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History of the Great Synagogue

Chapter III



OF the structure of the synagogue and its history in the first years of its existence nothing whatever has hitherto been known. It is probable at that the outset there was no synagogue building, but only a house or part of a house adapted to conform to the very simple requirements of Jewish worship. Possibly, there is a reference to it in the 1720 edition of Stowe's Survey of London, edited by Strype (volume i, p. 81) where reference is made to "Duke's Place, which is very large. and for the generality taken up by the Jews... and in this part was the Jew's Synagogue, a good large upper room." It is not out of the question, in view of the use of the past tense, that this actually refers to the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, not long since reconstructed, which was in the Duke's Place area. If, however, we take this topographical reference literally, we may apply to the Great Synagogue also an uncomplimentary reference in the popular anti-Semitic tract, An Historical and Law Treatise against the Jews and Judaism in England, showing that by the Established Laws of the Land, no Jew has any Right to live in England (first published in 1703). Here we read:

For, with submission, it is but a very slender sign of expelling Immorality and Prophaneness, and a less Sign of Reformation or Religion, to see a Synagogue erecting in Duke's Place within the Heart of the Great City of London, for Jewish Rabies, and such like, to pour out their Blasphemies.

Once again, the reference is very probably to the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, round the corner in Bevis Marks. This however had been dedicated in the autumn of 1701, and to refer to it as being still under construction in 1703 shows, to say the least, a certain lack of accuracy. If we apply the two passages literally, to the Ashkenazi synagogue situated in Duke's Place itself, we must conclude that, some twelve or thirteen years after its establishment, it was reconstructed so drastically that public attention was attracted; and that it occupied henceforth a large upper room, apparently on the present site in the corner of the great square.

This paragraph, with what may appear to some its some-what laboured reasoning, was already written when, in the course of a re-examination of the oldest account-book of the Synagogue, documentary confirmation of the hypothesis was found. In 1712, the Treasurer was one Ze'eb ben Jacob, perhaps identical with the Mr. John Jacobs whom we encounter in secular records. When his books were inspected at the end of his term of office, the audit included also his outstanding accounts (apparently for a sum of 49 2s. 10d.) in connexion with works at the Synagogue ten years before, in 1702, when he had been in charge of the special building-fund. (The dedication-ceremony seems to have been performed in the week when the first portion of the Book of Leviticus was read - i.e. in the month of March.) It is presumably to this rebuilding that the pamphlet of 1703 refers. It appears that the conventicle in which the congregation worshipped in its early days was a more solid construction than has hitherto been imagined, for the 49 2s. 10d.) presumably refers to the surplus only. It is from such casual and indirect allusions that the history of the Great Synagogue in its early years has to be retrieved.

Further scrutiny of the accounts provides some extremely slender additional indications. Reb Aberle, or Abraham London (of whom more below) is recorded to have paid Isaac Nunes the sum of £28 13s. 4d. on behalf of the congregation for the hire of the synagogue for a year and a half from September 1706 to March 1708. One is perhaps justified in deducing that at this period worship was conducted in "a good large upper room" adapted for the purpose in 1702 in a house rented from this member of the Sephardi community. He is perhaps to be identified (if the retransliteration from the Hebrew is correct) with Isaac Israel Nunes, alias Isaac Alvarez, a prominent member of the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue, or (more probably) with Isaac Fernandes Nunes, a close friend of Benjamin Levy's. If my conjectures are correct, this house was situated in the southeast corner of the Square.1

The accounts provide a few pieces of additional information regarding this period. It was not long before the newly-established community began to indulge on a not inconsiderable scale in the Jewish privilege of charity, and delegates from abroad seldom appealed to it in vain. It is pleasant to be able to record that, as though by way of expressing gratitude to the senior London community for past favours, one of the earliest donations on record, probably for 1708, is a payment for £5 for the Meshullach or Messenger of the Sephardi community of Smyrna, devastated at about this period by one of its recurrent fires. At about the same time, a levy for the emissaries of Lublin on behalf of Polish Jewry brought in £5 7s. 6d. (the Sephardim had collected £276 9s.). There was a law-suit with one member, and payments were made to release debtors from prison. One sees an echo of a petty annoyance in payment to the parish of £5 on behalf of the Rabbi, as the fine to save him from the indignity of having to perform the functions of scavenger, to which office he had been elected. Other than details of expenditure, frequently for charity, we know nothing. The cemetery gives us no assistance in our enquiry, for the London atmosphere has dealt ruthlessly with the epitaphs of this period. Indeed, the earliest decipherable tombstone in the old burial-ground marks the last resting-place, not of an Ashkenazi, but of a Sephardi. Close to the wall that divides the two cemeteries is an altar-stone, in good preservation, similar to those in the other ground, with a sonorous epitaph in Spanish as well as Hebrew. This remains as a perpetual memento of the stormy days in the history of the Spanish and Portuguese community in London shortly after the construction of the Bevis Marks synagogue, when Haham David Nieto, newly arrived from Leghorn, was suspected of having given utterance to heretical opinions in one of his sermons, and was vigorously assailed by some punctilious members of his congregation. There were petitions and counter-petitions, writings and counterwritings; and the authors of an anonymous "libel" upon Nieto were barred from the synagogue. In 1705, in the middle of all this, one of them, Joseph Elijah Cohen d'Azevedo, died--on the worst terms with his community and having dared, if not incurred, the penalty of Herem (excommunication). Whether his family could not, or would not, inter his body in the House of Life belonging to his own congregation is not quite clear (the most probable hypothesis is that they would not submit to the indignity of having him buried "behind the boards"). In any case, he was in fact laid to rest just beyond the dividing wall, among the Ashkenazim, who did not scruple to extend him this last hospitality.

Let us attempt, from the extremely slender materials at our disposal, to reconstruct the composition of the newly-formed community. The majority of the members probably hailed from the flourishing port of Hamburg, and continued to maintain the closest relations with their kinsmen in that city - to a considerable extent those affluent, pious, quarrelsome gem-merchants, who are depicted for all time in the Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln and Rabbi Jacob Emden. (That this was the parent-community of the London settlement is proved by the fact that the rite followed in the Synagogue, from earliest times, was stipulated to he that of Poland and North Germany, as observed in Hamburg.) There was a smaller contingent from Amsterdam, with a sprinkling from other German cities and even from as far afield as Poland, During the first years of its existence, the outstanding member of the community was of course Benjamin Levy. In 1684 he had married for the second time, the bride on this occasion being Hendele (Hitchele), daughter of Samuel Heilbuth. The ceremony took place, naturally, under the auspices of the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue, the officiant being Haham Solomon Ayllon. Later on, in 1699, the marriage contract having been lost, a new one was drawn up and registered. The couple appear to have removed to a new house in Southwark (Fenchurch) Street. Here Hendele presented her husband in the course of the next few years with two children - a daughter, Abigail (called Golly), and a son, Elias. In the spring of 1704, the lady died, and was buried in the cemetery which her husband had acquired. He did not survive this second bereavement long. That same year he retired from the Royal Exchange, being succeeded as one of the twelve "Jew Brokers" by Aaron Alvares: and, probably in the month of June, he himself passed away.2 He had formerly desired to be buried near his children in the Beth Hayim of the Spanish and Portuguese community. But, since his second wife had been laid to rest among her own kinsfolk, he left instructions that he should be interred at her side, in the plot which he had himself purchased. No doubt an impressive monument was raised over the grave: but all trace of it has since disappeared, and the great community of which he was in a sense the founder is ignorant even of the precise spot in which he was laid to rest. It is to be assumed, however, that it is marked by one of the row of massive altar-stones in the middle of the ground, the inscriptions on which are no longer legible.

In his will, the dead magnate expressed the wish that a silver lamp should be given to the "Dutch" (i.e. "deutsch", that is to say Ashkenazi) synagogue, to be kept burning for a year after his decease with "oyle" fetched out of his own house. After the expiration of twelve months, the lamp was to go to the use of the synagogue; but, if a new place of worship were built and the lamp disposed of, something else should be purchased to perpetuate his memory. The new Synagogue was duly built nearly twenty years later, as we shall see, and the lamp presumably disposed of. But it has not been replaced, and there is now no tangible reminder of any sort to remind the congregants that Benjamin Levy lived, and deserved well of the body to which they belong.

The Synagogue site, showing ruins of the Priory of the Holy Trinity (from an engraving)

The will itself was a curious, involved document, consisting of a formal instrument in English and a supplementary one in Hebrew (or perhaps Yiddish) comprising certain more intimate details: this arrangement being rendered necessary by the fact that "we have heere but a small congregation that we cannot have our laws executed so well here as in other places, so I am obliged by the English law to amend it because it is stronger and of more force". Charitable bequests were noteworthy for their range rather than for individual magnitude. The poor of the Sephardi as well as the Ashkenazi congregation of London, the famous Klaus or Talmudical College of Hamburg, the Christian paupers of the parish, the Portuguese Orphan Society, dowerless Jewish brides, and other similar charitable causes all benefited. For twelve years, annual distributions were to be made to poor Jews, Ashkenazi and Sephardi--half on Passover to buy flour and half on the anniversary of the testator's death to buy coals, at the discretion of the "Clerk of the Synagogue", who would know who stood in greatest need. There were bequests to scholars (including Haham David Nieto), relatives and others. There were marriage portions for needy kinswomen, including two of his own unmarried sisters, and a trifle for the daughter of the former Rabbi Judah Loeb Cohen ("Hachachem Hashalom Morenu Rabbi Libe"). His mother-in-law was treated generously. His daughter Abigail was to have a necklace consisting of thirty-two diamond roses, and other jewellery, as well as his fine striking watch. Menahem, his son by his first marriage, received his mother's ear-rings and silver enamelled box, to be given to his bride, as well as various rings and his father's gold watch for himself. The library was divided, the Dutch (i.e. non-Hebrew) books going to Golly, and the Hebrew books, including a Scroll of the Law, to the sons. The balance of the estate was to be divided in equal among the children, who were expressly enjoined to maintain their membership of both the London synagogues with which their father had been associated.3

The admixture in the will of ethical counsel and practical dispositions was characteristic but curious. "I earnestly desire my executors and my mother-in-law to use their utmost endeavour so that my children may be educated in the fear of God and in a strict religious and virtuous life in the Jewish religion. And I strictly charge and require all my said three children on my Blessing and as they value the Blessing of Almighty God and by all that is good that they have a great regard to the advice of my Executors and to their nearest relations especially in their marriages and that they always marry in the race of the Dutch Jews in which they are borne and that they be mutually helpful to each other according to their power and religiously observe and keep the law of God according to the Jewish religion all the days of their lives and have a special regard in all they do to the honour of their family. And forasmuch as I think it for the interest of my family to enlarge their relations as much as may be by their marriage it is my earnest desire that my daughter Golly shall not marry to the first degree of kindred of such persons as my son Menahem shall marry.... The Almighty God has given me sufficient to leave my children pretty good portions and you my children shall at all times consider your poor friends and help them in what you can as well as your Mother has done the same; and I beg of my beloved children that they agree together and everyone be careful and helpful to each other. Then I do not question but that Almighty God will help you and give His blessing and peace."

Second in wealth, though not in activity, to Benjamin Levy was Abraham (Naphtali Hertz) Franks, who had been with him one of the twelve original Jew Brokers admitted in 1697 and the only other Ashkenazi: we will have to revert to him and his family again, for they took a particularly active part in the affairs of the congregation throughout the eighteenth century. Mention has already been made of another prominent family hailing from Hamburg--that headed by Samuel Heilbuth, jeweller, of St. James's, Duke's Place. He had been endenizened in 1675, and was formerly a Yahid of the Spanish and Portuguese congregation, with which he maintained his association even after the Ashkenazi synagogue had been founded: as we have just seen, his daughter Hitchele was Benjamin Levy's second wife. Of Samuel Heilbuth's four sons, the eldest was Philip, who later on, as a "broken merchant", claimed to have first projected the maritime insurance corporation which was the nucleus of Lloyds: while Isaac (whom we find nominated as a Collector for the Poor for the parish of St. Katherine Creechurch in 1715, and engaging in litigation with one Asher Levy in 1724 over a Bill of Exchange endorsed by John Jacobs) was a familiar figure in the City. Samuel Heilbuth's brother, Jacob, enjoyed a scholarly reputation, and was one of the original members of the Burial Society in 1695/6.

Another noteworthy family was that of Mears, probably of Dutch origin. Sampson Mears was an importer and ship-owner, whom we meet later on as a dockyard superintendent. His kinsman, Jacob, was subsequently at the head of a syndicate of English merchants and sea-captains who approached the King of Prussia with an East African colonisation scheme, which, had it been carried out, might have changed the face of history. The ancient community of Frankfort-on-Main sent over Moses and Meir Waage, members of a family which derived its name from the Sign of the Golden Scales, who in England anglicised their name to Wagg; it is said that the latter was able to give Sir Robert Walpole effective assistance at the time of the South Sea Bubble, and was rewarded by a post in the American colonies worth £100 per annum. We see from these details that the group of Ashkenazi Jews who founded the Great Synagogue were not resourceless petty traders of no family. They were in many cases the children of houses which had made their name known in Jewish history, engaging in activities which were of some importance in the world of affairs.

The list of founders of the Burial Society in 1695/6 provides us with some other interesting names. Baruch Benedict ben Solomon Bloch, to be Treasurer of the Congregation in 1708, etc., is obviously to be identified with Mr. Benedict Solomon, of the parish of St. Katherine Coleman, who in 1723/4 submitted to a fine when selected as Churchwarden - as we have seen, a mild annoyance resorted to by the authorities for the express purpose of raising revenue. Other members (besides one or two to whom we shall have occasion to revert later on) were R. Jacob ben Judah of Amsterdam (perhaps to be identified with Mr. Jacob Levy of the parish of St. Katherine Coleman, as that surname was often applied to a person whose father was called Loeb or Leib, i.e. Judah) R. Judah Leib ben Moses of Lublin, Samuel ben Judah Segal (or Levy), Sabbatai ben David, and Isaac Brisker (i.e. of Brest-Litovsk). Another person who emerges from the Hebrew records is the wealthy Hamburg jeweller, Joseph Levy, who advanced £30,000 to Prince Eugène when he came to England to visit Queen Anne in 1712. He was one of the group of Jewish merchants who were asserted to be concerned in the export of silver in 1690, as were also Solomon Levy (Benjamin's brother) and Mordecai Isaac. A scholar and patron of learning, Joseph had a resident tutor in his house to teach his children, the erudite R. Simcha Bunem Levy of Pintschow.

Page from oldest ledger, with accounts for 1708-1710

The Assessment Records of the City parishes in 1695 give us several other names, which indicate something of the numerical importance of the community. In the parish of St. James's, Duke's Place, alone we find Sampson Marks, Michael Boss, Emanuel Isaac, Mordecai Abraham, -- Meers, -- Prague (perhaps identical with the David or Wolff Prager of early records), -- Polander, -- Lyon, -- Jacobs, -- Hollander, and Samuel Levy (obviously the same as Samuel Segal). The heart of the settlement seems to have been in Rose Alley (now known as Mitre Street, Aldgate), where there were living Alexander Marcus, Zachariah Marks, Solomon Marks, Aaron Moses, -- Polander, -- Jacobs, and -- Hollander. Another member of the community was Moses Israel (or Azriel) Levy, ancestor of a notable American clan : a silver ewer presented by him to his bride, Sarah, on the occasion of their marriage in 1695, is one of the earliest Anglo-Jewish specimens of the sort on record. The brothers Henry and Behrend Lehmann of Halberstadt are apocryphally said to have journeyed to London in 1694 in connexion with the establishment of the Bank of England. (On the way, it is told, they had a narrow escape from drowning, and as a thank-offering Behrend subsidised the publication of a new edition of the Talmud, as the London Rabbi advised him.) For the sake of completeness, we may call attention also to Levine Weisweiler, Joseph Symonds, Jacob Michael, Heschell Abrahams, Isaac Barents, Emanuel Simons, Moses Marcus, Elias Isaac Polack, and others who received passes to travel to the Continent between 1689 and 1696.

We have left the most prominent of all to the last. This was the learned, restless, overbearing R. Abraham, who had resided so long in London that he was often called Reb Aberle London, though sometimes from his place of origin Reb Aberle Hamburger. The son of the Hamburg Parnas R. Moses Nathan, or Norden, famous in that community in his day, he had received a thorough Talmudic education and was given the Rabbinical diploma: though his material circumstances were so good that it was unnecessary for him to make use of it except (it must be feared) when he wanted to make himself a nuisance to others. He was a merchant on a large scale, in partnership with Sampson Mears, and their ships went as far afield as the West Indies. But his main interest was in his dealings in precious stones. In Hamburg, he was on friendly terms with the famous Haham Zevi Ashkenazi, the greatest Rabbinical authority of the day (to whom, as "Rabbi Harsh of Hamburg ", Benjamin Levy had left a legacy). Indeed, when in 1705 the Spanish and Portuguese community in London was racked by the problem of the attack on their Rabbi's orthodoxy, to which reference has been made above, it was through Reb Aberle's mediation that: it was submitted to Haham Zevi for his opinion. There will be a good deal to say later on regarding this stormy petrel of London Jewry. It is enough to state at this stage in our narrative that, though he ultimately retired to the Continent, his descendants long continued to play a prominent role in England. David Tevele Schiff, Chief Rabbi from 1765 to 1792, was the son of his daughter Roesche, who had married Solomon Schiff of Frankfort: while his son Kalman was father-in-law of Moses Abrahams, of Poole in Dorset, and thus ancestor of Viscount Samuel, first British High Commissioner for Palestine.

Unlike the majority of the group, the Hazan or Reader of the community in 1695/6 (the earliest of its officials whose name is on record) did not come from Germany, but from Poland. This was the scholarly Rabbi Judah Leib ben Moses of Lissa, formerly of Wesel. He died, apparently, some ten years later (the accounts for 1706-8 register a payment of £5 to the apothecary for the late R. Judah, the Hazan).4 He left a young son, Jacob, at that time only nine years old. The boy, who took the name of Jacob London, became quite a noteworthy figure in Hebrew letters. He lived for some time in Amsterdam, Hamburg and Frankfort, returned to Lissa, and later travelled through Italy, where the numerous unintelligible papers in a strange tongue which were found on him once led to his arrest as a spy. He was the author of a well-known ethical work in Hebrew, The Contending of the King of the South with the King of the North (Amsterdam, 1737) as well as of some other books and various hymns. R. Judah's immediate successor as Reader was probably R. Mendel the Hazan, who was in office in 1708 at a salary of £12 2s. 7d. per annum; the latter's coadjutor as Beadle was a certain Meir ben Mordecai Levi, assisted sometimes by his son Menahem.

The first Rabbi of the community whose name has been preserved is Judah Leib ben Ephraim Anschel Cohen, of Hamburg--an undistinguished scholar, who found himself in constant friction with Abraham Aberle. The relations between the two men became worse and worse. One day, it was noticed in the synagogue that the tallith which the Rabbi was wearing for prayer was mutilated and unfit for use - an unpleasant reflection on a person who was supposed to set an example to the community in matters of ritual observance. Subsequently, the reason was found to be that an unscrupulous hand had deliberately cut off one of the fringes after the daily routine inspection.5 Worst of all, men whispered that the person responsible for the outrage had been Meir Levi, the Beadle, acting under the instructions of Reb Aberle himself. Rabbi Judah was fortunate to find another appointment safe from this relentless persecutor at Rotterdam, where a vacancy happened to occur just at this time.6 By the spring of 1700 he had entered into discharge of his functions in his new home. For reasons which will be gone into later on, no immediate steps were taken to fill the Rabbinate by a person of equal standing. Instead, the community availed itself temporarily of the services of a certain Rabbi Aaron ben Moses the Scribe, formerly of Dublin, where a diminutive Jewish congregation existed at this time. We may identify him with Aaron Moses, who was living in 1695 in Rose Alley (Mitre Street), in the immediate proximity of Duke's Place, with Rose his wife and their daughter Leah. He was a native of Nowogródek, in Poland, and was a skilled scribe, having practised that art under the supervision of no less an authority than Rabbi David haLevi, author of the Ture Zahab; and it was presumably in this capacity that he had first come to England. A collection of his letters that has been preserved enables us to reconstruct something of his personality and activities. He subsequently lived in Shoemaker's Row, Duke's Place: he eked out his income by acting in traditional style as marriage broker: he made some superb copies of Hebrew codices, of little importance in themselves, for Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford (there are specimens both in the British Museum and in the Cambridge University Library). But he was hardly of the calibre to serve as spiritual and intellectual leader of the London community, and in point of fact his office was only nominal and of short duration. He nevertheless fully deserves the few lines that have been devoted to him here: for his name is the first to figure in the distinguished roll of spiritual heads of the Great Synagogue and Chief Rabbis of England, recited by that congregation and by many other Anglo-Jewish communities on the solemn occasions of the Jewish year.7


1 Comparison with the data given below, pp. 47-8 and 51, makes it apparent either the site was afterwards extended, or else that Nunes asked only a nominal rent.

2 There is evidence that, in his last illness, Hayim (=life) was symbolically prefixed to his name: for his son Elias was called in Hebrew "ben Hayim Benjamin Levi".

3 The executors of the will were Alvaro da Fonseca, Joshua Gomes Serra, Isaac Fernandes Nunes (presumably the Synagogue landlord), Abraham Nathan and Moses Hart (for the last two, see later on in this and the following chapter). Each received a handsome legacy.

4 His widow was still receiving a pension, with her son Isaac, in 17P23/4.

5 To cut off the fringes of a tallith was intended to convey an evil omen, since this is done to the tallith in which a corpse is wrapped.

6 Judah Leib subscribes himself as Rabbi of Rotterdam in an approbation written in 1700, and he was in Amsterdam from 1706 onwards. The events described above are therefore to be dated some years earlier than has generally been the case, unless they took place during a later visit to London. He was not, as so often stated, a relative of Benjamin Levy's, though the latter left his daughter a marriage-portion. He was probably appointed after 1695/6. as otherwise his name would have figured among the founders of the London Burial Society in that year. His term of office cannot therefore have exceeded four years, c. 1696 to c. 1700.

7 Rabbi Aaron was an old man of at least seventy when he died, some time after 1707. In the Commemoration Book of the Chatham Synagogue, he is designated as "the Holy": in that of the Portsmouth community, as one "who fixed times for study and devoted his soul and spirit to the service of his Creator, and whose soul went forth in purity and holiness."


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