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. Her scrupulousness in religious practice was no handicap to her social position. She held an open house at least once a week and her banquets were legendary. She was able to discuss Jewish texts and subjects with rabbis on equal terms. Her expertise on Sephardi doctrine and practice was unparalleled. Flora Sassoon took on many public religious roles that were unusual for an Orthodox woman of her time. 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.”
Family and Early Life
Flora Sassoon was born in 1859 in Bombay (now known as Mumbai), India. 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. She was known as “Farha” in the East, but she used “Flora” in England.
Since both her parents were themselves learned and scholarly, they ensured that Flora received 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 of David Sassoon & Co, with its copious supplies of opium 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. Their lavish house in Bombay, called Nepean Lodge, had its own synagogue attached to it. Considered the most observant of the Sassoon brothers, Solomon recited all 150 biblical psalms every morning before he went to the office. So did his wife Flora.
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 East 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 early death, Mozelle was eulogized by Rabbi Joel Herzog and Rabbi Samuel Isaac Hillman.
Career in India
When Flora’s husband died in 1894, she took over his business responsibilities, while raising her three children. According to the catalogue of a 2023 exhibit about the Sassoons at the Jewish Museum of New York, she “was the only woman in the family to oversee a branch of the firm” (Meyer and Nahson, 30). By the end of 1904, she was admitted as a full partner in all the firm’s offices around the world. She ran the critical Bombay office for over six years by herself. Historian Joseph Sassoon, in his 2022 book on the Sassoon family, gives many details of Flora’s business acumen and attributes much of the Sassoon business’s success to her professional talents and actions. She reorganized the Bombay office into nine separate departments, established strict rules of borrowing and lending, and introduced many professional practices, such as a uniform system of writing clear business reports (Sassoon, 184-5). As well, she engineered a truce between the firm and its breakaway—E.D. Sassoon, headquartered in Shanghai—to allow for cooperation and reduce competition. She was thus a very successful businesswoman, impressing her colleagues and employees with her attention to detail and her retentive memory. As a business manager, she was very well thought of, both in India and internationally.
Following a serious plague in Bombay and the spread of Asiatic cholera, Sassoon 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 Muslims. She was also actively involved in the anti-purdah movement.
After the death of Albert (Abdallah) Sassoon, the head of the family and of the business in October 1896, Flora, despite her occasional stubbornness and pettiness (the other side of her business skills, especially her attention to detail) might have run the whole business worldwide, but the men in the company, especially because they were rooted in the world of the East and in the lands of Islam, found it impossible to accept Flora, a woman, as a leader.
Luckily for Sassoon, her husband Solomon’s brothers Reuben and Arthur, who were now in London, as well as Albert’s son Edward, were devoting their energy to their friendship with the English Royal family and their own speedy absorption into English society, rather than the business. While their attention was elsewhere, Flora was able to continue to run the Bombay office.
Unfortunately, however, Flora aroused the active opposition of Frederick Sassoon, Albert’s youngest brother, who had moved from Hong Kong to London in the early 1890s and become more active in the business, running the Sassoon head office out of London. He led the move to drive Flora out of the business altogether. When the firm was incorporated at the end of 1900, Flora was not even placed on the board as a director. It is important to note that this was not a disagreement between Flora and the other partners about the use of opium, which was the foundation of the Sassoon dynasty and the prime source of its wealth. Like the others, she saw opium as simply a legal commodity, traded between India and China, subject to the laws of supply and demand, and not as a moral or religious issue. She, like the rest of the Sassoon family, did not see the partners as “drug lords” It was misogyny and not ideology that made her family members suspicious of her success in business (Sassoon, 180-192).
In 1901 Sassoon decided it was time to leave David Sassoon & Company and to move to England, where she hoped that her daughter Mozelle would be able to get a higher level of medical care. She did not set up a rival firm and did not interfere in the business decisions of the others. She left her business talents behind and for the rest of her life became more involved with family, friends, and the Jewish world, both as regards her learning and scholarship and the Descendants of the Jews who lived in Spain and Portugal before the explusion of 1492; primarily Jews of N. Africa, Italy, the Middle East and the Balkans. Sephardic community.
Life in England
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.
Sassoon 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, which had been the custom of her ancestor, David Sassoon, the founder of the Sassoon dynasty. 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 Sassoon’s 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 Lit. "teaching," "study," or "learning." A compilation of the commentary and discussions of the amora'im on the Mishnah. When not specified, "Talmud" refers to the Babylonian Talmud.Talmudic and A type of non-halakhic literary activitiy of the Rabbis for interpreting non-legal material according to special principles of interpretation (hermeneutical rules).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 Sassoon 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.
Flora Sassoon died on January 14, 1936, at her home, 32 Bruton Street in Mayfair, and was buried temporarily in the Sephardic Hoop Lane cemetery in Golders Green, London. She was reinterred on April 3,1947, in Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives (Har Hazeitim), the site of her permanent tombstone. 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.”
Another Flora Sassoon
Flora Sassoon is sometimes confused with another Flora Sassoon, who was married to Sassoon David Sassoon, the first member of the illustrious family to come to England, which he did in 1858. He had married a cousin, the daughter of Solomon Reuben of Bombay (Mumbai); she was known as Farha in India but also changed her name to Flora in England and was known as Flora Reuben Sassoon. Her husband died suddenly in 1867 at an early age. They had lived at Ashley Park in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, and in Cumberland Terrace in London. As a widow, Flora Reuben Sassoon moved to 37 Adelaide Crescent in Hove, East Sussex, adjacent to Brighton, where other members of the Sassoon family now lived. She lived there until her death in 1919. She is mainly known now as the mother of Rachel Beer, editor of the English newspapers the Sunday Times and the Observer and as the grandmother of poet Siegfried Sassoon.
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.
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.
Meyer, Esther da Costa and Clauda J. Nahson. The Sassoons. Jewish Museum, New York, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2023.
Roth, Cecil. The Sassoon Dynasty. London: 1941.
Sassoon, Joseph. The Sassoons: The Great Global Merchants and the Making of an Empire. New York: Pantheon Books, 2022.