Tag Archives: Sephardic Jews

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.

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.

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Words of the Week

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

Jew of the Week: Ben Ish Chai

Baghdad’s Greatest Sage

Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, the Ben Ish Chai

Yosef Chaim ben Eliyahu (1832-1909) was born in Baghdad, the son of the city’s chief rabbi. After being miraculously saved at the age of 7, he resolved to devote his life to God and His Torah. He went to study at Baghdad’s Beit Zilka school, and spent all of his extra time absorbing his father’s extensive library of religious texts. When he was 14, a letter arrived from the chief rabbi of Turkey with a question for his father regarding a difficult case. His father was away at the time, so young Yosef Chaim answered the question himself. The chief rabbi sent a letter back: “Your son, dear to your soul, has already preceded you and decided this case. May his father rejoice in him…” Not surprisingly, when his father passed away, Yosef Chaim was immediately chosen as his replacement, and officially given the title of Hakham (the traditional Sephardic term for a rabbi). He was beloved by the entire Baghdad community, who regularly crowded into synagogues to hear his penetrating sermons, and who listened to his every word and instruction. One set of those sermons – which combined Halacha (Jewish law), with Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), organized by the weekly Torah portion – was compiled into a book called Ben Ish Chai. The book was so popular that Hakham Yosef Chaim himself became known as the “Ben Ish Chai”. (The title has further significance because the Hakham believed himself to be a reincarnation of the great Biblical figure Benayah, who was called Ben Ish Chayil.) The Ben Ish Chai was known for his incredible humility and piety. He slept very little, built a mikveh inside his house so that he can purify himself daily, and at one point spent six continuous years fasting (eating only a little bit at night). He inspired Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews alike, as well as the local Arabs. It is said that during his tenure there was no Jew in Baghdad that did not keep kosher or Shabbat. Throughout this time he never took a penny for his work, and made a living through his publications and his own wise investments. Many of his students became great rabbis in their own right, and Ben Ish Chai is still among the most popular Jewish books today, especially in the Sephardi world. Hakham Yosef Chaim also wrote a number of other works, including a book of kosher stories so that Jews wouldn’t be too drawn to secular novels. He is regarded as one of the greatest Kabbalists of all time. The Porat Yosef Yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Old City – today one of the most famous and prestigious in the world – was founded upon his instructions and guidance. Tonight, the 13th of Elul, marks 110 years since his passing.

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Words of the Week

Just as punishment is brought upon a person because of evil speech, so is he punished if he could have spoken good words but did not.
– Zohar III, 46b 

The Porat Yosef Yeshiva near the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The Yeshiva was founded by Jewish-Indian philanthropist Yosef Shalom at the request of the Ben Ish Chai. The original building was destroyed by the Arabs in 1948. It was rebuilt in 1967 following Jerusalem’s reunification during the Six-Day War.