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16 November 2023, Gateway House

Port of Bombay and its Jewish Communities

Eighteenth century Bombay was home to two Jewish communities: Marathi-speaking Bene-Israel Jews and Judeo-Arabic-speaking Baghdadi Jews. The city was a a major hub for employment, business, religious, community, and cultural life. These activities were formerly dispersed among many hubs across the Middle-East for the Baghdadi Jews, and among the villages of the North Konkan for the Bene-Israel.

Bombay History Fellow

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“The island city of Bombay has a special place in the hearts of India’s Jewish communities. It was here, in the 18th century, that two very different and diverse Jewish communities resided. The native Marathi-speaking Bene-Israel (lit. children of Israel)[1] community, and the religiously conversant, trading community of Judeo-Arabic-speaking Baghdadi Jews known as Yahudis to Indians.[2] It would be relevant here to point out that the Baghdadis are the community responsible for leaving behind the voluminous trading records found in the Genizah[3] of the synagogue at Fustat[4], known simply as the Cairo Genizah.

According to the Gazetteer of Bombay City and Island (1909), the first Bene-Israel settled in 1749, during English East India Company rule of the seven islands of Bombay. It is probable that members of the community may have visited the islands even under Portuguese rule, but may not have resided here due to the fear of proselytisation by the many Catholic orders established on the islands.[5]

There are two important inferences that can be made here. Despite a millennium of isolation on the Konkan Coast, the community zealously guarded its religious identity. By the 10th century they were identified as being a Judaic community because of their observance of kashruth (Jewish dietary laws), the religious ritual of berith millah (circumcision) on the eighth day after birth for baby boys, and more interestingly their observance of the correct days of the Jewish Pesach (Passover) and the High Holy Days.[6]

Studies on the origins of this community agree that they were dispersed prior to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C E, as they referred to themselves as Israel Lok and not Jews.[7] The destruction of the Kingdom of Israel and its capital Samaria took place much earlier in 175 B.C.E., 245 years before the Second Temple in Jerusalem the capital city of the Kingdom of Judah, was destroyed.[8] In their pristine state, before the Bene-Israel were re-inducted into mainstream Judaism in the late medieval period, they observed outdated festivals like the `Day of Rejoicing of the Temple Priest’, which is observed the day after Yom Kippur,[9] they did not observe the Ninth of Av which marks the saddest day in the Jewish Calendar – the destruction of both the First and the Second Temple in Jerusalem – which indicates they were unaware of the destruction of the Temple. These point to the fact that they left before these events took place.[10]

To get a feel of the Bene-Israel community in their village homeland, a trip to the North Konkan is a must. Even today, if you ask for directions to the Jewish synagogues in Alibaug, Panvel, Pen, and Borlai, you will probably be met with blank looks. The correct way to ask for directions is, `Israel lokache masjid koothe ahey?’ (Where is the masjid of the (Bene) Israel people?) This simple question gives not just an insight into the degree of cultural integration of the Bene-Israel with the local Hindu and Muslim communities but also shows that they were like the Muslims outside the Hindu caste structure, given the fact that they are Kitabis (people of the Book), and their synagogues (house of prayer where the Torah scrolls are kept) are referred to as the Muslim masjids and not devals (temples) that house a deity.[11]

Another notable feature of the community was military service in the armies of local rulers, like the Mughal Abyssinian admirals, the Sidis of Janjira, and the Maratha rulers. Their enthusiasm to join the armies of native rulers is far out of proportion to their small numbers in the Konkan.[12] It was the prospect of joining the English East India Company’s native regiments in Bombay that made them cross the harbour to the developing island city in the early 18th century. In his book The History Of The Bene Israel Of India (1937), Haeem Samuel Kehimkar points out that “the Bene Israel who came first to Bombay had their sons enlisted in the British army as early as in 1760”. He mentions the earliest immigrants being a member of the Awaskar family, who took the agnomen “Mombaikar”, and Hassaji Divakar (alt. Divekar) of Janjira State, whose sons Samuel (Samaji) and Ezekial (Essaji) earned a name for themselves in the Second Mysore War. Samuel Street in Bombay is named after Samaji, who also founded and built the first Bene Israel synagogue in 1796 on this very street.

The first settler among the Baghdadi merchants[13] was the prominent Surat merchant Joseph Semah, who moved to Bombay in 1830. Other sources reiterate that the first Arabian merchant to be considered as a settler in the city is Sliman Ya’aqob Sliman (Solomon Jacob Solomon).[14] Another early immigrant was the merchant Ya’aqob Semah Nissim. These early merchants were just a trickle into Bombay. What really opened the floodgates to Baghdadi Jewish immigration which combined with the growing importance and prosperity of Bombay after the decimation of Maratha power, was the persecution of the Jews by the cruel Turkish Wali (governor) of Baghdad, Daud Pasha.[15]

The three outstanding factors that converged together to attract the Baghdadi Jews to Bombay in the early 18th century, was firstly the growing commercial importance of Bombay. This choice was made easier by the fact that most of the Baghdadi traders across Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East enjoyed good commercial relations with agents of the English East India Company at Basra (Bussorah), Bandar Abbas (Gomroon), and on the west coast at Surat and Bombay.

The second factor was the persecution of the Jews in Baghdad. This attracted them to the island city where complete religious freedom was guaranteed to all communities since the time of Gerald Aungier, Governor of Bombay, 1669-77. Lastly, was the decision by David Sassoon to settle in Bombay with his wife and four children, in the year 1832, and more importantly the expansion of his business which led to the recruitment of Baghdadi Jews.

As the Baghdadi Jews are a transnational community, its organisation in the spheres of religious, community, social, and economic matters played a vital role in regulating both the personal and business life of its merchants. David Sassoon was the second son** of Sheikh Sassoon[16], the Sassoon family was among the important merchant families of Baghdad, and their patriarch (head) often was also the Nasi (spiritual) and community head of the Middle-Eastern Jews. David’s father Sheikh Sassoon ben Saleh Sassoon was appointed chief treasurer to the Pasha’s of Baghdad.[17]

It was because of their prominence that the Sassoon family became the target of a reign of terror and extortion unleashed by the governor of Baghdad Daud Pasha (1767-1851). Sheikh Sassoon’s second son David was imprisoned and later only released it is believed after his father paid a hefty ransom. Without spending even one night at home after his release, David escaped first to Basra and then to Bushire, always a step ahead of his pursuers, the Daud’s men. It was only after living for some years in Bushire, during which time his father died, and probably visiting Bombay in this interim, that he took the decision to finally make Bombay his home.[18]

This was a turning point for his community, as their spiritual and community head shifted his headquarters to the city. It is in this context that the community institutions built by the Sassoon family acquire greater meaning. As leader of the transnational Baghdadi Jews, David Sassoon was establishing the institutions necessary to lead a Jewish life – synagogues, schools, hospitals, and cemeteries – wherever he established a major Sassoon branch. Even today Sassoon institutions fulfil the function they were built for over a century ago. The Sir Jacob Sassoon School in Byculla (Mumbai), named after his grandson, prepares Jewish children for their Bar Mitzvah, a ceremony whereby Jewish boys are initiated into the faith and can henceforth be counted as part of the required synagogue quorum of ten Jewish adult men needed for prayer services to be conducted.”

Sifra Lentin is Fellow, Bombay History, Gateway House. 

This excerpt is from an article published in Journal Number 77 (2022-2023), pages 113-136 of the K R Cama Oriental Institute.

Copyright for the excerpts lies with the K R Cama Oriental Institute and cannot be reproduced in any form without the written permission of the Trustees of the K R Cama Oriental Institute.

Courtesy: The Trustees, The K R Cama Oriental Institute, Mumbai.


[1] The Bene-Israel are believed to be one of the Lost Ten Tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (922 to 722/21 BCE), till it was destroyed by the Assyrians. The capital of the Kingdom of Israel was Samaria. The Southern Kingdom of Judah (922 to 587 BCE), with its capital in Jerusalem continued to exist till the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. The Second Jewish temple was built between the years 520 to 515 BCE but was destroyed in 70 CE. However, the Bene-Israel are believed to have arrived sometime between 175 BCE and 70 CE to the Indian subcontinent. This conclusion has been arrived at because of the community’s ignorance of when in a pristine state (till they were discovered in the 11th CE), the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple.

[2] The Hindi word Yahudi is a generic term meaning a Jew, but it was often used to refer to the fairer Baghdadi Jew rather than the Bene Israel.

[3] A Genizah is a store-room in a synagogue, in which any letter or chit of paper which has the name of G-d is stored but never destroyed. It was because of this that a vast repository of medieval letters between Jewish merchants was uncovered at the Ben Ezra Synagogue at Fustat, Cairo.

[4] Fustat (Al-Fustat), was the first Muslim capital of Egypt and was founded in 641 CE by Umayyad Commander ‘Amr ibn al-‘As, on the east bank of the River Nile, south of Cairo. This city, which under the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs remained the capital city of a province, came into its own as an administrative, economic and trading hub, under the Fatimid rulers of Egypt. Although, nearby Cairo was the capital of Fatimid Egypt, Fustat was its financial and commercial capital. In 1166 Maimonides, the famous Jewish physician, settled in Fustat, where he gained renown as physician to the family of Saladin. It was here that he wrote his Mishneh Torah (1180) and The Guide for the Perplexed. Some of his writings were also discovered among the manuscript fragments in the genizah (storeroom) of the Ben Ezra Synagogue.

[5] Kehimkar, Haeem Samuel, The History of The Bene Israel Of India, Tel Aviv, Dayag Press, 1937, p. 77. Kehimkar further adds that Bene Israel preferred to settle in villages or towns close to forts, but they chose not to settle in the vicinity of the Portuguese fort at Revdanda or venture to Goa. He mentions another contributing factor for the late arrival of the Bene Israel in Bombay: the vulnerability of the islands to attacks by the Sidis, Marathas, Dutch, French, and English.

[6] Ibid.

[7] p. 77. Kehimkar further adds that Bene Israel preferred to settle in villages or towns close to forts, but they chose not to settle in the vicinity of the Portuguese fort at Revdanda or venture to Goa. He mentions another contributing factor for the late arrival of the Bene Israel in Bombay: the vulnerability of the islands to attacks by the Sidis, Marathas, Dutch, French, and English.

[8] This theory of origin is very similar to that of the Chitpavan Brahmins of the Konkan who were also shipwrecked. In the case of the Chitpavans, the bodies of their ancestors were placed on a pyre (chit), and with the heat of the burning pyre those assumed dead were revived. The parallels between the Bene Israel oral history and that of the Chitpavan Brahmins is pointed out by Shirley Berry Isenberg.

[9] This day of rejoicing was observed during the time of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, to celebrate the successful completion of all rituals and observances associated with the Ten Days of Awe, which begin with Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and ended with Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) during the month of Tishri (which falls approximately during the months of September and October). This was discontinued after the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple in 70 C.E.

[10] Op. Cit., Kehimkar, p. 23. Also, Isenberg, p. 118.

[11] Interestingly, the only glaring exception to this is the Baghdadi Jewish synagogue Lal Deval (Ohel David Synagogue) in Pune, which is referred to as Deval (temple) by locals.

[12] Op. Cit., Kehimkar, pp. 81-85.

[13] Manasseh, Rachel, Baghdadian Jews Of Bombay: their life & achievements, a personal and historical account, Midrash Ben Ish Hai, New York, 2013 , p. 38.

[14] Fischel, Walter, “Bombay in Jewish History in the Light of New Documents from the Indian Archives” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 1970-71, pg. 38-9 & 119-144 ; also, Manasseh, Rachel, Baghdadian Jews Of Bombay: their life & achievements, a personal and historical account ((Midrash Ben Ish Hai, New York, 2013), pp. 38-39.

[15] Roth, Cecil, The Sassoon Dynasty, Robert Hale Limited, London, 1941, pp. 32-33. Also. Jackson, Stanley. The Sassoon Dynasty, William Heinemann Ltd, London, 1968, pp. 7-9. Baghdad was then part of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire was at its height during the 16th to 17th century, and was finally dissolved after the First World War to form the present countries of Turkiye (1923), Iraq (1932), and Saudi Arabia (1932).

[16] Sassoon derives from the original Sason, meaning ‘joy’.

[17] Sassoon, Joseph, The Global Merchants: The Enterprise and Extravagance of the Sassoon Dynasty, Allen Lane, Great Britain, 2022, pp. 5-6.

[18] Ibid, Sassoon, Joseph, The Global Merchants: The Enterprise and Extravagance of the Sassoon Dynasty, pp. 8-9. Also. Roland, Joan G, The Jewish Communities of India: Identity In A Colonial Era, Transaction Publishers, New Jersey, Second Edition 1998, p. 16; and Roth, p. 41, and Jackson, p. 11.

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