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Afghanistan: Home to Lost Tribes of Israel?

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Topic: Afghanistan: Home to Lost Tribes of Israel?

From: Jeremy in Pittsburgh, PA

Dear Rabbi,
I have heard that the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel may have gone to Afghanistan and that the Afghani people today are their descendants. They supposedly have Jewish customs like lighting candles on Friday and wearing a tallit. Is this true?

Dear Jeremy,
When you think about the fact that Jews as a people are as ancient as the Chinese, you realize that by now there ought to be at least a billion of us. Where are we all? The answer is that being Jewish - while truly a most wonderful thing to be - has never been extremely popular. Aside from murdering us, the nations have shrunk us through assimilation via coercion, enticement and expulsion in all directions.

So finding Jewish traces anywhere on the globe shouldn't surprise us that much. A classic case of this is the Ten Tribes of Israel, who were expelled from their land by the Assyrians around two and a half millennia ago. As one would expect, being exiled was bad for their national identity. They all went lost.

Do any of them live today in Afghanistan?

First of all, let's put the record straight that Bin Laden has no connection to Judaism except maybe for his similarity to Haman and Pharaoh. He's not even Afghani; he hails from Yemen via Saudi Arabia.

As for the Afghani people, yes, there is fascinating evidence that some of them, most notably the Pathani tribesmen, may have roots going back to the Ten Lost Tribes.

First of all, many Afghani people claim this to be so. Rabbi Avraham Hacohen, president of the Jewish community in the Afghani city of Harath, testified that he heard former Afghani king Habib Allah Han proclaim, "I am from the tribe of Benjamin."

In similar testimony, an immigrant to Israel recalls his childhood memory of King Habib Allah's horseback tour of Harath: "The Jewish dignitaries of the city gathered, among them my father.… My father coerced me to join in greeting the king. The King asked the Jews, 'What tribe are you from?' "

'We have no tradition regarding that, so we don't know, O King,' answered the head of the delegation."

'Well, we do know,' said the king. 'We, the Mahmad Zei family, are all descendants of the tribe of Benjamin from the seed of King Saul, from the sons of Yonatan Afghan and Pithon.' "

Many Pathani village elders claim this as well. They are "the seed of Israel," descended, they say, from Pithon of the tribe of Benjamin.

Pithon, a great-grandson of King Saul, is mentioned among a list of hundreds of names chronicling the descendants of the Twelve Tribes (Chronicles I 8:35). Nothing more is said of him.

Other names of Afghani tribes resemble those of some of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel: Rebbani (Reuben); Levoni (Levi*); Ephriti (Ephraim); Yusuf Si means Sons of Yosef (Joseph). The Ghaghi tribesmen claim their name is from Gad. (*Levi, as a whole, is not a lost tribe. Many Levites still exist among Jews today. Yet it is assumed that many individual Levites were exiled along with the Lost Tribes.)

Jewish names such as "Israel," not so typical in the radically fundamental Islamic state of Afghanistan, are found among many Pathani. Jewish names have been seen on tombstones in far-flung graveyards around the country.

As for Jewish customs, the Pathani are quite strict about not shaving their sidelocks (peot), which is in accordance with the Torah command, "Don't shave the sides of your head," (Leviticus 19). Their day of rest is Saturday, and Friday towards evening they light candles, which some then cover with a basket (originally to hide their Jewishness?). They wear a four-cornered garment, to which some attach fringes on the corners. Some pray facing Jerusalem, and the Star of David symbol is prevalent in almost every Pathani home!

The great Torah Sage "Tiferet Yisrael" wrote regarding the Ten Tribes: "Many of the remaining became assimilated amongst the non-Jews…. Regarding them is the dispute between the Talmudic Sages Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezar, regarding whether in the future those who remain but are assimilated will eventually be brought back to the true faith in G-d…. For, although many of them are actual idol worshippers and their identity as "Israel" is forgotten, and the few Jewish practices they have are merely traditions handed down from their fathers, such as the people of Afghanistan, regarding whom many geographers consider to be forgotten Jews…."

In sum, there is interesting evidence that some Afghani may have Jewish roots. What do we take from all this? We should realize that it's a miracle of the greatest magnitude that we as Jews exist at all, remaining fully Jewish, and with our entire Torah extant for the 3,314th year in a row.

Based on an article by Rafael Berelson
Tiferet Yisrael Reish Perek Chelek

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