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The Black Jews of AfricaHistory, Religion, Identity$

Edith Bruder

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780195333565

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2008

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195333565.001.0001

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 Jewish Accounts and Christian Traditions

 Jewish Accounts and Christian Traditions

(p.19) 2 Jewish Accounts and Christian Traditions
The Black Jews of Africa

Edith Bruder

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on the myth of the Lost Tribes. It argues that from the earliest times to the first conquests, the myth of the Lost Tribes and its plasticity gave weight to the world of interrelated representations, commonplace and stereotyped images, for laying out supposedly historical realities. The mental perception that resulted divided the world into categories in terms of these stereotypes. The myth gave birth, throughout these centuries, to a tendency to invoke the “Lost Tribes” to make sense of any unknown population. Isaiah's and Ezekiel's prophecies predicting the return of the tribes from the land of Kush provided an authoritative infrastructure for all future speculation concerning the presence of the Ten Tribes in Africa.

Keywords:   Africa, myth, Lost Tribes, Christians, Ten Tribes

Myriad interpretations of these passages framed the way for subsequent extrapolations connecting Africa with Jews. From this time, travelers and tribes seekers could plausibly suspect certain peoples of Africa to be remnants of the Lost Tribes. At the end of the ninth century, one of the most famous and most extravagant of travelers seeking the Lost Tribes was Eldad the Danite, a Jew who mysteriously came from eastern Sahara to carry out a religious mission in Tiaret, Fez, and Kairwan.1 Eldad's experiences were legion and fanciful: he suffered a shipwreck, fell into the hands of cannibals, and whereas his travel companion was eaten, he escaped this wretched fate by being bought by a Jew from the tribe of Issachar. Eldad wrote an account in a somewhat archaic Hebrew, in which he explained that upon Solomon's death, four Jewish tribes, including his own, Dan, and the tribes of Naphtali, Gad, and Asher, settled in Africa. The tribes established an independent empire that dominated the country while remaining a nomadic people. Their kingdom was supposed to be in “Havilah,” the country of gold, near Ethiopia, and the tribes, said to be of outstanding bravery, were constantly at war against their neighbours. Eldad also mentioned the existence of “sons of Moses,” who lived nearby but were cut off from the world by the impassable Sambatyon.2 “They are of perfect faith and their Talmud is all in Hebrew. … But they know not the Rabbis, for these were for the Second Temple and they did not reach them. … No unclean things are to be found with them, no unclean fowl, no (p.20) unclean beast, no unclean cattle, no flies, no lice, no foxes, no scorpions, no serpents and no dogs. And they can speak only the holy tongue and they all take ritual baths and never swear.”3 What is to be thought of the material of Sepher Eldad? Half truth, half make‐believe, it seems to be based on real historical characters and events—such as the conversion of the Arabian king Dhu Nuwas of Himyar and his subjects to Judaism (sixth century)—that were embroidered by the storyteller. Nonetheless, one can think that Eldad's account, with its numerous improbabilities (he locates the origin of the Halacha (Jewish law) in a Jewish community somewhere in Africa), had an underlying content.4 Eldad's aim was probably to reinforce the Jewish faith by giving news of Israel's tribes that lived freely, and by contributing to the utopian dream of the Lost Tribes' return to Israel. The story of Eldad did not lack supporters in the tenth century, such as Rabbi Chisdai ibn Shaprut, the vizier of the caliph of Cordoba, whereas Ibn Ezra and Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, in particular, considered him as an impostor. Much more recently, in the nineteenth century, P. F. Frankl denounced him too as a faker of Greek origin,5 whereas H. A. Reifmann concluded that his account was a late forgery.6 However, the Hebrew account of Eldad was widely disseminated. The earliest version of Eldad's account was published in Mantua in 1483, followed by a later version in Constantinople in 1519, and had a long‐lasting influence on the Jewish and European imagination in the Middle Ages.7 It reverberated in the imagination of both Jews and Christians the idea of the presence of Jews beyond the Sambatyon and reinforced the myth of the Lost Tribes exiled in some distant utopia.

In the twelfth century, Benjamin of Tudela (1165–1173), described as one of the greatest travelers who had ever lived,8 undertook a journey of several years that took him as far as China to establish a sort of census of the Jewish populations he encountered.9 He crossed France, Italy, the Greek islands, Palestine, Persia, and the Persian Gulf before returning home via Aden and Aswan. In Persia, he identified the descendants of the tribes of Dan, Zebulon, Asher, and Naphtali living in the mountains of Nishapur, in complete independence from the king of Persia and who told him, “We are Jews; we have no King and no gentile Prince, but a Jewish prince rules over us.”10 In a place he names Ibrig, which has been identified as Ceylon, Benjamin noted that the Jews, apparently those of Cochin, were black Jews: “All the inhabitants of the country are black (shehorim), the Jews as well.”11 He also provided important information about the presence of a small group of Jews in the Sahara, in a country he called Kush, specifying that they undertook fifty‐day caravan journeys toward what is now Ghana, threatened by sandstorms, in order to bring back copper, salt, gold, and jewels. He described them as “Sons of Kush, (p.21) who read the stars, and are all black in colour. … They know the law of Moses and the Prophets and, to a small extent the Talmud and the Halacha.”12

Eldad the Danite and Benjamin of Tudela had famous successors, such as Patatiah of Ratisbon, in the twelfth century; Obadiah of Bertinoro, in the fifteenth century; the rabbis Eliezer ha‐Levi and Moses Basula of Ancona, in the sixteenth century; and their contemporary David Reubeni. All claimed to have found the tribes in a number of different places from Arabia to Ethiopia and in others, often difficult to identify. Among these travelers, some reported encounters with black‐skinned Jews. In a detailed description of Jerusalem, Obadiah of Bertinoro mentions pilgrims coming from the land of Prester John (i.e., Ethiopia) who told him about the Lost Tribes. He goes on to report on an encounter with black Jews, members of the Ten Tribes, captured in battle, sold into slavery, and brought to Egypt: “They are only somewhat black (shehorim) and not like the blacks (benei kusi'im).”13 A century later, while Moses Basula described the land of Kush in an enigmatic way, a letter from the land of Israel from Israel Ashkenazi to Abraham of Perugia gives the account of a black Jew “almost like a black (kushi)” who was captured, enslaved, and redeemed by Jews from Alexandria. This description may be compared to that of the Italian traveler Ludovico Vartima, who described the Ethiopian Jews as “black rather than any other colour”.14 It is difficult to know whether these encounters took place with black Christians from Ethiopia, said to have come from Prester John's legendary kingdom, or black Jews, supposedly from the Lost Tribes. As to David Reubeni, who claimed to be the brother and emissary of the king of Khaibar who ruled the exiled tribes of Gad, Reuben, and Manasseh, he himself may have been of Falasha origin: a number of his contemporaries, for instance, Daniel of Pisa, described him as having a dark skin.15

Quite naturally, the travelers and scholars who dealt with the issue related to the country where the Lost Tribes were thought to be, and the people who lived there gave stereotypical descriptions of the nature and appearance of the Africans bound to geo‐theological problems like the climate theory. Unlike Jewish scholars in the Islamic cultural world, those in lands of Latin‐Christian culture in the late Middle Ages had virtually no contact with Africans except for travelers who, like Benjamin of Tudela and Obadiah of Bertinoro, reached North Africa and the Middle East and a few scholars active in the southern part of Christian Europe. Only in the mid‐fifteenth century did black slaves from West Africa appear in Europe as a result of Portuguese conquests.16 A recurrent antique link took place between the Lost Tribes and the presence, in the region where they were identified, of dark‐skinned populations. One might assume that a surreptitious identification between (p.22) dark‐complexioned peoples and Jews was made in the background of the myth of the Lost Tribes.

Until this time traces of the Lost Tribes were sought in the conventional direction of Asia and Africa. Following the discovery of America, however, the search began among its native inhabitants and sustained the identification of the Lost Tribes with dark‐skinned people.17 In the seventeenth century, the myth of the Ten Tribes did not lose any of its strength. Menasseh ben Israel, who was then the rabbi of Amsterdam, demonstrated great interest in the fantastic account of Antonio Levi de Montezinos's journey to the New World.18 He devoted a book, Hope of Israel (1650–1652), to the remarkable story of his encounter with Indians beyond the Cordillera passes.19 When he returned in 1644, Montezinos declared that the Indians, who allegedly welcomed him by reciting the Shema Israel, had a few customs that reminded him of Jewish commandments. He thus identified this people—considered as somewhat “tanned” but in essence white—with the Lost Tribes. Menasseh accepted this account but rejected out of hand the possibility of identifying the lost Israelites with certain dark‐skinned Indian tribes.20 He refused the hypothesis raised by a few Christian scholars that the Canaanites, “black” according to the Midrashic tradition, wandered until they reached America after Joshua defeated them and expelled them from Canaan, and that the Indians were their descendants. He could, however, accept the argument, among others, that the Jews were originally light‐skinned, but their complexions had grown dark as a punishment of their exile.

In the following centuries, the myth of the Ten Tribes did not lose any of its strength, and a number of Jewish travelers or Israeli emissaries (shelulei Erets Israel) brought forward proof that the desire for a confrontation between the present reality and the mythical past was actively being kept alive. We note that in the 1830s, one of these disciples, Israel of Shklov, leader of a group called the Kohel ha‐Perushim of Safed, who wished to facilitate the reunification of the exiled communities, sent an emissary into the Arabian Desert to search for traces of the Ten Tribes.21 In 1824, a disciple of the Gaon of Vilna, David D'Beth Hillel, began a long journey in search of eastern Jewish communities, which took him to Palestine and as far as India.22 The sole reason that led David D'Beth Hillel to spend nearly ten years tracing the Jewish presence in the East was none other than to shed light on the existence and the status of the Ten Lost Tribes, who lived in freedom and virtuously. One might add that the messages of those travelers served the function of keeping alive messianic hopes in the face of general persecution of Jews in Europe and elsewhere.

An example of the amalgamation of Jewish and Christian myths and legends is the legend of Prester John, a supernatural personage who foreshadowed (p.23) the return of the Messiah at the End of the Days. This legend dominated Western imagination for a long time during the Middle Ages and tossed another stone on the heap of the myth of the Ten Tribes in Africa. The account of the existence and the totally fictitious high deeds of this priest‐king spread throughout Europe and forged the attitudes of the time.23 How was this legend created? Around the middle of the twelfth century, the conquests of the Crusaders in Palestine were seriously threatened; the Saracens' power had significantly increased, and discouragement overtook the Christians. Prester John was known instantly in Europe due to a letter he ostensibly sent in 1165 to the Byzantine emperor, Manuel Commene.24 In this letter, which was the basis of the legend for centuries, Prester John described himself as ruling in “India.” The confusion that prevailed in the Middle Ages, in terms of geography, barely distinguished Africa from India, and the general ignorance prevailing transported Prester John to Africa that could be Asia. He went on to write that he was a Christian ruler and described his wealth, power, the great size and the diversity of his empire, and the botanical and zoological marvels that could be found there. Prester John's letter mentions also the presence of Jews nearby his states. His description strongly evokes the fabulous account of Eldad the Danite, “Between us and the Jews flows a river so rapid that no one is able to cross it except on Saturday, its day of rest. The Jews are twice as numerous as the Christians or Saracens, but the great King of Israel pays us a tribute of 200 horses loaded with gold, silver and precious stones.”25

When Portugal began its maritime discoveries, Prince Henry sent emissaries to Ethiopia (Abyssinia), where they found a Christian king who, in some ways, displayed features already ascribed to Prester John. Vague ideas about remote religious doctrines, flourishing especially in Asia, contributed to the spread throughout Europe of the opinion that a powerful ruler, at the edges of earth, was professing Christianity. The legend of Prester John was assimilated by both Jewish and Christian myths and legends and constituted a reference for fifteenth‐ and sixteenth‐century Jewish writings. Obadiah of Bertinoro affirmed in 1448: “Certain it is that a man has arrived from the land of the Prester John, which lies between great mountains, and extends ten days' journey, who says that there is the dwelling of Bene Israel and that they are in continuous warfare with Prester John.”26 In answer to this, another text known in Jerusalem in 1454 recounted that the Sambatyon had dried up and that the tribes were crossing it to wage war on Prester John.27 We also note that the legend of Prester John drew on the medieval idea that the earthly paradise should be located somewhere in Africa. Later on, with the Portuguese interests being transferred to the Monomotapa empire, believed to be Ophir, assimilation was made between the Monomotapa and the myth of Prester John. This (p.24) is how Vincent Leblanc, a French traveler, used golden columns and other architectural elements to describe the capital of Monomotapa as Prester John had depicted it in his famous letter.28

From the earliest times to the first conquests, the myth of the Lost Tribes and its plasticity gave weight to the world of interrelated representations, commonplace and stereotyped images, for laying out supposedly historical realities. The mental perception that resulted divided the world into categories in terms of these stereotypes. Closely tied in with ancient schemas of pagan or Christian origin that place at the frontier of known mankind models of perfection or barbarism, the myth contributed to a European propensity to a binary way of thinking. The persistence of the myth owed much to the tension aroused among Europeans by their encounters with the non‐European, non‐Christian. The myth gave birth, throughout these centuries, to a tendency to invoke the “Lost Tribes” to make sense of any unknown population. Isaiah's and Ezekiel's prophecies predicting the return of the tribes from the land of Kush provided an authoritative infrastructure for all future speculation concerning the presence of the Ten Tribes in Africa. For centuries, Western Christians have lived in ignorance of Africa. What and where this fabulous land was, was a matter wide open for speculation.


(1.)  There are many versions of Sepher Eldad. See, e.g., Eldad‐ha‐Dani, ed. Abraham Epstein (Pressburg, 1891); Eliakim Carmoly, Relation d'Eldad le Danite, voyageur du IXè siècle (Paris: Dondé‐Duprey, 1838); Elkan N. Adler, Jewish Travellers: A Treasury of Travelogues from Nine Centuries (London: Bloch Publishers, 1930); David Wasserstein, “Eldad ha‐Dani and Prester John” in Prester John, the Mongols and the Ten Lost Tribes, ed. C. F. Beckingham and B. Hamilton (Aldershot: Variorum, 1996): 213–236.

(2.)  Adler, Jewish Travellers, pp. 5, 15.

(3.)  Ibid., pp. 12–13.

(4.)  This information led recent scholars to locate the Halacha among Ethiopian Falasha, or Khazars, or North Yemen's Najran, without any general agreement on one of these assumptions. See Parfitt, Lost Tribes, p. 9. About Najran, see Tudor Parfitt, The Road to Redemption: The Jews of Yemen, 1900–1950, Brill's Series in Jewish Studies 17 (Leiden 1996), pp. 247ff. On the Falasha, see Steven Kaplan, The Beta Israel (Falasha) in Ethiopia (New York: New York University Press, 1992), p. 42; also Wasserstein, “Eldad,” p. 214.

(5.)  Neubauer, “Tribes,” pp. 108, 109.

(6.)  Adler, Jewish Travellers, p. xii.

(7.)  Parfitt, Lost Tribes, p. 10.

(8.)  Samuel Purchas, Purchas in Pilgrimage (London: W. Stansby, 1613).

(9.)  Benjamin of Tudela in Adler, Jewish Travellers, pp. 83ff.; also Robert L. Hess, “The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela: A Twelfth‐Century Jewish Description of North‐East Africa,” Journal of African History 6 (1965): 15–24.

(10.)  Adler, Jewish Travellers, p. 55.

(11.)  Maimonides does something similar, on one occasion identifying the inhabitants of the south as Hodim (Indians) and on another as Kushim (blacks) in The Guide of the Perplexed, translated with an introduction and notes by Shlomo Pines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), vol.3, pp. 29, 51.

(12.)  Adler, Jewish Travellers, pp. 58–59.

(13.)  Menachem E. Artom and Abraham David, From Italy to Jerusalem: Letters of Ovadiah of Bartenura from Eretz Israel (C. G. Foundation Jerusalem project, Department of Land of Israel Studies, Bar‐Ilan University, 5757, 1997), p. 74.

(14.)   The Journeys in Eretz Israel of R. Moses Basula in the Years 1421–1423, p. 32, quoted in Abraham Melamed, The Image of the Black in Jewish Culture (London: Routledge Curzon, 2002), p. 150.

(15.)  Moshe D. Cassuto, “Who Was David ha‐Reubeni?” Tarbiz 32 (1963): 339–358.

(16.)  Melamed points out that “it is no coincidence that the myth of the punishment of Ham (Canaan) appears in Christian literature only then, and grants theological legitimacy to economic interests.” Before that, medieval slaves in southern Europe were white Slavs, from which in fact the word slave in various European languages derives. Melamed, Image, p. 151.

(17.)  Abraham Melamed, “The Discovery of America in Jewish Literature of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” in Be‐Ikvot Columbus: Amerika 1492–1992, ed. M. Eliav‐Feldon (Jerusalem: Merkaz Shazar and The Historical Society of Israel, 1997), pp. 443–462.

(18.)  Menasseh ben Israel, Hope of Israel, introduction and notes by Henri Mechoulan and Gerard Nahon (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 173–174.

(19.)  Richard Popkin, “The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Indian Theory,” in Menasseh ben Israel and His World, ed. Yosef Kaplan, Henri Mechoulan, and Richard Popkin (Leiden: Brill, 1989), pp. 63–82.

(20.)  Thanks to the exchanges facilitated between Menasseh and the English theologians as a result of this story, an atmosphere was created that later facilitated the Jews' return to England. See Menasseh Ben Israel's Mission to Oliver Cromwell (London: Macmillan, 1901).

(21.)  Arye Morgenstern, “R. Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna and His Historical Influence,” in Rahel Schnold (Tel Aviv: Beth Hatefusot, 1998), pp. 67–73.

(22.)  Walter J. Fischer, Unknown Jews in Unknown Lands: The Travels of Rabbi D'Beth Hillel 1824–1832 (New York: KTAV, 1973).

(23.)  Pierre‐Gustave Brunet, “La légende du Prêtre Jean,” in Extrait des Actes de l'Académie des Sciences, Belles lettres et Arts de Bordeaux (Bordeaux: C. Lefebvre, 1877), pp. 1–27; also Jean Doresse, L'Empire du Prêtre Jean, 2 vols (Paris: Plon, 1957).

(24.)  François Fleuret, “La lettre du Prêtre Jean, Pseudo‐Roi d'Abyssinie,” Mercure de France 268 (1936): 298–309. For the search for Prester John, especially in Africa, see Dennison Ross, “Prester John and the Empire of Ethiopia,” in Travels and Travellers of the Middle Ages, ed. Arthur P. Newton (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1968), pp. 174–194.

(25.)  Brunet, “Légende,” p. 15.

(26.)  Neubauer, “Ten Tribes,” p. 195.

(27.)  Ibid.

(28.)  Vincent Leblanc, Les fameux voyages de Vincent Leblanc (Paris, 1648), quoted in Tudor Parfitt, Journey to the Vanished City (New York: Vintage, 2000), p. 220. Among Christian travelers' accounts, the writings that constituted one of the driving myths of the time were those of a hypothetical traveler, Sir John Mandeville, who widely generalized the existence of the tribes of Israel, interpreted as Gog and Magog, in the mountains of the Caspian. See Sir John Mandeville, Mandeville's Travels (London: Hakluyt Society, 1953); Christiane Deluz, Le livre de Jehan de Mandeville: Une géographie au XIV ème siècle (Louvain: Institut d'Etudes Médiévales de l'Université de Louvain, 1988).