Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Noah 5769/ November 1, 2008

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


The land of Cush and Ethiopian Jewry

Dr. Yoel Shiloh

Ashkelon College

The descendants of Ham: Cush, Mizraim, Put, and Canaan.  The descendants of Cush:   Seba, Havilah, Sabtah, Raamah, and Sabteca.  The descendants of Raamah:   Sheba and Dedan.  

Cush also begot Nimrod, who was the first man of might on earth. (Gen. 10:6-8)

The land of Cush [Ethiopia] is mentioned several times in the Bible, [1] as are the people of Cush [2] – the Cushites. [3]   The dark skin color of the Cushites led the Sages to use the word cushi to denote any strange-looking person or thing. [4]

Ethiopian Jewish tradition identifies the land of Cush with their land of origin, but there are other ancient traditions that identify Cush with different locations in the ancient world:

1.  Near India.   The Babylonian Talmud (Megillah 11a) reads: “From Hodu (=India) to Cush – Rav and Samuel disagreed, one of them saying Hodu was at one end of the earth and Cush at the other end, the other saying that Hodu and Cush were near each other.”   Ginger is mentioned in the Talmud as "a spice coming from Hindawi," and Rashi interpreted Hindawi as cushim, [5] and elsewhere explained "the place of Hindawi" as the land of the Cushites. [6]

2. Arabia.   Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on the verse cited above reads:  “The sons of Ham:   Cush and Mizraim and Put and Canaan, and the name of their lands:   Arabia, Egypt, Alihrok and Canaan.”   According to this commentator, the land of Cush is Arabia, perhaps meaning the Roman province Arabia, in southeast Transjordan.

3. Between the land of Israel and Egypt.   This possibility is implied by the description of the battle fought by Asa, king of Judah, against Zerah the Cushite (II Chron. 14:8-14), which was waged between Mareshah and Gerar. The Cushites are described there as tent-dwelling desert herdsmen who raised sheep and camels (the same also follows from I Chron. 21:16).   Exodus Rabbah, chapter 10, recounts:

The plagues that the Holy One, blessed be He, brought upon Egypt made peace between them.   How so?  There was a dispute between the Hamites and the Egyptians.   Wherever the frogs crossed into a given area, it became known that the field belonged to Egyptians, and wherever the frogs did not enter, those fields were not Egyptian.

It follows from this midrash that the land of Cush borders on Egypt.   According to this identification, the land of Cush could have been Midian, [7] and one could accept the interpretation that Moses’ Cushite wife [8] was Zippora the Midianite.  It is also possible that the prophet Habakkuk identified the land of Cush with Midian:   “As a scene of havoc I behold the tents of Cushan; shaken are the pavilions of the land of Midian” (Hab. 3:7).

4.  Habbash–Ethiopia.   As we said, this is the accepted identification by the Ethiopian Jews.  The earliest mention of the land of the Cushites being Ethiopia is found in the writings of Josephus: [9]   “For of the four sons of Ham, time has not at all hurt the name of Cush; for the Ethiopians, over whom he reigned, are even at this day, both by themselves and by all men in Asia, called Cushites.”   Likewise, Saadia Gaon translated one of the place-names in the verses cited at the beginning of this article as Habbash, i.e., Ethiopia.

In the ninth century an amazing figure by the name of Eldad Hadani appeared in Kairouan, North Africa, with the story [10] that he had come from a land situated beyond the rivers of Cush and brought tidings of the existence of an Ethiopian Jewish community, descended of the ten tribes: [11]

Sennacherib came a second time and exiled the tribe of Asher and the tribe of Naphtali, and he sent them to the land of Cush, to which they journeyed … through the desert, until they came to their border, where they slaughtered the Cushites for twenty days.  And to this very day they wage war against the people of the Cushite kingdom.  They are comprised of four tribes – Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher – living in Havilah … the land where the gold is. [12]

In the fifteenth century Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura immigrated to the land of Israel through Egypt, where he met Jews who had come from Ethiopia.   He described his encounter with them in a letter which he sent his father on the 8th of Elul, 5248 (1488): [13]

I saw two of them in Egypt.   They are dark-skinned, but not like blacks, and it was impossible to discern from them if they observe the Teaching of the Karaites or of the Rabbis…  They say they are from the tribe of Dan.  Most of the pepper and the spice sold by the blacks comes from their land.   This is a report of what I saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears, even though these two people knew very little of the holy tongue and the Arabic that they spoke was hardly understood by the people of the land.

Radbaz [14] was the first to discuss the halakhic status of the Ethiopian Jews.   A great number of prisoners of war from Ethiopia, among them many Jews, began to reach the slave market in Cairo in his day.  Radbaz wrote a touchingly warm and human account of his encounter with these Jews (Responsa Radbaz, part 4, responsum 219):

Once there was a Cushite woman from the land of Cush, otherwise known as Habbash [Ethiopia] who was taken prisoner along with her two sons, and she was bought by one Reuben.   We asked her what her status was, and she answered that she had been married and these were her sons by her husband, whose name was so-and-so, and this son was so-and-so.   The enemy came and killed all the people who had been in the synagogue, and the women … they took captive.   It turned out that she was descended of the Israelites, of the tribe of Dan, who live in the mountains of Cush.

In another place Radbaz discusses the Jews of Habbash-Ethiopia in connection with an investigation of the sources of the Nile, necessitated by halakhic concerns.  For the purposes of this investigation Radbaz studied works of Ethiopian scholars and collected evidence from two Jews, one of them coming from Ethiopia and called by Radbaz Rabbi Isaac al-Habbashi, i.e., Rabbi Isaac from Habbash, who apparently reached Egypt as a prisoner.  He told of his memories of the rain in the district where he was born. The second testimony came from a local merchant who had traveled to Ethiopia.   From this we learn that Radbaz met Jews from Ethiopia and came to know their land; once again we learn that the Jews of Habbash-Ethiopia dwelled in the land of Cush and were descended from the ten tribes:

Regarding the question concerning this river [the Nile] … I find that it is from heavy rainfall, and this for several reasons:  one – the people who come from there are truthful merchants from the land of Cush  They say that in the land of Cush, beginning in the southern part of the land of al-Habbasha, there is untold rain lasting three or four months, such that no one leaves their home on account of the heavy rain; and it forms great rivers and lakes, all of which pour into the Nile, causing it to swell and rise, and it is said that when the river begins to rise here, the rains are in full force there. [15]   I also inquired of their wise men and they all agreed that it [the Nile] is due to the heavy rains.  In addition, I investigated in their books, and there it is written that it rises because of the rains and snow-melt.  It is also written that some of the early kings sent emissaries to investigate this river and its origins, and they testified that it originates from a certain mountain called Jebel al-Qatar, meaning the Mountain of the Moon, and it swells and rises from the vast amount of rain.  Again we received testimony from Rabbi Isaac al-Habbashi, who left his country at the age of 15 … and used to live … on the Nile.   He said that the rainy season in his land began in Nisan and peaked in Tamuz and Av, and it would rain so heavily … that all the townsfolk remained at home and could go nowhere, … and he attested that the overflow of the river … in Egypt is from those heavy rains.

In another responsum Radbaz discusses the halakhic status of the Jewish slaves who were brought to Egypt.   As Jews, they do not come under the laws pertaining to a Canaanite slave, but neither are they to be treated according to the laws of the Hebrew slave.  Quite the contrary, they should come under the law of redeeming captives, i.e., they should be “bought” in the slave market and set free (loc. sit. 7.5).  Based on Radbaz’s responsa and other sources, [16] in our generation it was ruled that the Ethiopian Jews are descendants of the ten tribes who dwelled in the land of Cush, and ought to be brought to Israel under the Law of Return, as Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef ruled: [17]

I have come to the conclusion that the Falashas are descendants of an Israelite tribe that moved south to Cush, and one should not doubt the above-mentioned geonim who established that they are from the tribe of Dan … and arrived at this conclusion on the basis of reliable testimony and evidence, and tradition transmitted by their rabbis…  Having been asked by the leaders of the Falashas to join our fellow brethren of the House of Israel in the spirit of the Torah and halakhah, [accepting] both the written Torah and the Oral Torah without any reservations, and to uphold all the commandments of our sacred Torah, according to the instructions of the Sages by which we live, I said to myself … that we must rescue them from assimilation and hasten their immigration to Israel, educating them in the spirit of our sacred Torah and involving them in building our holy land, so that our children return to their land…  The Attorney General Professor Aaron Barak has instructed that, pursuant to the decision to recognize the Jewish of Ethiopia as Jews coming under the Law of Return, their registration as Jews in the population registry is not to be withheld.

May it be the Lord’s will that we see an ingathering of our exiles hastily in our day:   “He who scattered Israel will gather them, and will guard them as a shepherd his flock” (Jer. 31:10).


[1] For example, Gen. 2:13, II Kings 19:9, Isa. 11:11.

[2] Numbers 12:1, II Sam. 18:21-32, and elsewhere.

[3] The Hebrew word cushi, plural cushim today is considered a pejorative term for dark-skinned people of African origin and hence is not generally used.  In the Bible, however, and in works of the Sages this term did not have negative connotations.   Quite the contrary, its meaning was often positive.   For example, in Sifre Numbers, par. 99, we read:  Because of the Cushite woman – Scripture is telling us that whoever saw her would have to admit that she was well-built.” Also compare Arukh ha-Shalem under cush (2), who writes that cushi in Persian means good-looking.

[4] For example, Bava Batra 99b – “cushi wine”; Sukkah 36a – “a cushi etrog”; Mo’ed Katan 16b“Just as a cushi has different skin color, so too the people of Israel are distinguished in the way they act from all other nations and tongues.”

[5] Berakhot 36b.

[6] Yoma 81b, as well as Kiddushin 22b, s.v. Hindawi – me-eretz Cush.

[7] On this identification, see Yosef Fleishman, “Le-Farashat ha-Telunot shel Aharon u-Miriam al Moshe,” Internet Parasha page for Parashat Be-Ha’alotkha 2004 (no. 551).

[8] Numbers (12:1):  “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married:   “He married a Cushite woman!”

[9] Antiquities of the Jews, Book I.

[10] Some scholars are dubious about the stories told by Eldad and say that they are his own inventions.  Others say that Eldad never even existed and that he was merely a metaphorical figure of writers from those days.  The first of the scholars to deal with this issue was Rav Tzemah Gaon, a contemporary of Eldad, who stated that what Eldad said was essentially correct even though the rules of halakhah that he presented were not altogether consonant with the tradition of the Sages, for “all draw on a single fountain.”  For further reading on the controversy over Eldad Hadani, see Abraham Epstein, Eldad Ha-Dani, Pressburg 1891; Waldman (below, note 20), p. 18.

[11] The citation from Eldad Hadani’s account is taken from Judah David Eisenstein, Otzar Midrashim I, p. 23.

[12] Based on Genesis 2:11-13:  “The name of the first is Pishon, the one that winds through the whole land of Havilah, where the gold is.  (the gold of that land is good; bedellium is there, and lapis lazuli.)   The name of the second river is Gihon, the one that winds through the whole land of Cush.”   Most commentators identify these rivers with the sources of the Nile, Pishon with the Blue Nile and Gihon with the White Nile.  Their confluence is in the region of Hartum, capital of Sudan, where they form one river, the Nile.   See the comments in Da’at Mikra on these verses.

[13] Avraham Yaari, Igrot Eretz Israel, Ramat Gan 1971, p. 132.

[14] Rabbi David ben Zimra, expelled from Spain, lived in Cairo and headed the Egyptian Jewish community for forty years.   Immigrated to Israel towards the end of his life, died in 1573 and was buried in Safed.

[15] I.e., when the Nile floods in Cairo the rainy season in Ethiopia is at its peak.

[16] Menahem Waldman, Me’ever le-Naharei Cush, Israel 1949.

[17]Yabia Omer, vol. 8, Even ha-Ezer, resp. 11. Also see Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, Tzitz Eliezer, vol. 12, resp. 66 (and vol. 17, resp. 48 and elsewhere), who takes issue with Rabbi Ovadia, against recognizing them as Jews.