An Examination of the Bassa Narrative in Light of Biblical and Rabbinic Sources
In March 2014 I visited Cameroon to spend time with the Beth Yeshourun nascent Jewish community. This group sprung up from Evangelical Christians, who in the nineties adopted Judaism after identifying many contradictions in their previous beliefs.
I also wanted to meet other groups including tribes claiming Israelite or Jewish descent, and people interested in Noahidism. I met with two Israelite peoples, the Bassa and the Baleng.
In this paper I examine the Bassa case to Israeliteness. I detail their claimed history and ritual practice and attempt to discover parallels in biblical and rabbinic literature. While I do not assert that the Bassa are necessarily what they claim, I note many more parallels in their narrative than I have found in other tribes or groups I have studied. All information presented here is qualitative data based on interviews with tribesmen.
According to Historical Dictionary of Cameroon by DeLancey et al, 2010, the Bassa lived for centuries along the Cameroon coast around the port of Douala. They were displaced by the Duala tribe in the late 17th or early 18th century, forcing them inland to the east where they are still located today, largely along the main highway to Yaoundé.
DeLancey et al state that the Bassa were influenced politically and intellectually by the American Presbyterian Mission during the nineteenth century. I did not hear reference to this during my conversations with the tribesmen though it is clear that the Bassa were politically active during and after the colonial period.
We visited the Bassa's holy sacrificial site, some two hours travel along the main road from Yaoundé, followed by another two and a half hours on poorly maintained dirt roads. I was accompanied by one of the Bassa chiefs, Mr Song, and by Fredrick Ndawo (whose grandfather is a tribal elder and a priest, an hereditary position). Fredrick is also a member of the emerging Bnei Yeshourun community, recently joining them in order to “reconnect to his Jewish/Israelite roots”. Also travelling with us were three other non-Bassa members of the Bnei Yeshourun, including Israel Amir (Serge) Etele, the community's leader.
The Bassa Historical Narrative
The following is the Bassa historical narrative as related to me by Mr Song and Fredrick. I spent a full day with them learning about the Bassa. I subsequently met twice with Frederick to learn more about the tribe and to check that my notes were a correct understanding of the information they had provided to me. I also corresponded with him after I returned home to Israel. When he was unable to answer me himself, he referred my questions to other members of the tribe.
The Bassa claim to have been an integral part of the twelve tribes of the Children of Israel on their lengthy sojourn in Egypt. When Moses led his people out from Egypt, not all the Israelites left with him to go up to Israel. Many were perfectly content to remain, for economic or personal reasons. One of their number had even reached the rank of general in the Egyptian army. The political climate however changed when news of Pharaoh's dramatic defeat at the Red Sea reached back to Egypt. These remaining Children of Israel now feared that on his return home, Pharaoh would launch strong and violent racial attacks against them. To escape this persecution, the remaining Israelites, under the leadership of the general, Melek, now also fled Egypt, following the course of the Nile into sub-Saharan Africa, probably as far as today's South Sudan.
On their southward journey, the people noticed a mountainous black rock on the plain in the distance. As the rock appeared intriguing, they made their way towards it. However they never managed to reach it. It continually moved away from them to the west. A prophet amongst them prophesied that Elolom, the Bassa name for God, to whom they refer as the "God of the Creation", wanted them to follow this rock to its final resting spot. This would be the site of their new homeland, their promised land.
Water continuously gushed from the rock providing them with a supply of fresh water for their long journey across Africa. Whenever people quarrelled over water, its flow ceased. The only way to restart the supply was to sacrifice to Elolom.
The journey ended abruptly when the rock came crashing out of the sky onto the savanna below, forming a new mountain on the plain. It squashed the indigenous population living beneath its trajectory. All of these people, save one man and one woman, were killed in the fall. The descendants of this couple are the Bati tribe, whose chief and some tribesmen we met. The Bassa put the Bati into servitude, their task being the care and maintenance of the holy site, the black mountain and the surrounding area. In all of their history, which could be up to 3,500 years, the Bati never grew beyond a few hundred souls; today they number a mere one hundred according to Mr Song. They continue to fulfil their caretaker role on behalf of the Bassa, even though as we shall see, the site is not now in use. (The Joshua Project website, JoshuaProject.net, numbers the Bati at 2,600.)
Although we met with the Bati chief, I was unable to learn how the Bati viewed themselves and their role vis-a-vis the Bassa and the holy site. Today the Bati are Catholics. Unframed prints of the last two popes hang on the walls of the chief's house and the Bati have affixed a huge white cross to the summit of the black mountain.
Bassa Customs, Practices, Laws
“Bassa” means “conquerors” in Bantu. They refer to themselves thus not because they vanquished another people, but in the context of being “the conquerors of the territory” [sic].
Today the Bassa do not live adjacent to their holy site, the mountain they call Ngok Lituba, as do the Bati, though their villages are not overly distant. They live in a diffused social structure, in sub-tribal groups each with its own chief. This is a result of the Bassa's resistance to colonial rule; they were punished by the dispersing of their population.
Since Cameroonian independence in 1960, most Bassa have [been] converted to Christianity.
The Bassa use a seven day week. Their calendar is lunar-based. Thus years are not all of the same length. Did they intercalate? They must have some form of adjustment as the Gansai festival is always between September and November. Without leap days or months, their calendar would cycle over 35 years as does the Moslem calendar.
Shabath is a special day. No farming work is carried out and everyone stays in their village. It is a day to spend with family: relaxing, dancing, drinking and eating. The priests visit and pray to Elolom with individual families.
The Gansai Festival of Purification
Each year, at some time “between the ninth and eleventh month” (of the solar calendar), the Bassa hold a seven-day festival called Gansai, meaning "festival of purification". They gather at their sacred site at the foot of the black mountain. Here they purify themselves by rubbing their bodies with leaves from an Izob tree (similar sound to hyssop, in Hebrew ayzov; I have written it here as they pronounced it in French; the tree they pointed out to me as an Izob is not the hyssop bush with which I am familiar in Israel). They then immerse in the nearby "Liwa River".
Following this immersion, all one's sins are forgiven and people with incurable diseases are miraculously healed.
This purification rite is followed by the sacrifice of male sheep, "just like Avraham did on Mount Moriah" [sic]. Blood is sprinkled on all the participants at the Gansai.
The number of sheep slaughtered is determined by a combination of family size and wealth. They related to me by way of example a family of nine, who, if they can afford it, would slaughter nine sheep, one per family member. Another family of nine of lower economic status may slaughter only one or two sheep if this is all they can afford.
Sheep may be of any age, as long as they have been weaned.
The Bafya and Yambassa tribes live in the vicinity of the sacrifice site. They come to eat from the sacrificial meat even though they do not participate in the ritual purification. Using the example above, a family of nine sacrificing nine sheep, would have ample meat to share. When there is surplus meat, the Bassa choose the best parts for themselves, giving the remainder to members of the other tribes.
Pilgrims return home with blood from the sacrifices and water from the river for those who did not attend the festival because of illness or other reason. They sprinkle the blood on them, and wash them with the river water mixed with local water. As is the case with the people who were at the festival, all sins of these non-attendees are forgiven and their ailments are all cured.
Some of the priests' sacrifices are entirely burnt to Elolom, while others are partially burnt, implying partially eaten. The priests perform their own sacrifices only after the people are sent home, viz. after the non-priestly population has completed its purification and has eaten and shared out its sheep. The priests build an altar of stones and arrange fire on it. This does not appear to have been done by the regular population.
The Bassa no longer observe the Gansai week. One of the reasons is that since the sixties, many have embraced Christianity. The church leaders preach that these sacrifices are satanic [sic] and this has adversely effected the Bassa's ancient practices. Another reason is that the Bassa were on the losing side of the Cameroon civil war in the sixties. Subsequently the government feared that allowing the Bassa to congregate in large numbers in one location for a full week, could lead to sedition. In the first years following the government ban, a few, mainly priests, did (attempt to) continue the practice. Some of them were killed by the national armed forces who were waiting for them at the site.
Today some of the priests would like to renew the Gansai festival. Sadly the number of priests is quickly diminishing as many of their children are reluctant to follow their fathers' ways and learn their heritage.
In addition to their participation in local prayers and at the Gansai sacrifices, the priests assume the role of the tribe's judges. When I asked by which legal system they judge, they told me they use a traditional system passed down through the generations, based on the Ten Commandments. In response to my question noting that these commandments were given to the Children of Israel fifty days after their departure from Egypt, once they were well separated from the Bassa, they answered that these laws (the Ten Commandments and other Torah precepts) were formally presented to the Israelites in the desert at Sinai, but already existed in Egypt as “natural law” observed by all the tribes.
When I asked about shabath, they answered that yes, they already observed the shabath as a day of total rest in Egypt.
The Bassa hold an annual festival following the harvest. They do this in their villages and not at the black mountain. During this festival male sheep are “sacrificed” by the priests. After a sheep is slaughtered, the priest makes a pronouncement, following which the meat is cooked. (It is not clear to me exactly what they mean by “sacrifice” in this context. As in the case of the common people's sacrifice at the Gansai, I believe it means slaughtering with the purpose of eating as part of a religious festival.) If there are insufficient priests to visit each individual family, the families take their sheep to the priest and slaughter it in his presence.
All present eat the meat from one plate. Then they share the food, with women, children and men dining in separate groups. Once you are assigned to a specific group, you may only eat within that group; you are not permitted to move and join another until all the food has been consumed. This festival takes place at the start of the rainy season, around March, April. Not all the harvest needs to have been ingathered before the festival can take place; however a majority of the people must have commenced harvesting.
The Bassa do not eat meat that was killed by a lion and from which a lion ate. They do not eat animals that died without manual slaughter. As a general rule they “only eat the animals that are allowed in Leviticus”.
Fredrick reported that some old people in his village used to eat snakes and rats. Those people were known for their extreme wickedness.
Before slaughtering an animal, the Bassa dig a hole in the ground. The slaughterer ensures the knife is very sharp. Blood must fall into the hole. They do not move the animal until all the blood has drained out.
The Bassa do not milk their animals.
Priests do not eat much meat as they believe doing so reduces their power to prevent calamities.
On the day of a boy's birth, a priest, standing outside the house where the baby was born, mixes water with leaves from an Izob tree. He throws this water onto the roof. He then holds the baby so that some water falls back onto the infant. The priest makes predictions concerning what will become of the boy in the future, e.g. a warrior [sic]. He confers on the baby a nickname symbolising this prophesied future. People close to the child may use this name as he is growing up in order to encourage him to fulfil the prophesy or to help him fulfil a specific mission that may require the attributes implied by the name. Otherwise the name is not used after a baby boy's first week of life.
The Bassa circumcise their sons on their eighth day (they describe it as the seventh day, but they don't include the day of birth in the count). On the day after the circumcision they hold a festival, which includes a sacrifice. The baby boy receives his "real" name on this (the ninth) day.
Girls are conferred their names on the sixth day after birth.
I asked if they practice any form of polygamy, viz. marriage between many spouses. They told me that they practice polygyny, one man being married to more than one wife at the same time. They consider a man with only one wife to not yet really be married. They forbid polyandry, one woman married to more than one husband at the same time. My latter question elicited laughter.
Marriages are arrangements between two families. The groom's father gives a gold or ivory bracelet to the girl indicating her betrothed status. This usually occurs between ages fourteen and seventeen. If the girl is younger when the marriage arrangement is agreed upon, the groom's family takes the young bride to their home where they bring her up. She sleeps in the same room as her mother-in-law until she is old enough to be with the prospective husband. This is often the custom with the son of a priest, where it is important to train the girl in her responsibilities in her future role as a priest's wife. However, as priests usually marry daughters of other priests, this arrangement is generally unnecessary as the girl would have already learnt these duties from her own mother.
A prospective husband's family pays a dowry to the bride's family. This generally consists of sheep, jewellery, ivory, kola nuts and wine. All arrangements are carried out by mutual arrangement between the two parties; there are no set rules. However by custom, the dowry should comprise seventy items.
If a man cannot afford a dowry, he may work for the wife's family to cover the costs. He only receives his wife at the end of the pre-agreed work period.
Before their weddings, virgins perform a purification in the village similar to that at the Gansai festival.
If after the wedding night, it is found that the bride was not a virgin, the marriage is annulled and all financial arrangements thereof are cancelled. The bride's family must return everything to the groom. Older women from the groom's family (attempt to) check the virginity of the prospective bride before the wedding. (I do not know what form this appraisal may take.)
The marriage ceremony involves the groom's family coming to the bride's parents' house to partake in a festive meal. A priest attends the celebration, blessing the bride before she leaves to go home with the groom.
Adulterous women are executed by stoning.
There need to be serious motives before a divorce can be granted. In cases where it is, there is a special ceremony. The divorced woman is then free to remarry.
A priest's widow may only marry another priest. She is not allowed to marry a commoner.
The Bassa do not give their women in marriage to tribes whose men are not circumcised.
A Bassa man may not marry a non-Bassa woman. They see this as bringing foreign cultural values into their society, something they see as potentially damaging. Some of Bassa sub-tribes more easily accept women from outside the tribe, commonly from the Eton (sounds like Itoon in their pronunciation) or Ewondo tribes as these tribes are said to be related to the Bassa. A propos, Israel Amir is from the Eton tribe.
Menstruation and Purification
A menstruating wife does not share a bedroom with her husband. Nor is she is permitted to cook for the family. Eight days after seeing blood, the woman immerses herself in a spring into which she first throws Izob leaves. Then she goes to a river and immerses again. A priest purifies the home by sprinkling it with water mixed with Izob leaves.
Men perform a similar purification ritual after recovering from a sexually transmitted disease.
Priests perform purification after any sexual relations; this is optional for commoners.
Following a funeral, a similar purification rite is performed by all attendees.
Death and Mourning
Children under the age of four are buried on the day they die. Until that age they are not yet considered to be a person, just a mass of blood. They are buried behind the home, in an open place onto which rain can fall. (It is very common in rural Cameroon for people to be buried in their home yards. You often see a marble or concrete grave marker outside a house.)
For other burials, the Bassa have fixed cemeteries.
If a person dies from age four until before one has his or her own offspring, it is considered very sad as there is no progeny “and there is a lot of crying”. These people are usually buried only after a couple of days, never on the day of demise. A shaft is dug vertically downwards, and at a certain depth, across horizontally. The body is placed in the horizontal section.
The grave of a person who dies already having children is the same; however it is considered much less sad and there is less crying.
Bodies are wrapped in something that reminded me of mummy bandages.
Generally, women do not attend funerals; exceptions include old women and close relatives. A pregnant woman is not allowed to attend a funeral under any circumstance. Following a funeral, all attending women must also perform the purification process described above.
A nine day mourning period is observed from the time of burial. Five days after a married man's interment, his widow goes to the grave. In a “word” ceremony, an elder declares to the widow that when she again sees her husband, it should be only for good. When I questioned what this meant, they presented the example of meeting in a dream. The elder places a pot plant on the grave, indicating that the soul has now departed from the site.
Murdering someone, even a small child, intentionally, is punishable by death. I asked why, if in the case of the natural death of a young child they practise a different burial rite because a child is considered no more than a mass of blood, when someone takes the life of a young child, should he perhaps be guilty of something less than premeditated murder. They saw the point of my question, but responded that this was their tradition.
A manslaughterer is considered to be an unfortunate person. Certain ceremonies are performed to atone for his situation, including financial compensation to the murdered man's family, or the giving of the manslaughterer's daughter in marriage to the dead man's son without a dowry.
Incest incurs the death penalty. Marrying cousins, to five and sometimes to ten generations, is considered incest. I believe the difference in the number of generations is a variation in sub-tribal practice. (cf. Han Chinese have a similar definition of incest.)
Death penalty is carried out by stoning. Before the execution, the condemned person is made drunk. Stoning takes place on a river bank, performed by a subgroup of priests called Oom (regular priests are called Mbombock). Executing by a river allows the Oom to immediately purify themselves in its waters. Any Oom, who has actually carried out an execution, may never again bless the people.
The guilty person is stoned naked and buried naked near the execution site (not in a fixed cemetery) on the day of execution. His clothes are thrown into the grave and his other possessions are burnt. In exceptional cases his house may be burnt down. This can occur even if the executed person has family living in that house. Responsibility for the care of the executed man's widow and orphans falls on his relatives.
Women are also tried, and stoned if found guilty of a capital crime.
If someone kills another person, he flees to his mother's brother's village, viz. his maternal ancestral home. No-one is allowed to remove him from there, unless the judges decide that his crime was intentional/premeditated. The villagers will then force him to leave and he will be executed. In the case where it is deemed that death was by accident, the manslaughterer remains in that village. After a certain (unspecified) time, he may leave this village of refuge, but he may not return to his original sub-tribe. Another sub-tribe must adopt him.
The Bassa claim that over the long millennia they have longed to reconnect with the Israelites from whom they were separated in Egypt.
In 1960, there were about 400,000 Bassa in Cameroon. Fredrick believes that today there are more than two million. They represent 12% of the population of Cameroon.
There is information on some websites concerning a man called [Rabbi] Yisrael Oriel, formerly Bodol Ngimbus-Ngimbus. He asserts to be from the Bassa and claims there are remnants of a synagogue built by his grandfather in his former village in the thirties, and subsequently destroyed in the sixties. He was a leader in the opposition movement during the civil war and was forced to flee Cameroon. He claims that the Bassa came from Egypt to escape Islam 1,200 years ago.
The two Bassa tribesmen with whom I met have never heard of Rabbi Oriel nor of the Bassa synagogue. I have repeatedly attempted to contact Oriel, but other than to accept my Facebook friend request, he has not responded. His Facebook page still exists but has not been updated since 2013.
Discussion and Analysis
Similarities and Differences
Not all the Israelites left Egypt with Moshe. There are various midrashim claiming that up to 80% of the Israelites did not desire to leave Egypt. These sources imply that those who wanted to stay were killed during the last two plagues. I think, however, that could be wishful thinking and one could conclude that not all of the people left with Moshe, nor died in Egypt. At this juncture I do not wish to enter into a discussion about whether midrashim are merely parables or are based on oral traditions; rather I wish to demonstrate that rabbinic literature entertains the fact that only 20% of the Israelites left with Moshe (Rashi Ex 13:18 basing himself on M'hilta, Tanhuma, Raba and Shimoni; some versions hyperbolise 2% and 0.2%).
Many were perfectly content to remain in Egypt for economic or personal reasons. This may seem to contradict the fact that the Israelites were all enslaved. And indeed not all were. Members of the tribe of Levi were never slaves. Levi was by far the smallest tribe in the desert. Could this be connected to many of their number remaining behind?
The exodus from Egypt was led by a man called Melek. This is very similar to the Hebrew title Melekh, king. 'k' and 'kh' in Hebrew are interchangeable, depending on the linguistic structure of the word. Interestingly Rashi notes that Yosef took his five “weakest looking” brothers to meet Pharaoh, fearing that his [stronger] brothers would be conscripted as senior officers into Pharaoh's army (Deut 33:18 – cf Rashi on Gen 47:2).
The name the Bassa use for God, Elolom, is interesting. In their native Bantu language it means, “Ancient of Days”. In Daniel 7:9, God is referred to by this title (Atik Yamin), and it is also one of the epithets of God in Kabalistic literature.
It has a linguistic similarity to the Hebrew words, El Olam (cf. Genesis 21:23) or El Olom depending on which pronunciation you use. (In today's Hebrew there are three main vowel pronunciations and it is difficult know what was used at different times in the past.) Note also that the word Olam begins with the guttural, almost silent, ayin. I don't know if this pharyngeal exists in Bantu. El Olam means God of the World or God of the Universe. The first syllable, one of the Torah's names for God, derives from the Hebrew root el, strength. This was one of the names used in the Torah before the Exodus. Only at the time of the Exodus was the four letter name of God revealed to Moshe (Ex 6:3). The analogy to God being the king or master of the world or universe is a recurrent theme in Jewish liturgy.
On the other hand, Elolom is also close to the Hebrew word Elilim meaning false gods or idols. Rashi and Ibn Ezra (Lev 19:4) point out that this comes from the similar Hebrew root al, 'not', implying a negation (spelt with the totally silent alef, and not the guttural ayin).
[Torah] already existed in Egypt. There are midrashim which claim that the forefathers observed the entire Torah. If this is true, then one could imagine the Israelites in Egypt keeping the Torah dietary laws. Rambam in the Laws of Kings and Their Wars 9:1, states that the commandments that were added to the seven universal Noahide laws before the Exodus were circumcision, tithing, not eating the sinew of the hind leg, commanded to Avraham, Yitshak and Ya'akov respectively. The three also established fixed prayer times (Talmud B'rakhoth 26b). Thus all descendants of Avraham are required, in addition to the seven Noahide laws, to be circumcised; of Yitshak to also separate tithes and of Ya'akov to also refrain from eating the sciatic nerve. Rambam notes that Amram, Moshe's father and the leader of the Israelites, added other commandments in Egypt, without specifying. The classical commentators on Rambam state that they do not know to what he is referring. However, according to Sh'moth Raba 1:28, Moshe convinced Pharaoh to introduce shabath in Egypt as a way of making the Israelites more productive on the other six days by giving them a day off from work.
Water continuously gushed from the rock as they travelled across Africa. A well followed the Children of Israel on their journey across the desert. It ceased providing water only after Miriam died in the fortieth year (Talmud Ta'anith 9a).
The imagery of water as a flash point in their journey to their promised land is a common theme in both Bassa and biblical narratives.
The black mountain the Bassa were following came crashing down from the sky onto the savanna below indicating their arrival at their final destination. While not indicating a geographic location, the imagery of a mountain being carried is mentioned in Talmud B'rakhoth when, Og, the giant king of Bashan, tried to kill the entire unsuspecting Israelite population by carrying a mountain to drop on them (Rashi Num 22:1). This is reminiscent of the Bassa mountain falling out of the sky onto the unsuspecting Bati. Also Talmud Shabath 88a tells us that God coerced the Israelites to accept the Torah by bending Mount Sinai over them like a barrel, saying “if you accept the Torah, well and good, but if not, this will be your burial place”.
The Bassa have a seven day week and the seventh is a rest day. This is not as intuitive as many may believe. Unlike a day, month or year, which are tied to natural phenomena, a week is not bound to any natural event. A seven day week is based on a most unnatural number, seven being prime and not evenly factoring into a month or a year. The Baleng for example have an eight day week, observing shabath on the last day of that week, refraining from work etc. An eight day week has advantages; for example there is a half and quarter week. It may be nice to assume the seven day week comes from the Genesis creation story; however it is based on the seven known planets of the ancient world. This concept is partially preserved in the English and French names for the days of the week. Were the seven planets known to the ancient Israelites familiar to tribes living equatorial Africa? (cf Sefer Yetsira 4:6, 7)
It is claimed that the earliest use of a seven day week was in Babylonia, where the fourth week was extended by a day or two to round off with the lunar month (of twenty-nine and a half days). The fact that today we accept a seven day week as a given, even defined by an international standard ISO 8601, should not be taken for granted. France switched to a ten day week in 1793, only to switch back to a seven-day week in 1802. In 1929, the USSR discontinued the seven day week for a five day, and later, a six day week. While they still named the days according to their old seven day week, work schedules were rotated in five- and six-day periods. They reintroduced the seven day week in 1940.
Other than at the Gansai, the Bassa could sacrifice in any location. Non centralised sacrifice was allowed to the Children of Israel until the Exodus. Based on their narrative, the last thing the Bassa would have seen in Egypt was the pascal sacrifice where a lamb or kid was slaughtered and eaten by the participants in individual households. There were two short periods in Israelite history where private altars were again permitted: during the 14 years of conquest and settling the Land under Joshua and the 57 years following the destruction of the Tabernacle at Shilo. Following the building of the Solomon's Temple, all non-centralised sacrifice was banned. However the bible reports multiple times that many continued to sacrifice on private altars during the entire First Temple period, much to the chagrin of the prophets.
All the people gathering in one place for the Gansai festival. This is reminiscent of the three pilgrim festivals where all of Israel gathered from around the entire country, initially at the Tabernacle in Shilo, and then at the Temple in Yerushalayim, each bringing his own sacrifices.
Some of the priests' animals are entirely burnt to Elolom. The daily Tamid sacrifice, offered by the priests in the Temple on behalf of all Israel, was totally burnt.
People unable to attend the Gansai festival are washed with regular water mixed with water from the Liwa River. Mixing pure water with regular water is a motif in halakha. Every manmade mikve uses a mixture of rain water and drawn water. Also the sprinkling purification by water mixed with the ashes of the red heifer, which itself could only be burnt opposite the Temple or Tabernacle, could be carried out anywhere.
Following a ritual immersion during the Gansai, all sins are forgiven. This is similar in concept to the mere occurrence of Yom Kipur causing all sins to be forgiven. God, in relation to forgiving sins, is described as Mikve Yisrael, the ritual bath (alternatively means the hope) of Israel. Additionally Ezek 36:25, "And I will sprinkle pure water onto you, and you will be clean from all your defilements and from all your idols, and you will be purified".
Following a ritual immersion during the Gansai, people with incurable diseases are miraculously cured. On receiving the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, all people with diseases and physical disabilities (such as “blindness, mutism and deafness”) were miraculously cured (Rashi on Ex 19 and 21).
The harvest festival takes place at the start of the rainy season, after the commencement, not necessarily the completion, of the harvest. The biblical festival, Sukoth, is the holiday of the completion of the annual harvest – the ingathering. It takes place before the rainy season. (Note that olives are generally harvested after Sukoth.)
At the harvest festival, once assigned to a specific group, one could only eat with that group. This is reminiscent of the pascal lamb where one must register with a specific group for a specified animal. Once the meal has commenced, one may not transfer to another group, even if it is situated in another corner of the same room. However there was no separation of men, women and children. As the first pascal sacrifice was in Egypt, the Bassa would have witnessed or taken part.
At the harvest festival, families may take their sheep to the priest and slaughter it in his presence. While all tasks in the Temple relating to sacrifice had to be performed by the cohanim, the slaughter was also permitted to the person who brought the sacrifice (Mishna Z'vahim 3:1).
The use of water for purification coupled with Izob. Could the Bassa have the correct name for the wrong tree? Because hyssop does not grow in Cameroon did they have to find a phonetically similar replacement? The hyssop is mentioned in the Torah in relation to purification ceremonies, both in the preparation of the ashes of the red heifer and also for the application of these ashes mixed with water to purify those who have come in contact with dead bodies (Num 19).
Sacrificial sheep can be of any age, as long they have been weaned. The Torah's restriction for the age of sacrificial animals is eight days old (Lev 22:27). While the Bassa only use a male sheep, the Torah specifies female or male animals for different sacrifices. E.g. the pascal lamb had to be a male sheep or goat less than one year old (Ex 12:5). The Torah has an additional restriction, viz that a (female) animal and her offspring, no matter what age, may not be slaughtered on the same day, whether for sacrificial use or for regular eating (Lev 22:28).
The priests are the judges. This probably never occurred exclusively in Israelite history, though it is indicated in Deut 16:9. Rashi notes that as the cohanim did not need to work the land, living from tithes and other gifts, they had ample free time to study the law and become experts. The Sanhedrin, the High Court, which had to be located in the grounds of the Temple compound, was never exclusively manned by cohanim. There was a court of cohanim which seems to have dealt with Temple specific issues (Mishna Rosh haShana 1:7). However Yehezkel 44:24, speaking about the future Temple says, "And in a controversy they [the cohanim] will stand to judge; according to My ordinances they will judge...".
Oom, who have carried out a stoning, may never again bless the people. A cohen who has killed anyone, even in an obligatory war or by accident, is invalid to again bless the people (Rambam, Laws of Prayer and Priestly Blessing 15:3). Why do the Bassa priests carry out the execution rather than regular members of the tribe? Could it be that as the priests are uniquely the judges, they must carry out their judgement themselves? Perhaps this parallels the Torah requirement that the witnesses throw the first stones? That an intimate involvement with the trial is tested by having to cast the stones in the irreversible punishment? (cf. Deut 16:5-7)
Stoning as a death penalty, including inducing a not fully coherent state. The first case of stoning in the Bible is in Lev 24:23, "And they took the blasphemer out of the camp, and stoned him...". This was archetypical that all future stonings was held "outside" of populated areas. The Torah specifies four forms of execution, of which stoning is but one. In each form the person to be executed was made drunk (Talmud Sanhedrin).
A murderer running to a place of legal refuge until a case of premeditated murder can be proven. Six cities of refuge (plus the 42 levitical cities) were set aside in Israel for this purpose. A premeditated murderer, who took refuge in one of these cities, was forcibly removed for execution, while an accidental murderer remained there protected (Num 35:10-34, Deut 4:41-43, 19). According to the Talmud Makoth the 42 Levitical cities also served this purpose.
Sprinkling of sacrificial blood on participants. While the Bassa do this every year at the Gansai, the Children of Israel did it only once on a universal scale, at Mount Sinai (Ex 24:8). There are specific sacrifices in which sprinkling blood on a person is involved, e.g. the purification of a leper (Lev 14:14) and the consecration of Aaron and his sons (Lev 7:23-24).
A priest's widow could only marry another priest. This parallels Ezekiel's prophesy (44:22), whereupon a priest could not marry a widow, unless it is the widow of another priest. This differs from Torah law wherein a common priest may marry a widow but not a divorcee, and a late priest's wife is free to marry any man, the practice that has been followed until today.
A Bassa man may not marry a non-Bassa woman. “Do not intermarry with them; do not give your daughter to their son; and his daughter do not take for your son, for she will turn your son away from following Me, to serve other gods” (Deut 7:3-4). “Now do not give your daughters to their sons, nor take their daughters for your sons . . . that you will be strong and eat the good of the Land and leave it for an inheritance to your children for ever.” (Ezra 9:12)
Circumcision is performed on the eighth day (Gen 17:12, Lev 12:3).
The priest confers on the baby boy a nickname symbolising this future. At the time a mother names her child she is temporarily bestowed ruah hakodesh, the lowest form of prophesy (which very few people otherwise ever are able to achieve). This is so the child's name will be appropriate for his personality (Talmud B'rakhoth 7, Responsa of the Rashba). Talmud Yoma 83b reports on people who were able to assess others' personalities based solely on their names.
Marrying a non-virgin when the bride who is supposed to be a virgin is considered a mistaken transaction, and the financial readjustments need to be made. There are parallels to this in halakha. (Deut 22, 11-23 being the extreme case where fraud was intended, to cases from the time of the Talmud until our times before rabbinical courts in Israel).
Ritual immersion eight days after sighting menstrual blood (Lev 13, 15:14, 15:29).
A post menstruating woman immerses herself in a spring . . . then she goes to a river and immerses again. Some Jewish immersions are performed in a mikve or river, others in a spring. However there is never a need to do both for one purification. (For a possible contrary custom see Rabienu Tam on Shabath 13b.)
Purification by men following a sexually transmitted condition. This is parallel to a zav (Lev 16). At the end of seven clean days after emissions cease, the man is required to launder his clothes and bathe in a spring. On the following day he is required to bring an offering of two birds to the Temple.
Priests perform purification after any sexual relations. This is similar to the law of a Ba'al Keri, someone who has emitted semen in any event (Lev 15:16). The restrictions were largely abolished in the time of Ezra but some people still follow this practice today (Talmud B'rakhoth 22b).
A man who has no money for a dowry may work for his prospective father-in-law to earn his wife. He must complete the work before he receives the wife. This is what Ya'akov had to do, twice, in order to marry Lavan's two daughters (Gen 2).
They don't give their women in marriage to other tribes whose men are not circumcised. This is what Ya'akov and his sons told Sh'khem (Gen 34) after he kidnapped their sister.
Digging a hole to catch the blood of a slaughtered animal. Like the Lemba, who have a similar custom, the Bassa seem to have confused the necessity to cover blood from fowl and game animals such as deer, with that of domestic animals where no covering is necessary (Lev 17:13).
The Bassa burial practice reminds me of a combination of two other burial forms:
Following a funeral, a purification rite is also performed by all attendees. This parallels the Torah ritual impurity imparted by a dead body or a grave, requiring purification by sprinkling of the ashes of the red heifer mixed with water. (Num 19).
Children under the age of four are not yet considered to be a person, just a mass of blood. Judaism has a similar concept, but until the age of one month. There is no mourning for a child who dies before this age as one is only considered a viable human once living past 30 days (Rambam, Laws of Mourning 1:6). This may be why the redemption of a first born son does not take place earlier (Rambam, Laws of Bikurim 11:17).
Following burial, the Bassa observe a nine day mourning period. Jews observe two levels of mourning, seven days and thirty days (which includes the first seven). The Torah talks about thirty mourning days after the deaths of Miriam, Aharon and Moshe.
They judge using the Ten Commandments which by their own narrative they never received. Their claim that the Ten Commandments were already used in Egypt, though they had not been formally presented by God, is not a strong argument. Although we have a tradition that the forefathers kept the entire Torah, I believe that it is unlikely that the Israelites practised all the Torah commandments in Egypt (other than perhaps the three mentioned explicitly in the Torah in B'reshith). There are midrashim which speak of the Israelites in Egypt reaching the lowest level of impurity, implying that they kept little or none of their forefathers' traditions.
Not listing the animals they may not eat, but referring me to Leviticus which they could never have possessed. Again they could always make the claim, as they do for the Ten Commandments, that they already had this custom in Egypt and they were referring to the written source with which I would be familiar.
A menstruating wife does not share a bedroom with her husband. This is not uncommon in Africa but does not appear to my knowledge in Jewish sources.
A menstruating wife does not cook for her family. This is the Samaritan practice today. It should however be noted that during during Temple times, if a cohen's wife, who is menstruating, touched tithes, they would become invalid. For other, non-sacred food, there was no problem with a menstruating woman touching or cooking food.
Priests do not eat much meat. The opposite seems to be true re the cohanim during Temple times. The Talmud refers to the propensity of intestinal disease amongst the cohanim due to the large quantity of meat they consumed both as their share of sacrifices and from gifts they received from every non-sacred animal slaughtered.
If DeLancey et al are correct, the original area occupied by the Bassa is quite far from their holy site, over three hundred kilometres. It is possible that they moved to the coast from the area around the black mountain at some time much earlier for economic reasons, such as fishing, and returned to the area due the hostility of other tribes on the Atlantic coast. I have not seen any evidence for this scenario.
I have identified the tree they refer to as Izob. It is a tree called similarly azobe or azobé (Lophira alata) and is a large rainforest variety, common to the region. It is also called 'ironwood' because of the very heavy and hard nature of its timber. It is interesting that the Bassa use the azobe in their ritual purification. There is an obvious linguistic similarity between azobe and the Hebrew aizov, the hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis or Origanum syriacum). According to the Torah, the hyssop is used for sprinkling purification waters (Lev 14:4, Num 19:18) and also as a component in making the purifying waters (Num 19:6). While we are currently uncertain as to exactly which species is the aizov, it is generally narrowed down to one of three small bushes, not tall tropical trees, and all of which grow in Israel.
While there are similarities in the Bassa practice of execution by stoning, they do not hang the body until sunset as required by the Torah (Deut 20:22). The Bassa use priestly executioners, and they do it by a river, while the Talmud implies that the execution was carried out in the vicinity of the court. While the Torah specifies four types of execution, the Bassa seem to only know of stoning.
As a result of missionary activity in Africa over the last two hundred years, including the translation of the Bible into many African languages, claims by Africans (and Asians) that they are descended from the lost tribes of Israel must be treated with cautious scepticism. As the missionaries had an ideological necessity to locate the lost tribes, any group which they felt may fit their criteria, naturally played along with the concept for their own benefit as “favourites” of the colonial powers. And this encouraged the missionaries to further build the myth.
Thus one must be careful when examining presented histories and evidence, not to lead those relating their story by revealing the intentions of our questions, propelling them into certain directions. With today's information explosion, it is too easy to embellish a narrative with newly found information.
What I find unique and fascinating about the Bassa is that, while their story seems as strange as many others, they present evidence that is little known even in educated Jewish circles. Their rites contain many interesting parallels to Israelite and Jewish practice and sources. It is interesting that the Bassa are able weave in so much parallel detail and so many subplots, which relate well to halakhic tradition and practice. It is unlikely that over the centuries the Bassa met any Jews who could have supplemented their narrative (is it possible that former Portuguese Jews settle in Cape Verde may have come to their area?).
I have not “proven” common descent between the Bassa, who remained, and Israelites, who left, Egypt (even if this split occurred at any time after the Exodus). What I believe I have shown is that rabbinic literature can support some commonality in history and practice between the two groups. I think other explanations can be brought to explain seeming similarities, but that is not the scope of the current paper.
I note that it is difficult, based on meetings with only two members of the one sub-tribe, to make a decision on the veracity of any claims. I strongly recommend further research into the Bassa traditions with members of other sub-tribes. Sadly the Bassa themselves are quickly forgetting their tradition and it may soon be too late.
Fredrick recently reported meeting Bassa in Congo. This is a new revelation and one that should be followed up in terms of historical narrative, customs and language. The claim could be made that not all the Bassa followed Melek and the black mountain all the way to Cameroon, but stopped off on the way.