Chanukah comes early this year — it starts Thursday night, December 10 — so it’s a bit risky if you plan to shop for me at the December 17 Sotheby’s auction of Judaica from the legendary Sassoon family, known as the “Rothschilds of the East.” But if I do get gifted one of these treasures on the final night of Chanukah, trust me, your generosity will be greatly appreciated.
The Sassoon family’s roots are in Baghdad, but in the 1830s they relocated to India. The family was led by its patriarch, David Sassoon, who established Bombay as the seat of a vast trading empire. He went on to open branches of his company in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Rangoon, and played a key role in the industrialization of the Far East. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, much of this fabled family moved to England, entering British high society and distinguishing themselves in the fields of journalism, philanthropy, poetry, politics, and the patronage of the arts. Several of them, most notably Reuben David Sassoon, David Solomon Sassoon, and Solomon David Sassoon, were particularly avid collectors of items of Jewish interest.
The Sotheby’s sale offers treasures that have remained in the family since its earliest days, along with items assembled during their residencies in Baghdad, Bombay, Hong Kong, and the United Kingdom.
So what’s on the shopping list?
There’s a gorgeous ketubah from Bombay that records the wedding, in 1853, of Reuben David Sassoon and Catherine Ezekiel. It features tigers and peacocks. (Estimated value — $10,000.)
There’s a magnificent wedding robe, made of silk and lavishly embroidered with golden thread. It was created for Ezekiel ben Joshua Gubbay, who married Aziza Sassoon in 1853. (Estimated to sell for $4,000).
There’s a somewhat pricier gold Italian case for a Megillat Esther. ($60,000-$90,000).
And if you want to combine Sephardi rabbinic celebrity culture with personal piety, you’re in luck. You can buy a set of tefillin once owned by Rabbi Jacob ben Joseph Hayyim (1835-1909), a Baghdad sage and kabbalist known for his popular Torah work “Ben Ish Chai.”
Appropriately for a kabbalist, Rabbi Hayyim put on two set of tefillin every morning — one made according to the standards of Rashi, the other to the rules set by Rashi’s grandson Rabbeinu Tam. (For the differences between those rules, and the varying reasons that both the author of the Shulchan Aruch and Rabbi Hayyim offered for donning both varieties, you can turn to Sotheby’s website, of course.) The family of Solomon David Sassoon maintained a close relationship with Rabbi Hayyim — every kabbalist needs his patrons, after all.
Following the great sage’s death on August 30, 1909, one of the Sassoons wrote a letter, dated November 14, 1909, to R=
Rabbi Hayyim’s son in Baghdad, wishing him consolation and asking him: “If you can, please send me the Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam tefillin that the departed—may he abide in Eden—would wear, since I would very much like to have them with me as a memento.”
And now they can be yours. Or mine, if you’re feeling appropriately generous. The four tefillin are estimated to sell as a set for between $150,000 and $250,000.
For more items and how to bid, go to www.sothebys.com/en/buy/auction/2020/sassoon-a-golden-legacy/