Tag Archives: British Empire

Jews of the Week: Sasson ben Saleh and David Sassoon

Two years ago, for Jew of the Week’s 7th birthday in November, we featured a month-long series on one of the world’s most famous Jewish families, the Rothschilds. This year, for Jew of the Week’s 9th birthday, we will feature a month-long series on the Sassoon family, the “Rothschilds of the East”. This is Part 1. Click here for Part 2. 

Sasson ben Saleh (1750-1830) was born in Baghdad to a wealthy Mizrachi Jewish family that had lived in what is today Iraq since the 12th century. Some say they were descended from the illustrious Sephardic ibn Shoshan family. He took the reins from his father as Baghdad’s Sarraf Bashi, or Chief Banker, at the age of 31. In this role, he was essentially the finance minister of the Iraqi Pashas, and among other things oversaw tax collection and the financing of public works projects. A very religious man, he was renowned for his righteousness and humility, and was called “Sheikh Sasson” by Jews and non-Jews alike. He used much of his fortune to assist the Jewish community and was among Iraq’s greatest philanthropists. Of his seven children, the fifth would become world-famous:

David Sassoon

David Sassoon (1792-1864) was born in Baghdad. After finishing primary school, he got married at the age of 15, and began his training to succeed his father as Baghdad’s financier. However, a new pasha took over and began persecuting the Jewish community. Many fled to Bombay, India, among them David Sassoon and his young family. Sassoon started a textile business, focusing on trade with the British Empire. The conclusion of the First Opium War in 1842 opened China to Western business, so Sassoon began expanding East. He sent his son Eliyahu (Elias) to Guangzhou, making him the first official Jewish trader in China. A couple of years later, they opened a branch of their business—David Sassoon & Co.—in Hong Kong, and then another in Shanghai, making most of their wealth from yarn, cotton, and opium. During America’s Civil War, cotton exports from the Southern states declined so Sassoon stepped in to fill the supply, making a huge fortune. Around this time, the first modern oil rigs were devised, and Sassoon immediately recognized their potential. He began investing in oil, and soon operated 17 mills in India, with as many as 20,000 workers. Like his father, Sassoon never abandoned his faith and was deeply religious. He was a generous philanthropist, too, and supported both Jewish and non-Jewish communities. In Mumbai he built a school, mechanical institute, hospital, and library, as well as the Magen David Synagogue. The massive home he built for his family is now Masina Hospital, and another home is the city’s oldest museum. In the city of Pune, he built the grand Ohel David Synagogue, in addition to a hospital free for all Indians regardless of class or caste. He single-handedly supported all the orphans of the Indian Mutiny of 1857. He was so beloved by the local Indians that they made a marble statue of him to display in the city.

Clockwise from top left: Pune Hospital, David Sassoon’s 1860 gift to the City of Pune; Masina Hospital in Mumbai today, which used to be David Sassoon’s private home; David Sassoon Library and Reading Room in Mumbai; Exterior (top) and interior (bottom) of Magen David Synagogue, built in 1864, and once housing two Jewish schools; and Ohel David Synagogue in Pune, an official Indian Heritage site and the largest synagogue in Asia, built in 1863.

The Jewish Couple That Helped Free Thousands of Slaves

Words of the Week

Fear only two: God, and the man who has no fear of God.
– Hasidic proverb

Click here for Part 2

Jew of the Week: Sarah Aaronsohn

Israel’s Joan of Arc

Sarah Aaronsohn

Sarah Aaronsohn (1890-1917) was born in Zikhron Yaakov to a Romanian-Jewish family which had settled in the Land of Israel during the First Aliyah to co-found a moshav. The moshav was later financed and supported by Edmond James de Rothschild (who renamed it Zikhron Yaakov after his father). Aaronsohn studied languages, and could speak Hebrew, Yiddish, Turkish, French, Arabic, and English. She married a wealthy Jewish-Bulgarian businessman and lived with him briefly in Istanbul. When the marriage unraveled, Aaronsohn returned to Israel. During her journey, she personally witnessed the horrors of the Armenian Genocide, and was deeply affected by what she saw. This inspired her to work against the Ottoman Turks, both to stop what was happening to the Armenians, and to prevent the same happening to Jews, as was rumoured at the time. Aaronsohn and her siblings started the NILI spy ring to supply important information to the British. (NILI stood for the Biblical words Netzach Israel Lo Ishaker, “the God of Israel does not lie”, from I Samuel 15:29.) Their spy ring grew to include 40 operatives, making it the largest British spy network in the Middle East during World War I. The information they provided was so vital that General Allenby later admitted he would not have been able to liberate the Holy Land without it. And without Allenby’s conquest, there would probably not have been a State of Israel (at least not so soon). Aaronsohn was also in charge of taking care of the Jews expelled from Haifa and Tel-Aviv by the Ottomans. At one point she worked with Lawrence of Arabia, and many believe the “S.A” to whom he dedicated his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom is Sarah Aaronsohn. Unfortunately, the Ottomans caught one of Aaronsohn’s carrier pigeons to the British and arrested her shortly after. She was gruesomely tortured for days, refusing to give any information and insisting that she was the sole spy, thus saving the lives of many others. While being transferred to a different torture chamber, she asked to stop at home to change her tattered and blood-soaked clothes. Aaronsohn managed to get a gun and shoot herself in the head. She survived the blast, and suffered for another four days before succumbing to her injuries. In her suicide note, she wrote that she hoped the blood of martyrs like her would one day be avenged, and that her work would speed up the establishment of a Jewish state. History has shown that it certainly did. Aaronsohn was hailed as a new “Joan of Arc”, and is one of Israel’s great heroines.

The Spiritual Purpose of Jewish Exile and Wandering

Words of the Week

Before the Endlessness of God, the highest saint and the lowliest commoner are equal.
– Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk (c. 1730-1788)