|Group Bearing Jewish Traditions Discovered in India:
Descendants of the Tribe of Menashe Reside in Eastern India
(Translation of article by Yair Sheleg, Haaretz, August 16, 1999)
Yitzhak Tang-Zhum, aged 30, was born a member of the Shinlung, a group residing in the region between India and Burma. Already at the age of 4, he relates, he became aware of the Shinlungs traditions linking them with the tribe of Menashe (Manasseh), one of the Ten Lost Tribes exiled from the Land of Israel by the Assyrians when they captured the Kingdom of Israel in the 8th century B.C.E.
Tang-Zhums family belongs to the tiny minority of the Shinlung who decided, some 27 years ago, to return to a fully Jewish life. He studied at a regular Indian school but his parents educated him at home in the spirit of Jewish tradition. A year and a half ago, after he began living a completely religious Jewish life in India, he made aliyah to Israel and underwent an official conversion to Judaism. Since then, he has been learning at the Nahalat Zvi yeshiva in Jerusalem, a national-religious institution closely affiliated with Merkaz HaRav yeshiva circles.
Like Tang-Zhum, more than 300 of the Shinlung have emigrated to Israel in the past four years. They too have all undergone or are currently undergoing conversion. The person responsible for bringing them to Israel is Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail, whose lifes work has been devoted to discovering the Ten Lost Tribes and returning them to the Jewish people.
Rabbi Avichail says that he learned of the Shinlung some twenty years ago, when they contacted one of his friends, an immigrant from India named Shimshon Shimshon. They sought to make contact with the State of Israel out of a desire to immigrate.
The Shinlung are primarily concentrated in two states in eastern India: Manipur and Mizoram. According to Rabbi Avichail, they constitute a majority of the population in Mizoram. The current Prime Minister, as well as his predecessor, both belong to the tribe and identify with the link to the Tribe of Menashe. Thus, one could speak of Mizoram as a Jewish state in eastern India, he says. The standing of the Shinlung in Manipur is also strong. They are one-third of the population of Manipur and have filled senior positions. Tang-Zhums father, Joshua, served until his retirement a year ago as Director-General of the states Employment Service.
Rabbi Avichail has visited the area a number of times to observe the group and study its connection with the Tribe of Menashe. According to his information, the Shinlung number approximately one-and-a-quarter million people, but according to their own research institute, the number in reality reaches some four-and-a-quarter million, some of whom are related not only to the Tribe of Menashe but also to the Tribe of Ephraim.
Rabbi Avichail was impressed that the Shinlungs connection to the Jewish people is indeed serious: They have an ancient tradition handed down orally from generation to generation which speaks of the Patriarchs Abram, Moriah (an apparent reference to Isaac, who was nearly sacrificed on Mount Moriah), and Jacob. Until today they conduct a sacrificial ceremony on an altar which is very reminiscent of the altar in our Temple, and in which their priest uses the Hebrew name of G-d as it appears in the Bible. In this ceremony, their priest also mentions Mount Sinai, Mount Moriah and Mount Zion.
Rabbi Avichail adds, Until recent generations, when the Christian influence on them intensified, their custom was to perform circumcisions using stones in accordance with what is related in the Bible. They also have laws of leprosy which are very similar to those in the Bible. That is to say, the group preserved the early customs without undergoing the Rabbinical-Halachic revolution which led to Judaism as it is known today.
The connection with Rabbi Avichail led several thousand of the Shinlung to return completely to Judaism. He says, already in my first correspondence with them, I asked them to send two representatives to Israel so that we could better understand the nature of the group. Their representatives stayed in Israel for two years, studied Judaism and returned there as teachers of Judaism. In the wake of the two teachers, some 3,500 members of the group began to live a fully Jewish life. Regarding those who returned to Judaism, Rabbi Avichail says, they even send their children to study at the Jewish school in Bombay, a distance of 1,000 kilometers from their homes.
And with their Judaism comes a desire to emigrate to Israel. Those several thousand, says Rabbi Avichail, are interested not only in returning to Judaism but also to their historic homeland, the Land of Israel. In recent years, a small aliyah has begun from among members of the group, amounting to 100 people annually. We are aware of the sensitivities of the authorities in Israel, and therefore we have not requested permission for larger numbers of immigrants. Moreover, we too are not interested in a flood of immigrants, but in their return to Judaism. This is the reason that the Ministry of Interior has approved their immigration.
Members of the Shinlung who have come to Israel have received the status of temporary resident, which provides them with the regular rights of a citizen, but not the status of immigrants or an absorption basket of benefits. Rabbi Avichail has had to finance the entire immigration of the Shinlung from donations and from the funds of his organization, Amishav. He now wants the State to take this upon itself, as we are talking about Jews in every sense of the word who live a completely Jewish lifestyle.
From the Land of Israel to India in 2000 years
According to Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail, the Shinlungs path of wanderings has been long and arduous. The Ten Tribes which made up the Kingdom of Israel were exiled by Assyria in the 8th century BCE after rebelling against Assyrian rule. The Tribe of Manasseh, as part of the Ten Tribes, reached Assyria (present-day Iraq) and from there, according to Shinlung tradition, went to Afghanistan. From Afghanistan they went to the Himalayi (which Rabbi Avichail interprets as the Himalayan mountains), on to Mongolia and from there to southern China.
In China, the group was persecuted because of its unique faith and forced to hide in caves (from which comes their name, Shinlung, which means cave covering). Some 500 to 600 years ago, the Shinlung began to wander toward their current home between India and Burma.