Parashat Hashavua Study
5769/ November 1, 2008
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
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Staff at Bar-Ilan
University. Inquiries and
comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,
The land of Cush and Ethiopian
Dr. Yoel Shiloh
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.
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, as are
the people of Cush
The dark skin color of the Cushites led the
Sages to use the word cushi to denote any strange-looking person or
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,
elsewhere explained "the place of Hindawi" as the land of the
Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on the verse cited
above reads: “The sons of Ham:
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.
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,
could accept the interpretation that Moses’ Cushite wife 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”
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:
“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,
In the ninth century an amazing figure by the name of Eldad
Hadani appeared in Kairouan, North Africa, with the story
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:
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
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
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 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:
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.
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, 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:
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).