Sunday 23 September 2018


The burial place of the kabbalist R. Nechemya Mota in Cochin, India.


Not much information can be found on the kabbalist, R. Nechemya ben Avraham Mota (d. 1575[1]), although what little can be gleaned about him and his community is intriguing. He is also known as the Tzadik of Cochin, a town in the tropical area of Kerala (meaning coconut) in southwest India.



The Bene Yisrael or Shanivar Teli caste of Indian Jews is quite well known and well documented. They inhabited the central western coastline of India and later moved to Mumbai and parts of today’s Pakistan.

Rambam (1135-1204) mentions that there were Jews living in India, and it is generally understood that he may have been referring to the Bene Yisrael.[2]

But there was another group of Jews that lived in Cochin, about which not much is known:


According to Nathan Katz[3], a Jewish community has existed in Cochin for about two thousand years. During that time, they experienced peace and prosperity while participating actively in the spice trade, government and even the military. At one stage, besides enjoying an autonomous Jewish principality, there was even a Jewish prime minister to a Hindu Maharaja.

According to some accounts, Jewish sailors started arriving in southwest India from the time of King Solomon. Other accounts suggest that Jews came there during the Babylonian Exile around 500 BCE, or after the destruction of the Second Temple around 70 CE. Still other accounts put it during the 4th-century migration from Majorca. And according to a traditional song sung by some Malayam Jews, their ancestors came from Yemen.

Either way, the Jewish community developed their own style of liturgy, known as nusach Shingly, after the ancient centre of Cranganore, north of Cochin, which the Jews called Shingly. In 1341 a flood changed the coastline and the port of Cranganore was silted up and a new harbour opened up in Cochin. The Jews then moved to Cochin.

The Cochin Jews were never a homogenous group since they descended from Jews of various cultural backgrounds. There were three separate synagogues (the Tekkumbagam, Paradesi and Tekkavumbagam Synagogues) all within walking distance of each other in what was called later referred to as ‘Jew Town’.

The oldest documentary evidence of this community goes back to 1000CE, when one Yosef Rabban received some engraved copper plates from the Hindu ruler exempting the Jews from paying taxes, and allowing them to collect tolls and use drums and lamps - which was considered an honourable ritual status. These plates are apparently still preserved in the Paradesi Synagogue in Cochin.

The Maharaja gave the Jews a large portion of land which was named Mattancherry, right next to his palace.  Mattancherry is a mixture of Hebrew and Malayalam, meaning Gift of Land.

In this far corner of the world, the Jews developed their own language which was a mixture of Hebrew and Malayalam and produced a number of rabbis and even kabbalists who enjoyed the rather unique distinction of being revered by Hindus, Muslims and Christians.

The Cochin Jews probably developed the most exotic religious practices in the Jewish world, as – living in India – they became an elite caste and also adopted some Hindu symbols. Unfortunately, the caste system created some friction within the Jewish community as Jews discriminated amongst themselves and in one particular case a caste controversy waged for five hundred years.

When Israel attained independence in 1948, a year after Indian became independent, most of the Cochin Jews immigrated to Israel. Today there are about four thousand Cochin Jews in Israel.
Although there are only about sixty (some say twenty-six) Jews still there today, it is estimated that many thousands of Jews once lived in that fertile area of the Malabar coast of Kerala.

The Paradesi Synagogue today.
During the 16th-century, there was a new wave of Jewish migration to Kerala, with many refugees from the Spanish and Portuguese expulsions. These new immigrants were known as Paradesis or foreigners. They built their own Paradesi Synagogue just thirty yards from the Maharaja’s palace in Cochin. These newcomers were also referred to as ‘white Jews’ as opposed to the original Jewish inhabitants who were called ‘black Jews’. The Paradesi Jews did not intermarry with the original Jews.
The Paradesi Synagogue has a three-story clock tower (added in 1761) with three faces. The side which faces the Maharaja’s palace has Malayalam characters, while the side facing Jew Town has Roman characters and the side facing the synagogue has Hebrew characters.
Visitors must remove their shoes before entering these synagogues in keeping with the Hindu and Muslim practice. Removing shoes before entering a synagogue was also a custom in Yemen (and the Talmud Yerushalmi records that it was also the custom in Israel – although not in Babylonia[4]).

One of the silver crowns on the Sefer Torah was a gift from the Maharaja in 1803. In 1968 the Paradesi Synagogue celebrated its 400 anniversary and the celebration was attended by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. A commemorative stamp was also issued.
Cochin Jews (known as Cochinim) commemorate the passing of their kabbalist, R. Nechemya Mota, on the anniversary of his death which is on the first day of Chanukah. He is also known as Naamia Mootha.
His tomb in Jew Town has become a place of pilgrimage not just for Jews but also for Hindus, Muslims and Christians.
Stories abound of his miraculous deeds including his alleged ability to fly through the air to reach his home before Shabbat prayers.
The first English reference to Nechemya Mota was in the 1907 edition of the Jewish Encyclopaedia, which states that he was a false messiah who appeared to the Jews of Cochin. This has subsequently been contested but of course, the entry (and hence the allegation) still remains.
Most scholars seem to think he hailed from Yemen, although some believe he came from Italy or even Poland. He married a woman from the original or ‘black Jewish’ community.
The 1757 nusach Shingly Machzor, contains around twenty of Nechemya Mota’s prayers – but for some reason, they were omitted from the 1769 edition. In more recent editions, printed in Israel, they were reincorporated back into the Shingly nusach.
The following is an English translation of the inscription from his headstone:
“Here rest the remains of
the famous kabbalist,
The influence of the light of whose learning
shines throughout the country,
The perfect sage, the hasid, and
God-fearing Nehemia, the son of
The dear rabbi and sage Abraham Mota.
Our Master departed this life on
Sunday, the 25th of Kislev, 5336 (1575).
May his soul rest in peace.”

Another noteworthy Cochin rabbi was David Rachabi is known for his work, Ohel Yisrael, which deals with the origins of the Hebrew calendar. He also makes comparisons between the Islamic and Hindu calendars.

Ohel David by R. David Rachabi
R. David Rachabi appears to have discovered the other group of Indian Jews, the Shanivar Teli or Bene Yisrael, who were living in little villages and keeping Jewish customs. They were thought to have possibly been descendants from the Lost Tribes. David Rachabi then taught the Bene Yisrael about contemporary Jewish practices to bring them in line with the rest of the Jewish world.

He trained young men, known as Kajis, to become teachers and they assumed leadership roles in the community.

[There were, however, two people who were called David Rachabi and no one is certain which one discovered the Bene Yisrael. One Bene Yisrael tradition has it that David Rachabi arrived either around the year 1000 or 1400.
Others suggest a David Rachabi had lived between 1694 and 1772.[5]]


The religious leaders of Cochin were called Chachamim. Although there does not seem to be evidence of any halachic responsa literature emanating from Cochin, they certainly did adhere to halacha and often wrote to the rabbis of Cairo and Jerusalem for halachic guidance.
The community of Cochin had a number of very talented sofrim or scribes who wrote beautiful Torah, Megillah and Mezuzah scrolls. These scrolls were in high demand by Jews of Europe.
Besides scrolls, there were hundreds of other religious manuscripts produced in Cochin.


The Cochin Jews developed their unique Judeo-Malayalam, much like Ladino in Spain and Yiddish in Germany. According to a fascinating individual, Thoufeek Zakriya[6], a Muslim native of Cochin who is drawn to the Jewish history of Cochin and wants to preserve it – some examples of Targum Malyalemi would be ‘assadeekha’ for haTzadik and ‘yayina’ for yayin (wine).


There is still much to discover about this gem of a Jewish community that very few have even heard of. It would be intriguing to find some more of the writings of the rabbis of Cochin, particularly of the kabbalist, Nechemya Mota.

So much more of the story of the Jews of Cochin still needs to be told.

POSTSCRIPT: As of the time of publishing this article, I have just communicated with Rabbi Yonatan Goldschmidt who is currently in the Paradesi Synagogue for the High Holy Days and hope to be able to get more accurate information from him about this fascinating community.

R. Yonatan Goldschmidt at the tomb of Nechemya Mota. 

Photo courtesy of R. Goldschmidt who confirms that very little is known about this Indian Kabbalist.

Johnson, Barbara C. and Daniel, Ruby.  Ruby of Cochin:  An Indian Jewish Woman Remembers.  Philadelphia and Jerusalem:  The Jewish Publication Society, 1995.
Joshua, Isaac.  The Synagogues of Kerala 70 CE to 1988, unpublished, 1988.
Segal, J. B.  The History of the Jews of Cochin.  London:  Vallentine Mitchell, 1993.
Spalak, Orpha.  The Jews of India: A Story of Three Communities.  Jerusalem:   The Israel Museum, 1995.
Jewish Virtual Library.
Jews of Malabar (online), Thoufeek Zakriya.
Roland JG (1998) The Jewish communities of India.


A young girl from South Africa spent a Shabbat in Kochi, while on holiday in India. This is her story:
4 January 2020
By Yael Robins, aged 15
………   We arrive at shul and I look around at the davening. I go outside and play cards and the rabbi and rebbetzins daughter comes and joins us as well.
After the service we go and get an explanation of the Torah’s and it turns out Rebbetzin Elisheva is from South Africa and so is her mother and she is Afrikaans. My mom talked to her a lot and my dad talked to Rabbi Goldschmidt who was a really funny guy that got married by and learnt with Rabbi Benschlous which is so COOL.
They invited us to kiddush and lunch and had delicious food which was all VEGAN. Ayelet got on well with the little girl and she had a play date with her for the afternoon while we all played with the little baby boy.
After lunch we went to the Dutch Palace museum where children were free so we went in and my poor parents stayed outside. The museum was really cool but my parents would have enjoyed it more.
We went back to our homestay to relax and I read a bit. We were exhausted because it was so so hot and we had had a long walk back.
Then at 6ish we went for a walk and then after Shabbat came out we got a tuktuk to the RabbI and Rebbetzin’s house for Havdallah. I played with the baby and when it was time to say goodbye the baby gave me one last hug and wouldn’t go back to his mom and then he kissed my cheek and started crying when I left.

The Rabbi showed us a grave in the alley behind his house. It was of a Jewish mystic who is revered by the Hindus and Christians as well as the Jews. The neighbouring Christian Hindus regularly paint the memorial and look after it.

[1] Some put the date as 1615.
[2]Roland JG (1998) The Jewish communities of India.
[3] The Last Jews of Cochin: Jewish Identity in Hindu India, by Nathan Katz and E. S. Goldberg.
[4] Yerushalmi Bava Metzia 2,9.
[5] There was also a much later David (Baruch) Rachabi who lived around the early 1800s, although he clearly could not have been the author of Ohel David which was published in 1785.