THE B'NEI MENASHE
It has been claimed that they belong to the remnants of a “lost” biblical tribe. It has been argued that this cannot be true. It is a fact that, half living today as Jews in Israel and half leading Jewish lives in a far corner of northeast India, they have written a remarkable and stirring chapter in Jewish history.
The B’nei Menashe are not ethnically Indian. They stem from a Tibeto-Burmese people known as the Mizos in the Indian state of Mizoram and the Kukis in the adjacent state of Manipur. Until India’s British rulers seized this hilly, rain-forested region bordering on Burma in the late 19th century, the Kuki-Mizos lived in a traditional tribal society and had their own ancestral religion, which featured a mysterious progenitor called Manasia or Manmasi.
With British rule came British and American missionaries. By the last part of the 20th century, the Kukis and Mizos were thoroughly Christianized. Yet as they came to know the Bible, many were struck by parallels between its stories and commandments and elements of their old, pre-Christian religion. Soon the belief began to spread that Manasia or Manmasi was the biblical Manasseh (or, to call him by his Hebrew name, Menashe), the son of Joseph, and that the Kuki-Mizos were descended from the tribe named after him -- one of the ten tribes that vanished after the Assyrian Empire conquered the Kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C.E. and exiled much of its population.
In the 1970s, inspired by this belief, and by the conviction that the Hebrew Bible was God’s eternal word that could not be annulled, a Judaizing movement arose in northeast India. If we are descended from the people of the Bible, its followers held, let us live by the Bible that was given them! At first this movement had almost no contact with the outside Jewish world and struggled to live by its own idea of what Judaism was. Yet in the 1980s, the B’nei Menashe or “Children of Menashe,” as they now were called, came under the influence of an Israeli rabbi, Eliyahu Avichayil, who took them under his wing, taught them the basics of Jewish tradition, and persuaded them to live by it. Rabbi Avichayil also began to bring, with the approval of the Israeli government, groups of B’nei Menashe to Israel, where they underwent a formal conversion to Judaism and became full Israeli citizens.
Today there are close to 5,000 B’nei Menashe living in Israel in a dozen or more localities. Although like other immigrants to the country they have had their share of difficulties -- more than their share, indeed, for their simpler lives in India did not prepare them for the fast-paced, technologically advanced society they now find themselves in -- they remain ardently committed to their choice to return to the land, people, and religion they were parted from, so they believe, millennia ago. Apart from coping with the social and economic
challenges facing them, their main concern is to be reunited with their families and co-religionists who have
remained in India, kept by joining them by financial and bureaucratic obstacles.
Bnei Menashe arriving in Israel
THE B'NEI MENASHE AND THE BIBLICAL TRIBE OF MANASSEH
The territories of the tribes of ancient Israel.
Possible waystations in an eastward Manassite migration according to old Kuki-Mizo chants.
The Bible tells us that the ancient people of Israel were organized in twelve tribes, ten named for sons of Jacob and two for his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe, the children of Joseph. All but the tribe of Judah, to which the Jewish people traces its descent, disappeared in the first millennium BCE and are sometimes referred to as “the Lost Tribes of Israel.” Are the B’nei Menashe, as has been claimed, descendants of one of them?
This is not a question that can be answered with the simple “Yes” or “No” that some have given it.
Those who say “No” point to the context in which, so they say, the B’nei Menashe must be viewed. Claims to descend from one of the “Lost Tribes” have been made over the centuries in the name of dozens of different peoples. None has been substantiated – the reason being, it is contended, that these tribes ceased to exist with their exile by the Assyrian Empire after its conquest of the Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE.
Moreover, Christian communities that have sought, inspired by the Old Testament, to lead Jewish lives are known from many times and places in history and are found in various parts of today’s world. Northeast India and the biblical Land of Israel are thousands of miles apart. Wouldn’t it be logical to assume that the B’nei Menashe are one more group of contemporary Judaizers who have attached themselves to the Lost Tribe legend so as to lay claim to an imagined Israelite ancestry?
Yet those who answer “Yes” have strong arguments. The case of the B’nei Menashe is demonstrably different from that of almost all other Lost Tribe claimants. Even after discarding all so-called “proofs” of a link between them and ancient Israel that might be ascribed to coincidence or wishful thinking, there remains a significant body of evidence that cannot be easily dismissed. Numerous examples of it can be given. Here are three:
The figure of Manasia/Manmasi
According to the Bible, Menashe was the son of Joseph and, as stated in the book of Chronicles, the grandfather of Gilead (Hebrew Gil’ad) and the great-grandfather of Ulam. In the old Kuki-Mizo religion there was a chant, traditionally recited by the family of someone who had just died, in which the deceased’s illustrious ancestors were called upon to aid the passage of his soul to the afterworld. The list of these ancestors was a long one. Although most of the names on it were typically Tibeto-Burmese, those it began with were Manmasi, Gelet, and Ulam!
This chant is verifiably old and pre-Christian. The odds against the close similarity of its names to the Bible’s being coincidental are astronomical. The conclusion that the ancestral figure of Manasia or Manmasi is the same as biblical character of Menashe is all but unavoidable.
Click to hear a recording of this chant by Dr. Khuplam Milui Lenthang of Saikul, Manipur. It is introduced with an explanation by Hillel Halkin whose voice (as well as the voices of children playing in the background) you will hear first. The chant begins with the invocation to God (called Za in the old Kuki-Mizo religion) that goes, “Hei, hei, hei, ezei, ezei, Za,” followed by “Manmani hitu, Gelet hitu, Ulam hitu".! (Ulam was then followed by “Lamza,” which is probably a reduplication of Ulam, and Lamza by “Zakip,” which is most likely the biblical name Ya’akob or Jacob changed by Kuki-Mizo phonetics.)” The word “hitu” is so ancient that its meaning is uncertain. It may mean “son of.”
A Hmar Theik Chief, c. 1920
The Song of the Crossing of the Big Water
The Hmar, a Kuki-Mizo tribe, had a song, known as “the great hymn,” that was traditionally sung on the occasion of a winter festival that ceased to be observed with the advent of Christianity. This song went in part:
While we prepared for the famous big winter feast,
I tell O! of the parting of the lurking big water.
My enemies from the time of Terah, O!
Like clouds in the daytime, like a fire that goes by night.
O how great and determined was their cruelty in coming to fight!
All the mortals were swallowed by the lurking big water as though devoured by beasts.
All of you, take the birds,
Take the water that gushes out on the big rock.
What reader of the Bible can fail to be struck by the parallels between this song and the Bible’s account of the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea? The pursuing enemy, the splitting of the sea, the cloud by day and fire by night, the drowned enemy, the birds on the ground for the taking, the thirst-slaking water gushing from a rock – each of these details occurs in the account of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. The name Terah, that of Abraham’s father in the book of Genesis, is biblical, too. And yet this song was sung by a people that had no knowledge of the Bible! Where could it have come from if not from ancient memories going back to biblical times?
Click to hear this version of “The Crossing of the Big Water” song, which was recorded from an elderly informant and his wife in Manipur in the year 2000.
Kuki Warriors, 1919.
The Day of Abstention From Yeast
Another no longer existent holiday once observed among pre-Christian Kuki tribes in Manipur was called chol ngol ni nikho, “the day of abstention from yeast.” Though the Kuki-Mizos are not a bread-eating people (the staple food of their diet is rice), they did use yeast routinely for the preparation of a popular rice beer. Once a year, however, on the night of a full moon in springtime, there was a sacred day on which a special bread was prepared from rice flour and eaten at a communal village meal – and it had to be made without yeast! Everyone, young and old, was required to partake of it.
The biblical Passover comes immediately to mind. Can this be a coincidence? It’s not at all likely when one considers that no known religion in the world, apart from Judaism and the ancestral faith of the Kuki-Mizos, is known to have had a holiday in which abstention from yeast and the mandated eating of unleavened bread were central features. It would be difficult to think of another explanation for this other than a distant but shared past.
Click for a 20 minute reenaction of the preparation and eating of the unleavened bread, done by villagers in Manipur, familiar with the ceremony.
The Kuki-Mizos resemble other Southeast Asian hill people who migrated over time from the Tibetan highlands to their present homes. Culturally and linguistically, all these groups have much in common. Yet an impressive body of evidence points to the ancestors of today’s B’nei Menashe having had a past connection with exiles from the tribe of Menashe who, wandering eastward from Assyria, eventually reached northeast India or Tibet. The exact nature of this connection is a mystery. Simply to acknowledge it, however, and the survival in a remote region of the world of memories from biblical times that lived on in isolation for nearly 3,000 years, is enough to produce a shiver of wonder.