The story of the Bnei Menashe, or the “Children of Menashe,” is one of the most intriguing and captivating stories in Jewish history. For centuries, these people have claimed descent from one of the lost tribes of Israel. Today, the Bnei Menashe are a growing community in Israel, and their story is one that deserves to be told.
In this article, we will explore the history of the Bnei Menashe, their journey back to Israel, and their unique culture and traditions.
Who are the Bnei Menashe?
The Bnei Menashe are a community of people living in Northeast India who claim to be descendants of the tribe of Menashe, one of the ten lost tribes of Israel. According to their oral history, their ancestors were exiled from Israel by the Assyrian Empire in 722 BCE. The Bnei Menashe believe that their ancestors wandered through Central Asia and eventually settled in what is now India.
The Bnei Menashe are primarily found in the northeastern states of Manipur and Mizoram. They number around 7,000, with several thousand more living in Israel. The community is primarily made up of farmers, with some members working in other professions such as teaching and medicine.
The Bnei Menashe are a deeply religious community, and their beliefs and practices are based on a mix of Judaism and Christianity. They observe the Sabbath and other Jewish holidays, keep kosher, and circumcise their male infants on the eighth day after birth.
History of the Bnei Menashe
Before their conversion to Christianity in the 19th century, the Bnei Menashe community practiced animism, which included the ritualistic act of headhunting their enemies. These tribes primarily identify themselves as either Kuki, Mizo/Hmar or Chin, depending on their affiliations. They have a strong connection with their respective subtribes in their villages, each having its own unique dialect and cultural identity.
As indigenous people, they migrated in waves from East Asia and settled in the northeastern region of India. Despite not having a written history, their legends speak of a beloved homeland, called Sinlung/Chinlung, which they had to leave. The various tribes speak languages that belong to the Tibeto-Burman family, which are indigenous to the region.
The Journey to Israel
In the late 20th century, the Bnei Menashe began to make contact with the wider Jewish world. They reached out to Jewish organizations and individuals, hoping to learn more about their heritage and reconnect with the Jewish people.
In the early 2000s, several Jewish organizations began to work with the Bnei Menashe to help them make aliyah, or emigrate to Israel. In 2005, the Israeli government officially recognized the Bnei Menashe as descendants of the lost tribe of Menashe and allowed them to immigrate to Israel.
Since then, thousands of Bnei Menashe have made aliyah and resettled in Israel. They have been welcomed by the Israeli government and Jewish organizations, who have provided them with housing, education, and other support.
Culture and Traditions
The Bnei Menashe have a unique culture and set of traditions that reflect their Jewish and Indian heritage. One of their most distinctive practices is their observance of the Sabbath. On Friday nights, families gather together to light candles, recite prayers, and share a meal. On Saturdays, they attend synagogue and participate in other Sabbath activities.
The community also celebrates other Jewish holidays such as Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. They observe the traditional Jewish customs associated with these holidays, such as eating matzah on Passover and building a sukkah for Sukkot.
In addition to their Jewish practices, the Bnei Menashe have also retained some of their traditional Indian customs. They wear traditional Indian clothing, such as the phanek (a wraparound skirt worn by women) and the lungi (a skirt worn by men). They also speak a unique dialect of the Tibeto-Burman language family, which has been influenced by both Hebrew and Indian languages.
Challenges and Controversies
The journey of the Bnei Menashe to Israel has not been without controversy. Some people have questioned their claims of Jewish ancestry and their right to immigrate to Israel. In addition, some critics have raised concerns about the way in which the Bnei Menashe have been brought to Israel and the impact of their immigration on Israeli society.
However, despite these challenges, the Bnei Menashe have continued to thrive in Israel. They have formed their own communities and have integrated into Israeli society while also maintaining their unique culture and traditions.
Today, they are recognized as a unique and important part of the Jewish people. They serve as a reminder of the resilience and determination of the Jewish people, and their journey to Israel is a testament to the enduring power of Jewish identity and faith.
The story of the Bnei Menashe is a fascinating and inspiring one. It is a story of a people who have maintained their Jewish identity and faith despite centuries of separation from the Jewish world. It is also a story of hope and resilience, as the Bnei Menashe have overcome many challenges to find their way back to the land of their ancestors.
Today, the Bnei Menashe are a growing community in Israel, and their story continues to inspire and captivate people around the world. As we continue to learn more about their history and culture, we can gain a deeper understanding of the rich and diverse tapestry of Jewish life and identity.