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Sunday, August 07, 2011

The mysterious "Yehud Chebr" Jews of Arabia, 1850

From Baptist Reporter and Missionary Intelligencer, Volume 29, 1855:
The Jewish Chronicle has an article descriptive of a singular tribe of the Jews, called "Yehud Chebr," said to be the descendants of the father-in-law of Moses. They live isolated, and avoid any intercourse whatever with the rest of the Jews. They are only to be found in Arabia, mostly on the eastern shore of the Red Sea, and are solely occupied with rearing cattle. In the environs of Tunbua, a sea-port on the eastern shore of the Red Sea, they are also found to be smiths, and to stand in commercial association, by barter, with the Arabian tribes, who call them "Irab Seb'th," i. e., Arabs who celebrate the sabbath. They are esteemed and feared everywhere, "for they are a giant-like people." They speak only Arabic and Hebrew. Thoir most particular wish is not to have any intercourse with the Jews; and if any one enters into conversation with them they quickly deny their descent, and say they are of a common Arabian origin. About twenty five years ago the sheriff of Zenaa decided on going a pilgrimage to Mecca. While going through the great sandy desert they missed their road. They found themselves destitute of provisions, and famine stared them in the face. At length they come upon a whole town with tents, and hastened up to it, hoping to be among their Arabian brethren. They approached a large and magnificent tent, and the ont-posts of their caravan cried out, "Water! water! ye brethren, or we die." An Arab stepped forth from the tent with an angry air, and called out, "Kelb (dog), who dares to call out thus in the hour of devotion?" But the Mahometan related the great distress of the party, and suppliantly asked for water. "Knowest thou," the Arab replied, "where thou so unseemly didst call out? This is the tent of our worthy Melek (king); we perform here the evening prayer, and we have been disturbed." The other looked into the tent, and saw a great assembly of Arabs, who were "gently whispering their prayers." The whole party were supplied with necessaries for their journey, and informed of the shortest road to Mecca. When they asked who their benefactors were, they received the abrupt answer, "Yehud Chebr." Since that time the sheriff of Zenaa has become a great friend to the Jews, and " treats our co-religionists with the greatest respect."
The source for this account seems to be an appendix in Joseph Schwarz's 1850 work "Descriptive Geography and Brief Historical Sketch of Palestine" which we have quoted before. Here is his entire description of this unknown tribe of Jews in what is now Saudi Arabia, a description I cannot find anywhere else in the Internet:

Under the name of Yehud Chebr are generally understood the descendants of Heber the Kenite 'חבר הקני , the father-in-law of Moses, or Jethro. " Now Heber the Kenite, who was of the children of Chobab, the father-in law of Moses, had severed himself from the Kenites" (Jud. iv. 1); they are also called בני רכב Bne' Rechab, " the Rechabites"—" These are the Kenites that came of Chemath, the father of the house of Rechab" (1 Chron. ii. 55). They abstain from wine, and only dwell in tents (Jer. xxxv. 8, 9). In Pesiktah Rabbethi xxxi., it is said ארץ הסינים בני יונדב בן רכב "The land of Sinim (of Isaiah xlix. 11), is the land of Jonadab the son of Rechab." From Bereshith Rabbah lii., it appears clearly that Sinim is the land of תימן Theman (the south), or Yemen in Arabia, which is verified to this day. There are many traces of them at present; but they live entirely isolated, will not be recognised, and shun, or rather hate, all intercourse and every connexion with the other Jews. They have nevertheless not escaped the searching look of our brothers.

They only sojourn in Arabia, and for the most part on the western shore of the Red Sea, and are engaged solely in the raising of cattle. In the vicinity of Junbua, a seaport on the eastern shore of the Red Sea, they are found at times labouring as smiths, and have commercial connexions with other Arabic tribes, that is, they barter with them. They are called "Arab Sebth," i. e. Arabs who keep the seventh day Sabbath, and are generally esteemed and feared; so that they form, so to say, a gigantic people, whose power and greatness excites fear. They only speak Hebrew and Arabic, and will form no connexion or acquaintance with the Jews; and should they be recognised as Jews, or if one should enter into conversation with them on the subject, they will quickly deny their origin, and assert that they are but of the common Arabic descent. They will not touch another Arab, much less will they eat anything with him, even those things which are permitted to Jews; and they always stand at some distance from the other Arabs, should their barter trade at times bring them together, so as not to come into any mediate or immediate contact. They always appear on horseback and armed, and people assert that they have noticed the fringes, ציצית commanded in Scripture on their covering and clothing.

In the time of Abraim Pacha, when the country was everywhere secure, and men were able to travel in all direcions without being molested, two Jewish mechanics, the one a tinsmith and the other a silversmith, left Zafed with their tools, in the hope of finding employment among the distant Arabs. They in consequence crossed the Jordan, and went in a southeastern direction towards the mountains of Hauran. They actually obtained there much work among Arab tribes, and stayed some time among them. They could eat only bread, butter, honey, oil, and similar permitted things, and they thus sat one evening apart from the Arabs who were eating, to take their supper by themselves. Several Arabs on horseback had come from the south, in order to barter with the tribes of the district. They remarked those who sat eating isolated from the others, and asked, why they sat apart, and why they had a different meal from the others, and who they were ? They were told that these men were Yehud (Jews). " But," asked the strangers in return, "do you believe that we have never seen any Yehud before, that you wish to impose on us these dwarfs as Yehud ? We often barter with the Yehud Chebr; but they are a giant race, and it is impossible that these little creatures can belong to the same family. Besides, no Yehud would ever eat anything with another Arab, or come in so close a connexion and contact with you as these." The Arabs of the district had then to explain to the strangers that there are actually many other Jews besides the Yehud Chebr, although they differ from them.

They are occasionally seen in Palestine, but very seldom, and then, as it were, in secrecy and unrecognised. Some even say that several have been met with in Jerusalem, but they never make themselves known; although the reason of this singular silence, and this anxious desire to escape detection, has remained hitherto a profound secret; at the same time it is clearly ascertained that they are Jews in every sense of the word, live according to our laws, and are also somewhat acquainted with our learned men. It is now some years ago that two Ashkenazim of Tiberias went into the cave where the worthy martyr, Rabbi Akiba, lies buried. Just as they were coming out of the cave, there passed by two Arab horsemen, who observed them. The Arabs addressed them in Hebrew, and asked them what Zaddik (pious, righteous man,— this being the name by which the Arabs and Bedouins designate our ancient and modern learned men) lies buried there; and when ansewred, Rabbi Akiba, they descended from their horses and went into the cave. The two Ashkenazim without heard them utter a touching and mournful prayer in the Hebrew language; and they asked them, on coming out, who they were; to which they answered, "We are Yehud Chebr; but we adjure you, by the name of the Holy God of Israel, that you tell not soon after your return home in Tiberias that you have seen us, and only speak of it after some time, when we are away from your district and distant from your environs." With these words they hastened away and soon were out of sight. It seems, therefore, that they were afraid, in case the account of their appearance had been divulged in the city, of being perhaps overtaken, and thereby probably compelled to make themselves fully known.

They have also a chief among themselves, who is almost regarded as a regent.

About twenty-five years ago, the serif of Zanaa (see above, Uzal) resolved to make a pilgrimage to Mekka. It is usual to make this pilgrimage by sea: they sail up the Red Sea as far as Djida, and proceed thence by land to Mekka. But this serif resolved to make the whole journey by land. He supplied himself, therefore, and all his large retinue and escort, with everything requisite for this long journey; as, however, their road lay necessarily in part through the great sandy desert, they soon got into the greatest difficulties, for they lost their way, and roamed about, and could not find any egress. They were already in the greatest distress and danger, all their provisions, especially water, were consumed, and they saw clearly that they must perish, since they were constantly wandering in the desert, without the means of extricating themselves : when they had at length the happiness to come to a somewhat more fertile district, which convinced them that they had traversed the greater part of the desert. They now pushed eagerly forward, though nearly famished, without strength and longing for water; but they could find
no vestige of inhabitants. But towards sunset they observed at a distance, so to say, a whole town of tents. This revived them, and they hastened on with the last remains of their strength, since they now hoped to be among their brothers, the Arabic tribes. They soon came near a very large and beautiful tent, and the leader of the advance of the caravan called out with a very loud voice : "For God's sake, water! water! we are all famishing this moment." Thereupon, a very tall Arab came out from the tent and exclaimed in an angry tone : "Kelb (dog), who dares to cry so loudly in the hour of devotion?" The Mahomedan then told him of the great danger of the company, and begged him to give them a little water. But the other asked: " Dost thou know where thou art now, and where thou hast lifted up thy voice so loudly ? Here is the tent of our worthy Melek (king), and we are even now engaged in our afternoon prayer (מנחה), and thou hast disturbed both him and us with thy outcry in our devotions." The stranger looked into the tent, and saw a whole assembly of venerable gigantic Arabs, who all were standing still, and praying in a low tone of voice (probably the silent prayer of the eighteen benedictions שמונה עשרה). Very soon after, water was offered to the whole assembly, though without touching any of them, and they were then furnished with everything requisite for the pursuit of their journey, and a guide was sent along with them, who showed and described to them the best and shortest route by which they could reach Mekka, where they arrived after some weeks' farther journeying. Upon inquiring who their benefactors were, they were answered quite briefly, " Yehud Chebr."

I learned the above from a trustworthy person of Zafed, who was soon after this occurrence in Zanaa, and obtained the whole account of it from the above-mentioned Serif, who had himself experienced it. He has become, moreover,since then an exceedingly great friend of the Jews, and treats them with the greatest respect.

Of late, much pains have been taken to obtain more reliable particulars of the Yehud Chebr. I, myself, employed all available means to obtain success. At length, myself and some honourable Israelites, who felt the deepest in the matter, agreed to seek out a suitable person who should be able to travel through Arabia as a pretended Mahomedan Arab pilgrim, and to employ every available effort to obtain a correct account of the Yehud Chebr, and to enter into friendly intercourse with them. We at length obtained a man suited to our purposes, an African Jew, named Rabbi Amram, who was then sojourning in Zafed, and who had friendly relations with several Arab tribes, and knew their manners and habits quite accurately, and was thus enabled to enact well the part of a pilgrim. We supplied him with everything requisite, and with documents signed by the principal Rabbis of Jerusalem and Zafed. I wrote him out his line of travel, pointed out to him which road he was chiefly to follow, indicating to him, with all possible accuracy, the places where they have their principal connexions; and supplied him with two copies of my Geography of Palestine תבואות הארץ; upon which he commenced his journey from Jerusalem in the month of Elul, 5606 (Sept. 1846). About a year from that time, I received a letter from him via Cairo, dated at Zanaa, in South Arabia, in which he informed me that whilst journeying by land between Aden and Mocha, he was plundered by a hostile tribe of Arabs, but that his documents were all safe; that at present the northern Arab tribes were engaged in mutual strife and warfare, wherefore he was at that moment unable to pursue his journey in the desired direction, and he was compelled to tarry some time at Aden, till quiet should be restored. But that he had learned from a sure and reliable source, that in an eastern direction there is a very uncommonly numerous and extensive tribe of Jewish Arabs, universally called the tribe of Benjamin שבט בנימין, which he would visit after peace should be restored; and that it might be a long time before he would write again, since he would report nothing which is not strictly correct, and found perfectly reliable by his own personal conviction.
Schwarz then goes on to discuss his research into the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.