The origins of the Jews of Yemen remain obscure. One local Yemenite Jewish tradition dates the earliest settlement of Jews in the Arabian Peninsula to the time of King Solomon. Another legend places Jewish craftsmen in the region as requested by Bilqis, the Queen of Saba (Sheba). A more likely explanation is the spice trade: Yemen was a key point on the ancient trade route that brought spices and perfumes from India to Yemen and from there to Greater Syria through the Hijaz from the third century BC to the third century CE. Jewish merchants played an important part in this trade.
The immigration of the majority of Jews into Yemen appears to have taken place about the beginning of the second century. According to some sources, the Jews of Yemen enjoyed prosperity until the sixth century. The Himyarite King, Abu-Karib Asad Toban converted to Judaism at the end of the 5th century, while laying siege to Medina.
In 518 the kingdom was taken over by Zar'a Yusuf. He too converted to Judaism, and prosecuted wars to drive the Aksumite Ethiopians from Arabia. Zar'a Yusuf is chiefly known in history by his cognomen Dhu Nuwas, in reference to his "curly hair." Jewish rule lasted until 525 CE (some date it later, to 530), when Christians from the Aksumite Kingdom of Ethiopia defeated and killed Dhu Nuwas, and took power in Yemen.
Islam came to Yemen around 630, during the Prophet Muhammad's lifetime. As Ahl al-Kitab, protected Peoples of the Scriptures, the Jews were assured freedom of religion only in exchange for the jizya, payment of a poll tax imposed on all non-Muslims. Active Muslim persecution of the Jews did not gain full force until the Shiite Zaydi clan seized power from the more tolerant Sunni Muslims early in the 10th century.
The Zaydi enforced a statute known as the Orphan's Decree, anchored in their own eighth century legal interpretations and enforced at the end of that century. It obligated the Zaydi state to take under its protection and to educate in Islamic ways any dhimmi child whose parents had died when he or she was a minor. The Orphan's Decree was ignored during the Ottoman rule (1872-1918), but was renewed during the period of Imam Yahya (1918-1948).
Under the Zaydi rule, the Jews were considered to be impure, and therefore forbidden to touch a Muslim or a Muslim's food. They were obligated to humble themselves before a Muslim, to walk to the left side, and greet him first. They could not build houses higher than a Muslim's or ride a camel or horse, and when riding on a mule or a donkey, they had to sit sideways. Upon entering the Muslim quarter a Jew had to take off his foot-gear and walk barefoot. If attacked with stones or fists by Islamic youth, a Jew was not allowed to defend himself. In such situations he had the option of fleeing or seeking intervention by a merciful Muslim passerby.
The Jews of Yemen had expertise in a wide range of trades normally avoided by Zaydi Muslims. Trades such as silver-smithing, blacksmiths, repairing weapons and tools, weaving, pottery, masonry, carpentry, shoe making, and tailoring were occupations that were exclusively taken by Jews. The division of labour created a sort of covenant, based on mutual economic and social dependency, between the Zaydi Muslim population and the Jews of Yemen. The Muslims produced and supplied food, and the Jews supplied all manufactured products and services that the Yemeni farmers needed.
The average Jewish population of Yemen for the first five centuries is said to have been about 3,000. The Jews were scattered throughout the country, but carried on an extensive commerce and thus succeeded in getting possession of many Jewish books. When Saladin became sultan in the last quarter of the twelfth century and the Shiite Muslims revolted against him, the trials of the Yemenite Jews began. There were few scholars among them at that time, and a putative prophet arose; he preached a syncretic religion that combined Judaism and Islam, and claimed that the Bible foretold his coming.
One of Yemen's most respected Jewish scholars, Jacob ben Nathanael al-Fayyumi, wrote for counsel to renowned Sephardic Jewish theologian, philosopher, and physician from Spain resident in Egypt, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides. Maimonides replied in an epistle entitled Iggeret Teman (The Yemen Epistle). This letter made a tremendous impression on Yemenite Jewry. It also served as a source of strength, consolation and support for the faith in the continuing persecution. Maimonides himself interceded with Saladin in Egypt, and shortly thereafter the persecution came to an end.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century the condition of the Jews of Yemen was miserable. They were under the jurisdiction of the local Muslim Imam, and they were forbidden to wear new or good clothes, nor might they ride a donkey or a mule. They were compelled to make long journeys on foot when occasion required it. They were prohibited from engaging in monetary transactions, and were all craftsmen, being employed chiefly as carpenters, masons, and smiths.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, they are said to have numbered 30,000, and to have lived principally in Aden (200), Sana (10,000), Sada (1,000), Dhamar (1,000), and the desert of Beda (2,000). The chief occupations of the Yemenite Jews were as artisans, including gold-, silver- and blacksmiths in the San'a area, and coffee merchants in the south central highland areas.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century new ideas began to reach Yemenite Jews from abroad. Hebrew newspapers began to arrive, and relations developed with Sephardic Jews, who came to Yemen from various Ottoman provinces to trade with the army and government officials.
There were two major centres of population for Jews in southern Arabia besides the Jews of Northern Yemen, one in Aden and the other in Hadramaut. The Jews of Aden lived in and around the city, and flourished during the British protectorate. The Jews of Hadramaut lived a much more isolated life, and the community was not known to the outside world until the early 1900s. In the early 20th century they had numbered about 50,000; they currently number only a few hundred individuals and reside largely in Sa'dah and Rada'a.
Emigration from Yemen to Palestine began in 1881 and continued almost without interruption until 1914. It was during this time that about 10% of the Yemenite Jews left.
In 1947, after the partition vote of the British Mandate of Palestine, rioters engaged in a bloody pogrom in Aden that killed 82 Jews and destroyed hundreds of Jewish homes. Aden's Jewish community was economically paralyzed, as most of the Jewish stores and businesses were destroyed. Early in 1948, the unfounded accusation of the ritual murder of two girls led to looting.
This increasingly perilous situation led to the emigration of virtually the entire Yemenite Jewish community between June 1949 and September 1950. During this period, over 50,000 Jews emigrated to Israel.
In Yemen itself, there exists today a small Jewish community in the town of Bayt Harash. A small Jewish enclave also exists in the town of Raydah, which lies approximately 45 mile north of Sana'a.