Jewish Life in Habban: A Tentative Reconstruction

Habban was a small South Arabian commercial town of considerable economic and political importance. sitting astride the main incense route from Dhofar. Oman and the Hadramaut to Yemen. Located in the Eastern Aden Protectorate in the Wahidi Sultanate, Habban was on the border of the Upper Aulaqi Sheikhdom. 300 km northeast of Aden and about 100 km inland from the Indian Ocean.


Its Jewish community was the easternmost permanent settlement or Jews in the Arabian interior. Erroneously referred to as ""Jews of the Hadramaut"" (a considerable distance to the East-where Jews were forbidden to settle), this community claims to have settled the area nearly 3000 years ago in the retinue of the Queen of Sheba. Lacking any kind of archaeological excavation in the vicinity of Habban, there has been no verification of supposed ancient Jewish sites, but it is quite likely that Jewish settlement in the region is old, perhaps predating the destruction of the Second Temple.



Politically Habban was located in a precarious spot and was the frequent target of Aulaqi incursions. Jews were usually non-combatants as befitted their dhimmi status, but often served as principal advisors to the Sultan in military as well as economic and political mailers. According to tradition. Habbanite Jews were conferred a special high status because of their loyal support. Men were permitted to bear arms and even to wear the dagger. thouah few did so. They paid a very low poll tax and were permitted considerable freedom of movement.


In the pre-emigration period. prior to 1950. more than 80% of the approximately 500 Habbanite Jews maintained permanent housing in Habban itself. A part of one patrilineal clan had left Habban. Perhaps 100 years ago. and resided in Hadheneh (al-Gabiyah) about one day's walk to the northwest. In fact. these towns were less permanent settlements than a base of operations. at least in recent memory.


Every Habbanite male was an itinerant silversmith . wandering the countryside from the Hadramaut in the East to Aden in the West. Alone or with male members of his immediate family. He would roam from Habban, searching for clients to service. Habbanites would leave the community in Heshvan and return in Nisan for the Pesah holiday. departing again in lyyar to return in Ellul. They only occasionally wandered far enough west to contact the nearest Jewish communities of Be'dha. Be'han and Dathinah. all of which were at least one week's distance by caravan. During these recurrent bachelorhood phases they learned to duplicate many of the tasks normally assigned women. e .g . cooking. cleaning and tailoring. To while away the time. they studied Tora. Halakha, Midrash, and a few. the Kabbala.


Women, left behind developed their own culture while more or less sequestered in the houses of the Jewish quarter. Each of the four patrilineal clans had at least one house and the larger ones inhabited a number of patrilineage houses. The buildings were multistoried and arranged in a sort of semi·circular pattern in close proximity to the Sultan's palace, overlooking Wadi Habban.


The extended absence of most males had a marked effect on some areas of Habbanite life. The community developed no formal political leadership - any male present might have to assume authority and responsibility at any moment. Few ritual specializations were encouraged. Many, perhaps most men, could function as mohel. shohet or as a member of a bet-din. Every male could and did function as ashalialh zibbur and ba'al kore. Despite the absence of ordained Rabbis. Religious life was intense and Habbanite piety was renowned through South Arabia - and even after 25 years in Israel. Education of males was accomplished formally in a school setting in one of Habban's two synagogues and each father used every opportunity available to teach and review studies with his sons. When a son accompanied his father on a work-tour. a considerable amount of time was devoted each day to study.


Habban's biggest problem was not anti-Jewish hostility on the part of neighbor or distant Muslim tribesmen. Drought was Habban's main scourge and Jewish folklore is replete with tales of lineages wiped out or reduced to one individual who then fathered later generations; of men leaving South Arabia altogether and seeking their fortune in India only to discover the death by starvation of their entire family during their absence . Jewish population was kept low both as a result of subsistence hardships and because of the extended periods of sexual abstinence. although there appears to have been a rather high percentage of polygamous marriage. There also seems to have been a s mall. but steady trickle of conversion to Islam to escape the consequences of famine.


Despite the ostensible isolation of Habbanite Jewry. their cultural and ritual tradition is probably fairly close to that of Aden. and her satellite traditions in Be'dha and Dathina. How and why a rich creative Judaism existed in such difficult circumstances is the central problem examined in this paper.


The original article can be downloaded here (pages 8,10)

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ברקע מתנגן השיר: "בריק אלימן" - בלחן חבאני מקורי אותנטי בביצוע המשורר שלום יצחק מעטוף ז"ל

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