Kashrut (Dietary Laws) Among The Lemba
Zimbabwe leaders of Lemba Renaissance, from the left,
Modreck Zvakavapano Maeresera and Dr. Rabson Wuriga
It is a stifling hot and humid afternoon. Thunder clouds rise like monoliths in the sky; they are dark and pregnant with the promise of heavy rain. My uncle Ahid and I are travelling from Gutu, where we have gone to visit my maternal grandmother. My uncle looks anxiously at the cloudy skies. “It’s going to rain soon,” he says, “we better find somewhere to get shelter.” Just in front of us, less than 500 meters away, is a homestead, and instinctively, we make a bee line for it.
The occupants of the home give us a warm welcome. Just as we enter the house, the downpour begins, punctuated by flashes of lightning and claps of thunder. My uncle and the head of the house make courteous small talk about the weather and the state of the crops in the fields.
The woman of the house prepares the dining table for lunch. The appetizing aroma of the food makes my stomach growl. After the long journey I am tired and hungry. A hand wash dish is offered to my uncle and he politely declines saying he is not hungry. I follow his example and decline.
In African culture it is considered rude for a guest to turn down the offer of food from a host as custom dictates that the host cannot eat while guests are looking on. So my uncle is obliged to give a further explanation other than just “we are not hungry,” which surely would not satisfy our host.
“We are Lembas” my uncle explains and immediately everyone in the room nods, satisfied. The three words are explanation enough.
“Aah! So you are Lembas? You don’t eat meat unless you slaughter the beast and you don’t eat food that is prepared in other people’s pots?” our host asks. My uncle agrees and the host explains that he has a Lemba friend who lives in the neighboring village, so he is well-versed in Lemba dietary laws. We are offered tea instead, and we accept.
Dietary laws are one of the major distinctions which separate the Lemba from others in Zimbabwe and identify our Lemba-Jewish culture and religion. The laws set us apart as a people with a unique cultural heritage. We have no special dress code to call attention to our differences. And these days we no longer congregate in places of worship, except during ceremonies where elders chant and recite poems in an ancient tongue. We all speak Shona, the official language of Zimbabwe, and our facial features, except in very few cases, are like those of other ethnic groups.
But our unique dietary laws set us apart. From childhood, we are taught what we can eat…which animals, which birds and which insects and which ones we cannot. In most cases, we follow the dietary laws that were were given by G-d to Moses.
Young Lemba woman
Photo by Jack Zeller
According to Lemba oral tradition, our people journeyed from the Middle East to Africa via Yemen, eventually settling in Mozambique. The timing is unknown.
Later we traveled south and arrived here in what is now Zimbabwe. Other Lemba tribesmen continued south and settled in South Africa.
Lemba elder Mr. Seremani Musanhu, who knows our history, tells us how we encountered new varieties of animals and insects on our journey to Zimbabwe. The people were not sure which ones were kosher. In those days, our people had priests and a council of elders. They were able to determine what was eatable and what was not. In those days we also still had our Book.* When there was any question about dietary laws or any other issues, our leaders sought guidance from the Book.
After the loss of our Book, the Lemba adopted an oral tradition, through which laws were passed down from one generation to the next. In this way, we managed to keep and observe our dietary laws for hundreds of years. Even when we came in contact with other ethnic groups, some of whom influenced us in one way or another, our dietary laws remained inviolate.
Today, we have non-Lemba neighbors and friends. Interestingly, many of them have chosen to observe Lemba dietary laws so that when we visit each other, we can eat together at the same table. And when our neighbors want to slaughter an animal for meat they call a Lemba tribesman, who will slaughter the animal according to our dietary laws. Those neighbors who find it difficult to keep and observe the strict Lemba dietary laws simply buy new kitchen utensils, which they will use only when Lemba neighbors visit.
As a result, we have maintained a cordial and harmonious relationship with our non-Lemba neighbors. They respect us for who we are. We, on the other hand, attend their functions and help them till their land. Lembas traditionally keep large herds of cattle, which provide them with an important source of draft power since Zimbabwean rural farmers still use oxdrawn ploughs. Today, the greatest challenge to our survival as a people and our observance of Jewish dietary laws is modernity.
Previously, most Lemba lived in agricultural villages, where it was easier to maintain our dietary laws. But today most of us live in cities and towns scattered through-out the country. There are no Lemba abattoirs or butcheries. If Lembas need meat, they have two choices. They either buy a live chicken, which they slaughter themselves, or they travel as a group from the city to rural areas where they buy and slaughter a cow. Then they divide up the meat and take it back to the city.
However, many Lembas in the cities find it too cumber-some to observe the dietary laws. Some simply cease to observe them; others buy Halal meat from Moslem butcheries as a compromise. But according to Lemba tradition, unless a beast is slaughtered by a circum cised Lemba–Jew the meat is not kosher.
Another problematic area is the education sector. Mission boarding schools provide the best education in the country. Attending a mission school almost guarantees entrance into the best schools of higher education. The problem is that the mission schools are Christian, and they teach Christianity. They also do not respect Lemba dietary laws. So Lemba families are always looking for schools that are sympathetic to our traditions.
I used to slaughter cattle for all the Lemba students at the mission school I attended. One day, a new headmaster took over who was not sympathetic to Lemba traditions. Instead of letting me slaughter the cattle, he simply shot the beasts with his gun. The result was that all the Lemba students at the school would not eat the meat and asked for passes to go home to get some food. My father and uncle accompanied me back to the school with the parents of other Lemba students and met with the headmaster to resolve the issue. After that, I resumed my duty of kosher slaughtering and was able to provide meat for Lemba students at the school.
Lemba elders in Chiniki - from the left, Headman Mushavi Mufandaedza and
Mr. Mutazu during the visit of Sandy Leeder and Jack Zeller
Photo by Jack Zeller
Other difficulties are faced in the military. Lemba elders discourage Lemba-Jews from joining the army because of the difficulty of maintaining kashrut. However, the paucity of jobs and professional options makes the miliary hard to avoid as it provides steady employment and a regular salary. With few job opportunities available, many Lembas do join the army. As a result, they receive and eat regular food rations like all soldiers, and ask no questions.