In the village of Malihabad, 25 kilometers from the Indian city of Lucknow, 650 Pathans claim to be descendents of the lost tribe of Ephraim, expelled by the Assyrians over 2,000 years ago. The story is potentially inflammatory: the Pathans – also called Pashtuns or Afridis – make up a large component of Afghanistan’s Taliban, and number some 15 million people in India, Afghanistan, Pakistan and some parts of Iran. The group also is referred to as the Bani-Israel.
There are several resources that discuss the history of the Pathans. Dr. Navras Jaat Aafreedi, Assistant Professor in the Gautam Buddha University in Greater Noida and a member of the community, has conducted research on the Indian Pashtuns and presents his findings here. His extensive blog and website provides much more detail as well as pictures.
Dr. Aafreedi also writes about the Pathans on a blog he created which focuses on the community of Malihabad and probes the roots of the tribal name Afridi (from which Aafreedi is derived).
Aafreedi has spearheaded a project to analyze the DNA from the Pathans. For this, he has enlisted the help of Tudor Parfitt who had done the same research with the Lenga tribe in Africa – see our description here.
Indian geneticist Shahnaz Ali, who received a scholarship to work at Israel’s Technion – Israel Institute of Technology – in the Department of Nephrology and Molecular Medicine, is leading the testing. Shahnaz traveled to Malihabad and collected blood samples from the tribal population there.
Israel National Radio’s Tamar Yonah conducted an interview with Aafreedi during a one year sabbatical he took at Tel Aviv University. You can listen to it here.
Another article, from April 2011, discusses the history of the Pathans.
A 2008 article in the Times of India gives more background and describes plans by two Israeli tour operators to add Malihabad to the organizations’ “Lost Tribe Challenge” tours to far-flung Jewish communities (including the Bnei Menashe).
Malihabad is home to several important figures in Indian history and culture: Urdu poet Josh Malihabadi is from the area and Zakir Husain, India’s third president, is from nearby Qayamganj.
It is important to note that the Pathans do not identify themselves as Jewish or claim the right of return under Israeli immigration law. Rather, there are some customs that resemble Jewish tradition, including lighting candles on Shabbat, keeping long sidelocks, wearing shawls that resemble the tallit, circumcision on the eighth day after birth, and the custom of Levirate marriage.
Rabbi Marvin Tokayer provides more details in this article. Specifically:
The Pathans’ “tallit” is called a “kafan.” It is a 4 cornered garment upon which they tie strings similar to the fringes (tzitzit) in a Jewish tallit. They also have bigger tallit which they call Joy-Namaz. It is a garment 2-3 meters sq., and it is made to cover the head and part of the shoulders, and is used for prayer by spreading on the ground in the Muslim fashion. It has no fringes.
The Pathans have the custom of keeping the Sabbath, during which the Pathans do not labor, cook or bake. The Pathans prepare 12 loaves of challah (Jewish tradition specifies only two loaves per Sabbath meal).
The Pathans light a candle to honor the Sabbath. After lighting, the candle is covered usually by a large basket. The candle is lit by a woman past her menopause.
Pathans have some dietary laws that are similar to the laws of keeping kosher. For example, they do not eat horse or camel meat, which is common in their area, but is forbidden to Jews. There is some evidence to their not eating meat and milk together. And they have a tradition regarding differentiating between pure and impure birds – i.e., those which are and are not permitted to eat.
Some Pathans still wear a small box similar to Jewish tefillin (phylacteries). Tokayer compares this with the Japanese Yamabushi’s use of a “tokin” (see our article here).
Pathan weddings take place under a marriage canopy (although this is a later custom, not one specifically mentioned prior to the exile of the lost tribes).
Women of the Pathans keep laws similar to the Jewish laws regarding menstruation. During this time and for 7 days after, no contact is allowed with the husband. After this period, the woman immerses in a river or spring or in a bathhouse if a natural spring is not available.
Tokayer also claims in his article that the legal system of the Pathans, known as Pashtunwali, has similarities to the Torah. The Pathans, he says, honor what is called Tavrad El Sharif (the Torah of Moses), and they rise at the mention of the name of Moses, even though it is not important in Islam.
The names of some Pathan sub-tribes seem to echo those of the Israelite tribes: Rabani (Reuven), Shinwari (Shimon), Daftani (Naftali), Lewane (Levi), Ashuri (Asher), and Yusuf-sai (sons of Yosef).
Linguistically, differences between the original names of the tribes and their present names may be because of the different dialects of the languages so that, for instance, Jaji was actually called Gaji for the tribe of Gad.
Dr. Aafreedi also points to Israelite descent among other groups including the Qidwai/Kidwai. The Qidwais trace their genealogy from a Sufi of Jewish descent who settled in India in 1191 CE.
Here’s a link to the Wikipedia article on the Pathans (not specifically on any Jewish link).