Commentary Magazine

Cedars of Lebanon: From the Land of Sheba

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.

These tales have been collected and annotated by S.D. Goitein of the Hebrew University of Jeruselam and translated by Christopher Fremantle. They are taken from the volume, From the Land of Sheba: Tales of the Jews of Yemen, which is to be published by Schocken Books at the beginning of October, and they appear here by permission of the publisher.From the Land of Sheba will be the third volume in the Schocken Library, “a series of volumes planned toward the building up of a comprehensive home library devoted to outstanding expressions of Jewish thought and Jewish experience, ancient and modern.”—Ed.



How It Came About That Their Power Was Broken

At that time the dwellers in the land were pagans, poor in understanding and in state. They could not thrive in the face of the wisdom and wealth of the Jews. All of the community were punctiliously exact in their dealings with the pagans as regards mine and thine, as it is said: “The remnant of Israel shall not do iniquity, nor speak lies, neither shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouth.”

Once it so happened that a pagan was driven out of Palestine to Yemen. There the heathen asked him what they should do to gain mastery over the Jews. Sly as Balaam, he replied thus: “The God of these people loves justice and hates robbery; tempt them so that they turn aside from their straight path, then their God will abandon them.”

At that time Jewish skill in the silversmith’s art was famous and unequaled. So the pagan went to a silversmith, bringing him some bars of silver, and asked him to make a pendent out of them. Before his eyes the silversmith weighed up the bars and set to work. When the pagan came back to collect the pendent, the silversmith wanted to weigh the ornament in order to show the customer that not an ounce had been lost. But he said, “Who will doubt the honor of a Jew?” Subsequently all the pagans did as he had done; they never allowed the ornaments to be weighed, and asked no questions about the unused silver.

There were found, for our sins, a few wretched creatures who fell into this trap, and misused the trust placed in them. Thus the power of the Jews declined, as it is said: “One sinner destroyeth much good,” and from now on the heathen began to master them.



Flight to Jerusalem

Once Shalom Shar’abi went to the city of the Muslims to sell cloth. There the wife of a great one saw him from her window and fell in love with him, for his face was made beautiful with the light of the Torah. She had him brought up to her upper room, there to show his cloths, but directly they were alone she shut the door and declared her desire. Mori Shalom [in Yemen a rabbi is called a “mori”] acted as though he were ready to do her will, proposing that they should go up to the roof together where they could be alone to their hearts’ delight. This he did because the windows were too narrow to allow a man to pass through them; and so, as soon as they had reached the roof, having first made a great vow in case he would remain alive, he threw himself down into the courtyard. Although the roof was five stories high he escaped unharmed, and made his way on foot towards Jerusalem. On arrival there he sat down modestly in a corner of the Bet-El synagogue, but was soon recognized as the great holy man he was, and his name lives to this day in Jerusalem as the founder of the brotherhood which in this synagogue carries on, in Kabbalistic fashion, their ecstatic practice of prayer.



Yih’ya Tabib

Yih’ya tabib, or Sekharya Harofe, as he is called in Hebrew, the author of the Midrash Hahefes, was fabulously learned. After he had mastered all that was to be learned in Yemen, he traveled, with great privation and suffering, to the most distant part of India, where seven doctors lived who knew more medicine than any doctor in the world. But they were at great pains to disclose nothing of their art to anyone. So Yih’ya employed a ruse. He knocked at the door of their house, and when they opened it to him, he made it clear to them by signs that he was deaf and dumb and wished to be their servant. They accepted him gladly, taking him for a deaf-mute, and thus he stayed with them for twelve years. He examined each sick person who came to the seven doctors, in advance, so that he knew what was the matter with him, and then, when they prescribed the remedy, he came to know the wonderful methods which these Indian doctors used.

One day a seriously ill man was brought in. Yih’ya examined him and found that only one artery was still working. When the seven doctors saw the sick man, his case appeared to them to be hopeless, and they wanted to give him a powder to spare him the torments of death. Yih’ya, however, sprang from his place and cried out.“What are you doing? Don’t you see that there is still one artery working in him?” and showed them the place. The doctors were not a little astonished, first, that the supposed deaf-mute could speak, and further, that he knew more about medicine than they did. They prescribed the necessary remedy for the sick man and allowed him to be taken home. Then they said to Yih’ya, “Truly, you deserve death, for you have mocked our beards and stolen our learning. But first tell us about yourself.”

Yih’ya said, “I am from Yemen, and in our land many sick people who might be cured the because nobody knows the right treatments. Now, if it is your wish, I will never again treat a sick person and will let them all die, but the responsibility shall fall on you.” Because the doctors saw his intentions were good, they said to him, “As we have taught you till now against our will, from now on we will teach you of our own free will. For really you do not know anything as yet; when you have passed the examination which we shall set you, we shall give you a certificate.” Each of the seven doctors had, as it happened, some disability—one was lame, another deaf, and so on. Yih’ya succeeded in curing them all, so they gave him the right to practice, and he returned to Yemen, where he became personal physician to the Imam.

One day, the son of the Imam was found murdered in the forecourt of the synagogue. It was the act of men who were the enemies both of the Imam and the Jews. The Imam had all the Jews imprisoned and said to Yih’ya Tabib, “If you don’t deliver up the murderer within three days, all the Jews shall be burnt. For since the body of my son was found in your synagogue, it is clear that one of you killed him.” Yih’ya had the corpse taken and washed in warm water, then he took a quill pen which had written only the Torah, and wrote on the forehead of the dead man the first, middle, and last letters of the alphabet: E Me T, which signifies: “Truth.” Immediately the dead man began to speak and point out the real murderers by name. The Imam embraced his son and thanked Yih’ya for recalling him to life. But Yih’ya said, “To do that, I have no permission,” and wiped away the first letter leaving Me T, which signifies: “Dead,” and the youth was again dead and speechless as before.

The Imam took vengeance on his enemies, the murderers, but let the Jews go free, and from that time on nobody was ever allowed to raise an accusation before him without proof.



A Prayer for Rain

It was said of Ibrahim, brother of Yih’ya Salih, who was author of the Ez Haiyim [regarded in Yemen as canonical], that he wanted to impose his will upon all, and even upon God. Once, when there was a drought in the country, the whole community, as they were wont to do in such cases, took the Torah scrolls to the cemetery to pray for rain. Their prayers were not heard, however, and they returned to the town in shame. As they were taking the scrolls of the Torah back into the synagogue, Ibrahim slopped them, took up his stand in the forecourt of the synagogue, and opening the Torah at a desk which was brought there, cried out, “I will not stir from this place until rain comes.” He had scarcely spoken when a severe hailstorm descended. Everyone fell to the ground, giving thanks to God for the wondrous answer; but the first hailstone, falling from heaven, struck out Ibrahim’s right eye, and he wasted away because of it and died.



Mohammed’s Letter of Protection

Islamic religious law, which is based on the Koran and on sayings attributed to Mohammed, is the law of the realm in Yemen, and thus it also defines the legal position of the Jews. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Jews have expressed their desire for the safeguarding or betterment of their position in the form of a letter of protection ascribed to Mohammed. This letter—written, naturally, in Hebrew characters—was widely known among the Yemenites, and is ultimately traced back to an actual document of Mohammed’s which already in the early Middle Ages had been completely altered. In its present form it reflects Yemenite social conditions.

This is the letter of protection which the prophet Mohammed, may peace and mercy and God’s blessing be with him, caused to be written for the children of Israel.

When the heathens were pressing hard against the prophet, may peace be with him, the children of Israel came to him, saying, “We are with you and on your side; we will fight against the unbelievers until you have peace with them.” And thus they did, fighting all week until at noon on Friday the prophet said to them, “Children of Israel, go and keep your Sabbath. With God’s help we will fight off the enemy alone, though it be hard.” But the children of Israel answered, “Prophet of God, dearer to us than life or possessions, for us there is no Sabbath whilst you have no peace.” So they joined battle again. The sun went down and the children of Israel desecrated the Sabbath, fighting on until they had conquered the heathen. When the prophet heard of this, his joy was great, and he said, “Men of Israel, by God’s grace I will reward you for your goodness and for all time give you my protection and my vow, until the Day of Resurrection.”

To his companions the prophet said, “Allah has bidden me wed Safiya, a maiden of the children of Israel; what say you?” “Prophet of Allah,” replied his companions, “what you do is done; prophecy and true wisdom are yours.” So it was that the prophet married Safiya.

Then he called all his companions together and the elders and scribes as well as Abdullah ibn Salam, the Jewish sage, and in their presence ordered his son-in-law, Ali, to write the letter of protection. Ali took some paper and a quill and wrote the following exactly as the prophet dictated it to him:

In the name of God, the merciful, the all-compassionate. Listen and hear, all Muslims and believers, both absent and present. Let the children of Israel return to their villages and their strongholds, and dwell in them, they and all their generations to come. God, praised be He, and the Muslims and believers warrant for their safety, for as comrades under my protection, I accepted them and I am answerable for them. Let no insults, abuse, accusations, and hostile acts take place in any town, village, or market place of Muslims and true believers. Illegal levies, fines, and special taxes of any kind may not be demanded of them; their fields and vineyards and palm groves are free of tithe; they have only to pay the head tax, and the rich who ride on horseback must pay three pieces of silver a year.1 The poor who have only food for a month and clothing for a year are to pay what they can afford. A man of trust from among them is to collect the head tax.

Whoever takes anything from the children of Israel unjustly, though it is no greater in weight than an ant, shall not have the blessing of God, and I will testify against him on the Day of Resurrection. The protected comrades are not forbidden to enter the mosque, the tombs of the saints, and the Koran schools,2 They are not to be prevented from riding on horseback. They are to wear a girdle by which they may be recognized as protected comrades, and none shall harm them.

They must not change their religion for any other; they must not desecrate the Sabbath by any kind of work; they must not be disturbed in reading the Torah which was revealed through Moses, peace be with him, who spoke with God on Mount Sinai; neither must they be disturbed at their prayers in the synagogues, nor when they are attending the schools and baths, nor when preparing intoxicating liquor for their own use.

This is their reward because they, the children of Israel, fought for me and desecrated the Sabbath on my account. I call Allah to witness, O Muslims and true believers, that you may watch over and preserve my letter of protection and seal.

Given on the twentieth day of Ramadan in the year nine. Such and such were witnesses. Ali wrote it.



How Maimuni Conquered His Adversary or Imagination Kills

A favorite Arabic catchword runs: “Today you are going to get something to drink, you Kammun!” However, the Kammun (Arabic for the caraway plant) is never watered; the meaning, therefore, is: You will never get anything. The following story is a Midrash based upon this catchword, a form of story which is very popular with the Yemenites.

Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, apart from his splendid gifts as teacher of the Law and master of philosophy, was also an outstanding doctor; His reputation in this science was so great that the Sultan of Egypt made him his personal physician. Many doctors begrudged him this high position, and with all their might sought to remove him from his exalted place. One doctor among them, named Kammun, which means “caraway,” had the best prospect, having many influential friends at court. These were soon aware that the Sultan was dependent on Rabbi Moshe and placed unbounded confidence in him. They suggested that he should take Kammun as a second personal physician, in order that the care of the royal health might not be left to the wisdom of a single man and especially to a Jew. “Two personal physicians are no use,” asserted the Sultan, “but since you tell me so much about Kammun I will put both of them to the test, and whoever proves himself the greater master of his profession shall be my personal physician.” Soon afterwards, the Sultan summoned the two of them and when they had come before him, he said, turning to Kammun as he did so: “They have told me that you are an even greater physician than Maimuni; but I do not want to rely on the statements of others, but to make trial of your ability for myself. I will set you a task whose accomplishment will give me a clear proof of the superiority of the victor. You shall each try to poison the other, and whoever succeeds in remaining alive through wisely chosen antidotes shall be my personal physician.”

When Kammun heard these words he was delighted, because he was in fact a notorious poisoner, and many highly placed persons had been put out of the way through his medicines without the cause ever becoming known. But Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon was deeply grieved, for he was now in the terrible position of either committing murder or being killed. Soon Kammun, experienced in such matters, had found means to get poison mixed with the food which Rabbi Moshe ate. But Rabbi Moshe knew how to render each poison harmless by an antidote; and everyone was astonished each day when he appeared at court to find him still alive and in blooming health. But what did Rabbi Moshe do in order to free himself from Kammon? Nothing whatsoever. He would hot have the blood of another on his hands, in spite of the sage who had said: If any man goes about to kill you, forestall him by killing him.

Only, when he saw Kammun, as he daily did at court, he said to him in passing, “Today you will get the poison to drink, Kammun; today you are going to get something to drink!” Kammun carefully analyzed all the food and drink that he took, but could discover no trace of poison in them. The people at court constantly asked him, “What has Maimuni given you today?” He was ashamed to show his ignorance, and said each time, “He put this and that in my food, and I have taken this and that as antidote.” Now, as he could not discover the nature of the poison in question, he feared that it was a creeping, slow-working substance, and soon refrained from eating any food at all. The only thing he took was some milk, from a cow that was milked before his eyes. He became paler and weaker day by day, while Maimuni, with his health intact, went about his business.

One day, while holding a half-empty jar of milk in his hand, he encountered Maimuni in one of the anterooms of the Sultan’s palace. Maimuni immediately said to him, “Now you are drinking it, Kammun!” This frightened him to death, for he could think nothing else than that he had taken the deadly poison. He scarcely had the strength to place the jar on the table; then he fell to the ground and passed away.

The news of it spread like wind through the town, and soon the doctors and alchemists gathered together to investigate the drink with which Maimuni had done the renowned poisoner to death. But Maimuni had a suckling child brought in and, in front of all, gave it the rest of the milk, and behold, nothing in the slightest happened to the child! There was no end to their astonishment, and everyone was convinced that Maimuni had overcome his enemy by sorcery.

But Maimuni answered, “There is no sorcery in Jacob, and no black art in Israel, but there is a little proverb that even the galley slave on the ship knows, and with this counsel I mastered my adversary.” Thereupon he told them the whole story, and so all came to know that Kammun died of nothing but unfounded fears, as the proverb says: “Imagination kills.” The Sultan was greatly pleased at the wisdom of his personal physician and rewarded him royally, saying, “Now I know that you are truly a great doctor, because you heal not only the body but the soul as well.”




1 The Jews in Yemen, however, are forbidden to ride on horseback, and are not even allowed to ride on donkeys.

2 The Koran schools in small towns serve as lodging houses and in a few less fanatical districts they are open to the Jews, who, as itinerant craftsmen, often spend a week at a time in purely Arab localities.


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