Jews in Africa

black jews
Since Biblical times, the Jewish men and women have had close ties with Africa, returning to Abraham’s sojourns in Egypt, and later the Israelite captivity beneath the Pharaohs. Some Jewish communities in Africa are among the oldest on the planet, dating back in excess of 2700 years. Today, Jews and Judaism in Africa show an ethnic and religious diversity and richness almost unparallelled on any other continent. African Jewish communities include:

Scattered African groups which may have not maintained connection with the wider Jewish community from ancient times, but which assert descent from ancient Israel or other connections to Judaism.

Included in these are:

Groups which observe Jewish rituals, or rituals bearing recognizable resemblance to Judaism. Although there are a number of such groups, only the Beta Israel of Ethiopia are generally seen as historically Jewish by the majority of world Jewry.

Groups like the Lemba which exhibit genetic traits thought to be linking them towards the main body associated with the Jewish people.

Sephardi Jews and Mizraḥi Jews residing in North Africa, especially in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia although many of those have finally emigrated, mostly to Israel and France, with substantial numbers also emigrating to Brazil, Canada therefore the USA. The South African Jews, that are mostly Ashkenazi Jews, descended from pre-Holocaust immigrant Lithuanian Jews.

While not all African Jews are religious, all of the practices present in African Jewish communities are Orthodox in the wild, enabling the communities to remain strong and united in spirit and belief.

Ancient Jewish communities

Probably the most ancient communities of African Jews proven to the Western world would be the Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews of North Africa. Communities which were largely unknown in the West until (more often than not), quite recently, are the many so-called “Black [African] Jews”, for instance the Lemba (Malawi, Zimbabwe, region of Venda in South Africa) additionally the Beta Israel (Ethiopia). Some among the list of Igbo (Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea) claim descent from East African Jewish communities.

North Africa

Main articles: History of the Jews in Algeria, reputation for the Jews in Tunisia, reputation for the Jews in Morocco, reputation for the Jews in Libya, and reputation for the Jews in Egypt
Within the seventh century, many Spanish Jews fled persecution under the Visigoths to North Africa, where they made their homes in the Byzantine-dominated cities along the Mediterranean coast. Some, however, moved further inland and actively proselytized among the Berber tribes. A number of tribes, including the Jarawa, Uled Jari, plus some tribes regarding the Daggatun people, transformed into Judaism. Ibn Khaldun stated that the Kahina, a female Berber warlord who led the resistance resistant to the Arab invaders of North Africa when you look at the 680’s and 690’s, was a Jew of the Jarawa tribe. Because of the defeat associated with the Berber resistance many of the Jewish tribes were obligated to convert to Islam. Remnants of longstanding Jewish communities stay static in Morocco, Tunisia plus the Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla, with a much-diminished but still-vibrant community in the island of Djerba (Tunisia). As with all of those other Arab world, however, due to increased persecution since the founding of the state of Israel, most have emigrated, primarily to Israel, France and Spain.


The Beta Israel of Ethiopia were acquiesced by the Israeli government as legally Jewish in 1975, and lots of of these were air-lifted to Israel during the time of Prime Minister Menahem Begin; significant immigration continues into the 21st century. Begin had obtained an official ruling through the Israeli Sephardi Chief Rabbi (or Rishon LeTzion) Ovadia Yosef which they were descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes, probably from the Tribe of Dan, as there are rabbinical responsa that discussed issues concerning them going back more than 100 years; however, historical and DNA evidence suggest different origins. Rabbi Yosef ruled that upon arrival in Israel they must undergo a pro forma conversion to Judaism, and declare their allegiance to a halachic way of living in addition to Jewish people in conformity with practices followed by Orthodox Rabbinical Judaism, but didn’t demand the normal rigid requirements the halacha imposes on potential gentile proselytes, (such as a brit milah or immersion in a mikveh). (though some Ashkenazi Orthodox rabbis do require that members of Beta Israel undergo a formal conversion and regard them exactly like converts without reliable proof of Jewish ancestry.) Many rabbinic authorities think about the conversions to be actual conversions, not pro forma.
The practices for the Beta Israel differ significantly in some areas from those of other forms of Judaism. Since in Ethiopia the Beta Israel community was in most cases unacquainted with the Talmud. They did however have their particular Oral Law, which in many cases was just like the practices of Karaite Judaism. However, their religious elders, or priestly class known as kessim or qessotch, interpreted the Biblical Law associated with Tanach in a not completely dissimilar option to that used by other rabbinical Jewish communities various other areas of the planet. For the reason that sense the Beta Israel had an analogous tradition to that for the Talmud, although on occasion at variance using the practices and teachings of other Jewish communities throughout the world. Today, they are a residential area in flux; a few of the kessim accept normative Judaism, for example., the rabbinic/Talmudic tradition this is certainly practiced by other Orthodox Jews, and several associated with the younger generation of Ethiopian-Israelis have been educated in yeshivas and received rabbinical semikha, while a specific segment of traditionalist kessim insist upon maintaining their separate and distinct kind of Judaism as practiced in Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Most of the Ethiopian Jewish youth that have immigrated to Israel have assimilated to the dominant as a type of Orthodox Judaism as practised in Israel, while others have assimilated to a secular lifestyle in Israel. One significant difference is that they lack the festivals of Purim and Hanukkah. This might be since they branched removed from the key body of Judaism before these holy days were developed. Today, most members of the Beta Israel community who possess migrated to Israel do observe these holidays.

Beit Avraham

There also exists a residential area in Ethiopia, of some 50,000 members referred to as Beit Avraham. This community claims Jewish heritage, and it is believed by a number of scholars which they broke off from the Beta Israel community several centuries ago and hid their Jewish customs by adopting Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity. However, they usually have traditionally been in the lower rungs of Ethiopian social life while having held occupations comparable to the Beta Israel, such as craftsmanship. Recently, the Beit Avraham community has made attempts to get in touch with the entire world Jewish community and has formed the Ethiopian North Shewa Zionist Organization so as to save their Jewish identity.

Jews of the Bilad el-Sudan (West Africa)

According to the Muslim records the Tarikh el-Fettash (16th cent.) plus the Tarikh el Soudan (17th cent.) there have been several Jewish communities that existed as a part of the Ghana, Mali, and later Songhay empires. One particular community was formed by a group of Egyptian Jews, who traveled by way of the Sahel corridor through Chad into Mali. Manuscript C for the Tarikh el-Fettash describes a community known as the Bani Israeel that in 1402 CE existed in Tirdirma, possessed 333 wells, along with seven princes as well as an army.

Another such community was that of the Zuwa ruler of Koukiya (located close to the Niger river), whose name is only known as Zuwa Alyaman (meaning “He comes from Yemen”). In accordance with local legends Zuwa Alyaman was a member of one of this Jewish communities transported from Yemen by the Abbysinians into the 6th century C.E. following the defeat of Dhu Nuwas. Zuwa Alyaman is said to have traveled into West Africa along with his brother, and eventually established a community in Kukiya close to the Niger River. In line with the Tarikh el-Soudan, there have been 14 Zuwa rulers of Kukiya after Zuwa Alyaman prior to the rise of Islam in the area.

Other sources say that other Jewish communities in the region were formed by migrations from Morocco, Egypt, Portugal, and possibly Gojjam, Ethiopia. Some communities are believed to have been populated by certain Berber Jews like a group of Kal Tamasheq known as Iddao Ishaak that traveled from North Africa into West Africa for trade, in addition to those escaping the Islamic invasions into North Africa.

The Lemba

The Lemba or Lembaa are a group of people in southern Africa. While they speak Bantu languages similar to their neighbors, they will have specific religious practices much like those who work in Judaism, and a tradition to be a migrant people with clues pointing to an origin from Yemeni Jews.

They will have restrictions on intermarriage with non-Lemba, with it being particularly problematic for male non-Lemba to get part of the tribe. The existence of a disproportionate wide range of particular polymorphisms in the Y chromosome known as the Cohen modal haplotype suggests an ancestral connect to the Kohanim or priests, a distinct subgroup of Israelites. This Y chromosome marker is contained in 50% of Jewish men while it was found that roughly 85% of Lemba men had the Cohen modal gene-marker.

While it is sure that the Lemba are descended from Jewish tribes, they have not practiced Judaism for many centuries. Although the the greater part of Lemba do not see a contradiction in proclaiming their Hebrew heritage while practicing Christianity or Islam, there is a movement as of late to shift towards mainstream Judaism, and outside sources have been aiding inside their aspire to become full people in the world-wide Jewish community.

Igbo (Ibo) Jews

The Igbo (Ibo) of Nigeria are one of the Jewish aspects of the Igbo (Ibo) ethnic group that are said to be descended from North African or Egyptian Hebraic and later Israelite migrations into West Africa. Oral legends amongst the Igbo declare that this migration started around 1,500 years ago. According to the Igbo lore associated with the Eri, Nri, and Ozubulu families, Igbo ethnic groups with Israelite descent are composed of the Benei Gath, Benei Zevulun, and Benei Menashe lineages.

Igbo oral legends also suggest that certain Nri families could be descendants of Levitical priests who migrated from North Africa. These oral legends state that the ancestors for the Igbo were made up of familiar clans of Israelites who left the northern kingdom of Israel before and throughout the Assyrian and Babylonian sieges. This might explain how their current oral traditions support the specific tribes these clans originated from.

Groups called Godians and Ibrim maintained most of the Hebraic traditions associated with Igbo people. These groups maintained the Jewish traditions that almost all the communities lost as time passes, because of their isolation from the rest of Nigerian society. Certain Nigerian communities with Judaic practices have been receiving help from individual Israelis and American Jews who work with Nigeria, out-reach organizations like Kulanu, and African-American Jewish communities in America. Two synagogues in Nigeria were founded by Jews from outside Nigeria, consequently they are maintained by Igbos in Nigeria.

Because no formal census happens to be drawn in the spot, it really is unknown how many Igbos residing in Nigeria identify themselves to be either Israelites or Jews. You can find currently 26 synagogues of varied sizes, plus some estimate the possibility of as many as 30,000 Igbos practicing some form of Judaism.

Bnai Ephraim

The Bnai Ephraim will vary off their Nigerian Israelite groups for the reason that they live on the list of Yoruba as opposed to the Igbo people.The Bnai Ephraim (“Children of Ephraim”) of Nigeria numbered in 1930 about 2000 people in 400 families in 20 small villages into the Ondo district of southwestern Nigeria. Based on their traditions, they stumbled on Nigeria by way of Morocco sometime when you look at the 16th century after the expulsion of this Jews from Spain in 1492. Their language is a mixture of Moroccan Arabic with Yoruba, but with components of Aramaic, such as ima for “mother.” In their aspect and most of the customs they cannot be distinguished from their Yoruba neighbors, but the Yoruba call them Emo Yo Quaim – the “Strange People.” They call themselves Bnai Ephraim and keep copies of portions regarding the Torah within their sanctuaries unlike the other African Israelite community in Nigeria, among the list of Igbo, who practiced a type of Ancient Hebraic way of living without torah. The Bnai Ephraim are unique in being on the list of Yoruba.


There are who think that a Jewish presence could have in the past existed in Cameroon via merchants who arrived from Egypt for trade. Based on some accounts these communities observed rituals such as for instance separation of dairy and meat products as well as wearing tefillin. There are claims that Jews migrated into Cameroon after being forced southward as a result of Islamic conquests of North Africa.

The claims of a Jewish presence in Cameroon are produced by Rabbi Yisrael Oriel. Rabbi Oriel, formerly Bodol Ngimbus-Ngimbus, was born in to the Ba-Saa tribe. Your message Ba-Saa, he said, is from the Hebrew for ‘on a journey’ and means blessing. Rabbi Oriel claims to be a Levite descended from Moses. Reportedly, Rabbi Oriel made aliya in 1988 and was ordained as a rabbi by the Sephardic Chief Rabbi and appointed rabbi to Nigerian Jews.

Rabbi Oriel claims that in 1920 there have been 400,000 ‘Israelites’ in Cameroon, but by 1962 the quantity had decreased to 167,000 on account of conversions to Christianity and Islam. He admitted that these tribes was not accepted halachically, although he claimed to show their Jewish status from medieval rabbinic sources.

Medieval Arrivals

North Africa

The greatest influx of Jews to Africa came after the Spanish Inquisition and expulsion associated with the Jews in Spain in 1492, and Portugal and Sicily soon afterwards. Many of these Sephardic Jews settled in North Africa.
São Tomé e Príncipe

Additionally, King Manuel I of Portugal exiled about 2,000 Jewish children to São Tomé and Príncipe around 1500. Most died, but in the early 1600s “the local bishop noted with disgust that there have been still Jewish observances on the island and gone back to Portugal due to his frustration together with them.”[6] Although Jewish practices faded over subsequent centuries, you can find people in São Tomé and Príncipe who will be alert to partial descent from this population. Similarly, a number of Portuguese ethnic Jews were exiled to Sao Tome after forced conversions to Roman Catholicism.


There are lots of thousand people of undoubted Jewish ancestry in Timbuktu, Mali. Within the 14th century many Moors and Jews, fleeing persecution in Spain, migrated south towards the Timbuktu area, at that moment part of the Songhai empire. Among them was the Kehath (Ka’ti) family, descended from Ismael Jan Kot Al-yahudi of Scheida, Morocco. Sons with this prominent family founded three villages that still exist near Timbuktu — Kirshamba, Haybomo, and Kongougara. In 1492, Askia Muhammed came to power within the previously tolerant region of Timbuktu and decreed that Jews must convert to Islam or leave; Judaism became illegal in Mali, because it did in Catholic Spain that same year. Due to the fact historian Leo Africanus wrote in 1526: “The king (Askia) is a declared enemy of this Jews. He can not allow any to live in the city. If he hears it claimed that a Berber merchant frequents them or does business using them, he confiscates his goods.”
The Kehath family converted along with the rest associated with the non-Muslim population. The Cohens, descended from the Moroccan Islamicized Jewish trader El-Hadj Abd-al-Salam al Kuhin, found its way to the Timbuktu area into the 18th century, therefore the Abana family came in the 1st 1 / 2 of the 19th century. According to Prof. Michel Abitbol, in the Center for the Research of Moroccan Jewry in Israel, into the late 19th century Rabbi Mordoche Aby Serour traveled to Timbuktu many times as a not-too-successful trader in ostrich feathers and ivory. Ismael Diadie Haidara, a historian from Timbuktu, has found old Hebrew texts one of the city’s historical records. He has also researched his own past and found that he could be descended from the Moroccan Jewish traders of this Abana family. While he interviewed elders when you look at the villages of his relatives, he has found that knowledge of the family’s Jewish identity happens to be preserved, in secret, away from anxiety about persecution.

Emergent modern communities

Your house of Israel community of Sefwi Wiawso and Sefwi Sui in Western Ghana declare that their Sefwi ancestors are descendants of Jews who migrated south through Côte d’Ivoire. The continuous practice of Judaism in this community, however, goes back to only the early 1970s.


A comparatively small emergent community has been forming in Laikipia, Kenya, abandoning their Christian beliefs in exchange for pure Judaism. There are an estimated 5,000 of these at the present time. This group has connections to your Black Hebrews movement. Although at first Messianic, they had realized that their beliefs are incompatible with Judaism and are also now waiting to be instructed in pure Judaism. A few of the younger kids of this community have already been provided for the Abayudaya schools in Uganda to become instructed in Judaism along with other subjects. Additionally there are some between the ethnic groups in Kenya which claim to be among the lost tribes of Israel.


In addition to the established Jewish communities in Nigeria described above, other communities are forming Messianic congregations. Unlike other places, where Messianic Judaism leads Jews away from their faith by believing in Jesus, in Africa, Messianic Judaism is generally the initial step into the path towards normative Judaism, as Messianic communities gradually abandon their belief in Jesus.


The Abayudaya of Uganda are a group which includes enthusiastically embraced Judaism in relatively recent times—their practice for the religion dates only from 1917.


The Jews of Rusape, Zimbabwe claim ancient Hebrew tribal connections—in fact, they claim that most Black Africans (especially the Bantu peoples) are in fact of Ancient Hebrew origin. However, the active practice of Judaism within the Rusape community goes back only to the first twentieth century; in cases like this, to 1903. (regardless of the chronological proximity for the beginnings of observance in these two communities, a historical relationship between them shouldn’t be inferred: there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever to point the presence of any relationship among them, aside from their interest in Judaism.) This community, although not any longer believing in Jesus because the Messiah like Christians do, does genuinely believe that Jesus was a prophet, however the community also believes that all people on Earth are prophets as well and so Jesus had no high or special status. Currently the city is moving towards more mainstream Judaism. This group believes that most African peoples are descendants regarding the 12 lost tribes of Israel and therefore most Africans have Hebraic practices.

Modern communities of European descent

There clearly was a considerable, mostly Ashkenazic Jewish community in South Africa. These Jews arrived mostly from Lithuania ahead of World War II, though others have origins in Britain, Germany, and Eastern Europe. Connected to them were the small European Jewish communities in Namibia (the west Africa), Zimbabwe (Southern Rhodesia), Lesotho (Basutuland), Swaziland, Botswana (Bechuanaland), Zaire (Belgian Congo), Kenya, Malawi (Nyasaland), Zambia (Northern Rhodesia) all of which had synagogues as well as formal Jewish schools usually located in the capitals of the countries. (See History of the Jews in South Africa.)

Historically, there clearly was a Jewish community in Maputo, Mozambique however in the independence era almost all left. The government has officially returned the Maputo synagogue to your Jewish community, but “little or no Jewish community remains to reclaim it.


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