Jews of Afghanistan
Dr. Irena Vladimirsky
A historian and researcher with the Department of History, Achva College of Education, Israel, specializing in the history of Central Asia.
Traditionally, the Jewish communities of modern Afghanistan trace their beginnings to the Assyrian Exile (720 BCE) and the Babylonian Exile (560 BCE). Although there is little archaeological evidence supporting this traditional belief, various findings have provided material evidence to indicate a continuous Jewish presence on the territory of Afghanistan since the 8th century CE until the 20th century.
Early History of the Jews of Afghanistan
There are only a few textual sources mentioning the presence of the Jews on the territory of modern Afghanistan before the 8th century. They consist primarily of Biblical commentaries and Responsa sent by the sages of the Talmudic academies in Babylonia. Various religious texts in Arabic and Hebrew collected by the Karaite Yaphet ben Heli de Basra in the 10th century mention that the “Land of the East” is inhabited by Jewish communities. The “Land of the East” during the Middle Ages (8th-14th century) was associated with the Khorasan (literally the "Land of the Sun”) region and corresponded with northern Afghanistan and neighboring regions of north-eastern Iran and southern parts of Central Asia. The Biblical commentaries of Rabbi Sa'adia Gaon, Karaite Daniel Al Qumisi and Japheth ben Heli also identified Khorasan as the region to which Jews were exiled. These commentators testify to a thriving Jewish community in the region. El-Hadj Mohammed el-Idrisi, a Muslim historian (c.1099-c.1166), also mentions the Jewish communities in the cities of Ghaznah and Naisabur in his work on the historical tablets of the Beni-Djellal dynasty.
Medieval sources refer to several Jewish centers in Afghanistan; the most important were located in the cities of Merv, Balkh, Kabul, Nishapur, Ghazni and Herat.
The Babylonian Talmud relates to the Jewish presence in Central Asia through a story about the refusal of an Amora called Samuel bar Bisna (first half of the 4th century) to drink wine and beer in Merv. Early Muslim sources (late 7th/early 8th century) refer to the presence of Jews in the area. At the beginning of the 8th century, a Jew called Akiva is mentioned as a collector of taxes from the Jewish community of Merv.
Located near modern Mazar-i-Sharif, Balkh was sometimes called “the mother of the world cities” during the Middle Ages. The Jewish community of Balkh is mentioned in Kitab al-Mosalik va-l-mame-lik (A Book of Routes and Countries), written by the Arab geographer Ibn Khurdadhbah in 846 CE. In this book he refers to those “who called themselves Jews” probably Khazars or Karaites, and to Jews who can be identified as the Radaniya Jews, a unique group of Jewish international merchants in the late 8th-early 9th century who maintained close economic ties with the Jewish Kingdom of Khazar.
El-Idrisi, the Muslim geographer and cartographer, mentions the Jewish community of Kabul in his book Nuzhat al-Mushtaq fi Ikhtiraq al Afaq (The Delight of Him who Deceives to Journey Through the Climates). Kabul occupied a central place on the trade routes connecting Central Asia and India. The merchants were considered the elite of the Jewish community of Kabul. The Jews of Kabul lived in a separate Jewish quarter - Mahall-i-Jehudiyeh. Its gates were closed at nightfall and were opened again at dawn.
Havdalah Service in the last Synagogue of Kabul, Afghanistan, 1978. Photograph: Judah Segal, USA. Beit Hatfutsot Visual Documentation Center
The discovery of a Jewish cemetery in the city of Ghur in 1946 testifies to the existence of a large and flourishing Jewish community there. Ghur is located in the mountain region of eastern Afghanistan. The earliest tombstones date from 752-753 and the latest date from 1012-1249. The inscriptions on the tombstones are in Hebrew, Aramaic and Judeo-Persian, a language with elements of medieval Persian and containing Hebrew-Aramaic components, written in Hebrew script, and spoken by the members of the local Jewish community. The tombstones not only include names and dates but also communal titles and functions. The title of ‘Alut’ was given only to judges; the title of ‘Hakham’ referred to teachers or rabbis. The teachers of the community and those who led public prayers were generally referred to as ‘Melamed’. Other titles, such as 'Zaken' and 'Yashish' were given to community elders and distinguished persons. The Jewish community of Ghur had a rabbinical court, a synagogue and religious schools for both children and youngsters. Following the Mongolian invasion of the region at the beginning of the 13th century, the community members either fled or were forced to convert to Islam.
For a long time, Herat was home to the largest Jewish community in the territory of modern Afghanistan. Located in the western parts of the country, the local Jews were culturally connected to the Jews of Iran. Moreover, some 200 Jewish families of Meshhed in Iran, following the forced conversion to Islam of the Jews of Meshhed, settled in Herat during 1839-1840. These new immigrants helped strengthen the existing Jewish institutions and contributed to Jewish life in general in Afghanistan. For much of the 19th century and for the first half of the 20th century, Herat was the main Jewish community in Afghanistan. However, their changing fortunes forced many Jews to leave the city, and in the last decades there has been no organized Jewish life in Herat.
Home of a Jewish Family in Herat, Afghanistan, 1966. Photograph: Ida Cowen, USA. Beit Hatfutsot Visual Documentation Center
In 1978, following archeological excavations that were conducted in Herat, four synagogues were discovered, all of them located in the Bar Durrani and Momanda sections of the old city, an area previously known as majalla-yi musahiya, the “neighbourhood of the Jews”. The names of the synagogues were Mulla Ashur, Yu Aw and Gul, the fourth was unnamed. In 1978 the Mulla Ashur synagogue was used as a ‘maktab’, a Muslim primary school for boys. The building formerly known as the Gul synagogue has been converted into a Muslim house of prayer and is known as the Belal Mosque. Only the Yu Aw synagogue has been preserved with most of its original characteristics. Located in the Momanda neighborhood of the old city of Heart, the Yu Aw synagogue is a two-story mud brick building with a baked brick foundation and an interior courtyard. The Torah Ark is built into its western wall, facing Jerusalem. The architecture of all three synagogues shows a clear Persian influence.
Herat Synagogue Gate, Herat, Afghanistan, 1975. Photograph: Didier Guthmann, Paris. Beit Hatfutsot Visual Documentation Center. Courtesy of Miriam Freind.
In the 16th century the Moghul dynasty of India, adopted Shia Islam whereas Central Asia and Afghanistan retained their allegiance to Sunni Islam. The traditional links that existed between the Jews of Persia, Central Asia and Afghanistan were severed. From the middle of the 18th century, the Afghan Kingdom was ruled by the Durrani dynasty which tried to prevent Western and especially British influence on Afghan society. This led to the relative isolation of the local Jewish community.
The traditional Jewish costume was similar to that of the Muslim population with the exception of the black turban worn by all Jewish men. According to one tradition, the black turban was considered a sign of mourning for the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. Others believe that the Jews were forced to wear black turbans as a mark to distinguish them from the Muslim population. Many Afghan Jews were active in the cotton and silk trade and specialized in the dyeing process. Making the dye - which is produced from the dried bodies of the female cochineal insect and indigo - rendered the craftsmen's hands blue, causing many to falsely believe that this was a characteristic of the Jews of Afghanistan.
Passover Seder at the home of Meir Simantov, Kabul, Afghanistan, 1971. Photograph: Georgwe Iian Morrison. Beit Hatfutsot Visual Documentation Center
The Jews of Afghanistan used Hebrew for liturgy and religious studies, while Judeo-Persian was the main language for day to day usage. There are some differences between the written form of Judeo-Persian and its spoken dialects. In addition, there were distinct differences between the dialect of Kabul and those spoken in other communities. In Herat, for instance, Jews spoke at least three main idioms: the main dialect of Judeo-Persian was used by Jews of Afghan origin, while immigrants from Meshhed and their descendants preferred their original local dialect, just as those coming from Yezd, another city in Iran, continued to use their own dialect.
There are various estimates regarding the extent of the Jewish population on the territory of Afghanistan at the beginning of the 20th century. Older sources tend to put the number at close to 40.000 persons living in about 60 communities, but modern researchers consider this number to be greatly exaggerated and generally agree on a much smaller figure of only 4,000. To this number, reported by the leaders of the Jewish communities in Afghanistan in the late 1940’s, one must add a few thousand who by then either had emigrated to Israel or settled in other parts of the world, mainly in Central Asia and India, thus bringing the total number of Afghan Jews in the world at the middle of the 20th century to about 10,000. A similar controversy refers to the number of Jewish communities. Recent research outlines the existence of only fifteen Jewish communities, with some only hosting a temporary Jewish presence of merchants. The two main Jewish communities of Afghanistan were located in the cities of Kabul and Herat, each numbering about 2,000 Jews during their peak days in the 1930’s. Balkh had the third largest Jewish community and was made up of many Jewish immigrants from Central Asia; smaller Jewish communities could be found in the towns of Gazni and Kandahar.
Megillat Esther Reading on Purim. Kabul, Afghanistan, 1966. Photograph: Ida Cowen, USA. Beit Hatfutsot Visual Documentation Center
Until the middle of the 20th century, the Jews of Afghanistan had little contact with modernity. Living in a country that had never been colonized by foreign powers, their links were limited to the neighboring Jewish communities in Iran, Central Asia, and India. Although many Jews left Afghanistan during the first half of the 20th century, some of them settling in Israel, it was only in 1950 that the Jews were officially allowed to leave Afghanistan. Zionist activity was completely forbidden within Afghanistan and immigration to Israel was only permitted from the end of 1951. By 1967 the number of Afghan Jews who had immigrated to Israel reached 4,000. Each of the three main communities still active in Afghanistan after the 1950’s - Kabul, Herat, and Balkh - had a Hevrah (community council), which took care of the needy, dealt with burials, represented the community in matters connected to the authorities and was responsible for the payment of taxes. From 1952 Jews were exempt from military service and had to pay a special tax (har bieah) instead.
Ketubbah of Benjamin Khafi and Rachel Bat Amram. Herat, Afghanistan, 1933. Photograph: Savi Khafi, Singapore. Beit Hatfutsot Visual Documentation Center
In 1990 there were only 15 to 20 Jewish families left in Kabul; however they soon left for Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and India. As of 2001 at least two Jews are known to live in Kabul and five or six Jewish families are believed to live in Herat. Itzhak Levi, 69, the caretaker of the Kabul synagogue passed away in January 2005 and was brought to be buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem on February 2, 2005. There is currently only one Jew remaining in Afghanistan.
BEZALEL, Izhak. A Community of its Own: The Jews of Afghanistan and their Classification between the Jews of Iran and Bukhara, Pe’amim, 79(1999):15-40 (in Hebrew)
SABAR, Shalom. The Origins of the Illustrated Ketubbah in Iran and Afghanistan, Pe’amim, 79(1999):129-158 (in Hebrew)
SEROUSSI, Edwin and DAVIDOFF, Boaz. On the Study of the Musical Tradition of the Jews of Afghanistan, Pe’amim, 79(1999):159-170 (in Hebrew)
SHAKED, Shaul. New Data on the Jews of Afghanistan in the Middle Ages, Pe’amim, 79(1999):5-14 (in Hebrew)
YANIV, Bracha. Content and Form in the Flat Torah Finials from Eastern Iran and Afghanistan, Pe’amim, 79(1999):96-128 (in Hebrew)
The report of Benjamin of Tudela (d.1173) on the Jewish communities of Ghaznah and Naisabur:
“… Ghaznah - Ghaznah … the great city on the river Gozen, where there are about 80.000 Israelites. It is a city of commercial importance..., Naisabur - to the mountains of Naisabur by the river Gozan…., four of the tribes of Israel dwell, namely the tribe of Dan, the tribe of Zebulun, the tribe of Asher and the tribe of Naphtali, who were included in the first captivity of Shalmanaser, king of Assyria… The extent of their land is twenty days’ journey, and they have cities and large villages in the mountains; the river Gozan forms the boundary on the one side. They are not under the rule of the Gentiles, but they have a prince of their own, whose name is R. Joseph Amarkela the Levite. There are scholars among them. And they sow and reap and go forth to war as far as the land of Cush by way of the desert.”
(The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela. Translation and Commentary by Marcus Nathan Adler, London 1907:58-59)