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Flora Sassoon

1859 – 1936

by Jennifer Breger

Born in Bombay into the legendary Sassoon dynasty, Flora (Farha) Sassoon lived a colorful life in India and then in England as a businesswoman, philanthropist, famed hostess and Jewish scholar. According to historian Cecil Roth, it was said of her that she “walked like a queen, talked like a sage and entertained like an Oriental potentate.” Her father, Ezekiel Gabbai (1824–1896), was a trader and businessman who had come to India from Baghdad. Her mother, Aziza (1839–1897), was the granddaughter of David Sassoon. The couple had six sons and six daughters, of whom Flora was the eldest.

Since both her parents were themselves learned and scholarly, they ensured that Flora receive an excellent education. They not only sent her to a Catholic school but also brought eminent rabbis from Baghdad to teach her and her siblings. As a result, by the time Flora was seventeen, she already knew Hebrew, Aramaic and Hindustani, as well as English, French and German. She was also extremely knowledgeable about Jewish texts and sources.

In 1876 Flora married Solomon Sassoon (1841–1894) (son of David Sassoon [1792–1864] from his second marriage) who had spent many years running the family affairs in China but had returned to Bombay to run the office and the extensive cotton mills and other businesses of the Sassoon family, the “Rothschilds of the East.” She involved herself in her husband’s business affairs and started on her career as a grand hostess whose parties—which kept strictly to Jewish dietary laws—became famous.

Flora bore three children: David Solomon (1880–1942), Rachel (Rachelle, 1877–1952) and Mozelle (1884–1921). Rachel, who married David Ezra of Calcutta and later became Lady Ezra, was also learned. Living in India, she was able to help her brother, who had moved to England, track and find manuscripts in the orient for his remarkable collection of Judaica. Active in public affairs, she was elected president of the Jewish community after her husband’s death in 1947.

Mozelle, a permanent invalid, was both scholarly and pious. After her death she was eulogized by Rabbi Joel Herzog and Rabbi Samuel Isaac Hillman.

When Flora’s husband died in 1894, she took over his business responsibilities, while raising her three children. She was a very successful businesswoman, impressing her colleagues and employees with her attention to detail and her retentive memory. Following a serious plague in Bombay and the spread of Asiatic cholera she supported a young Jewish bacteriologist, Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine (1860–1930), who had developed an effective vaccine and led a campaign to get the population inoculated despite the reservations of both Hindus and Moslems. She was also actively involved in the anti-purdah movement.

In 1901 she decided to move to England where she hoped that her daughter Mozelle would be able to get a higher level of medical care. In London Flora Sassoon quickly became one of the most sought-after hostesses. She held an open house at least once a week and her banquets were legendary. Her scrupulousness in religious practice was no handicap to her social position. In contrast to the English branch of the Sassoon family, Flora Sassoon and her immediate family remained totally loyal to the religious traditions of their family in the East. She always traveled with her own minyan (prayer quorum) and shohet (ritual slaughterer). From 1902 to 1935 she kept a diary listing the dates and destinations of all her trips.

She was the benefactor to thousands of appeals and pleas for funds. Mail used to come addressed to “Flora Sassoon, England” and she would respond by hand on the day that the letters arrived. Every Sephardi Jew in the world or any person hailing from the East saw her as the focus of philanthropic promise. She was a strong supporter of Zionism and the Jewish state, coming out strongly in favor of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and visiting Jerusalem with her son in 1925. She also supported and signed guarantees for refugees trying to come to England.

But it was her Jewish scholarship that was truly unique. She was able to discuss Jewish texts and subjects with rabbis on equal terms. Her expertise on Sephardi doctrine and practice was unparalleled. She showed great knowledge of works found only in manuscripts, especially those of the East. Her article on the eleventh century Biblical exegete Rashi shows remarkable knowledge of his commentaries and responsa, discussing punctuation and variants in the Masoretic texts and the transposition of Arabic consonants. She also gives details of all the female members of Rashi’s family, many of whom were serious scholars, and quotes from a number of his responsa where he appears as a defender of the rights of women. Her deep knowledge of Talmudic and Midrashic texts was also on display in a piece she wrote for The Jewish Forum for its thirteenth anniversary issue in which she discusses the significance of the number thirteen in Jewish sources.

Flora Sassoon took on many public religious roles that were highly unusual for an Orthodox woman of her time. When in Baghdad for three months, she herself read from the Torah in synagogue, using the scroll dedicated long before by Sheikh Sason (1750–1830), the Baghdad patriarch of the Sassoon family.

In 1924 she presided over Speech Day at Jews’ College, London’s institution for the training of rabbis. In her speech she said that it was “a great honor to be the first lady-chairman at an Annual Speech Day,” noting that she had twenty years earlier presided at a lecture there. Published later that year by Oxford University Press, her speech on the importance of religious education was replete with Talmudic references.

When Flora Sassoon died in 1936 Chief Rabbi Herzog eulogized her as “a living well of Torah, of piety, of wisdom, of goodness and charity, of the staunchest loyalty to tradition, and out of her wonderful well Israel could draw in abundance noble incentives and lofty inspiration.”

SELECTED WORKS BY FLORA SASSOON

Rashi.” In The Jewish Forum, 377–383. New York: October 1930; “Thirteen.” In The Jewish Forum, 68–72. New York: March 1931; address delivered on Speech Day of Jews’ College, London, 9 Nissan 5684 (April 13, 1924) by Mrs. Flora Sassoon, Oxford. Printed for Private Circulation, 1924. Also printed in Hebrew as appendix to Rabbi Joel Herzog, Imrei Yo’el, Vayikra, Vol. 3, London: 1924, 204–206.

Bibliography

Ben Yaacov, Avraham. Chapters in the History of Babylonian Jewry (Hebrew), vol. 1. Jerusalem: 1989, 115–138; Breger, Jennifer. “Three Women of The Book: Judith Montefiore, Rachel Morpurgo and Flora Sassoon.” AB Bookman’s Weekly 101 (March 30, 1998): 853–864; Jackson, Stanley. The Sassoons. London: 1968; Roth, Cecil. The Sassoon Dynasty. London: 1941.

Sassoon, Flora - still image [media]
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Born in Bombay in 1859, Flora Sassoon was married at the age of fourteen to a fellow member of the legendary Sassoon dynasty. First in India and then in England, as her husband's partner and during fifty years of widowhood, Flora was an accomplished businesswoman and well-known hostess, whose elaborate dinners—always strictly kosher—became famous on two continents.

Photographer: Val Brown

How to cite this page

Breger, Jennifer. "Flora Sassoon." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 21, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/sassoon-flora>.

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