India is one of the most religiously and ethnically diverse countries in the world. Its huge population contains the majority of the world’s Hindus, as well as the second-largest percentage of Muslims within a single country, second only to Indonesia.
But when most people think about the religions of India, Judaism does not necessarily come to mind. However, there is a vibrant Jewish community in India, with many groups practicing traditions that are centuries old. One of the oldest is the Bene Israel people, who claim to have settled in India as early as the first or second century.
With the Jewish New Year holiday of Rosh Hashanah being celebrated this year from September 18-20, it makes sense to discover their history, how they celebrate Rosh Hashanah, and the many ways they kept their traditions alive.
The Origins of the Bene Israel People
The Bene Israel people are one of the most unique Jewish sects in the world. There are several different origin stories in circulation, but since it is generally agreed that they came to India in the first or second century, we have to rely on traditional oral accounts. The most popular origin story is that the Bene Israel people are descendants of one of the original twelve tribes of Israel. The twelve tribes of Israel are a key part of Jewish history, reputedly descended from the 12 sons of the Jewish forefather Jacob.
However, modern scholars assert that it’s more likely these tribes were originally twelve independent nations, and the story of them being descended from brothers should be considered more of an analogy.
Regardless of whether the tribes were related or not, history does generally agree that most of them were exiled during an Assyrian invasion around 722 BCE.
Many Bene Israelis believe their ancestors were shipwrecked on India’s Konkan coast as they fled Israel. The survivors were reputedly seven men and seven women who brought their Jewish traditions to a new land.
As the Bene Israel people settled, they forgot most of their traditions except for a few major hallmarks of the Jewish faith. Until the 18th century, when they came into contact with other Jews, the Bene Israelis practiced their faith simply, observing Shabbat, circumcising their male children, and making offerings. The only prayer that remained in their lexicon was the Shema Yisrael, the best-known and arguably most important Jewish liturgical prayer.
Since they were isolated from the rest of the Jewish people by language and geography for centuries, the Bene Israel people have developed many unique traditions over the generations.
For holidays, many women cook Fish Alberas, along with the semolina sweet kanavali, which is often served on Shabbat. Jewish tradition forbids the eating of milk and meat together, so many Bene Israeli dishes feature coconut milk, a delicious and religiously appropriate way to add flavor and balance out rich spices.
On Rosh Hashanah, Bene Israelis wear new clothing, and spend time with friends and family. Milk halwah is the most traditional dish served, but many Bene Israelis have adopted the modern Jewish tradition of dipping apples in honey, to ensure a sweet new year.
The Future of the Bene Israeli People
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Bene Israel people were visited by rabbis and other Jews from around India, who wanted to teach them modern Jewish prayers, practices, and beliefs. Several Bene Israel synagogues were founded, including Shaar HaShamaim in 1879.
Their population peaked in the late 1940s with more than 20,000 members, but now it is estimated that there are fewer than 5,000 Jews in India. Many live in the diaspora, and around 60,000 Bene Israelis have moved in Israel.