Tag Archives: Gabbai

Jews of the Week: Albert, Eliyahu, and Sasson David Sassoon

In honour of Jew of the Week’s 9th birthday this November, we will feature a month-long series on the Sassoon family, the “Rothschilds of the East”. This is Part 2. Click here to read Part 1.

David Sassoon (seated) and his sons (left to right) Elias, Albert, and Sasson David.

Abdullah David Sassoon (1818-1896), the eldest son of David Sassoon, was born in Baghdad and raised in Bombay, India. He took over as head of the family business when his father passed away. At the same time, he served on Bombay’s Legislative Council, helping to run the bustling city. In 1873, Abdullah took a trip to England and decided to settle there. He formally changed his name to “Albert”, and moved the headquarters of the business to London, leaving the Bombay branch to his younger brother Solomon. In 1874, Albert opened a new subsidiary, Sassoon Spinning and Weaving Company, and the following year built the Sassoon Docks, the first wet docks in Western India, which still operate today in Mumbai. He paid for the reconstruction of the prestigious Elphinstone High School, and turned one of the family homes into India’s first and oldest museum. In 1866 he was awarded the Order of the Star of India, and in 1872 was made a British Knight Companion of the Order of Bath. The Shah of Persia awarded him the Order of Lion and Sun for his work in Persia’s development, and Queen Victoria knighted him and made him a baronet in 1890. He founded the David Sassoon Benevolent Institution, which provided thousands of scholarships to support the education of both Indians and Jews.

The second son of David Sassoon, Eliyahu David Sassoon (1820-1880), was also born in Baghdad and raised in Bombay. At the age of 24, he moved to Guangzhou to start a branch of the family business in China. He later oversaw further expansion across China and into much of Japan. In 1867, Eliyahu (now known more commonly as Elias) decided to break off from the family business and start his own company, E.D. Sassoon & Co. He abandoned the opium trade—which was now showing its unfortunate side-effects—and instead traded in fruits, spices, and teas, as well as silks and metals. He built what is probably the first synagogue in Hong Kong, as well as Maternity Hospital and the Sassoon Infirm Asylum in Pune, India.

The third son, Sasson David Sassoon (1832-1867) was born in Bombay, but sent to study in Baghdad’s illustrious Jewish schools. Despite being born with a heart defect and being chronically ill, Sasson worked hard for the family business and travelled widely. He first ran the Shanghai branch, then in 1858 moved to London to open his own bank. Sasson was renowned for his wisdom and ability to speak multiple languages at ease. In fact, he was the head Hebrew examiner at the London Jews’ Free School, then the world’s largest Jewish school with over 4000 students. He was also on the council of Jews’ College and was the gabbai (warden) of London’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. Sasson financially supported all of these institutions, too, among many others in London. He presided over a committee that sent an expedition to the Jews of “China, Abyssinia, and the East”. Sadly, Sasson succumbed to his ill health at the young age of 35.

Left to right: Albert Museum, India’s first and oldest museum, converted from an old Sassoon family home; the Elphinstone High School; Sassoon Docks, the first wet docks in Mumbai.

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Words of the Week

Money doesn’t excite me, my ideas excite me.
– Walt Disney 

Jew of the Week: Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov

Founder of the Hasidic Movement

The Baal Shem Tov’s gravestone in the Jewish cemetery of Medzhybizh, Ukraine.

Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760) was born to very poor parents in what is today Western Ukraine. He was orphaned at just 5 years of age, and adopted by the Jewish community. Even as a child, Israel would go out into the forests by himself after school and spend hours meditating. It is said that he started receiving visions from Biblical prophets while still a teenager. He married young, too, and when his wife tragically passed away, Israel left his village and embarked on a long journey. During his travels, he met a mystical sage named Rabbi Adam Baal Shem (the title baal shem, “Master of the Name”, was given to spiritual healers and great mystics). Israel soon started his own kabbalistic circle, and the group became active in assisting Jewish communities across Eastern Europe. Rabbi Israel remarried and had two children, sustaining the family by working as a clay and lime digger. He also worked as a school teacher and a gabbai (synagogue warden), and later became a shochet and managed his brother-in-law’s tavern. During this time, he became very proficient in healing herbs and his reputation as a baal shem grew rapidly. By 1740, Israel was known as the “Baal Shem Tov”, and countless people journeyed to Medzhybizh to learn from him. There, the Baal Shem Tov started a new philosophical movement that would be known as Hasidism, which strove to integrate mystical teachings into the daily lives of Jews, while focusing on serving God with utmost joy and happiness. The movement spread very rapidly, invigorating poor Eastern European Jews with a fresh breath of life. (Ironically, Hasidic Judaism took off among poor Jewish peasants who knew little Torah and ritual observance, while today Hasidic Judaism is associated with rigorous Torah study and strict ritual observance!) Meanwhile, the Baal Shem Tov battled passionately against various false messianic movements sweeping European Jewry, particularly the Frankists. He inspired a whole generation of great rabbis and is considered the founder of Hasidic Judaism. Many legends surround the Baal Shem Tov, including a purported ability to read people’s minds, exorcise demons, and even fly! Rabbi Israel passed away on the holiday of Shavuot.

Shavuot Starts Tonight!

Words of the Week

I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.
– Richard Feynman

Incredibly, the Chabad Library in New York has the Baal Shem Tov’s personal siddur, with his handwritten notes in the margins.