Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Letters to mysterious African Jews who may or may not have existed.

Right smack in the middle of the "Dr.-Livingstone,-I-presume?" era of British adventurism in Africa, a journal belonging to William Simposon was published, titled Private Journal Kept During the Niger Expedition of May 1841 to June 1842.

In the introduction it states that Simpson "obtained Bibles and different religious publications for distribution, and at the suggestion of some Christian friends, he was provided by the two chief Rabbis in London with letters commendatory to their brethren, in case it should be found that in the providence of God toward that remarkable people, any portion of them were located in the interior of Africa."

This is quite interesting, because Simpson was clearly a Christian missionary. Yet at least Rabbi Solomon Hirschell was convinced that he did not proselytize to Jews, and with such full confidence sent his greetings to any Jews that Simpson might encounter. David Meldola, acting Haham of the Sephardim, sent his greetings as well. The text of these letters along with an iffy translation were included in an appendix to the book. Note that Rabbi Hirschell's letter was not written by him, but on his behalf by Aaron Levy of Lissa, a dayan on his bet din, who repeated twice that Simpson is not מבני עמינו - but he is an אוהב ישראל, a philo-semite. And check out Meldola's pledging allegiance to the Rambam, not the Shulchan Aruch:


  1. Great find. It reminds me of the "Pioneer Plaques" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pioneer_plaque) that were sent into outer space in the 1970's as messages to any extraterrestrials that might have come across them. The idea that Simpson might find Jews on his Niger expedition was not far-fetched at the time; see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jews_of_the_Bilad_el-Sudan_(West_Africa).

  2. Thanks. Of course it was not far-fetched. This was well before kibbutz geluyot, and much of the world was still unknown to Europeans. Have you seen the letter to the Abba Isak, the Ethiopian Kes, in Igrot Shadal v2? (Interestingly, although it is signed by Shadal in the Igrot, in many newspapers and other sources from the late 1840s the letter is seen as having been sent by Ohev Ger. One wonders who in fact penned the qustions.) It reads like something from a thousand years earlier, like a letter to Sambatyon.

  3. Steg (dos iz nit der šteg)11:17 AM, October 27, 2010

    Speaking of Sambatyon... in the realm of crazy Jewish travelogues:

  4. So is it true what I have heard/seen claimed by some Yemenite Jews that prior to the Shulhan Aruch, there were many communities (or a majority of non-askenaz Jews?) who relied upon the Rambam for psak halacha, even though it was primarily the Yemenites who insisted on sticking to that methodology after the fact?

  5. I don't know if this sole piece of evidence suffices. It could be that HHR Meldola intuited that any isolated Jewish community in the interior Africa would surely know the Rambam, but he could not guarantee they knew the Shulchan Aruch.

    However, it is probably true that the idea that there are historically only two schools of halacha, the Sephardic/ Ashkenaic based on the Shulchan Aruch according to each's respective traditions and poskim and then the Yemenites who use the Rambam is highly simplistic, if not simply false.

  6. Oh, thank you so much for the reply. I am very interested in that particular subject. Do you happen to know of any links/texts (English only for me, unfortunately) where that matter is examined in depth and with scholarly discussion?

    It seems that the simplistic or false idea you presented is usually the standard "narrative" people present or believe. I would like to look into it. Thanks.

  7. It seems to me somewhat plausible that the Rabbis' intention was at least in part to forewarn any "naive" Jewish communities that Simpson should happen to chance upon that he was not in fact "mibnei ameinu". Furthermore their appreciative mentions of him as a non-meisis might have been meant to serve as subtle plea to his better nature via their implicit trust that they would never suspect him of attempting to engage in such activities.

    There is good reason to believe that some of the earliest Christians to have come in contact with the Jews of Kaifeng (including Matteo Ricci) may not have been wholly forthright about the fact that they were not the people whom the local Jews would be likely to consider the truest representative of foreign Judaism. There must have been a common recognition among relatively impotent Jewish leaders in that missionary happy time that such dangers were to be taken into account when interacting with Christian explorers heading off for the dark territories.

    Moshe Rudner

  8. Moshe, your analysis has the ring of plausibility to it, particularly as there is no reason to assume that Simpson even knew what the letters meant. And of course the trip would occur with or without the letters.



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