Note: This was previously a Wikipedia post prior to it being drastically changed. -Rafi
Total population Over 40,000 by religion (est.)
Regions with significant populations Nigeria
Language Traditionally, Igbo
Hebrew as a liturgical and common language
Religion Judaism and Christianity
Related ethnic groups • Igbos
The Igbo (Ibo) Jews of Nigeria are one of the Jewish components of the Igbo (Ibo) ethnic group who are said to be descended from North African or Egyptian Hebraic and later Israelite migrations into West Africa. Oral legends amongst the Igbo state that this migration started around 1,500 years ago.
Members of the Jewish community mostly come from the Igbo tribe, which is the third largest ethnic group in the country. Members of the Igbo believe that they are descendants of Jews who had migrated to western Africa over many centuries via migrations south into sub-Saharan Africa, as well as west across North Africa, possibly following the path of the Arab conquests. Some Nigerian Jews hold that families amongst the community are descendants of Kohanim and Levites, the Jewish priests and their assistants who functioned in the Temple of Jerusalem. Descendants could also have arisen from migrants from Djerba, Tunisia who had fled to North Africa after the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temples in Jerusalem. The Jewish community is said to be comprised almost entirely by descendants of Kohens.
Several Israelite/Jewish tribes settled in Western Africa during the glorious days of the Songhai, Mali and Ghana empires. As the early Jews were mainly traders, it is quite likely that Jewish traders made the treck across the African continent and eventually settled in various places of West Africa, just as Jewish traders had settled in Kaifeng, China due to their activity in trade along the Silk Route. Some sources have explained that a Jewish presence was present in Nigeria as early as 638 BCE. The Igbos are not the only group that claims such a heritage; the Sefwi people of Ghana too believe they are descendants of Jews that made their way to West Africa.
In Mali, there had been a documented community for quite some time until all Jewish families were forced to convert to Islam and till today there remains a Jewish Culture Society in Mali where those descendants of Jews seek to explore their culture and heritage.
Perhaps the Jews of Nigeria suffered the same fate and with the arrival of Islam were either forced to leave the territory or submit to the Islamic domination. It is believed that Judaism first came to the region many centuries ago, as many as 1500 years by traders, a profession that Jews during that time were prolific at. The Igbo Jews traditionally claim descent from three particular Israelite tribes: Gad, Zevulun, and Menashe. The Jews of Manipur and Mizoram, the Bnei Menashe, also claim descent from the tribe of Menashe. It is thought that these Jews fled to Africa after the destruction of the biblical Temples in Jerusalem and established communities all across the African continent.
Israel has, to date, not recognized the Igbo as one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. It took many years before the Chief Rabbinate recognized the Bnei Menashe as Jews, and it is thought that in due time the Igbo will also be recognized as descendants of Israel. One of the theories as to why Israel is reluctant to recognize the Igbo is because it has enjoyed good relations with Nigeria, and as the Igbo are a secessionist tribe, recognizing them as part of Israel may injure political and economic ties between the two countries.
According to the Igbo lore of the Eri, Nri, and Ozubulu families, Igbo ethnic groups with Israelite descent comprise the following 3 lineage types:
Benei Gath: Igbo people said to have descended from the Tribe of Gath ben-Ya`aqov ( Gad), who was the 8th son of the Israelite patriarch Ya`aqov (Jacob). This group traces its lineage through Gath’s son Eri ben-Gath. The groups from this lineage comprise the Aguleri, Umuleri, Oreri, Enugwu Ikwu, Ogbunike, Awkuzu, Nteje, and Igbariam clans.
Benei Zevulun: Igbo people said to have descended from the tribe of Zevulun ben-Ya`aqov (Zebulun), who was the 5th son of Ya`aqov (Jacob). These groups comprise the Ubulu Okiti and Ubulu Ukwu clans in Delta State who settled in Ubulu Ihejiofor. According to oral tradition, it is said that a descendant of the Tribe of Zevulun named Zevulunu, on the advice of a certain Levite, married a woman from Oji, who was descended from the Tribe of Judah, and from this union was born Ozubulu ben-Zebulunu. It is said that Ozubulu then went on to have 4 sons of his own who settled in other regions. These sons were: Amakwa, from whom a clan in Neni, Anambra State is descended, and Egbema, from whom the Egbema Ugwuta clan in Imo State and the Ohaji Egbema clan in Rivers State are descended.
Benei Menashe: Peoples whom Igbos theorize may be descendants of the Tribe of Menasheh ben-Yoseph (Manasseh). Menasheh who was one of the grandsons of Ya`aqov (Jacob) through his 11th son Yoseph ( Joseph). According to the Torah, Jacob claimed both Menasheh and his brother Ephrayim as his own sons. It is theorized that the Igbos of the Amichi, Ichi and Nnewi-Ichi clans are descended from this lineage.
Argument for the Historical Migration of the Igbo Jews
The Igbo Jews are said to have migrated from Syrian, Portuguese and Libyan Israelites into West Africa. Historical records shows that this migration started around 740 C.E. According to UCLA Jewish Historian Chinedu Nwabunwanne of Aguleri, “the migration started when the forces of Caliph Mohammed—the last leader of the Umayyads—and his Qaysi-Arab supportes defeated the Yamani-Arab Umayyads of Syria in 744 C.E; sacked the Yamanis and their Jewish supporters from Syria. The Syrian-Jewish migrant tribes Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher resettled in Nigeria where they became known as Sambation Jews. In 1484 and 1667 Judeans and Zebulonians from Portugal and Libya respectively joined Sambatyon Jews of Nigeria. Thus, Nigerian Jews originated from the following six Israelite tribes: Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher and Zebulon. It is interesting to note that these six tribes are the same tribes Moses repeated their names twice when he blessed the Children Of Israel. These six tribes mentioned above are The House Of Judah and the children of Israel his companions (Ezekiel 37:16). Those remaining six tribes not mentioned above are The House Of Ephraim and the children of Israel his companion (Ezekiel 37:16).”
Stories affirming relationships between peoples now widely separated in spatial, historical, and cultural terms persist today, not only in Igboland but throughout Nigeria, in other parts of Africa, and in Europe, the United States, and beyond. Their roots in the example under consideration here lie in the assumption of a Judeo-Christian (and Islamic) Biblical framework as applicable to all of human history. In reference to West Africa this has taken the form of the “Hamitic hypothesis” (originally so-called for the putative descent of Africans from Noah’s son Ham), a model which firmly centered the beginning of West African history in the Near East rather than in West Africa itself.
Remarkably, for the Igbo, a very early (and widely influential) statement of this point of view came from an Igbo man, Olaudah Equiano, a Christian-educated freed slave who remarked in his autobiography of 1789 on “the strong analogy which… appears to prevail in the manners and customs of my countrymen and those of the Jews, before they reached the Land of Promise, and particularly the patriarchs while they were yet in that pastoral state which is described in Genesis — an analogy, which alone would induce me to think that the one people had sprung from the other.” For authoritative support, he gives reference to “Dr. Gill, who, in his commentary on Genesis, very ably deduces the pedigree of the Africans from Afer and Afra, the descendants of Abraham….
This essay was in fact an early version of the Hamitic hypothesis, just one of many related perspectives (such as diffusion of culture into sub-Saharan Africa from Egypt and elsewhere) that were proposed in the historical literature on West Africa during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. These materials have been carefully analyzed by critical historians, who have clarified the diverse functions (quite aside from questions of validity) these histories have served for the writers who have proposed them at various times in the colonial and post-colonial past. For examples, see these sources: : .
Today, knowledge from sources broader and more self-critical than the Biblical — from contemporary historians, archaeologists, historical linguists, and other scientifically based disciplines — has displaced the Hamitic hypothesis (which has been largely discarded). While there is no doubt (for example) that Jews were present in Saharan trade centers during the first Millenium A.D., the claim that Jews were directly involved with Igbo-speaking people in prehistoric times is not a strongly established proposition. In any case, every version of these proposed stories of distant relationships, of migrations of people and so on, should be evaluated through critical scrutiny of the sources purporting to tell them, and the examples you see presented on this page should be no exception to that rule.
Outreach to Nigerian Jews by the wider Jewish world community gained official status in 1995–1997, when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin sent a team to Nigeria in search of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. Western rabbis and educators such as Rabbi Gorin have visited the community at times and Jewish communities in the West support those in Nigeria by sending books, computers, and religious articles. However, the State of Israel has, to date, not officially recognized the Igbo as one of the Lost Tribes.
Many Igbo practices pose striking similarities with Jewish customs mentioned in the Torah and even in the present day. Such customs include: circumcision 8 days after the birth of a male child, a ban on eating un-kosher animals, separating men from women during the female cycle of menstruation, donning of the Tallit and Kippah, and the celebration of holidays such as Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. In recent times, the communities have adopted holidays such as Hannukah and Purim, holidays that only were beginning to be observed after many of the tribes of Israel had already dispersed. For example, the Ethiopian Jews and the Benei Menashe had no knowledge of such holidays.
Judaism in Nigeria Today
There are currently several Jewish communities across Nigeria and the structure is getting stronger. There are 26 synagogues across the country and the community is estimated as many as 40,000 individuals. Some of the larger and significant communities include the Gihon Institute in Abuja, as well as communities in the south such as Port Harcourt. Western rabbis and educators have visited the community at times and Jewish communities in the west support those in Nigeria by sending books, computers, religious articles and many more periodically. Western Jewish communities have been instrumental in establishing Jewish libraries in Nigeria and there is hope that some members of the Jewish community in Nigeria will be granted visas to go study Judaism in the United States, just as Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, leader of the Abayudaya in Uganda has done. By doing this, the leadership and knowledge of Judaism in Nigeria will continue to increase and the stability of the community with be strengthened as well. The Nigerian Jews are particularly interested in maintaining an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle and, as a result, western communities have refrained from sending ritual objects that have come from Reform congregations. However there is a dearth of religious books and many are photocopied or stapled together.
Similarly, as of yet, women have not taken an active, or have taken a minimal role in the leadership of the community, although this may change as has been the case amongst the Ugandan Jews. One of the individuals at the forefront of reclaiming the heritage of the Igbo people has been working on a second volume that details the Hebraic origins of the Igbo peoples and answers questions that may not have been answered in the first volume titled “The Igbo: Jews in Africa?”
Evidence of such communities includes the oral traditions of Hebraic lineage ranging from tribes in Sudan, all the way to Ghana, to the west. It is known that in the region of the Niger river, there is a group of people who, although they practice Islam today, are also believed to be of Jewish origin. These people are referred to as Iddao Ishaak. Some Igbo Jews claim they are descendants of the Temple priests and in accordance, wear similar garments of turbans and white robes, just as the priests of biblical times did. Although tests to determine the claims to Cohen priesthood have not been done, such as the tests that have been done amongst the Lemba in South Africa, there is strong evidence that such claims have validity and should be accepted as such. Perhaps additional convincing evidence that Jewish tribes arrived in Nigeria is the fact that there are a people amongst the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria referred to as “Strange People” or Bnei Ephraim who have retained certain portions of the Torah and Judaic practices. This evidence only confirms the Jewish origin of the Igbo Jews. Learned elders of the community serve as rabbis and western rabbis and other members of the worldwide Jewish community periodically visit Nigerian to teach and instruct the community in the ways of mainstream Judaism. However, the liturgy of the Igbo Jews has blended African music with Jewish prayers to produce a distinct Jewish-Nigerian melody during Shabbat services and other Jewish observances.
In addition to Jewish communities, Messianic Jewish communities have sprung up in Nigeria and although they believe in Jesus, they claim to be full Jews. This makes any census counting Jews residing in Nigeria more problematic. However, trends indicate such communities over time often abandon their belief in Jesus and accept mainstream Judaism. This has been the case with several communities and appears to be occurring to several more. Such trends also appear to be occurring in other communities around Africa including Rusape, Zimbabwe, and Kenya.
There are other communities in Nigeria that are not of the Igbo tribe that are practicing Judaism, such as those in Yorubaland. Thus, Jewish practice is not restricted to one ethnic group or location. The Igbo are Nigeria’s third largest ethnic group and many reside in many neighboring countries including Cameroon.