Asian Jewish Life – Feature – The Legacy of David Sassoon: Building a Community Bridge – Issue 14

The Legacy of David Sassoon
Building a Community Bridge
by Shalva Weil

David Sassoon (seated) and his sons
David Sassoon (seated) and his sons
Photo credit:Unknown photographer, mid-19th c.(Internet) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In 1832, David Sassoon (1792-1864)and his family arrived in Bombay (today Mumbai) after fleeing thepersecutions of the ruler of Baghdad,Daud Pasha. This wealthy merchantman,who founded a dynasty known as the“Rothschilds of the East”, was alsonamed the Prince of the Exilarch.

David Sassoon began his sojourn inBombay at 9 Tamarind Street (todaynon-existent) within the precincts ofthe city (the Fort walls were destroyedin 1862). He soon moved to Byculla’sbungalow Sans Souci, a former palacenamed Shin Sangoo, (today MassinaHospital); he also spent the summermonths in his second home in Poona(today Pune). Sassoon managed hisinternational enterprises from Bombay,including trade in cotton, jute and mostsignificantly, opium. His commercialintuition and prowess, as well as thescope of his business enterprises, arewell documented.

Relations with the Bene Israel

David Sassoon’s relations with theJewish community that he discoveredwhen he arrived in Bombay are asensitive yet important issue. The BeneIsrael in India originated in the Konkan,but during the British period, manybegan to move out of the villages andsettle in Bombay. Testimony to that factwas the establishment in 1796 of thefirst Bene Israel synagogue in Bombay,Shaar Harahamim (the Gate of MercySynagogue), consecrated by a BeneIsrael officer Samuel Ezekiel Divekar tocommemorate his miraculous escapefrom death at the hands of Tippu Sultanduring the Second Anglo-Mysore War.The existence of the synagogue signifiedthe existence of at least ten Bene Israelfamilies in the city, who could make up aminyan (quorum) for prayers.

Statue of David Sassoon
Statue of David Sassoon
Photo credit: Erica Lyons

David Sassoon confronted a communityand a synagogue unlike any he hadknown in Iraq, Persia, Syria or theJewish communities steeped in Jewishlearning with which he was familiar.The Bene Israel had been cut off frommainstream Judaism for centuries andtheir knowledge of Jewish halacha (law)was minimal. They observed most of theJewish festivals, refrained from work onthe Sabbath and believed in one God,but they were ignorant of some of theintricacies of the Jewish religion. SinceDavid Sassoon did not travel on theSabbath (although the Baghdadi Jewslater found a halachic (Jewish legal)solution to that by inventing the Shabbattram card with Rabbinic approval!), DavidSassoon quickly set about to establishhis own network of synagogues to beled according to the Jewish rites withwhich he was familiar. At first, he held aprayer hall in his home. In 1861, he builtthe Magen David (Defender of David)Synagogue in Byculla for membersof his community, who streamed in toBombay as they fled persecution in theirhomelands. In 1867, he constructedthe Lal Dewal, or Ohel David (Tent ofDavid) red-brick synagogue in Poona,with a famous spire reminiscent ofBritish church architecture, where hewould pray during the High Holy Days.In Poona, too, there was a small BeneIsrael community, who were mainly armypersonnel settled there after the Britishhad established army headquarters inPoona in 1856.

While many books and articles havefocused on the discriminatory and tenserelations between the Baghdadi Jewsand the Bene Israel, I will argue that infact David Sassoon tried to relate to theBene Israel with equanimity. Many of thetensions in the complicated relationshipbetween the two communities wereexacerbated after David Sassoon’sdeath, particularly during the periodof Sir Jacob Sassoon. While DavidSassoon did not relate to the BeneIsrael in the same way that he treatedhis fellow Baghdadi coreligionists, Imaintain that he definitely tried to lookafter their religious, occupational andcivic needs by integrating the Bene Israelin religious life and in his enterprises, aswell as extending them philanthropy asmembers of the Jewish faith, and aswell as fellow citizens of Bombay andPoona. There were numerous strategiesof rapprochement.

Integration in religious life

While most scholars and members ofboth communities deny the involvementof the Bene Israel in Baghdadi communallife, there were interfaces where theBene Israel were accepted, even if theywere not considered first-class Jews.According to a Christian source, whenDavid Sassoon first arrived in the city, theBaghdadis and the Bene Israel prayedtogether and cooperated on religiousmatters. In Bombay, at the beginningboth Bene Israel and Baghdadis wereburied in the same Jewish cemetery.

Leaders of both groups, including DavidSassoon, petitioned the President andGovernor-in-Council of Bombay to carefor the Jewish cemetery and the petitionwas signed in Hebrew and Englishby the “Arabian” Jews and in Marathiby the ”native” Jews. But by 1836,relations between the two communitieshad soured and members of theBaghdadi community petitioned theBritish Government to erect a wall in thecemetery between the two communities.Sadly, relations deteriorated over time,and, although there were exceptions, theBaghdadis would generally not includethe Bene Israel in their minyan (quorum)as “pure” Jews.

Economic incorporation

David Sassoon had prospered from theoil, cotton and opium ventures he setup over the Far East, and in particular,from trade with China. He offeredemployment to scores of Bene Israel,who had settled in Bombay and workedin the mills he had established.

Statue of David Sassoon
Statue of David Sassoon
Photo credit: Erica Lyons

In addition, the David SassoonBenevolent Institute, later the SassoonSchool, which did not want to acceptBene Israel pupils, provided employmentfor Bene Israel teachers. It is significantthat from 1865 the headmaster of theschool was an educated Bene Israel,Joseph Ezekiel Rajpurkar (1834-1905),who five years earlier became a Hebrewteacher, in the school, with DavidSassoon’s blessing.


Certain funds were explicitly funneled tothe poorer Bene Israel community. Forexample, the Sassoon Hospital, built inPune from a contribution of Rs.213,000given by David Sassoon towards itsendowment in 1863, and completedafter his death in 1867, reserved specialplaces for the Bene Israel. The first timethat the Sassoons directly helped a BeneIsrael institution, however, was afterDavid Sassoon’s death in 1882, whencharitable funds were made available tothe Bene Israel Israelite School.

Civic benefits

David Sassoon established hugephilanthropic funds for the beautificationand development of the city of Bombayand Poona from which the Bene Israel,like other citizens, benefited. Theseincluded the David Sassoon Mechanics’Institute (1847), which evolved into theDavid Sassoon Library and Reading Room(1938), the David Sassoon Industrial andReformatory Institution, David SassoonElderly and Destitute Persons Home orthe David Sassoon Infirm Asylum (1863) inPoona (today the Nivara Old Age Home),the Clock Tower at the Victoria Gardens(today Veermata Jijimata Udyan), andthe Statue of the Prince Consort at theVictoria and Albert Museum (today theBhau Daji Lad Museum) complete withHebrew inscription (1861). The BeneIsrael, as municipal members of Bombayand Poona, could only be proud of thesalience of Judaism and Hebrew intheir city.

Sassoon’s Legacy of Rapprochement

While it is absolutely true that relationsbetween the Baghdadi Jews and theBene Israel in Bombay (and Poona)were not ideal, David Sassoon utilizedparticular strategies of rapprochementto endear himself to the Bene Israel.Sometimes, these gestures have beenmisinterpreted or are unknown. Althoughsubsequent generations of the Sassoonfamily and the Baghdadi Jews may havebeen responsible for the deterioration ofrelations between the two communities,I would suggest that David Sassoonhad aimed at harmonious relations withthe more numerous and ‘native’ Jewishcommunity of Bene Israel.

Dr. Shalva Weil is Senior Researcherat the Hebrew University ofJerusalem, Israel and editor ofseveral books, including (with KatzN., Chakravarti, R., and Sinha,B. M.) Indo-Judaic Studies in theTwenty-First Century: A Perspectivefrom the Margin (Palgrave-Macmillan Press), 2007, (withShulman, D.) Karmic Passages:Israeli Scholarship on India (NewDelhi: Oxford University Press),2008 and India’s Jewish Heritage:Ritual, Art and Life-Cycle, Mumbai:Marg Publications [first publishedin 2002; second reprint 2004,re-published 2009].


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