Commentary Magazine

Article Preview

Cedars of Lebanon: From the Land of Sheba

- Abstract

These folk tales and legends from Yemen—the land known in Biblical times as Sheba—are a unique part of Jewish cultural history. Yemen is a fertile section of southwest Arabia, and the Yemenite Jews are the oldest Jewish community in the world. (According to one legend, Jews settled in Yemen immediately after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E.) Despite their remoteness, the Yemenite Jews were influenced by, and contributed to, the mainstream of Jewish cultural development: the Aggadic Midrashim (fanciful commentaries on the Talmud), the Halachah (traditional law), the Cabala, etc. Until the present day, they have lived under a theocratic system based upon the Talmud.

For the most part, the Yemenite Jews are impoverished craftsmen. Their political position, too, is extremely precarious, because Yemen is governed by fanatical Islamic sects. When, in the 12th century, the Jews suffered especially severe persecution, Maimonides wrote his famous consolatory Iggeret Temon (Epistle of Yemen), exhorting them to remain true to their faith. This letter has had a lasting effect upon Yemenite Jewry, and the name of Maimonides was included in the Kaddish prayer. And it was as a result of this continuing persecution that the Yemenite Jews became probably the most ardent Zionists in the world.

About the Author