Beni-Israel (Heb. for Sons of Israel), a peculiar class of people found in India, who practice a mixture of Jewish and Hindu customs. They claim that their ancestors came from a country to the northward of India about sixteen centuries ago, and consisted of seven men and, seven women who were saved from shipwreck near Chaul, about thirty miles southeast of Bombay. They found a refuge at a place called Navagaum, where they were permitted to settle, and from which, gradually increasing in numbers, they spread among the villages of the Konkan, particularly those near the coast. In that locality and also in Bombay, where they began to settle after it came into the possession of the English, their descendants are found in numbers variously estimated at from five thousand to eight thousand. They resemble in countenance the Arabian Jews, though they regard the name Jehudi, when applied to them, as a term of reproach. They are fairer than the other natives of the same rank, but they somewhat resemble them in dress. They have no sheudi like the Hindus on the crown of their heads; but they preserve a tuft of hair above each of their ears. Their turbans and shoes are like those of the Hindus, and their trousers like those of the Mussulmans. They give to their children each two names, one from the Hebrew scriptures, conferred on the occasion of circumcision, the other of Hindu origin, given about a month after birth.
The Beni-Israel all profess to adore Jehovah, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob. Many of them, however, secretly worship the gods of the Hindils, while open idolatry was formerly quite common among them. In their synagogues there is no Sepher-Torah, or manuscript of the law, as the Jews have; but they admit the divine authority of all the books of the Old Testament. From the Arabian Jews they have received the Hebrew Liturgy of the Sephardim, which they partially use in their religious services. The Pentateuch forms the standard of their religious law, though the divine statutes are but partially regarded. The weekly Sabbath is in some degree observed by about a third of the population. At six in the morning they assemble for worship in the masjid, where they remain for two or three hours, chiefly engaged in. reciting prayers or parts of Scripture after the hazzan or reader, and practicing genuflections. Some of the more devout remain in the masjid for a longer time. The evening service, which commences about six o'clock, is best attended. It lasts for about two hours, and is frequently concluded by the persons present merely touching with their lips the cup of blessing. Several facts have been thought to combine to indicate that the Beni-Israel belong to the "lost tribes" of Israel. The want of a MS. Sepher-Torah, or Book of the Law, places them in a situation unknown to any congregation of Jews throughout the world. The almost universal repudiation among them of the designation Jew, of which they doubtless would have been proud had they merited it; the distinctive appellation of Beni-Israel, which they take for themselves; the non-occurrence among them of the favorite Jewish names Judah and Esther, and the predominance of the name Reuben, as well as other names principally connected with the early history of the children of Israel, strongly indicate that they are a remnant of the posterity of the Israelitish tribes which were removed from their homes by the Assyrian kings.