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History of the Great Synagogue

Chapter VII


Aaron Hart, Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, 1706-1756 (from a mezzotint)


ALL this time, Aaron Hart had remained Rabbi of the congregation. His appearance is familiar from the superb engraving executed in 1751, when he was in his eighty-second year, by James McArdell, after the painting by Dandridge now preserved in the Great Synagogue vestry-room. He is an impressive figure of a man, with his careful dress, his benign face, his flowing white beard, his finely-modelled features. Under his elbow is a leather-bound Hebrew folio, and in his hand a piece of paper apparently marked Get--a reminiscence perhaps of the famous controversy on the Bill of Divorce many years before. Except during this quarrelsome interlude, he was rather a retiring figure, and few records exist whereby his personality may be recovered. He seems however to have been fairly well abreast of current theological writings in English, if we may trust Edward Goldney's conversionist work, A Friendly Epistle to the Jews, published in 1760, which contains a vivid pen-picture. The writer, wishing to know something about contemporary Jewish beliefs, was advised to wait upon "Mr. Aaron Hart (who was then living) an eminent and very aged High Priest, who as they said, his life and conversation was unblemishable". Providing himself with a letter of introduction, accordingly, Goldney waited on the old man (he was upwards of eighty) and tried to engage him in controversy, asking him his grounds for refusing to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. The Rabbi refused to be drawn into an argument which could hardly have any profitable or pleasant outcome. "The English Jews," he observed, "are not fond of gaining proselytes." For his part, his father, grandfather and greatgrandfather had been Jews, and he saw no reason for abandoning their manner of belief. Goldney, who had come prepared for something different, lost his temper. He was surprised, he said, to receive such a poor, low, mean answer From a gentleman of his years and high station in the Synagogue: and he pressed on his conversionist arguments, with more heat than good taste. The Rabbi replied by handing him an English rationalistic work published some time before - Woolston's Discourses on the Miracles - and turning to the middle of it asked him to read a few pages. Nothing more was needed. Goldney left him, adequately answered, but not a little indignant.

Rabbi Hart's functions were carefully laid down in the Takkanoth. He regularly preached twice yearly, on the Sabbaths before the Passover and the Day of Atonement, after the morning service; on these occasions, he had a prescriptive right to be "called up" to the Reading of the Law, but not on other days when he chose to deliver a discourse. He was expected to read the service for Rain on Shemini Atsereth and for Dew on the first day of Passover, as well as the Concluding Service on the Day of Atonement. Besides his salary, the congregation paid the rent of his house, which came, at the outset, to £23 a year. In his later years, it is to be imagined that his wealthy brother relieved him of all financial care.

From the literary point of view, the Rabbi was the reverse of productive. After his polemical publication of 1706, he produced no further books, and in his portrait it is on his father-in-law's magnum opus, Beth Shemuel (which at one time he had intended to edit), that his elbow is resting. There is extant in fact only one inconsiderable relic of his intellectual activity in his later years. It was at the time an open question whether turbot was permissible for food in accordance with Mosaic law: and when a delegation of Venetian Rabbis came to England in 1741 to conduct certain negotiations with the Spanish and Portuguese community, the opportunity was taken to ask them what was the Italian tradition in this matter. There is preserved a letter of theirs indicating that, on the lagoons, the fish in question was indubitably regarded as permissible for Jewish food, with a covering note to the Rabbi of Amsterdam from "Monsr Aaron Hart, Rabin, London". If there is any other specimen of his handwriting extant (except perhaps as signatory to a marriage contract), it is not known to the present writer.1

After the Rabbi, in order both of importance and of emoluments, came the Reader (Hazan). As we have seen, at the time of the dedication of the Synagogue in 1722, this dignity was filled by Jehiel Michael ben R. Moses Joseph; just before, we find payments recorded to Joseph the Hazan and Michael the Bass-singer." The other assistant at this time, who completed the choral organisation2, was Samuel Hirsch of Schwersee, the Meshorrer. The new Takkanoth of 1722 forbade the employment of such assistants by the Hazan, on the ground that it was an abuse of the patience of the community; this prohibition did not, however, last for long. In 1729(?) Michael the Meshorrer was promoted to be Hazan, for an initial period of three years, at a salary of £60 per annum, but this relatively high rate of payment was only temporary. In 1741/2 the Hazan was also Michael (perhaps Michael the Bass-singer already recorded) who was assisted on the High Holydays by a certain Leib; the other remained in office as Assistant Hazan, his salary being raised in 1751 by £6, to £30.

Isaac Polack, Hazan of the Great Synagogue, 1746-1802 (from a mezzotint)

In 1744, there appears on the scene the first of the Readers of the Great Synagogue who is today more than a mere name - one of the most distinguished indeed of all those who have occupied the office. This was the bahur Isaac Elias [i.e. Isaac, son of Elias: this method of nomenclature, common on the Continent at the period, should not be forgotten] Polack, of Hamburg, who was appointed to office in that year for an initial five years at an annual salary of £30. He is referred to in 1795 as "the venerable", and so was born before 1725, but he must have been a very young man (as well as a bachelor) when he first became associated with the congregation. He overlapped for about a decade with Rabbi Aaron Hart; their combined periods of office covered an unbroken stretch of approximately one hundred years! In 1748, he had an increase in salary of £10 a year, bringing it to £40, and the same again twelve months later. Ultimately, he received £70 a year, together with ten guineas for clothes. More will be said about him later on.3 Among the Reader's duties was the examination of the Scroll of the Law every week to make sure that it was fit for public worship; if he was negligent and an error was discovered during the public reading, he was fined half a crown. It may be mentioned at this point that even in the middle of the eighteenth century the Congregation endeavoured to introduce decorum into the service of the Synagogue by insisting that the officiant should wear canonicals; and in 1755 it was decided that the Hazan should not be allowed to conduct service without his "mantle". Visiting Hazanim diversified the proceedings from time to time, but only if the full governing body approved: should the Gabbaim make such arrangements on their own authority, each was liable to a fine of five guineas--a figure which shows how heinous the offence was considered.

It was something of a tradition in Jewish communities of the past that when possible appointments were allowed to remain in the same family. This was especially the case in connexion with the office of Secretary, in which a son could be initiated while assisting his father, so that when the latter retired he became the obvious candidate for the succession. In some of the great continental communities, the office of secretary thus remained in a single family for centuries (as was the case with, for instance, the Cases family in Mantua, who provided successive incumbents from the seventeenth century down to our own day). The same tendency manifested itself in England. The first person whom we know to have fulfilled these functions was Meir Lefman Polack, who was appointed Assistant Scribe to the Congregation in 1738 at a salary of £5 per annum, and in 1741 also Collector for another £5. Later he took over full secretarial functions, and in 1752 signed a communication in English to the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue which will be spoken of in the next chapter; in 1748, his salary was raised to £15 per annum, and in 1753 to £20. By now his once firm handwriting was that of an ailing old man; and in 1756, he was succeeded by his son Israel, and the latter in turn on his death in 1771 by his brother Eleazar Lipman or Lefman Polack (the two were admitted members of the Congregation in 1769/70) at a yearly salary of £15.4

The communal dignitaries included also the Physician, with his salary of £30 per annum, who sat with the Wardens and had a vote on important occasions, and whose duty it was to look after the poor. The earliest functionary of whom we have knowledge who served in the Great Synagogue in this capacity was Meyer Löw Schomberg, born at Fetzburg in Germany in 1690, who graduated at Giessen in 1710 and afterwards removed to London, where he was admitted a licenciate of the Royal College of Physicians in 1722. At this time, he was so reduced in circumstances that the College accepted his bond for future payment of his admission fees. For some time he was the physician to the Great Synagogue: and, on the basis of the connexions with wealthy business men which he thus acquired, he became one of the best-known medical practitioners in the City, being reputed to earn 4,000 guineas a year. In 1746 he wrote as a sort of personal apologia a semi-ethical work which he entitled Emunath Omen (a title which may perhaps be translated as "The Faith of a Professional Man"). In this, he soundly trounced his coreligionists and former patrons. They broke the Ten Commandments. Their God was Mammon. If they heard on Sabbath that a ship was sunk, they ran to 'Change to learn whether India and South Sea Stock had gone up or down, and they did not scruple to garnish a bankrupt's banking-account on the sacred day. They ate forbidden food, and married Gentiles in Church, despising Jewish girls because their position or family was not good enough for them. As for himself, they called him a bad Jew because he carried a sword and rode in his coach on Saturdays when he went to visit his patients. But this was all pretext: in fact, he could not practise among Jews, he sneered, because Jews would not pay Jewish doctors a living wage, though they would gladly heap gold upon a non-Jewish physician.

The physician's insincerity was demonstrated by the history of his own family, who with one accord abandoned the Jewish faith (in certain cases at least before the criticisms quoted above had been penned) and, their pathway through life thus smoothed, carved out strikingly successful careers. Isaac, who graduated at Cambridge in 1750, after undergoing baptism, became Fellow and Censor of the College of Physicians, and attended Garrick in his last illness. His brother, Ralph, was well known in letters, publishing a number of dramatic and other works (most of them extremely bad). Henry became a soldier, and rose to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. Alexander, the youngest, entered the navy, was in command of the naval detachment which covered General Wolfe's landing at Quebec, and was subsequently knighted: he was father of Admiral Sir Alexander Schomberg (1774-1850) the distinguished naval writer, and ancestor of a notable naval clan.

Of the communal physicians immediately after Schomberg, we know very little; and even their names can be recovered only with difficulty. It is possible that Dr. Bass, "a noted Jew physician", who died in St. Mary Axe in 1731, and the Londoner "Dr. Jeremias", active at Prague in the middle of the century, had been in the employment of the Great Synagogue, but there is no definite evidence to this effect; the same applies to Behr the Physician, a member of the community about this time. In 1758, "Herz Doctor" was formally appointed to attend on the congregational poor at a salary of £10 per annum (increased in 1766 to £20). Possibly he is identical with Hart Wessels, M.D., buried in the Alderney Road cemetery in 17675 : who doubtless collaborated on occasion with Nathan Mitchell, M.D., who was laid to rest there in 1785. Ultimately, the physician drew a salary of £40 per annum - £20 from the Charity Fund and £20 from the Society for Visiting the Sick. From this amount, £15 was deducted to pay the apothecary, who received an additional £5 from the Congregation, making £20 in all. From 1751 onwards, the congregational apothecary was. Yossel ben Hertz "Doctor" (presumably Hart Wessel's son), whose appointment was constantly renewed year after year: he was followed, in 1767, by a member of the Sephardi community named Rodrigues.

Of the subordinate communal officials we know still less. As Scribe, for writing Scrolls of the Law and important documents (his duties and emoluments were carefully stipulated in the regulations of 1722), Rabbi Aaron Hart imported his brother-in-law, Leib Aryeh, a son of the author of the Beth Shemuel, who died in 1751; his tombstone in the Alderney Road ground is still legible. The Gentleman's Magazine informs us in 1776 of the death of one of his successors in office--Levy Marks, aged 96, Principal Scribe to the Jew's Synagogue. (The phraseology suggests that there were several who followed the profession.) Cases of Jewish longevity, indeed, often engaged the attention of the gentlemen of the Press. To cite some instances which must have been familiar to members of the Great Synagogue, we read in 1765 how Rabbi Shamey, a fine old Polander, aged 102, with a nineteen-inch beard, attended the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles. More frequently, we are told of such prodigies only after they had passed from earth, as in the case of Solomon Raphael Levy of St. Giles', who died in 1771 aged 108, or Isaac Benjamin, "the oldest Jew in England", who followed suit in 1775 in his 109th year, leaving twelve sons resident in the country. In January 1786, there died in Moorfields David Levi Solomons, "a Jewish Rabbi", aged 100; in 1799, there passed away in his 108th year Nathan Moses "the oldest member of the Dutch Jews' Synagogue", who, like the foregoing, may have recalled the original place of worship in Broad Court. Such longevity was sometimes found, though exceptionally, among the wealthy, as in the case of Maria Anna Moses, "a rich Jewess", of Whitechapel, who on her death in 1785, in her hundredth year, left £10,000 to be divided among the poor of her own persuasion.

Another official who had to be appointed by the Community was the Constable, as was customary in the Aldgate Ward. In 1766, the duties were filled by Lyon Toby, apparently a Sephardi; but later on there were two, one Sephardi and one Ashkenazi--the latter probably nominated by the Great Synagogue.

The following provisional list of communal employees of the first half of the eighteenth century, whose names figure in the accounts and elsewhere, may be set down at this point:

Rabbis :

Judah Loeb ben Anschel Cohen (c. 1691-1700); Aaron the Scribe of Dublin (c. 1700-1704); Aaron Hart (c. 1704-1756)

Readers :

Judah Leib ben Moses of Lissa (?1690-1706); (Menahem) Mendel (?1706- ); Joseph ( --I722); Jehiel Michael ben Moses Joseph (1722-1750?); Samuel Hirsch of Schwersee, formerly Meshorrer (1730-1741?); Michael (1741- ); Isaac Polack (1746-1802). Assistants: Michael Bass (1722-1743); Samuel Meshorrer (later Hazan); Leib Shamash (1752- ); Jossele b. Aberle Melamed (1761-- ); Abraham Bass (1759); Abraham "Singer" of Prosnitz, father of John Braham (1767-1779).


Meir ben Mordecai (1707: assisted by his son Menahem); Samuel ben Judah Leib (1722); Leib [Cohen] (£17 10s.--£20: 1739-42) with Meir (£7 16s.); Jacob (£2 8s., presumably on pension), and the woman-beadle Golde (£7); Moses Joseph Jossel (1766); Wolf, under-Shamash (1739-1770); Jacob ben Levi(1770-- )


R. Aaron of Dublin (c. 1700); R. Abba; R. Judah (1722); R. Jacob; Leib Aryeh ben Samuel (d. 1751); Levi [Leib] Marks (d. 1776).


1 It may be mentioned that there were at least four other Aaron Harts who were contemporary with the Rabbi. One, a teacher of dancing and deportment, is mentioned in The Connoisseur of November 6th, 1755; another, a sailor aboard the privateer Caxtor, died at sea on February 28th, 1759; another was Commissary Officer with the British forces at the time of the conquest of Canada (see above, page 65); and a fourth, a merchant with American connexions, died on November 21st, 1762, leaving in his will instructions that "I desire to be buried in Linnen and to have a Horse, and four mourning coaches and six others... And I desire and order that 10 persons may come to read, every morning and evening for one month after my decease, for which my executors shall give them 90 shillings each."

2 For this choral system see below, p. 143.

3 The Rev. M. Rosenbaum suggests that he was a nephew of Reb Aberle, whose wife was Esther, daughter of Isaac Polack (d. Hamburg, 1713), and son of the Elias Isaac Polack who received a pass to go abroad in 1692 and 1693.

4 David Tevele Schiff, the later Chief Rabbi, had an uncle named Lefman Polack: Meir Lefman Polack may therefore have been his cousin.

5 Dr. Herz's successor, appointed this same year, was Abraham van Oven, for whom see below, pp. 200-1.


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