Monday, 21 November 2011

Indian Jews using Amsterdam prayer books, 1816

Bishop Middleton, the first Bishop of Calcutta - whose diocese covered all India - visited the Cochin Jews at Mattancherry in 1816. What caught my eye is that this community was using prayer books imported all the way from Amsterdam.

I wonder how early contact was made between the European Sephardim and the Cochin Jews. Presumably there were secret Jews in the Portuguese colony of Goa. Also, Sephardi diamond merchants are known to have been in Madras in the late 17th Century.

"The year 1816 was chiefly spent by the Bishop in visiting his widespread diocess. He proceeded first to Madras, next to Bombay; but as no journal appears to have been kept of his progress, the particulars which the author gives of it are few and not very satisfactory. On his return to Calcutta he touched at Goa, and also at Cochin, near which is Mattencherry [Mattancherry], the residence of a sect of Jews, whose history is curious. The town is altogether unlike any other in India; the streets are regular, the houses, which are in general two stories high, have doors and windows after the European fashion and are repeatedly whitewashed; the countenances of their inhabitants are perfectly fair, compared with the Indian face in general, and yet they have all the Jewish physiognomy. Their synagogue is like those of the Jews in Europe, and their history is as follows:-
‘Their history, according to their own account, is this: that they belong to the tribe of Benjamin, Judah and half Mannasseh, and that their forefathers left Sappanat (probably the same with Sepharad mentioned in Obadiah 20) after the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus; that they originally dwelt at Cragnore, from which they were driven by the Inquisition of Goa about 300 years since; and that soon after they were settled at Cochin, they assisted the Dutch against the Portugeuse. With regard to the dispersion of their nation, one story current among them is, that the ten tribes are to this day beyond the river Sambattin [Sambation], which is continually throwing up stones and earth to prevent their return; except on the Sabbath, on which day, as their law forbids them to stir, the miracle is suspended! They all believe that they shall be restored to the Holy Land in peace, in the year 1839, and that the temple is then to be rebuilt by the freemasons, with Solomon at their head. They are perfectly enraged at the mention of Jesus as the Messiah. They have a high veneration for the book of Job; and believe the house of Esau to be the Christians! Shiloh they interpret as the name of a city, and the prophesy which says, his name shall be called Emmanuel, they apply to Hezekiah. They read the whole psalter frequently in their houses; the ninety-first psalm every night. They follow the customs of the Portuguese Jews, and have their books from Amsterdam.’ – vol. i. pp. 261, 262."

Source: Life of Dr. Middleton. Published in The Monthly review. 1831. Page 540.

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