Beyond the River Sambatyon

Jews in Afghanistan

 

by Moshe Goldstein

 

“I will take the children of Israel from among the nations…and bring them

into their own land...and will make them one nation… And they shall be no

more two nations, neither divided into two Kingdoms… I will save them out

of all their dwelling-places, and…My servant Dovid shall be king over

them…and they shall walk in Mine ordinances, and observe My statutes, and

do them… And the nations shall know that I am the L-rd...that sanctifies

Israel when My sanctuary shall be in the midst of them forever.”

(Yechezkel Ezekiel 37:21-28)

 

In this haftorah to parshas Vayigash, in which Joseph is reunited with

his brothers, our prophet Ezekiel foretells the reunification of Judah

and the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel during the world’s concluding days, the

time of Mashiach. Recent events give us reason to hope that perhaps our

own era will merit to see the fulfillment of this momentous prophecy. As

the Jewish people rally behind America’s anti-terrorist campaign in

Afghanistan, an exploration of history will surprise us with discoveries

of a more than casual Jewish connection to that landlocked country’s

tortuous conflict. While it would seem ludicrous, with only two Jews left

in Kabul, to link Israel or world Jewry with this underdeveloped pariah

nation, it turns out that Afghanistan was host to an ancient Jewish

community until just 22 years ago. And the possible Israelite heritage of

its Pashtun neighbors is an intriguing mystery yet to be unveiled.

 

The Afghan Jewish Community

 

Afghan Jewry traces its lineage to the Babylonian exile. It maintained a

strong connection with the Babylonian community throughout the Talmudic

and medieval eras, as documented by the famous Biblical commentaries and

religious responsa of Rav Saadia Gaon and traveling author Benjamin of

Tudela. The Babylonian ge’onim greatly influenced Afghan Jewish life

through their halachic rulings, which allowed the Afghan community to

preserve its dedication to Torah. One 12th century rabbi of Khorasan, the

center of Afghan Jewry, quotes Rabbi Hai Gaon’s criticism of his

community’s marriage practice:

 

“And Rabbi Hai, may his memory be blessed, wrote, ‘You suffer a great

loss because of your custom to betroth a woman not in the time of the

ketuba (marriage contract) nor in the time of the engagement, and

therefore women are betrothed even in the market-place in the presence of

two witnesses, but there is a deficiency in this practice, and for 100

years, this has not been heard of in Babylonia...’”

 The community at Merv claimed to have been founded by Ezra the Prophet.

A synagogue survived there until 1092. Merv’s famous Rav Akiva, who

probably received his semicha (rabbinical ordination) in Babylonia, was

charged with overseeing the community’s tax collection on behalf of the

regional tax collector Mansur Ibn Omar.

 

During the medieval era, Jewish communities also flourished in Balkh,

Ghazni, Kabul, and Nishapur. According to Rav Saadia’s Isaiah commentary,

the Balkh community was divided between “Jews” and “people that are

called Jews.” (And this was before Conservative and Reform!) Rav Saadia

also wrote a polemic against a Jewish heretic of the town. Geniza

documents of the era document commerce with the Jewish Khazar Kingdom in

the Caucasus.

 

The famous Jewish traveler, Benjamin of Tudela records his visit to

Ghazni’s 80,000-strong regional Jewish community in his Book of Travels:

“It is a city of commercial importance; people of all countries and

tongues come hither with their wares. The land is extensive.” Several

Jews served its Moslem ruler, Sultan Mahmud Ghazni (997 to 1030) as

financial advisors and managers of lead mines. In Kabul, the Afghan

capital, the Jewish community lived segregated from their Moslem

neighbors in a ghetto-type neighborhood.

 

 Ghur typified most Afghanistan’s Jewish communities. It is known to have

had a thriving rabbinical court, cheder, and yeshiva. The community

leadership titles such as Alut (senior judge) Rosh Hasaranut, and Raish

Sidra show the Babylonian connections of talmudic and medieval Afghan

Jewry. In fact, one of Ghur’s rabbinic figures was granted his position

as judge through the merits of his rabbinical scholarship at Abaye’s

famous yeshiva in Pumbedita. Later, communal leaders’ tombstones in

Ghur’s Jewish cemetery bear inscriptions like chachom, melamed, zaken,

rosh kanesa, and rosh kahal, testify to a more Persian tradition.

Designations of kohen and levi are also prevalent. The Ghur Jewish

community prospered and then declined well after the 13th century’s

destructive Mongol invasion. It is believed that the Jews of Ghur

migrated to China, because evidence indicates the influence of

Persian-speaking Jews there, although forced conversions probably also

contributed to the community’s demise.

 

The Nishapur Jewish community traced its origins even earlier, to the

Assyrian exile, and achieved complete autonomy in the era of Rav Joseph

Amarkala the Levite into the 10th century. Tudela documents this Jewish

autonomous entity: “There are men of Israel...who say that in the

mountains dwell four of the tribes of Israel, namely...Dan, Zevulun,

Asher, and Naphtali. They are governed by their own prince, Joseph the

Levite. Among them are learned scholars. They sow and reap and go forth

to war as far as the land of Cush, by way of the desert. They are in

league with the Kofar-al-Turak, pagan tribesmen who worship the wind and

live in the wilderness.” Unfortunately, the Nishapur Jews were forcibly

converted to Islam; a large number fled to Yerushalayim in about the 11th

century as a result.

 

By the end of the medieval era, wars, forced conversions, and invasions

caused the ancient Afghan Jewish community to descend into isolation and

oblivion. Several centuries later, however, in the early 19th century,

oppression and forced conversion of Meshad’s Jewish community in nearby

Persia (Iran) prompted a mass influx of Jews to Afghanistan. The Afghan

Jewish population was replenished as a result, and reached 40,000 by the

year 1900.

 

The birth of the state of Israel in 1948 motivated mass aliya, reducing

the Jewish community to 5,000. About 4,123 of these remaining Jews later

followed, reaching Israel throughout the 1950s. Despite these massive

departures, communities in Kabul and Herat survived until 1979. Following

the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, between 70 and 80 Afghan Jewish

families fled to Israel. By the turn of this century, Afghan Jewry was

down to 12 families in Kabul and five or six families in Herat. The rise

of the Taliban, during the civil war that ensued after the Soviet pull

out, resulted in the virtual end of Afghan Jewry. Everyone left, except

two contentious souls.

 

Fighting Over the Torah Scroll

 

The last remaining Jew in Afghanistan, Rabbi Yitzchak Levi, has

persevered as caretaker of Kabul’s now-defunct community. “Half of the

compound belongs to the Jews,” he says, “and the other half was my

grandfather’s. I’m living here to take care of the synagogue, the Torah

scroll, and other holy books.” As the last six families—including Levi’s

wife, four sons, and a daughter—fled to Israel during the guerrilla

clashes that brought the Taliban to power, Levi held out. He deeply

misses his family, now in Be’ersheva, and is worried about the future:

“If I die here, there will be no one to bury me,” he laments.

Levi has rebuffed humanitarian efforts to facilitate his departure for

Israel. He has been adamant about protecting the synagogue compound in

the face of a recent challenge to his guardianship by the only other

remaining Jew, Zbolon Semantou. Semantou, a carpet dealer, returned to

Kabul a year ago from Turkmenistan. Levi accuses him of stealing the

Torah scroll and making trouble with the Taliban, who then confiscated

it. Semantou was subsequently jailed for 40 days by the Taliban, who

forced him to recite the Koran and convert to Islam. Once free, he

declared, “I haven’t really changed my faith. I’m still Jewish.” Semantou

says that he was an emissary of Israel sent to rescue the resistant

rabbi, who reported him to the authorities as an Israeli spy. As

liberated Kabul recovers from Taliban rule, these last two Jews remain at

an impasse, while their Torah scroll awaits to be rescued.

 

The Lost Tribes of Israel?

 

The wrinkle in Afghanistan’s Jewish connection is the mystery of the

Pashtun, the dominant ethnic group. At 15 million, the Pashtun are the

world’s largest tribe, and inhabit Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and

India. They associate their origins with the lost Ten Tribes of Israel.

Unlike their Turkic and Mongol neighbors, the Pashtun display Semitic

features and light skin; some even possess red hair and blue eyes.

Pashtun dialects contain Hebrew words. Referred to by their neighbors as

Afghans, which in their language means “sons of the Pashtun,” they have

often been called “Bani-Israel” as well.

 

Following Shlomo Hamelech’s reign, the ancient Jewish kingdom declined

into two rival states, Judah and Israel. Then, in the ninth year of

Hoshea (721 to 22 B.C.E.), the King of Assyria, Shalmaneser V, captured

Shomron, and dispersed [the Ten Tribes of Israel], placing them in Halah,

and on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of Medes. (see

Kings 2:17:6)

 

After the conquest and exile of the kingdom of Israel, these ten tribes

disappeared among the nations. The Midrash relates that Hashem encircled

them with the legendary Sambatyon River, which seethed with wild rapids

and churned of rocks up to shamayim (heaven). On Shabbos, the river was

calm, but the piety of the Ten Tribes prevented their escape. The river

Gozan, as mentioned above, is identified as the river along which the

prominent Afghan Jewish community, Ghazni, settled. For generations, both

the Ghazni Jewish community and their Pashtun neighbors have been

identified as the vanished kingdom of Israel.

 

Pashtun religious rites, in contrast to other Moslems, are hauntingly

Jewish. The Pashtun circumcise on the eighth day. Marriages are conducted

with a chupa, rings, and nidda/purity-like restrictions of seven days,

and ritual immersing in natural springs or at bathhouses. Levirite

marriage, in which a brother of a man who dies childless marries his

widowed sister-in-law, is still practiced. The Pashtun refrain from the

regional diet of horse and camel meat eaten by other Afghan tribes, and

distinguish between the biblical pure and impure birds. The women light

candles to inaugurate their Moslem Sabbath and bake 12 challos.

 

In addition, the Pashtun utilize diluted forms of tzitzit, tallis, and

tefilin in worship. On Yom Kippur and times of distress, some Pashtun

make pilgrimages to local synagogues, utilize wrapped books of tehilim

and Hebrew amulets containing Shema Yisrael for the sick, and decorate

their jewelry, homes, and schools with the Magen David. The reverence

they show to Moshe Rabeinu and his Torah, which they refer to as Tavrad

El Sharif, is somewhat atypical among Moslems.

 

Pashtun family names include those of Asher, Gad, Naphtali, Reuven, and

Menashe. First names include Yisrael and Shmuel. The names of the Pashtun

tribes bear close resemblance to the names of the Ten Lost Tribes of

Israel: According to this tribal name association, the Rabbani is Reuven,

the Shinware is Shimon, the Lewani is Levi, the Daftani is Naphtali, the

Jaji is Gad, the Ashuri is Asher, the Yusefsai is Yosef, and the Afridi

is Ephraim.

 

Some Pashtun, including the dethroned Afghan royal family, trace their

heritage to Binyamin, as documented in Mahsan-I-Afghani, published in

1635. The tradition alleges that Shaul Hamelech’s son Yirmiyahu left an

orphan son, Afghana, who was raised in the royal court by Dovid Hamelech

(King David) and lived into Shlomo Hamelech’s reign. According to this

legend, 400 years later, amidst Eretz Yisrael’s turmoil, the Afghana

family fled to Gur, Afghanistan. Later, in 662, upon Islam’s conquest, a

tribal leader, Kish, named for his royal forefather (Shaul’s father),

converted, along with his representatives, to Islam. Mohammed bestowed

upon him the new name Arab-A-Rashid, and charged him with the mission of

spreading Islam among his people. Thus, the dethroned Afghan monarchy,

recently promoted by the U.S. for a unifying political role in a post-war

Afghanistan, traces its royal lineage to Shaul Hamelech of shevet

Binyamin. The elderly King Mohammed Zahir Shah, the last of this alleged

Israelite Afghan royal dynasty, has, paradoxically, experienced his own

kind of exile in Rome, waiting over a quarter of a century for an

opportunity to reclaim his lost throne.

 

Israeli-Afghan Relations

 

 Afghan-Israel relations have been imperiled by the general Moslem

opposition to a Jewish state and Afghan political anarchy of the past

decades. Upon Israel’s birth, the fervently pious Afghan Jews flocked en

masse to Israel. Without formal relations, Iranian diplomats assisted

with Afghani Jewish migration through Iran and the establishment of

transit camps for reaching Eretz Yisrael. The aliya of Afghanistan’s once

thriving Jewish community resulted in today’s estimated Israeli Afghan

Jewish community of 10,000.

 

The ouster of the Soviet a decade ago by contentious Muslim insurgents

brought about an unstable unity government, which quickly disintegrated

into renewed warfare, allowing the Taliban to seize power. The Taliban

imposed their fanatical brand of Sunni Islam on the country, prompting

economic and social chaos. The Taliban forced women to be completely

covered from head to toe and denied them the right to attend school or

work. Non-Moslems were forced to wear yellow badges, a medieval Islamic

practice. Their campaign a year ago to destroy the cultural antiquities

of pre-Islamic times, declaring them to be idolatrous, sparked an

international uproar even in the Muslim world. Islamic Iran denounced the

Taliban destruction of ancient Persian monuments, and Greece offered

millions of dollars to purchase and protect the relics built by Alexander

the Great. The Taliban rejected overseas pleas for restraint, defiantly

asserting their destructive, narrow-minded interpretation of Islam.

Isolated abroad, the intolerant Taliban nonetheless managed to

consolidate their reign over the country by appealing to its Pashtun

brethren and resident Arab mercenaries against the predominately

non-Pashtun Northern Alliance. The Northern Alliance is a shaky coalition

dominated by ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks backed by Iran and the former

Soviet Union. It enlisted remnants of the post-Soviet internationally

recognized government. The Islamic banner to which all the warring Afghan

militias subscribe discouraged relations with the Jewish state.

 

Taliban religious restrictions exacerbated worsening famine, prompting

renewed international food relief efforts, which Israel joined. The food

distribution effort, particularly from overseas Christian organizations,

infuriated the Taliban, who arrested foreign aid workers for alleged

missionary activity. Early this year, amid the arrests, Taliban ruler

Mullah Mohammed Omar accused Christians and Jews of trying to convert

Moslems and demonize his harsh brand of Islam. Subsequently, a fatawa

(religious ruling) was issued, imposing the death penalty on anyone who

converts from Islam to another religion, and the relief organizations

were nearly banished from the country.

 

Despite Islam, Israel managed limited contacts with Afghan rivals. Its

penetration of Central Asia in the last decade and strong relations with

Afghanistan’s northern neighbors make it a controversial but recognized

regional role player. Israel’s participation in international relief

efforts necessitated limited contacts with the Taliban regime. In

response to this year’s devastating earthquake, Israeli humanitarian aid

of $100,000 was delivered via neighboring Tajikistan. Omar’s government

quietly if reluctantly accepted the food shipment. Following negative

publicity by Shiite Iran, however, Taliban radio confirmed the

distribution of Israeli aid but included ungrateful anti-Zionist

rhetoric. The broadcast speculated that such Israeli aid contain hidden

arms for the Northern Alliance and therefore proscribed its distribution

except under closely-monitored UN auspices.

 

Israel’s favorable relations with neighboring Uzbekstan and Tajikistan

assisted with its inroads to the Uzbek- and Tajik-dominated Afghan

Northern Alliance. The Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahranot reported just a

few weeks ago that Israeli diplomats held a series of meetings in the

past year with officials of the exiled but internationally recognized

government of Burhanuddin Rabbani, aimed at formal diplomatic relations.

Rabbani was head of the pre-Taliban coalition government of bickering

factions after the departure of the Soviets. Rabbani’s government

controls Afghan embassies and the Afghan U.N. seat abroad. The meetings

and contacts included the Israeli and Afghan ambassadors to the U.N., as

well as the Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister, Israeli Foreign Ministry

Director General Eitan Bentsur, and other senior Israeli Foreign Ministry

officials. Afghan officials also reportedly visited Israel. Taliban

Deputy Foreign Minister Sayed Mohammed Haqani seemed to confirm the

exchanges in his public accusations that Rabbani had established formal

relations with Israel over a year ago. Rabbani’s government-in-exile is

said to have conditioned future Israeli-Afghan relations to progress in

the so-called “peace process.” However, recent media coverage of the

recent U.S.-assisted Northern Alliance victories in Afghanistan hinted at

favorable contacts with the Jewish State through its quote of an Alliance

spokesman, who defended “Israel’s right to exist.”

 

As war against Islamic terrorism engulfs the U.S. and Eretz Yisrael, we

remain perplexed by the three-dimensional puzzle linking our people to

Afghanistan through Afghan Jews, Israel, and the Israelite-claimed

heritage of the Pashtun. With the Almighty’s help, we will not despair.

As we anticipate the prophet’s vision of the ingathering of the exiles,

Mashiach, and the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash, it remains to be seen

if we will indeed unveil our lost Israelite brethren hiding beneath the

Islamic cloak of the Pashtun and their defeated Taliban rulers.