Article Library / India, Israel and the Jewish People

India, Israel and the Jewish People

The Bible and Talmud tell us that the Kingdom of Israel of the First Temple period and the Jews of Babylon had trade links with India. For historians, the high Middle Ages, the 11th and 12th centuries, were a watershed in Indo-Jewish relations. For the first time we have letters and other documents that show a steady stream of Jewish long-distance traders visiting India and establishing links and friendships there. From then on, person-to-person contacts between visiting Jews and Indians have continued uninterrupted, although our knowledge of these contacts until early modern times is fragmentary.

The spread of Islam beginning in the 7th century CE boosted Indian trade in general because it opened a vast global space connecting the Mediterranean and the Middle East with large parts of Asia. Between the 10th and the 14th centuries, the India trade was the backbone of the international economy. So important was this trade that the search for a new, direct sea route to India led to the discovery of America in 1492 and the onset of modern times. Jews, mainly of North African and Egyptian origin, played a significant role in the India trade. For a period of more than 200 years, from the 11th to the 13th century, nearly a thousand letters and other documents written by and to Jewish India traders have been discovered. They were found in the Cairo Genizah and first published in 1973 by Prof. Shlomo Goitein,55 and later expanded by his academic successors in a 2008 edition.56 Two more volumes of letters appeared in 2013. The mass of detailed information about Indo-Jewish trade links in these letters is unmatched for any other period before or after, until the 20th century.

The reader can follow the lives, successes, failures, and tribulations of dozens of Jewish long-distance traders and ship owners, and their families. Nearly all were rich and observant Jews who combined a vast knowledge of foreign business conditions and cultures with a daring entrepreneurial spirit and impressive physical and emotional strength. The riches that could be gained in the India trade were enormous, but so were the dangers. Shipwrecks, loss of goods, illness, frequent attacks by pirates or robbers, and the hostility of local rulers threatened all traders, not to mention their concern for their far-away families. More than one trader did not make it back alive. While shared dangers, family connections, and Jewish solidarity favored strong links between the traders, there was also plenty of tension, strife, and legal disputes among them. The letters allow us to catalogue Indian export products. Among the most important items were fragrances and spices, particularly pepper, iron and steel, and expensive silk and cotton textiles.57 The Jews of Biblical and Talmudic times had already purchased the same Indian products a thousand or more years earlier – a remarkable stability in trade links.

Abraham Ben Yiju was one of the most prominent traders – mainly because an exceptionally large number of documents about him and his family, 80 in all, have survived.58 Ben Yiju, a Tunisian, lived in Cairo and Aden for many years and developed his India business on a tremendous scale. He was not only a trader and manufacturer, but also a Torah scholar, poet, and occasional medical practitioner. He settled in South India for 17 years, set up a brass factory, purchased a slave girl, Ashu, set her free, converted her, gave her the Jewish name Bracha (Blessing) Bat Avraham (all converts to Judaism are called children of Abraham and/or Sarah) and married her. She bore him children who remained Jews. Abraham Ben Yiju is the hero of In an Antique Land, a book by Amitav Gosh, one of India’s most renowned modern novelists discussed in the previous chapter.59

Abraham Ben Yiju’s openness to the religions and communities of India – Hindu, Muslim, and Christian – appears to characterize the attitude of the Jewish India traders of the time. There is no trace of animosity toward other religions and communities in any of their exchanges, which were written in Judeo-Arabic with the Hebrew alphabet and, hence, inaccessible to non-Jews. They are reliable expressions of what these Jews really thought. Some traders show particular warmth toward their Hindu contacts, such as Madmun Ben Hassan who asks a Jewish colleague to convey his best regards to his Hindu business partners “and tell them of my longing for them,”60 or Mahruz Ben Jacob who speaking of his Hindu partner, Tinbu, said, “Between him and me there are bonds of inseparable friendship and brotherhood.”61 These pious Jews seem not have been bothered by fears of Indian “idolatry.”

However, it must also be said that the letters do not contain observations about Indian religions, cultures, and customs. Maimonides, who lived in the same period, had only fragmentary and partly erroneous knowledge of the religions of India. His brother, David Ben Maimon, who traded in precious stones and travelled often to India, may have had friendly personal relations with his Indian business partners but as an observant Jew did not want to know about their religions and did not ask questions. This was apparently the case of other traders as well. Did these long-lasting commercial links also spawn cultural exchanges, as they often have in history? We have no answer to this question.

Trade between India and Jews of the world did not disappear after the Middle Ages, but continued until pre-modern times when India fell under British rule. The second part of the 17th century saw the emergence of an international Jewish economy, a powerful long-distance trading network that stretched from the Caribbean to Amsterdam, Livorno, London and other wealthy Jewish centers in Europe, and from there to India and the Far East. Until the 18th century, India’s share in global trade was large. Some statistics have it at more than 20 percent of global trade, which means that India was an important market for Jewish traders. The historian Jonathan Israel gives two examples of India-Jewish trade relations in the 17th and 18th centuries.62 London Jews bought diamonds from India and paid the Indians with polished coral imported from Jewish craftsmen in Livorno, Italy. Coral was and is still highly valued in India.

History tells us that long-term trade relations often have consequences beyond commerce. As said above, little is known about person-to-person links between self-identified Jews and Indians in the 17th, 18th or 19th centuries because no document trove from that period has been discovered. But there is one fascinating document that reveals that more was going on between Jews and Indians than just trade. The 1778 document concerns a Jew who had converted to Hinduism but later wished to return to Judaism. Reference to his case can be found in a responsum by Rabbi Yehezkel Landau (1713-1793), Chief Rabbi of Prague and an important 18th century rabbinic authority. Landau was asked to adjudicate the case of a London Jew, a Kohen, who had converted to Hinduism because he wished to marry a Hindu woman, but later wanted to return to Judaism. The rabbi stated that “after a Kohen repents he may fulfill all the functions of a Kohen …(his conversion) does not make him an apostate. He did so only because otherwise the woman would not have agreed to marry him.”63 Was this anonymous Jew one of the London diamond traders Jonathan Israel mentions?

Ancient Israel and Jews traded with India for 3,000 years, at least from the time of King Solomon. Babylonian, Hellenistic, Medieval, Modern Jews and the State of Israel continued a tradition that was probably never completely interrupted. It is one of the longest-lasting trade links between any still-living civilizations.