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Ha-Levi, Ṣemaḥ

(384 words)

Author(s): Yosef Tobi
Ṣemaḥ ben Nathan ha-Levi, a distinguished scholar and the author of books in both Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic, was born in Tunis in 1868 and died there in 1928. His respected family originally came from Gibraltar after having lived for a long while in Austria. His father was a cousin of the millionaire R. Nathan Ha-Levi, one of whose daughters married Joseph Valensi, who was the Austrian vice-consul in Tunis and the father of both the Zionist leader Alfred Valensi, and  the well-known lawyer Theodor…

Flāḥ, Shalom

(558 words)

Author(s): Yosef Tobi
Shalom Flāḥ (Charles Chalom Flack) was born in Tunis in 1855. After acquiring advanced knowledge of both Hebrew and Arabic, he became a merchant in 1870. Thereafter he worked extensively for his community in a number of fields, including language instruction, journalism, public affairs, and Judeo-Arabic literature.Flāḥ was a great scholar in Hebrew, and his eagerness for the propagation of the language was monumental. In 1855, error: this was year of his birth he opened a school where he taught Hebrew, while his colleague Joseph Cohen Ganouna was responsible for French studies. Flāḥ wr…

Shabazi, Shalom

(1,194 words)

Author(s): Yosef Tobi
Born in 1619 in Najd al-Walīd near Taʿizz in southern Yemen, Shalom Shabazī was Yemen’s greatest Jewish poet and is popularly referred to as Mori Sālim(Rabbi or Master). Many members of his family (the Mashta) were scholars and poets, including his father, Joseph ben Avigad, who was also a leader of the local Jewish community, and Joseph ben Israel (see below). By profession, Shabazī was a weaver, and he lived in poverty in his youth. He studied with local rabbis, including his relative Israel Safra, but also spent time in Sanʿa, wher…

Farḥī, Eliezer

(451 words)

Author(s): Yosef Tobi
Rabbi Eliezer Farḥī was born in Tunis in 1851 and died there in 1930. Like his father, who had come to Tunis from Jerusalem, he was associated with the local Grana (Livornese) community. Farḥī was a talented writer, a fine poet, and above all a devout Zionist whose impassioned speeches over the years stirred the hearts of many coreligionists. Between 1871 and 1883, he made three journeys to Livorno (Leghorn) and sojourned there for four years with his father’s brother, the great scholar and writer Joseph Shabbetay Farḥī (d. 1882). While in Livorno he was ordained a rabbi and mar…

Ben Ḥalfon, Abraham

(390 words)

Author(s): Yosef Tobi
Abraham ben Ḥalfon, one of the first Hebrew poets in Yemen, lived in Aden in the early decades of the twelfth century. His surviving sixty-seven poems treat religious holidays, life-cycle events, and fast-days, as well as secular themes like praise and friendship. His verse, strongly influenced by the medieval Andalusian school of Hebrew poetry, is marked by biblical language and Arabic meter. For this reason, and also because few of his poems were printed and studied until 1991, scholars were long unable to identify his place of origin, b…

Messika, Ḥabiba

(537 words)

Author(s): Yosef Tobi
Ḥabība Messika (Messica) was born into a family of Jewish musicians in Tunisia in 1899. She studied voice and the piano with her aunt Layla Sfez. At the age of twenty she embarked on her performing career as a wedding singer. Later she was attracted to the theater. Her teacher in this area was Muḥammad Bourgiba, and thanks to him she played leading roles in famous comedies and world-famous dramas. It is sometimes said that she was more talented as an actress than as a singer. In her time she was seen as an ideal woman not only for her talent and beauty bu…

Qafiḥ, Joseph

(509 words)

Author(s): Yosef Tobi
Joseph Qafiḥ, the scion of a great rabbinical family in Yemen, was born in Sanʿa in 1918. His father, David Qafiḥ, the headmaster of the modern Jewish school in Sanʿa, died when Joseph was only one year old, and he grew up in the home of his grandfather Yiḥye Qafiḥ, the founder of the Dor Deʿa (Generation of Knowledge) enlightenment movement. With his grandfather he studied Bible,  Talmud, medieval Judeo-Arabic literature, especially the philosophical writings of Saʿadya Gaon and Maimonides, as well as astronomy and other secular subjects, and devel…

Qafiḥ, Yiḥye

(729 words)

Author(s): Yosef Tobi
Born in Sanʿa in 1849, Yiḥye Qafiḥ was the most outstanding Jewish scholar of his generation in Yemen. One of his teachers was Yiḥye Qoraḥ (1840–1881), the country’s first enlightened scholar, in whose home he grew up after the death of his father. But while the teacher accepted the mysticism of the Kabbala, the pupil had more radical ideas and came to the conclusion that Kabbala was false and religiously harmful, and that its classic text, the Zohar, was not written by the second-century tanna Simeon Bar Yoḥay as traditionally believed, but by Moses de Leon, who claime…

Abyaḍ, Yiḥye ben Shalom

(326 words)

Author(s): Yosef Tobi
Yiḥye ben Shalom Abyaḍ (1864–1935) was a reformist rabbi, scholar, and traditional physician in Sanʿa, Yemen. He was closely associated with the work of his teacher Yiḥye Qāfiḥ. Together with Qāfiḥ, he provided new leadership for the community and worked to improve its spiritual and social conditions. He was especially active, in the spirit of his mentor, in developing programs and activities designed to counteract what they saw as the negative impact of the Kabbala on their Yemenite brethren. They both met with opposition from …

Bekache, Shalom

(435 words)

Author(s): Yosef Tobi
Rabbi Shalom Bekache (also Beccache), author, publisher, and exponent of the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskala), was born in Bombay in 1848 and died in Algiers in 1927. His father, Isaac Raphael, called Bekhash, had moved to India from Baghdad (Post Medieval). Shalom was educated and given his rabbinical ordination in Safed, Palestine. In 1878, after serving as a rabbi in Acre (Akko), he moved to Algeria, where he served as a rabbi first in a small community for four years, and then, until 1922, in the Ben Tuwwa congregation in Algiers.Bekache was typical of adherents of the Haskala movement i…

Sharʿabi, Shalom

(1,004 words)

Author(s): Yosef Tobi
The great kabbalist Shalom Sharʿabi was born in Sharʿab, Yemen, in 1720, was raised in Sanʿa, and died in Jerusalem in 1777. Known by the acronyms Rashash and Hashemesh (Shalom Mizraḥi Sharʿabi), Sharʿabi stands third in the hierarchy of the Lurianic Kabbala after Isaac Luria (the Ari) and the latter’s disciple Ḥayyim Vital, and he was thought to be a reincarnation of Luria. He probably acquired his erudition in Jewish scholarship, and especially in Kabbala, while still in Yemen. Although he is well known from authentic documentation, …


(1,908 words)

Author(s): Yosef Tobi
Sanʿa (Ar. Ṣanʿāʾ), the capital of the Republic of Yemen, has been the principal city of Yemen and its religious, political, and economic center throughout history, although for political reasons rulers have frequently preferred other cities as their capital. Sanʿa is located at an elevation of 2,200 meters (7,218 feet) above sea level on a plateau on the western slope of Jabal Nuqūm at the center of the Yemeni Highlands, 170 kilometers (106 miles) from the Red Sea coast and 300 kilometers (186 …

Literature, Judeo-Arabic

(4,322 words)

Author(s): Yosef Tobi
1.    Ancient Judeo-Arabic literature and scriptThe first literary pieces in Arabic by Jews, most probably oral and comprising both poetry and translations from the Bible, were composed in pre-Islamic Arabia. Judeo-Arabic poetry, mainly the works of al-Samawʾal ibn ʿAdiyāʾ of Tayma (d. 560), the greatest Jewish poet of the Jāhiliyya (the pre-Islamic era; lit. "the time of ignorance"), but also including writings by several less important poets, was exclusively preserved in Muslim sources, appearing first in the Kitāb Ṭabqāt al-Shuʿarāʾ (The Classes of the Poets), a compila…

Literature, Hebrew Prose (medieval)

(3,607 words)

Author(s): Yosef Tobi
Apart from Hebrew liturgical poetry, our knowledge of nonreligious Jewish literature (belles lettres) from before the time of Saʿadya Gaon (882–942) is very sparse. The oldest known pieces are four-line strophes with the simple rhyme scheme aaaa/ bbbb, such as the “strophes ( ḥaruzot) of the masoretic grammar” included in the masoretic literature of the eighth and ninth centuries, or the anti-traditional Polemics of Ḥīwī al-Balkhī (Ḥayawihi of Balkh, Afghanistan) from the mid-ninth century. Ḥīwī’s strophes questioned the holiness of the Bible and the claim…

Hagège, Daniel

(390 words)

Author(s): Yosef Tobi
Born in Tunis on July 15, 1892, Daniel Hagège (Ḥajjāj) completed his schooling in 1904 and began working in a printing house with Ya‛aqov Ha-Kohen on the weekly al-Shams and the daily al-Ṣabāḥ . On October 21, 1910, he was appointed chief editor of the weekly Ḥayāt al-Janna. On August 1, 1913, he founded a magazine called  al-Nuzha al-tūnisiyya. In 1914, he published an important book entitled Anwār Tūnis (Flowers of Tunis) that included the article “Sabab taqwīn ḥarb Urupa” (Causes of the Development of the European War), the story “al-‛Ishq wa-al-ḥubb mā fihi…


(1,189 words)

Author(s): Yosef Tobi
The walled city of Saʿda (Ar. Ṣaʿda), the capital of North Yemen, was once an iron-mining and tanning center and an important station on the Himyarite Sanʿa–Mecca trade route. It is built on a plateau 2,300 meters (7,546 feet) high about 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Sanʿa. When the Zaydi imām al-Hādī ilā al-Ḥaqq from northern Persia established the Zaydi state in northern Yemen in the tenth century, he chose Saʿda as its capital, and it became a center of Zaydi Shiʿite learning. Al-Hādī Mosque in Saʿda is still an important Zaydi Shiʿite educational institution.Around the same time…

Ben Solomon, Zechariah ha-Rofeh 

(493 words)

Author(s): Yosef Tobi
Zechariah ben Solomon ha-Rofe, also known as Yiḥyā al-Ṭabīb (Ar. ṭabīb and Heb. rofe both mean physician), lived in the fifteenth century, probably in the town of Dhamar (Thamar) in central Yemen. He was a prolific author and, in fact, the most outstanding representative of the late medieval Yemenite Maimonidean school. He wrote all his books in Judeo-Arabic, probably because of its natural association with medieval Jewish philosophical literature. His writings generally took the form of commentaries on subjects biblical, halakhic, or philosophic.In his Midrash ha-Ḥefeṣ (Tale of…

Mawzaʿ, Expulsion of

(1,057 words)

Author(s): Yosef Tobi
Mawzaʿ is a small town located in the western arid strip of Yemen along the coast of the Red Sea (Tihāma) about 97 kilometers (63 miles) southwest of Taʿizz. It is connected with the tragic incident in the history of the Jews of Yemen known as the Expulsion of Mawzaʿ ( Galut Mawza‘), which took place in 1679, when Jews from villages and towns in many parts of the country were sent there in anticipation of being expelled from Yemen.The background of the incident actually goes back to 1538. On the advice of the doctors of the main religious schools in Yemen, the Shīʿī Zaydīs and the Sunnī Shāfiʿīs, Imām S…

Chemla, Jacob

(427 words)

Author(s): Yosef Tobi
Jacob Chemla(1858–1938) was an outstanding literary figure in modern Judeo-Arabic who became famous in Tunis for his lucid style and fine writing. He was the editor of al-Fajr (1912–1915), generally regarded as the best journal published in Tunis, and also regularly wrote articles for two other periodicals published in Tunis, al-Ḥurriya (1888; 1908–1914) and al-Tamaddun (1921–1925). At various times he was also the manager or editor of other Tunisian newspapers: Musharriḥ al-Aṣdār (1886), al-Bustān (1888–1906), al-Ḥaqīqa (1895–1896), al-Istiwā’ (1909–1911), and al-Waṭan (1…