews established trading firms for goods exported from Manchester, England. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Cairo, Alexandria, and Beirut flourished as new trading centers and were the targets of many ambitious Jews from elsewhere. Other Jews from the Fertile Crescent found homes in Palestine/Israel, and from 1900 on, many Syrian Jews emigrated to the Americas.

After World War II, the conflict between Zionism and Arab nationalism came to a head. By 1950, the majority of Jews from Syria and Iraq had emigrated to Israel and elsewhere. After the 1956 Suez War, Egypt was largely emptied of its Jewish population. Lebanon received several thousand Jewish immigrants during the 1950s, but most left during the Lebanese Civil War, which began in 1975. Several thousand Jews remain, mainly in Syria, as a result of government policies that prohibit Jewish emigration.

The Arabic-speaking Jews of the Fertile Crescent were an integral part of the Jewish Diaspora. The Jewish communities there were hosts to traveling Jewish merchants and to pilgrims to and emissaries from the Holy Land. Hebrew books, many of which were printed in Europe, circulated throughout these countries. In their vernacular culture, the Jews of the Fertile Crescent had ties with their Gentile neighbors and shared many patterns of behavior with them. In modern times, European culture, especially that of France, was transmitted to the Jews in this part of the world.


Throughout their history, the vast majority of Jews have lived in large cities and market towns. They lived in neighborhoods that were largely Jewish, but in most cities they had neighbors who adhered to other religions. Preference was given to living in courtyards with coreligionists, but non-Jews might live on the same street.


By the nineteenth century, most Jews, even those who lived in rural areas, were working as artisans and traders, although some village Jews may still have been full-time cultivators. Many Jews were itinerant peddlers and artisans who traveled from the cities to rural areas.

Trade. In urban areas, the locale of trade was primarily the market area, in which different crafts and specialities had their own streets and alleys. Foreign goods were generally given to peddlers and retailers on consignment by large wholesalers. In rural areas, Jewish peddlers would sell to Gentile cultivators on credit and receive payment either in kind or in cash at harvesttime.

Division of Labor. Almost all extradomestic tasks, including the marketing of goods, were done by men, at least in middle-income families. Poor women did work for wages, particularly by sewing and performing domestic labor. The Jewish women who worked as dancers in Damascus were drawn from the poorer classes. Some female teachers from Europe and Palestine taught in the more "modern" schools. In Egypt, with its large cosmopolitan population, some women were included in the professions.


Kin Groups and Descent. Some patrilineages have permanent family names that indicate ramification. For instance, one family of Kohanim (families descended from the Aaronide priests) is called "Dwek HaKohen." One branch of the Dwek may be the Dwek Halusis, while another may be the Dwek Kassab. These are not corporate groups, however, with fixed membership and estates.

Kinship Terminology. Like other speakers of Arabic, these Jews use the bifurcate-collateral system of differentiating siblings of the father from siblings of the mother and the Sudanese terminology of designating the father's brother's son as ibn ʿamm, the father's brother's daughter as bint ʿamm, the mother's brother's son as ibn khal, the father's sister's daughter as bint ʿammti, the mother's sister's son as ibn khalti, and so on.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. According to Jewish law, uncles may marry nieces, but aunts may not marry nephews. Marriage with all four first-cousin-types is permitted. Polygyny is also permitted, although restricted by clauses in the marriage contract. Polygyny has traditionally been infrequent, however. Levirate marriage with the widow of a childless brother could occur. Divorce was permitted, but unlike a Muslim, a Jewish man could remarry his former wife only if she had not married another man before such remarriage.

Domestic Unit. Most households were composed of either nuclear families or small extended families. Wealthy households also included servants.

Inheritance. Inheritance in Jewish law favors the males. Traditionally, sons and their descendants inherited from the father; daughters only inherited when there were no sons or male heirs to the sons. A husband might inherit from his wife, but she could not inherit his estate. The marriage contract was intended to ensure her subsistence. If a man had no children, his brothers inherited his estate. The firstborn son received a double portion. Some families did have special rights to particular positions in the Jewish communities and to quasi-official posts. For a long time, a family claiming descent from King David supplied the exilarchs (resh galutha ) who were the recognized heads of the Jewish community under the Sāssānians and under the Umayyad and ʿAbbāsid caliphs. Members of the Ha-Dayyan family in Aleppo, which claims descent from the exilarchs, are still alive. They supplied leaders to the Mustarib segment of Aleppine Jewry until World War I. The Laniado family has long been the leading rabbinic family among Sephardic Jews of Aleppo. For many generations, the family of Moses Maimonides led the Jews of Egypt. Some Jewish families inherited preferences for such positions as the customs collector and the sarraflik (the governor's financier).

Socialization. Emphasis has generally been placed on respect for elders, traditional religion, and conformity to social rules. Sons kissed their fathers on the hand on ritual occasions. Corporal punishment, including bastinado (falaqa ) was used in schools. Fathers might also bring adolescent sons to their schoolteachers to discipline them. Boys were sent to schools to learn Hebrew, the Pentateuch, and prayers, usually by rote. Larger communities, such as Aleppo and Baghdad, had advanced rabbinic schools (midrashim ), where Talmud was taught. Girls were generally trained at home by their mothers and were subject to the discipline of both their parents and their older siblings. Beginning with the nineteenth century, there were Western-style schools for boys and girls, run either by Christian missions or by the Alliance Israelite Universelle.

Sociopolitical Organization

The Fertile Crescent was part of the Ottoman Empire from 1517 to 1917, when the various Arab provinces of the empire were divided between the British and the French. Under all of these regimes, the Jews were recognized as a religious grouping and were generally granted the right to deal with matters of personal status and other matters through their own officials. Until the post-World War II period, separate rabbinic courts adjudicated such matters, but such courts have since been abolished in some countries of the area.

Under the Ottomans, a hierarchy stretched from the sultan, through governors, down to the village or neighborhood headmen. Jews and members of other "protected" minorities (especially Christians) were obliged to follow Ottoman law and to maintain low profiles. They also had to pay special taxes. They could not build conspicuous houses of worship, and they had to show deference to Muslims. In return, the minority communities were granted considerable autonomy. In areas pertaining to their internal affairs, they were under the authority of their religious leaders.

From 1839 on, the Ottoman government maintained a hierarchy of "chief rabbis" comparable to Christian bishops. The term for chief rabbi was hakham bashi. Although the chief rabbi was nominated by the notables of the local community, his appointment had to be confirmed by the governor and the central government. This system remained in place under the successor states. Until World War I, the hakham bashi represented the Jews on municipal councils. Each neighborhood had a headman (mukhtar ). In mixed neighborhoods and villages, there might be a headman to represent each major religious group.

Social Control. Within the Jewish communities, the rabbis have exercised a high degree of control, including the use of excommunication (ostracism) and the application of corporal punishment to enforce their decisions. In families, senior males exercised authority over women and children.

Conflict. Within the Jewish community, one line of conflict was between veteran residents and newcomers, as between the "Arabized" Mustaribim and the immigrants from Spain and Sicily in the sixteenth century or, in recent times, between Jewish Ottoman subjects and the Jews who held foreign passports. At times, there also were quarrels between powerful wealthy individuals and the rabbinic authorities.

The nature of the relations between Jews and their Gentile neighbors has varied. In the nineteenth century Jews generally had better relations with the Muslim majority than with Christians, who were directly in competition with Jews for similar quasi-governmental niches. Right after World War I, there was considerable friction in Aleppo between Jews and newly arrived Armenian refugees from Anatolia. Since the 1930s, Jewish relations with Muslims have been embittered by the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Prac tices. Rabbinic Judaism is the religion of the people being considered here. In Egypt, there are still small numbers of non-Talmudic Qaraites Talmud, and several hundred Samaritans persist in Nablus. Members of both groups can also be found in Israel today.

Judaism is a monotheistic religion, but traditionally it has recognized angels and saintly individuals as having extraordinary influence with God. Rabbis may be asked to write talismans against the evil eye and other ills.

Like orthopraxic rabbinic Jews elsewhere, Arabic-speaking Jews observe the Sabbath from sundown to sundown by abstaining from what is defined as "work" in the Talmud. This abstention includes the preparation of special Sabbath dishes, which can be kept warm overnight in an oven called a hamin.

Religious Specialists. Rabbis, generally called hakhamin, are trained in Jewish law. Some are also mystics initiated in the cabala. There is no clear distinction between the legally learned and the mystical-magical religious leaders.

Ceremonies. The yearly cycle of festivals and fasts follows the Jewish calendar, beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with the penitential prayers that lead to the New Year. Similarly, Jews follow a life cycle of rites of passage, from prenatal rituals and infant-male circumcision to burial and mourning.

Arts. As artisans and as consumers, Jews have generally utilized decoration in clothing and homes resembling that of their neighbors. Through sumptuary codes, the Muslim states have at times imposed particular forms of clothing on Jews. Some varieties of goods were made locally by Jewish artisans, whereas other varieties were made by coresidents of other religions.

In song, the Jews of Aleppo and Damascus combined He brew poetry with Arabic and Turkish melodic modes. S songs would be sung at the synagogue and also on cerer ual occasions. These songs are generally called pizmonim (Hebrew: poems). Some are sung before dawn on the Sabbaths between Sukkoth and Passover as petitionary prayers (Hebrew: baqashot ).

Medicine. Although Western medicine has been used in the twentieth century, it has been supplemented by traditional cures, including talismans prepared by rabbis, visits to shrines, bleeding by leeches, and the like.

Death and Afterlife. Traditional beliefs assumed bodily resurrection of the dead at the End of Days, reward and punishment, and the possibility of reincarnation. The dead were buried within twenty-four hours after death, if possible, in Jewish cemeteries.


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Cohen, Hayyim J. (1973). The Jews of the Middle East, 1960-1972. Jerusalem: Keter Publishing Co.

Goitein, Shlomo D. (1969-1989). A Mediterranean Society. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Shamir, Shlomo, ed. (1987). The Jews of Egypt: A Mediterranean Society in Modern Times. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

Zenner, Walter P. (1982). "Jews in Late Ottoman Syria." In Jewish Societies in the Middle East, edited by Shlomo Deshen and Walter P. Zenner, 155-210. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America.