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eBook The Jewish Community: Its History and Structure to the American Revolution. Vol.II.
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Publisher:  Varda Books
Original Publisher:  The Jewish Publication Society
Published:  2002
Language:  English
Pages:   373

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ISBN: 1-59045-617-3

About the Book -- The Jewish Community: Its History and Structure to the American Revolution. Vol.II.


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 Book
























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.



An Excerpt from the Book -- The Jewish Community: Its History and Structure to the American Revolution. Vol.II.


One of the first concerns of any group of Jews settling in a new locality was to obtain a proper place for congregational worship. As soon as one of them died, a burial ground had to be provided. The synagogue and the cemetery thus constituted the most constant and universal features of Jewish community life. Around them as a nucleus developed many other religious institutions, particularly a ritual bath, an abattoir for ritual meat and a school. All these were to be found in each fair-sized medieval and early modern community.

The synagogue was not necessarily a communal house of worship. According to Jewish law, any ten adult male Jews assembled in a private home constituted an ‘edah, entitled to perform worship as solemn as could be held in the most monumental structure by a congregation of several hundred. Congregational worship at home was further enhanced by the observance of mourning after a deceased relative, which all but tied the mourner to his house. At least during the first seven days it was a great convenience for him to assemble a congregation of ten friends and to recite the prescribed prayers for the dead within the home. Such gatherings often developed into permanent institutions, and private congregational worship, or a semi-private type such as was maintained by many professional, charitable and educational associations, effectively supplemented that offered by the synagogue. Economic considerations, combined with the legal difficulties of evading the Church’s and the Mosque’s prohibitions of the construction of new Jewish houses of worship, fostered the growth of private or semiprivate gatherings. Many communities, particularly in the period of their foundation, could not afford a synagogue. Others with a growing population were afraid to enlarge an existing structure out of fear of state reprisals. In 1379 Queen Juana of Castile turned over a local synagogue to the bishop of Oviedo for no other reason. The erection of a second synagogue in the same locality was made impossible by a series of specific canonical prohibitions, such as were adopted by the synod of Breslau in 1267.

Once it became customary to gather in some private dwelling, the conservatism of the age and the notion of acquired rights tended to perpetuate the practice beyond the period of usefulness. Authorities, like Joseph Colon, taught that “if a citizen had a synagogue in his own house for a long time, the community must not transfer it to another house.” In the early eighteenth century a family, Liepmann, in Berlin long prevented the erection of a synagogue lest it diminish the glory of their private chapel. Innumerable hasidic and other klausen, shtubels and minyanim of all kinds added color to the congregational worship of most East European Jewish communities. Of course, there had to be safeguards against the arbitrary exclusion of members by individual owners. Among the early German ordinances attributed to Gershom was one providing that “if one lends a [house for use as a] synagogue to the community and he has a quarrel with another member, he may not forbid its use to that man unless he forbids it to all the others.” To be sure, this regulation referred only to a synagogue expressly placed at the disposal of the community. It could not be applied to numerous private assemblies convoked and dismissed at the pleasure of a private host. This distinction is fully rccognized, for instance, by Meir Katzenellenbogen of Padua, and quoted with approval by Moses Isserles. Widespread practice, nevertheless, helped convert many semiprivate synagogues into communal houses of worship.

In any case, the provision of facilities for congregational worship was a major responsibility of the community. “Wherever there are ten [adult male] Jews one ought to set aside a house where they shall congregate for worship at all times designated for worship, and this place is called a synagogue.” The old talmudic regulation that the communal majority may force the minority to contribute to the construction of a synagogue was fully upheld, and both a German and a Polish rabbi (Meir of Rothenburg and Joel Sirkes) independently concluded that in small congregations every member could be forced to attend daily services so as (to secure the necessary quorum. Such a regulation was, indeed, passed by the synod of Valladolid in 1432 for all Castilian communities of twenty families or less. As late as 1810 a new statute of the young congregation Rodeph Shalom of Philadelphia provided a fine of 25 cents for unexcused absences from Friday evening or Saturday morning services or for leaving the synagogue before their completion. Some congregations maintained a permanent staff of ten batlanim — these ancient “men of leisure” had sunk to the status of dignified beggars — whose constant presence in the house of worship, where they recited psalms or studied, made a congregational quorum readily available at almost any time.

This division into private, semi-private and communal places of worship greatly affected the character of the medieval synagogue. In the first place much of the sanctity of the public synagogue, insisted upon by talmudic law, was lost through this co-existence of private structures which, perhaps apart from a room reserved for a chapel, served primarily secular needs. Some of the medieval rabbis, such as Mordecai b. Hillel ha-Kohen, rationalized the situation by interpreting the talmudic postulate of sanctity as applying only to buildings specially constructed as synagogues and eternally dedicated to such service. Commenting on the situation in the Ottoman Empire soon after the mass influx of Spanish refugees, Jacob ibn Habib wrote:

The synagogues where we pray in courtyards in Turkey . . . do not possess any sanctity, being of an altogether temporary character. . . . Nowadays in this country we have no right to assign unto ourselves a permanent structure as a synagogue and still less may we build one, but we must hide in basements so that the services shall not be heard, on account of danger. . . .

The result of such interpretation was an increasing informality of attitude. The talmudic prohibition of using synagogue premises for strictly secular undertakings, such as settling business accounts, was first evaded in favor of communal accounts, particularly those connected with charity. Later on the prohibition was entirely disregarded, as were those directed against eating and sleeping in the synagogue proper (apart from special chambers for strangers such as existed in the ancient synagogue of Theodotos) from which scholars alone had been exempted in antiquity.

In recent centuries there spread a custom of allowing indigent strangers to spend a night on a synagogue bench, and poor students to make the synagogue their permanent home. The example of the mosque, which frequently served as a hostelry, and increasing Jewish migratory movements, forced many communities to compromise with the law, particularly if they were unable to establish a special communal hostelry. Needless to say, repasts of a sacred or semi-sacred character were never forbidden. Not only was wine drunk at the public recitation of the Kiddush and habdalah at the beginning and end of the Sabbath - this public ceremony, too, was primarily intended for the stranger who had no home of his own but the “third meal” of the Sabbath, consumed at the dim hour immediately preceding sunset, gradually developed into a communal ceremony. Under the influence of hasidism, in particular, this and other common meals were filled with mystic significance and, in more than one respect, constituted a revival of the ancient synodoi of Essenes and Therapeutai.

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