The most cogent way to describe Yemenite (Temoni) Jews and their halachic practice is “very distinctive.” Their pronunciation of Hebrew, appearance and halachic practice truly mark them as a unique segment of am Yisrael. The Jewish people are composed not just of its Ashkenazic and Sephardic branches but rather of its Ashkenazic, Sephardic and Yemenite branches. There are three elements of Yemenite practice that serve to give Temoni practice its unique flavor.
Element Number 1:
A Very Conservative Bent
Temoni Halacha is the most conservative of all of the streams of our people. As is well known, Temanim are the only Jews who still read the Targum Onkelos during the Torah reading. In addition, unlike other Jews who have a ba’al keri’ah to read on behalf of those who receive the aliya, Yemenite Jews preserve the original custom for the oleh to read the portion himself.
Other examples are the Yemenite practice to eat meat during the Nine Days until the se’uda hamafseket, the pre-fast meal, as is the original practice recorded in the Mishnah and Gemara. Most Yemenite do not perform the ritual of tashlich, as it does appear in the Gemara, Rambam or Shulchan Aruch. On Rosh Hashanah they sound only 40 kolot (shofar sounds), as was the original practice in the time of the Gemara (as opposed to the 100 kolot sounded by other Jews).
At a funeral, Yemenite Jews are the only Jews who still practice atifat harosh (covering their heads with a tallit) and chalitzat katef (exposing the shoulder), as is the original practice set forth in the Gemara.
The most famous example is cherem d’rabbeinu Gershom. Whether de facto or de jure, all Jews save for Temonim accepted the practice to refrain from marrying more than one wife. Temonim until their arrival in Eretz Yisrael continued the original practice to marry more than one wife. Although today even Temonim refrain from marrying more than one wife, in case of feminine get recalcitrance a recognized and competent beit din has more flexibility in relieving a Yemenite Jew from his predicament as compared to other Jewish males.
There is a distinct advantage to the ultra-conservative bent of Yemenite Jews. As a result of this extraordinarily strong inclination to preserve the past, they have succeeded in preserving many of our traditions (mesorah) that have been lost by other Jews throughout the centuries. Rashi (to Vayikra 11:22) already notes that we have lost the tradition as to how to distinguish between kosher and non-kosher grasshoppers. Temoni (as well as Moroccan) Jews have kept this tradition alive.
The same applies to nikur chelev and gid hanasheh (removing forbidden fats and sinews from slaughtered animals). As described by Rav Eliezer Melamed (http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/23093).
The accepted custom in Israel today goes according to Nikkur Yerushalmi, i.e., to be very stringent and to perform nikkur on everything that is close and similar to chelev and the branches of gid ha’nasheh and its fats, to the point where approximately 13-25% of the weight of the hind flesh is lost. Only the immigrants from two communities, Yemen and Morocco, meticulously guarded the tradition of nikkur, according to which only about 5% of the weight of the hind flesh is lost.
Finally, Yemenites are the ones who succeeded in preserving the tradition to bake soft matzot for Pesach. There is an ongoing discussion as to whether Jews who did not maintain these traditions may now partake in the foods prepared by Yemenites in accordance with their mesorah. Rav Melamed rules that it is permissible. Non-Yemenite Jews should consult their rabbanim to see if they agree.
Allegiance to the Rambam
As is well-known, Yemenite Jews had a very close relationship with the Rambam. The Rambam’s grandson reports that Yemenite Jews posed more questions to him than any other group of Jews. This special bond is maintained to this day, though to varying degrees, as we will discuss in a separate essay. One example is to recite a bracha upon entering a sukkah even if one is not going to eat in the sukkah. Another is reheating liquids (such as soup) that was cooked before Shabbat. Many Temonim follow the Rambam (Hilchot Shabbat 22:8) who believes that the rule of ein bishul achar bishul applies even to liquids. Rav Melamed correctly notes that it is permissible for all Jews to have this soup (even when it is hot) when served at a home of a Yemenite Jew who follows this ancestral practice.
One’s knowledge of Jewish practice is not complete without awareness of Yemenite practices. When noting Jewish practices, one should be cognizant to note Ashkenazic, Sephardic and Yemenite practices. Though outside of Israel Yemenite congregations are few in number (due to the Yemenite traditional love of Eretz Yisrael), in Israel their presence is very much felt. Most Israeli communities boast not only an Ashkenazic and Sephardic beit knesset but a Yemenite one as well. Our investment in discovering Yemenite practice, while sometimes challenging especially outside of Israel, is well worth the effort. Only when including Yemenite practice in one’s learning is the picture of Jewish practice complete.
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.