Article Library / India, Israel and the Jewish People

India, Israel and the Jewish People

(Note on Section)7

Indian, or better Indus Valley, civilization began to spread across the Middle East more than 4,000 years ago. Indian artifacts have been found in Mesopotamia and Pharaonic Egypt, but not, so far, in the territory of ancient Israel. However, ancient India’s marks on ancient Israel are more durable than any artifact: language. Philologists have identified a number of words in Biblical Hebrew that are of Indian – Sanskrit or South Indian, for example Tamil – origin. For the most part they are not common words of daily use, but words that point to important cultural acquisitions and needs. Right at the beginning, the Biblical narrative speaks in a few phrases of the invention of human civilization: “Juval, he was the first of all who handle the harp and the flute.”8 Kinor, ancient Hebrew for harp, appears dozens of times all across the Bible because the harp, and music in general, were essential components of the religious and secular culture of ancient Israel. Terms similar to kinor can be found in many ancient Near Eastern languages, e.g. Akkadian, Ugarit, Syriac, Hittite, but the term exists also in Sanskrit (kinnara/kinnarī) and ancient South-Indian Telugu (kinnara, presumably from the Sanskrit).9 When the word first appeared in ancient Hebrew can no longer be known. It could have come from other Near Eastern languages. Or did the word, and perhaps the harp itself, enter the Near East, including ancient Israel, from India? One cannot exclude this possibility. Judging from the available archeological evidence, cultural influence spread early on from India to the Middle East, not the other way around.

No less intriguing, and easier to substantiate, are the links between India and the fragrances, spices, precious stones, and animals found in the Bible. The Bible mentions a religiously significant semi-precious stone, sapir, which is not the present-day sapphire, but the deep blue stone lapis-lazuli. Lapis-lazuli does not exist naturally in the Middle East. In ancient times all lapis lazuli came from India or Afghanistan, which was part of India’s cultural sphere. Even the word sapir is assumed to be derived from the Sanskrit śanipriya.10 The sapir stone and its blue color occur all over the Bible11 because sapir has a hallowed connotation anchored in Exodus 24:10; when Moses, Aaron, and the Elders “saw the God of Israel,” they were allowed to visualize Him only indirectly: “Under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapir, like the very sky for purity.” An Indian semi-precious stone and a Sanskrit word for it as the nearest symbolic allusions to the “God of Israel” – can there be a more significant meeting between civilizations, even if the two sides were not even aware of each other, and even if the stone and the word for it might have travelled to Israel through a third party, perhaps Sumer?

The historian Brian Weinstein explored the link between ancient Israel and India by researching the Biblical references to spices and fragrances. He reached the conclusion that “Jews … were very dependent on India for the products essential for proper worship in the Temple in Jerusalem.”12 He identified six Biblical (and more Talmudic) fragrances and spices originating from India, two of which with Indian names: ahalot/ahalim, the term for the fragrant aloe wood that was derived from Sanskrit agaru (of Dravidian origin) or Tamil akil,13 and a plant oil used in the Temple called nerd in Hebrew and nard or spikenard in English, derived from the Sanskrit nalada, meaning “smell-giver.”14 Indian nard was so indispensable as an ingredient of the incense used in the daily Temple service that a large part of the global demand for this fragrance is believed to have originated in Jerusalem.15 The other Indian import products mentioned in the Bible (and sometimes in the Talmud) were bdolach or bdellium, a tree resin used for perfume, kinamon or cinnamon, a fragrance, almog or sandalwood, and kneh-bossem or calamus, a plant for oil used to sanctify the altar.

Animals from India appear in a well-known story of the great trader king Solomon. It reveals one of the ways, arguably the shortest and most efficient one, by which Indian products came to Israel: “For the king had a Tarshish fleet (perhaps meaning large ships) on the sea … Once every three years the Tarshish fleet came in, bearing gold and silver, ivory, monkeys, and peacocks.”16 At that time, it was only in South Asia, and particularly India, that elephants, monkeys, and peacocks17 could be found in the same place. The last three words in Hebrew in the quote above are shenhavim ve-kofim ve-tukiim. For all three words, Indian roots have been identified. Monkey is koph in Hebrew, and kapi in Sanskrit;18 peacock is tuki in Biblical Hebrew (but parrot in modern Hebrew), śuka/śukī in Sanskrit, and tōkai in Tamil;19 and ivory is shenhav, or “tooth (Hebrew) of hav,” hav being ancient Egyptian but derived from the Sanskrit term ibha for elephant.20 The reasons that speak for an Indian and not Egyptian etymology of ivory, monkeys and peacocks are overwhelming. There were no peacocks in Egypt, and a three-year hiatus could easily be explained by the monsoon in South Asia, which imposed long waiting periods in both directions, but could not be explained by trade between Israel and Egypt, which was mostly land-based. We know from Babylonian and Indian sources that India did export ivory, peacocks, and monkeys to Mesopotamia,21 and there is no reason to doubt that Indian animals and animal products reached old Israel as well. Whether this happened during the assumed period of King Solomon or later is an open question.22

Weinstein concluded from the – quite limited – evidence at his disposal that the relations between ancient India and Israel were “narrowly commercial.”23 The great Hebrew language scholar of the last generation, Professor Chaim Rabin of Hebrew University, set out to prove that they were more than that. He was looking for Indo-Aryan loanwords in the Hebrew Bible that implied concepts new to Semitic thought. He found some, all linked to horses, in the famous Song of Deborah in Judges 5, which various experts regard as one of the oldest texts of the Hebrew Bible.24 In fact, the horse came from Central Asia, appeared in India around 1600 BCE, and occupies an important place in ancient Hindu religion and texts.

In another publication considered important enough to be included in the Yale University Anchor Bible, Rabin went a big step further. He presented a detailed linguistic and historical analysis of King Solomon’s Song of Songs, the most commented upon Biblical poem, which still plays an important role in the Jewish prayer ritual. He assigns the Song to the time of Solomon at approximately 950 BCE, in contradiction to the great majority of other scholars who postulate later dates. Rabin found many similarities with ancient Tamil love poetry of the same period, including shared stylistic features. He claimed boldly: “It is thus possible to suggest that the Song of Songs was written … by someone who had travelled to South Arabia and South India and had there become acquainted with Tamil poetry.”25 As far as we can see, no other major scholar developed this theory further, and some Indian language scholars have rejected it.26 However, even if Rabin’s conjecture of a direct influence of Indian literature on the Bible is not generally accepted, it is a testimony to an enduring Jewish fascination with India.