The “Other” in “Afghan” Identity: Medieval Jewish community of Afghanistan

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.

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 giving 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 archaeological 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 (4).

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 origin of the community is attributed to the Assyrian exile. And one source reports that the community was led 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 converted 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 communities 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). Twenty-nine tombstones include 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 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 communities 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 communities. 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 communities. 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.



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. 26

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, p. 53.

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).