Jews of the Middle East

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Jews of the Middle East

ETHNONYMS: Jews of Islam, Oriental Jews


Prior to 1948, Jewish communties were found discontinuously in an area stretching from southwest Asia across North Africa, from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in the north to Yemen in the south, and from Afghanistan in the east to Morocco in the west. The label "Oriental Jews" is sometimes applied to Jews in this region, although it also includes Jews of India. The label "Jews of Islam" is also used, but some communities exist in regions where Christianity is the dominant religion, such as in Soviet Georgia. Obviously, when applied to Jewish communities, the term "Middle East" applies to lands not generally thought of as Middle Eastern, such as Uzbekistan. In general, in the Middle East and elsewhere, Jewish cultures can be viewed as both subcultures within a larger "Jewish civilization" and as minority groups in the society where they live.

Of the various criteria used by anthropologists to delineate culture-bearing units, four apply to the Jews of the Middle East: religion, region, language, and economic-ecological position.


Traditionally, people identified as Jews were those who adhered to the laws of the Pentateuch, as revealed by Moses, and who retained and read the Scriptures in Hebrew. They saw themselves as the descendants of the Hebrew patriarchs; even those who converted to Judaism were symbolically inducted into the family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In the twentieth century there are several groups who still define themselves in this way. One of these is the Samaritans, few in number (152 in 1901; 430 in 1970) who live in Nablus on the West Bank of the Jordan River and in Holon, Israel. Technically, they are not Jews, albeit Israelites, as the Samaritan Canon of Scriptures accepts only the Pentateuch and the Books of Joshua and Judges as divinely revealed, and they continue to practice animal sacrifice at Passover.

The Jews, in the sense of those who accept the full Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament, include the Beta Israel of Ethiopia, who may have become isolated before the full crystallization of postbiblical Judaism, the Rabbinites, and the Karaites (Qaraites). These latter two groups can be understood only in relation to one another. The Rabbinites, who include the overwhelming majority of Jews in the world today, trace themselves back to the Pharisees of Judea, during the Maccabeean and Roman periods. The Pharisees and their successors developed a tradition of the interpretation of the laws of Moses, which became codified in the Talmudic literature. Many features of contemporary Judaism stem from this branch of Judaism including, among others, the substitution of fines and payment of compensation for body mutilation to enforce the lex talionis, lighting of candles to begin the Sabbath and holidays, the Seder ceremony to mark Passover, keeping Sabbath dishes warm, the Hebrew prayer book, and Talmudic study and argumentation.

During the seventh and eight centuries a.d., those who argued that the Pharisaic-Rabbinic interpretation constituted a deviation from revealed Scripture formed a sect called the "Karaites" ("Scriptualists"). In the twentieth century Karaites lived in Lithuania, Crimea, and Egypt, although most of those in Egypt have emigrated to Israel or North America. In Egypt in particular, there was much contact between the Karaite and Rabbinite Jews, whereas relations between the two groups in czarist Russia were marked by tension, hostility, and social distance. Unless otherwise noted, the remainder of this article pertains only to Rabbinite Jews.

During the twentieth century, Rabbinite Jews have been divided into two groups: those who attempt to adhere to traditional beliefs and practices (traditionalists, Orthodox, orthopraxic) and those who, as "modems," no longer accept the Torah (the laws of Moses) as divinely revealed. In both Israel and North America, the latter are the majority, either alone or when counted in combination with individuals who do not observe the tradition strictly, regardless of their beliefs.


Cultural differences between rural and urban, coastal and oasis communities (as well as along other parameters) differentiate Jewish groups from one another. Jews living in rural areas share many characteristics with Jews from other rural areas, as do Jews from different cities or those who reside along different trade routes.

Certain ritual differences can be understood in terms of regional differences. The differences between the "native" residents of a particular city and new immigrants are sometimes marked by the continued use of certain rituals by one group or the other. For example, during the Middle Ages the Rabbinites in Cairo were divided by use of either an Iraqi synagogue, later frequented by Jews from Spain, or use of the Palestinian synagogue, which was also used by North African sojourners and immigrants. Similarity, Jewish families in Aleppo, Syria, know if they are of Sephardic origin or of Mustarib origin.

The distinction between Sephardim and Ashkenazim is similar. The groups each recognize the other as legitimately Jewish, while noting cultural differences resulting from the disparate locations of the original groups. The Sephardim had lived on the Iberian Peninsula, which medieval Jews called "Sephard," whereas Ashkenazim had lived in Germany, called "Ashkenaz" in medieval times. The differences between the two groups came to involve liturgical matters, language (both the domestic language and the pronunciation of Hebrew), and the interpretation of laws. For example, the order of prayers in the prayerbooks varied slightly; Ashkenazim, but not Sepahardim, generally prohibited polygynous marriage and the levirate; and the Passover diet was more restricted for the Ashkenazim than for most Sephardim.

Because of the dissemination of Sephardic publications, most Jews in the Middle East came to use the Sephardic prayer book and to follow the Sephardic interpretation of the laws, contained in Joseph Karo's Shulhan Arukh. Thus, these Jews have often been classified as Sephardim, whether or not their ancestors actually lived in Spain.


Jewish groups can be differentiated from each other and from non-Jewish groups by linguistic criteria. In some places, Jews spoke a domestic language different from that of their neighbors. Everywhere in the Middle East and Europe, Hebrew was used by Jews in prayer and for internal legal matters and sometimes for literature, usually religious, but sometimes secular as well. Aramaic, the language of the Talmud, was used for sacred purposes. Hebrew was an important source of words for jargons and argots, even among the uneducated. Until modern times, Jews wrote using Hebrew characters, whether they were writing in Yiddish, Judeo-Spanish, Arabic, Aramaic, or Persian.

In Arab and Persian lands ( including parts of Afghanistan and Central Asia), Jews generally spoke dialects intelligible to the coresident populations, but in the Balkans and Anatolia, as well as in Kurdistan and Azerbaijan, Jews spoke a distinct domestic language.

Classification of Jewish populations by domestic language (the language used for day-to-day affairs) provides a convenient taxonomy of groups.

Yiddish, the Germanic language used by East European Jews, was spoken by Eastern European Jews in Palestine. Although now replaced largely by Hebrew, some ultraconsevative Jews in Israel continue to use it.

Ladino (also called "Judezmo" and "Hakatia") is the Judeo-Spanish language spoken by Jews in the Balkans, Anatolia, and northern Morocco and by their descendants in Palestine/Israel and Egypt. In the Balkans, there are also communities of Romaniot Jews who still use a Jewish dialect of Greek.

In North Africa, the countries of the Fertile Crescent, and Yemen, Jews spoke various dialects of Arabic. The extent to which these dialects should be classified as Judeo-Arabic varies from place to place.

Aramaic (also called "Syriac") was the dominant language in the Fertile Crescent (except for Egypt) from the sixth century b.c. until the seventh to eight centuries a.d., when it was superseded by Arabic. Forms of Aramaic are still used in a few small Christian groups such as the Nestorians and Jacobites, as well as by their Jewish neighbors in Kurdistan and Azerbaijan. Jews call this language either Targum or Jebali. Muslims in these areas speak either Turkic or Indo-European languages.

Persian (variously called "Farsi," "Dadi," "Tat," or "Tajik") is spoken by the Jews of Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Daghestan. In Soviet Central Asia, Jews tended to adopt the Russian culture earlier than their Muslim neighbors.

Georgian (Gruzini), the language of Soviet Georgia, is spoken by Jews in and from that region.

Finally, it is likely that some small Jewish communities adopted languages other than these from their neighbors.

Economic-Ecological Position

In the Middle East, Jews were generally differentiated from their neighbors by partial or full occupational specialization. Some rural Jews were cultivators, but many Jewseven in rural areaswere engaged in other occupations, although other groups might also be involved in this same work. For example, in the Middle Ages, Jews as well as other peoples were traders and artisans, and, in modern times, both Jews and Armenians have specialized in the working of precious metals. Thus, whereas Jewish communities might be associated with a particular occupation or trade, it does not mean that they alone engaged in that activitity. Still, some Jewish communities were marked by a trend toward occupational uniformity, exhibited by the silversmiths of Habban in South Yemen or the residents in a weaver's village near the northern Yemeni coast. These occupational roles had important implications for community life. For example, in communities where Jewish men specialized in itinerant occupationssuch as peddling or rural artisanrythe men often had to spend much time apart from their wives and families.


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

Deshen, Shlomo, and Walter P. Zenner, eds. (1982). Jewish Societies in the Middle East. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America.

Encyclopaedia Judaica (1972). Jerusalem: Keter.

Zenner, Walter P. (1978). "Jewish Communities as Cultural Units." In Community, Self, and Identity, edited by B. Misra and J. Preston, 161-172. The Hague: Mouton.

Zenner, Walter P. (1982). "The Jewish Diaspora and the Middleman Adaptation." In Diaspora: Exile and the Jewish Condition, edited by E. Levine, 141-156. New York: Jason Aronson.