Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Shemot 5764/ January 17, 2004

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Parashat Shemot 5764/ January 17, 2004

"These are the names of Benei Yisrael"
The Benei Yisrael Community of India

Dr. Yaakov Geller
Helena and Paul Schulmann Center for Basic Jewish Studies

Around forty thousand Jews from the Indian Jewish community known as Benei Yisrael live in Israel today. This was the largest of the Jewish communities in India, the next in size being the Cochin Jews, and the smallest, the Baghdadi Jews, a community which formed in India only two hundred years ago, the other two groups being more ancient.

The immigration of India's Jews to Israel began in 1952 with the arrival of around 6000 of Benei Yisrael, followed in 1953 by the immigration of some two thousand Cochin Jews and several hundred Baghdadi Jews. The wave of immigration continued through the sixties and seventies.[1]

The Origin of Benei Yisrael

Benei Yisrael is a remnant of a mysterious ancient community which was cut off for two thousand years from the rest of the world Jewish community. This community survived miraculously by isolating itself from the surrounding population of hundreds of millions of Hindus and Moslems, as "a people that dwells apart" (Num. 23:9). The members of this community came in contact with other Jews and Jewish ways of life around two hundred years ago, due to the influence of Cochin, Baghdadi, Persian and Yemenite Jews, who brought them teachers, shohets, and cantors and began to bring them closer to the Jewish heritage.

To this day several different theories exist as to their origins.

  1. One theory is that they are descendants of the Ten Tribes, exiled by Shalmanesser, king of Assyria, in 722 B.C.E. (see II Kings 18:9-11). Some claim that this group took the name Benei Yisrael when the Moslems were ruling India, for fear that if they were called Jews, the Moslems would force them to convert and they would lose their wealth. Similarly, the Ethiopian Jews were called Beit Yisrael since they considered themselves descendants of the Ten Tribes.
  2. Their ancestors left the land of Israel during the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes, in 175 B.C.E., and reached India by way of Etzion Gever, Eilat, and Suez.
  3. Their ancestors fled from the land of Israel, either prior to the destruction of the Second Temple or after Titus destroyed it.
  4. They are descended from refugees who fled oppressive decrees against them in the land of Israel, Yemen, Arabia, and Persia, and arrived in India either in the first and second century, or in the sixth and seventh century, C.E.
  5. They are descended from mixed marriages between Jews and Hindus; they are Indians who converted to Judaism, or perhaps from the Khazar state that existed in Russia from the eighth to the eleventh century, whose people converted en masse to Judaism.

All of these theories are shrouded in mystery and none of them are well-documented. The only known reports of the existence of this community come from the travel log of Benjamin of Tudela and from Maimonides, who wrote an epistle to Rabbi Jonathan ha-Cohen of Lunel about the status of Torah study throughout the world, in which he noted the poor condition of the Jews of India: "But the Jews in India do not know the Written Torah, and are ignorant of religious laws, save for the Sabbath and circumcision on the eighth day."[2]

We have no subsequent sources on this community until the Europeans came to India, bringing Dutch and Portuguese Jews who worked for the Dutch and East Indian companies in the 17th century.

Due to their isolation in a gentile and pagan environment for two thousand years, Benei Yisrael forgot the Hebrew language and most of the commandments of the Torah. Nevertheless, they did not assimilate with the non-Jews of the land, neither eating with them, nor sharing their food and drink. They remembered the first verse of the Shema and recited it on Sabbaths and Festivals, at circumcisions and weddings. They also buried their dead and did not cremate them according to the custom of their Indian neighbors.

Benei Yisrael had a vague recollection of the Sabbath. On that day they abstained from work, especially from pressing oil, which was their main source of livelihood. Hence they were dubbed by their neighbors as "the Sabbath observant oil pressers," and the "oil pressers of the sixth day." They fasted on the Day of Atonement from sundown to sundown, and would remain in their homes, dressed in white, for they had neither houses of prayer nor prayer books. They also fasted on the ninth of Ab and the Fast of Gedaliah, in remembrance of the destruction of the First Temple. All that they knew about Passover was that eating leaven is forbidden for seven days, but they did not celebrate the Seder. They were unfamiliar with Hanukkah and Purim, nor had they heard of the Mishnah, Talmud, and other works of Halakhah. They also knew nothing of Tallit, tefillin, and mezuzahs, since they were exiled, apparently, during the First Temple period.

Benei Yisrael did not marry under a Huppah with the ceremony of kiddushin, nor did they practice yibbum, halitzah, or divorce by get; their only token of marriage was a ring. Nevertheless, their wives observed the laws of niddah, abstaining from marital relations for seven days, yet they did not immerse themselves in the mikveh but only bathed at home. They did not marry within the family and abstained even from those relationships not prohibited in the Torah. If a man in the community found an impropriety in his wife, he sent her back to her father's house, where she lived out her life as a widow, never marrying another man.

Men did not take more than one wife, save for those cases where they had had no children. Young men did not marry widows, and if a widower wished to marry a widow he had to obtain the written consent of the brothers of her deceased husband. There were no priests or levites among them, since they descended from the Ten Tribes, from the Israelite Kingdom. They reckoned the months the same as their Indian neighbors, from the appearance of the new moon.

Dietary laws were strictly observed by Benei Yisrael. They did not eat pork, beasts or birds of prey, or carcasses and animals killed by predators. They ate sheep, goats and fowl, primarily chicken, slaughtered only by their own shohets. They salted the meat and knew which fish were permissible and which not, and of course they ate only those fish which had fins and scales.

Benei Yisrael also retained Jewish names after the names of the patriarchs and the tribes of Israel, adapting them to the Indian language. Their surnames were comprised of the names of the villages from which they came with the addition of the word "kar," as in Kahimkar ("from the village of Kahim) or Talkar (from Tal). They believed in reward and punishment, in Heaven and Hell, in the immortality of the soul and in resurrection of the dead, as well as in the coming of the Messiah, who would redeem them so they could all come to Jerusalem.

Among Benei Yisrael, as among the Cochin Jews, there were two groups: the elite "whites," who were the descendants of the earliest settlers who came in ancient times from the land of Israel; and the non-elite "blacks," who were children of converts or gentile women who joined the community in mixed marriages. Contact between the two groups was limited. The blacks sat in the rear of the synagogue, were not called up to the Torah or counted in the minyan, were not invited to the homes of the whites, and did not marry them.

Insight into relations between the whites and blacks in the Cochin community is provided by a responsum to a query addressed to Rabbi David ben Zimra, a great posek in Egypt in the 16th century, in the wake of disputes that arose in the 900-family community, of whom 100 families were whites and 800, blacks. Rabbi David ben Zimra's reply was as follows:

This large community [the blacks] should be permitted into the Jewish community, and hatred towards them and dispute should be removed. Since they behave as Jews in respect of all the commandments, it is forbidden to call them slaves."

Rabbi David ben Zimra required them to immerse in the mikveh as a symbol of conversion, and thus sought to put to rest the dispute concerning them. He also requested that they be called "freed." The same inquiry was sent several years later to one of Rabbi David ben Zimra's disciples, Rabbi Jacob Castro, a posek in Egypt, and he too ruled the same as his teacher.

Reports of travelers, emissaries, Rabbis and posekim attesting to the Jewishness of Benei Yisrael

The question of the Jewishness of Benei Yisrael arose in the 19th century when travelers, rabbis and emissaries from the land of Israel visited this community and confirmed their status as full and faithful Jews.

The traveler Rabbi David from the House of Hillel from Safed, who visited India in 1831, laid emphasis on the religious awakening in this community under the influence of Jews from Baghdad, Bazera and Yemen, who taught them Judaism and Hebrew.
Another traveler, Rabbi Jacob Sapir, who visited India in the summer of 1858, as an emissary of the Kolel of the Perushim in Jerusalem, noted with admiration the adherence to Judaism of the 15,000 Benei Yisrael living in Bombay, Poona and its environs, despite attempts by Christian missionaries to convince them to abandon their religion, including monetary enticement. He added:

For the past seventy years, since the gates of this country were opened to British companies ... they have continued to dwell in this city, Bombay. Since then various other Jewish merchants came from Baghdad and Bazera to do commerce, ... and brought them Torah scrolls, ... built them a synagogue, and taught them the religion of Moses and Israel, ... and they undertook to observe and perform ... all that they were taught. They have schools for the young, and their teachers, hazzans, and shohets are all from Baghdad or Yemen, and they embrace these Jews with a full heart and soul.[3]

The question of their Jewishness arose again in the late 1940's, on the eve of the establishment of the State of Israel and after its establishment, when difficulties arose regarding absorption of immigrants from India. Some Rabbis took a strict line, demanding that marriage with them be forbidden, whereas others ruled that they were Jews in every respect.

The Rishon le-Zion, Rabbi Benzion Hai Uzziel, wrote the following responsum to Rabbi Raphael Entebbi in Bombay:

The Jews who bear the name Benei Yisrael are from the holy stock of the Jewish people, ... this sect, Benei Yisrael, are an offshoot of Jewish stock and are not to be judged as Karaites, who cast off the burden of Torah and commandments ... of the Oral Law. They [Benei Yisrael] did not willfully reject the Torah and these commandments; for the Torah was forgotten by them due to their being exiled to distant lands, cut off and isolated from the rest of the dispersed of our nation, and living in hard and bitter exile.[4]

Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog wrote a responsum on the subject in early 1944: "Therefore, in view of what I have mentioned, in my humble opinion, one should not forbid marrying members of this sect [Benei Yisrael], who fully embrace Judaism and behave as Jews in every respect, concerning the laws and sacred rites of the Jews." In a second responsum (24 Heshvan, 5714), he ruled: "It is clear to me that the Indian sect of Benei Yisrael are without doubt of Jewish stock."[5]

With the arrival of growing numbers of Benei Yisrael in Israel, in 1957 historical information and rulings on them began to be collected. The Rishon le-Zion, Rabbi Isaac Nissim, requested the halakhic authorities in Israel to discuss the question and give their opinions. In 1961 Rabbi Nissim turned to additional rabbis, who wrote long rulings on the subject. On the day after Sukkot, 1961, Rabbi Nissim convened a meeting of ten eminent posekim, including Rabbis Shalom Elyashiv, Ovadiah Hadaiya, Y. M. Aharonberg and Shaul Yisraeli, for special deliberations. On the eighth of Heshvan 5722 (1962), the council of the Chief Rabbinate was convened and, after close examination and deliberation, ruled that Benei Yisrael from India could be married and that there were no grounds for forbidding marriage to them; however, the rabbis registering such marriages had to make the appropriate investigations, according to guidelines of the Chief Rabbinate, and if any doubts arose they had to bring the case before the local rabbinical court.

Rabbi David Hayyim Chelouche of Nethanya, known for his lenient ruling regarding the Ethiopian Jews, wrote a long responsum allaying all doubts regarding this community, doubts which had led to forbidding them to marry other Jews:

When our prophets prophesied about ingathering of the exiles, "even if your outcasts are at the ends of the world, from there the Lord your G-d will gather you, from there He will fetch you. And the Lord your G-d will bring you to the land..." (Deut. 30:4-5), and the prophet Micah (4:6-7), "In that day - declares the Lord - I will assemble the lame [sheep] and will gather the outcast ... and I will turn the lame into a remnant and the expelled into a populous nation. And the Lord will reign over them on Mount Zion now and for evermore," in their prophesies they surely did not intend that the Jews be brought to Israel to make them into outcast communities, forbidding marriage with them and causing wanton hatred and civil strife, rather to make them into one nation and one family, with one Shepherd for them all.[6]

Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef issued a final and definitive ruling on the tenth of Tevet, 5758 (1998), which he sent to Rabbi David Talkar and the rabbis of Benei Yisrael and leaders of the community, in which he publicly affirmed that the members of that community are proper Jews and may marry into the Jewish community, marrying any one of our people, without any doubts, investigations or verifications:

I hereby state clearly the learned opinion of Torah that the community of Benei Yisrael from India are proper Jews in all respects, and they may enter the community and marry any Jew according to the laws of Moses and Israel, without any doubt and without any need for examination or clarification. It is a great commandment to embrace them and bring them closer to Jewish educational institutions, keeping the Torah and its commandments, and to accept them in Torah-oriented educational institutions, Talmud-Torah schools and yeshivas, for they have all been blessed with goodness and a pure heart and love for drawing closer to Torah, and they lend a heeding ear to all the eminent scholars of the Torah and its standard-bearers.[7]

Thus a sore issue, deliberated for over a century, came to successful resolution, and our brethren, Benei Yisrael, found their place fully in our country, with all the other Jewish ethnic groups sharing our heritage. For them the prophecy of Isaiah regarding ingathering of the exiles was realized: "He will hold up a signal to the nations and assemble the banished of the Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth" (11:12). We might also cite a verse from this week's Haftara reading: "And in that day, a great ram's horn shall be sounded; and the strayed who are in the land of Assyria and the expelled who are in the land of Egypt shall come and worship the Lord on the holy mount, in Jerusalem" (Is. 27:13).





[1] The first immigrants of Benei Yisrael settled in Beersheba, Dimona, Yeruham, and Qiryat Shemona. By 1970 there were 4,000 Cochin immigrants in Israel, mostly in the moshavim of Nevatim, Mesilat Zion, Taoz and Aviezer, in the Jerusalem Corridor, and in Kefar Yuval on the northern border.
[2] Iggerot ha-Rambam (ed. Yitzhak Shilat), Ma'ale Edumim - Jerusalem, p. 559.
[3] Yaakov ha-Levi Sapir, Even Sapir, Part I, 1866, pp. 46, 48; despite their intentions to convert Benei Yisrael, paradoxically they helped them translate prayer books and the Bible into the language they spoke. Cf. Rivka Reuven, "Adat Benei Yisrael be-Hodu," Kammah, Annual of the JNF, Jerusalem 1949, pp. 456-457: Benei Yisrael, Piskei Halakhah u-Mekorot le-Verur Dinam u-She'elat Motza'am, Part I, Jerusalem 1962, pp. 186, 198 (hereafter Benei Yisrael).
[4] Benei Yisrael, loc. sit., pp. 23-25; Resp. Mishpetei Uzziel, Part II, Even ha-Ezer, 32; Piskei Uzziel, Jerusalem 1977, pp. 392-393; Rabbi Isaac Herzog, Pesakim u-Khetavim, Vol. 6, Dinei Even ha-Ezer, Jerusalem 1996, 15, pp. 54-61.
[5] Resp. Rabbi Isaac Herzog, Even ha-Ezer, loc. sit., pp. 62-63; Benei Yisrael, loc. sit., pp. 32, 36.
[6] Benei Ami, Responsa, Jerusalem 1977, pp.199-219.
[7] I wish to thank Rabbi Talkar who gave me this ruling.