The concept of the other is an integral component to the revised interpretation
of any cultural identity. According to the Post-modern theoretical, perspective
one forms his or her sense of cultural and ethnic identity, in relation
to "Other". Therefore, there is a dialectical relationship between
the self and the other. Through the dialectic of interaction, a cultural
identity is understood to be dynamic and in the process of Becoming as
well as Being. Cultural identities are formed, not in a vacuum, but rather
in a matrix of history, economic mode of production and power relations.
The power relations which shape cultural identity are the center stage
of the concept of others.
Within the sphere of Middle East studies there are many ways of approaching
cultural identity. The one which will be focused here is the concept of
Other. Since each culture defines itself in relation and over the Other,
one must understand the Other within each Medieval Jews of Afghanistan
as Other. The paper will attempt to point to the politico-socio organization
of Jews in Afghanistan. The purpose of this paper is to offer a critical
description of the Jews as Others, so that scholars who focus on the Afghan
cultural identity will be able to investigate how Afghan cultural identity
was shaped in relation to the Other (which in this case is the Jews). Since
the concept of cultural identity, within the Post-modern perspective, is
not reached by asking Who is an Afghan? What are the essential components,
parameters? etc. But rather, one must ask questions which researchers of
Jewish Identity, who subscribes to the Post-modern perspective, look at:
"What are the discursive processes, political as well as social,
by means of which what we understand as Jewish identity has been generated,
disseminated, and perpetuated? Who are the significant Others, internally
and externally, over and against whom hegemonic notions of Jewish identity
have been formed? How have they perceived them and interact with them?
What characteristics have they ascribed to them as a means to differentiate
Them from Us, Self from Other?..." (1)
If scholars who attempt to describe what Afghan cultural identity is
simply substitute Afghan identity for Jewish identity, their understanding
of the forces at work would become much clearer than before.
Most of the literature about the Jews of Afghanistan and Iran is inaccessible
to most of the scholars who concentrate on this geographical area. Most
of the recent studies about the history of the Jews in Afghanistan are
in Hebrew. Furthermore, the majority of the material is saturated with
folklore and little concrete, archaeological evidence. However, there are
some things that are known about the Jewish community in Afghanistan. Since
the perspective of the paper is based on the Post-modernist concept of
the Other, the focus will be on the Medieval Jewish community of Afghanistan
as the Other.
Before discussing the Jewish community of Afghanistan, one must consider
the evidence that is available. To begin with, there are a few general
studies of the Jews in Afghanistan. Of the large bibliography that was
compiled by Yehoshua-Raz, none of the articles and books deal with the
formation of the community. 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. Therefore, what I am able to offer is an introductory
study of the Jews of Afghanistan in the Middle Ages.
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). It is difficult to refute, or supply evidence for this. There are
no archaelogical remains that allow one to argue so. However, there is
a mention in the Bible of the exile of a large community to the river Gozan
(2). It would seem that the myth of the establishment of the Jewish community
in the Fertile Crescent has some historical basis since the Exile did occur.
And furthermore, there was a continuous Jewish presence in the area until
the modern age.
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. These questions dealt with civil, religious, and
theological matter). Since some verses in the Bible mention "Land
of the North" (3) which is identified as Khorasan. 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 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...(5).
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.
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.
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 (6). 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.
The community in Balkh is mentioned by Rabbi Saadia Goan in his commentary
to the book of Isaiah (7). 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.
The community of Ghazni is also mentioned in various biblical commentaries
as mentioned above. Benjamin of Tudela writes that there are over 8,000
Jews in the city. To quote him, "It is a city of commercial importance;
people of all countries and tongues come hither with their wares. The land
is extensive" (8). According to some Muslim sources, several Jews
served the ruler of Mahmud Ghazni (997-1030) as financial advisors and
as managers of lead mines (9).
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 (9). 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. In Nishapur, the orign of the community
is attributed to the Assyrian exile. And one source reports that the community
was lead by Rabbi Joseph Amarkala, the Levite (8). 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 (4,10).
As one can see the information and sources about the Jews of Afghanistan
in the Middle Ages are few. However, since the discovery of a Jewish cemetery
in Ghur, researchers were able to find out many details of communal life
in the community of Ghur. It would seem plausible that most of the Jewish
communites of the area resembled the structure and communal life of the
community of Ghur.
The first inscription was discovered in 1946. It was a tombstone which
contained a Judeo-Persian inscription. Scholars dated the tombstone from
1198. A few years later, in 1956, three rock inscriptions made by one individual
were found and dated at 752-753. In 1962, over twenty tombstones were discovered.
These tombstones were inscribed with Hebrew, Aramaic, and Judeo-Persian
(11). These were dated between 1012-1249. The last tombstone is from September
19, 1249 which would place it 27 years after the Mongol invasion. It is
speculated that the community either fled, forced to convert, or was destroyed.
Most scholars argue that the community fled into China since there is a
significant influence from Persian speaking Jews from Khorasan on the Chinese
Jewish community's texts and ceremonies (12).
The tombstones include not only names and dates, but also communal titles
and functions (4). 29 Tombstones includes the title (Alut). According to
the hierarchy of the Talmudic schools in Babylonia, this title was given
to five members who served as judges. It is believed that within the community,
there was a Rabbinic judge who received his title from the Pubethita school
in another title included on the tombstone, (Rosh Ha Sadranut). This title
seems to be a translation of the Aramaic title given to head of schools
(Raish Sidra) (13).
Another 28 tombstones include the title of (Aluf). However, this individual
by the name of Tobia Hallevi does not have the title of a school head.
It seems that he had an important religious function within the community.
He must have had a judicial function also, since the term Aluf was given
to Judges only.
There are several tombstones which include the title of (Hakham). It
seems that this title was reserved for those who served as Rabbis and teachers.
It might have been an honourary title title like other Jewish communities
in different Jewish communities. There are some tombstones with the title
(Melamed). This title was probably given to the teachers of the community,
and those who lead public prayers (4). There were other honourary titles
given to the community's elders, and distinguished members. These titles
are (Yashish), and (Zaken). These titles were given to people who had other
communal functions as inscribed in tombstones 21 and 8.
The title of the head of the community, and the title of the head of
the congregation are found one next to each other in tombstones 23 and
27. The title of the communal leader was Rosh Kahal and the title for the
head of the congregation was Rosh Kanesa. The term (Kanesa) is the Judeo-Persian
translation of synagogue. However, these two terms in the Gaonite literature
were used as synonyms (10). Therefore, it might be argued that these two
titles have the same meaning.
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 (4). Lastly, tombstones also
indicate whether an individual whether an individual was a Levite or Cohen.
As stated earlier, since there is a lack of either archaeological and
textual information regarding the Medieval Jewish community in Afghanistan,
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.
In the Middle Ages, the Jewish communites in Afghanistan did not leave
the modern scholars much material to work with. However since there were
some scattered reports in Medieval Biblical commentaries, Islamic sources
and some archaeological evidence, one is able to reconstruct some major
features of these communites. 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.
I leave the task of searching for the Jewish influences as the "Other"
in the Afghan identity. Since both communities saw themselves as descendants
of Israelite tribes, these two communities must have had a polemic against
each other which served as a foreground for the development of cultural
identity. Furthermore, both communities were devastated by the Mongol conquest,
and surely that became a factor which united both communites. These questions
must be looked at as a form of critique of the Afghan identity. And hopefully
these questions and others will serve as a window to a new vision and reconstruction.
Article written 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.
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.
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)
5) Yehoshua-Raz, Ben-Zion ibid. p. 37-38
6) Yehoshua-Raz, Ben-Zion ibid. p. 40
7) See Isaiah 37:12
8) E. N. Adler, Jewish Travelers in the Middle Ages: 19 first hand accounts,
9) Yehoshua-Raz, Ben Ziod ibid. p. 47.
10) Gil, M. Land of Israel during the first Muslim Period (634-1099)
part I (Hebrew) p. 368.
11) Fischel, W. J. (1965): Rediscovery of the Medieval Jewish community
at Feireukeuh in Central Afghanistan, Journal of the American Oriental
Society, vol. 85.
12) Leslie, D. D. Persia or Yemen?- the origin of the Kaifeng Jews,
in: Irano- Judaica, Ed. S. Shaked, p. 101-111.
13) Ben Sasson, M. Letter fragments from the Geniza to the beginnings
of the renewal of contact between the Babylonian yeshivot with the west,
in Tabriz, vol. 56, pp. 171-209 (Hebrew).