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  • Hai ben Sherira, Gaon v'haDayyan b'Pumbeditha (c.939 - 1038)
    Hai ben Sherira , better known as Hai Gaon , was a medieval Jewish theologian, rabbi and scholar who served as Gaon of the Talmudic academy of Pumbedita during the early 11th century. He was born in 93...
  • Benjamin of Tudela / בִּנְיָמִין מִטּוּדֶלָה (1130 - 1173)
    Benjamin of Tudela: The Wandering Jew Video Lecture Benjamin of Tudela בִּנְיָמִין מִטּוּדֶלָה, بنيامين التطيلي‎;‎ (Tudela, Kingdom of Navarre, 1130 – Castile, 1173) was a medieval Jewish traveler ...

The Afghan Jewish Community is nearly 1,500 years old, and records of a Jewish population in Afghanistan go back to the 7th century.

In 2011, so-called Afghan Geniza, an 11th-century collection of manuscript fragments in Hebrew, Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic and Judeo-Persian was found in Taliban caves in Afghanistan. Some 29 pages from the collection were bought by the National Library of Israel in 2013. Afghan Jewish communities now exist mostly in Israel, and the United States.

In the Middle Ages, it appears that all the communities had close ties, both religious and commercial, to the Babylonian Jewish community. The origin of the Afghan Jewish community seems to be Persian. The languages used by the Jews of Afghanistan were Judeo-Persian, Hebrew, and some Aramaic. Furthermore, each community had a synagogue, communal leader, and a school for young children.

Benjamin of Tudela writes that there are over 8,000 Jews in the city of Ghazni.

"It is a city of commercial importance; people of all countries and tongues come hither with their wares. The land is extensive"

There are a handful of articles that investigate the Jewish community in the Middle Ages. Due to the Mongol invasion, very few records survived in order for give researchers the opportunity to study these communities.

Most Jewish communities throughout the area which is part of modern day Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the surrounding area speak of their beginning by referring to the Assyrian Exile (720 BCE) and the Bablyonian Exile (560 BCE).

Of the Jews living in Afghanistan, we hear nothing until the 8th century of the common era. The Hebrew sources which mention the Jews of Afghanistan are Biblical commentaries and Response literature (a genre of rabbinic literature where questions were sent to the Gaons or heads of the Talmudic Schools in Babylonia.

The Biblical commentaries of Saadia Gaon, Moses Ibn Ezra, and the Karaaites, Al Qumisi, and Japheth Ibn Ali, identify the area where the Jews were exiled to as Khorasan. All of these commentators testify that there was a thriving Jewish community there .

There are some responses that testify to the existence of a Jewish community in the 9th-10th century in the area. Since the Gaonite was in close proximity, the Gaons had significant influence on the community. Rabbi Hai Gaon sent several letters in order to reform certain religious practices. A twelve century Rabbi quotes the Gaon,

"And Rabbi Hai, may his memory be blessed wrote, you should be informed that you suffer a great loss because of your custom to betroth a woman, not in the time of the Ketuba, nor in the time of the engagement contract, and therefore woman is betrothed even in the market-place in the presence to two (witnesses) but there is a deficiency in this practice. And for one hundred years, this is not heard of in Babylonia... And in Khorasan this exists for several years, more than a hundred years, the custom to betroth (a woman) with a ring during a feast etc. And the complaints were many... and Rabbi Yehuda Gaon (died 917) ruled that they shall not betroth but in the way of Babylonia....

This passage shows that the community of Khorasan had connections to the center of the Jews throughout the world. The Talmudic schools in Babylonia were considered as the center for the Jewish Diaspora during this period. The Talmudic schools and the Afghan Jewish community had close ties in the beginning of the Middle Ages.

Jewish Communities

The main Jewish communities in the early Middle Ages were in the following cities: Merv, Balkh, Ghazni, Herat, Kabul and Nishapur. There were smaller pockets of Jewish settlement in Khush-Khak and Ferozkoh-Jam.

Merv

The community of Merv was established according to one source by Ezra the prophet. Furthermore, he built a synagogue that survived until 1092. In Merv, according to a Muslim source, there was a sizable Jewish community, and the head of the community was a Rabbi by the name, Akiva. He was instructed to collect the taxes from the community and return the money over to Mansur Ibn Omar, the tax collector. It should be noted that the Rabbi of the community most likely received his ordination from the Talmudic school in Babylonia. Again, one observes the relationship between the Babylonian community and the Afghan community.

Balkh

The community in Balkh is mentioned by Rabbi Saadia Gaon in his commentary to the book of Isaiah. According to Rabbi Saadia Goan, the Jewish community there was divided into two groups: Jews and those which he called "people that are called Jews". The Jews of Balkh, according to some Geniza documents, had economic ties to the Jewish kingdom of Khazar. Saadia Goan wrote a polemic against a Jewish heretic from Balkh by the name of Hiwi.

According to some Muslim sources, several Jews served the ruler of Mahmud Ghazni (997-1030) as financial advisors and as managers of lead mines.

Kabul

Another large Jewish community in the middle ages was in Kabul. Al Idris (1099-1166) wrote that the Jews of Kabul were separated from the larger Muslim community. It seems that they lived in ghetto type of a neighbourhood. However, it is unclear whether the Jews were forced or simply chose to live separated from the Muslims.

Nishapur

In Nishapur, the origin of the community is attributed to the Assyrian exile. And one source reports that the community was lead by Rabbi Joseph Amarkala, the Levite. And the same source writes that the community was autonomous during the 9th and 10th centuries. It seems that the community coverted to Islam and a large number migrated to Jerusalem early in the 10th century.

One observes that this community was complex. It had a Rabbinic court, schools for children and young men. There was also a synagogue which served the local community and the travelers passing through. Some other tombstones include titles such as (Pakid) which probably meant someone who served the authorities in one capacity or another, and (Tagar) which means merchant. These two titles show it was primarily a merchant type of a community. The term of merchant on a tombstone was supposed to, according to one scholar, serve as a witness to the individual's wealth. Lastly, tombstones also indicate whether an individual whether an individual was a Levite or Cohen.

Ghur

The community of Ghur may serve as a reliable paradigm for other Jewish communities in the area. Although this community may have been a large one since it accommodated a school, a yeshiva, and there were several messengers from Babylonia, it is safe to assume that all communities in Afghanistan during the middle ages had a communal leader, synagogue, and a school for the children of the community.

Article by: Guy Matalon PhD. The article was first published in Mardom Nama-e Bakhter (August 1997), an Afghan scientific journal edited by Latif Tabibi, and Daud Saba.

References:

  • 1) Laurence, J. Silberstein; (1994): Others Within and Others Without, in : The Other is Jewish Thought and History: Construction of Jewish Culture and Identity, edited by Laurence J. Silberstein and Robert L. Cohen. p. 26
  • 2) Bible, II Kings 18:11; 17:6; I Chronicles 5:26
  • 3) Bible, Zecheriah 6:8
  • 4) Yehoshua-Raz, Ben Zion (1992): From the lost tribes in Afghanistan to the Mashhed Jewish Converts of Iran. p. 35-37. (in Hebrew)

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Zablon Simintov & Isaac Levy

As of 2007, only one Jew, Zablon Simintov, remained residing in Afghanistan; he cared for a synagogue in Afghanistan's capital, Kabul.

By the end of 2004, only two Jews were left in Afghanistan, Zablon Simintov and Isaac Levy. Levy relied on charity, while Simentov ran a store selling carpets and jewelry until 2001. They lived at separate ends of the dilapidated Kabul synagogue. Both claimed to be in charge of the synagogue, and the owner of its Torah, accusing the other of theft and imposture.

The contentious relationship between Simentov and Levy was dramatized in a play inspired by news reports of the two that appeared in international news media following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan overthrowing the Taliban regime. The play, entitled "The Last Two Jews of Kabul," was written by playwright Josh Greenfeld and was staged in New York City in 2002.

In January 2005, Levy died of natural causes. Simentov is now the last remaining Jew in Afghanistan, and with a total Afghan population of 30 million, the lowest worldwide. Simentov is trying to recover the confiscated Torah. Simentov, who does not speak Hebrew. Simentov has a wife and two daughters who live in Israel, and he said he was considering joining them. However, when asked during a recent interview whether he would go to Israel, Simentov retorted, "Go to Israel? What business do I have there? Why should I leave?"

There is also a disused Synagogue in Herat, in western Afghanistan, which contains most of its original characteristics although in a state of disrepair. Source