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History of the Great Synagogue

Chapter IV



THE retirement of Rabbi Judah Leib Cohen had marked the beginning of the ascendancy in the Ashkenazi community of London of a family which was to dominate it, in both the spiritual and the secular spheres, for half a century and more.

Benjamin Levy had a relative,1 Hartwig (Naphtali Hertz) Moses, of Hamburg, who had emigrated to Breslau with strong recommendations to the Count of Schaffgotsche. He had prospered in his new home, and was known far and wide as a supporter of Hebrew scholarship. He had two sons, who varied their careers in the traditional Jewish fashion--the elder, Uri or Aaron, born in 1670, devoting himself to study; the younger, Moses, born in 1675, to commerce. The former (known also as Uri Phoebus), after receiving a sound Rabbinic training at home, married a daughter of the illustrious Samuel ben Uri-Schraga of Schidlow, sometime Rabbi of Fürth, whose famous work Beth Shemuel--a commentary on the juristic code Eben haEzer, and the first book issued from Sabbatai Bassista's press at Dyhernfurth - had been produced at Hartwig Moses' cost. In his father-in-law's house, Aaron's Talmudic education was completed, and before returning to Breslau he directed a Rabbinical college in Poland.

In 1697, the Council of Breslau made one of its periodical attempts to expel the Jews. It was natural at this juncture for Hartwig Moses' younger son to go to seek his fortune in London, where his kinsman Benjamin Levy had established himself so handsomely. Here he became known (the father's name serving as the basis of his own surname, as was usual at the time) as Moses Hart. His cousin took him into his business as his confidential assistant: later on, he branched out on his own, and by 1704 had prospered sufficiently to become enrolled as one of the twelve authorised "Jew Brokers", in succession to the Sephardi magnate David de Faro.

His position in the community was reinforced by his family connexions. Simon Lazarus, of Goslar, who had accompanied him from Breslau, was his maternal uncle : the latter's son, Lazarus Simon, and Meir Wagg, of Frankfort, were his brothers-in-law: David Prager had married his cousin. (It was with reason that Johann Schudt reported that the London Jews were "much brother-in-lawed" [sehr geschwägert].) Unlike Benjamin Levy, Moses Hart was associated with the Ashkenazi synagogue from the moment of his arrival, and took the part in its administration which his position warranted. In 1704, the year of the other's death, he was acting as the lay head of the community.

It was natural for him in such circumstances to press the claims to official recognition of his brother, who had followed him from the Continent and was now known to the outside world as Aaron Hart. The latter had not been on the best of terms with the retiring Rabbi, Judah Leib Cohen, and had taken some part in the disputes that preceded the latter's withdrawal. For this reason, it had been considered proper that he ought not profit from it and should accept no official appointment in London for at least three years to come (it was said, indeed, that he had bound himself to this effect by oath). But, with his training, his experience, and his connexions, it was not easy to enforce such a restriction. Before long he was performing Rabbinical functions; a little later on, he formally accepted the appointment.2 He was to remain in office for over half a century, until 1756, witnessing the inconsiderable community over which he had at first presided increase in numbers during his incumbency to some thousands, with offshoots in more than one provincial city.

His first years of office were anything but tranquil. Glückel of Hameln (that delightfully garrulous Hamburg Jewess whose Memoirs entitle her to the name of a German-Jewish Pepys, and are an invaluable source of information for the social life of the period) had among her brood of children a daughter named Freudche. To her mother's delight, the child had married Mordecai, son of Moses ben Leib, or Moses Libusch, one of the founders of the Altona-Hamburg community, whose name was a byeword in Germany for his wealth, his learning and his nobility of character. Mordecai (or Marcus) Moses, as the young man was called, followed the example of other members of the Hamburg community and went to London to seek his fortune, in the additional calling of dealer in precious stones.3 Later on, he was joined temporarily by his brother-in-law, Mordecai Hameln, who as a child of five had been so petted by Prince Maurice of Nassau and the future Frederick III of Prussia, when they attended the marriage of his sister Zipporah at Cleves.

One of Marcus Moses' closest business associates was a certain Abraham Nathan, whom he accompanied more than once to the Continent. It would seem that the two and Sampson Mears, R. Aberle's partner, homesick for the scholarly traditions of Hamburg, wished to set up in London a Beth haMidrash for study, with a synagogue attached, on the model of the famous Klaus in their native city. Early in 1704, they went so far as to make preparations for converting Nathan's house in St. Mary Axe for the purpose. It is possible that they had no idea of seceding from the community, and they maintained that the new place of worship would be strictly subordinate to the house of study. Nevertheless, Moses Hart felt not only that the dignity of his brother, the Rabbi, was likely to be prejudiced by the scheme, but also that the new institution would undermine the position of the existing Ashkenazi synagogue, over which he then presided, and would tend to increase anti-Jewish feeling among the general population. He accordingly enlisted the collaboration of the head of the Spanish and Portuguese community, and the two appealed for support to the Court of Aldermen of the City of London:

Tuesday, 20 March, 1704

Mr. Abraham Mendez and Mr. Moses Hart now acquainting this Court that Abraham Nathan an Inhabitant in St. Mary Axe Samson Mears inhabiting in Goodmans Fields and Marcus Moses of Whitechapel Jews of the German Nation and others were erecting a New Synagogue in St. Mary Axe aforesaid without permission of this Court. It is ordered that the said Abraham Nathan Sampson Mears and Marcus Moses be summoned to attend this Court upon Thursday next to shew cause why they presume to take upon them to erect a new Place for Jewish Worship without any authority for the same, and that the said Mr. Mendez and Mr. Hart be present at the same time.

Thursday, 22 March, 1704 Upon examination of the Complaint made unto this Court, upon Tuesday last that Abraham Nathan Sampson Moses [sic] Marques Moses and others, Jews of the German Nation were erecting a Synagogue in St. Mary Axe. After hearing both Parties in the presence of each other and it appearing unto this Court that the said Building was fitted up and designed by the Parties complained of for a Synagogue or place of Jewish worship and for a Colledge or Schoole for the education and instruction of Youth and others according to the Jewish religion. This Court doth declare that they will not permit nor suffer the said place to be converted or turned into a Synagogue for the exercise of the said Jewish religion or for a Schoole or Colledge for ye education and instruction of any Persons in the Jewish Law or Religion and therefore doth order and require that no person or persons do presume to convert the said place into a Synagogue Colledge or Schoole, or to use any Jewish worship therein as they will answere the same at their peril.

This intervention effectively suppressed the secessionist movement. To reinforce it, moreover, a fresh communal regulation was passed forbidding under pain of excommunication any further attempt to establish a separate synagogue. To this, all members were compelled to subscribe, the ringleaders of the revolt binding themselves to forfeit £500 each --half payable to Her Majesty the Queen, half to the poor--if they contravened this solemn pact.

Shortly afterwards, Moses Hart was succeeded as presiding officer of the synagogue by Reb Aberle, who had himself at one time shown separatist tendencies and had even set up a rival communal butcher (thus seriously imperilling the stability of the communal finances, partly based on a meat-tax); moreover, relations between him and the Hart brothers had been strained owing to business differences. But all this now belonged to the past; indeed, he was now on the best of terms with Rabbi Aaron, who now seemed to be his instrument.4 He was thus able to act as a communal dictator. Marcus Moses remained a stormy petrel of the community. He prospered in his business of gem-dealing to such an extent that Reb Aberle now considered him a dangerous rival: nor could the latter forget that notwithstanding the disparity of years he had formerly been a suitor for the hand of Freudche, the other's wife. A violent quarrel took place between the two men: and it was accentuated not only by their argumentative natures but also by their scholarly propensities--not reinforced, however, in the case of the younger of the two, by conspicuous scholarly attainments.

It happened that on Sunday, August 27th, 1706, Rabbi Aaron Hart, acting in strict privacy, arranged a conditional divorce for a certain Asher (Anschel) Cohen--a notorious ne'er-do-well who, laden with debt, was about to sail for the West Indies and wished to leave his wife free to marry again if he should not be heard of again. Old Rabbi Aaron of Dublin, whose son-in-law had been ruined at cards by Cohen, was naturally not asked to participate, being an interested party. The document (a very complicated one according to rabbinic regulations) was accordingly drawn up by the official scribe of the Sephardi community, Jacob da Silva: and two scholarly witnesses were found, Isaac ben Joel and Menachem ben Isaac Cohen. However, immediately the news was generally known, Marcus Moses began to criticise the entire proceedings, which he stigmatised as being contrary to Jewish law and practice: for (from what he remembered of what was customary in similar cases at Hamburg) such secrecy was irregular, and he considered it quite impossible to fulfil all the formalities so expeditiously without making a blunder. He was even willing to back his opinion: he told his neighbour in Synagogue, when he heard the news that evening, that he would lay five guineas that the document was invalid, and later asserted with even more confidence that he would wager his diamond ring on it.

Jews traditionally allow themselves a considerable degree of latitude in most intellectual exercises. Nevertheless, ever since the days of "Rabbenu Tam" in the twelfth century, to question the validity of a divorce had been regarded as a heinous offence, which automatically rendered the person responsible liable to excommunication; for such criticism ipso facto impugned the validity of any subsequent marriage and the legitimacy of the offspring. Aaron Hart, a peaceful soul, asked some of his congregants to warn the critic, and even proposed to visit him in his own house to advise him of the consequences of his action. But Marcus Moses remained obdurate: and, when the learned Johanan Holleschau, the Moravian talmudist who was acting as tutor to his sons, undertook to speak to him about the matter, the angry magnate all but ordered him out of the house.

As a compromise, Hart suggested that the matter should be laid before a Rabbinical court for adjudication. The other agreed, with the reservation that only the Rabbinate of the Sephardi community, which stood outside the quarrel, was competent for the purpose. It was accordingly constituted, the members being Haham David Nieto, the Dayan David Yerez, and Aaron Hart himself. But the inclusion of the Rabbi in the tribunal determined Moses not to recognise its authority: and, when the examination of witnesses took place on Tuesday, September 3rd, 1706, he failed to put in an appearance. Instead, he took Johanan Holleschau to live with him and with his aid prepared a counter-attack. The latter managed to secure a copy of the depositions, set about obtaining assistance and counsel for his patron, and communicated with the latter's brother in Hamburg, the wealthy and learned Hendele Cohen (an intimate friend of Haham Zevi) in order to canvass local support. Aaron Hart, meanwhile, was doing his best to placate his critic, and intimated that, if the other consented to withdraw his strictures and submit to the lesser ban for thirty days--little more than a mark of contrition--he would be recompensed by the signal honour of being called up to the reading of the Law on the approaching New Year and Day of Atonement, among the great ones of the community.

All this time, Reb Aberle had been away from England. In Hamburg, probably, he learned how his rival in commercial and matrimonial affairs had affronted the properly-constituted authorities in the congregation, and how they were prepared to compromise with him in a fashion which would leave his dignity enhanced rather than impaired. Towering with rage, he sent home forbidding Aaron Hart to take any further action in the matter, and on his return to England saw to it that the idea of reconciliation was thrown to the winds. Marcus Moses was formally put under the Ban to which his conduct had legally exposed him. This was no slight matter. Men shunned him as they would the plague: contact with him in the street and synagogue was avoided: he was permitted participation in no ceremonial observance, however pressing his need might be: he was even denied the privilege of bestowing charity, as the very paupers would no longer visit his house. Had not the members of the Sephardi congregation remained friendly, the boycott might have resulted in his financial ruin. The affair became the talk of the town. It was discussed on 'Change; and men spoke of it even in the Judengasse of Frankfort, where the chronicler Schudt garnered spiteful details.5

At this season of the year, with the High Holydays approaching, the position of the excommunicated magnate was intolerable. Brought to a sense of realities, he offered a guarantee of £500 that he would submit to the decision of the Rabbinical authorities. On Nieto's advice, Hart consulted Rabbi Leib Charif of Amsterdam, who recommended that the promise of synagogal honours over the festival should be kept, but no more. But there is no indication that even this took place. That year, as it happens, adverse winds held up the supply of citrons (ethrogim) at the beginning of the feast of Tabernacles. The Sephardim, more fortunate, had received theirs from Italy, and generously gave one to the sister-community. It was jealously guarded and passed round from hand to hand for the ritual benediction to be made; but Marcus Moses and his family were not allowed to touch it. But worse still was to come. Just at this period, his wife Freudche gave birth to a daughter, and attended Synagogue shortly afterwards for the ceremony of naming her. Even this privilege was refused, and she returned home in a flood of tears.

A secondary dispute had emerged by now. It seems that the communal pedagogues, themselves Talmudists, had sided with their colleague, Johanan Holleschau, as against the Rabbi and his supporters. As a punishment, the synagogue authorities determined to exclude them from all communal honours, such as being summoned to the Reading of the Law or invited to festivities. Moreover, on the occasion of a dispute which arose between a householder and a teacher regarding payment, Aaron Hart (with Reb Aberle's approval) decided that the latter was to take a solemn oath in synagogue that he had performed his functions adequately; and other employers eagerly seized the opportunity to insist on the same formality. The Rabbi's critics (headed by Holleschau, who again canvassed support abroad) averred that this too was against Rabbinic law. Thus more fuel was piled upon the flames of the dispute, Aaron Hart being stigmatised as an utter ignoramus.

Meanwhile, Marcus Moses' influential friends on the Continent had not been idle. Judah Leib Cohen, still in Rotterdam, saw the opportunity of avenging himself on his former enemy, and released the London magnate from the Ban, to which he considered that Rabbenu Tam's decision did not properly apply--if only because of the culprit's ignorance that it existed. More influential was the voice of Haham Zevi, who had been approached by Hendele Cohen in Hamburg, and who, regardless of his long friendship with Reb Aberle, was indignant at the treatment meted out to a member of so distinguished a family. During the Intermediate Days of Tabernacles, a letter from him (dated Tuesday, September 15th, before the Day of Atonement, but delayed in transmission by the autumn storms) arrived in London, intimating that in his considered opinion the penalty imposed was quite unwarranted by the circumstances of the case and had no validity.

Reb Aberle, intolerantly confident in his own scholarship even when he was confronted by the greatest Rabbinical authority in Europe, could not be shaken. Without much difficulty, he dragged the weak and accommodating Aaron Hart in his train. (It was whispered by the malicious that this was the result of bribery, to the tune of several thousand Rhenish florins, though in view of the affluent condition of the Rabbi's family this was patent scandal.) The proceedings against Marcus Moses were reopened, being given a new turn by the solemn formalities employed to impress the witnesses and by the presence among the assessors of the saintly Rabbi Abraham Rovigo of Jerusalem, a famous mystic and a father of the Jewish settlement in the Holy Land, who happened to be in London at the time. Instead of being annulled, the excommunication was reaffirmed, a minute now being entered in the congregational registers (in opposition indeed to the views of some of the more reasonable members) to the effect that when the time came proper burial should be refused to the dissident's remains. Marcus Moses was now left with only possible reply. He had the support of eminent Rabbis in Hamburg, Rotterdam, and Amsterdam, who considered that he was being treated unfairly, and that from the point of view of Jewish law his action had not been so reprehensible. He had tried to make his peace with the congregation, but had failed. Doubtless, he hoped for practical sympathy from his friends of the Sephardi community; but, just before the New Year of 1707, that body pointedly passed a new regulation forbidding tudescos so much as to enter their place of worship. Nothing was left to him now but to fend for himself. In defiance of the recent regulation for preserving communal unity, to which he had subscribed with all other members, he opened a synagogue in his own house, within a few hundred yards of Duke's Place. He furnished it with scrolls of the Law and all the necessary appurtenances. On March 25th, 1707/8, he completed the congregational organisation, and at the same time the breach with the parent body, by acquiring a piece of ground in Hoxton on a 150-years' lease, at a rent of 10s. per annum, as the cemetery for use in conjunction with his synagogue. As Rabbi, he installed his family tutor and faithful supporter, Johanan Holleschau.6

We are informed so minutely of this dispute in the community by reason of the spate of publications that it occasioned. Aaron Hart set the ball rolling in a little work, Urim veTumim (a title combining a reference to his name and the Aaronic vestments with a hint of the transparent righteousness of his cause) which appeared in London "under the rule of our great, pious and victorious sovereign, Queen Anne" towards the end of 1706 - the first book entirely in Hebrew to be published in England. Holleschau replied verbosely in his Maaseh Rab ("A Great Occurrence", with perhaps a sarcastic alternative meaning, "The Tale of a Rabbi") which was published at Marcus Moses' expense very shortly after, and was reprinted before long under a different title, perhaps to command a wider public.7 Later, on the basis of these works, the not over-creditable episode was brought to the notice of the Gentile world in Germany by the pastor Adam Andreas Cnollen in his New Things and Old, and by Johann Schudt in his Jüdische Merckwürdigkeiten, where it was used to show the quarrelsome and intolerant nature of the English Jews and the manner in which they preserved internal jurisdiction. Jacob Emden, too, Haham Zevi's son, gave an independent outline of the affair in his autobiography, Et Sopher: and a generation ago on the basis of all these accounts, David Kaufmann wrote an inimitable résumé, to which the present abridgement is much indebted.

It is a somewhat ironic consideration that the Hebrew printing-press in England owes its origin to this quarrel. But these two primitive pamphlets have other points of interest, apart from their somewhat crude format and their frequent misprints. In the Maaseh Rab, Johanan Holleschau makes the following observation, particularly significant if one regards it as the first public utterance of Hebrew scholarship in this country:

But I have no fear; for we, our brethren of the House of Israel, live in the kingdom of England, under rulers and princes and lords who deal with us with kindness and mercy. They may indeed be reckoned as the Pious Ones of the Nations of the world. If a man give them a houseful of gold and silver they would do no injustice or wrongdoing, but act only as is written in their lawbooks.

These publications give us too a few very intimate glimpses into the social life of the founders of the Great Synagogue. There was (as we have seen) a characteristic passion for Jewish education. The community supported at least five Hebrew teachers and two elementary schools (Hedarim). The future mothers of the community were not neglected: Isaac ben Joel, one of the signatories to Anschel Cohen's Bill of Divorce, earned his living by going from house to house to teach young girls. Instruction was, however, imparted through the medium of Judaeo-German, with the result (recognised even then) of a lack of sympathy between the children and their foreign-born tutors, and sometimes a most unsatisfactory outcome. The London Jews were already scattered: we are informed that some lived as much as a mile from the synagogue, so that they were quite likely to remain in ignorance of proclamations made in the traditional fashion from the Reading Desk. The call of the English countryside had already made itself strongly felt: Aaron Hart, when he was trying to arrange a compromise, suggested a meeting with his adversary "on the face of the field, in a place of gardens and orchards": and Holleschau apparently thought that there was a place called "Country", where the wealthy members of the congregation went whenever they could - sometimes even just before the Sabbath - to enjoy the air and drink the waters. This, we learn, made them lax about some ceremonial observances, as for example abstention from milk not produced under Jewish supervision. On this matter, incidentally, Rabbi Hart was very particular, and after he entered into office he saw to it that special arrangements were made for the Jewish milk-supply in the Metropolis. The members of the community clearly indulged in a good deal of card-playing, as well as of quarrelling and (in the case of Marcus Moses at least) a little forthright bad language. They frequented the coffee-houses, where Gentile clients heard all about their differences. Reb Aberle, for example, attracted general attention when on the grounds of ill-health he once partook of refreshment in one of these public resorts on the Fast of Esther, without even troubling to retire into a private box. From the depositions taken in connexion with the case--all in homely Judaeo-German--we even know exactly how the London Ashkenazim of this period spoke.8

The new congregation became known ultimately as the Hambro' Synagogue. This title was long believed to be in commemoration of the founder, generally called among his coreligionists Mordecai Hambro', or Hamburger. This, though, is not correct: for in fact the congregation subsequently acquired other patrons, as we shall see, and was known by their name, that of its founder not even being recorded in its roll of benefactors. It is more probable that it was so entitled since it became the centre of the Hamburg colony in London, who naturally drifted to it, so that it preserved the specifically Hanseatic tradition for a longer period. On the establishment of this secessionist body, the original community became known as the Great Synagogue--a title which is to be found from the middle of the century at the latest.9

We may now return from this stormy digression to the external history of the Great Synagogue.


1 Clearly not his father's brother, as is invariably stated by previous writers, for in that case Moses and Aaron Hart would have belonged likewise to the tribe of Levy--a fact that could not have escaped mention. But in his will, Benjamin Levy speaks of Moses Hart as his brother-in-law (their wives were sisters) and of Aaron Hart as his cousin.

2 The statement in the works of reference that his rabbinate began in 1722 is completely inaccurate. His enemy, Johanan Holleschau (for whom see below) implies in his Maaseh Rab that Aaron Hart did not arrive in England until 1703/4, and that he had previously been engaged in business activities--not always with fortunate results. There may be some truth in this: he or a namesake certainly attended the Leipzig Fair in 1713. In 1704, Benjamin Levy had left "my cousin, Rabbi Fivish" [i.e. Phoebus], £12 a year for three years.

3 Under the terms of Benjamin Levy's will, Marcus Moses was to transmit one of his benefactions to Hamburg.

4 The dispute between the two and R. Judah Leib Cohen may possibly belong to this period, during a return visit of the latter's to London.

5 There is some evidence that the matter led to judicial proceedings in the secular courts. In his accounts for 1706-8, Reb Aberle records various payments (one of £5 7s., 6d.) for a law-suit with "Berle"--perhaps Berl Cohen, brother of the Anschel Cohen whose domestic troubles began the dispute.

6 It seems that legal opinion was sought in connexion with this dispute. In the Archives of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue there is an opinion given to the Elders in June 1708 by Edward Hertley on the legality of excommunication and of refusal of burial; and something similar seems to be referred to in a cryptic note on the reverse of the title-page of Holleschau's pamphlet, indicating that search had been made in the records for a precedent to these events.

7 A close examination of these two works has enabled me to fix their dates more precisely. The Urim veTumim was produced in Heshvan 5467--i.e. at the end of 1706, not in 1707: and it is mentioned in Holleschau's work, both editions of which are therefore posterior to it. The first of these (produced before Marcus Moses opened his own synagogue) has no place of printing, and may be a London production, but it is more likely to be from Amsterdam: as is certainly the case with the second, dated Rosh Hodesh Ellul 5467 (=August 1707). This bears the title Teshuboth haGeonin, certain Rabbinical opinions on the pronunciation of Hebrew, etc., which the author had appended to the first edition, here figuring ostensibly as the main subject matter.

8 These depositions are eleven in number. They are from Jacob Heilbuth, Aaron the Scribe, the communal Magnate Juzpa Luza (who tried to excuse himself on the ground that he was a grosser shakchan), Benjamin ben Jacob, the scholarly Nathan son of the Parnas Moses Abraham, Mordecai ben Isaac, Bunem Levi the teacher, his employer Joseph Levy, the Beadle (whose name is not given), the teacher Mordecai ben Zadok, and Solomon Zalman ben Raphael. (The last-named, who was Marcus Moses' neighbour in Synagogue, is probably identical with the author and publisher Solomon Zalman ben Moses Raphael London, of Nowogródek, subsequently bookseller at Frankfort-on-Main, whose daughter made herself known in due course as a Judaeo-German poetess: he was perhaps son of the Rabbi Raphael b. Solomon Zalman who had died in London in 1678.)

9 It may be mentioned at this point that the traditional Hebrew equivalent is Beth haKenessseth haGedolah, the feminine adjective agreeing with the nearest word and not (as grammarians would prefer) with the first.

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