Can we follow Judaism back in time?

Can we follow Judaism back in time?

By Mishael Dickman – Is Judaism a tradition linked directly to the Bible, taking us back to Mount Sinai, i.e., the original word of God? Or is it a general code of law that slowly evolved over the years into what it is today?

If we delve into the Talmud, we will probably get lost quickly because of its great richness of teachings and explanations, and most importantly, arguments about almost everything under the Sun. How can we distinguish between what is divine and what was generated by the sages; what is original and what evolved later?

Many historians have attempted to answer these questions. For every historian we have an equal number of theories – maybe more – which leaves us where we began.
A group of people known as the Bnei Menashe might help us shed light on this mystery.

Let’s go back to 1891, when the British Empire colonized Manipur in northeast India. Missionaries began to spread Christianity throughout the region, as they had done all over the empire. A small group of people who called themselves the Tribe of Manasseh resided in Manipur, waiting for the prophesied return to Zion. Though much of the Christian teachings were familiar to them, some of the tribe resisted the push to convert, as they felt connected to the Old Testament’s teachings but were not comfortable with those of the New Testament.

After the State of Israel was founded, something interesting happened. This small tribe, who always thought themselves to be the last of their people, recognized themselves in the people of the fledgling state. Understanding the connection, they started reaching out to the State of Israel via letters that went unanswered.

While there were some connections made between Bnei Menashe and individuals in Israel, it was only in 1997, when a letter from the Bnei Menashe addressed to then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was read by his deputy communications director Michael Freund, thereafter an official connection would be made. Freund was somewhat surprised to hear from an unknown tribe asking to “return to Zion” after their “2,700-year exile.”

Eventually, Israel sent experts to explore these claims of being the lost Tribe of Menashe, one of the Ten Lost Tribes exiled from the Land of Israel by the Assyrian Empire. After meeting with Bnei Menashe community members in India and learning more about their history, traditions and customs, rabbis were convinced that they were, in fact, descendants of the Jewish people, likely of the “Lost Tribe” of Menashe.

Since then, more than 3,000 Bnei Menashe have made aliyah with the help of Shavei Israel, the organization founded by Freund to help facilitate their reabsorption into the Jewish people.

Recently, we had the opportunity to interview one of the elder members of the Bnei Menashe community in Israel, who remembers the way things were before the tribe was reconnected to the modern Jewish world.

Elitzur Haokip, 80, of the Galilee community of Migdal Ha’emek, was born in Manipur, India, in 1938. When he (came) immigrated to Israel in 2013, he had to sacrifice a lot. In India he was a wealthy landowner with two pensions, all of which he gave up to make aliyah. Haokip shared some recollections from his childhood that help put together some of the puzzle pieces of Jewish tradition.

As the Bnei Menashe had no written works, they relied on memory and oral tradition to maintain their customs and faith. Let’s not forget, until the end of the second century CE when The Mishnah was compiled and written, it was standard practice for Judaism to be passed down orally. By then, the Bnei Menashe had already long since been in exile and had no connection with the development of “mainstream Judaism.”

Looking at some of their simple traditions unencumbered by Talmudic discourse, we can make comparisons between the way things were in biblical and pre-biblical times and how they are today. That might give us a clue and help us solve our original quest.

In Migdal Ha’emek, writer Mishael Dickman (bottom left), assisted by translator Gavriel Lhungdim (top left), listen as Manipur native Elitzur Haokip points out his birthplace on the world map, as well as locations where he thinks other lost tribes dwell. Photo credit: Laura Ben-David

Unlike today, there was no widespread-acceptance of many common modern practices in the time of the Talmud. For example, in the Talmud, there’s a dispute as to whether women are obligated to wear tzitzit, the ritual fringes traditionally worn on the four corners of men’s garments. One sage went so far as to sew tzitzit on his wife’s garments because he believed it was an obligation for women as well as for men. There was also disagreement over the number of strands that should be tied on each corner, six or eight, and the length of the tzitzit, whether they should be as short as “three fingers” length or longer, or anywhere in-between. In fact, the Bnei Menashe, men and women alike, tied small fringes all around the bottom edge of their traditional garments, rather than the long fringes seen on four-cornered garments today.

Kashrut and festivals
Haokip claims the Bnei Menashe ate only permitted animals. He remembers clearly the three pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, when sacrifices were brought for the festivals, which all occurred at the same time each year. This follows the biblical tradition of making sure Passover comes out in the spring, and other festivals take place in their appointed seasons. Until 1955, when he was 17, Haokip’s village still practiced ritual sacrifice following details that were in accordance with ancient Jewish tradition, one detail that helped convince rabbinic officials that the Bnei Menashe were indeed descendants of the Jewish people.

The Bnei Menashe also kept the basic laws of Shabbat, such as not building, destroying or cutting on the seventh day. It was a true day of rest on which tribal members would not travel from village to village.

Laws of mourning
There were widows who would sing at Bnei Menashe funerals. When members dug a grave, the cantor would intone, “We sent him, please welcome him,” which the woman would repeat in a crying voice. This follows the tradition of having singers and musicians at funerals, something that was part of Judaic practice until a rabbinic decree against following “laws of the gentiles” in regard to death and mourning became widely adopted.

There was also a Bnei Menashe tradition of putting spices on the grave of the deceased for seven days after death, a parallel to the practice of the seven-day shiva mourning period. We know that sitting shiva is an ancient tradition (rather than a biblical commandment), dating back at least to the the death of Jacob. When Joseph and all of Egypt buried Jacob, the Bible tells us, “And he made a mourning for his father seven days” (Genesis 50:10).

Thirty days after a death, the Bnei Menashe would gather to eat a meal together, similar to what we call shloshim, literally “30.” Again, shloshim is not a biblical law, but predates the times of Moses. “And the sons of Israel cried for Moses in the plains of Moab 30 days” (Deuteronomy 34:8).

Jacob, who lived before the Torah became central to Jewish life, was preserved for 40 days then mourned him for 30 days (Genesis 50:3).

Later, the Torah tells us with regards to the “Eishet Yifat tohar – She mourned her parents 30 days” (Deuteronomy 21:13).

It is apparent that both shiva and shloshim were actively observed in the First Temple period.

Brit milah
Performing a brit on the ear might sound somewhat off the mark to modern ears, no pun intended. The Bnei Menashe may have confused the ritual circumcision with piercing the ear of a Hebrew slave who wished to remain in slavery.

Family purity
When the woman began her menstrual cycle, she would separate from her husband and sleep in a different bed for a week. This is in sync with the written Torah, unlike today’s common practice of waiting 11 or 12 days, depending upon one’s tradition.

Until the Christian missionaries arrived, there were few external influences, if any, helping to maintain the status quo of the Bnei Menashe’s traditions. On the other hand, the tribe wasn’t connected to the rest of the Jewish world. In fact, they believed themselves to be the last remaining members of their people.

What’s fascinating is that when the tribe finally reconnected with the Jewish people, they found many of their traditions closely resembled the way things were in Temple times.

The Bnei Menashe are in many ways our link to pre-Talmudic Judaism. Studies show that they might be our closest link to a living insight of how Judaism was practiced when the First Temple stood in Jerusalem, and may even tell us how traditions were observed in pre-biblical times.

Some things seem very similar to how they were likely performed millennia ago, while others have clearly evolved. There are those things that didn’t specifically change, but to which the sages added certain restrictions, such as family purity. We saw how the Bnei Menashe were performing things similarly to how they’re performed today (such as mourning). Other things were very different (family purity, tzitzit, no music at funerals, etc.).

While the foundations of Judaism take us back to Mount Sinai – and long before – the traditions of the Bnei Menashe show us how Torah and Jewish culture have evolved over the years into what they are today.

Article originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post

Elitzur Haokip of Migdal Ha’emek. Photo credit: Laura Ben-David