Jews in India

By Shalva Weil

India has consistently welcomed Jews over a period of two thousand years, unlike almost every other country in the world; in fact, India's Jews are the only Jewish community in the world who have never suffered from anti-Semitism at the hands of their fellow countrymen (for affinities between Indic and Judaic civilizations, click here)

There are three major recognised Indian Jewish communities today: the Cochin Jews, the Bene Israel, and the “Baghdadis”.*

The largest of India’s Jewish communities is the Bene Israel (“Children of Israel”). According to their story of origin, they came from the “North", perhaps as early as 175 BCE. Their ancestors were shipwrecked off the Konkan coast and lost all their holy books; they only remembered the Shema prayer, which declared their faith in monotheism. The seven men and seven women who survived took refuge in the village of Navgaon, where they buried the bodies of their relatives and friends. The survivors were offered hospitality by local Hindus, and the Bene Israel took up the occupation of oilpressing becoming known as Shanwar Telis or Saturday Oilmen, because they refrained from work on the Jewish Sabbath.

When discovered by David Rahabi, the Bene Israel observed the Sabbath since, as mentioned above, they did not work on this holy day,  the  dietary laws , circumcision and many of the Jewish festivals. The origins of David Rahabi are unclear but some Bene Israel assert that he may have been the brother of the Rambam, Maimonides, who was shipwrecked off the Indian coast in the century; others associate him with the Paradesi Cochin Jew, who acted as the principal merchantman of the Dutch East India Company in the 18th century. In order to ascertain whether the Bene Israel were indeed Jews, Rahabi requested the women to prepare him a fish meal.

When they singled out the fish with fins and scales – that is, the kosher fish from the non-kosher fish - Rahabi was convinced of the Bene Israel’s Jewish identity and agreed to instruct them in the tenets of Judaism.
From the 18th century on,  theBene Israel  began to move out of the Konkan villages south of Bombay (today Mumbai) to the metropolis, encouraged by the British, who enlisted the Bene Israel into the army and offered them positions in the railways and telegraphs and posts. By the 20th century, the majority of the Bene Israel had set up synagogues and communities in urban centres, such as Pune, Ahmedabad, New Delhi, Karachi and even in Aden.

The religious customs of the Bene Israel were unique. On Yom Kippur, known as the "The Festival of the Closing of the Doors", the Bene Israel  arrived in synagogue before dawn so as to avoid contact with other people. They also observed particular folk customs, such as hair-shaving ceremonies for babies, pilgrimages, and special ways of celebrating the festivals. An unusual feature of Bene Israel religious worship is the intensive belief in Eliyahoo Hannabi.  Whereas many Jews believe that Elijah ascended to heaven from a site somewhere near present-day Haifa in Israel, the Bene Israel believe that he departed on his chariot from a village called Khandalla in the Konkan. Bene Israel go on pilgrimage to  the site, which is also revered by local Hindus, where they claim that they can see the footprints of Elijah’s horses. There, they make wishes for the redemption of vows or pray for thanksgiving.

The Bene Israel community has many educated professionals, including lawyers, professors, doctors, mayors and authors, who contributed to the cultural life of India. After Indian  independence in 1947 and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the majority of the Bene Israel gradually emigrated to Israel. In 1964, they were recognised as Jews "in every respect" by  Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and by Israel’s Knesset.

Today, some 4,000 Bene Israel remain in India, largely in the Maharashtra region, and over 60,000 live in Israel. Many were sent to ‘development towns’, such as  Kiryat Shmone, Kiryat Yam, Ramle, Lod, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Beersheba and even Eilat, with the largest concentration in the town of Dimona.

The “Baghdadis” migrated to two major urban centres, Calcutta and Bombay, from Iraq and Syria from the 18th century on. One of the founders of the Bombay community was  Joseph Semah, who arrived in India in 1730 from Surat; another was Shalom Cohen, a merchant who settled in Calcutta in 1798. These  Jewish merchants,  who escaped deteriorating conditions in Iraq and the pogroms of Daud Pasha in the mid-nineteenth century, were followed by other Jews, who established thriving businesses in the East, as far afield as Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai. The Sassoon family built prayer houses and synagogues and built hospitals, libraries and schools in India for the benefit of  the Jews and  the general population, too. One of the synagogues they built, the Knesset Eliyahoo synagogue has been designated a historic landmark and is open for visitors on weekdays and for shabbat services on Saturdays. It is in the Fort area, walking distance from the Gateway of India and the Sassoon Library. In Calcutta, as many as eight Baghdadi synagogues operated regularly, as well as several  Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic printing presses, which translated holy texts into local vernacular and published original works.

After the withdrawal from India of the British, many of the Baghdadis decided to emigrate to England and other English-speaking countries; they were educated in English and had associated with the British Raj; a couple of thousand came to Israel. Today, there are fewer than 200 Jews of Iraqi origin left in India.


* In recent years, other groups,  notably the Shinlung or Bnei Menashe of the Indo-Burmese borderlands, and the Bnei Ephraim of Andra Pradesh, are claiming Israelite status and attempting to  identify as Jews. Well over 1,000 Bnei Menashe have immigrated to the State of Israel from the states of Manipur and Mizoram and have converted to Judaism in Israel.

For further information, please see: India's Jewish Heritage (Mumbai: Marg) 2009. The book documents the vanishing heritage of the relatively unknown Indian Jewish communities - the Bene Israel of Maharashtra, the Cochin Jews of the Malabar coast, and the “Baghdadi” Jews who settled in Bombay and Calcutta - acquainting readers with their rich culture, and their contribution to the colourful tapestry of India.

This book has been edited by Dr. Shalva Weil, a Hebrew University anthropologist and a world authority on Indian Jewry.

Bene Israel women kneading dough for Matzot before Pesach.

Open Torah scroll

David Nahoum, a Baghdadi Jew, New Market, Kolkata, 2000