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Homepage >  Bnei Menashe  >  History
The Shinlung tribe (Menashe) on the India-Myanmar border
from “The Tribes of Israel”

The Historical Background

The \”Shinlung\” Tribe, numbering between one and two million, lives in the mountainous region which straddles the border between India and Myanmar (formerly Burma),. On the Myanmar side a few hundred thousand live in the Chin Mountains, principally in the Tidim area. Nearly a million Shinlung live on the Indian side, in the states of Mizoram and Manipur. Mizoram is inhabited solely by Shinlung, whose principal language is Mizo.
They have autonomy subordinate to the Indian government.

The prevalent language among the Shinlung in Manipur are Manipuri and Kuki. Among the clans (large families) there are about 50 different dialects (for instance Gangata, Wipa, Hamar etc.). Sometimes this makes communication difficult. Most Shinlung in Manipur also know Mizo.

The tradition of their wanderings

After the conquest of the Ten Tribes by Assyria in the year 722 B.C.E. The Tribes were taken by Shalmaneser to Assyria, and then sent to Halah, Habor and the Gozan River. The Tribe of Menashe settled in Persia in 457 B.C.E. and lived under the rule of Darius and Ahasuerus.

In 331 B.C.E, Alexander the Great conquered Persia, Afghanistan and India and the Tribes were exiled to Afghanistan (Pakhton) and other countries, where they became shepherds. Subsequently they became idolaters.

With the Islamic conquest they were forced to convert to Islam. Because they spoke Hebrew, they were called the \”Semitic Speakers\”. Throughout this entire period, they are said to have possessed a Torah scroll that was guarded by the elders and priests.

Continuation of their wanderings

From Afghanistan, their migration continued eastward through Hindu Kush, until they reached Tibet and the Chinese border. From there they continued into China, following the Wei River until they reached central China.

A settlement was established in Kaifeng in the year 231 C.E. The Chinese treated them cruelly and forced them into slavery. Thus began a process of assimilation resulting from Chinese influence. In reaction to these pressures, a part of the people escaped and lived in caves in the mountain region. They therefore acquired the names the \”Cave People\” and \”The People of the Mountains\”. They lived in terrible poverty for approximately two generations. During this period, they still had the Torah scroll with them. When they were expelled from the cave area, the Torah scroll was lost, or perhaps was stolen and burned by the Chinese. The priests continued to hand down their traditions orally, including ritual observances of worship, until the early nineteenth century.

From the Valley of the Caves, known as \”Kawil\” or \”Shin Lung\” they migrated westward, passing through Thailand (Siam), the Kila Valley and the Kendi Mountains until reaching Lantchuan and Shan. From there they journeyed to Burma. In Burma they wandered along the river until they reached Mandalai. From there they continued to Kalmiyo in the Chin Mountains. In the eighteenth century some migrated to the Manipur and Mizoram area and were considered refugees who had immigrated from China.

Historical Tradition

A clear tradition of Shinlung history was transmitted orally from generation to generation, primarily by songs and stories. No literature remains. If any literature did exist, the missionaries worked to destroy it. Nonetheless, a clear tradition of a relationship to Zion and the Land of Israel remains. At the center of this tradition is the knowledge that they are descended from the tribe of Manasseh and the tribe of Ephraim, and they arrived after wandering from the Land of Israel in the West through Afghanistan, the Himalayas, Mongolia, Tibet, China, and from there through Thailand and Burma to India, where they have lived for many years, principally in the states of Mizoram and Manipur.

One of their common names is \”Lu-Si\” which means \”the Ten Tribes\”. Like the Karen, the Shinlung are familiar with stories of the Bible even though they had no encounter with Christianity or Judaism before the arrival of Christian missionaries. Like the Karen, upon the arrival of Christian missionary Adoniram Judson in 1813 with copies of the Bible (including the New Testament) they became very excited and very willing to convert to Christianity.

They, too, believe in one G-d called Y´wa and call out his name when offering sacrifices. The name may be pronounced only at the time of the sacrifice and when making a serious oath. They are not allowed to write the name (and for this reason some even mispronounce the name as \”Z´wa\”).

They, too, have a tradition that the Chinese stole the holy scroll in their possession prior to their flight from China southwards (\”it was eaten by dogs\”). They regard the Karen as their kin.

The Relation to the Tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim

As noted, they have a tradition of relationship to the tribe of Manasseh. Only recently it emerged that they also have a very strong connection to the tribe of Ephraim.

The names Manasseh, Menassiya or Menassiya-Pa (Father Menashe) and others are an important part of their existence. When performing a commandment they mention their identity as the tribe of Manasseh so that they will not be harmed. When approaching a strange village they announce, \”The Sons of Manasseh are coming\”, and also in their prayers. Therefore, when Male Chala one of their leaders, announced some fifty years ago that he had seen a vision, according to which the time had come to immigrate to the land of the forefathers, to Israel, this was quite obvious and logical in their eyes and they awaited a redemption that did not come. They sought assistance, to no avail, from world Jewish leaders. Tribal leaders decided around 1970 to return to Judaism before returning to Zion. They sought Jewish sources, studied and observed commandments. They circumcised themselves and their families. They built synagogues in which they prayed in Hebrew from prayer books that they translated and printed. They observed the Sabbath and holidays as well as they could. They sent their youngsters to study at the ORT school in Bombay (with separate classes for boys and girls), at a distance of some one thousand kilometers from their homes on the Myanmar border.

I first learned of the Shinlung in 1979, some seven years after they had begun to live as Jews. After about two years correspondence, they were asked to send two of their youth to Israel. In 1980, Gideon Ray and Shimon Isak (Jin) arrived in Israel. They stayed for about three years at a kibbutz ulpan and studied approximately one year in a yeshiva. The history of the Shinlung was documented in material that they sent to \”Amishav\”. Also in 1980, I received a letter from an important personality in Mizoram, India, concerning a dispute among the Shinlung about their being descended from Ephraim and Manasseh. The question also arrived through the Israeli Embassy in India – Who is more important according to Judaism, Ephraim or Manasseh? I did not know that there are many who consider themselves descended from the tribe of Ephraim. When I was in Mizoram in mid-1997 I heard a little more about a group called by the name Ephraim, and this summer (1998) I learned from Mr. Sailo, a scholar who runs their history institute, that this people numbers two and a quarter million. To my knowledge at the time, the entire Shinlung tribe numbered only a million and a quarter. However, he explained that the Shinlung number over four million (indeed?). Naturally the connection of the name Manasseh to the Ten Tribes is further reinforced by the fact that a part of the Shinlung claim to be descended from Ephraim, Joseph´s other son.

Ancient customs, some of which are still practiced in the present

The Priests

In every village there lived a priest (said to be descended from the High Priest Aaron), whose priesthood was passed down by inheritance. One of his duties was to watch over the village, both as regards spiritual and other needs, together with the village chief. There were two priests in large villages. The priests were thought to be endowed with superior powers. They engaged in worship, care of the sick and illnesses, assisting in cases of hardship, and mainly in offering sacrifices.The Priest´s Dress

The priest wore a white tunic. On his breast he wore a kind of breastplate woven from bamboo leaves, and blue fringes hung down from his belt. On the breastplate on the chest there were two pockets in which there were two black polished stones. The breastplate was fastened at the bottom to an embroidered sash, colored blue. There was also an embroidered coat. On his head was a kind of crown. Only an important priest was dressed in this way.

The Priest´s Duties

In case of illness the priest was called in to bless the sick person and to offer a sacrifice for his recovery. The priest would slaughter a goat or a chicken and smear its blood on the ear, back and legs of the sick person, while reciting verses from the Torah (Leviticus 8:24; 14:14). If several people in the same family were ill, he also sprinkled blood from the sacrifice on the lintel and on the two doorposts of the entrance to the house. The object of the sacrifices for the sick was to placate the forces of evil. This also applied to sacrifices in times of general distress, such as plagues, earthquakes, storms etc., or sacrifices for the welfare of the village. If a pig was sacrificed, the priest did not eat from it. When a sacrifice was made for a sick person, they tied strings in the form of a Shield of David over the altar. The sacrifice was sometimes offered on the balcony of the sick person´s home or in the courtyard, or on a neighboring hill, when the sacrifice was for the village.

In the Chin Mountains in Myanmar there is a special dais for sacrifices in almost every home. The sacrifice is eaten by the household and the priest, and also only by persons invited to eat.

Sacrifices of atonement and thanksgiving

The sacrifices called \”Noy Pi\” were intended for Y´wa whose name could be mentioned only at the time of the sacrifice or in the case of a serious oath. They built a four-cornered altar of rough stones. In important sacrifices, on the holidays, they made it on the hilltops (like the Chiang in China). The sacrifice was made after sunset. They sprinkled the blood on the four corners of the altar. The innards were sacrificed and the meat was eaten by the people and the priests. It was obligatory to eat the sacrifice during the night. If it was not eaten then, it had to be buried. They ate from the sacrifice without breaking bones. There was a sacrifice that was completely burnt (\”Sah-Sir\”). They used to eat sacrifices of white hens.

Seemingly there was a special sacrifice for Passover called \”halankal\” which means to pass over. They ate this sacrifice without breaking bones.

They had a box in which there was a structure in the form of the temple, that was next to the altar (they did not worship it). Beside the box they placed a black stone that they sprinkled with blood (like the Chiang). This stone has a special value; both for hunting and for healing. (It is unclear whether these still carry on to the present)

Calendar – lunar (as the Jewish/Hebrew calendar)
Prohibition on eating blood
They do not eat animals without slaughter, so that the blood will be drained. They are not allowed to eat blood.

Leprosy

The priest had an important role in the case of leprosy. He identified the leprosy and accordingly sent the leper to live outside the village (in the jungle). The leper´s family helped him from the border of the camp, if necessary. On recovery, he returned to the camp and immersed himself. The priest sacrificed a bird in the field for him. Its wings were sacrificed and its feathers scattered in the wind. (It is unclear whether this still carries on in the present)

Marriage

There is no marriage without a priest. The priest asks the bride and groom if they are prepared for living together and unlimited devotion, even in times of illness and disability. Gifts are exchanged between the couple. The priest chants next to the altar. Both return to their homes during that day. After nightfall the bride is taken to the groom´s home under escort. (After nightfall the bride is accompanied/escorted to the grooms home.)

Circumcision

According to a tradition of the (distant?) past, on the eighth day two sharp flints were heated. One of the relatives pulled back the foreskin and the priest severed it with them and circumcised the baby. This was called \”zangboi\”. The father or the grandfather announced the baby´s name. Before the circumcision, while the priest was chanting, the mother with her child passed near to a large flame. Even until today a baby boy is passed through a coiled vine and his name is given. This is also done for a girl. Today some pierce the child´s ear lobe and announce the name.

Levirate Marriage

Like the Pathans, the Chiang and the Karen, the Shinlung also practiced levirate marriage. If there is no heir, a widow must marry her dead husband´s unmarried brother, and the firstborn son is named after the deceased brother. There is no ceremony to release the widow (as in the Jewish custom of Halitza). If the brother refuses to marry her, she may marry anyone. (It is unclear whether this still carries on in the present)

Divorce

Marriages are arranged through a matchmaker. In case of a crisis in a marriage, the matchmaker intervenes to clarify the problems. If the wife committed adultery and there are two witnesses to her offense, she is sent away in great shame. According to their tradition, she will be eaten by a tiger from the forest. If the husband committed adultery, he will be eaten by a bear. If there is a disagreement between them on the facts, the matter will be brought before the judges, where the chief sits, and another 12 judges at least (up to 24 judges). In the case of corroboration, the sentence is ostracization or banishment. There are eight types of divorces according to different situations and for different reasons. Generally, divorce is avoided.

Menstruation

During menstruation, the woman is forbidden to lie with her husband. If it is discovered that this offense has been committed, the husband is fined an amount equal to the dowry that he received at the time of the marriage.

During menstruation a woman is allowed to wash only her face. She must examine herself throughout her menstruation and must announce that she is menstruating. She is allowed to prepare food during menstruation.

On conclusion of menstruation (without any days of purification, as is the Jewish custom) she immerses herself and washes her clothes.

Modesty

Women are not involved in men´s affairs. They cover their heads. They are forbidden to wear men´s clothing. They sit separately from the men also during worship and they must honor their husbands.

Clothing – Tallit

The Sons of Ephraim belong to the Shinlung tribe. Like the Pathans, who have a holy garment (Joy-Namaz) that resembles a tallit, the Sons of Ephraim have a garment similar to the tallit which they consider holy and capable of vanquishing enemies. This garment, called \”Ponapam\” has blue threads. A man wearing this garment does not retreat in a war.

Unintentional killer (and intentional?)

There is a special pole in the chief´s yard. When someone has killed by accident and has not reconciled with the parents of the dead person, he flees to this pole, and cannot be harmed there. This is also announced by the chief.

The killer then becomes the chief´s slave for seven years (there are some who say that this is also the case for someone who has killed intentionally). The Pathans also had a city of refuge (similar to the Biblical practice). ((It is unclear whether this still carries on in the present)

The Thief

The stolen object must be returned. If he cannot do so, the thief becomes the victim´s slave of the person for payment of the amount of the theft. The thief receives a humiliating name, and this is a badge of shame for him and his family.

Trespassing

The trespasser deserves death in G-d´s hands.
(It is unclear whether this was applied in the past and whether it still carries on in the present)

Death and Burial

When someone dies, family members take care of the body. They are therefore impure and must immerse themselves after the mourning period. (Some say that they immerse themselves on every day of the mourning period in the morning and evening). The food in the house of the deceased, and even the earth in the oven and the water are impure and are cast out of the house. (Cooked food is eaten outside the home?)

Mourners traditionally flagellate themselves with a branch. People who have heard of the death of a relative also purify themselves by washing. Burial is in the ground. There are family burial pits. Burials are usually performed after sunset. Anyone who engaged/engages in a burial must be purified. On the anniversary of the death, they visit the grave.

Mourning and Purifying the Home

The mourning period lasts seven days (as is the Jewish custom). Mourners recount praises of the deceased and do not go out to work. Some fast during the seven days. For her husband, a widow fasts for a longer period. At the first meal (meals of recovery) relatives (the parents of the man or the woman) bring to the mourners a red cockerel to eat. These relatives prepare food for the mourners during the seven days. In these days people come to comfort the mourners (as is the Jewish custom).

After seven days, the priest comes to the home to expel the spirit of impurity by sprinking water with a branch in the four corners of the house , or on its four walls, and saying that the home has been purified.

Tithes

The priest receives a tenth of the fruit of the earth, and this is called tithe in their language.
Some ancient songs related to their past

As noted, songs are their main source of tradition and information about their past. They have not always understood the songs meanings. Some meanings of their songs became clear to them after reading the Bible with the arrival of Christianity. Indeed there are some, such as Mr. Yossi Chachuak, who know songs without understanding their meaning.

Only during sacrifice, prayer and making an oath do they pronounce G-d´s name, as he was instructed by his father:
\”My son do not take G-d´s name [in vain],
I am a true priest of Manasseh
But I pronounce G-d´s name only at the right time
G-d´s name is Y-H (or Za) but do not take it in vain\”

They used appellations: Father in heaven (Holango), Eternal Father (Patian), Guardian of All (Huano), Lord of the Souls (Talaropa), Dweller on High (Hong Havanulung).

During prayer, the priests sang:
\”Answer me, answer me, Y´wa
Answer me, answer me, He who dwells on Mount Moriah
Answer me, Answer me, He who dwells in the known Red Sea
Answer me, Answer me, He who dwells on Mount Zion.
I, the priest, the Levite, answer me, Ya, answer me.
The most well-known song, is the Passover song:
\”We must keep the Passover festival
Because we crossed the Red Sea on dry land
At night we crossed with a fire and by day with a cloud
Enemies pursued us with chariots
And the sea swallowed them up
And used them as food for the fish
And when we were thirsty
We received water from the rock\”.

Short songs

uu.Tera, our enemies were swallowed in the Red Sea
vv.\”In olden days we had a scroll

A scroll that was eaten by the wicked \”Tuluk\” (Chinese) dogs.
ww.\”We yearn, we yearn for G-d´s land
We yearn for Zion, Y´wa´s city
xx.\”To enter to enter (Lutiltil, lutiltil)
To enter Zion (Chayona lutiltil).\”

In an important song there are historic names and places:

Efram, Yassak
Moriah (?)
Gakob
Sandtolpoi (Red Sea), Sinai, Shilo
From Chayon we went to Afnistan (Afghanistan?)
And from there to Himalawi (Himalayas?)
From Himalawi to Mongolia
From there to Longadim
And from there to Konamin and Manipur
There are other such songs that clearly show the relation to the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.

Their traditions and religion today

In 1854, with the arrival of the first American missionary, W. Pettigrew of the Baptist Mission, the Baptist Church was established in Kan-Fung-Pi in Manipur. In 1910, more missionaries arrived and established churches in Churachandpur. As a result of their pressures, the tribal priest lost his status and the community was subject to Christian influences. The new generation lost the spiritual heritage of their fathers and, to the present day, a certain belief in the Christian Jesus still exists.

As noted, a return to the Torah has recently commenced as a result of contact with Jews and the freedom of worship. Today (1999) there are about 3,500 Shinlung in the two states of India and in Tidim (Myanmar) who observe the commandments as written in the Torah, to the best of their knowledge and under the guidance of Gideon Ray and Shimon Jin and others. All are circumcised, observe the Sabbath and Jewish holidays, pray with Tallit and use prayer-books that they printed in the synagogues that they built, where they keep Torah scrolls (although the Torah scrolls are not considered by Jewish authorities to be apt for ritual use). Only a few have phylacteries. On the eve of Passover they gather in families and read the Haggadah of Passover or from the Bible.

In 1988 a rabbinical tribunal was sent to India by the Amishav organization and 24 young people and young families formally converted to Judaism and immigrated to Israel. Until 1991 some 60 Shinlung had immigrated to and converted in Israel. Since then, on the recommendation of the late Rabbi Menahem Mendel Schneersohn, another 140 were brought to Israel by Amishav, and all have integrated well. Many of the young people have married here, also with young native Israelis or immigrants from the Diaspora. Several families have acquired greenhouses in Gush Katif and they are making good progress in all fields of life.

The above information on the Shinlung was taken from a booklet which they themselves published. At the end of this publication, they write:
\”According to the law of the independent State of Israel, which was declared in 1948, every Jew is permitted to return to Israel. Therefore we ask you, good people with good will and deep understanding, to take immediate steps to allow us as Jews to be granted this right and privilege. We, the undersigned, ask to have our rights recognized, and to be allowed to return to our ancestral home according to the law of the State of Israel.”




from Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail´s book “The Tribes of Israel”, (c) Amishav, 2003


Bnei Menashe Plant a Tree
A group of Bnei Menashe planted a tree in Israel, their new home, to celebrate Tu B´Shevat.

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