Thursday, August 14, 2014

David Sassoon, Bibliophile Par Excellence

 David Sassoon, Bibliophile Par Excellence
By Dr. Pearl Herzog

The article below is an annotated version of an article that appeared in the Inyan Magazine of HaModia, dated July 16, 2014.

Harav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski addressed him as "Hanaggid" (The Prince).[1] The Michtav MeEliyahu (Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler) came to his home to privately tutor his only son.[2] Named after his grandfather, the founder of the Sassoon dynasty, David Sassoon was an outstanding Talmid Chochom, whose tremendous collection of sefarim and manuscripts, on which he expended much time and money, has enhanced the study of every branch of Torah to this day.  

Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay), the primary port city in India is home to more than twelve million people. The city’s largest fishing market is located at Sassoon Docks, one of the few docks open to the public. It was the creation of Albert Sassoon, a member of the dynasty known as the Rothschild's of the East. who had built the Docks through land reclamation (creating land out of the sea).[3] In 1869 when the Suez Canal opened and merchant ships could travel between Europe and Asia without the need to circumnavigate around Africa, it was imperative, in Albert Sassoon’s view, that India have a dock for ships to load and unload goods. The government of India which was initially against Albert’s plan, eventually realized the docks cemented the future of India’s largest port and paid him a pretty penny for it in addition to being eternally grateful.

Albert Sassoon, who was knighted by Queen Victoria of England, was the son of David Sassoon, the founder of the Sassoon dynasty who had laid the foundation in India, of a vast mercantile empire with branches in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Turkey, Japan, Persia, and England, In the words of a contemporary: “Silver, and gold, silks, gums and spices, opium, cotton wool and wheat - whatever moved over land and sea felt the hand and bore the mark of Sassoon and Company.”[4]

David Sassoon would always attribute his great success to the fact that he would strictly observe the laws of Maaser.  David’s father Saleh Sassoon (mother Amam Gabbai) was a wealthy businessman, chief treasurer to the pashas (the governors of Baghdad) from 1781 to 1817 and leader of the city’s Jewish community. Following increasing persecution of Baghdad’s Jews by Daud Pasha, the family moved to Mumbai via Persia.

The Sasson family traced its Yichus back to Shefatyah, the fifth son of Dovid HaMelech. When exiled to Spain the family called itself Ibn Shoshana (son of a rose) which later became Ibn Sassoon (son of Happiness).[5]

Magnanimous philanthropists, the family supported many Torah institutions, built shuls, hospitals, Mikvaos and helped employ many Jews.

Albert Sassoon was surprised one day when his 34 year old single half-brother Solomon Sassoon, expressed his interest in marrying Albert’s granddaughter, Pircha (Flora) Gabbai. Solomon had been on a business trip to China and had stopped for a business meeting at the Bombay office. It was there he met for the first time his 17 year old great niece, and was impressed with her knowledge of Hebrew, French, German, English, Hindustani and Arabic as well as the fact that she had been taught Tanach and Yahadus in private lessons given to her by Rabbonim.[6]

Albert loved the idea. The shidduch was arranged and the couple had three children, two daughters Rachel and Mazel Tov and their middle child, a son, David born to them in 1880. Shlomo and Flora’s palatial home in Bombay was called Nepean Lodge and had a shul attached to it. Considered the most Torah minded of the Sassoon brothers, Solomon would recite all 150 perakim of Sefer Tehillim before leaving for his office every day. Modest and unassuming, he served as a wonderful influence on his only son.

Young David astonished his parents one day when at eight years old he traded his toy kite with a young boy for a rare printed book containing an Arabic translation of the Book of Ruth that was written for Baghdadi Jews who lived in India.[7] That trade was to be the first item in his life long pursuit of collecting Jewish books and manuscripts. His interest in collecting Seforim may have helped soften the pain of losing his father at the tender age of 14. Solomon David passed away in 1894 leaving a young 35 year old widow and three children, the youngest of whom was 10.

Because of his delicate health, young David’s physician recommended that he live away from the city’s heat. Because of this he spent most of the year at the family villas in Poona or Mahabeshwar, studying Torah and having private lessons in Persian as well as other secular subjects from a Munshi.[8]

Instead of being educated at Eton like his Sassoon cousins, he was sent afterwards to a yeshiva in North London.

Although David learned to use a rifle as a cadet, his poor health saved him from ever going to battle. Instead the navy hired him to translate Hebrew and Arabic documents and decode messages intercepted in the Middle East.

His mother had with her grandfather Albert’s blessing, taken over her husband’s role in the business in India after he passed away. But seven years later, when David had reached 21, she decided to move to London where most of the Sassoon family had relocated.

David had developed into quite a Talmid Chochom and had inherited his great love of seforim from his great grandfather Farji Chaim Ben Abdullah Yosef whose large library of Seforim in Basra, Iraq had been partly destroyed in 1775 by the invading Persians.[9] David decided to devote his life to collecting Seforim. He explained in his Ohel David, a two volume catalogue of his Seforim that he printed in 1931 that he assembled a huge library because he wanted to observe the Mitzvah of writing or acquiring a Sefer Torah by extending the mitzvah to include all religious literature: Nevi’im, Kesuvim, Gemarah, etc.

David traveled extensively to Yemen, Germany, Italy, Syria, China and the Himalayas seeking manuscripts and old Seforim. His sister Rachel Ezra who by this time lived in Calcutta would alert him about different valuable manuscripts in India, North Africa and China.[10] He would also purchase items from the noted bookseller Rabbi David Frankel and from the famous Orientalist Silvestre de Sacy.

David Sassoon spent ten years negotiating to buy the Farchi Bible, a fourteenth century beautifully calligraphed and illuminated Tanach which contained over 1000 pages and more than 350 illustrations. It took seventeen years for Elisha Crescas of Provence to complete it, which he did in 1383. The name of the Bible is derived from the fact that it once belonged to the wealthy Syrian Farchi family that had served as bankers and treasury officials for the Turkish governors. Chaim Farchi, who was involved with Jazzar Pasha in the defense of Acre against Napoleon in 1799 was the Sefer’s owner. Almost two decades later, an orphan Muslim that Chaim Farchi helped raise and get installed as a Turkish leader betrayed his wealthy Jewish benefactor. On Erev Rosh Chodesh Elul (August, 1817), after having fasted all day, soldiers suddenly entered his apartment and read him his death-warrant, [Chaim Farchi was accused among other transgressions of building a shul higher than the highest Mosque in Acre] and was executed.

The Farchi Bible then came into the possession of the British Consul in Damascus and was only returned to the family a century later. Unique about this Bible was that it contained the names of many Biblical women that are not mentioned in the Torah but in Rabbinic writings such as the names of the wives of Kayin, Hevel, Shet, Chanoch and Metushelach etc.[11] It also contains the rules of Vocalization and Masoretic notes from Ben Asher’s Dikdukei Ha’Teamim. The interesting illustrations which do not show any human figures include Noah’s ark, the Mishkan and of the city of Yericho with seven walls.

In 1902, a year after he moved to London with his mother and sister, Dovid Sassoon purchased in Egypt several manuscripts that had been discovered in the Cairo Geniza six years earlier. These included an extremely early fragment of the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah which contained the Rambam's own glosses and Rabbi Saadiah Gaon’s Tafsir, a Judeo-Arabic translation on Chumash Bamidbar.

The late Rabbi Dr. Tzi M. Rabinowicz, son of the previous Biale Rebbe and author of more than 10 books including the Encyclopedia of Hassidism visited the Sassoon  library in 1966 and contributed an article at that time entitled “The Sassoon Treasures” to Jewish Life magazine.[12] He stated that when visiting the library of Rabbi Solomon David Sassoon, (David was no longer alive and the library seems to have passed on to his son Shlomo) he thought of the pasuk “Shal Naaleich me’al raglecha .... Put off thy shoes from off thy feet for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.” He describes it as the world’s greatest private collection of priceless Sifrei Torah, incunabula, manuscripts and unpublished writings that cover a period of nearly a thousand years. He writes that a student of art can feast his eyes on exquisitely illuminated manuscripts, Genizah fragments, Machzorim, Haggadoth, Ketuboth and important documents.

David Sassoon wrote a diary in Hebrew entitled Massaei Bavel[13] when he travelled in 1910 with his mother and sister Mazel Tov, from Bombay to Basra stopping off at Baghdad.

The following is an English translation of an excerpt of his dairy by Rabbi Aharon Bassous:

Tuesday Sept. 20

At 7:00 am we reached AL Qurna where the Tigris and Euphrates unite. Tradition has it that the Garden of Eden was here! We rested for 10 minutes. Continuing on our journey to Baghdad we passed in the afternoon a building which is traditionally the grave of Ezra HaSofer or Al Ezair in Arabic.

On the outside the grave looks like the dome of a mosque and is covered with glazed blue tiles. We went inside to visit. On entering the town we were in a large chamber leading to the synagogue and grave. Before entering the building we were told to remove our shoes. On top of the grave is a large tomb made from wood. Every Jewish visitor lights a lamp and says: I am lighting this lamp in honor of our master Ezra the scribe, after which he circles the grave and kisses it. Many give money for someone to bless them at the grave. Even non-Jews, come there to pray.

Several days earlier he wrote that while in Basra he was able to purchase some manuscripts but not old ones. One of them called Megillat Paras was read every year on the 2nd day of Nisan because a of great miracle that happened at Basra.

A very important acquisition David Sassoon made in Sept. 1923 was the Diwan of Shmuel HaNagid which Oxford University Press published with an introduction by Sasson in 1924. The manuscript which Sassoon acquired in Aleppo (Aram Tzova), was copied in 1584-1585 by an Italian rabbi Tam Ben Gedaliah ibn Yachya. It contained 1743 poems, of which 1500 were previously unknown. In the manuscript is a poem about the earthquake and eclipse of the year 1047 and a eulogy on the death of the Gaon Hai ben David (939-1038) the last gaon of Pumbeditha.

In Cecil Roth: Historian Without Tears[14] the late Irene Roth writes about  David Sasson that he was a noted Hebraist and  bibliophile and maintained a magnificent library of rare manuscripts which was always open to her husband, the Oxford Historian. Incidentally Cecil Roth, in his book "The Sassoon Dynasty," calls David Sassoon a scholar and writer of no mean distinction.

David Sasson also authored The History of the Jews of Baghdad.[15]

In addition to constantly expanding his library he would help his mother Flora answer thousands of letters from all over the world requesting tzedkaka for Hachnasas Kallah, Yeshivos, Pidyon Shevuyim, and other Jewish causes including requests to help print seforim.[16]

In the sefer Ohr Elchonon its author A Souraski,[17] writes that Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski sent a letter to the Prince (Nagid) David Sassoon that he should organize in London a vaad  devoted  to the selling of Osiyos for  a Sefer Torah in commemoration of the late Chafetz Chaim.

David was married to Sarah Selina Prins, the daughter of Moshe Meir Ben Rabbi Eliezer Lippman Prins, a diamond merchant and Talmid Chochom from Amsterdam who also owned a magnificent library.

In the Sefer "Parnas LeDoro: Hitkatvut Eliezer Lipman Prinz Im Chachmei Doro" by Meir Herskovics[18] a letter by Rabbi Eliezer Prinz to his grandson David Sassoon, the son-in-law of his eldest son Moshe, he writes that he has difficulty in understanding the commentary of Ramban on Bereishis 2:9, because when he examined different girsaos, a word was spelled differently and it is evident that the scribe made an error. Could David please check his different manuscripts to determine the correct girsa.

David Sasson was not only a great Talmid Chochom himself but he hired Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler author of Michtav Eliyahu to learn with his son Solomon in 1928 at the suggestion of Dayan Shmuel Yitzchok Hillman. Rabbi Solomon Sassoon, who continued in his father's footsteps in collecting seforim, developed into a great Talmid Chochom who turned down the Israeli government twice when it asked him to serve as Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel.[19]

By the time David Sassoon passed away in 1942 he had amassed about 1300 items in his library. Sadly the collection has been dispersed sold at a number of Sotheby auctions, beginning with one in Zurich in 1975. A New York Times article[20] describing the fourth Sassoon manuscript collection in 1994 states that in the past decade the sales were due to satisfy the estate's British tax obligations. Nevertheless, thanks to David Sassoon, universities and libraries around the world can continue to enhance Jewish scholarship through the efforts of David Sassoon. Yehi Zichro Mevorach.

[1] Aaron Souraski, Ohr Elchanan ,  2, p. 74.
[2] Rosenblum, Jonathan, Rabbi Dessler: The Life and Impact of Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, the Michtav Me'Eliyahu, Mesorah Publications,  Artscroll 2000 NY.,  p 144.
[3] Roth, Cecil, The Sassoon Dynasty, Robert Hale Limited, London, 1941 p. 80.
[4] Jackson, Stanley, The Sassoons, EP Dutton Inc., NY 1968 p. 30.
[5] Ibid. page 2
[6] Breger, Jennifer, "Flora Sassoon" entry in Jewish Women's Archive.
[7] Jackson, p. 104. Also see Introduction to Sotheby Catalogue "Seventy-Six important Hebrew and Samaritan Manuscripts from the Library of the late David Solomon Sassoon," London June 21, 1994 .The latter was the fifth Sotheby sale of manuscripts from the collection of David Sassoon, the previous sales took place in Zurich 1975 and1978 and in New York, in 1981 and 1984.
[8] Ibid. Jackson,  p.105.
[9] Rabinowicz, Harry, The Sassoon Treasures, Jewish Life Jan.-Feb. 1966 p.45.
[10] Jackson, p.158.
[11] David Sassoon, Ohel David, Oxford University Press, 1932, p. 6.
[12] Shevat-Adar 5726, Jan.-Feb. 1966 issue pp.42-48.
[13] Information from his travel diary, was incorporated later in his, A History of the Jews in Baghdad (Letchworth 1949) and this diary was later edited and published in Hebrew by M. Benayahu in 1955, after its author's death (Massei Bavel, Jerusalem 1955).
[14] Cecil Roth: Historian without Tears Sepher, Hermon Press, N.Y., 1982, p. 92
[15] See note 13
[16] See Nachalat Avot: Asufat Genazim MiBeit Mishpachat Sassoon, for a treasure trove of letters soliticing Tzedokoh from many Gedolim. This sefer includes Teshuvot, Michtavim Tefillot and Minhagim and was published by Yad Samuel Franco, 5767, Machon "Ahavat Shalom," Yerushalayim.
[17] p. 74.
[18] pp. 411-415.
[19] Rav Dessler, pp 145-.146.

[20] Dec. 5, 1984, "Sassoon Judaica Sold at Sotheby's".

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