The Customs that Survived Thanks to Yemenite Jews

Although there is no room for separate yeshivas along the lines of ethnic groups, nevertheless, the prayers and customs of the different ethnic groups should be continued * The tradition of each ethnic group preserves certain values, and if one tradition is lost, some of the values ​​of the Jewish people are lost * The Yemenite Jews preserved the original custom in many halakha’s: the reading of the Torah by each person called up to the Torah, the consumption of permitted grasshoppers, Birkat Ha’Shachar according to the way one wakes-up in the morning, and others * Most ethnic groups do not cook liquids on Shabbat, but when guests are hosted by a Yemenite family, it is permitted to eat the soup, since the hosts acted properly according to their minhag

The Dedication of the Yemenite Synagogue

By the grace of God, a few hours before this column is printed, we will celebrate the dedication of the Yemenite synagogue in the community and Yeshiva of Har Bracha (the synagogue was built with the participation of the Yeshiva on the floor above the dining room). This joyous mitzvah also carries an educational and principled statement concerning the value of preserving the customs of ethnic groups. Although in the study of Torah, distinctions between ethnic groups should not be made, and there is no need for separate yeshiva’s for the various communities, nevertheless, in regards to the wording of prayer’s and their melodies, it is appropriate to follow one’s family minhag (custom).

Education towards Torah and emunah (faith) is based on two main channels: one is learning and understanding, and the other is tradition and emotion. In the sense of “Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction (Torah), and do not forsake your mother’s teaching (tradition).” When one of the channels is impaired, the entire education is harmed. Therefore, in the framework of the yeshiva as well, we encourage students to pray the Shacharit Shabbat prayers according to the nusach avot (their family melodies and texts), where in each minyan, a Rabbi from the yeshiva is present. The Yemenite minyan merited a higher level – it is led by three rabbis from the yeshiva – Rabbi Eyal Moshe, Rabbi Oren Dachbash and Rabbi Barel Shevach (on Shabbat there are also superb minyans according to Sephardic-Yerushalmi, Moroccan and Ashkenazi nusachs, and other minyans that combine nusach Sephardi and Ashkenazi). The regular minyans during the week go according to the chazzan (cantor).

Moreover, every tradition has important values ​​without which all of Israel would be lacking. This value is especially prominent in the tradition of the Yemenite immigrants, who were meticulous in maintaining their customs and traditions. Therefore, thanks to the study of Yemenite customs, it is possible to understand the roots of the halakha, and customs of all of the Jewish communities. It seems that this devotion to tradition is what helped many Yemenites – percentage-wise, above and beyond the norm – to participate in the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz (settling the Land of Israel). This was the case in the First Aliya in 1881, and also today in the settlements of Judea and Samaria, where it seems that the percentage of Yemenite immigrants is higher than their proportion in the population of the country.

In honor of this event, I will illustrate this in a number of halakha’s and customs.

Torah Reading

When our Sages enacted that seven people be called up to the Torah on Shabbat, and three on a weekday (Megillah 21a), they intended that each person called to the Torah would read the Torah himself. However, since the days of the Rishonim, in order to prevent embarrassment and unpleasantness of those who do not know how to read well, the custom is to appoint a “baal koreh” who would read the Torah for everyone, and the called-up person would only recite a bracha on his aliyah.

However, the Yemenite immigrants, to this day, still practice the ancient custom in which every person reads the portion when he is called-up to the Torah. The observance of this custom is one of the reasons for the proficiency of many Yemenite immigrants in Torah and grammar (Peninei Halakha 22: 5).

Grasshoppers

Flying insects are forbidden to eat, including all species that have three pairs of legs and wings, including wasps, bees, flies, crickets, mantis and grasshoppers. Only four species of grasshoppers are permitted by the Torah, and they have two signs from the Torah, and two signs from the words of our Sages (Leviticus 11:20-21; Chulin, 59a). However, in all the communities the tradition was lost with regards to grasshoppers, and only in Yemen and Morocco, where grasshoppers were prevalent, was the tradition maintained regarding the kosher grasshopper, which is the locust that multiplies in huge flocks.

In practice, although other members of the other communities were not accustomed to eat locusts, it is kosher for all of Israel, for those with a tradition are trusted in this matter (Peninei Halakha: Kashrut 17: 8).

Birkot HaShachar (Morning Blessings)

The custom accepted by some Rishonim and the Ari, is that each person recites all Birkot HaShachar at once, so as not to forget one of them. And even if one does not receive personal benefit from a certain blessing, he still recites it, and therefore even a blind person recites the blessing ‘po’kay’ach iv’rim‘ (‘Who opens the eyes of the blind’), since the intention of the blessings is to thank God for the general good He granted to mankind.

However, the original enactment of our Sages’ was for Birkot HaShachar to accompany the process of arising in the morning, and for everything to be blessed adjacent to its benefit, and by doing so, the process of getting up in the morning receives a deeper meaning, with the blessings of thanks to God accompanying each stage of arising. Consequently, over something that one does not receive benefit – no blessing is recited. This is how Rambam ruled in practice, and only among the Yemenite immigrants do some still follow this custom till this day (Peninei Halakha: Prayer 9: 2-3).

Turning to the West in “Bo’ee B’Shalom

The Sephardi minhag is to turn to the West when saying “Mizmor le-David” and all of “Lecha Dodi“, and the custom of all Ashkenazic Jews and some Sephardi Jews is to turn to the West only at the end of “Lecha Dodi” in the section that starts with “bo’ee b’shalom“. But the Yemenite custom, and some Sephardim, is not to turn to the West at all, nor to the entrance of the synagogue, because this custom has no source in the Talmud.

The Bracha ‘Lay’shev Ba’Sukkah’

Although according to the strict adherence of halakha, as stated by many Rishonim, anyone who enters the sukkah on Sukkot should recite “lay’shev ba’sukka,” nevertheless, the members of all communities acted according to the opinion of Rabbeinu Tam, that the blessing “lay’shev ba’sukkah” is recited only for eating. However, Yemenite immigrants go according to the Rif, Rambam, and the majority of Rishonim, to recite the blessing “lay’shev ba’sukkah” whenever they enter the sukkah in order to spend time there. And since the blessing is over yeshiva (sitting), they have the custom to bless standing up, before sitting down (Peninei Halakha: Sukkot 3: 5).

Waving the Lulav

Our Sages said in the Talmud (Sukkah 37b) that the way of waving the lulav is “to and fro, and up and down.” In the opinion of many poskim, the intention is to wave to the four winds, and up and down (Rosh, Shulchan Arukh 651: 9). Others say that the intention is literal, “to and fro’ towards oneself, and up and down, without having to turn to the four winds (Rambam 7:10), and this is the custom of the Yemenite Baladi Jews (Peninei Halakha: Sukkot 5: 2).

Shofar Blasts

The accepted practice of the teruah shofar blast is like the sound of crying, i.e., short, broken sounds. The Yemenite custom is like wailing, such that the sound is not truncated but trembles and rattles, and all the tremors are considered one sound. Upon examining we find that the teruah in Ashkenaz and Sephard is similar to an outburst of crying, which is truncated uncontrollably, whereas the teruah in Yemen is like a wailing which is done as an expression of crying and mourning in a controlled manner, as is customary among Yemenite immigrants, to have greater control over emotions (Peninei Halakha: Yamim Nora’im 4: 11).

The Yemenite immigrants also are accustomed to raise the tekiah and the teruah at the end, and one who pays attention understands the intention is to express in the tekiah the height of joy, and in the teruah, the height of sorrow.

The Custom of Tashlich

The foundation of the custom of saying Tashlich is based in the period of the Rishonim of Ashkenaz, and throughout the generations, after the Ari praised it, it also became prevalent among Sephardim. However, there is no obligation to observe the custom of Tashlich; in fact, some of the greatest Torah scholars did not observe it (the Vilna Ga’on), and this is the custom of most of the Yemenite Jews (Peninei Halakha, ibid, 3:15).

The Bracha over the Four Cups of Wine and Roasting on Pesach

In the opinion of the Geonim and Rishonim (Rif and Rambam), one must bless “ha’gefen” before drinking each of the four cups on Seder night, since each of them is a mitzvah in its own right. This is the custom of the Yemenite and Ashkenazi Jews. However, in the opinion of the Rosh, one should recite a blessing only on the first and third cups, and this is the custom of Sephardim (Peninei Halakha: Pesach 16:21).

Our Sages said in the Mishnah (Pesahim 53:1), that in places where it is customary to eat roasted meat on Seder night, they are permitted to continue with their custom, and in places that eating roasted meat was not customary – so as not to be seen as if they were eating the meat of the Pesach sacrifice outside of its proper place – it is prohibited to eat roasted meat. In practice, members of all the communities do not eat roasted meat, but Yemenite immigrants are customary to eat roasted meat on Pesach night (Peninei Halakha 16:32).

The Nine Days and Sefirat Ha’Omer

The Rishonim were stringent not to eat meat and not to drink wine during the Nine Days, since our Sages said that we minimize joy during these days. However, the Yemenite immigrants hold by the law of the Mishna (Ta’anit 26b) that only at the seudah mafseket before the fast of Tisha B’Av do we abstain from eating meat and drinking wine (Peninei Halakha: Z’manim 8: 13).

The custom of Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews from the days of the Rishonim is not to take a haircut during Sefirat Ha’Omer, however, the minhag of ancient Yemen was not to prevent taking a haircut at all during Sefirat Ha’Omer, but later, they began to be stringent in this matter. However, Rabbi Masharki, the author of “Shtilei Zaytim” and the Maharitz (Pe’ulat Tzadik 2:76), instructed to get a haircut on Erev Shabbat (Peninei Halakha: Z’manim 3: 9).

Nikkur Cheilev and Gid Ha’Nasheh

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 cheilev, and the branches of gid ha’nasheh and its fats, to the point where approximately 13-25 percent 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 percent of the weight of the hind flesh is lost.

Since this is a reliable tradition of God-fearing Torah scholars, other members of communities who wish to rely on their tradition are also permitted. However, in hechsher’s intended for the general public, it is customary to take into account the stringencies of all communities, as does the Yerushalmi nikkur.

The Outer Layer of Sirchot

According to Sephardi minhag, when a sircha (adhesion) is found on the lungs of an animal – the animal is treif, and therefore it is obligatory to eat “halak”, namely, animals found not to have sirchot on their lungs. However, the Yemenite tradition was to be lenient and check the sirchot by means of peeling with a knife, and examination by emerging it in water to see if there is an aperture, in accordance with the specification for kosher meat. And the proof of their method is what is known in reality, that these sirchot do not kill animals within twelve months. This was more or less the minhag of Ashkenaz and Morocco, as well.

Heating Up Soup on Shabbat

In the opinion of Rambam and other Rishonim, the rule that “ein bishul achar bishul” (a food item which is cooked has no prohibition of cooking it again) applies also to liquid dishes such as soup, which, if cooked completely, even though it cooled, it may be warmed up on Shabbat to the temperature of ‘yad soledet bo‘ (the temperature at which the hand recoils). This is the minhag of Yemenite immigrants.

On the other hand, numerous Rishonim are of the opinion that since heat is the main element of cooking liquids, and thus “yesh bishul achar bishul” (there is a prohibition to cook even a previously cooked food item), therefore it is a Torah prohibition on Shabbat to heat up soup that has cooled. This is the custom of Jews who immigrated from Sephard and Ashkenaz. However, when one is guest of a Yemenite, he is allowed to eat the soup his host heated-up, since it was done consistent with halakha according to his minhag (Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 10:6).

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.

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