|Regions with significant populations|
|Zimbabwe, South Africa (esp. Limpopo Province), Malawi, Mozambique|
|Formerly Kalanga; presently Venda and Shona|
|Syncretic: Judaism, Christianity, Islam|
The Lemba, wa-Remba, or Mwenye are a Bantu-speaking ethnic group which is native to Zimbabwe and South Africa, with smaller, little-known branches in Mozambique and Malawi. According to Tudor Parfitt, then Professor of Modern Jewish Studies at the University of London, in the 1980s when he did his first fieldwork among the Lemba, in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Malawi they numbered an estimated 50,000. They speak the Bantu languages spoken by their geographic neighbours and resemble them physically, but they have some religious practices and beliefs similar to those in Judaism and Islam. According to Parfitt the Lemba claimed once to have had a book which contained their traditions but it was lost.
The name "Lemba" as Parfitt speculates may originate in chilemba, a Swahili word for the turbans which are worn by some Bantu peoples, or it may originate from lembi, a Bantu term for a "non-African" or a "respected foreigner". Magdel le Roux says that the name VaRemba may be translated as "the people who refuse" – probably in the context of "not eating with others" (according to one of her interviewees). In Zimbabwe and South Africa, the people prefer the name Mwenye.
Since the late twentieth century, there has been increased media and scholarly attention with regard to the Lemba's claim of common descent from the Jewish people. Genetic Y-DNA analyses in the 2000s have established a partially Middle-Eastern origin for a portion of the male Lemba population.
Most Lemba are members of Christian churches, with some Muslims in Zimbabwe. Edith Bruder wrote that "from a theological point of view, the Lemba’s customs and rituals reveal religious pluralism and interdependence of these various practices" and see membership of these religions "in cultural rather than religious terms. These apparently religious identities do not prevent them from declaring themselves Jews through religious practice and ethnic identification." In 1992 Parfitt pointed to the strong cultural component in Lemba identification with Judaism. In 2002 Parfitt wrote that "Those Lemba, who perceive themselves as ethnically Jewish, find no contradiction in regularly attending a Christian Church. By and large the Lemba who are most stridently 'Jewish' are often those with the closest Christian attachments."
Many pre-modern Lemba beliefs and practices can be linked to Judaism, and some of them are also common to Islam. Ebrahim Moosa wrote that "Historians of religion have found among the Lemba certain religious and cultural practices which unmistakably resemble Islamic rituals, and there are reflections of Arabic in their language." In the period in which Jews were settled in Southern Arabia, they were proselytizing, and as a result, they attracted converts from around the Mediterranean and North Africa.
According to Rudo Mathivha, a Lemba of South Africa, practices and beliefs which are related to Judaism include the following:
- They observe Shabbat.
- They praise Nwali (a deity) for looking after the Lemba, and they identify themselves as part of the chosen people.
- They teach their children to honour their mothers and fathers. (This is common to many ethnicities and religions.)
- They refrain from eating pig and other beasts forbidden by the Torah, and forbid certain combinations of permitted foods.
- They practice ritual animal slaughter and ritual preparation of meat for consumption, a Middle Eastern practice rather than one which is common to African ethnicities.
- They practice male circumcision; according to Junod's work in 1927, surrounding tribes regarded the Lemba as the masters and originators of that practice.
- Since the late 20th century and due to increased attention to their possible Jewish ancestry, they have placed a Star of David on their tombstones.
- Lemba are discouraged from marrying non-Lemba.
Some of these practices and traditions are not exclusively Jewish; they are common to Muslims in the Middle East and Africa, as well as being common to other African tribes and other non-African peoples. In the late 1930s, W. D. Hammond-Tooke wrote a book identifying Lemba practices that are similar to those of Muslims: for instance, their endogamous marriage practices are also common to Muslims (and many other cultures and ethnic groups), as are certain dietary restrictions. Together with the similarities between many Lemba clan-names and known Arabic and Semitic words; e.g., Sadiki, Hasane, Hamisi, Haji, Bakeri, Sharifo and Saidi, Hammond-Tooke concluded that the Lemba were descended, at least in part, from Muslim Arabs.
In the late 20th century the British scholar Tudor Parfitt, an expert on marginal Jewish groups, became involved in researching the Lemba's claims. He helped trace the origin of their ancestors back to Senna, an ancient city which they believe was located on the Arabian peninsula, in present-day Yemen. In an interview which was featured on NOVA in 2000, Parfitt said he was struck by the Lemba's maintenance of rituals which seemed Jewish and/or Semitic:
The other thing was the extraordinary importance they placed upon ritual slaughter of animals, which is not an African thing at all. Of course, it's Islamic as well as Judaic, but it's certainly from the Middle East, it's not African. And the fact that every lad was given a knife with which he did his ritual throughout his life and took to his grave. That seemed to me to be remarkably, tangibly Semitic Middle Eastern.
Lemba traditions and culture
Their myths of origin generally tell of migrating from the North. According to Lemba tradition, their male ancestors were Jews who left Judea about 2500 years ago and settled in a place called Senna which was located on the Arabian Peninsula (present-day Yemen). Much later, according to Rudo Mathivha, their oral history relates that they migrated into Northeast Africa (Ethiopia). After these ancestors intermarried with local women and became established in Africa, at some point, the tribe split into two groups, one staying in Ethiopia and the other travelling farther south, along the east coast.
According to Parfitt, who published a book in 1993 on his findings, Senna was most likely located in Yemen, specifically, in the village of Sanāw which is located within the easternmost portion of the Hadhramaut. The city has been home to a Jewish population since ancient times. Since 1948 and the founding of the State of Israel, as well as since later wars, the Jews have dwindled to a few hundred. In Lemba tradition, Sena has the semi-mythical status of being a sacred city of origin, and as a result, it is also the object of hopes for their eventual return.
The Lemba claim that this second group settled in Tanzania and Kenya, building what was referred to as another Sena, or "Sena II". Others supposedly settled in Malawi, where their descendants reside today. Some settled in Mozambique, eventually migrating to Zimbabwe and South Africa. They claim to have constructed Great Zimbabwe, now preserved as a monument. Ken Mufuka, a Zimbabwean archaeologist, believes that the either the Lemba or the Venda may have contributed to this architectural project but does not believe that they were solely responsible. Writer Tudor Parfitt and Magdel le Roux think that they at least helped construct the massive city. (see below). But, most academics of this field agree that the construction of the enclosure at Great Zimbabwe is largely attributable to the ancestors of the Shona, who were first to displace the indigenous San people from the region. Such works were typical of their ancestral civilisations.
The Lemba have endogamous marriage patterns, discouraging marriage to non-Lemba. Endogamy is common to many groups. Normative Orthodox Judaism today recognises only matrilineal descent as determining Judaism from birth. Patrilineal descent was once the norm among the Israelites, with people being identified as descendants of one of the twelve sons of Israel.
The restrictions on intermarriage with non-Lemba make it nearly impossible for a male non-Lemba to become a member of the Lemba. Lemba men who marry non-Lemba women are expelled from the community unless the females agree to live according to Lemba traditions. A woman who marries a Lemba man must learn and practice the Lemba religion, follow Lemba dietary rules, and practice other Lemba customs. The woman may not bring any cooking equipment from her previous home into the Lemba man's home. Initially, the woman may have to shave her head. Their children must be brought up as Lemba. If the Lemba had Jewish ancestors, the requirement to shave the head may date back to rituals which were associated with converting the first Lemba women to Judaism, which would have been the way in which Jewish males acquired women for the purpose of making families. The genetic MtDNA data of the Lemba (see below) has shown no descent from female Jewish ancestors.
According to Tooke, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Lemba were highly esteemed for their mining and metalwork skills by the surrounding tribes which lived in the Zoutpansberg region of South Africa. He wrote in his 1937 book that the other tribes considered the Lemba outsiders. According to articles written during the early 1930s, in the 1920s the Lembas' medical knowledge earned them respect among tribes in South Africa. Parfitt claims that colonial Europeans had their own reasons for distinguishing some tribes instead of others as being indigenous to Africa, because it gave the British a right to be on the continent just like other migrants. Modern Y-DNA evidence confirms the extra-African origin of some of the Lemba's male ancestors. By contrast, the lead anthropologist in Zimbabwe firmly places them among African peoples, ignoring the DNA evidence.
Lemba tradition tells of a sacred object, the ngoma lungundu or "drum that thunders", which they brought from the place called Sena. Their oral history claims that the ngoma was the Biblical Ark of the Covenant made by Moses. Parfitt, a professor at SOAS, University of London, wrote a book in 2008, The Lost Ark of the Covenant about the rediscovery of this object. His book was adapted as a television documentary that aired on the History Channel, tracing the Lemba's claim that the ngoma lungunda was the legendary Ark of the Covenant. Following the lead of eighth-century accounts of the Ark in Arabia, Parfitt found a ghost town named Sena in the Hadhramaut, an area inhabited by people who are genetically linked to the Lemba.
Parfitt has theorized that the ngoma was related to the Ark of the Covenant, lost from Jerusalem after the city's destruction by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II in 587 BC. He says that the ngoma is a descendant of the Biblical Ark, theorizing that the Ark was repaired by adding more material to it as the artifact began to wear out or that it was destroyed. He says that the ark/ngoma was carried to Africa by its priestly guardians. Lemba oral history claimed that the Ark exploded 700 years ago, and that they rebuilt the Ark on its remains.
Parfitt discovered the ngoma in a Harare, Zimbabwe museum in 2007. It had last been exhibited in 1949 by colonial officials in Bulawayo. They took it to Harare for protection during the struggle for independence, and it was later misplaced inside the museum. Radiocarbon dating of a portion of the artifact showed it to be 700 years old. Parfitt said he believed that the ngoma was the oldest wooden artifact in Zimbabwe. In February 2010, the 'Lemba ngoma lungundu' was put on display in the museum, along with a celebration of both its history and the history of the Lemba.
Parfitt says that the ngoma/ark was carried into battles. If it broke apart, it would be rebuilt. The ngoma, he says, was possibly built from the remains of the original Ark. "So it's the closest descendant of the Ark that we know of," Parfitt says. "Many people say that the story is far-fetched, but the oral traditions of the Lemba have been backed up by science", he said. The ngoma was on display in the Zimbabwe Museum of Human Sciences, but in 2008, it disappeared, and it is widely believed to have been stolen by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe because he wanted to add it to his personal collection. The story of Parfitt and the ngoma was updated in 2014 in the ZDF documentary "Tudor Parfitt and the Lost Tribe of Israel"
The Lemba considered the ngoma to be intensely sacred and therefore too holy to be touched. It was carried by poles which were inserted into rings which were attached to each side of the ngoma. The only members of the tribe who were permitted to approach it were the male members of its hereditary priesthood because it was their responsibility to guard it. Other Lemba feared that if they ever touched it, they would be "struck down by the fire of God" which would erupt from the object. The Lemba continue to regard the ngoma as the sacred Ark.[page needed]
Early genetic testing supported some Lemba oral traditions which claim that their male ancestors originated in the Middle East. A Y-DNA genetic study in 1996 of 49 Lemba males suggested that more than 50% of the Lemba Y-chromosomes are Semitic in origin, and cannot be used to determine whether their relationship is to Arabs or Jews.
In order to more specifically define the Lemba people's origins, Parfitt and others developed a larger study in order to compare additional Lemba subjects (for whom clans were recorded) with males from South Arabia and Africa, as well as Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews. They found that significant similarities exist between the markers of the Lemba and the markers of the men of the Ḥaḍramawt in Yemen. They also learned that the population in Yemen was relatively recent, so it would not have shared common ancestors with those of the Lemba.
A subsequent study in 2000 found that a substantial number of Lemba men carry a particular haplotype of the Y-chromosome which is known as the Cohen modal haplotype (CMH), as well as a haplogroup of Y-DNA Haplogroup J which is found among some Jews, as well as in other populations which live across the Middle East and Arabia. The genetic studies have found no Semitic female contribution to the Lemba gene pool.
Among Jews, the CMH marker is most prevalent among Kohanim, or hereditary priests. As recounted in Lemba oral tradition, members of the Buba clan "had a leadership role in bringing the Lemba out of Israel". The genetic study found that 50% of the males in the Buba clan had the Cohen marker, a proportion which is higher than that which is found in the general Jewish population. More recently, Mendez et al. (2011) observed that a moderately high frequency of the studied Lemba samples carried Y-DNA Haplogroup T, which is also considered to be of Near Eastern origin. The Lemba T carriers exclusively belonged to T1b, which is rare and was not sampled in indigenous Jews of either the Near East or North Africa. T1b has been observed in low frequencies in Ashkenazi Jews as well as in a few Levantine populations.
Research which was published in 2013 in the South African Medical Journal studied Y-chromosomes variations in two groups of Lemba, one South African and the other Zimbabwean (the Remba). It concluded, "While it was not possible to unequivocally trace the origins of the non-African Y chromosomes in the Lemba and Remba, that this study does not support the earlier claims of their Jewish genetic heritage." The researcher suggested the existence of "a stronger link with Middle Eastern populations, probably the result of trade activity in the Indian Ocean."
A 2014 article which analyzed earlier research which attempted to trace Jewish ancestry (not just of the Lemba) states:
In conclusion, while the observed distribution of sub-clades of haplotypes at mitochondrial and Y chromosome non-recombinant genomes might be compatible with founder events in recent times at the origin of Jewish groups as Cohenite, Levite, Ashkenazite, the overall substantial polyphyletism as well as their systematic occurrence in non-Jewish groups highlights the lack of support for using them either as markers of Jewish ancestry or Biblical tales.
In a 2016 publication, Himla Soodyall and Jennifer G. R Kromberg state that:
When blood groups and serum protein markers were used, the Lemba were indistinguishable from the neighbors among whom they lived; the same was true for mitochondrial DNA which represented the input of females in their gene pool. However, the Y chromosomes, which represented their history through male contributions, showed the link to non-African ancestors. When trying to elucidate the most likely geographic region of origin of the non-African Y chromosomes in the Lemba, the best that could be done was to narrow it to the Middle Eastern region. While no evidence of the extended CMH 11 was found in the higher resolution study, CMH however, was present at a rate of 8.8% being one mutational step away from the extended form.
Halakhic status as Jews
In Orthodox Judaism Halakhic Jewish status is determined by documenting an unbroken matrilineal line of descent and when no such line of descent exists, it is determined by conversion to Judaism. Jews who adhere to Orthodox or Conservative rabbinism believe that "Jewish status by birth" is only passed from a Jewish female to her children (if she herself is a Jew by birth or a Jew by conversion to Judaism) regardless of the Jewish status of the father. Because of the absence of matrilineal Jewish descent for the Lemba, Orthodox or Conservative Judaism would not recognise them as 'Halakhically Jewish.' The Lemba would need to complete a formal conversion process in order to be accepted as Jews.
The Reform and Reconstructionist denominations, the Karaites, and Haymanot Jews all recognize patrilineage. As more is learned about the widespread history of the Jewish people, the Reform branch of Judaism has acknowledged the existence of an unusual line of descent outside the European and indigenous Middle Eastern Jewish spheres. Especially since the publication of the genetic results of the Lemba, American Jewish communities have reached out to the people, offering assistance, sending books on Judaism and related study materials, and initiating ties in order to teach the Lemba about Rabbinic Judaism. So far, few Lemba have converted to Rabbinic Judaism.
South African Jews of European descent have long been aware of the Lemba, but they have never accepted them as Jews or thought of them as more than an "intriguing curiosity." Generally, the Lemba have not been accepted as Jews because of their lack of matrilineal descent. Several rabbis and Jewish associations support their recognition as descendants of the "Lost Tribes of Israel". In the 2000s, the Lemba Cultural Association approached the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, asking for the Lemba to be recognized as Jews by the Jewish community. The Lemba Association complained that "we like many non-European Jews are simply the victims of racism at the hands of the European Jewish establishment worldwide". They threatened to start a campaign to "protest and ultimately destroy 'Jewish apartheid'".
In Apartheid South Africa the Lemba were not recognized as an ethnic group which was distinct from other black South Africans. The Lemba Cultural Association face misconceptions about their goals such as the idea that the Lemba identify more with European Judaism, only aim to affiliate with the European Jewry and not other black Jews, and are distanced from South African politics. However, while the Lemba do identify with their religious Judaism, many practice Christianity as well.
According to Gideon Shimoni in his book, Community and Conscience: The Jews in Apartheid South Africa (2003): "In terms of halakha the Lemba are not at all comparable to the Falasha [of Ethiopia]. As a group they have no conceivable status in Judaism."
Rabbi Bernhard of South Africa has stated that the only way for a member of the Lemba tribe to be recognised as a Jew is to undergo the formal Halakhic conversion process. After that, the person "would be welcomed with open arms."
Representation in other media
- Channel Four documentary based on Parfitt's Journey to the Vanished City (1992 first edition).
- PBS Nova documentary: Lost Tribes of Israel, includes content about the Lemba. Website includes transcript of an interview with Tudor Parfitt based on his work with them.
- William Rasdell, a researcher, photographer, and visual artist developed the JAD photographic field study that outfits Lemba people of Zimbabwe with a point-and-shoot camera to document aspects of their daily lives.
- Abayudaya (Uganda)
- African-American Jews
- Black Hebrew Israelites – groups of African Americans who believe that they are the descendants of the ancient Israelites
- Groups claiming affiliation with Israelites
- History of the Jews in Africa
- House of Israel (Ghana)
- Igbo Jews (Nigeria)
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