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Researching the Heritage of the Bene Israel Community

By Nissim Moses

Years ago from the leading actors on stage and in the movies, I learned that in order to perform correctly the part being played one has to study the personality being played, his environment and its constraints, his character, his society, and his peculiarities. The same is true with socio-anthropologists who want to study new and relatively unknown, until recently, communities like the Bene Israel. Further it is highly important that one does not try to evaluate or superimpose the preconceived and conditioned upbringing of one’s self in one’s own society in arriving at conclusions about another.

Most Contemporary Jewry is based upon the Torah and the leadership usurped by the Rabbis and their rabbinic rulings, post destruction of the Second Temple and later. Judaism during this period underwent a radical change in character and format from that which existed during the simpler period, prior to the destruction of the Second Temple when the Cohen’s and Levites played a leading role in the religious life of the Jews and where Rabbis were merely teachers. Among the major differences was the fact that Judaism changed from a sacrificial based religion controlled by the Cohen and overseen from the daily aspect by the Levites, to that dictated by the views of often contradictory and conflicting views of Rabbis each trying to show himself smarter than the other.

The Bene Israel are not one of the lost ten tribes taken into captivity by Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon, but an independent group, that fled the land of Israel due to the persecution of the then Seleucid rulers of the land of Israel, in the tumultuous period between the reconstruction of the Second Temple and prior to its rededication and sanctification by the Maccabees, as widely believed. A period when the Greek rulers, of the land of Israel, threatened the lives of the Cohen’s and the Levites, the Bene Israel (now proven by DNA studies to be Levites) fled the land from the tribal region of Zebulon. Even though the Torah and prayer format of modern Judaism was not known to them, they continued to follow (being Levites) the simple tenets of sacrificial Judaism. They were further aided in India by the coincidence that the Hindu calendar and the Jewish calendar are very similar and many Jewish and Hindu Festivals have the same background stories and significance and occur at the same time and often on the same day.  Being basically farmers and oil pressers, they were easily able to adapt to their new environment in the Konkan Region on the west coast of India.

Modern socio-anthropologists have basically been drawn from the humanities field, where they have not been exposed to mathematical techniques, at least on a qualitative basis of utilizing, correlation, analytical, comparative and deductive techniques to evaluate observed data/information on the customs, traditions, hereditary stories, and background reasons for certain customs/traditions of the  Bene Israel community. They often have preconceived views and theories and talk/interview to lay persons and not to educated elders/leaders of the community to complement their cursory observations to arrive at conclusions that fit their preconceived views and transform them into supposedly typical features of the Bene Israel Community. The lay Bene Israel is a very simplistic and traditional Jewish person in every sense of the word and has great respect for the form of Judaism handed down to him by word of mouth by his parents and ancestors. This was how we Bene Israel survived as Jews through the Centuries. Often the true reason may have been lost or corrupted due to the changes or story modifications and changed cultural environment over the centuries. But the overall communal identification as Jews remained unchanged.

Due to limitations in length of article, I shall give three simple examples, of how European Jewry and Socio-Anthropologists tend to evaluate other Jewish Cultures like the Bene Israel.

One day while observing our tradition of lighting the Hanukah candles, a group of American/European tourists visiting the Judah Hyam Synagogue remarked that the Bene Israel were not lighting the candles in the traditional manner. They categorically stated that the Jewish tradition was to use the Shamash candle to light the other candles and that we were using a separate candle instead. Then when asked whether they were sure if that was the Jewish tradition, they unanimously replied yes. To this, the author asked them to tell him what was the material used in lighting the original lamps. They replied olive oil. So the author asked them to please demonstrate how they would use the Shamash oil lamp to light the others (See Picture of Oil Lamp Hanukiah below). This question left them stumped. So the next question of the author was, “so if you cannot use the Shamash oil lamp, then what would one use to light all the oil lamps?” Their response was a separate candle or lighter.

Now the present author asked them if they knew that in the Hanukah prayers two restrictions were mentioned:

  1. One is not permitted to use the lamp but only to view them
  2. One must strictly use only olive oil (which in those days was processed by the Levites.)

Then the author asked them if they knew why in Europe and elsewhere they started using candles & other oils. The explanation was that when Olive oil was not available, an alternative material like wax or say coconut oil was used.

But in Europe in the period prior to the development of synthetic wax only bee’s wax was available for the making of candles and this item was expensive and difficult to obtain. Hence in order to save on candles, it was permitted to use the Shamash candle to light the other candles. From this grew the modern day convention/tradition of using the Shamash candles.

Today in Israel and elsewhere, many families have returned to lighting oil lamp Hanukiahs and using candle lighters to light the candles. The Shamash Lamp/Candle is always lighted last and not first.

The pictures below highlight the aspects mentioned in the article above.

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Beatrice Moses lighting the Hanukiah with a separate candle as per Bene Israel tradition

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Traditional Bene Israel Lighted Hanukioth

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A Return to Basics- Modern Re-Invented Silver encased Candle/Lamlighter and Match Box Holders

The Malidah Service: This subject I shall Present in a way that will enable researchers to understand the use of mathematical techniques introduced above.

  1. Bene Israel practiced 1st Temple Judaism.  Only the Bene Israel community perform the Malidah.
  2. The Malidah is a Ceremony of Thanksgiving and Peace Offering described in the Torah and performed prior to making a wish, a vow, a wedding, and as a Thanksgiving after the wish or vow has been granted or the birth of a male child. Originally the Malidah Plate was taken to the Alter where the offering was blessed by the Cohen, today the Eliyahu Na Navi Parayer and Ve Inten Lekha Blessing and other prayers are recited in the service. The reason being as given below.
  3. The Bene Israel were from the Tribal Region of Zebulon and Elijah the Prophet was the the only phrophet they knew upon their depature from Israel and he was a Giladi/The Tishebite who lived in caves in their region of Zebulon. It is he who the Bene Israel fourteen survivors belived that saved them from the shipwreck.
  4. The Bene Israel are from the Tribe of Levy.
  5. The Levites were Responsible for Health of the people – functioned as Shocheth, Kosher Slaughterers, and Oil Pressers for ensuring pure olive oil for cooking and temple service.
  6. Jewish Slaughterers are not allowed to be paid to take a life. So they took the Liver and Gizzard as their rightful portion. But why these parts? The owner then buys these parts back with money.
  7. Note, after a kill by the pack animals, only the pack leader eats the liver and any challenger is either killed or driven out of the pack.
  8. The Bene Israel for the Malidah Plate –Peace or Thanks Giving offering place the Liver and Gizzard on the Peace or Thanks Giving Offering Plate over and above all other items.
  9. Later when Prayers were introduced, though on other fruits and items blessings were recited, there was no blessing on the liver and gizzard. But after the prayers, the women would remove these two items, chop them into small pieces and distribute to the men, symbolic to their being from the tribe of Levy as women could be from any tribe.

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Table Setting for the Malidah Service

Note the Liver and Gizzard bowls on the RHS of the Fruit Plate. Here it is kept at the side and not on the Malidah Plate to the left of Fruit Plate because some of the attendees were vegetarians.

Tracing the Origin of Bene Israel Family Names

In the past many scholars, including some from the Bene Israel Community, proposed the Theory that the Bene Israel Family names originated from those of the villages that they lived in the Konkan. Over the centuries this has become a belief and traditional explanation of the origin of our Family Names. But recent deductive analysis has shown that this theory and belief have no basis and are erroneous. The reasons are as follows:

  1. The Bene Israel arrived in India between 300 B.C.E and 175 B.C.E. when Hebrew and Aramaic were fully developed languages.
  2. David Rahabi (the first of the two known visitors) found Bene Israel living in the Konkan Villages with names given in table below and in a period when Marathi had still not come into existence.
  3. Marathi did not exist either as a dialect till 1200 C.E. or as a language till 1600 C.E. so the villages could not have taken their names (which are in Marathi) from a language that did not exist, until much later.
  4. The Bene Israel slowly over time forgot Hebrew or Aramaic, the language that they spoke at the time of their arrival in India. Even today many Bene Israel read Hebrew prayers from transliterated Marathi Prayer books. They concentrated more on the correct intonation of the prayer chants and the rest was left to the elders. But it was not an everyday spoken language.
  5. But the Bene Israel, being oil pressers, served a local need for good oil not produced by the local Hindus who were from the lower castes. The Hindus always considered someone from another religion to be of equivalent status to the two upper castes. Note many a Hindu, if he was considered to be impure, was required to touch a Muslim to regain purity in many Hindu Communities on the West Coast of India. So the Brahmins and Kshatriyas fraternized and bought from the Bene Israel and their shops. E.g. the shop and oil press of Babu Awaskar in the village of Awas, who was the only one who had the Family name of Awaskar in that village from 1900-1950 C.E. and it was a very old village.
  6. The Table here gives a few examples of the Bene Israel Family Names, their observed roots, and the translation of the name in English.

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Nearly all the names of villages in the Konkan region where the Bene Israel resided did not have roots in Marathi, whereas the roots of those same village names can definitely be traced to Hebrew words. This implies that the villages originated and their names were identified and linked to the original Bene Israel residents who resided at that location. Most of these villages must have originated during the time the first few generations of the Ancestors of the Bene Israel spoke fluent Hebrew i.e. about 2-3 hundred years. An equivalent case existed among the Baghdadi Jews in the Bombay and Calcutta areas, who spoke quite fluent Arabic even though there were no schools teaching Arabic for the 200 years, that they lived in India. Most of the children learnt it from their parents. This does not imply that there was no corruption of the Hebrew village names in latter times for e.g. Now Gaon probably corrupted to Now Ghar, Bor Gaon or Bor Gar to Bor Ghar, but it was always the village that took the original resident family’s name and not the Family that took the village name. Marathi was definitely not the source of our family names. That is why in the blessing (Mishbrachot & Haskaboth) given in the Bene Israel synagogues, unlike in other Jewish Communities, the Bene Israel always specify the family name as a reminder to the person that one can trace his ancestry to Jewish ancient Israel through his family name.

In conclusion, the author would like to propose to all foreign socio-anthropologists or those from a different socio-economic strata or community, that when they study a different or foreign community or culture they should leave behind their preconceived ideas and biases, and learn the culture of the people and community they are studying with an open mind. A few positive examples of scholars who have done so, are Shirley Eisenberg, Joan Roland and Shalva Weil, who literally resided among the people they studied. I have also seen a few examples of researchers who make flying visits, make cursory studies, and try to establish themselves as experts on the subject that they know very little about.

Author:

Nissim Moses is the President of the Indian Jewish Heritage Centre in Israel and an historian associated with the Bene Israel Heritage Museum and Geneaological Research Centre, Mumbai.

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For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

 

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