Aspects of Babylonian Jewish Life in Iraq

Reproduced from the Jewish Babylonian™, The Midrash BEN ISH HAI™ Newsletter

“Aspects of Babylonian Jewish life in Iraq and India during the 19th and 20th centuries”.

By Dr Sara Manasseh

Author’s note: Because my own history is very much part of the Babylonian Jewish community in Baghdad and India, members of my family will enter and exit during the course of these articles. These include the Sassoon, Manasseh (Mnashshi) and later, the Ani families in Baghdad and India.


The Great Synagogue in Baghdad, the Slat-Il-Kbiri, with Hakham Bashi, Hakham Ezra Dangoor

The term “Babylonian Jews” refers to the Jews of Iraq, who may also be referred to as Mesopotamian Jews, or as Baghdad, Baghdadi or Baghdadian Jews. Most Jews of Iraq lived in the capital city of Baghdad, which influenced Jewish life in Iraq and in the Iraqi Jewish Diaspora, particularly with regard to questions relating to religious matters and custom. So, “Baghdad” or “Baghdadian” became a general term to refer to Jews and Jewish custom of the wider region, in some cases, including Jews from other Middle Eastern countries, for example, from Syria.

The Babylonian Jewish Diaspora, the first Jewish Diaspora, was established some two and a half thousand years ago, with the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem, and subsequent Jewish exile to Jerusalem. The main chapter of Babylonian Jewish life in Iraq ended abruptly this century, when the majority of Iraqi Jews were transported to Israel in a series of airlifts during 1950-1951. Today, the Jewish community in Iraq numbers only about sixty, mainly elderly, all living in Baghdad.

 During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a number of satellite communities of Babylonian Jews became established in India and the Far East; most of these communities are now dwindling or have died out, having moved on to a number of countries, including Israel, England, Canada, the United States and Australia. 


 David SassoonBabylonian Jewish leadership was recognised by the rulers of the country, and respected by both Jews and Muslims. By about the beginning of the 15th century, the head of the Jewish community was known as nasî (“prince”), and under the Ottomans, the office of the Sarraf Bashi (chief banker and financial assistant to the Governor) was usually combined with that of nasi, while, later, that of the Hakham Bashi (the chief rabbi) was created in 1849.

 Jewish life in the Babylonian diaspora was subject to fluctuating circumstances of rough persecution or favourable conditions depending on the policies of successive ruling dynasties. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Iraq was first under Ottoman rule (until 1917), then under the British Mandate (until 1932), the Kingdom of Iraq (until 1958) and finally, the Republic of Iraq. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Sheikh Salah Sasson (1750-1830) officiated as both nasi and Sarraf Bashi (c. 1781-1817). During the reign of the last and most oppressive of the Mamluk pashas, Daud Pasha (1817-1831), the Baghdad Jewish community was subject to perpetual oppression. Sheikh Sasson’s son, David was imprisoned, but succeeded in fleeing the country, eventually reaching Bombay, India (1832), where he was to establish the Sassoon dynasty. Towards the end of Dãûd Pasha’s despotic rule, many Jews fled the province, emigrating east to Teheran, Bushire, Bombay, Calcutta, Sydney and China, and nearer home to Aleppo, Damascus, Alexandria and Masqat. (Sassoon1949:125, Stillman1979:103, 347fn1)

Hakham 'Abdallah Somekh (Somech), 'a"h founded Midrash Bet Zilkha with H"R Hesqel (Yehezkel) Reuben Menashe (Mnashi)

Religious and communal life have been at the heart of Iraqi Jewish values. A number of synagogues have existed in Baghdad, the largest of which is the Great Synagogue, or, in Iraqi Judeo-Arabic, the slat il-kbiri.  During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Talmudic studies were pursued at midrashim (or yeshibas), including the well-known Midrash Bet Zilkha, originally built by Hasqel Ruben Mnashshi (1840), and expanded by his son, Mnashshi (Mnashi) (1850s). It is of interest that the family was known by the name Mnashshi-Zbeida, after Hasqel’s wife, Zbeida, who had continued her husband’s philanthropic work (Melamed 1995:185) and managed the family business in Baghdad, during his long absence in Calcutta (A. Manasseh, p.c.). It is said of one of the sons, Mnashshi, that his house in Baghdad “was open from morning to night; in the entrance hall there were large quantities of bread and halvah [Hlaawa] in the winter, and bread and watermelons in the summer, and whoever wished could enter and eat his fill” (Agassi 1981 in Melamed 1995:185). 

 The Midrash Bet Zilkha was headed by the great Hakham ‘Abdallah Somekh (1813-1889), one of his students being the future undisputed spiritual head, Hakham Yosef Hayyim (c. 1833-1909), (author of Ben Ish Hai), the de-facto Chief Rabbi of Baghdad for fifty years. Other outstanding chief rabbis in Baghdad were Hakham Abraham Hillel (1820-1920), and Hakham Ezra Dangoor (1848-1930). The graduates of the Baghdad Midrashim became rabbis, ritual slaughterers, religious court judges and Talmud scholars for Jewish communities in Iraq, South East Asia and the Far East.

Hakham Ribb Yosef Haim (Ashk: Chaim). The Ben Ish Hai (Ben Ish Chai)

 Education for Jewish children was originally at the istad-s, which provided a mainly religious education; children (mainly boys, but girls could attend as well) from the ages of four to twelve attended the class, often held at the home of the teacher (al-istad). In 1832 the first Talmud Torah school was built, run by a public committee acting for the Jewish community. The school provided mainly religious education, exclusively for boys. The Alliance Israélite Universelle brought a European education— including secular studies—to Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa. Its first school, for boys, opened in Baghdad in December 1864, and was later known as the Albert Sassoon School. The language of instruction was French. The curriculum included  biblical Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish and English,  history, geography, arithmetic, physics and chemistry. The Alliance also opened a school for girls—the Laura Kadoorie School (1895), in a building donated by a former Baghdad Alliance graduate, Sir Eliezer Kadoorie, a philanthropist living in Shanghai and Hong Kong. By 1913, the Alliance opened schools in other Jewish centres in Iraq. The Jewish community also established their own schools, including the Silas Kadoorie school for the blind, in Baghdad.

 Under the British occupation of Iraq (1917-1920) and the British Mandate (1921-1932), the Jews were the largest single group in the city; they were also the best

educated, probably the wealthiest, and with a network of commercial connections with fellow Baghdadians who had settled in India, the Far East and England. Under the new British administration, educated Jews were among the first to apply for posts of clerks and senior officers requiring a knowledge of both Arabic and English. Thousands of Jews were employed in the postal service, railroads, ports, customs, banking, courts and elsewhere; Jews also joined the police force and Indian units of the British army, some stationed in Iraq (Shohet 1982:26). Jewish delegates were elected to the Iraqi parliament.