Who Are the Reichavim?
Jewish Bedouins or…
Yirmiyah Hanavi had been given a very difficult job. Hashem repeatedly commanded him to warn the Jewish people that their sinful ways would end in their destruction, and Yirmiyah complied, constantly imploring the nation to repent and thus be spared the “destruction from the North.” His forecasts of impending doom were tragically ignored by the people, and he was ridiculed and even thrown into prison for his efforts in transmitting Hashem’s message.
In Chapter 35 of sefer Yirmiyah, an eighteen-year-old Yehoyachin is king over Jerusalem, and Nevuchadnezzar, king of Bavel, has laid siege to Jerusalem. He will eventually capture the city, send Yehoyachin into exile, and appoint Tzidkiyahu as king of Yehuda. But these events are still in the future.
As Jewish soldiers on the ramparts of Jerusalem launch arrows at the besieging Babylonian forces, the word of Hashem comes to Yirmiyah. He commands him to bring the descendants of the house of Reichav to the Beis Hamikdash and serve them wine. Yirmiyah does as instructed, but he receives a strange reply. The men of the house of Reichav do not drink wine! As the passuk states,
But they said we do not drink wine, for Yonadav son of Reichav our ancestor commanded us saying “you shall not drink wine, you or your descendants forever. And a house you shall not build… rather live in your tents all your days…”
Why would Hashem command Yirmiyah to give the Reichavim wine, if they do not drink it? The Navi provides us with an answer:
The word of Hashem came to Yirmiyah saying: Thus said Hashem, Master of Legions, God of Israel: Go and say to the men of Yehuda and the inhabitants of Jerusalem saying: Will you not learn a lesson, hearken to my words? Thus says the word of Hashem. Upheld were the words of Yonadav who commanded his children not to drink wine, and they have not drunk wine to this day, fulfilling the words of their ancestors. Yet I have spoken to you, arising early and speaking, and you have not listened to me.
As we know, Klal Yisrael did not repent, and as a result, the Beis Hamikdash was destroyed, and the Jews were sent into exile. But the enigma remains: Who are these Reichavim to whom Yirmiyah was sent and who refused to drink wine?
Origins of the Reichavim
Rashi explains that the Reichavim were descendants of Yisro. Although we find in Bamidbar that Yisro did not accompany the Bnei Yisrael across the Yarden river, Rashi there writes1Bamidbar 10:30, see Sifsei Chachamim there. Rashi’s source may be the Mechilta. that Yisro left Klal Yisrael to return home and convert his family and that later, his children settled in Eretz Yisrael.2Radak and Abarbanel in Sefer Shoftim write that the Keini were living with the C’na’anim at the time that the Bnei Yisrael entered the land. Since the Keini were Jewish, this yields the interesting historical fact that there were Jews living in Eretz Yisrael while Klal Yisrael was still making its way through the midbar.
In Shoftim it states:3Shoftim 1:16. “And the bnei Keini, father-in law-of Moshe, went up with Yehuda from the city of date palms to the wilderness of Yehuda, they went and settled among the people in the south of Arad.” Rashi there explains that the “city of date palms” refers to Chevron, which was in the possession of the descendants of Yisro for 440 years, until the Beis Hamikdash was built. The bnei Keini traveled to learn under Klal Yisrael’s first Shofet, Asniel ben Kenaz, and this is what is meant by the words “they went and settled among the people in the Negev of Arad.”
The Keini and Reichavim throughout Tanach
Yisro’s descendants played various important roles in the history of Klal Yisrael. Chazal teach us4Sotah 11a. that Pharaoh had three advisors whom he consulted before imposing a harsh decree upon the Jewish people: Bilam, Iyov, and Yisro. Billam advised Pharoah to proceed with his plan and was later killed by the Jews. Iyov disagreed with Pharaoh but remained silent, and was later afflicted with great suffering. Yisro disagreed with Pharoah and fled, and was rewarded for that through the fact that his descendants later served as members of the Sanhedrin. Later on, Yael, who is referred to as “the wife of the Keini,” saved Klal Yisrael by killing Sisera. And then there is yet another prominent descendant of the Keini mentioned in Tanach: Yonadav ben Reichav.
In Melachim,5Melachim vol. II 9:1-7. Elisha instructs a navi to anoint Yeihu ben Nimshi as king of Yisrael, who is then to kill Yehoram ben Achav. Yeihu does as instructed, proceeds to destroy the worshippers of the Baal. On his way there, he encounters Yonadav ben Reichav. The pessukim describe this meeting: “Yeihu went on from there and encountered Yonadav ben Reichav coming towards him; he greeted him and said to him, ‘is your heart sincere as my heart is with your heart?’ And Yonadav said ‘It is! It is! Give me your hand! Yeihu gave him his hand and pulled him up into the chariot and said ‘Come with me and see my zealous vengeance for Hashem!” This is the very same Yonadav ben Reichav mentioned in Yirmiyah.
Reichavi Way of Life
As mentioned above, the Reichavim abstained from wine and did not live in permanent homes. But it appears that even before Yonadav’s charge to his progeny, the Keini had a nomadic culture. The Abarbanel on the passuk in Shoftim quoted above, describes the Keini as living in tents like Bedouins. So, too, when Yael killed Sisera, the passuk describes how she first invited him into her tent.
It also appears that, historically, the Reichavim preferred to live apart from other Jews, as we find that prior to Shaul’s attack on Amalek, he first told the Keini who had been living near them to evacuate so as not to be caught up in his battle with Amalek.6See Shmuel vol. I, 15:6.
What Happened to the Reichavim?
It appears that the Reichavim went into exile with the rest of Klal Yisrael following the destruction of the first Beis Hamikdash. Some Reichavim seem to have returned to Eretz Yisrael with Ezra,7The first Mishnah in the final chapter of Kiddushin lists ten groups of people that ascended with Ezra from Bavel. One of these groups is that of “geirim” converts, which may be referring to the descendants of Yisro. as we find8Taanis 4:5. that the sons of Yonadav ben Reichav would donate wood for the mizbei’ach on the seventh of Av. We also find9Bereishis Rabbah 98. that the Tanna, R’ Yossi ben Chalafta, who lived in Eretz Yisrael during this period, descended from the Reichavim.
The majority appear however, to have stayed in the Diaspora and eventually made their way to the Saudi Peninsula.10It bears noting that most of Klal Yisrael did not return to Eretz Yisrael during the era of the second Beis Hamikdash. A huge number remained in Bavel (as is evident from many statements in Talmud Bavli), and we even have evidence of Jewish communities existing during this time in such places as Rhodes, Rome, and as far north as Europe. There, they resumed their nomadic lifestyle, living in tents and tending sheep, in isolation from, both other Jews and non-Jews. They also continued to follow the command of Yonadav ben Reichav, and did not drink wine. In fact, Reichavi society appears to have continued unchanged for over 2,000 years!
Eye-Witness Accounts Regarding the Reichavim
The only mention of the Reichavim prior to the 19th century is from the medieval Jewish traveler, R’ Pesachya of Regensburg11Rabbeinu Pesachya set off on his journey across the world in the 12th century. He was the brother of the well-known Ba’al Tosafos, the Ri Halavan. who, in his sefer Sivuv Haolam, mentions “the sons of Yonadav ben Reichav,” as living on the Arabian Peninsula, in the highlands above Yemen. The next mention of them comes in 1845, when R’ Yosef Shwartz, a German oleh to Jerusalem, published a sefer entitled Tenuvos Haaretz. This sefer vividly details the history, geography, zoology, climate, mineral, and botanical life of Eretz Yisrael. And amazingly, Rav Schwartz cites reliable stories about the Reichavi Jews:12Translation is from the English edition of this sefer which was published by Reverend Isaac Leeser of Philadelphia in 1850.
There are many traces of them at present, but they live entirely isolated, and shun or rather hate any connection with Jews. They only sojourn in Arabia, and for the most part on the Western shore of the Red Sea… They speak only Hebrew and Arabic… and will form no connection or acquaintance with the Jews, and should they be recognized as Jews or if one wishes to enter conversation with them on the subject, they will quickly deny their origin, and assert that they are but of the common Arabic descent. They will not touch another Arab much less eat anything with him even those things which are permitted to Jews, and will always stand at a distance from the other Arabs… They always appear on horseback and are armed… People have noticed tzitzis on their covering and clothing.
Rav Shwartz also records a few anecdotes involving them:
They are occasionally seen in Palestine, but very seldom, and then, as it were, in secrecy and unrecognized. Some even say that several have been met within Jerusalem, although the reason for this singular silence and anxious desire to escape detection has remained a profound secret. At the same time it is clearly ascertained that they are Jews in every sense of the word, live according to our laws, and are somewhat acquainted with our wise men.
It is now some years since two Ashkenazim of Tiberius went into the cave where the righteous martyr Rabbi Akiva is buried. Just as they were coming out of the cave, there passed by two Arab horsemen who observed them, and asked which tzaddik was buried there. When they replied “RabbiAkiva,” they descended from their horses and entered the cave. The two Ashkenazim outside heard them utter a tearful and mournful tefillah in Hebrew, and they asked them upon coming out who they were, to which they replied: “We are Yehudei Cheivar, but we adjure you by the name of Hashem not to tell anyone about us until after you return home, and only speak of it after some time when we are away from your district and your environs.” With these words, they hastened away and were soon out of sight.13Tenuvos Haaretz, page 496.
Another story involving the Reichavim:
About twenty-five years ago (1815), the Serif of Saana resolved to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. It is usual to make this journey by the sea… but the Serif resolved to make this journey by land. He supplied himself and all his large retinue and escort with everything required for this long journey. However, as their road lay in part through the great sandy desert, they soon got into the greatest difficulties for they lost their way, and roamed about and could not find any egress.
They were already in the greatest distress and danger, all their provisions especially water were consumed, and they saw clearly that they must perish… when they had at length the happiness to come to a more fertile district, which convinced them that they had traversed the greater part of the desert. They now pushed eagerly forward without strength and with longing for water, but could find no inhabitants. But towards sunset they observed at a distance, a whole line of tents…
They soon came near a very large and beautiful tent, and the leader of the advance of the caravan called out with a very loud voice “For G-d’s sake, water!! Water! We are all famishing out here!” Thereupon a very tall angry Arab came out and exclaimed in an angry tone “Kelb! (dog) who dares to cry so loudly in the hour of our devotion!” The Muslim then told him of the great danger of the company, and begged him to give a little water. But the other asked, “Do you know where you are now, and why you have lifted up your voice so loudly!? Here is the tent of our worthy melech, and we are even now engaged in our mincha, and you have disturbed him and us with your outcry in our devotions.”
The stranger looked into the tent, and saw a whole assembly of venerable gigantic Arabs, who were all standing still, and praying in a low tone of voice. Very soon after, water was offered to the whole assembly… and a guide was sent along with them, who showed and described to them the best and shortest route by which they could reach Mecca… Upon inquiring who their benefactors were, they were told quite briefly “Yehud Cheivar.” I learned the above from a trustworthy person in Tzfas, who was soon after this occurrence in Sanaa, and obtained the whole account from the above mentioned Serif.”14Tenuvos Haaretz, page 496
After learning so much about these Reichavim, Rav Schwartz desired to correspond with them, despite their reluctance to engage with other Jews. To this end, he sent a certain Rabbi Amram of Tzfat on a journey to find the Reichavim. Rabbi Amram set out on his mission in 1846, after receiving letters of recommendation, both from Rav Schwartz and the rabbanim of Jerusalem. But unfortunately, he was robbed by hostile Arabs, and finding that the road to Reichavi territory was filled with warring tribes, he was compelled to abort the mission.15Tenuvos Haaretz, page 498 This seems to be the last account involving the Reichavim.
What emerges from these accounts and others like them is that the Reichavim are a mysterious, secluded group, who, despite being Jewish, refuse for an unknown reason to have contact with other Jews.
After reading these stories, one wonders: What happened to the Reichavim? Are they still around today?
An initial reasonable assumption would be that the Reichavim are not in existence. Given modern technology and maps, we have deep knowledge of the terrain of Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and yet we have no word of Jewish tribes still living in those regions. Still, there are nomadic Bedouins in Saudi Arabia and Yemen today, and perhaps they include the Reichavim. Or, perhaps the Reichavim decided to evacuate with the other Yemenite olim to Eretz Yisrael decades ago during Operation Magic Carpet.
If we assume they’ve disappeared, what might have become of them? It’s difficult to say that they assimilated into Islamic culture, because for over 2,000 years the Reichavim had an extreme distaste for their Arab neighbors, refusing even to touch them, let alone assimilate amongst them. A more likely explanation would be that the Reichavim were wiped out within the last century by hostile Arab tribes.
The problem with that thesis is that at the beginning of this article, we referred to the pessukim in sefer Yirmiyah that discuss the Reichavim. At the end of that chapter, Yirmiyah says:16Translation taken from Artscroll Tanach.
Thus said Hashem, Master of legions, God of Israel: Because you have heeded the commandment of Yonadav, and you have kept all of his commandments and have done according to all he has commanded you, therefore thus says Hashem, Master of legions, God of Israel: There will not be cut off from Yonadav son of Reichav a man who stands before me all of the days.
In this verse, Hashem clearly promises that Yonadav’s descendants will not cease to exist! It is still possible, however, that the particular branch of the Reichavim tribe was wiped out, and that the prophecy is being fulfilled with Yonadav’s other descendants who have intermingled with Klal Yisrael.
While the Navi says that the descendants of Yonadav will always exist, we do not know if there still is an independent Reichavi culture today. We will have to leave this to anyone interested in a fact-finding expedition.