July 20, 2024
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A Brief Sketch of Yemenite Halachic History

One does not appreciate the full spectrum of halachic practice unless he takes into account the practices of Yemenite Jews. However, one can understand Yemenite Halacha only if one learns the basics of its history.

Geonic Period

A key aspect of Yemenite (Temoni) Jewish life is that Yemenite Jews, in contrast with other Jewish communities located at the outskirts of the Exile (such as Ethiopian Jews), kept in touch with Jews worldwide throughout its many centuries in Yemen. This means that the Jews in Yemen were aware of and fully observed Chanukah and Purim, and were fully aware and practiced that which is set forth in the Mishna and Gemara.

There is evidence to this already dating to the time of the Geonim. Shaarei Teshuva (a collection of Geonic responsa; number 99) records that the Geonim in Babylon received inquiries regarding observance of Halacha from Jews all over the world. The places listed include Temon (Yemen) and Spain. The Harkavy edition of Teshuvot HaGeonim (number 386) also specifically mentions the financial donations made by the Yemenite Jewish communities to the yeshivot in Babylon in exchange for providing halachic support.

This means that despite geographic distance, the Jews of Yemen maintained themselves as full-fledged members of the Jewish halachic mainstream. This explains why no halachic authority has ever questioned the Jewish status and kashrut of the Jews of Yemen.

The Rambam

The peak of Yemenite interaction with Jews outside its adopted land is the loving connection with the Rambam. The Rambam records in his famous Igeret Temon how Jewish travelers report the very warm welcome they receive when they visit Yemen. The Rambam records that the travelers report that the Jews of Yemen are learned in Torah, fully observant of all the mitzvot and thoroughly committed to both the written and Oral Law.

In this letter, the Rambam offered much-needed encouragement to the Jews of Yemen who were facing a crisis. They were being persecuted by their Islamic rulers and they were coping with a Jew claiming to be the Mashiach.

The Rambam in his letter showed them how Islam is false on the one hand and that the Jew claiming to be the Messiah is false as well. The Rambam struck the perfect balance between encouragement and realistic appraisal of their situation. In doing so, the Rambam won the wholehearted devotion of the Jews of Yemen.

The Rambam wrote many halachic responsa to the Jews of Yemen. In fact, the Rambam’s grandson Rav David HaNagid reports that the Rambam received more questions from the Jews of Yemen than any other community.

The Ramban in a letter (printed as letter number two in Rabbi Chavel’s edition of Kitve HaRamban) records how the Rambam used his political connections to relieve the Jews of Yemen from terribly burdensome taxes. The Jews of Yemen, continues the Ramban, loved the Rambam so much that they (famously) added a line to the Kaddish praying (during the lifetime of the Rambam) for the welfare of the Rambam, “B’Hayei D’Rabbana Moshe ben Maimon.”

Needless to say, at this point the Jews of Yemen unreservedly embraced the Rambam as their halachic authority at this point.

The Mawza Exile

The Jews of Yemen struggled but maintained their Jewish life with stability and success until catastrophe struck. The Exile of Mawza of? 1679-1680 is (as described at Wikipedia) “considered the single most traumatic event experienced collectively by the Jews of Yemen, in which Jews living in nearly all cities and towns throughout Yemen were banished by decree of the king, Iman al-Mahdi Ahmad, and sent to a dry and barren region of the country named Mawza to withstand their fate or to die.”

Galut Mawza, as it is referred to by Yemenite Jews, caused a severe disruption in Jewish life. Approximately half of the Jews died as a result of this horrific experience, including many of its great rabbanim and leaders. The Jews’ homes were confiscated by their Arab neighbors. Jewish manuscripts were lost and the community had to rebuild itself nearly from scratch both materially and spiritually. The Galut Mawza constituted a severe disruption in the Torah traditions of the Yemenite community, and in the following decades Yemenite Jews endeavored to restore its equilibrium.

The Shetile Zetim vs. The Maharitz

Soon after the return from exile, the community spawned two of its greatest halachic leaders. There are Rav David Mishrequi, the author of the Shetile Zetim and the Ravid HaZahav, and Rav David’s student Rav Yihyeh Tzalah, known as the Maharitz. The Maharitz authored important responsa and commentaries and is regarded as the primary halachic authority for Yemenite Jews.

The Shetile Zetim and the Maharitz, however, had a fundamental disagreement regarding the primary halachic authority of Yemenite Jews. The Shetile Zetim felt that since Jews worldwide had accepted the authority of Rav Yosef Karo and the Shulchan Aruch, Yemenite Jews should follow suit and remain in the halachic mainstream. The Maharitz, though, argued for maintaining traditional Yemenite customs and fidelity to the Rambam’s rulings.

Both the Shetile Zetim and the Maharitz were not rigid in their respective approaches. The Maharitz was willing to accept some new customs accepted in the worldwide Jewish mainstream, and the Shetile Zetim sometimes advocated for retaining some specific traditional Yemenite practices.

Baladi, Shami and Dor Da’im

This led to the famous split among Yemenite Jews. Baladi Jews follow the Maharitz and the Shami faction follow in the footsteps of the Shetile Zetim. A third group emerged in the 19th century who called for renewed strict adherence to the Rambam. Rav Yosef Kapah was the most famous member of this group. Rav Kapah’s writings were recognized as first rate by Jews worldwide and he served on Israel’s Beit Din HaGadol, Supreme Religious Court.

Rav Ovadia Yosef vs. Rav Ratzabi

Further debate emerged in the 20th century upon the blessed return of Yemenite Jews to Eretz Yisrael. Rav Ovadia Yosef (Teshuvot Yechave Da’at 1:27) argues that now that they are in Eretz Yisrael, Yemenites should follow the rulings of the Shulchan Aruch. An example of a disputed matter is the Yemenite practice to follow the Rambam and not recite a bracha on the lighting of Yom Tov candles. Rav Ovadia argues that now Yemenites should follow the Shulchan Aruch’s ruling (Orach Chaim 263:5 and 514:11) to recite a bracha before lighting Yom Tov candles.

The leading Yemenite sage Rav Yitzhak Rasabi in his work Ner Yom Tov strongly argues with Rav Ovadia concerning this specific point and his overall agenda to convince Yemenite Jews to abandon their practices in favor of the ruling of Rav Yosef Karo.

Another example is the Yemenite practice to follow the Rambam (Hilchot Ta’ani’ot 5:7) who forbids eating meat only for the meal immediately preceding Tisha B’Av (seudah hamafseket), in accordance with what appears in the Mishna and Gemara Ta’anit (fourth perek). Once again, Rav Ovadia (Chazon Ovadia, Arba Ta’ani’ot, page 170) insists that Yemenites accept the ruling of Maran Rav Yosef Karo in this context.

Rav Zecharia Ben Shlomo (Orot HaHalacha page 752), though, notes that the Yemenite community has not accepted this ruling and continues to eat meat until the seudah hamafseket on Erev Tisha B’Av.


Yemenite minhagim are incredibly rich and fascinating. They add the final touches to the full picture of Jewish practice. Yemenite Jews tenaciously maintained their practices in face of enormous pressure throughout the centuries. Fortunately, this precious component of our people has been preserved and with Hashem’s help remain a vibrant community whose practices add a special flavor and dimension to the full halachic spectrum.

By Rabbi Haim Jachter

Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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