The Kaifeng Stone Inscriptions: The Legacy of the Jewish Community in Ancient China By Tiberiu Weisz (iUniverse, 2006)

In a prior review for the Kulanu newsletter of The Biblical Origin of the Japanese People by Joseph Eidelberg, Autumn 2007, I wrote:

“Eidelberg has made a serious error in stating that a small group of (Israelites) reached Kaifeng during the Han Dynasty (200 BCE - 200 CE). It is generally agreed by scholars who have studied the Jews of Kaifeng that they settled in that city between 960 and 1126 CE.”

Well, Tiberiu Weisz is a scholar, and in his book, The Kaifeng Stone Inscriptions, he agrees that Jews first reached China during the Han Dynasty (200 BCE - 200 CE), although he disagrees with Eidelberg in significant respects.

Weisz relies entirely on the stone inscriptions made by the Jews of the Chinese city of Kaifeng. These Jews engraved their history as well as their beliefs and customs on four steles — one dated 1489, a second 1512, a third 1663, and a fourth (now almost illegible) dated 1679. Bishop Charles White, head of the mission of the Canadian Church of England in China, described the steles as grey limestone slabs about five feet in height sitting on a stone base of 20 inches. Bishop White was one of the first scholars to translate the steles into English.

Weisz has several arguments supporting his assertion that Jews first reached Kaifeng during Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE). The principal one is that the 1512 stone recites unequivocally that their ancestors entered and settled in China during the Han Dynasty.

He also reads several inscriptions differently from other scholars. The 1489 stele tells the story of a meeting by an Emperor of the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279 CE) with 70 Jewish families, all of whom have Chinese family names. Weisz, in his translation, has the Emperor say to the 70 Jewish families, “You have returned to my China.” Bishop White, Jewish scholar Donald Leslie, and several Chinese scholars have translated the same sentence as “You have come to our China.”

Weisz writes that the word “gui,” which others translated as “come,” means “return” in the context of those who at one time had been under Chinese administration but fell under the influence of local tribes and then, after the Chinese reassert control over them, willingly reaccept Chinese rule. Weisz places the return recited in the 1489 stele as taking place during the reign of Emperor Taizon (976 - 998 CE), the second emperor of the Northern Song Dynasty.

In further support of a “return,” Weisz points to a religious persecution of foreigners in China during the years 841-845 CE that caused many to flee westward. These refugees could have had Chinese names and might have been well acquainted with Chinese culture and the teachings of Confucius. And Emperor Taizon is known to have welcomed back those who fled during the years of persecution. Weisz also points to the practice of “kneeling” during worship mentioned in the 1663 stele. According to Weisz “kneeling” was the mode of Jewish prayer from the time of Ezra the Scribe (c. 450 BCE) until “it was prohibited by the rabbis in the Third Century CE.”

Upon the survival of the practice of kneeling and a reference in the 1489 stele to Levites and Priests (more about the “Priests” below), Weisz traces the origin of the Kaifeng Jews to a group of Priests (Kohanim) and Levites living in Babylonia in the 5th Century BCE who opposed Ezra's decree against intermarriage and refused to set aside their non-Jewish wives. This group, instead of returning to the land of Israel, left Babylon for India and then migrated to Central Asia. While in Central Asia, they came under the jurisdiction of the Han Dynasty.

In the 1489 stele, the 70 families recite to the Song Emperor that their origin was in India and that they were Levites and “Wusida” which Weisz translates as “Priests.” While acknowledging that other scholars concluded that the word Wusida was an honorific title, Weisz says that the word has a Persian origin meaning “spiritual leader.”

Weisz did his own translation of the stones and found, in addition to Confucian concepts, many identifiable biblical references and Jewish modes of prayer, giving rise to hints of a different and earlier history than that previously believed. He concluded that unraveling the mystery of the inscriptions showed that the Kaifeng Jews were well versed in Chinese classics and customs as well as Jewish classics and customs and were long assimilated into the Chinese community at the time other scholars believed that they had just arrived in China.

Not mentioned by Weisz are the dozens of hand-written manuscripts left by the Kaifeng Jews in addition to the stone inscriptions. There are known to be 13 Torah scrolls, two Passover haggadot, prayer books, and several other documents in Hebrew. The failure to analyze these manuscripts is astonishing since Jewish manuscripts can be dated from the size of the parchment and of the pages, from the shape of the letters and words, from the vocalization and accentuation signs above and below the words, from voweling of letters, and from the ritual discernable from the manuscripts.

Scholars who have studied the manuscripts of the Kaifeng Jews have noted similarities to the Torah, haggadot and prayer books in use among Iraqi and Persian Jews. Furthermore, if Weisz is correct that Wusida is a Persian word used in the 1489 stele, then also missing is a discussion dating the use of Persian or Judeo-Persian by Jews in the East and its introduction in Kaifeng.

Lastly, there is the issue whether the steles are reliable as history. The 1489 stone states that the founder of the Ming Dynasty (1328-1398 CE) donated the land upon which the Kaifeng Jews built their first synagogue. All scholars, including Weisz, acknowledge that land was donated by the earlier Song Emperor around 1163 CE. Thus the steles, which are our primary source of knowledge about the origin of Jews of Kaifeng, must be read with caution. Did the Jews, in seeking the approval of their sovereign, date the gift of land to a Ming Emperor while that dynasty still ruled over them; and did they date their entry into China to the time of Confucius, China's greatest and most influential philosopher, in an effort to show that they were as Chinese as their neighbors?