Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

21 Cheshvan 5762 - November 7, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Judaism in the Land of the Taliban:
"There Was Not Even One Nonobservant Jew Amongst The Whole Of Afghan Jewry"

by Refoel Berlzonf

Afghanistan, which has recently been in the headlines under very difficult conditions, had a flourishing Jewish community in the not-too-distant past. One of the rabbonim of the community spoke to Yated Ne'eman about life there. Today the Taliban have instituted a reign of terror, but in the past Jews sat and learned every day in shuls at the end of their working day, Torah being paramount. The mesirus nefesh displayed by the Jews was amazing. The community included talmidei chachomim. Today there are no halachic Jews in the country, but there are rumors, backed up by some evidence (to be treated with caution) about a connection between Afghan tribes and the Ten Tribes.

After the dust has settled in the Afghan hills from the American and British bombing, the exiled Afghan king may be asked to return to his kingdom from his temporary home in Rome. One of the rabbonim of the Afghan community in Israel told us that the king once proclaimed that they had a tradition of coming from Jewish stock. The king, 86 years old today, was very favorably disposed towards the Jews, and his personal adviser was Jewish. Even during his time in exile he has maintained links with Jews from the Afghan community.

In the second part of this article we shall bring a fascinating collection of testimonies about a possible link between the Pathan (Pashtun) Afghan tribe and the Ten Tribes: the Pathans have amulets written in Assyrian script (ksav ashuris). The brother of a deceased person observes yibum and they grow payos!

The following incident happened to a visitor to an Afghan area populated by the Pathans who was accompanied by a relative, a boy with payos. When they passed one of their villages he was attacked by members of the tribe: "They literally wanted to kill us. They thought that I had stolen the boy from one of their areas. When I managed, by a miracle, to calm them down and asked them why I was being attacked they explained that I must have stolen the child, because only members of their tribe had the custom of growing payos since they were Jewish."

We shall return for more fascinating testimonies later, after the following interview with one of the rabbonim of the Afghan community in Israel who is active in spreading Torah and yiras Shomayim.

"There was not even one nonobservant Jew amongst the whole of Afghan Jewry," declares the rov.

Even up to very recent times?

"Yes! Maybe there were some who were victims of ignorance, but there was nobody who was lacking the basics of faith, ahavas haTorah, putting on tefillin and even praying three times a day. The town of Her'at had four packed synagogues. If one person was absent for even one tefilloh during the week people went to him to be mevaker cholim, assuming that he must surely not be feeling well."

Which period are you referring to?

"Until thirty years ago."

In other countries the destruction of the religious way of life started much earlier!

"In Afghanistan there were two attempts by the Alliance (Alliance Israelite Universelle, a French-based group that tried to spread modernity -- including its ills -- among Jews around the world) to infiltrate our way of life, but the rabbonim stood in the breach and prevented them from gaining a foothold in the country. The Haskalah was totally unsuccessful in its attempts to have an influence on the Jews of Afghanistan. When there was a need to teach secular studies this was done by using a private tutor but not within the framework of talmudei Torah. Unfortunately no yeshivas were set up in Afghanistan, but, by the grace of Hashem, there were talmidei chachomim, including some very distinguished ones.

"If yeshivas had been set up, Afghanistan would have been like Vilna. The bochurim are very talented and today they stand out in the Torah institutions in Israel. Although there were no institutionalized yeshivas, everybody sat and learned in the shuls after a day's work. The mesirus nefesh displayed by the Jews was amazing. Frozen springs served as mikvo'os and the responsa discuss whether it was permissible to heat a spring as a mikveh in Afghanistan."

Was there one dominant figure in the struggle against the Haskoloh?

"It could be said that the person who set the tone for Afghan Jewry was Rav Mattisyo Gargi zt"l who was in charge of all spiritual matters. He was a big tzaddik. He moved to Eretz Yisroel and lived in the Bocharan neighborhood in Yerushalayim. Every erev Shabbos he walked to the Kosel in both summer and winter.

"HaRav Ezra Attiya zt"l asked him why he did not hire a wagon for a few prutot since he was already old. He replied that it would be better to give those prutot to the poor. Even after he moved to Eretz Yisroel he continued to have an influence on Afghan Jewry.

"Jews would fast on the days of BaHaB [Mondays and Thursdays several weeks after the yomim tovim] and also on erev Rosh Chodesh. There were also women who fasted on Sundays."


"The origin of this custom is interesting. The stoves were made out of stone and there were burning coals inside and the women were worried that they had chas vesholom transgressed the prohibition of muktzeh on Shabbos and so these righteous women fasted on Sundays!

"Allow me to quote a few lines from the sefer of moreinu HaRav Gargi, Eidus Biyehosef, which testify to the yiras Shomayim and modesty of Afghan Jewry: `If the engaged man does not behave in a lighthearted manner before his chuppah the couple will remain happily married throughout their lives as we saw in our town of Her'at . . . from this it follows that they will not end up with gittin. My grandfather (Rav Mordechai Gargi zt"l) and my father (Rav Mattisyo Gargi) were rabbis in Her'at and the tznius was such that we never saw or heard of an engaged or married man divorcing his wife.'"

How long did this spiritual Golden Era last?

"The Afghan king had to have an eye operation in France. The professor who operated on him was Jewish. After the operation the king asked him how much he owed him for the operation. The professor answered that he was Jewish and he asked him if there were Jews in the Afghan kingdom. The king said that there were. The professor asked for the following remuneration for the operation: that every Jew in his kingdom should be given total freedom to move to Eretz Yisroel. The king agreed to this.

"And that is what actually happened. The Jews who left the country for Eretz Yisroel were allowed to take their possessions with them without any restrictions! The Muslim neighbors were upset by this, saying that the Jews were leaving them and taking the country's good fortune with them . . . and they were right: after the Jews left there was a revolution and war broke out in the region.

"After their arrival in `our wonderful State' the immigrants were shocked to discover cars driving on Shabbos. They could not believe their eyes."

What made them choose to come to Eretz Yisroel?

"They had a yearning for Eretz Hakodesh. When a Jew came back to Afghanistan after a visit to Eretz Yisroel his neighbors would kiss the soles of his feet, since they had merited treading on holy ground! Those who could not move here themselves, in their innocence sent their children on their own. Unfortunately this was not a good idea, but it stemmed from ignorance. The parents thought that they were sending them to the Beis Hamikdosh . . . they just could not believe that the situation in Eretz Yisroel could be otherwise."

And what is the situation like today?

"Already during the period of the ma'abarot (transit camps) the Brisker Rov zt"l set up a yeshiva for the children of the immigrants. I went to the yeshiva and asked them to accept a group of children, but the administration told me that there was no room for them. I went to the Brisker Rov and told him about this. He told me as follows: `Go and tell them that the rov says that you should accept them.' And that is what happened.

"When the yeshiva bochurim grew older they took matters into their hands and started to invest energy into changing the face of the community."

We heard that the rov also played a part in this.

"No, unfortunately I did not. Today b"H many members of the community attend yeshivas. Compared to the small size of the community there are a lot of bochurim in yeshivas. Wherever they are, members of the Afghan community are conspicuous for their talents and are fully integrated into all areas of Torah life. The young bochurim are likely to grow up to be talmidei chachomim.

How were the Jews treated by the authorities?

"Generally speaking, they were favorably disposed towards us. They admired the Jews and knew that they were loyal to the kingdom and honest. People would deposit large sums of money with Jews without requesting receipts or promissory notes. Jews would also act as mediators in disputes between non- Jews.

"The king himself, who fled the revolution and lives in Rome till today, was very sympathetic towards the Jews. His personal adviser was a Jew called Yosef Siman Tov from the capital Kabul. He was constantly in and out of the royal palace. Even after the king was exiled they maintained their links. The king made sure that the extreme Shiites did not harm the Jews. We lived like princes.

"I had a friend who would visit the king in exile. The king would tell him that they had a tradition of coming from Jewish ancestors."

What is the truth about this tradition?

"I know about this from stories . . . I haven't gone into it. The king claimed to come from Jewish stock."

From the Ten Tribes?

"This we may add. The old Afghan people living in the villages also claimed to be descended from Jews. There were some signs to back up this claim: when they had a haircut they did not cut in the area of the payos!"

Did they grow long payos?

"No. They were just careful not to shave the area and left some hair there. They had other Jewish customs. Every Friday they would light candles towards the evening. They also wore a scarf which resembled tzitzis.

"My theory is that there was religious persecution in this area and they converted to Islam. A friend of mine -- a big merchant who traveled around the towns -- told me that they found many gravestones with Jewish names in remote cemeteries."

He saw these with his own eyes?

"Yes, but he is no longer alive."

We Were Forced to Convert to Islam

In the past investigators published fascinating testimony about Jews living in the mountains of Afghanistan. "Afghanistan is an extreme Muslim State," one of the visitors wrote. "We were afraid of contacting our brethren living in those remote areas, being afraid of receiving harsh jail sentences. For a small matter you can rot for years in prison and suffer hair-raising torture. Were it not for our fear of investigating their customs and their past we would be able to obtain a lot of material to confirm their tradition about their Jewish past."

The mountain tribes of Afghanistan are fierce and courageous fighters. When a child is born he is given a gun. One of the first sounds that a child is made to hear is that of gunfire. They literally "live by the sword." The British used to pay the heads of the tribes large sums in return for their maintaining quiet in the mountain passages.

A Jewish merchant visited Afghanistan just after the British had decided to cut back their expenses by freezing the transfer of the regular "tax" to the local sheikhs. "One fine day we felt a strange quiet in the town, and it really turned out to be the quiet before the storm. Suddenly we heard hordes of tribesmen on horseback from the mountainous areas thundering into the town and the town was quickly flooded with them. They were courageous and tall fighters and the local police just fled in all directions. The invaders emptied out the stores and houses. Within a short time the place was simply swept up by them and left empty. They collected the booty as if they were on a fishing expedition without encountering any opposition."

Then comes the interesting part: "As they were picking up their spoils they noticed me and realized straightaway that I was a stranger to the place and not a Muslim. They did not harm me and started asking me questions. I told them that I was a Jewish merchant from Persia and they let me speak with their leader, the sheikh of the tribe. This is what the sheikh told me: `We know about our Jewish ancestry. We have a tradition, which has been passed down from generation to generation, that we come from Jews and that until the period of the Islamic conquest we were complete Jews until being forced to convert to Islam.' The sheikh added that already 100 years before Islam appeared in the area they were attacked by fire worshipers, who looted all their belongings including ancient books. As a result they submitted to Islam relatively easily, since their tradition had disappeared by that time."

Anyone Jewish Shall Be Killed

It is fascinating to see the many Jewish customs of the Pathans. In the museum in the capital Kabul an ancient black stone is on display, which has the following message in Hebrew engraved on it: "We shall be faced with fear and terror. Anyone Jewish shall be killed, and any Muslim shall live. Wednesday 4th Adar." The year is broken off of the stone.

An immigrant from Afghanistan related the following: "Once I was walking with my family in the king's garden in Kabul. The king was walking there. He called us and we went over to him and kissed his hand, as is customary. The king asked me how long the Jews had been living in Afghanistan. I did not know what to answer. He said that there was a stone according to which the Jews had been here for 1540 years." It is not at all certain that he had the same stone in mind.

Another former Afghan Jew recalls the following: "When I was a child in the Afghan town of Her'at it became known that the King Emir Chaviv Alla Khan, the father of King Amman Alla Khan, was coming to tour the city riding on a horse. The notable Jews of the town, including my late father, a well- respected merchant from the area, met and decided to organize a festive welcome for the king. My father also pushed me to participate in the welcoming ceremony.

"The king asked the Jews which tribe they came from. The heads of the delegation replied that they did not know, since they did not have any family trees. `Well, we do know,' responded the king. `We are from the family of Machmad Zay. We are all from the tribe of Benjamin, descendants of King Saul from the sons of Jonathan, Afghan and Pathan.' The king took leave of the delegation but not before instructing his servants to provide the Jews with gilded coats and hats.

The president of the Her'at Jewish community, the late Mr. Avrohom Hakohen also testified that in his youth he heard King Chaviv Alla declaring that he was from the tribe of Benjamin, and that Afghans living in the mountains had told him: "We have heard from our elders that we come from the Jews."

The king's statement reveals the origin of the name "Pathan." The tribe's members are convinced that they are the descendants of Pison, grandson of Yonoson the son of Shaul, who is mentioned in Divrei Hayomim I (8:35).

"When I was in Lahore in the Punjab [now Pakistan] I started talking to a Muslim, and we got onto the topic of religion. A local youngster was listening to our conversation and he interrupted us, saying to me, `You be quiet, Sir, and let me answer him!' He proceeded to curse the Muslim and ended his speech like this: `You are lies, and so is your religion. Moshe and his Torah are the truth!'"

Another report speaks about a family who lived a Jewish way of life until a few generations ago and then were forced to convert to Islam. Several times they found excerpts from a Sefer Torah, which they transferred to the Jews. On Yom Kippur a member of the tribe would be present in shul and stay there until the end of the fast, not saying a word.

Members of the tribe had amulets hidden in silver containers, which they kept secret from everybody and which they themselves were forbidden to open. A Jewish visitor to a village in the Mengal region noticed some boys aged three to five running around with amulets. He grabbed an amulet from one of them, opened it and discovered two words written in ksav Ashuris: Shema Yisroel. Only one of the members of the tribe knows how to write the amulet and the secret of the "chant" is transmitted from father to oldest son. The person who writes the amulet shuts himself up in a room inside another room and writes the "chant." Since the amulet is written in Assyrian script the person writing it clearly does not understand its meaning, but he relates to it with awe as a mysterious symbol.

If You Open It, You Will Die

One of the villages had a "charm": a small bundle which they would put underneath a sick person's head. One Jewish visitor wanted to see the contents of this bundle, but was warned by the locals not to open it and that if he did so he would die. He was told that there were similar bundles in the whole region, but they were not opened by anybody. He met with an old lady healer ("over 100 years old" according to the locals) and she also warned him not to open the bundle, since "it would be a pity for him to die young." He did open it and, having remained alive, found a sefer Tehillim inside it!

In one of the towns belonging to the Pathan tribe there is a mysterious building called "The Holy House." It is kept under lock and key and nobody is allowed in. Jews who spoke to tribal elders found out that there were sifrei Torah inside. They claimed that this ancient building used to be a synagogue. Attempts to purchase these sifrei Torah for large sums came to nothing, following the staunch opposition of the elders of the tribe "for that is what our forefathers instructed us."

In the town of Balach [Ed: We could only find towns named "Farah" and "Baghlan" on a map of Afghanistan.] which, according to local tradition was founded after the destruction of the First Beis Hamikdosh, the locals buried thousands of books ten meters underneath the ground and built a road on top of it.

The district officer of Her'at, who signs exit permits for Jews, asked one of the activists in the Jewish community where the Jews were traveling to. He told them that they were heading for Eretz Yisroel. The officer was very surprised to hear this and commented, "But we are also from the Children of Israel, why are you leaving for the Land of Israel?"

The Ten Tribes?

Who are these Pathan tribes? Moshiach will tell us, but we may (with uncertainty, to be sure) surmise that they are descendants of the Ten Tribes. The Pathans populated more than half of Afghanistan and they ruled the country. The Tiferes Yisroel refers to them directly (in the beginning of perek Cheilek): "Many of them assimilated amongst the nations . . . R. Akiva and R. Elozor disagree about whether le'osid lovo those who have remained assimilated will again be forcibly made to return to Judaism, as it says, `As I live, says Hashem Tzevokos, surely with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm and with fury poured out, will I be King over you" (Yechezkel 20:33). For even though some of them are total idol worshipers, any remnants of Judaism having been erased, and they only observe some Jewish customs which have been handed down to then from their ancestors, as is the case for example with the Afghan people who, according to some geographers, are lost Jews."

It says, "And the king of Assyria carried Yisroel away to Assyria and put them in Chelach and in Chavor, on the river of Gozon, and in the cities of the Medes" (Melochim II 18:11), and in Divrei Hayomim I 5:26, "And He brought them to Chelach and Chavor, and Horo, and the river of Gozon, to this day." According to the tradition of Afghan Jewry (not the Muslim tribes) the river Gozon is the river Rod Jezan ("Rod" is "river" in Persian), the town Chavor is Pashbur, which is a composite of two words, "pash" and "chavor," which means "the passage of Chavor" in Afghan. The town Horo (Chelach) is to be identified with Her'at.

Several places in Tanach describe the poor spiritual condition of the dispersed Jews and this corresponds to the findings. "Efraim will assimilate amongst the nations" (Hoshea 7), and see Mahari Kro who writes about the causes of the Ten Tribes' assimilation. In Michah (4:6) it says, "On that day, says Hashem, will I assemble the limping [exiles] and I will gather her that is driven away, and her that I have afflicted," and in Zefania (3:19), "I will deal with all those who afflict you, and I will save her that is lame."

The Vilna Gaon explains the "lameness" to be a reference to the fact that they have to limp along on only one leg since they have only one Torah -- the written one -- and not the Torah shebe'al peh.

Jewish Customs

There is a long list of Pathan customs which resemble Jewish ones. Regarding the prohibition of shaving the place of the payos we have the following testimony of a Bocharan Jew who stayed in Afghanistan: "I am a barber and I would shave them. They warned me not to touch their moustache or their payos." They have a special garment called "joy nimaz" ("Place of prayer" in Afghan) which covers the head and part of the shoulders. This garment usually does not have tzitzis. On the other hand they also have a garment with four fringes on whose edges some of them hang threads. A tallis koton?

Shabbos is a day of rest. The elders of the tribes had the custom of lighting oil candles in the evening. The candles would usually be covered with a large basket or mat. Some of the Pathans pray in the direction of Yerushalayim. When there is a plague they slaughter a sheep and sprinkle its blood on the lintel and door post of the house!

They have Jewish names not usually found among Muslims, such as Yisrael. The names of their tribes resemble names of the shevotim: the Ravani (Reuven), the Halvani (Levi), the Yusuf Say (sons of Yosef), and the Afridi (Efraim). The "Sons of Yosef" are considered one of the most courageous tribes in Afghanistan. Two of its members who served in the British army in the First World War were stationed near Chadera and applied to be converted, but their request was turned down.

There is evidence that the Pathans themselves claim that the difference between the tribe's original name and its current one is due to different dialects. They say that the original name of the Gagi tribe is Gad and so on.

The Jewish symbol of the mogen Dovid is to be found in almost every Pathan house! The wealthy have it made out of expensive metals and the poor make it out of simple wood. The symbol can be seen on towers, schools, tools, and jewelry.

One thing is certain: contrary to some rumors, there is no connection between the murderer hiding in the caves of Afghanistan and the Ten Tribes. He stems from Yemen (via Saudi Arabia) and not from the Pathan tribes.


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