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The Jews of Cochin: Brahmin Pesah, Maharajah Simhat Torah, and caste behavior.



The history of the Jews of Cochin in the south-western Indian region of Kerala is an exceptional case of how Diaspora Jews adapted to their host culture. Like any religion, Judaism is enormously complex. The ritual behaviors and sets of symbols that rise to the foreground in different Diaspora situations do so in response to the host religious culture.

The metaphor of fore-grounding and back-grounding (or figure and background) used by Fritz Perls in Gestalt psychology can serve as a model for the varying interactions of Judaism transplanted into different Diaspora cultures. According to Perls, visual perception involves the construction of a figure, "the focus of interest--an object, pattern" over and against its background, "the setting or context." As Perls elaborates, "the interplay between figure and ground is dynamic, for the same ground may, with differing interests and shifts in attention, give rise to different figures; or a given figure, if it contains detail, may itself become ground in the event that some detail of its own emerges as figure." (Perls, Hefferline, and Goodman 1951)

Applying Perls's model to the Jews of Cochin, in this case Judaism is the ground, and the particular expression of Judaism in a context, in Cochin, is understood as the figure. The "shifts in attention" are the cultural demands of the host culture, in this case the Hinduism of the priestly Nambudiri and the dominant Nayar castes of Kerala.

We can use this model on other Diaspora interactions as well, for example, America or China. If the average American Jew were asked to describe his or her religion, the response might likely include the belief in one G-d and a divine imperative to work toward social justice. Without doubt, these are Judaic values. But these are values among other values, and they would be foregrounded in this manner only in the context of a dominant religious culture that upholds just those values, namely in Protestant America.

A very different description of Judaism was given by the Jews of Kaifeng in China, who in 1488 erected a stele before their synagogue proclaiming a Confucian interpretation of their religion:

... reverence for Heaven [Tian], and veneration for ancestors, fidelity to the prince, and obedience to parents, just that which is included in the [Confucian] five human relationships. (Perlmann 1971; Katz 1995)

As American Judaism is so very Protestant, and Chinese Judaism was so very Confucian, we shall see that Indian Judaism is very Hindu. All three Judaisms remain Judaism, however, because the figure/background dynamic is mediated by the framework of normative Judaism as defined by halakhah (Jewish law).


The Jewish community of Cochin had one (or perhaps two) thousand years to evolve unique ways of adapting to its host culture. According to their traditions, the first Jews arrived on the tropical verdant coast of what is now India's southwestern state of Kerala and enjoyed prestige, power, and piety in a multireligious culture under the suzerainty of Hindu kings. They flourished in agriculture, the military, and in the lucrative spice trade. Such a hospitable environment facilitated their acculturation, but the local caste system prevented their assimilation. Thus, separate identity was maintained and social harmony was preserved. Today, less than fifty Jews remain in Kerala. Nevertheless, their long experience in India makes them an ideal case for analyzing the process of religious acculturation.

After intensive study of the Jewish community of Cochin, three strategies for religious acculturation were identified and analyzed. (Katz and Goldberg 1993) These three methods are: 1. the narration of an appropriate historical legend; 2. ritually enacting Hindu symbols or purity and nobility with the framework of halakhah; and 3. creating a place within the caste hierarchy of Kerala while simultaneously reflecting this hierarchy within the Jewish community. It is suggested that some version of these strategies might be found among other Diaspora religions, especially those which find themselves in a hospitable host culture as the Cochin Jews did.

1. Narration as Acculturation

The first step in the process of the religious acculturation of the Cochin Jews is the narration of an appropriate historical legend. The Cochin Jews constructed a legend that interweaves Jerusalem, the holy city of the Jews, with Cranganore, the ancestral home of the elites of Kerala. The legend highlights the lavish royal welcome given to Jews into Keralite society, emphasizing the relationship between avuncular Cheraman emperors and their Jewish vassals. This story is ritually re-enacted in all strata of Cochin Jewish weddings--by Jews who claim descent from the First and Second Temple periods as well as by Jews from Spain, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Turkey, and Germany who later found refuge in Cochin. This is the legend that the local Jews believe that their host culture wants to hear.

Interestingly, when a delegation of co-religionists from Amsterdam visited the Jews of Cochin in 1686, an entirely different legend was told, namely, that they were the lost tribe of Menassah. (Amzalak 1923) This reflected the Dutch Jews' quest for the lost tribes. When we recall Perls's comment on the "dynamic" nature of the figure/background process, the shifting frames of reference for the legends become less surprising.

2. Ritual Enactment of Acculturation

Ever since Manu's fourth-century codification of social law, there have been two distinctive separate sources of power in Indian society: the Brahmin priests and the nobility. (The nobility usually were Kshatriyas, but in Kerala they were Nayars, who are of the merchant class.) The Brahmins are distinguished by symbols of purity: their pure food, white clothing, ascetic lifestyle, and the fact that they distance themselves from sources of pollution such as animal carcasses and meat, lowly-born people, and agriculture. This distance has been maintained through an intricate hierarchal system of social interdependencies, customs, and taboos. Their purity is an essential prerequisite for the efficacious re-enactments of ancient rituals that constitute the Brahmins' means of livelihood.

The other apex of power in Kerala was the politically and economically dominant caste of the Nayars. In contrast to the chaste rituals of the Nambudiri Brahmins, the Nayars conducted colourful, riotous deity processions. As the nobility of Kerala, the Nayars enjoyed the symbols of royalty, conquest, and wealth, wearing the fine silks and jewels that bedeck the Kshatriyas and the maharajahs.

Acculturating into the host society, the Jews of Cochin incorporated Brahmin ascetic practices into their preparations for and observance of Passover, and they integrated symbols of maharajah nobility into their celebration of Simhat Torah.

During Pesah, many Jews add "additional observances" (hidur mitsvot) to those required by halakhah "which express the Jew's love of the ... divine commands, by embellishing them." (Chill 1919) In several ways the Passover preparations in Cochin are more fastidious than those found in other traditional Jewish communities.

For example, according to the Code of Jewish Law (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim, Hilkhot Pesa h 1:2), preparations for Pesah should begin thirty days before the festival. In Cochin, preparations begin soon after Hanukkah. During this time, wells are emptied and scrubbed, interior walls are whitewashed, and exterior walls freshly painted. Individual kernels of wheat to be used for making the matsah are thrice inspected for defects. Wine is pressed laboriously, wooden furniture is polished. Special pots, pans, crockery, and cutlery are removed from special rooms and cleaned. "Pesah work" culminated in "matsah day" when the women (and a few males) of the community bake the flat bread over charcoal fires during the peak of Kerala's sweltering hot season. (Johnson 1985; Katz and Goldberg 1989)

The zeal with which the Pesah work is carried out reflects an ascetic sensibility akin to that of the Brahmins. Particularly the preparations of "emblematic" foods (matsah, wine, and other consumables) resemble high-caste Hindu taboos about possible pollution by contact with kaccha (cooked) food.

Seclusion and isolation are common ascetic practices, and the usually gregarious Cochin Jews become increasingly consumed by Pesah work and isolated from their non-Jewish friends during the month or two prior to Pesah, culminating in an almost total isolation during the eight days of the festival itself. The Cochin Jews believe that the only way to totally avoid hamets (leavening) is to avoid their non-Jewish friends. During the Passover festival, the Cochin Jews do not extend beyond Synagogue Lane.

The conclusion of Pesah is celebrated by a party during which Jews again eat foods prohibited during Pesah, hosted by a Gentile neighbor--in recent years a leader of Cochin's Jain community. The meal ritually reintegrates the Jews into the larger Kerala society and hierarchy. The Jews' high status thus ritually re-established, they return to and reaffirm the society in which they have lived so happily for so long.1

Every spring in the ritual observances of the Passover festival, the Cochin Jews reassert their high place in the caste hierarchy by demonstrating their purity in accordance with the Brahmanic-ascetic pole of power. Every autumn, on the other hand, in the ritual enactments of the High Holy Days and, in particular, Simhat Torah, they give precedence to symbols of royalty and wealth, in accordance with the Kshatriya--the noble pole of power represented in Kerala by the Nayars. This emphasis on symbols of royalty represents a natural extension of the liturgical theme of the autumn High Holy Days celebrating G-d's kingship (malkhut in Hebrew).

Concluding the autumn cycle of holy days is the two-day festival known in Cochin as Shmini. Most synagogues in the West observe two separate festivals, Shmini Hag Ha'Atseret and Simhat Torah. In Cochin, Shmini has enormous significance, and it is arguably the community's most distinctive autumn observance.

The synagogue, brilliant and colorful at any time, is utterly dazzling on Shmini. The whitewashed walls and dark wooden benches are covered with golden satin. The effect of the shimmering walls reflecting the blazing oil lamps encircling the tebah (pulpit) suffuses the dainty prayer hall with a light that borders upon the supernal. All around the upper half of the walls are parokhet curtains made from deceased Cochin women's festive sarongs, in green, gold, blue, red, and white embroidered silks. The impact is enhanced by the olfactory stimulus of string upon string of freshly plucked jasmine flowers hanging from the many chandeliers and oil lamps.

The most striking decoration is the kule, the temporary ark constructed between two tall silver pillars to house the Torah scrolls. Its platform is covered with gold-embroidered red Banarsi silk. All seven Torah scrolls, replete with gold, jewel-encrusted crowns, and silver finials are proudly displayed. The effect is completed by a canopy of red and gold silks, topped off with the lid of the synagogue's famous solid gold kiddush cup.

In the Sefardi custom, Simhat Torah celebrations include hakafot (circumambulations) around the tebah with the Torah scrolls during the evening, morning, and afternoon services. The afternoon hakafot in Cochin are performed in the outside courtyard. (Hallegua 1986) According to tradition, the entire liturgy for the afternoon hakafot was composed in the Jews' ancestral home in Cranganore. So significant is this unique service that when a Hebrew-Malayalam printing press was opened in Cochin in 1877, the first book it published was the distinctive liturgy for the afternoon Shmini service, which includes the longest kaddish memorial prayer in world Jewry. (Cohen 1877)

Following the afternoon service, the Torah scrolls are placed on chairs and benches while all the men, women, and children sing special shirot (liturgical songs) and dismantle the temporary ark ritually and methodically. The three elements characteristic of Hindu temple festivals--display, procession, and dismantling--also characterize Shmini in Cochin. These three Cochini customs serve as the means by which Hindu royalty symbols and rituals are adapted and Judaized.

The ingenuity of these adaptations is an elegant instance of Jewish acculturation. The question of how to participate in the Gentile world while maintaining fidelity to Jewish observance has challenged Jews in all four corners of the Diaspora. In India, a culture not merely tolerant of religious diversity but affectionately supportive of it, Jews adapted to Hindu culture while adhering to the normative standards of halakhah.

Remarkably, the Jews of Cochin achieved this balance without the benefits of a local rabbinate or yeshivah system. The Cochin Jews never had rabbis. They had a system to authorize cantors who could lead the service. Almost every community member was knowledgeable in matters of Jewish law. Their legal documents are accepted in the Jewish world even on sensitive matters such as divorces or conversions. Marriage contracts are in perfect Aramaic. When they did not know specific halakhic points, being a mercantile community, they were able to send letters to ask rabbis in faraway places. It sometimes took as long as twenty years to get an answer.

Being international merchants for many centuries connected the Cochini Jews with the Jewish world. For instance, when the Shulhan Arukh, the main Jewish legal codex, was published in Europe in the sixteenth century, it arrived in Cochin only a few years later. The Jewish literature on the bookshelves of community members is similar to that of the rest of the traditional Jewish world and includes such classics as the Torah with Rashi's commentary, the Talmud, the Zohar, and the Shul han Arukh.

3. Acculturation and Social Structure

Their imitation of Kerala's hierarchical social structure within their own community was the one unfortunate feature of Cochini Jewish life that deviated from, even defied, halakhah. (Katz and Goldberg 1988, 1993) It is fairly typical of caste behavior for a caste to proliferate into subcastes. The Cochin Jews, who were viewed by their neighbors as a caste, did just that.

As early as 1520, a letter of inquiry was sent from Cochin to the great adjudicator Rabbi David ben Solomon ibn Abi Zimra of Cairo (known as the Radbaz). Like other mid- to upper-castes in India, the Jews had been slave holders. In Cochin, many non-Jewish or half-Jewish former slaves (who had been slaves according to local law but not according to Jewish law) took on the full Jewish way of life of their former masters.* The members of this group were stigmatized as meshuhrarim (meaning "released slaves"). They became a large, affluent, charitable, Torah-observant group, but were considered as slaves and inferior by the smaller group of Jews of halakhically attestable Jewish origin (called meyuhasim). The letter writer asks the Radbaz if the members of the larger group are slaves or converts, and if the two groups can intermarry. If they are slaves, the letter writer asks can this status be remedied and is it correct to call them slaves.

In his detailed responsum, the Radbaz points out that the Jewish slave owners evidently had been ignorant of the stringent halakhic procedure for inducting non-Jews into slavery in the first place. Therefore, the persons called "slaves" by the meyuhasim had never been slaves by halakhic definition. Although they were living a Jewish way of life, they were still Gentiles. This actually made their situation easier, the Radbaz says. All they had to do was to convert by circumcising the males and immersing every male and female individually in the mikveh in the presence of three witnesses. There was no need to teach these prospective converts any mitsvot because they already knew and lived by the Torah commandments. After conversion, they would be full-scale Jews permitted to intermarry with other Jews. The meyuhasim would have to fully accept the converts and never call them slaves.

The full Hebrew text of the response of the Radbaz appears in the Appendix at the end of this article, followed by a list of the major halakhic references he used. This document is an inspiring example of detailed halakhic analysis written with compassion for the persons in question.

The meyuhasim ignored the rabbi's admonition, and some years later wrote to his successor, Rabbi Jacob Castro of Alexandria, with the same question, hoping for a response more to their liking. They were disappointed, and this dispute continued until the mid-twentieth century.

The behavior of the meyuhasim Jews was very Indian. For them, membership in a caste (jati, which literally means birth) was a matter of blood, not a matter of ritual conversions. While they accepted the meshuhrarim as Jews, they could not bring themselves to consider them as equals. And by so doing, they reflected Indian sensibilities. The influence of centuries of Portuguese, Dutch, and then British colonial rule in India could also be considered a factor in strengthening this attitude.

This halakhic deviation was entirely Indian in origin, but its eventual resolution was also thoroughly Indian. A.B. Salem, a fiery attorney known as "the Jewish Gandhi," organized his fellow meshuhrarim to reverse the discrimination against them. The first meshuhrar to receive a university education, Salem was a follower of Mahatma Gandhi. In the 1930s, Salem began a series of non-violent demonstrations against the discriminatory practices of the meyuhasim of the Paradisi synagogue, just as the Mahatma had led similar campaigns to gain admission of the untouchables into Hindu temples. Like his mentor, Salem eventually succeeded.


Following the declaration of independence of India in 1947 and the establishment of the State of Israel a year later, the majority of the small Cochin Jewish population emigrated to Israel in waves of aliyah in the 1950s, in the 1970s, and the early 1980s. Of the 1,935 Jews recorded in the census of 1941, only about one hundred remained in 1955. After India gained its independence, the role of the maharajahs, who had been the patrons of the Jews, was eliminated. The Communist government that was elected in the state of

Kerala redistributed land and nationalized private enterprises. Today, less than fifty Jews remain in Cochin, most of whom are over sixty years old. For over a thousand years, the Jews of Cochin faithfully clung to the traditions and laws of Israel. The Cochin Jews provide a particularly fine example of how a small religio-ethnic community can acculturate itself within a tolerant, larger society.2 By narrating an appropriate historical legend, by adapting symbols from the two poles of power of Hindu society, and by fitting into the caste hierarchy of Kerala, a secure place in that hierarchy was achieved. In some instances, strands from within the guest community's traditions were congruent with or parallel to the symbols of the host culture, which were fore-grounded; while in other cases the host's symbols were borrowed directly. In this way, the guest community retained its unique identity while locating itself within the larger host society.


On pages 101-105 is an appendix of the Hebrew text of the response of Rabbi David ben Solomon ibn Abi Zimra, as it was published and annotated by /Alexander Marx. 1930. Contribution a l'histoire des Juifs de Cochin. Revue des Etudes Juives. 89: pp. 293-304. Marx found the responsum manuscript in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.







MAIMONIDES, Mishneh Torah, Issurey Biah, chap. 3.

TALMUD Yevamot, chap. Ha'Holets and the commentary of the Rif there.

NAHMANIDES, Maggid Mishneh, Issurey Biah, chap. 13:11.

RIF ON TALMUD Yevamot, chap. 2, 5a.

MAIMONIDES, Mishneh Torah, Avadim 9:1.

MAIMONIDES, Mishneh Torah, Avadim 8:17.

TALMUD Gittin 38a.

TALMUD Kiddushin 28a.


1. By ending the Pesah festival as guests of Gentile neighbors, the Cochin Jews resemble the Jews of Morocco. See Shlomo Deshen. 1989. The Mellah Society: Jewish Community Life in Sherifian Morocco (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press), pp. 22-23.

2. Acculturation in an intolerant host culture may involve quite different models, metaphors, and methods than those employed by the Cochin Jews, who enjoyed an especially hospitable milieu.


* According to halakhah, a non-Jewish slave purchased by a Jew should go through a very specific procedure of circumcision, daytime immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath) before three judges, and instruction in basic Torah commandments. This procedure gives the person the special halakhic status of slave (called eved Canaani in Hebrew). Interestingly, a non-Jew who converts to Judaism must go through the identical procedure. The only difference between the two procedures is that the prospective slave is proclaimed to be immersing for the purpose of becoming a slave, while the prospective convert is proclaimed to be immersing for the purpose of becoming a Jew. Slaves are released from their status when the master gives them a halakhically specified document of emancipation, called a get shih rur. Upon being released, the slave becomes a convert (ger) to Judaism, with the same rights as Jews who were born Jewish according to halakhah. (A Jew who is sold into slavery to another Jew has a different halakhic status. After seven years, he or she is released, with no need for a get shih rur.)


AMZALAK, M.B. 1923. Depayva, mossehpereyra, nostisias dos Judeos de Cochin mandadas por mosseh pereyra de payva. Lisbon: Musea Commercia. In Portuguese.

COHEN, Y.D. 1877 [5637]. SederMinchaSimchatTorah. Cochin.

CHILL, A. 1919. The minhagim: The customs and ceremonies of Judaism, their origins and rationale. New York: Sepher-Hermon Press, p. xx.

HALLEGUA, S.H. 1986. Simchat Torah in Cochin. Kol Bina 6:1, p. 6.

JOHNSON, B.C. 1985. "Ourcommunity"in two worlds: The Cochin ParadesiJews in India and Israel. PHD dissertation, University of Massachusetts.

KATZ, N. 1995. The Judaisms of Kaifeng and Cochin: Parallel and divergent styles of religious acculturation. Numen: International Review for the History of Religions 2, pp. 118-140.

KATZ, N. and E.S. Goldberg. 1988/1993. Jewish "apartheid" and a Jewish Gandhi. Jewish Social Studies 50:3-4, pp. 147-176.

--. 1989. Asceticism and caste in the Passover observances of the Cochin Jews. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 57:1, pp. 52-83.

--. 1993. The last Jews of Cochin: Jewish identity in Hindu India. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.

PERLMANN, S.M. 1971 [1843]. The history of the Jews in China. Jews in Old China: Some Western views. Ed. Hyman Kublin. New York: Paragon Press Book Reprint Corp.

PERLS, F., R.F. Hefferline, and P. Goodman. 1951. Gestalt therapy: Excitement and growth in the human personality. New York: Delta Books.

Professor Nathan Katz

Presented at the Eighth Miami International Conference

on Torah and Science, 18 December 2009

Nathan Katz, PHD, the Bhagwan Mahavir Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Program in the Study of Spirituality, is the founder-director of the Program in the Study of Spirituality at Florida International University. Arguably the world's leading authority on Jewish communities in India, his work has focused on the cultural interactions between Judaic and Indian civilizations. He is co-founder and co-editor of the Journal of Indo-Judaic Studies. One of eight invited Jewish delegates at the historical 1990 Tibetan-Jewish dialogue hosted by the Dalai Lama, he recently keynoted the third Hindu-Jewish summit in New York. Of his fifteen books, his latest is a memoir, Spiritual Journey Home--Eastern Mysticism to the Western Wall, published by Ktav in 2009. His 2000 book, Who Are the Jews of India? was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in Sephardic Studies. Professor Katz is a co-organizer of the Miami International Torah and Science Conferences.
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Author:Katz, Nathan
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Date:Jan 1, 2010
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