Chapter 18

THE TORAH COMES TO KAIFENG

Whilst doing my research on the Chinese etrog, I had reason to study some material on the history of the Jews of Kaifeng and this whet my appetite to look more deeply into the religious observances of this Jewish community. I soon learned that not only had they been isolated for many centuries from Jewish communities outside of China, they also had no contact with other Jewish communities within China. Yet despite all these and other difficulties, they managed to continue with their Jewish observances for several centuries until they finally assimilated in the mid 19th century.

I began my research on this subject in the autumn 2008. My approach was to first study the extant material on the Jewish Religious observances of the Kaifeng Jewish community. I soon learned that these observances included tefillah, berachot, Reading the Torah, Sabbaths, the various Festivals, and kashrut.

It is fortunate for posterity, that although the Jews of Kaifeng were almost completely isolated from world Jewry for a number of centuries, there is a surprising amount of extant primary material on them. This includes steles (stone pillars) from the Middle Ages which were originally erected in the courtyard of the Kaifeng synagogue and which contain long inscriptions; manuscripts of many of the prayers which were recited throughout the course of the year in Kaifeng; and reports by both Jesuit and other missionaries who visited this community, mainly during the early part of the 18th century.

To do any research, one requires a comprehensive bibliography of not only primary material but one also needs secondary material. I found a number of bibliographies containing material on the Jews of China. These included bibliographies compiled by Donald Leslie, Shlomi Riskin and Rudolf Löwenthal. I carefully went through these bibliographies and marked the material I thought would be relevant. From the catalogue of the Jewish National Library on the internet, I searched to see if these books were to be found in that library and if so, wrote down the “call number”. In this way, as soon as I arrived in the library I was able without delay to order this material from the store rooms. Some of the books, however, are on the open shelves in the Judaica Reading Room and so don’t have to be ordered.

A major work to be found on these open shelves is a thick book by Bishop William White, which was originally published in 1942 and republished in 1966. One section of this massive tome is devoted to the steles. On both sides of these steles were incised material on various aspects of the Jewish community and this included some details of their religious observances. Originally the missionaries made rubbings of what was incised on both sides of the older stele and on one side of the latter one and someone had copied out what was incised on the second side. It is fortunate that this had been done for the latter stele, since it is no longer extant. The older stele stele is now in the Kaifeng museum. White made a translation into English of all the writings on the steles from the original Chinese and these translations are reproduced in his book with many footnotes. I found many parts of this translation – (since I don’t know any Chinese!) – very useful for my research. Other sections of White’s book discuss the various manuscripts found in Kaifeng, and also reproduces various journals and memoirs which have been written on the Jews of Kaifeng, and where necessary they were translated into English.

There were at least two other books which I found to be exceptionally useful. One was the book “Juifs de Chine” which includes a translation into English of the letters written by the missionaries Gozani and Domenge. The other was a book by Donald Leslie which deals with many facets of the Jews of Kaifeng.

I found that much of the extant material on Jewish religious observance was to be found in the numerous letters which had been written by missionaries who over the course of the centuries had visited Kaifeng and had written their detailed reports which they then sent to Europe. In addition to the missionaries’ letters, in the mid-19th century the missionaries had managed to purchase the extant siddur and Chumash manuscripts of the community and also a number of the Sifrei Torah. They dispatched almost all of this material to England. In 1851, a London based Missionary Society published in their journal “Jewish Intelligence” a very brief summary of each of these siddur manuscripts. I found a copy of this journal in the Jewish National Library. The London “Jewish Chronicle” reproduced this summary in their newspaper and a microfilm of the paper is to be found in the same library.

When researching the Chinese etrog, I had studied the various siddur manuscripts which included prayers for Sukkot. However, for the present project I had to carefully go through all the thirty or so siddur manuscripts, which I did over the course of several weeks. For each one, I made a detailed list of its contents including on which frames particular parts of the service were to be found. At the same time I made a note of any unusual features which differed from the accepted order of the service. Having gone through all the siddur manuscripts, I then catalogued all the material. I made a list of the various prayers and berachot which are recited throughout the year and by each name wrote the number of the microfilm and the frames on which it was to be found.

When, towards the beginning of 2010, I finally reached the stage of writing up my book, I found that I needed to check certain points and also to gain further information from some of these microfilms. I therefore once again went to the microfilm room, ordered the microfilms and verified the information that I still required.

One of the siddur manuscripts is relatively long, and is in fact vary largely a memorial book with the names of hundreds of departed men and women, whose names were written in both Hebrew and Chinese letters. I found these names very useful for another purpose. From other information I had obtained, it seemed that there were no Kohanim or Leviim amongst the Jews of Kaifeng. To get confirmation of this fact, I carefully went through the list of names in order to see if with any of them were appended the words haKohen or haLevi. None of them had this appendage.

The original manuscripts are to be found in the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, who purchased them in 1924. In transcribing the material to microfilm, a few inevitable errors occurred. In one case a number of frames were missing and in another case the order of the frames was incorrect.

The siddur manuscripts include two of the hagadah for Pesach and the older one has been reproduced as a book with a short introduction by Professor Cecil Roth. When studying the book, I discovered that several frames were missing and I had to return to the microfilm of the later date to find these missing frames.

In January 2009, I discovered that an M.A. thesis had been written on the Kaifeng hagadah manuscript by a student at the Hebrew Union College in New York. I telephoned them and they told me that this was the only copy that existed, but I could order a PDF of the thesis and they quoted me the price. I first suggested to the Jewish National Library that they purchase a copy and they answered that they would do so when they have the budget for it. I well know what this means and so I myself decided to order a copy directly from the Hebrew Union College. They sent me a form to fill up and informed me I could pay by Visa, which I did. The thesis was sent to me as a PDF and I then downloaded it.

The siddur manuscripts are entirely in Hebrew. However, the hagadah manuscript is an exception and there are numerous instructions in this hagadah in Judeo-Persian. I had hoped that these instructions would have been translated in the thesis but every time such an instruction appears in the hagadah this thesis just says “Instruction in Judeo-Persian” but with no translation!

One of the books reproduced on the website HebrewBooks is the Persian Siddur. This siddur has a number of similarities with the Kaifeng siddur, and it also gives instructions in Judeo-Persian. There are also accompanying notes to this siddur and this includes translation of the Judeo-Persian. By studying this translation I was able to translate a few of the Judeo-Persian words in the Kaifeng hagadah.

Whilst on the subject of translation, during the course of my research, I had occasion to require translation of short passages from various languages. I sent up on several occasions a question to Wikipedia Reference Desk – Language and I invariably received the appropriate translations from various users. On some occasions, different users would debate the best way to translate certain words. On one occasion, I asked this Reference Desk how to write certain numbers in Chinese characters.

Amongst the contents of the siddur manuscripts are a number of piyutim. The authoritative book for the source of the various piyutim in the Jewish liturgy is the multi-volume thesaurus by Israel Davidson. I looked up the various Kaifeng piyutim in this thesaurus and found that all but one of them was unique to Kaifeng. I learned that this one exception was also recited in Cochin in India. There is a rare book called “Shire Ranenut” which can found on a microfilm in the Jewish National Library, whose content is the piyutim recited in Cochin. I found this piyut on the microfilm and compared the text with that recited in Kaifeng and found that they were generally similar.

A valuable source, especially for books published over a hundred years ago, is Google Books. On it I found a number of books on the Jews of China which were several hundred years old. In some cases, one could print out as many pages as one wanted in one go. However in other cases, one could only print out a few pages at a time.

Bishop William White’s translation from the Chinese of the steles was made towards the beginning of the 20th century. It was towards the beginning of the 21st century that a new translation was made by Tiberiu Weisz, him claiming that there were some errors in White’s translation. From a study of “malmad” (the combined catalogue of the various universities, colleges etc. in Israel), I saw that there was only one copy of Weisz’ book in Israel and that was in Bar-Ilan University Library. One can order books, from one library to another, with the payment of a small fee, and I ordered this book to the Hebrew University Library. I also suggested to the Jewish National Library at the beginning of January 2009 that they purchase a copy, which they did.

In addition to the thesis on the Kaifeng hagadah, mentioned above, there is also another thesis by a student of the Hebrew Union College, which analyses the siddur manuscript containing the Tisha b’Av service. For this thesis, there is a copy in Israel at the Jerusalem branch of the Hebrew Union College. Via the inter library loan scheme, I ordered this book.

In October 2009, an article appeared in the English edition of Mishpacha, on mezuzot and it referred to a woman called Belle Rosenbaum in the United States who had made a large collection of about 5,000 mezuzah cases and had donated them to Hechel Shlomo in Jerusalem. This collection included a fish-shaped mezuzah case which the article stated came from Kaiping in the Guangdong province of China. I suspected that it should have said “Kaifeng”, which is a completely different place from Kaiping – a mere 1700 kilometres away! I was right! On further research I found an article which had appeared in the New York “Jewish Press” in January 2005 which referred to a book Belle Rosenbaum had written on the subject. In mid-November 2009, I contacted Hechel Shlomo and they told me that this book costs $250, but I could look at it there for a few minutes. I also had a number of questions I wanted to ask Belle Rosenbaum about this Kaifeng mezuzah. From the internet I managed to find out her telephone number and on a number of occasions I tried to telephone her but without success. I discovered from “malmad” that there was a copy of Rosenbaum’s book in the library of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design which is situated on the Hebrew University campus on Mount Scopus. My wife who studies at the Hebrew University went there and photocopied the pages I requested of her.

I discovered that a book written in Yiddish had a relevant piece of information for my research. In the U.S.A. there is the “National Yiddish Book Center” which is situated in Amherst Massachusetts. They have downloaded on their website numerous books in Yiddish and this was one of them. I found this book and downloaded the appropriate pages. The information dealt with the Jewish ritual salting of meat to remove the blood forbidden to eat by Jewish law, which was done in China.

Some of the Sifrei Torah which originated from Kaifeng and are now in various libraries throughout the world, have been microfilmed, some of them in their entirety. In one case, only a few columns had been microfilmed, and on enquiry I was informed by the head of the Jewish National Library’s microfilm department that the reason was that it is difficult to microfilm a Sefer Torah and therefore only a few sample columns had been microfilmed. For those Sifrei Torah which had been microfilmed in their entirety it was possible to compare them with what a Sefer Torah written in accordance with the halachah should look like.

The era of the Jewish community of Kaifeng was prior to the era of photography. Therefore almost all the material that we have today on the Jews of Kaifeng is written material. However there are a few sketches by the missionary Domenge who visited Kaifeng in the early 18th century. One of them is a scene of the Reading of the Torah. At a later date, Father Joseph Brucker tried, what he thought was to improve on this sketch of Domenge’s, but he just introduced inaccuracies into it. He added shoes to those involved in the Reading of the Torah. The only trouble was that these people were barefooted, in accordance with the customs of the Kaifeng Jews!

After having assembled together from numerous sources a large amount of material on the observance of Jewish law by the Jews of Kaifeng, my next stage was to list out the various headings and sub-headings of such observances and to write next to each one of them the references where the material appeared. Here are two examples:

Heading: Reading the Torah
Sub-headings: (e.g.) 53 Parshiot; Chair of Moses; Parchment; etc. etc.
References (for 53 Parshiot): (e.g.) 1489 stele White p.9; Domenge pp.126, 166; Gozani p.60; Brotier pp.54, 56; etc. etc.

Heading: Kashrut
Sub-headings: (e.g.) not eating non-kasher animals; shechitah; blood; etc. etc.
References (for shechitah): (e.g.) Juifs de Chine p.211; Ricci p.110; Leslie pp.34, 42

For the next stage of my work, I compared all this material with what is written in the Rabbinical literature. The Rabbinical sources which I utilised the most, included the Rambam, the Shulchan Aruch and the Mishnah Berurah. However on many occasions, I found it necessary to use lesser known literature and for this I strived to find the earliest available editions. Some of the books I found on the website HebrewBooks, and others on the website of the Jewish National Library who have scanned many of their rare books and put them on the internet. I also utilized the Yeshivat “Nir” Kiryat Arba Library, which in addition to its extensive library also has the disk “Otzar Hachochma” which contains a very large number of Jewish Religious books.

My comparison of the material on the Kaifeng Jews and the Rabbinical literature showed that in many cases the Jews of Kaifeng acted as in other Jewish communities in the world. However there were cases where their practices were different. The question then was whether they were acting incorrectly or they had other traditions. I found that in many of such cases support could be found for their actions in the lesser known literature. Here are some examples.

On the Seder night, the universal custom is to recite just the berachah “al achilat maror” over the maror and to make no after berachah. However according to the Kaifeng hagadah, the berachot “borei pri haadamah” and “al achilat maror” are recited before eating the maror, and (following the korech), the after berachah “borei nefashot” is recited. In fact there is an opinion which states that one who is particular should act this way. Thus we can see that the Jews of Kaifeng were stricter in this respect that other Jewish communities!

Another example concerns the writing of a Sefer Torah. A study of the Kaifeng Sefer Torah manuscripts shows that on the last column of each Sefer Torah the last eight or so lines are of decreasing size. The Rabbinic literature on this subject states that all the lines in a particular column of a Sefer Torah must be of equal length. According to this, the Kaifeng Sifrei Torah would be passul. However, there is a responsum in the Rabbinic literature which states that this rule does not apply to the last column of a Sefer Torah, thus validating what was done in Kaifeng.

In many cases, the continuing recopying of the siddur manuscripts by the Jews of Kaifeng, particularly by unlearned copyists, lead to inevitable errors and omissions. Sometimes it was possible to understand how any error occurred.

One such example in the Kaifeng manuscripts was the placing of the berachah “shehecheyanu” at the end of the end of the repetition of the amidah in Neilah on Yom Kippur! Why should the copyist write this berachah in that place? He obviously saw this somewhere! In the Persian siddur, it states at the end of the Neilah service that at the end of the Kol Nidrei service, one recites shehecheyanu. The unlearned copyist obviously misread this and in place of this instruction, wrote out the entire berachah shehecheyanu!

Having collected together both the practices of the Kaifeng Jews and the Rabbinical material, I then arranged all the material in the approximate order that it occurs in the Shulchan Aruch.

My book was written in English, rather than in Hebrew, since it is designed also for a non-Jewish audience. Since there were a large number of Hebrew words in the text, I began the book with a glossary in which the Hebrew word is written transliterated into English letters. This is followed by the word in Hebrew letters and a very brief explanation of its meaning. Throughout the text, Hebrew words were kept to a minimum and whenever they were used, the transliteration into English followed.

In almost all works with footnotes, after the first mention of a reference, all subsequent references are usually limited to one word followed by an expression such as “op. cit”. If there are a large number of footnotes in that work, I have personally found it very annoying to have to spend often considerable time searching back in the footnotes for further identification of the reference.

I therefore devised the following method to obviate this problem. Following after the glossary, I wrote a section entitled “Guide to Books and Manuscripts appearing in Footnotes”. In it, I wrote in italics the word (or words) as they appear in the footnotes; this was followed by a few word explanation of the work it referred to, the name of the author, when he lived, and the position he held. There is also a bibliography at the end of the book which gives the full name of the work, date of publication, the name of the publisher and the place of publication.

At this stage, (as with all my other research material) I printed out a draft copy of the book with the lines widely spaced apart. I then carefully checked it against the source material, line by line, and made any necessary corrections, additions or deletions utilizing these spaces between the lines. These changes to the text were then typed into the file on the computer.

In my previous publications, I brought out my book as a hard copy and only afterwards converted it to html – a long tedious process - and put in on my website. However for this book, I immediately converted it to a PDF – a very rapid process – and put it on my website. Today almost everybody has the internet and with Google it has become relatively easy to locate an item.

I thought that an academic institution or organisation who was particularly interested in the subject of the Kiafeng Jews might wish to publish a hard copy. On 4 June 2010, I sent a copy of my entire book by e-mail to Professor Xu Xin who is President of School of Religious Studies at Nanjing University in China and has written a book and articles on the Jews of Kaifeng. I wrote:

“For several years I have been researching the Jews of Kaifeng and have just completed my manuscript on “Jewish Religious Observance by the Jews of Kaifeng China”. I am sending you a copy of my work as an attachment to this e-mail. Please let me know if you would be interested in publishing this manuscript as a book.”

Professor Xin replied to me:
“Thanks for your message and the attachment. I feel honored to hear from you and have a copy of your book on the Kaifeng Jews. I just had a brief look at your book and am very interested in it. I would certainly like to read it more carefully.
“However, we do not publish books in English in China. I would like to suggest you find a publisher in the USA or in Israel.”

A few days later I sent a similar letter to Anson Laytner of the Sino-Judaic Institute in the United States and received the following reply:
“I just wanted to let you know that I have received your book and I look forward to reading it soon.
“SJI [Sino-Judaic Institute] has not published books before but yours is the second we've received in recent months and we will be discussing what to do at our upcoming Board meeting in late June.”

Having received no further communication from them, just over a month later I sent them a further e-mail asking “whether there have been any developments in this matter”

To this Laytner replied, “At the Board meeting, we discussed various publishing ideas and at present we are only going to consider reviving our scholarly publication ‘Sino-Judaica’. If you would like, I can forward your manuscript to the man I believe will be editing the next issue.”

I replied that they should forward it to that man. I also assumed that I would hear nothing further with regards to their publishing my book.

However at the beginning of August 2010, Laytner sent me an e-mail attaching a revised edition of my book which he described as “a wonderful article on the Kaifeng Jews”. In his revised version he omitted some of the halachic material. He suggested that I add a conclusion to the book and that I should considerably reduce the number of sources I had documented.

I carefully went over his revised version. Some of his deletions I was prepared to accept, but others I considered essential for the book and I replaced them, in some cases in a summarised form. I also added a conclusion to the book. With regards to the documentation of sources I replied “From my extensive experience in writing research papers and studying those of others, I feel that it is important to thoroughly document sources. I have found it most annoying studying someone else’s research where the author has omitted to state some of his sources.”

In a further e-mail, Laytner wrote to me that “descendents [of the Kaifeng Jews] have been brought to Israel by Shavei Yisrael and are now studying for conversion there.” To this I answered that “these descendents of the Kaifeng Jews are studying for conversion at Kibbutz Sdei Eliahu, a kibbutz where one of my daughters and her family live.”

In mid-December 2010, I again wrote to Laytner asking if there had been any further developments with the publishing. To this he replied, “We want to publish it. The problem is that as an all-volunteer organization it is sometimes hard to find someone to adopt a project. I will push a little harder and let you know.”

Since then there has been nothing further in this matter. I should mention that the text appearing on this website is my original text of the book.

Towards the end of August 2010, I received an e-mail from Ezra Chwat who is on the staff of the microfilms department at the Jewish National Library. He had seen this book of mine on my website but he had been unable to download it. I immediately sent him a copy as an e-mail attachment.

A user on Wikipedia “user talk” who goes under the penname of “Ghostexorcist” wrote to my “user talk” page in both July and August 2010 saying he was critical of someone who had written a book on the subject of the steles in Kaifeng several years earlier, and that “Ghostexorcist” had written an, as yet unpublished, 16 page review of this book. He also asked me if I had found a publisher for my book. I very rarely go into my “user talk” page and it was therefore only several months later that I saw what he had written to me.

I immediately apologised to him for my delay in answering him and updated him regarding my efforts to find a publisher. I also asked him for a copy of his review on the book he had referred to.

He immediately replied to me that he had not yet finished this review, and wrote regarding my book, “I learned of your book’s online publication back in November [2010]. I even printed it out, bound it, and put it with my extensive library on the Kaifeng Jews.” He went on to write a longish account regarding the Jews of Kaifeng, which was mainly of a historical nature.

In my reply I wrote, “My book however does not deal in any detail with the HISTORY of the Kaifeng Jewish Community but only with its Jewish religious observances. I specifically wrote that I am not entering into the question of when Jews first came to Kaifeng nor from where they came from. This merits a study of its own.”

I concluded by asking him “When you have the time, I would be grateful if you could give me your comments and indeed any criticism you may have on my book.”

As yet there has been no further correspondence with him.

I have also scanned a number of sample documents quoted in the book and these appear on my website together with the text of the book.

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