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The Jewish Community: Its History and Structure to the American Revolution. Vol. I.

by Salo W. Baron

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TitleThe Jewish Community: Its History and Structure to the American Revolution. Vol. I.
AuthorSalo W. Baron
PublisherVarda Books
Publication Date2002



Jewish communal history throughout the millennia of diaspora life has long been the subject of considerable scholarly attention. The European community of the pre-Emancipation era, especially, has for decades attracted modern investigators by its numerous extraordinary features. Its remarkable combination of religious and secular authority, its almost “extraterritorial” status and “sovereign” political powers and its overwhelming control over its members have flattered the political ambitions of nationally-minded modern Jews, but antagonized many reformers and anti-segregationists. Philo-Sémites and anti-Semites among the non-Jews, too, have often held definite opinions about the “ghetto” community. Like their Jewish confreres, however, they, too, have frequently substituted one or another bias for reliable information and sound reasoning. It is hoped that this first attempt at a comprehensive historical and sociological analysis of the entire communal evolution to the Emancipation era will help to promote clarity, if not unanimity of appraisal.

Apart from the usual embarrassment in defining the highly ambiguous term “community” — it is used here in the prevailing, organizational sense which is even narrower than that of the German Gemeinde — students of communal aspects of Jewish history are beset by two opposing difficulties: an extreme dearth of material for certain areas and periods and a plethora of extant information on other regions and epochs. Modern literature on the subject, too, is unevenly distributed and much repetition in one field is aggravated by nearly total silence in others. The present author has made an effort to maintain the relative proportions of the various phases of his ramified topic regardless of this quantitative disparity. In the use of the vast and significant literature of rabbinic responsa, for example, he has been guided principally by the importance of the countries or centuries of their provenance. Representative samples from diverse areas and periods were considered more promising than mere concentration on works of a few outstanding masters, however great an influence the latter may have wielded on the subsequent evolution of Jewish law.

The focus of this entire work is centered on the European community of the Middle Ages and early modern times, both because of the great richness and variety of its historic accomplishments and, genetically, because of its intimate linkage to Jewish community life throughout the world today. At the same time its deep moorings in the ancient and contemporaneous eastern communities have come to the fore ever more insistently. In fact, while trying to detect the hidden springs of this phenomenally tenacious evolution, the writer found himself delving deeper and deeper not only into the obscure realms of the First Exile and the Persian and Hellenistic dispersion, but also into the early manifestations of ancient Palestinian municipal life. Many rather unexpected relationships have laid bare some of the most autochthonous roots of the diaspora community securely ensconced in the ever fertile soil of ancient Israel. It has been found necessary, therefore, to devote the first two chapters to a general outline of both the modern foreground and the ancient background of the community in dispersion in its extraordinary historic career from the Babylonian Exile to the American and French Revolutions.

About the Author 

Salo W. Baron ---

Salo W. Baron, who was a rabbi, educator, and editor, was esteemed as a Jewish historian. A prolific writer, Baron was best known for his eighteen-volume work A Social and Religious History of the Jews. He was ordained a rabbi in 1920 and received doctoral degrees in philosophy, political science, and law from the University of Vienna. He later served as a professor of Jewish history and literature at Columbia University for thirty-three years. As a scholar, Baron is credited with broadening and modernizing the historic view of the Jewish experience. In addition, he provided testimony for the prosecution at the trial of Nazi official Adolf Eichmann. Baron also edited Jewish Social Studies and the series "A Documentary History of American Jews."
























I. Quest for New Forms; II. The Palestinian Municipality; III. Synagogue; IV. Graeco-Roman Association; V. Talmudic Consolidation; VI. Protected Community; VII. European Corporation; VIII. Supercommunity; IX. Local Society; X. Membership and Elections; XI. Lay and Ecclesiastical Officers; XII. Religious Guidance; XIII. Education and Public Enlightenment; XIV. Law Enforcement; XV. Public Finance; XVI. Social Welfare; XVII. Crucible of Capitalism and Enlightenment.





The majority of European Jews had come at one time or another from Muslim lands. While the traditions of Roman rule were not altogether forgotten, few communities could pride themselves on unbroken continuity since the days of the Christian Empire. The severe persecutions and expulsions of the seventh to the tenth centuries in the Byzantine Empire and the intolerant outbursts of the seventh century in Visigothic Spain, the Frankish Kingdom and in Langobard Italy, annihilated many ancient settlements and reduced many others to a state of utter cultural dependence on more prosperous brethren in the East. The conquest of Spain by the Muslims, followed by a briefer Saracen domination over Sicily, brought the most populous and hardiest communities of the western Empire into direct contact with the civilization of the Caliphate. Even the city of Rome, where alone the Jews were allowed to pursue their historic career without violent interruption, still turned to Palestine for guidance in all communal and religious matters. No better illustration need be found than the speedy adoption of Palestinian titles by the communal leaders of the papal capital. Jacob b. Yekutiel, visiting Rome in 1007, found there three rabbis, distinguished by the titles nasi, gaon and resh kallah, two of which Palestine herself had not so long before borrowed from Babylonia.1 As in Palestine, the position of gaon, or head of the academy, was held for several generations by members of one family. Spain, on the other hand, gravitated toward Babylonia. Having taken over some of Babylonia’s observances, administrative methods and religious doctrines, it perpetuated the influence of the Babylonian academies long after the elimination of the gaonate and exilarchate as political factors in the West.

Coming from economically and culturally far superior regions, the new Jewish arrivals in the West, especially north of the Alps, must have looked down upon their “barbarian” neighbors. Their own business methods, educational facilities and cultural amenities were so much more “advanced” that they would have resisted assimilation even if the local corporate system had not encouraged them to persevere in their own folkways. Their law, in particular proved extremely useful to them in their new situation. From the days of the Carlovingian Empire they had increasingly been called upon to perform special tasks in international and local trade and banking. They found in their law — originally developed under the semi-capitalistic civilization of the Hellenistic and early Roman empires, then modified under the semi-feudal regimes of Christian Rome and Persia, and once more reinterpreted to suit the needs of the expanding economy of the Caliphate — a much more pliable instrument than the varying local primitive regulations and procedures. Confronted by an often hostile world, they had to be on constant guard as individuals and as a community. In 1130 the community of London was fined the enormous sum of £2,000 for the misdeeds of one man. Informers denouncing fellow Jews or the community at large before the mighty became a grave menace and had to be severely dealt with by Jewish judges. The common fiscal responsibility for governmental taxes, enhanced by the realization that “taxes are our saviors,” as Asher b. Yehiel unwittingly paraphrased Netira’s argument, likewise necessitated the exercise of effective communal control. These and other weighty considerations intensified the Jewish urge for religious, judicial, educational and economic self-government even beyond the extent hallowed by a tradition already a millennium in antiquity.

Solomon ibn Adret of Barcelona (died 1310) proclaimed it as a general principle that “no man is entitled to withdraw and free himself from a communal ordinance by saying ‘I shall not participate in the issuance of the ordinances’ and the like, because the individuals are subjected to [the will of] the majority. Just as all communities are subjected to the High Court or the nasi, so is every individual subjected to the congregation of his locality.” This principle, underlying all discussions on Jewish communal law, was elaborated by many old and new regulations designed to fortify the community against outside interference. In this respect the early medieval Franco-German communities went further than even their Babylonian predecessors under Persia or Islam. A synod at Troyes about 1150, attended by some of the greatest luminaries of northern Jewry (the brothers Jacob Tam and Samuel b. Meir, Eliezer b. Nathan, and so forth) adopted the following sweeping resolutions:

  1. We have voted, decreed, ordained and declared under the ban, that no man or woman, related or unrelated, may bring a fellow Jew before Gentile courts or exert compulsion on him through Gentiles, be they prince or common man, superior or lower official, except by mutual agreement made in the presence of proper witnesses.

  1. If the matter is accidentally brought to the attention of the government or other Gentiles, and pressure is exerted on a fellow Jew, the man [so assisted] shall save his fellow from their hands and shall secure him against the Gentiles ... and he shall make amends to him in such manner as the seven best men of the city will ordain. . . .

  1. We have also declared under a ban that no one may intimidate the seven best men of the city through the power of Gentiles. And because the masters of wicked tongue and informers perform their deeds in obscurity, we have also decreed excommunication for indirect action unless he makes amends imposed upon him by the seven best men. . . .

  1. We have also declared under ban that no man shall feel entitled to gain control over his fellow Jew through a king, prince or judge, in order to punish or fine or coerce him, either in secular or religious matters. . .

The synod allowed, however, to cite before non-Jewish courts litigants who demonstrably refused to appear before a Jewish court. By a curious inconsistency, it also invoked the aid of Jews influential with the government “to coerce, through the power of Gentiles, all those who shall transgress any one of our commandments.”

As a matter of fact, equipped with the power of imposing fines, flogging, excommunicating and, exceptionally, executing recalcitrant members, the Jewish communal authorities rarely required direct governmental assistance. Many communities disregarded the synodal exception in favor of mutual agreements to repair to Gentile courts, and required that in each case the special permission of the communal leaders be obtained. In the face of often contradictory state legislation, the rabbis insisted upon the exclusivity of Jewish law on both practical and theoretical grounds. In the arguments advanced, emphasis on the educational advantages of the practical administration of Jewish law is particularly characteristic of the workings of the medieval Jewish mind. Maimonides pointed out that in Christian countries (he had primarily Byzantium in mind), where the Jews did not possess civil jurisdiction, even experts were unfamiliar with the intricacies of civil law. Ibn Adret sharply attacked submission to Gentile jurisdiction and bitterly exclaimed, “Of what use will then be the sacred and holy writings which Rabbi Judah and after him Rabina and R. Ashi have composed for us [the Mishnah and Talmud]? God forbid that they teach their children the laws of the Gentiles and build for themselves altars in Gentile academies! Nothing of the kind shall happen in Israel.” Deeply convinced of the superiority of the Jewish judiciary, he branded as “foolish” the attempts of some litigants to escape non-Jewish judges by ribbing their opponents. In his opinion the Jewish court could easily reverse any sentence disagreeing with the provisions of Jewish law.

Reality and government power, of course, forced compromise on some of these exalted claims, a trend which could readily be justified by the old talmudic recognition of “the law of the kingdom.” This principle, without which life in Exile would have been well-nigh impossible, could be interpreted with the latitude dictated by each teacher’s personal temper or circumstances, or by the changing needs of each generation or locality. In its root essential, however, rather than proclaiming the supremacy of the non-Jewish state and its laws, it merely reaffirmed the eternity and inviolability of the divinely instituted Jewish law and, hence, the sovereignty of the Jewish community. The law of the kingdom was law, because, and insofar as, Jewish law acknowledged its validity.

Authoritative teachers of Judaism must pass judgment on each state regulation and decide whether or not it fell under the provisions of this voluntarily announced rule. Vast domains of law referring to strictly religious matters, which included all questions arising from marriage and divorce, were from the outset reserved for exclusively Jewish administration. Rashi, who otherwise belongs to the more liberal interpreters of the principle, argued that the original “Noahidic” commandments included a provision for universal courts of justice, but none regulating marriage or divorce, and that hence Judaism must in these matters pursue a wholly independent course. Even in purely governmental affairs, such as taxation, the rabbis often arrogated to themselves the power of acknowledging or repudiating the validity of a particular enactment. Sharing with their non-Jewish contemporaries an extreme reverence for custom, they often denounced innovations unfriendly to Jews as an illegitimate royal usurpation of power which need not be recognized. They also generally repudiated royal enactments which they considered discriminatory between groups of royal subjects. One may easily gauge the opening thus given to divergent interpretation under the medieval system of special corporate rights and duties. Two great Spanish rabbis taught that “if a king enacts a new law, even though he issue it for all [subjects], insofar as it is not part of the legislation of the early kings it is not valid law in the Jewish sense.” Two other authorities, on the other hand, although likewise influenced by Spanish Jewish teachings, recognized the validity of such an enactment. But whether recognizing or rejecting a state or city ordinance, it was the rabbi who, by weighing its merits in strictly Jewish legal terms and invoking strictly Jewish precedents, made the ultimate decision.

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The Jewish Community: Its History and Structure to the American Revolution. Vol. I.The Jewish Community: Its History and Structure to the American Revolution. Vol. I.