The Habbani Jews are a Jewish tribal group from the Habban region in eastern Yemen (in modern Shabwah Governorate).
Shabwah (Arabic: شبوة Šabwa) is a governorate (province) of Yemen. Its main town is Ataq.
Ancient and medieval history
There are several legends that place Israelite soldiers settling in Arabia forty-two years before the destruction of the First Temple. It is said that under the prophet Jeremiah some 75,000 Israelites, including priests and Levites, traveled to Yemen. The Jews of southern Yemen have a legend that they are the descendants of Judeans who settled in the area before the destruction of the Second Temple. These Judeans supposedly belonged to a brigade dispatched by King Herod to assist the Roman legions fighting in the region (see Aelius Gallus).
A historical journey to visit far-flung Jewish communities was undertaken by Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela from 1165 to 1173 that crossed and tracked some of the areas that are today in the geographic area of Yemen. Tudela (twelfth century) found an independent Jewish warrior tribe living in the district of Tehama in Yemen. Tudela's trek may have begun as a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He may have hoped to settle there, but there is controversy about the reasons for his travels. It has been suggested he may have had a commercial motive as well as a religious one. On the other hand, he may have intended to catalogue the Jewish communities on the route to the Holy Land so as to provide a guide to where hospitality may have been found for Jews traveling to the Holy Land, or for those fleeing persecution elsewhere. He took the "long road" stopping frequently, meeting people, visiting places, describing occupations and giving a demographic count of Jews in every town and country.
Habbani Lineages and Diaspora
The major clans of the Habbani were the al Adani, Doh, Hillel, Maifa'i, Ma'tuf, Shamakh, Bah'quer and D'gurkash,. All but the last two exist in Israel today. They did not have Kohen or Levites among them. Their traditional occupations included silversmiths, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, and making household utensils, and the men particularly engaged in long-distance trading.
In the 16th century, thanks to the advice of a Habbani Jew Suleman the Wise, the Jews received a special quarter of Habban. And in the late 17th century, a severe drought hit Habban, resulting in considerable demographic changes. Habbani families came under intense pressure to reproduce to help repopulate the community, despite an acute shortage of women. But the most significant impact of the drought was an large-scale exodus of Habbani Jews across Yemen and far beyond.
The drought of the 1700s decimated the Habbani. The Bah'quer and D'gurkash clans specifically left the valley to seek sustenance for their families. They traveled all the way to India, but when they returned they found that most of their families had died from starvation. They left Yemen again to travel on the Indian Ocean, settling in India and East Africa along typical Hadhrami settlement routes, finding work as mercenaries for the Nizam, the Mughal emperors and the Al Said. Most of these tribes assimilated into local populations, adopting the surnames of their patrons. The remaining Habbani tribes in Yemen of al Adani, Doh, Hillel, Maifa'i, Ma'tuf and Shamakh, were reduced to 1-4 adult males each and their families. The entire Habbani Jewish population was estimated to be no more than 50 people at the end of the 18th century.
These population shortages could result in marriages outside of traditional family lines. Around the mid-1800s, one Habbani man from the al-Adani clan whose wife had died married a woman from al-Bedhani. The woman allegedly seduced and married a non-Jewish neighbor, and the ensuing backlash resulted in the family moving to Dathina, never to return. Although intermittent persecution did occur, the biggest threat to Habbani Jews during this time was conversion due to assimilation. During the great famine of 1724, 700 Jews voluntarily converted to Islam to receive greater food rations. Despite the lack of forced conversions, Habbani Jews also converted to Islam to improve their social status, to pursue romantic affairs, and when seeking refuge due to internal feuds.
An example of these types of feuds was an inheritance dispute in the 1930s between the daughters of a man with no sons resulted in one line of the lineage migrating to Aden and avoided conversion, and them migrated to the Palestine Mandate.
In 1912 Zionist emissary Shmuel Yavne'eli came into contact with Habbani Jews who ransomed him when he was captured and robbed by eight Bedouin in southern Yemen. Yavnieli wrote about the Jews of Habban describing them in the following way.
The Jews in these parts are held in high esteem by everyone in Yemen and Aden. They are said to be courageous, always with their weapons and wild long hair, and the names of their towns are mentioned by the Jews of Yemen with great admiration.
According to Rabbi Yoseph Maghori-Kohen:
The Habbanis were mighty heroes. I heard a lot from elders in my youth about the Habbanis, about their wars, how they would fight ‘according to names’. What does it mean ‘according to names’? –the letters: They would make the shape of the [Hebrew] letters with their hands, and by this they would be victorious. Also the Shar`abim–from the city of Shar`ab–were strong, but not to the same degree as the Habbanis. Once in Yemen there was a wild tribe of murderous Arab warriors that conquered town after town, slaughtering whomever they found. Thus they moved forward from settlement to settlement: killing, destroying–may their names by blotted out–until they approached a city of Jews, 13,000 Jews roughly. Everyone felt hopeless-even the Arabs among them put up their hands, searching for a place to escape. Suddenly ten [Jewish] Habbanis arrived and waged war with them–ten against a thousand–and vanquished all of them. Not even one of those warriors was left alive, and not one of the ten fell.
Yavne'eli indicated that in 1911 there were only 60 Jewish families left in Habban. Bin Ibrahim Habbani, who was born in Habban and emigrated to Israel in 1945, indicated there were 700 Jews in Hadhramaut, 450 of which were in Habban.
Emigration to Israel
Habbani Jews were extremely reluctant to migrate to Israel, citing their good relations with their neighbors. In 1945, a Habbani Jew claimed to be the Messiah, gathering both a Jewish and Muslim following from Hadhramaut and made his way to Beihar. He became known for his pomp and extravagance, decorating his horse's saddle with gold and silver. Following a large battle where the alleged Messiah and his followers were vanquished, tensions between some of the Muslim rulers and the Jewish communities were accentuated. Some Habbani Jews blamed activities and letters by the Jewish Agency of aggravating tensions further.
After 1948, small numbers of Habbani Jews made their way to Aden, sometimes fighting hostile Arab tribes along the way. From there they were airlifted en masse to Israel as part of Operation Flying Carpet.
Describing the route followed by most Habbanis who participated in the Israeli airlift, Operation Magic Carpet:
The way [to the airfield] was generally in the direction of IHwar. In IHwar they would stay for some time, collecting food, money, and afterwards continue from there to Sheikh `Uthman and `Aden, to the camp Hashid—and from there they would wait their turn for the airplane to the Land [of Israel]. The problem was getting to camp Hashid, for they [the locals] wouldn’t always allow entry, and not to everyone. Therefore the first emigrants remained a relatively long time in Sheikh `Uthman. And when the pogrom in `Aden happened, they were in danger.
Eyewitnesses Gamar bath Hassan `Adeni, Sa`id bin Yusuf and Sa`id bin Musa Mif`i, who were present and participated at the time of the uprising, and presently live in Salame [Kfar Shalem] – Tel Aviv, recount the might of those Habbani Jewish individuals who fought with bravery and strength, and that they killed a great number of Arabs. And with what weapons did they fight? Like axes, pickaxes, knives, and iron bars and wooden bats, and the like.”
The vast majority of Habbani Jews left Yemen in the Spring of 1950, after Operation Magic Carpet and the riots in Aden had concluded. The largest impetus for them was that the earlier migrants over the past few years had left Habban with considerable outstanding debts, and the remaining community was concerned about being held responsible. In January 1950 they traveled from Habban and arrived in Mahane Geula in Aden.
Habbani Jews in Israel and America today experience an acute threat of cultural assimilation. By the 1960s, none but the elders wore traditional clothing, and many in Israel complained about discrimination at the hands of Asheknazim. They were often referred to by other Israelis as "primitive" and "wild Indians.". This resulted in some Habbanim fighting back against what was perceived as "cultural imperialism." Through the practice of extensive endogamy, many Habbani Jews were able to retain their identity. Up to 88% of Habbani Jews chose to marry within their community.
Differences between Habbani Jews and Northern Yemenite Jews
The Jews of Habban, for most of their history, were separated from the main centers of Yemenite Jewry, and isolated geographically. Despite their isolation they succeeded in developing their own resources, religious as well as economic, and created an environment of their own.
Religious fervor was common among Habbani Jews. Even the most uneducated among them were capable of conducting the role of cantor, and many were advanced legalists. The most notorious legal scholar among them was Musa bin Rom Shamakh in the 17th century, who was the last individual able to make binding legal decisions. Despite this religious zeal, voluntary conversions of Habbani Jews to Islam were not uncommon, which often put the community in conflict with each other.
There were a number of characterisitcs that made the Jews of Habban in modern times distinct from the Jews of Northern Yemen.
Their outer appearance and clothing.
Their food and its preparation.
Their distinct profession (they were silversmiths).
There were no Cohanim or Levites among them.
Their unique traditions on holidays and happy occasions.
Their version of the prayers and piyutim
Though isolated, the Jews of Habban did maintain some level of contact with other Yemenite Jewish communities though said contact was infrequent and usually resulted from some quarrel over some point of Jewish law.
Habbani Jews were described as taller, more muscular, and darker than their Muslim neighbors. The men did not sport peyot like other Yemeni Jews, but wore an oiled thong through their characteristically long hair. They plucked their mustaches, distinct from other Jews, but similar to neighboring Muslims as well. They wore a blue prayer shawl over one shoulder, or walked bare chested, smearing their torso sesame oil and indigo. A corse calido loincloth died indigo covered their bottom, and they typically walked barefoot or with sandals. The women wore their hair in tiny braids, and wore loose-fitting embroidered dresses.
Unlike the Jews of northern Yemen the Habbani Jews wore a Jambiyya or curved knife, Matznaph (turban) and Avne`t (sash). It was very uncommon for Jews in Yemen outside of Habban to wear the Jambiyya. Sultans in Arabia to use Habbani Jews as soldiers in their armies or as personal guards. Habbani Jews sometimes served as mercenaries; Abdullah I of Jordan, who preferred Circassian and other non-Arab bodyguards, had a number of Habbani Jewish guardsmen, including Sayeed Sofer and his brothers Salaah and Saadia.
Habbani Jews practiced polygyny, which usually accounted for 10-20% of marriages. A co-wife in Habbani culture was referred to as "sarra", or trouble, and was brought into the household without consent of the existing wives. Most women were prepubescent at the time of their first marriage.
The different in pronunciation of "qames" in Habbani Hebrew as a low back vowel has been theorized to be a purer Babylonian reading of Hebrew, which could suggest the dialect is one of the oldest variants of Ancient Hebrew.