The investigation of the place of India in Jewish history or the role of the Jews in Indian history can be put on a sounder foundation and based on more reliable evidence only from the second or European phase in the annals of the India-Jewish association. This period opened with the coming of the European to India at the beginning of the sixteenth century and with the establishment of trading posts, factories and settlements along the West and East Coasts of India by the Portuguese, English and Dutch East India Companies.
After the discovery of the sea‑route to India around the Cape of Good Hope, when the Portuguese King Manuel (‑1521) began from 1497 on to send continuous naval expeditions to the West Coast of India in order to control and monopolize the spice trade between India and the West, the Portuguese succeeded in establishing their first firm foothold on the Malabar Coast the very territory on the Indian West Coast which had been for many centuries a seat of Jewish settlements.
Alvarez Pedro Cabral set foot on Indian soil in 1500; in 1502 Vasco de Gama established a Portuguese factory in Cochin and in 1503 the Viceroy of India, Alfonso d'Albuquerque, built there the first European fort.
p38 Through these events, India experienced one of her greatest transformations which fundamentally affected her entire political, cultural and religious order. Under the impact of the Portuguese expansion and penetration into India and the Indian Ocean and as a result of the economic and missionary activities of the Portuguese, who came to Indian not only as conquerors and merchants in search of spices, but also as propagators of Christianity, as bearers of the Cross, the anonymity and isolation which so characteristically hung over the Jews in India in the preceding centuries was broken. Hitherto unknown places of Jewish settlements were brought out of oblivion and onto the stage of history within the vast geographical area stretching along that coastline which is touched by the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean.
Among these "re‑discovered" communities on the map of Jewish diaspora of India and Asia, such as Goa, Cranganore, Calicut, Cochin, Surat, Ormuz, Malacca and others, Cochin occupies the most prominent place and in addition has the distinction of being the only Jewish settlement of this early period still in existence.
Cochin does not appear in the early accounts of medieval travelers and geographers, since it was then a small and insignificant fishing village on the banks of a river. It is generally assumed that Cochin as a noteworthy location came into being when as a result of cyclonic winds, torrential rains, earthquakes, or other convulsions of nature, the backwaters between the Arabian Sea and the Ghauts formed the island of Vypeen, •thirteen miles long and thrown up by the sea. This caused the separation of Cochin from the mainland and turned the landlocked harbor of Cochin into one of the greatest and safest ports on the West coast of India. It was under the Portuguese that Cochin attained strategical and commercial significance and became the residence of the Portuguese Viceroy, Francisco d'Almeida.
p39 That a Jewish community in Cochin had been in existence before the Portuguese conquered this town in 1500, can be deduced from the fact, reliably reported by the Portuguese sources, that the wife of Gaspar da Gama, the famous Jewish interpreter and geographer of Polish origin, who was captured in 1498 at the Anjediva Islands by Vasco da Gama, was a Jewess of Cochin. The Portuguese sources describe her as a pious woman, a person of learning and deep-seated convictions, who played a valiant role when a Portuguese Marrano from Lisbon, Dr. Martim Pinheiro, came to Cochin in 1505 with a chest of Hebrew books and offered them for sale to the Jewish community there. It is reported that the wife of Gaspar da Gama was instrumental in urging her coreligionists in Cochin to buy the books for their synagogue.
This transaction presupposes the existence of an organized Jewish community in Cochin at that time and furthermore, one of sufficient economic strength to enable them to buy the books for a large amount of money.
A confirmation of the existence of a Jewish community in Cochin at that time is furthermore reliably supplied by the German traveler, Balthazar Sprenger. Arriving in Cochin with the fleet of d'Almeida in October 1506 and staying two months in Cochin, he noticed the presence of Jews in Cochin, to whom he referred as "a foreign element among the pagan population of the city of Cochin," an observation which substantiates the evidence of the Portuguese sources concerning the Jewish wife of Gaspar da Gama.
This testimony as to the existence of a Jewish community in Cochin during the Viceroyship of Francisco d'Almeida in 1505 definitely refutes also the hitherto commonly held view that the Jewish community in Cochin came into existence only at a much later date and only after the fall and as a result of the destruction of Cranganore, the ancient Shinkali, the alleged original home and headquarter of the Malabar Jews. The corelation between the end of the Cranganore community and the beginning of the community in Cochin can be maintained no longer in the light of historical evidence.
There exists in the sources a bewildering discrepancy as to the p40 causes of the destruction of the Jewish community in Cranganore. Some regard the end of the community as the result of internal dissensions in the Jewish ranks, others attribute it to the religious intolerance of the Portuguese and still others claim the attack of the Zamorin, ruler of Calicut, on Cranganore as the decisive factor in the termination of that settlement. The suggested dates of the termination of Cranganore also vary considerably and range from 1524 to about 1565.
In any case, the existence of a Jewish community in Cochin at the beginning of the sixteenth century is furthermore substantiated by the fact that the Jews of Cochin at this juncture made themselves known for the first time to the outside Jewish world by sending a letter to the rabbinical authorities in Egypt, to the Chief Rabbi of Cairo, David b. Abi Simra and a generation later to his successor, Rabbi Jacob Castro, asking for advice in halachic matters pertaining to the split in the community, converts, slaves, intermarriage, etc.
In this Responsum, reference is explicitly made to a "question from India, from the Island of Cochin," with the additional information that in it are "about 900 households of Israel of whom 100 are Jews by descent who can trace their pedigree, while the remainder are offsprings of male and female slaves." According to Portuguese sources, the Rajah of Cochin had many Jews in his army who were "the best fighting people whom he had on his side," but who in a battle in the year 1550 refused to fight because "they did not offer battle on Saturday."
The continuation of a Jewish community in Cochin in the sixteenth century is also confirmed by the Yemenite Jew Secharia ibn Saʿadia, who in his "Sefer Hamusar" devotes a special chapter (Maqama No. 8) to his visit to the Malabar Coast and expressly states that though he had not found any Jews in Calicut, he met with many "in Cushi (Cochin)" and that he therefore stayed in Cochin about three months.
Jesuit sources, in particular the work of Alexander Valignano, refer repeatedly to Jews and synagogues in Cochin in the sixteenth century.
Interesting details about Jewish life in Cochin at this period can be derived from the Dutch traveler, John Huygen van p41 Linschoten, who visited Malabar during 1583‑1584. The French traveler François Pyrard, who was in Malabar between 1601 and 1611, speaks of a "vast number of Jews there that are very rich, and all the other different nations live in perfect liberty as to religion, each having its own temple, except in the Portuguese town, which is reserved to that nation." John Nieuhof (1622) records that a synagogue in Cochin could not be built close to Jesuit churches. The Dutch traveler, Philip Baldaeus (1640) mentioned that "in and about the city of Cochin lived also foreigners, some Jews who even now have a synagogue allowed them. . . they are neither white nor brown but quite black." Van Cardin (around 1644) speaks of Cochin's large population, among which he found "Gentiles, Moors and Jews mixed together in the city" and of the great tension between them and the Portuguese and refers also to an attack on Jews and the burning of a synagogue as a result of a religious accusation against the Jews.
The existence of a Jewish community in Cochin must have been well-known to Manasseh ben Israel, who in his "Humble Address" (before 1655) refers to "the four synagogues of the Cochin Jews."
All accounts agree that the Jews at the Malabar Coast were subject to contemptuous treatment and arbitrary taxes levied upon them by the Portuguese and that they were heavily restricted in their trade and oppressed by the Portuguese, though the Rajah of Cochin granted them, whenever possible, protection and special privileges.
When, as a result of an internal dissension among the native chieftains, one of the deposed rulers of Cochin invited the Dutch in Batavia to come to Cochin to help him, the Dutch commander, Van Goens, utilizing this long-sought opportunity, marched toward Cochin in 1662 and conquered the city.
At first the Dutch troops suffered a severe setback and were forced to retreat temporarily. It was due to a certain Jew of Cochin, as acknowledged by all sources, that the Dutch forces, p42 retreating on March 2, 1662, could slip out by night unobserved "without the loss of as much as one man except a Negro slave" thanks to the courage of this Cochin Jew who "made the clock of St. Thomas Church strike as usual."
The Portuguese, enraged by the assistance of the Jews to the Dutch, sent a detachment of their soldiers to the Jewish quarter, punished them severely, destroyed their synagogue, their books, pillaged the Jewish quarter and set it on fire. The Jewish inhabitants then fled to the highlands, and returned only after the final conquest of Cochin by the Dutch in the following year, 1663, which put an end to the Portuguese rule over Cochin, which had lasted from 1500 to 1663.
Under the Dutch rule, from 1663 to 1795, the fate of the Jews in Cochin improved in every respect and underwent a fundamental change for the better. They were granted complete civil and religious freedom, security and equality, could develop their own cultural life and could organize their community and build synagogues without interference.
Under the Dutch, Cochin became one of the most prosperous ports on the Malabar coast, a place of great trade, "a harbor filled with ships, streets crowded with merchants, and warehouses stored with goods from every part of Asia and Europe."
It should be stated that the Dutch supremacy over Cochin from 1663 on accorded the Jews not only complete freedom and equality, but brought about also the termination of their cultural and religious isolation from the rest of the Jewish world. The interest of the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam in this unknown "Remnant of Israel" in Cochin led to the dispatch of a delegation on behalf of the Amsterdam Portuguese Jewish community in 1686, which was headed by Mosseh Pereyra de Paiva and included as its members Isaac Irgus, Isaac Moscat and Abraham Vort.
Mosseh Pereyra de Paiva arrived in Cochin on November 21, 1686 and after his return to Holland he published in 1687 a report in which he put down his personal impressions and all the data about the origin and history, their synagogues, their numerical strength, their economic and social conditions and other p43 important aspects of both the "White" and Malabar (Black) Jews, which he had collected on the spot.
This report, entitled "Notisias dos Judeos de Cochim, Mandadas pro Mosseh Pereyra de Paiva" is one of the most important historical documents and the most reliable account ever written pertaining to the Jewish community in Cochin. It is of inestimable value for the understanding of its history and actual mode of living at that time. It brought into the very light of history this ancient Jewish settlement in South India.
In the ensuing economic prosperity of Malabar the Jews of Cochin could take an active part and a group of Jewish merchants rose to considerable power and influence.
It was generally assumed that the statement by George Rae in his "Syrian Church in India": "there seems to be no memory of any men having arisen among the Jews of Cochin . . ." was true. There is, however, now available a new reservoir of knowledge and information which refutes this view and proves that among the Jewish inhabitants of Cochin some rather outstanding Jewish personalities rose to power, influence and prominence and could play an exceptional role in the service of the Dutch East India Company.
This new reservoir of information consists of the still unpublished files, documents and letters of the Dutch East India Company pertaining to Cochin and the Malabar Coast housed in the "Algemeen Rijksarchief" in the Hague.
This archive, comprising over fourteen hundred volumes, covering the 130 years of the Dutch rule over Malabar (1663‑1795), a collection of all the official correspondence between the Dutch Commanders of Cochin and the innumerable native kings, princes, and potentates of Malabar and India on the other hand, describes almost all the daily events pertaining to the social, economic, political, military and diplomatic activities of the Dutch settlements in India.
p44 Diligent European and Indian scholars have used this material for their research on various aspects of the Dutch rule over India and have published monographical treatises in their respective fields of interest. There is only one aspect which has not been properly drawn to the attention of scholars, namely the role and activities of the Jews in the service of the Dutch East India Company in India during its 130‑year long supremacy over this area.
In this staggering abundance of source material, references to Jewish personalities and Jewish events and to other data of great Jewish relevance are hidden away under the heap of general information, which have remained untouched and untapped by students of Jewish history until now and which constitute a unique mine of information, a real treasure-house for the understanding of the history of the Jews in India, during the European phase of India's history — a kind of a Dutch "Genizah," containing the forgotten records of many generations of Jewish merchants and agents in the service of the Dutch East India Company.
In "Search of Jewish History in India" these sources open completely new avenues and vistas and advance and widen considerably the frontiers of our knowledge for the understanding of the role Jews played in India and, in addition, enable us to put the investigation of the history of the Jews in India on sound foundations, backed by documentary evidence.
From these sources we learn of the role of Jewish merchants in Dutch Cochin, of Jewish merchants engaged in import and export of pepper, timber, amber, coral, rice, cotton goods and other commodities, and of Jewish contractors, builders of fortresses, wood-cutters, shipbuilders, gunpowder manufacturers, landowners, cocoanut planters, real estate agents and jewelers.
We learn that many of these Jewish merchants could accumulate tremendous wealth in addition to prestige and respect in the eyes of the European trading Companies and the Native Rulers — and that their own ships were plying the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Bengal and the Persian Gulf.
Of all those Jewish merchants in Cochin who participated in the economic prosperity which Dutch rule brought to Cochin, none attained greater influence and prestige than Ezekiel Rahabi (1694‑1771) who, as the Company's chief merchant, became the central and towering figure in the commercial and political arena of Malabar and the Dutch East India Company.
During a period of almost 50 years (1723‑1771) this Ezekiel Rahabi, the most extraordinary personality ever to emerge out of the White Jewish community of Cochin, was actively and prominently connected with almost all the important commercial and diplomatic transactions of the Dutch Company on the Malabar Coast.
The story of Ezekiel Rahabi, his leadership in the Jewish merchant colony of Cochin for half a century and his role in the political, economic and cultural life of Dutch India, is one of the most glorious chapters in the annals of the India-Jewish association.
Ezekiel Rahabi's ancestors probably hailed from Rahaba, a city on the banks of the Euphrates, where Benjamin of Tudela found as early as the twelfth century, a Jewish community of about 2,000 souls. The Rahabi family later moved to Aleppo, and one of its members, Ezekiel Rahabi (I), emigrated to Cochin, India, in the year 1646, leaving his wife and his young son David in Aleppo. This David Rahabi came to Cochin after the death of Ezekiel Rahabi in 1664 and settled there. He belonged to the congregation of the White Jews in Cochin, which at that time amounted to about forty families, composed of immigrants from various parts of the Jewish diaspora, from Spain, Portugal, North Africa, Constantinople, Damascus, Safed, Jerusalem, Baghdad, Yemen, Persia, Germany, etc. He married into the family of the Ashkenazy, Jewish immigrants from Germany who p46 arrived in Cochin in the seventeenth century. After the death of his first wife in 1671, David married Esther Hallegua, the daughter of a well-known Jewish family of Cochin. From this second marriage a son was born in 1694, who was named after his grandfather Ezekiel Rahabi (II).
David Rahabi, following his late father's example, also engaged in trade and commerce and rose to a very respected and leading position in the service of the Dutch East India Company and the Rajah of Cochin.
When in 1686, Mosseh Pereyra de Paiva of Amsterdam, at the head of a commission of Amsterdam Portuguese Jews, visited Cochin, he met with this David Rahabi and singled him out in his "Notisias" as one of the wealthiest merchants in Cochin, being "worth more than 20,000 pezos."
David Rahabi died in 1726 in Cochin, where his tombstone is until today preserved in the courtyard of the "Paradesi" Synagogue of the White Jews in Cochin.
Ezekiel Rahabi, his son, who was already associated with his father's business, carried on after his father's death and he also became the favorite of the Rajah of Cochin and at the same time, the "principal merchant" and the "Joodsche Koopman" of the Dutch East India Company.
In 1723, in one of the earliest references to him in the Dutch sources, he is still mentioned as "the son of the Jewish merchant, David Rahabi." This reference to his father is omitted from 1726 on, whence Ezekiel Rahabi had by then become established and well-known in his own right.
He married the daughter of Josef Hallegua, a prominent Jew of Cochin, and had three sons, David, Elias, and Moses and a daughter by the name of Esther.
Ezekiel Rahabi's role in the economic and diplomatic fields on behalf of the Dutch East India Company can only be understood in the light of the peculiar political structure of Malabar at this time.
Malabar, a geographical and ethnic term covering that group p47 of Malayalam-speaking people on the West coast of India, was never a single political unity at any period of her history and was always divided into dozens of different states ruled by native kings, princes, Rajahs, and petty chieftains, all jealously guarding their own sovereign rights.
At the time when the Dutch conquered Malabar, there were as many as 46 different native states in existence. The division and fragmentation of Malabar into so many petty dynasties and principalities, the almost constant interstatal warfare and the absence of any political unity were so complex that every Dutch Commander found it most trying to even get acquainted with such a multiplicity and diversity of political entities, with their names, their laws, morals, customs and internal and external affairs, important as it was, however, to obtain a thorough knowledge of these matters in order to promote the Company's interests.
The Dutch entered Malabar primarily to secure for themselves the maximum supply of pepper at the most favorable prices and the exclusive rights for its purchase for their homeland. Malabar was the greatest pepper-producing territory in India and the very raison d'être of the Dutch settlement in Malabar was the supply of pepper for the European market.
The principal pepper-producing territories were ruled by four different kings, the King of Travancore, the Rajah of Cochin, the Zamorin of Calicut and the King of Kolathiri or Colaesti, and each of these countries was further divided into many regions and provinces.
For the sake of their pepper trade the Dutch Company had to conclude yearly commercial peace treaties, alliances and contracts with these native kings and princes in which the amount of pepper to be supplied and the prices to be granted had to be stipulated, bearing in mind at the same time the need to maintain a balance among the several kings and princes.
Due to the fact that in many instances the native chiefs failed to comply with the stipulations of the contracts as agreed upon, it became necessary for the Dutch Company to enter again and again into yearly negotiations with a great variety of the neighboring native rulers to re‑ascertain the rights for the exclusive p48 purchase of pepper and to stipulate the amounts and prices for pepper.
Thus the purchase of pepper for the Company was not merely a commercial transaction; it required skilful diplomatic navigation, patient bargaining and polite firmness with the rulers of the pepper-producing territories. Under these circumstances the Dutch East India Company had to employ persons skilled in the art of Oriental negotiations and familiar with the languages and custom required for such assignments.
It was Ezekiel Rahabi who was entrusted by the Company with the stupendous task of negotiating with the many native rulers and princes and particularly to bring about a satisfactory conclusion of the yearly contracts. Thus Ezekiel Rahabi became the merchant-diplomat of Malabar in the service of the Dutch East India Company and for almost half a century was the central figure in all its economic and diplomatic activities, acting as the "minister of native affairs" in economic as well as political matters on behalf of the Company. His house in Mattanchery became the meeting place of all the native rulers and notables.
It was in Mattanchery, in the section called until today "Jew‑town," that part of Cochin on the bank of the river where all the vessels put in with their cargo and where the warehouses of the native merchants were located, that the house of Ezekiel Rahabi was situated, in close proximity to the palace of the Rajah of Cochin. It served for almost five decades (1723‑1771) as the central meeting-place, the clearing house, the official seat of important audiences of almost all the great dignitaries, native kings, rulers, princes, ministers, notables, grandees and envoys from all over Malabar.
The many diplomatic missions of Ezekiel Rahabi, to the King of Travancore, to the Zamorin of Calicut, and to other native rulers, his many travels throughout the length and breadth of Malabar and even to Ceylon, will be discussed in another context in all their details. Here it will suffice to say that Ezekiel Rahabi carried out his manifold responsibilities in the economic as well as the political field to the greatest satisfaction of the Dutch authorities in Cochin as well as in Batavia. The many complimentary remarks which can be culled from the Dutch p49 records are an unusual testimony to the confidence the Company had in him and to his high prestige and reputation in the eyes of the native rulers.
The sources at our disposal speak again and again of Ezekiel Rahabi's extraordinary skill, industry, devotion, and honesty. He is referred to as "by far the most distinguished merchant of the Company," as "a man of an honest and upright character," as a man "with his well-known willingness to be of service to us," as "a person with a glorious reputation and with great influence on the native princes and notables."
In 1744, the Dutch Commander sent the following appraisal of Ezekiel Rahabi to Batavia. "The merchant Ezekiel Rahabi is without any doubt by far the most distinguished among the merchants of the Comp. He, as his father David did before him, has served the Comp. for many years with distinction, and he deserved to be singled out among the others for the many great services which Ezekiel Rahabi has given to the Company continuously for so many years; really they are too many to recount here, and we are sure that your Directory knows all about it."
When the Dutch Commander G. Weyerman had to leave for Batavia, he appointed a committee of five persons to direct the affairs of the Company during his absence. Among those five officials who were selected to govern Dutch Cochin until the Commander's return was also Ezekiel Rahabi, the Jewish merchant-diplomat.
The very fact that he could serve uninterruptedly from 1723‑1771, in the same capacity, in an atmosphere of political, economic and commercial instability such as prevailed in Southern India during the eighteenth century, and that he was never dismissed or discharged, is a testimony to his greatness.
The Directory of Batavia, the highest tribunal of the Dutch East India Company, along with the local Commanders or Governors in Cochin, joined with the native rulers of all persuasions and ranks and with the chiefs and factors of the various English trading posts in Tellicherry, Anjengo, Bombay, and Madras, in praise of Ezekiel Rahabi.
The array of laudatory statements in the official records of the Dutch and even of the English East India Company is p50 supplemented by Europeans who visited Cochin during the eighteenth century.
His personality impressed all those who came into contact with him. Edward Ives, who visited Cochin in 1757, notes that "many families of Jews are established here; their ancestors were found on this spot by the Portuguese at their first settling in the country; and the general opinion is that they are descendants of some Jews who travelled hither soon after the final destruction of the Temple. One Ezekiel, a Rabbi (!), is now living at Cochin, a man of consequence, and his word is held in high estimation; he is a lover of science and understands astronomy."
Stavorinus, a visitor to Cochin in 1775, observed that "some of the Jewish merchants of Cochin are not shy of purchasing entire cargoes of food. one of them Ezechiel (who died some years ago), had drawn most of the Company's trade into his own hands; he left three sons who are still alive and are among the most opulent and principal merchants of the place."
A late echo of these sentiments is even recorded by Joseph Wolff, who visited Cochin in 1835 and whose stay aroused so much excitement and resentment among the Cochin Jews. In his "Researches and Missionary Labors" he refers to a certificate given to "a Mr. Ezekiel Rabbi, a member of the Jewish nation, a merchant employed by the trading company, . . . being invested with the honourable office of Ambassador, under the Kings of Cochin, has proved himself to the Honourable company, by his efficient, faithful, laborious, and good services under various circumstances, to be a man of integrity, Etc."
Ezekiel Rahabi's commercial and diplomatic activities brought him in contact not only with European merchants, Dutch, English, French, Portuguese and Danish, but also with Muslim, Parsees, Hindus and other native religious and ethnic groups. One of the most conspicuous features in the operations of Ezekiel Rahabi as recorded throughout a period of almost half a century is the astounding degree of inter-confessional, intraº-ethnic and intraº-national contact which prevailed in his economic as well as p51 social activities. Ezekiel Rahabi entertained a cordial and harmonious relationship with all these various groups and had even among his close business partners and associates Muslims and Hindus aside from his own sons and other Jewish members of his family.
Considering the conditions under which Jews lived at that time in Christian Europe or the Muslim Near East, the complete absence of any racial or religious prejudice, of any discrimination on the ground of religion, language or nationality reflects a highly tolerant and liberal climate from which the Jews benefitted most.
Mention should also be made of Ezekiel Rahabi's services to the native Syrian Christian Church, the St. Thomas Christians in Malabar. He maintained cordial learns with the dignitaries of the Christian community in Cochin, some of whom were at various times his guests and stayed at his residence. When the authorities of the Syrian Christian Church had wanted in 1747 to bring to Cochin as their new spiritual head a Bishop from Basra, Babylonia, they turned for help to Ezekiel Rahabi who advanced a considerable amount of money (about 8,000 rupees) to enable them to cover part of the travel expenses of the new Bishop and "the other priestly gentlemen." It is interesting that the Company had to intervene to remind them of their obligatory notes to reimburse the Jewish merchant from the revenues of the Syrian Church in Malabar.
In the "History of the Syrian Church in India," it is gratefully acknowledged that "Bishop Joannes had been brought to India by a Jew of Mattancherry on a Dutch ship . . ."
It is reported that the Syrian-Christians did not, however, like the character of the Bishop and reshipped him, after a few years, in 1751, to his country of origin and invited another one, and the Company advanced the high expenses for the passage of the new Bishop and the five priests accompanying him (about 12,000 rupees).
The matter of the payment to the Company became the subject of a lawsuit in which, as it was stated, a Christian Government was the plaintiff and a Christian group the defendants before a Hindu Court of Justice in India.
Ezekiel Rahabi also had contacts with other Christian groups p52 such as the Carmelite Order and in particular with the Danish Christian missionaries, who established their center in Travancore. One of the Danish missionaries, C. D. Kleinknecht, met Ezekiel Rahabi and praised him highly as "ein gelehrter Jude in der Holländischen Stadt Cochin in Ostindien" and as a person who knew many languages.
C. D. Kleinknecht also devoted many pages in his "Zuverlässige Nachrichten von den Neu‑bekehrten Malabarischen Christen in Ostindien," to a description of the Jews in Cochin in which he mentions the unsuccessful efforts made by himself and by C. H. Callenberg to have the Jews converted.
Despite all his preoccupation with commercial and diplomatic matters in his capacity as the "Chief Merchant" of the Dutch East India Company, Ezekiel Rahabi found time for cultural, literary and religious activities on behalf of his Jewish coreligionists. For this aspect of the internal communal life the Dutch sources, though mainly commercial records concerned with financial transactions and business affairs, contain some scattered references allowing us interesting and illuminating glimpses.
We recognize, first of all, that Ezekiel Rahabi, like all the Cochin Jews of the 17th and 18th centuries, hailed from a family which was deeply embedded in Jewish tradition and who, even in their new surroundings in India, carried on their religious heritage most consciously and meticulously. Ezekiel Rahabi was an observing Jew following the tradition of his forefathers from which he did not deviate even in the midst of his highly responsible diplomatic and official activities for the Company. Dutch and other sources offer interesting evidence to this effect. In 1737, the Dutch Commander informed a native ruler that Ezekiel Rahabi had to postpone his visit to him "since it was now in the midst of the holidays for the Jews." When he had to testify before the Dutch authorities, he gave the oath "according p53 to the Jewish custom." It is mentioned that a meeting of Ezekiel Rahabi with the King of Travancore in 1743 was postponed "because of the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles" and on another occasion, while Ezekiel Rahabi was on a diplomatic mission, it is mentioned that "he rested enroute because it was Saturday." All this implies that Ezekiel Rahabi upheld his religious heritage with utmost dignity and consistency.
His exalted position, his prestige and his influence, made him, of course, the undisputed leader and spokesman of his community. He entertained close personal relations with many other Jewish merchants outside of Malabar, particularly with those in Surat, and his fame spread throughout the Jewish diaspora. This is also indicated by a letter preserved in the Colonial Archives, written by the "Parnassim of the Jewish Portuguese Nation in Amsterdam," in 1731.
The Jewish community of Cochin consisted at the time of Ezekiel Rahabi, as it had before him and until today, mainly of two groups, namely the "White Jews," to which group Ezekiel Rahabi belonged, and the so‑called Malabar or "Black Jews." From Ezekiel Rahabi's own description we derive the following demographic picture. "We, who are known as White Jews, number some forty families with one synagogue. There is no other White Jewish colony in Malabar. There are colonies of Black Jews at six centers. In Cochin there are 150 families of these people with three synagogues. In Anjikaimal, just opposite Cochin, there are about 100 families with two synagogues. Five parsangs further north is Shenoth where there are fifty families with one synagogue. Two parsangs from Shenoth lies Mala where there are fifty families and one synagogue, while further south is situated Mutan with ten families and one synagogue, and the island of Tirtur, with ten families."
Despite this division, Ezekiel Rahabi helped the entire Jewish community. Thus he purchased for the Black Jews a territory in Tirtur near Cranganore and built there in 1756 (5518) a synagogue for ten Jewish families, which he supported until it was closed in 1761.
He also restored the synagogue of the White Jews in Cochin and in 1760 he put up at his own expense, a clock tower in the p54 "Paradesi" synagogue with Hebrew, Roman and Indian numerals on the dial of the clock. In 1762 he provided the means so that the floor of the synagogue could be paved with blue and white Chinese tiles. Adriaan Moens, the Dutch Governor in Cochin, in describing the Jewish community in Cochin of his time, refers to their beautiful synagogue "with silver hanging lamps and the floor paved with Chinese tiles brought by Ezekiel Rahabi from China."
Together with a strict observance of Jewish tradition, we learn that Ezekiel Rahabi and his group adhered tenaciously to the Hebrew language and Hebrew script and that there was a widespread knowledge of Hebrew among all the sections of the Cochin Jews.
The Hebrew language constituted the common link between the Jewish merchants scattered all over the Malabar Coast and beyond it. The halachic question, sent by Cochin Jews at the beginning of the sixteenth century to the rabbinical authorities in Cairo, was written in Hebrew and the answer from Cairo, in Hebrew, naturally, was understood.
The use of Hebrew as a vehicle of literary expression among the Cochin Jews from early times on, is a well-established fact. Though they assimilated themselves to the native language, Malayalam, they continued to use Hebrew as the language of the Synagogue and instruction.
In the private correspondence with other Jewish merchants, bit in Calicut or Cochin, Ezekiel Rahabi used the Hebrew language. It was apparently common knowledge that Ezekiel Rahabi was well acquainted with Hebrew so that the famous Jewish merchant of Calicut, Isaac Surgun, did not hesitate to send Ezekiel Rahabi a report on his audience with the Muslim ruler of Mysore, Haidar Ali‑Khan, in Hebrew, a Dutch translation of which is still preserved.
Hebrew was also used as a vehicle in his business correspondence with the Company. It is astonishing to find among the Dutch sources, official documents, letters, and above all, contracts concluded between the Commander of the Dutch East p55 India Company and Ezekiel Rahabi for the supply of pepper, rice, or cardamon, or other commodities which bear the signature of Ezekiel Rahabi and other Jewish merchants — in Hebrew characters. The Dutch documents would explain in the margin that "these are Hebrew characters, being the name of Ezekiel Rahabi."
This practice of signing the names in Hebrew was adhered to by Ezekiel Rahabi, his sons, and his Jewish associates in Cochin all through the years of their service.
Ezekiel Rahabi, the leader of the Jewish community in Cochin, used his wealth, position and influence to help in raising the educational and cultural level of his community. When the Portuguese destroyed the Jewish quarter of Cochin shortly before the Dutch conquest, the Cochin Jews undoubtedly lost many of their ancient books, manuscripts, pizmonim and chronicles. In order to meet the liturgical and intellectual needs of his coreligionists, Ezekiel Rahabi embarked on a far‑reaching cultural enterprise, following the earlier efforts of his father, David.
It was Ezekiel Rahabi who, utilizing Holland as the cultural and spiritual reservoir for the Cochin Jews, initiated a consistent policy of purchasing Hebrew books from Jewish book-dealers in Holland for his community, which was carried out throughout his lifetime and even continued by his son David until 1782.
The method of buying books from Holland was at that time a complicated transaction, since the payment for any merchandise from abroad had to be carried out with the sanction and through the channels of the treasury of the Dutch East India Company. Such purchasing activities from overseas, though of a private nature were, therefore, very minutely recorded in the official files and invoices of the Company and it is from them that we learn about the establishment of close cultural intercourse between the Cochin Jews and Amsterdam, and also about the amounts spent by Ezekiel Rahabi for this purpose, ranging from a few hundred florins to 2,000 and even 3,000 florins. The two major book firms in Holland which supplied the books were Tobias Boaz and Abraham Simon Boaz of the Hague, and Joseph p56 Jacob Proops and Abraham Solomon Proops of Amsterdam, both well-known merchants in Holland in the eighteenth century.
Innumerable references are contained in the Dutch records particularly from 1744 on, to checks paid by Ezekiel Rahabi to the Dutch East India Company for transmission to the booksellers in Amsterdam or The Hague. These payments were duly registered by the treasury of the Company in Cochin and official cognizance was taken whenever "a shipment has arrived with a chest of Hebrew books ordered by Ezekiel Rahabi."
Sometimes further details are indicated as to the way these books were shipped from Holland: "They were packed in a chest of •three feet square and had been delivered at the House of the East India Company in Amsterdam for verification of the content and sent to Cochin by way of Ceylon in one of the ships of the Company and Ezekiel Rahabi received them and was satisfied with them."
Ezekiel Rahabi used to send a letter of thanks to Batavia through the Commander in Cochin for the permission granted to have these chests full of Hebrew books delivered to him. The sources do not indicate the kind and titles of the books which were ordered, but we can assume that they were books badly needed to meet the liturgical and literary needs of the community and included Siddurim, Mahsorim, Bible, Talmud, Midrashim, Shulkhan Arukh, cabbalistic and halakhic literature and other liturgical equipment for the community.
In any case, this supply of books from Holland was one of the strongest cultural bonds between the Jews of Amsterdam and the Jews of Cochin, through which Ezekiel Rahabi helped to spread Jewish learning and strengthen the feelings throughout the community at large and beyond it.
The Dutch Commander A. Moens called Ezekiel Rahabi "a diligent student of Jewish history" and indeed Ezekiel Rahabi can be credited with many contributions in this respect.
The Cochin Jews had in their possession copper plates which were usually kept by the "Mudaliar," the head man of the p57 community, in a box in which all sorts of gold and silver ornaments of the synagogue were preserved and placed in a strong depository known as "pandal."
The exact time the existence of these copper plates became known to the outside world can not be established. None of the early travelers and visitors to Cochin refer to them and the earliest mention seems to be in the "Notisias" of 1687 where a translation of the inscription is included based on information received from members of the local Jewish community. In 1741, according to the tradition of the community, the copper plates came into the possession of Ezekiel Rahabi.
It was Ezekiel Rahabi who, probably at the request of the Dutch Commander Moens, took steps to have these copper plates translated into the ordinary Malabar language and then into Dutch. Moens, very much interested in the history of the Cochin Jews, procured two more translations of this patent, one through the interpreter Barend Deventer, an old Malabar linguist, and the second through another interpreter, Simon vonº Tongeren, who was in the employ of the Dutch East India Company and cooperated in this matter with a heathen scholar of Calicut.
Moens had observed in perusing these three translations the many discrepancies and divergencies in basic matters in each of these three translations and stated: "When these three translations are compared one with another, it will be observed at once that in the first these privileges are granted to the Jew Joseph Rabban and to the 72 Jewish families; whereas in the second no trace will be found of the word Jew; in the third Joseph Rabban is not called a Jew but the minister of the King . . ."
In order "not to allow the Jews to be the judges in their own affair, but rather to enable the reader to judge for himself in this debatable matter," Moens inserted all three translations of the copper plates in his "Memoir."
Ever since, the inscriptions on the copper plates have been the subject of research by many scholars, Oriental and European, who labored hard to translate and interpret all the details of these inscriptions. But neither these translations ordered by Moens and their interpretations nor any of the subsequent ones have come to any unanimity in all the details of this grant. The p58 date of this charter as well as other details and the exact rule of the Malabar Rajah, King Bhaskara Ravi Varma, remain controversial and have not yet been definitely fixed until today.
Ezekiel Rahabi was also an author in his own right. When in the year 1768 the Jewish merchant Tobias Boaz of Amsterdam put before Ezekiel Rahabi a questionnaire containing eleven questions concerning the Cochin Jews, Ezekiel Rahabi wrote a long reply in Hebrew in 1768, which in fact has been regarded as an authentic Chronicle of the Jews of Cochin and on which most of the subsequent chronicles by Cochin Jews have been based.
The reply of Ezekiel Rahabi, later inserted by Naphtali Wessely into "ha‑Meassef" and published in a condensed English version by S. S. Koder in 1949, ranks next to the "Notisias" as one of the major historical sources from which we learn much about the tradition of the Cochin Jews, their origin and history from Cranganore, the division of their communities into Black and White, their beliefs, their festivals, their customs and practices, their books, their synagogues and data about the dispersion of Jews in Asia as a whole.
Ezekiel Rahabi composed also a number of Hebrew treatises on astronomy and the Hebrew calendar. Liturgical poems attributed to him have been preserved, one of which deals with the establishment of the Jewish community in Cochin after the fall of Cranganore and contains his name in acrostic. He was instrumental in having printed in Amsterdam one of the most popular literary products of the Cochin Jews, the "Khuppat Khattanim," a collection of songs, hymns and prayers for Holyday services and for other occasions such as weddings, circumcisions, etc., according to Minhag Shinkali (Cochin). A descendant of Ezekiel Rahabi, Naphtali Elijah Rahabi, published it again, with annotations, in Bombay.
The state of learning and literature among the Jews of Cochin during the Portuguese and Dutch period, is difficult to . Whatever literary products are known to exist in the p59 form of printed books or manuscripts, in the possession of the elders of the community of Cochin, or those in public or private in Israel, England or America are, after all, only accidental survivors and but a small portion of their intellectual and literary creativity.
Without offering a final and definite view, it is evident that the Cochin Jews failed to produce any great scholar or scientist and that it is difficult to point to any work produced by a Cochin Jew which has enriched Jewish culture as a whole. The reasons are obvious.
The barriers of distance, their remoteness from the mainstream of Jewish life, their geographical isolation, the alien, though not hostile surroundings, did not encourage or stimulate the leisure to indulge in pure scholarship and philosophical contemplation. They had to concentrate on those fields which could guarantee their preservation and survival as a religious community. They turned, therefore, to the fields of liturgy, minhagim, halakhic treatises, prayer books, chronicles and so on; literary remains which bear the mark of a practical purpose.
This literary concentration enforced by circumstances, seems to have been the secret of their survival and may explain why the Cochin Jews did not fade away and disappear as the other early Jewish groups on Indian soil did — with the exception of the Bene Israel in Bombay — and why they were able to weather the stormy events of history in their remote corner of Southern India.
* For reasons of space, footnotes and bibliographical references had to be omitted here. The reader will find full documentation in my forthcoming English comprehensive book on The Jews in India: Their contribution to the Economic, Social and Political Life of India from the 16th Century on which will deal with all the aspects discussed here in much greater detail.
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