Bene Israel

Doctrines The Jews of the Bombay region of India believe themselves to be descended from Jews who had escaped from the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes (175-163 BCE) (See Ancient Judaism). Shipwrecked on the coast south of Bombay with nothing but oral relics of their religion, and entirely cut off from other Jews until the eighteenth century, they nonetheless called themselves Bene Israel "children of Israel" and succeeded in preserving a form of Judaism. They knew no Hebrew and did not have any Hebrew texts, but could recite the Shema and celebrated the sabbath day and some of the festivals. They practised circumcision and observed some of the dietary laws, but they also adopted Hindu practices such as not eating beef, prohibiting widows from remarrying and a form of caste system.

History The early origins of this community are unknown. Under the British authorities they came into contact with other Jews, including the Cochin Jews (see Cochin Jews), and the first Bene Israel synagogue was built in Bombay in 1796. Joined by Jews from Europe and the Middle East, the Bombay community grew dramatically and the first synagogue was soon too small. A larger synagogue was built on the same site in 1860, and two more were built in other districts of Bombay by the end of the century. Before the emigration of the Bene Israel to Israel after 1948, they had more than 20 synagogues. Most now live in Israel, where there was controversy over their Jewishness, until the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate decreed in 1962 that marriage with Bene Israel was permitted, and the Israeli prime minister issued a statement in 1964 that the government of Israel regards them as Jews in every respect.

Symbols Bene Israel employ the same symbols as other Jewish traditions. However, their ritual bears evidence of the influence of their Indian context. Occasions of thanksgiving are followed by the recital of blessings over a concoction of parched rice, shredded coconut, raisins and spices (called malida). These are eaten by everyone who is present, with two kinds of fruit.

Adherents The number of Bene Israel in India rose from about 7000 in the 19th century to about 24,000 in 1947. There are now approximately 8000 in Israel.

Main Centre
 Council of Indian Jewry, c/o The Jewish Club, Second Floor, Jeroo Building, 137 Mahatma Gandhi Road, Bombay, 400023. Telephone: 271628