The original tradition, as related to Christian missionaries early in the 19th century, is that the Bene Israel are the descendants of the survivors (seven men and seven women) of a shipwreck off the Konkan coast at Navgaon, about 26 miles south of Mumbai. Their ship was said to have come “from northern parts” and the date was “some sixteen to eighteen hundred years ago” (J. Wilson, Lands of the Bible (1847) II, 667). In the 19th century various theories were propounded by Europeans about Bene Israel origins conjecturing that the Bene Israel were an offshoot of the Jewish settlements in Yemen, refugees from the persecution of the Jews by Muhammad, or descendants of the Babylonian-Persian Diaspora. Later, in the light of the study of the Bible, of other Jewish literature, of ancient history sources relating to India, the Middle East, etc., some members of the Bene Israel community itself delved into details of possible Bene Israel origins. H.S. Kehimkar (History of the Bene Israel of India (1937) written in 1897) favored the theory that the ancestors of the Bene Israel left the Galilee because of persecutions by Antiochus Epiphanes (175–163 B.C.E.). D.J. Samson’s argument for Bene Israel arrival in India at some time between 740 and 500 B.C.E. appeared in 1917 in an issue of the Bene Israel periodical The Israelite (i, no. 4,68–70) in an article entitled The Bene Israel: Who, Where, Whence. In any case their descendants remained for centuries isolated from Jewish life elsewhere. Thus they forgot much of the Hebrew language, prayer and ceremonies, and adopted customs and dress of their Konkan neighbors, and their language, Marathi, as their mother tongue. Throughout the centuries they clung, however, to some fundamentals of the Jewish tradition and observed circumcision, dietary laws, the Sabbath, and most fasts and festivals prescribed in the Torah, and recited the Shema. But they were otherwise unaware of Torah, or of Talmudic and halakhic lore. In their new surroundings the Bene Israel turned to the pursuit of oil-pressing and agriculture and became known to their neighbors as Shanwar Tells (“The Sabbath-observing oilmen”), indicating both their occupation and their religious observance. The presence of a special Jewish group in the Konkan region remained unknown to outsiders, except for casual references to them.
Bene Israel tradition tells of a Jew, David Rahabi, who about the year 1000 C.E. (or, some say around 1400 C.E.) discovered the Bene Israel in their villages, recognized their vestigial Jewish customs, and taught them about Judaism, preparing certain young men among them to be the religious preceptors of the Bene Israel. They were called Kajis and their position became hereditary. They were also recognized officially as judges in disputes within the Bene Israel community. Somewhere along the line the Bene Israel formed a special attachment to the Prophet Elijah. They invoke his blessings on all auspicious occasions. Another typically Bene Israel feature is their custom called Malida, i.e., the preparation of a ceremonial food offering (composed of special ingredients) accompanied by recitation of Jewish prayers, psalms, and other appropriate biblical quotations on the occasions of purification after childbirth; preparation for a wedding; when taking, and after completing, a vow; after a circumcision, and for all other auspicious occasions; whenever there is a crisis or need for divine help; for the expression of gratitude to God; and on Tu B’Shevat to celebrate the first fruits of their locale, and also to give respect to the Prophet Elijah at Kandala, the place where he is believed to have appeared to the Bene Israel.
In mid-18th century, many Bene Israel moved from their villages into the rapidly developing new city of Bombay. Here the horizons of the Bene Israel were widened as they benefited from the educational and employment opportunities offered under British rule. The British authorities were anxious to recruit reliable soldiers to their “native” regiments. Some Bene Israel had already served in the army or in the navy of other Konkan potentates, and many enlisted under the British. Most of these rose to officer rank and established a reputation as good fighters in the Anglo-Mysore, Anglo-Afghan, and Anglo-Burmese wars of the 18th and 19th centuries. They were also efficient civil servants.
An impetus to their return to traditional Judaism was given to the Bene Israel through the cooperation of Cochin Jews who visited Bombay and the Konkan villages, and through the new wave of immigration of Arabic-speaking Jews from Baghdad to Bombay in the early decades of the 19th century. The secular education of the Bene Israel was considerably influenced by Congregational missionaries from America who opened schools both in Bombay and in the outlying towns and villages. They trained Bene Israel to become teachers in these schools, and it was in these schools that the Bene Israel got their first understandable introduction to be Bible. Then, in 1826 a Jew from Cochin, who had been converted to Christianity, Michael Sargon, was deputed to work among the Bene Israel. He not only devoted his energy to teaching them in the Marathi language, without any attempt at proselytization, but also mediated in their disputes. Somewhat later the most celebrated of all Christian missionaries to work among the Bene Israel, the Rev. John Wilson of the Scottish Presbyterian Mission, started his educational activities among them. In 1832 he published a Hebrew Grammar in Marathi, and Bene Israel studied Hebrew in the high school and in the college founded by him. Gradually the missionaries withdrew from the field of primary education and the Bene Israel took their education into their own hands. H.S. Kehimkar, in collaboration with his brother and A.D. Pezarkar, started a small primary school in 1875. It later became necessary to solicit for funds, and generous aid was given by the Anglo-Jewish Association of London, Jewish philanthropists in England and France, members of the Sassoon family, and the Government of Bombay. The school, with its own building, grew into a high school teaching Marathi, English and Hebrew. Originally called the Israelite School, the name was changed in the early 1930s to the Elly Kadoorie School, in recognition of a large donation (earmarked for the reconstruction and extension of the old school building) by Sir Elly Kadoorie of Hong Kong.
Religious development was also very much facilitated for the Bene Israel by translations of the Old Testament by an association of Protestant Christian missionaries of all denominations beginning in the early twenties of the 19th century. Since its establishment in 1857 Bombay University included Hebrew in its curriculum.
Originally, the communal organization, religious as well as secular, of the Bene Israel was headed by the Kajis. With the establishment of synagogues (the first was established in 1796 in Bombay by Bene Israel army officer Samuel Ezekiel Divekar and was named Sha’ar ha-Rachamim (“Gate of Mercy”)), the secular functions of the Kajis were gradually taken over by the Muccadams, who either were the most prominent persons in the local community, or who succeeded their fathers in the office. In large synagogue congregations the Muccadams were aided by Choglas, or councilors. Eventually the ritual functions of the Kajis came to be performed by the ḥazzanim who were initially recruited from Cochin but later also from among the Bene Israel themselves.
The Bene Israel established additional synagogues in Bombay – Sha’ar Razon (1839), Etz Hayim (1888), and Magen Hasidim (1931) – and also several prayer halls. From 1848 onwards Bene Israel synagogues were also established in 12 different towns on the Konkan coast; and far afield in the cities of Poona, Ahmedabad, Karachi (now in Pakistan) and New Delhi.
The relations between the Bene Israel and the Hindu and Muslim communities of the Konkan coast proved to be very peaceful. The only thing that the Bene Israel found upsetting was that their neighbors did not always identify them as Jews, and until well into the second half of the 20th century associated them with the caste of oil-pressers because of the traditional occupation of their ancestors, though already in the later British period the occupations of the Bene Israel were quite diverse.
Apart from serving in the British “native” regiments they were employed as civil servants in government, railway, postal and customs offices; as teachers, hospital assistants, nurses; many were skilled carpenters, masons, and mechanics; but very few were engaged in trade or commerce. Many Bene Israel who attended Elphinstone, Wilson and other colleges affiliated to Bombay University became well known as engineers, lawyers, physicians, educators, architects, writers and social workers.
Prominent among the leaders and educators of the 19th century were Hayim Samuel Kehimkar, historian of the community, and Joseph Ezekiel Rajpurkar, writer and translator of Hebrew liturgical works into Marathi. One of the earliest liturgical works to be printed was by a Yemenite Jew from Cochin, Solomon Shara’bi, Seliḥot According to the Sephardi Rite (1841). It was followed by the publication of the Hebrew calendar (Luaḥ, 1845) and the first Passover Haggadah (1846, facsimile reprinted by W.J. Fischel, 1968) with a Marathi translation. From the last decade of the 19th century the Bene Israel published a number of journals and periodicals in Marathi and English. Some of them were short-lived, but The Israelite continued from 1917 to 1927; The Friend of Israel lasted from 1916 to 1921; The Maccabi from 1946 to 1971.
In the first half of the 20th century some Bene Israel participated in the Indian nationalist movement.
Bene Israel who have received the Padma Shri, one of the highest awards of the Government of India, awarded on Indian Independence Day to outstanding individuals in various fields of endeavor are (1) Dr. (Miss) Jerusha Jacob Jhirad, in 1966, for her work in gynecology and for her services in social welfare; (2) Mr. David Abraham Cheulkar, in 1969, for his character acting in Indian films; and (3) Dr. Reuben David Dandekar, in 1975, for his outstanding work and originality as superintendent of the Ahmedabad Zoo. (A fourth Indian Jew to receive the Padma Shri Award is a member of the Baghdadi Jewish community of Bombay: Mr. Ezra Mir, in 1970, for his outstanding work in making Indian documentary films and children’s documentaries.)
Among the many other Bene Israel who have achieved careers of distinction in India are Khan Bahadur Jacob Bapuji Israel, who as chief administrator in the State of Aundh, made specific innovations for rural development many decades before similar reforms were begun elsewhere; Shalom Bapuji Israel, who from ordinary police constable rose to be Dewan of Janjira State; Dr. Abraham Solomon Erulkar, an ardent nationalist, who had attended upon Mahatma Gandhi during almost all of his fasts (not as Gandhi’s personal physician) especially in his capacity as then president of the Indian Medical Council; David Solomon Erulkar who was the Junior Council for-the-defense in the famous trial of the freedom-fighter Lokamanya B.G. Tilak (a Hindu), working together with the Senior Council in the case, a famous Muslim, Muhammed Ali Jinnah. Erulkar was also on the governing body of the International Labor Organization of the League of Nations. He founded The Israelite magazine.
David Ezra Reuben secured first place in the competitive examination for admission to the Indian Civil Service in 1917. He was the only Bene Israel ever to serve in the ICS. He was made Chief Justice in 1951 of the Patna Court (in Bihar State). Miss Rebecca Reuben obtained her T.D. degree from London University; was principal of the Israelite School 1922–1950; issued a monthly journal for Jewish children, called Nofeth (written in Marathi it served as an excellent tool for education in things Jewish); authored highly successful series of English readers for secondary schools, also a grammar, and guides for teachers; Dr. Elijah Moses, Mayor of Bombay 1937–1938.
Several officers in the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force, notably including Vice Admiral Benjamin Abraham Samson, former Commandant of the Indian Defense Academy, who commanded the Western Fleet during hostilities with Pakistan in 1965, subsequently managing director of the Mazagaon Docks where he supervised the construction of the first two Indian-built frigates; Major General Jonathan Reuben Samson of the Indian Engineers, now general manager of the Armored Vehicle Factory at Avadi, Madras; Lt. Col. Joseph Jhirad, commander of the 8th Battalion Garwal Rifles, who was killed in action in September 1966 during the Indo-Pakistan war; Elijah Ephraim Jhirad, who served as Judge Advocate General of the Indian Navy between the late 1940s and the mid 1960s. Jhirad also served with distinction during World War II and was awarded the M.B.E. by the British government. He was also a founding member of the Judah Hyam Hall, which later became the Judah Hyam Synagogue) in New Delhi.
Educators included Dr. Sarah Jacob, principal of the Jaipur Government Medical College; Dr. Eliezar Moses Best, dean of B.J. Medical College and superintendent of Civil Hospital, Ahmedabad; Mrs. Meera Jacob Mahadevan, author and innovative social worker who conceived of and developed a network of Mobile Creches and Schools for the impoverished, neglected children of itinerant laborers; Solomon Shalom Aptekar, popular author and playwright of the 1920s; Joseph David Penkar, pioneer in the Indian screen industry, script and song writer; Nissim Ezekiel, highly rated Indian poet writing in English, editor, art critic, playwright, reader in American Literature at Mumbai (formerly Bombay) University; Dr. Esther Solomon, Ph.D., Sanskritist at Gujarat University; Samuel Israel, director of the National Book Trust of India since 1974; Ezra Kolet, formerly in government service in the Finance Ministry, later in the Ministry of Shipping and Transport as chief comptroller of chartering and as additional secretary to the ministry, the moving spirit of the Delhi Jewish community, and founder, secretary and violinist of the Delhi Symphony Orchestra; and Judah Reuben, India’s only Jewish umpire (cricket), member of the All India Panel of Umpires.
Most Bene Israel congregations became affiliated (in reality very loosely) either with the World Council of Synagogues (Conservative) or with the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations. A significant development in the religious field was the establishment in 1925 of the Jewish Religious Union in Bombay by Dr. Jerusha Jhirad who, upon her return from medical training in England, used the London organization as the prototype. In Bombay this was an entirely spontaneous move without outside financial help, though prayer books and other literature were obtained from the Liberal Jewish Synagogue of London. The Bombay Jewish Religious Union was one of the founder members of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (established in 1926) and made a small annual contribution toward its expenses. In the 1950s the Bombay congregation’s own funds were supplemented with financial aid from circles of Progressive Judaism outside India and from Sassoon Trust Funds, all of which enabled the Bombay Jewish Religious Union, now called Congregation Rodef Shalom, to obtain premises of its own and the services of two young rabbis, both graduates of Hebrew Union College. In August 1957 Rabbi Hugo Gryn (for more than two full years), followed by Rabbi Elisha Nattiv (for about three years) ministered to this congregation and exerted an influence among the Jews of Bombay far beyond the three hundred members of Congregation Rodef Shalom.
The first contacts of the Bene Israel with the modern Zionist movement go back to the time of Theodor Herzl. In 1897 the Bene Israel were invited to participate in the First Zionist Congress. They refused with the explanation that the community was waiting for “the Divine Hand” to bring them back to Zion. The first Zionist association was founded in Bombay in 1919. Visits of Zionist leaders such as Israel Cohen in 1921, the first Zionist emissary to India on behalf of the World Zionist Organization, and subsequently of Immanuel Olsvanger, and others, stimulated the community’s interest in and support of the Jewish National Home.
In the second half of the 20th century the numbers of the Bene Israel community have significantly decreased due to the emigration of its members to Israel, Europe, and the Americas. In the early years of the 21st century there were approximately 4,000 Bene Israel left in India, most of them living in Maharashtra State. Other Bene Israel communities functioned in Ahmedabad and New Delhi. Communities maintained a number of synagogues and prayer halls, such as the Magen Hassidim and Tiferet Israel synagogues in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), and the Shaar Hashamaim synagogue in Thane. In some places, there was a regular minyan; in others there were services on Saturday mornings and not on Friday nights, or on High Holidays only. The first synagogue in Bombay celebrated its bicentenary in February 1996.
Between 1948 and 1952, approximately 2,300 Bene Israel emigrated to Israel. According to Dr. Shalva Weil, Once India got independence I think Jews were anxious about their future. Don’t forget Bene Israel received favors from the British. I think many of them were quite worried and, after all, they had always believed that Israel was their true Jewish home land. Before leaving India, many studied Hebrew and learned a few basic Jewish prayers. Still, many faced discrimination because most could not speak Hebrew and were the darkest-skinned group in Israel at the time.
As a result of sit-down strikes and hunger strikes (see below), the Jewish Agency returned a total of 337 individuals, in several groups, between 1952 and 1954. Most of them were brought back to Israel by the Jewish Agency after several years. From the establishment of the state until 1969, over 12,000 Bene Israel emigrated to Israel. They were mainly absorbed into the branches of industry in which they were occupied in India, such as textiles and metals, as well as into public services. They settled mainly in Beersheba, Dimona, Ashdod, and Eilat. Some settled in kibbutzim and moshavim.
The Bene Israel became the focus of a controversy which arose in 1954 over the basic question of the personal status of the Bene Israel regarding marriage with other Jews. Although the Chief Rabbinate had laid down in essence that the sect of the Bene Israel in India is of the seed of the House of Israel without any doubt, several rabbis in Israel refused to marry Bene Israel to other Jews. This standpoint was based on halakhic decisions that had been given for Jews from Baghdad who had settled in India, and who denounced intermarriage with those whom they considered to belong to an inferior caste. On first coming to India in the 18th century, the Baghdadi Jews had prayed in the synagogues of the Bene Israel and buried their dead in their cemeteries. However, as they became more settled and acquired a higher status and education, they began to keep apart and to question whether the Bene Israel were legitimately Jewish. They considered that association with the Bene Israel should be debarred for fear of illegitimacy (mamzerut), since the latter were unfamiliar with the Jewish laws of divorce (gittin), absolved themselves from levirate marriage, and did not practice ḥaliẓah. Not one of the rabbis outside India who returned a negative decision concerning the Bene Israel in previous generations had ever visited there or met representatives of the Bene Israel community in order to obtain knowledge of their customs or information directly from them. In Israel the controversy arose between those who rejected the Bene Israel and those who regarded them as Jews in every respect.
In 1962, the Israel Chief Rabbinate appointed a commission of four rabbis who were charged with meeting representatives of the Bene Israel. From the evidence of the leaders of the community who appeared before the rabbis and from earlier sources, it became clear that the Bene Israel had not been accustomed to divorce women at all, in the same way that divorce was not practiced among Indians other than Muslims until about a century ago. It was only on the arrival in India of rabbis from Baghdad and Yemen who were experts on the Jewish laws of divorce that a number of Bene Israel had approached them. Concerning widows the Bene Israel generally followed the custom of their Indian neighbors and did not permit them to remarry, so that the question of levirate marriage or ḥaliẓah did not arise.
On Oct. 18, 1962, the council of the Chief Rabbinate decided that marriage with Bene Israel is permissible. However, the rabbi registering the marriage was bound to investigate, as far back as three generations at least, the maternal ancestry of every applicant of the Bene Israel, man or woman, wishing to marry outside the community, in order to establish to what extent there were not intermixed in the family persons who were non-Jews or proselytes. The rabbi concerned was also bound to establish as far as possible that neither the parents of the applicant nor his grandparents had remarried after a previous divorce, and that they were not within the prohibited degrees of kinship.
These directives aroused fierce resentment, culminating in a stormy strike in Jerusalem in the summer of 1964, in which several hundred of the Bene Israel from all over Israel participated. Subsequently, the prime minister, Levi Eshkol, issued the statement that the government of Israel reiterates that it regards the community of the Bene Israel from India as Jews in every respect, without any restriction or distinction, equal in their rights to all other Jews in every matter, including matters of matrimony.
To these troubling afflictions had been added the difficulties of absorption of the Bene Israel into a society totally different from that to which they had been accustomed in India, and the difficulties of finding employment and of language. When the first groups of Bene Israel encountered the difficulties of absorption, they reacted by sit-down strikes of groups and individuals. The presence of Bene Israel strikers at the doors of the offices of the Jewish Agency became a regular feature of the 1950s. In the Indian Parliament, a debate upon discrimination against Indian Jews in Israel took place at the beginning of the crisis.
On Sept. 8, 1952, a statement of the Indian deputy minister for external affairs, Shri Anil R. Chanda, was read in answer to a question in the Indian Council of States in New Delhi, as follows: The government of India has received complaints from some Indian Jews who had returned from Israel that there was discrimination against them on account of their color. The government has not verified any of these complaints, and in any event, such individual complaints do not justify a general statement that there is a color bar in Israel.
Today, the Bene Israel population in Israel number is approximately 80,000, most originally from the western Indian state of Maharashtra. They tend to live in well-defined communities such as Dimona, Ashdod, Yeruḥam, Kiryat Gat, and Lydda (Lod); there are large communities in Ashkelon, Beersheba, Ramleh, and Kiryat Ata.
Many Bene Israel are employed in the transportation and communications industries as skilled workers and clerks; others work in the armed forces and police. More than half the women are employed outside the home. Social life is organized around the synagogue, which acts as a community center in each urban settlement. Communal events are arranged by nearly 30 voluntary associations around the country; two associations are national and the rest serve local interests. Activities are conducted in Hebrew, English, and Marathi, the native tongue of the immigrant generation. A Marathi quarterly called Mai Bolli has been published in Israel since 1989. In 1995, the Indian Women’s Organization celebrated its quartercentary celebration in Lydda.
The young generation of Bene Israel has become integrated into Israel society and found its place in all fields of Israel life. Intermarriage between Jews from various communities is now common and their communal attachment, especially among the young is weakening. Many play cricket wearing India team jerseys, watch Bollywood films, and have even opened Indian food restaurants, but parents do not teach their children Hindi, Marathi or any of the Indian languages. “Bene Israelis feel more and more Israeli,” Weil notes. “If you look at younger people, they act and sound like Israelis. They have little to do with their Indian roots.”
H.S. Kehimkar, History of the Bene Israel of India (1937); M. Ezekiel, History and Culture of the Bene Israel in India (1948); R. Reuben, Bene Israel of Bombay (1913); L.I. Rabinowitz, Far East Mission (1952); N. Bar-Giora, Massa be-Hodu (1953); W.J. Fischel, Ha-Yehudim be-Hodu (1960); idem, in: Essays… Abba Hillel Silver (1963), 170–85; S. Strizower, Exotic Jewish Communities (1962), 48–87; I. Nissim, Benei Yisrael, Piskei Halakhah (1962); B.J. Israel, Religious Evolution among the Bene Israel of India since 1750 (1963); S. Shellim, Treatise on the Origin and Early History of the Bene Israel (1963); R. Dafni, Indian Jews in Israel (1969). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: S. Samuel, Treatise on the Origin and Early History of the Bene Israel of Maharashtra State (1963); J.H. Lord, The Jews of India and the Far East (1907); S. Strizower, The Children of Israel: The Bene Israel of Bombay (1971); S.B. Isenberg, India's Bene Israel, A Comprehensive Inquiry and Sourcebook (1988); J. Roland, The Jewish Community of India (1998).
Sources: Walter Joseph Fischel, Shirley Berry Isenberg, and Benjamin J. Israel / Naftali Bar-Giora / Shalva Weil and Yulia Egorova (2nd ed.), Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
“Israel’s Indian Jews and their lives in the ‘promised land,’” BBC News, (January 19, 2018);
Personal communication from Sarah Jhirad.