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History of the Great Synagogue

Chapter X


David Tevele Schiff, Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, 1765-1791 (from an oil painting formerly in the possession of Dr J. H. Hertz)


HART LYON'S retirement set in motion in the Anglo-Jewish community new currents, with consequences perceptible even at the present day. We have seen that the Hambro' Synagogue, not long since readmitted to favour, had accepted his authority as Rabbi and even contributed to his salary. This arrangement was expected to continue in the case of his successor, and on October 16th, 1764, the Great Synagogue passed a resolution to the effect that the new Rabbi should be engaged by the congregations in common at a salary of 250, 150 from "our" synagogue and 100 as before from "the other" Even before this date, on September 29th, a certain measure of agreement had been reached regarding the appointment, the gentlemen of Magpie Alley being apparently allowed to take the initiative this time as those of the senior body had done on the previous occasion. There was indeed no difference of opinion, for it was understood that the new Rabbi was to be chosen from a list, the most promising candidate on which was a first cousin of the last - Israel Meshullam Zalman, son of Rabbi Jacob Emden and grandson of Haham Zevi, who was bound to London by manifold family ties. (The other three were R. Jozpa, grandson of the eminent R. Samuel Schotten; R. Israel Lipschütz, recently appointed Rabbi in Cleves; and the Rabbi of Düsseldorf.) The Great Synagogue approved of these candidates, provided that the enquiries to be made about them elsewhere proved satisfactory. But in the event they did not (Meshullam Zalman was not only young, but apparently inherited in addition his share of the quarrelsome disposition of his family). While Jacob Emden was thrown almost into ecstasies of joy at the signal distinction his son seemed about to achieve, the gentlemen of Duke's Place decided that they could not confirm the appointment. It was in vain that Mr. Henry Isaac, son of Benjamin Isaac, and now the proprietary Parnas of the Hambro' Synagogue in his father's place, expostulated against their decision. The other body remained obdurate: and on February 3rd the following minute was entered on the Synagogue records:1

Feb.y 3rd, 1765

Present Naph.ty Franks, Mr. Aaron Goldsmid, Mr. Aaron Levy, Mr. Jacob Nathan Moses, Mr. Naph.ty Myers, Mr. Joel Levy, Mr. Sam.l Ans.l2 Levy, Mr. Moses Franks, Mr. Alex.r Isaacs.

A proposal from Mr. Henry Isaacs on the part of his Synagogue having been communicated by Mr. Naph.ty Franks to set aside an order of the 29 Sep.t Relative to the nomination of [rabbanim], the same was taken in Consideration and debated. But it Appearing that the particulars Directed in the said order of the 29th which was then agreed to by Both Synagogues [having] been Complied with and the answers to the Letter Respecting the Characters of the parties in Nomination proving unacceptionable, it was unanimously resolved that the Proposal aforesaid could not be admitted and that the order of the 29th should continue in force.

The upshot was that the short-lived concordat between the two communities ended, each now electing its own Rabbi. The Hambro' Synagogue formally appointed Israel Meshullam Zalman (who became known in England by the surname Solomon) managing to bring up his salary to £150 as well as to grant him £50 for travelling expenses and £120 to set up house in London.3 The choice of the Great Synagogue, on the other hand, fell (largely through the efforts of Aaron Goldsmid, founder of that distinguished Anglo-Jewish family) upon Rabbi David Tevele Schiff, son of Solomon Schiff, member of a famous and learned family from Frankfort-on-Main. His mother as it happens was Roesche, daughter of the quarrelsome Reb Aberle London, who had played so commanding a role in the congregation in its earliest days, and the new Rabbi was happy to think that fortune brought him back to her home-town. He had already had considerable experience, having served as Preacher (Maggid) in Vienna, head of the Beth haMidrash in Worms, and finally Dayyan in Frankfort. He was elected to his post in London on February 24th, 1765, with a salary of £200 per annum: in the course of the summer, his rival arrived to take up his appointment in the other community.

It was natural for the New Synagogue, which had so recently been established in the teeth of the fiercest opposition from Duke's Place, to recognise the authority of the Rabbi of Magpie Alley; and perhaps it even contributed to his salary. What, however, of the little congregations which were to be found by now here and there throughout England? Many of their members had at one time lived in London, or had affiliated themselves to one of the London synagogues by acquiring membership rights. During the last ten or twenty years of the life of Aaron Hart, several such bodies had established themselves, looking naturally to him for spiritual guidance--at Portsmouth, Plymouth, Canterbury, Bristol, King's Lynn, and elsewhere. Hart Lyon had, of course, received universal allegiance. But, now that there was a split in the London Rabbinate, which of the two pastors were the Jews of the provinces to follow? Israel Meshullam Solomon, on his side, had no doubt as to the matter. He had received the call in the first instance, and two synagogues obeyed his sway in London, as against only one (albeit the larger and the wealthier) which accepted his rival. He accordingly considered the latter the interloper, and had no hesitation in subscribing himself " Rabbi of London and the provinces".

It was in Portsmouth, the largest of the provincial communities, that the battle was fought out. Here the adherents of Tevele Schiff claimed that precedent was on their side. In the days of Aaron Hart, they maintained, the authority of the Rabbi of the Great Synagogue had been unquestioned in Portsmouth. It was to him that all questions of law were submitted, he who gave certificates to Shochetim, he who issued licences for marriages: and they considered that the association should continue. But they were overborn by weight of numbers: for, on taking a vote, it was found that only eight voices were in favour of Tevele Schiff and the Great Synagogue, whereas sixteen were for Israel Meshullam Solomon and affiliation to the two London communities under his guidance. On the other hand, the minority included an overwhelming proportion of what were termed "old" members, who had been morally and financially responsible for the foundation of the community and still claimed proprietary rights. These insisted on standing their ground. The result was a split in the community. One Saturday night, in February 1766 the supporters of the Rabbinate of Meshullam Solomon came to the Synagogue, removed their prayer-books and ritual appurtenances, and carried them off to a new place of worship which they now established. The two bodies immediately put themselves in touch with the rival London Rabbis. Before the winter was over, the Wardens of the Portsmouth community travelled specially to London to make the necessary arrangements. They interviewed the presiding officers of the Great Synagogue (Naphtali Franks, Naphtali Hart Myers, Joel Levi and Aaron Goldsmid) in the Vestry Room at Duke's Place; they waited on Rabbi Schiff in his house; and details were settled to mutual satisfaction. They returned home with mellifluous letters of commendation and amity: and later on, the Great Synagogue authorities sent down the basis of a code of laws to regulate reciprocal obligations. Any disputes between members of the congregation which could not be settled locally were to be referred to the London Rabbi for decision; he was to issue marriage licences, and to be entitled to a fee of one guinea on each occasion when he did so; every person called to the Reading of the Law was to make an offering in his honour; and year by year five pounds of wax were to be despatched to London, to be used for illuminating the Great Synagogue during the Day of Atonement, as a token of homage.

Thus fortified, the older Portsmouth community was able to maintain its position of superiority. The secessionist body, notwithstanding some sort of reconciliation in 1771, remained in existence until 1789. But by this time its raison d'être had disappeared. Meshullam Solomon had thrown himself heart and soul into his work in London, optimistically proclaiming himself as Rabbi of the Ashkenazi communities of the entire kingdom. He had published in 1777 the translation of a sermon he preached in the previous December at the General Fast for the success of the British arms in America - the earliest address delivered in an Ashkenazi synagogue in England to be made available in print to the general public. But otherwise he was less successful. In 1774, his action in invalidating a get brought from Amsterdam six years previously resulted in a torrent of uncomplimentary criticism from a Sephardi scholar, Shalom Buzaglo. Four years later, his matrimonial troubles attracted attention in the public press, where it was described how the "Jew Priest" of the Hambro' Synagogue had been divorced from his "Priestess". Finally, his relations with his congregation seem to have become embittered, while their income decreased to such a degree that they were unable to continue to afford the salary for a Rabbi of their own. Whatever the reason, early in 1780 Israel Meshullam Solomon, heartbroken, had to leave London, his disappointment mollified by an annuity of £50 per annum which his congregation agreed to pay him.4

With his departure from England, the dispute which had begun in 1765 was ended. The Rabbinate of the Great Synagogue was henceforth recognised without question by all the growing communities of the provincial towns. Tevele Schiff's successors hence enjoyed, without question or dispute, the title of Chief Rabbi not of London alone, but of the entire kingdom and later of the British Empire as a whole. The office was no artificially-created Crown Rabbinate instituted by the civil authorities for their convenience, like the similar institutions which formerly existed on the Continent of Europe, but a slow historic growth, as typically British in its spontaneity as in its efficiency. To this fact it perhaps owes its strength.

The establishment of the new place of worship in London in 1761, just before this dispute began, had opened the eyes of the Great Synagogue authorities to the extremely obvious fact that it was absurd for them to expect to retain their primacy unless they made provision for the religious requirements of the rapidly-increasing population by adding to the accommodation which they could provide. Not long since, in 1760, the site of the existing synagogue had been consolidated. Through the efforts of Aaron Franks and Lazarus Simon, and in consideration of the payment of a fine of £90, a "perpetual" lease for forty years was now granted by the Court of Common Council, renewable every fourteen years on payment of a fee of £30. At the same time, according to a contemporary news-sheet, a plan was set on foot for making a passage from Houndsditch to Duke's Place--perhaps on the line of the present thoroughfare - "for the conveniency of coaches going to Synagogue". (It may be mentioned that the place of worship was at this time frequented on other days than the Sabbath, so that false and hasty conclusions should not be drawn from this reference.) Three years later - two years, that is, after the New Synagogue had come into being - it was at last resolved to enlarge Moses Hart's Shool, which had stood unchanged for forty-one years. At a meeting held on September 27th, 1763, liberal donations were promised to the building-fund, fifteen members (seven of whom were nominated as trustees) subscribing £2000 between them. After prolonged negotiations, an extension of the site was obtained by Aaron, Naphtali, and Moses Franks and Aaron Goldsmid, who purchased from Edward and Elizabeth Holmes on behalf of the congregation a contiguous plot of ground in Broad Court (March 23rd, 1765). Thus it became possible for the synagogue to be radically reconstructed and enlarged.5 The dedication took place on Friday, August 29th, 1766, before the inauguration of the Sabbath. There was a special order of service, drawn up by Rabbi Nahum Joseph Polack; and, through the enterprise of Nahum Reischer (i.e. of Rzeszòw, possibly identical with the last-named) and the erudition of a gentleman who preferred to veil his identity under the initials J.N., those who were present were provided with the order of service, printed both in Hebrew and in English - the earliest publication extant made for the benefit of the Congregation, now designated in print for the first time as "The Great Synagogue". Rarer still at present (the only copies now traceable are in the collection of the present writer) are two folio broadsheets printed at Amsterdam, which contained poems composed for the occasion by the newly-appointed Rabbi and by Moses Joseph Jossel, the scholarly Beadle. The former moreover signalised the occasion by delivering an address (of course in Yiddish) which won golden opinions and on which his correspondents abroad congratulated him warmly. There was a very large attendance, including many non-Jews, who professed to be much edified by the proceedings, while the musical portion of the service, rendered by the Hazan and his assistants, attracted much favourable comment. To quote The Annual Register:

August 13th(!) 1766. This afternoon, the ceremony of the dedication of the new-built synagogue in Duke's Place was performed with the greatest pomp and solemnity, in which the Chief and other eminent Rabbis belonging to the Portuguese Jewish nation assisted; when the prayer for their Majesties and the Royal family, which was always read in their liturgy in Hebrew, was at this time pronounced in English by the Chief Rabbi, and was followed by Handel's "Coronation Anthem" performed by a numerous band of the most eminent musicians. The procession and other ceremonies on that occasion in the synagogue were accompanied with several Anthems, choruses &c. by the same performers."

Service at Rededication of the Great Synagogue, 1766 (Title Page)

As was customary on such occasions, all the scrolls of the Law were taken out of the Ark and carried in procession round the Synagogue seven times. The Hebrew hymn chanted meanwhile was highly patriotic, and lost nothing of its flavour in J.N.'s version:

Most merciful God...

Crown with flourishing leaves of Olive

His Majesty King George III. thy Beloved,

As also Her Majesty Queen Charlotte, with the young Rose Buds their Offspring...

Long live George Prince of Wales our Sovereign's successor

All the Royal Family and Princes,

As also the Generals and Officers,

Each worthy according to his banner.

Chorus: May George the Third our Sovereign, and all the royal family, live for ever.

Nor were the civic functionaries forgotten:

Let us lift up our hands to the Lord which is in Heaven. That he may strengthen and support the Right Hand, and Gird the Loins, for the Honourable the Lord Mayor at this time in his Mayoralty, with his Brethren the Worshipful Aldermen, each presiding over his Ward of this City.

The list of donors referred to above, to whose liberality the construction of the Synagogue was due, is worth reading. The names in the original are all in the Hebrew form, but I append the English equivalents (so far as I have been able to establish them) as a guidance to students, and for the sake of the light they throw on Anglo-Jewish nomenclature:

Aaron Franks £500

Naphtali Franks £250

Moses Franks £250

Leizer Goslar (Lazarus Simon) £250

R. Simeon Segal (Simon Jacobus Moses) £100

R. Aaron b[en] B[aruch] (Aaron Goldsmid) £100

R. Joel Levy6 £100

Züsskind Wiener (Alexander Isaacs) £100

R. Jacob Segal (Jacob Nathan Moses)£50

Aaron Levy £50

Samuel ben R. Anschel (Samuel Ansell Levy) £50

Meir Kampe (Michael Salamons) £50

R. Samuel Bira (Samuel Adolphus) £50

Abraham b. Hayim Levy (Abraham Hyman Levy) £50

Solomon b. Zevi (?) Solomon Henry) £50

It is convenient to give at this point the names of the officers of the congregation at the time of the dedication of the new building:

Wardens :

Naphtali Franks, Naphtali Hart Myers (Naphtali b. Joseph).

Treasurer ("Steward"):

Joel Levy.

Treasurer of Society for Visiting the Sick:

Alexander Isaacs (Züsskind b. Isaac).

Treasurer for Cemetery :

Zalman ben Isaac (? Solomon Isaacs).

Committee ("Five Men"):

Aaron Franks, Aaron Goldsmid, Aaron (ben Naphtali) Levy, Jacob Nathan Moses, Michael Adolphus.

Broadside Poem on Rededication of the Great Synagogue, 1766

Unfortunately, we know very little about the interior appearance of this synagogue, which served the community for twenty-four years.7 In the year that it was opened, indeed, the Rev. John Entick, M.A., in his New and Historical Survey of London, iii, 357-8, devoted a few lines to it:

On the West side [of Shoemaker Row] is the Synagogue of the Dutch Jews, as they are commonly called, with whom the Jews from all the Northern regions communicate, who are a distinct sect from the Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, &c., Jews. This Synagogue is just now enlarged with an addition of building in brick, that makes it as large again as it was before; and has approached so near to the Church of St. James, Duke's Place, that the congregations may be heard from each other.

A good deal more significant than this, however, is a single sentence from the pen of Charles Wesley, the co-founder of Methodism, who visited the Synagogue a year or so later: "The place itself is so solemn, that it might strike an awe upon those who have any thought of God."

Broadside Poem on Rededication of the Great Synagogue, 1766


1 My account of this episode is new. Unfortunately the "order of the 29th Sep.t" which is referred to in the minute cannot be traced, and the use of the fatal hybrid "unacceptionable" makes it difficult to understand whether the credentials of the person nominated were " unexceptionable" or "inacceptable". The latter, however, is more probable: yet it is clear from Jacob Emden's memoirs that he considered his son to have been regularly appointed and the Great Synagogue to have defaulted on its obligations. On the other hand, a minute in the oldest extant register of the Hambro' Synagogue: dated Adar 10th, 1765, specified the names of four candidates who were nominated. The account given in the text is the only one by which the conflicting sources can be reconciled.

2 Samuel ben Anschel Hamburger in the corresponding Hebrew. I26

3 On the other hand, it was decided that the Rabbi should not be allowed to hold a Minyan in his own house (as Hart Lyon had done) but should always attend Synagogue.

4 He died in Hamburg in 1794, his name being included in the Memorial List of departed Rabbis of the Hambro' Synagogue.

A kinsman of his who spent some time in London at about the same period was Rabbi Aaron ben Meshullam Zalman Mirels, whose sister Sarah married Haham Zevi. No record of his activity here is however traceable, but it is not impossible that he was Rabbi of the Hambro' Synagogue in the first half of the century. His son, born in England (later Rabbi in Schwerin 1777-90), in Wreschen 1792-1814. and author of Mispar Zebaam) was thus known as Hirsch Aaron London. There was also a Rabbi Elhanan b. Löb London, who died in Lissa in 1807. Ms. Mich. 325 in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, contains novellae composed by Lazarus b. Gumpel of London while studying at Fürth, 1775.

5 An episode during the rebuilding is recorded in a contemporary newspaper cutting: "Yesterday three men were carried before the Right Hon. the Lord Mayor on suspicion of breaking into a house near the Jews' Synagogue, belonging to the High Priest, with an intent, as is supposed. to steal the plate belonging to the Synagogue deposited there while that building is repairing. They were sent to Wood-street Compter."

6 Joel Levy signs himself in Hebrew "Joel, son of the martyred R. Joel, the Levite".

7 There is indeed a contemporary print depicting "The Jewish manner of HOLDING UP the LAW in the sight of the People, at DUKE'S PLACE, LONDON". This is, however, simply a copy of one of Picart's engravings produced at Amsterdam at the beginning of the century, showing a Dutch synagogue interior.


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