Reprinted with permission from The Israel Museum, Jerusalem ©.
The Bene Israel have always been the largest of the three Jewish communities in India. In 1838, for example, the total Bene Israel population of India was estimated at 8,000, far more than the combined numbers of Baghdadi and Cochin Jews. For generations they lived as a distinct endogamous group in rural villages, some of them in remote areas, throughout the Kolaba District of Maharashtra State. Traditionally, the Bene Israel worked in sesame-oil pressing; they also farmed their land, peddled produce, and worked as skilled carpenters.
Because the Bene Israel families were scattered among many villages, community life in Kolaba District was extremely limited, and group prayer and Jewish rituals took place in the home. The community’s religious observance was based on biblical Judaism: they celebrated Jewish holidays related to the Bible; the Sabbath was strictly observed; all male children were circumcised eight days after birth; and the first Hebrew verse of the Shema was recited on all occasions for prayer.
Initially, the Bene Israel had no Torah scrolls, prayer books, or synagogues, nor were they familiar with rabbinic Judaism or the details of halakhah. They were guided by three Bene Israel religious leaders called kazis, who traveled from village to village in order to officiate at all rites of passage.
Origins of the Community
According to the community’s own oral tradition, they are descended from “seven couples from a country to the north,” the sole survivors of a shipwreck off the Konkan coast near Navagaon (about 48 km south of Bombay).
Ever since the early 19th century, Christian missionaries and Jews (non-Bene Israel as well as Bene Israel) have offered diverse suggestions to explain the community’s origins. For example, the centrality of the prophet Elijah in Bene Israel tradition produced the theory that their ancestors lived in the Holy Land in the time of Elijah (eighth century BCE) and that the “country to the north” was actually Israel.