Bene Israel History

The Parasha portions read in the synagogue during the months of Shvat Adar and Nisan (Parashat Mishpatim, Parashat Terumah, Parashat Tetzaveh, Parashat Ki Tisa, Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei and Parashat Vayikra) deal with the exodus of the twelve tribes of Israel from Egypt.

On coming to the promised-land, after a lengthy detour of forty years, the tribes of Reuben, Gad and half the tribe of Manasseh did not enter the land of Canaan at all, but preferred to stay out in the lands of Moab, Bashan and Gilead.

The tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Shimon, took their portion in the eastern and southern part of the country. The western and northern part of the country, going counter-clockwise became the inheritance of Dan, Asher, Zebulun, Naphtali, Issachar, Ephraim, and the remnant of Manasseh.

During the time of King Solomon, his navy consisted of people from all the tribes then known as B’nai Israel. They carried on a flourishing trade with Ophir, which some historians believe was a sea port on the west coast of India. In 962 BCE, when the first Temple was completed, trade with Ophir was abandoned.

After the rule of Solomon, the Northern tribes along with their western brethren separated under the leadership of Ephraim, and formed the Kingdom of Israel calling themselves B’nai Israel, while the eastern and southern tribes formed the Kingdom of Judah and called themselves Judeans.

Between 780–740 BCE, trade with Ophir was re-opened and a Jewish colony was re-established in Eilat. Between 735–720 BCE the Assyrian domination over Israel, Judah and Edom occurred. It is believed that at some time between 732–730 BCE (this date is postulated in Shellim Samuel’s “Treatise on The Origin and Early History of the Bene-Israel of Maharashtra State”) the colony at Eilat was completely isolated and their only escape route was the sea. Their destination was the port of Ophir, but when they were off the western coast of India, there was a severe storm which blew them off course and they were shipwrecked on a small island right off the Konkan coast south of Bombay. When the storm abated, the locals rescued the survivors and any bodies that were washed up onto the shore. The bodies were buried in what is now the oldest Jewish cemetery, in Navgaon, India. Any religious artifacts they may have had with them were lost at sea.

Over the centuries, the “Bene” Israel (as they spell it in India) lost touch with mainstream Judaism and survived with just oral traditions handed down from one generation to the next. Therefore, they only followed the holidays and rituals that were established prior to the destruction of the First Temple:

  • the observance of Shabbat (did not kindle fire, cook food, work or interact with non-Jews)
  • reciting of the Shema (only the first line, as the second line was engrafted onto the Shema during the time of the Second Temple – this is pointed out in Shellim Samuel’s Treatise as one of the salient reasons for maintaining that they were cut off from the mainstream of Judaism prior to the building of the Second Temple)
  • Kashruth (eating only fish with fins and scales, meat and fowl permitted by Jewish dietary laws and slaughtered by Jewish ritual)
  • circumcision of a male child on the eighth day
  • Holidays observed: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkoth, Simchat Torah and Passover
  • The rituals they followed were ancientJewish rituals
  • They did not believe in inter-marriage and knew nothing about conversion

Another group of Jews, known as the Cochin Jews, arrived and settled in Cochin (approximately 800 miles south of Bombay). Though their exact arrival date is also disputed, the Cochin Jews themselves believe it was in 72CE. They had all the Jewish knowledge and traditions of the time, but knew nothing of the existence of the Bene Israel community to the north of them.

In the 11th century, a Jewish merchant by the name of David Rahabi, believed to be from Egypt, with family ties to Rambam (Moshe Ben Maimon or Maimonides), came to trade with the Jews in Cochin.

From Cochin, he sailed north on business and discovered the Bene Israel community in the Konkan. He observed that:

  • they observed their Sabbath on Saturday
  • they recited the opening sentence of the Shema on all occasions
  • they circumcised all the male infants on the eighth day
  • they ate only fish with fins and scales

In discussions with them, he found that they could tell him what they observed, but not why they did so. Based on all of his observations, he recognized that these were people from the lost tribes. He put this community in touch with the Jews of Cochin and together they introduced the Bene Israel to all the observances of Judaism that had evolved over the centuries.