Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Ten Lost Tribes are still lost (Part 2)

For many years there were disagreements among Rabbis and historians alike regarding the origins of the Ethiopian Jews (Falashas).

In the 16th century the prominent Egyptian Rabbi David Ben Zimra 1479-1573 (known by his acronym as the Radvaz) discussed them in one of his responsa and came to the conclusion that they are the remnants of the lost tribe of Dan. Basing himself in part on the now somewhat discredited testimony of the ninth century figure Eldad the Danite אלדד הדני he writes:

הם משבט דן בלי ספק. ומפני שלא היו ביניהם חכמים בעלי קבלה תפסו להם פשטי הכתובים. אבל אם היו מלמדים אותם, לא היו פוקרים בדברי רבותינו ז"ל והוי כתינוק שנשבה לבין הגויים

ספר דברי דוד סימן ה

Translation (mine): "They are undoubetedly descended from the tribe of Dan and because there were no competent Torah scholars among them, they only understood Torah in the literal sense, however if they were properly taught they would not deny the teachings of our sages. They should be considered as a 'captive child' who knows no better"

When Operation Moses first airlifted thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1984, the questions regarding their status was again posed to the leading Rabbinical authorities of that time. Then Sephardic Rishon LeZion Rabbi Ovadia Yosef ruled that they are Jews and based his ruling on the previous one of the Radvaz. Rabbi Yosef pointedly added "if our Ashkenazy brethren refuse to accept them , we will welcome them". Indeed some in the Ashkenazic Haredi community do not accept them as Jews (Chabad among others).

A recent scientific study sheds light on the origins of the Falashas lending credence to those who have long claimed that there is no racial distinction between Ethiopian Jews and non-Jews and in fact all Ethiopians share a common genetic as well as religious heritage. The legend of Solomon and Sheba is just that,a legend ( and it is entirely possible that the Ethiopian royal family is indeed descended from this union-I guess we will have to wait for genetic testing to confirm that- but there is no indication of Israelite origin among the general Ethiopian populace.

DNA evidence

Gerard Lucotte and Pierre Smets in Human Biology (vol 71, December 1999, pp. 989 – 993) studied the DNA of 38 unrelated Beta Israel males living in Israel and 104 Ethiopians living in regions located north of Addis Ababa and concluded that "the distinctiveness of the Y-chromosome haplotype distribution of Beta Israel Jews from conventional Jewish populations and their relatively greater similarity in haplotype profile to non-Jewish Ethiopians are consistent with the view that the Beta Israel people descended from ancient inhabitants of Ethiopia who converted to Judaism." This study confirms the findings of an earlier study by Avshalom Zoossmann-Disken, A. Ticher, I. Hakim, Z. Goldwitch, A. Rubinstein, and Batsheva Bonné-Tamir titled "Genetic affinities of Ethiopian Jews," published in Israel Journal of Medical Sciences 27:245 (1991). A study of Y-chromosome biallelic haplotypes of Jewish and non-Jewish groups titled Jewish and Middle Eastern non-Jewish populations share a common pool of Y-chromosome biallelic haplotypes and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in June, 2000 suggested that "paternal gene pools of Jewish communities from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East descended from a common Middle Eastern ancestral population," with the exception of the Beta Israel, who were "affiliated more closely with non-Jewish Ethiopians and other North Africans.". These Y-chromosome studies only speak to the paternal lineage (some ethnic groups are a product of one maternal lineage and a different paternal lineage, see Métis people (Canada), but a study of the Mitochondrial DNA (which is passed only along the maternal lineage) shows that the most common mtDNA type found among the Ethiopian Jewish sample was present elsewhere only in Somalia, furthering the view of most that Ethiopian Jews are of local (Ethiopian) origin.

However, a study performed by the Department of Biological Sciences at Stanford University did find a possible genetic similarity between 11 Ethiopian Jews and 4 Yemenite Jews who took part in the testing. The differentiation statistic and genetic distances for the 11 Ethiopian Jews and 4 Yemenite Jews tested were quite low, among the smallest of comparisons that involved either of these populations. Ethiopian Jewish Y-Chromosomal haplotype are often present in Yemenite and other Jewish populations, but analysis of Y-Chromosomal haplotype frequencies does not indicate a close relationship between Ethiopian Jewish groups. It is possible that the 4 Yemenite Jews from this study may be descendants of reverse migrants of African origin, who crossed Ethiopia to Yemen. The result from this study suggests that gene flow between Ethiopia and Yemen as a possible explanation. The study also suggests that the gene flow between Ethiopian and Yemenite Jewish populations may not have been direct, but instead could have been between Jewish and non-Jewish populations of both regions.


At Friday, February 09, 2007 12:22:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where is the Raabad?

At Friday, February 09, 2007 2:04:00 AM, Blogger Ha-historion said...

Correction: its the Radvaz and its in his sefer דברי דוד סימן ה

At Sunday, February 11, 2007 11:04:00 PM, Blogger Mottel said...

I don't think Chabad says that they are non-Jews, rather the Rebbe refused to comment on the matter . . . waiting for the Rabbonim to pasken on it. (We do not accept Ethiopians into Chabad schools w/o Giur, but the same goes with Indian Jews and others.)
Of note, I don't know how valid it is to establish someone's Judaism from a halchik perspective . . .
After all, a Kohen w/o the "Kohen" gene on the y chromosome is still a kohen.

At Sunday, February 11, 2007 11:06:00 PM, Blogger Mottel said...

Of note, what do you know about the Lemba

At Monday, February 12, 2007 1:32:00 PM, Blogger avakesh said...

I beleive that genetic studies of the Yemenites also suggest non-Jewish origin, which dovetails with the traditions that they were converted in the centuries before Mohammed.

At Tuesday, February 13, 2007 12:23:00 AM, Blogger Ha-historion said...

Mottel, you raise an interesting conundrum, can DNA trump tradition?

Well I don't think that that is even the big issue here. The problem halacha has with the Falashas is the same as it does with the Karaites, namely the issue of improper gittin and therefore mamzerut. That is very tricky because a mazmer can only marry another mamzer therefore because of safek, they should only be allowed to marry among themselves (this is merely one opinion).

At Wednesday, February 14, 2007 5:38:00 PM, Blogger Ha-historion said...


Yemen has a Jewish history as does parts of North Africa. Before the rise of Islam in these lands, many of the Arab and pagan tribes converted to Judaism -usually after coming under the influence of local Jews (Mohammed himself is said to have taken many of his teachings from a Jewish Rabbi). After Mohammed many converted to Islam but some held unto their Judaism and assimilated within the rest of the Jewish population. Look out for future posts on the subject.

At Wednesday, February 14, 2007 11:54:00 PM, Blogger Ari Kinsberg said...

"a possible genetic similarity between 11 Ethiopian Jews and 4 Yemenite Jews . . ."

if i remember correctly, one of the theories of the origin of the beta israel is that they were converted by yemenite jews during the aksum period, when yemen was controlled by by ethiopians.

At Monday, July 23, 2007 12:51:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ari you are correct. However, that is another one of the legends that have been accepted as valid theory.

At Monday, June 27, 2011 2:03:00 PM, Blogger Who Am I said...

While I'm not versed in the history of Ethiopian Jewry, I am however slightly versed in that of Ethiopian Christians.

It is my understanding that both Ethiopian Jews and Ethiopian (Ge'ez) Christians share a common canon of the Tanakh. That being said, is it possible that a) Ethiopian Jews are self converted ex Christians ? or b) Ethiopian Jews are converts with little contact with Jews of The Diaspora ?

The reason I made mention of their canon of The Tanakh, is that it contains texts which correspond to books within The LXX Canon of The Tanakh as well as texts found at Qumran (1 Enoch etc.). It would be curious to explain how they obtained those extra texts in their canons if they didn't have contact with Jewry from before. Then again, perhaps their origins are with Egyptian Jewry.

I look forward to reading more of the insights you have posted on your blog.


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