The Jews of South-West England
Thesis by Rabbi Bernard Susser
The communal organizations of the
Jewish communities of the South-West, 1750-1900
Communal discipline within the Congregation
Societies, complex or simple, require a constitution, written or oral, by which they regulate their conduct. Congregations and other Jewish societies are no exception.
Various sets of regulations have survived from the Plymouth, Exeter, and Penzance Congregations, though those of Falmouth have disappeared. The earliest rules of any Congregation in the South-West are those of Plymouth and date from 1779. They are handwritten in Yiddish at the front of a book entitled (in translation):
Pinkes of the regulations of our community, the holy Congregation of Plymouth. In the year "The work of righteousness is peace". [The chronogram,þ , is based on Isaiah 32:17, and gives 1779.]
There follow 64 rules covering the gamut of congregational life, from birth to death, dealing with the synagogue and the Jew's relations with his fellow Jews and with non-Jews. Various additions were made from time to time at vestry meetings, and these rules served until 1796 when it was minuted, still in Yiddish:
Since in the regulations of former days in our community there are many matters which do not suffice for this time and also they are not kept as they ought to be, the undersigned ... are to review the regulations ... so that "peace be within thy rampart, prosperity within thy palaces. [PHC Min. Bk. I, p. 69. The chronogram is, þ (Psalms 122:7) and gives 1796.]
The Plymouth Congregation next considered its regulations on 3 November 1834, when it was 'resolved that a Select Committee ... be appointed to alter, amend and add such rules as seem proper, for the better government of the Congregation ...'. The result of the Committee's deliberations was a booklet of 26 pages printed in English in 1835 by John Wertheimer of London. [Wertheimer printed rule books for a number of Congregations about this time.] There were probably revisions of this rule book in the latter part of the nineteenth century, but the next one to be published was in 1949.
The Exeter Congregation's original regulations were in Yiddish but these have disappeared. They are referred to in a manuscript volume which starts:
The Congregation was able to manage on 48 rules until these were revised in 1833. [Facsimile in the author's collection.]
A similar situation prevailed in Penzance where revised regulations were made in 1844, [Roth MSS 205.] no less than 95 laws being necessary to maintain harmony amongst its eleven seatholders! [Chief Rabbinate Archives, MSS 104.]
The regulations of the Plymouth Congregation in 1835 are typical of those of the other Congregations of the South-West, as well as broadly representative of earlier as well as later sets of rules in force in Congregations in England in the nineteenth century, and can now be considered in detail.
They open with a reminder that 'it is the duty of every Jew regularly to attend Divine Service ...'. They then specify the various Honorary Officers of the Congregation together with their mode of election, privileges and responsibilities. Similarly, the rules specify the different types of membership, the mode of becoming a member, together with the rights, duties and privileges of the various kinds of member. The rules govern the calling and conduct of meetings, as well as the ways and means of financing the Congregation's budget. There is a special section governing the conduct of Divine Service, as well as sections which specify the day-to-day responsibilities of the paid officials. A variety of other matters and situations which had probably been the subject of disputes in the past are also dealt with. These include the recitation of Kaddish, the making of Mi Sheberach prayers, the election of Hatan Bereishit and Hatan Torah, [For the Hebrew terms see Glossary.] the legal preliminaries to the celebration of marriages, and burials.
It is easy enough to make rules and regulations, it is another matter to enforce them. The usual method was to fine an offender, and fines ranging from coppers to two guineas were imposed.
The following representative fines are taken from the Plymouth Congregation's Regulations, 1779:
It was realized, however, that these fines would not prevent a troublesome member from making a nuisance of himself, hence a rider to the rules that the Executive had the power to increase or diminish any fine according to circumstances. [Ibid. Regulation 9.] Furthermore, it was envisaged that contumacious members would not pay their fines or determine to have the satisfaction of flouting the authority of the Honorary Officers even if payment of a fine was entailed. In such cases the Honorary Officers could forbid a man to be called to the Torah and ban his children from cheder. [Ibid. Regulation 40.]
The traditional abhorrence of the Jew in exile (and indeed any member of a persecuted minority) of the informer is expressed forcibly in the following terms:
If any Jew ... gives information to the authorities about another Jew and causes him harm either financial or bodily, then the informer shall forever be barred from our Congregation and for all his days shall never be called to the Torah. [Ibid. Regulation 56.]
Outrageous behaviour called down the ultimate sanction of excommunication, the dreaded Herem. [See Roth, Great Synagogue, pp. 68, 120, 122.] Only one instance of this has been noted in the South-West, when it was put into operation against a certain Leib Shtievel of Plymouth who shaved in the nine days of mourning [From New Moon Av until the Fast of the Ninth of Av.] in 1776 and was fined nine and thirty three-penny bits, that is, as many as the maximum number of flagellations permitted by the Rabbis from Holy Writ. But he regarded not the vestry ... and for spite shaved during the intermediate days of Tabernacles, and he boasted that he had done so deliberately. Therefore he is to be excommunicated all the days of his life, and he is not to come to any holy matter, small or great, nor is any member of the Congregation to assist him whether in joys or troubles, in health or sickness, and when he dies then none of our members shall perform the last rites. [PHC Min. Bk. I, p. 41.]
Such stringent measures were effective as long as the local Jewish community was tightknit and all members wanted to use facilities which only the Congregation could provide. Once a situation prevailed, as it did in the late nineteenth century, where there was a substantial number of Jews in the Plymouth Congregation who did not care whether or not they attended synagogue, whether they ate kosher or treifah meat, whether they were buried or cremated, then the sanctions lost their force and were gradually dropped. By the time the Russo-Polish Jewish emigration arrived in the South-West in the latter part of the nineteenth century, such sanctions were no longer fashionable and they never reappeared.
[The following paragraphs will be corrected and reformatted after a review of the original document.]
The communal organization of the Jewish communities of the South-West, 
In Manchester they were called Free Members (Williams, Manchester Jewry, p. 54.)] [137n]
All of these were recruited only from the ranks of the Baalei Batim, who formed a social elite. 
There does not appear to have been the rivalry between the 'old', established section of the community and the up and coming aspiring newcomers, leading to pressures to found new synagogues as in Manchester, London, Liverpool and Newcastle (Williams, Manchester Jewry, pp. 135-63; D. Cesarani, The Transformation of Communal Authority in Anglo-Jewry, 1914 - 1940', The Making of Modern Anglo-Jewry, ed. D. Cesarani, pp. 6, 115; Kokosalakis, Ethnic Identity, p. 68; G. D. Guttentag, 'The Beginnings of the Newcastle Jewish Community', TJHSE, XXV) (19 ), pp. ).] [139n]
The functions of a rabbi are essentially judicial, with an independent jurisdiction, a function in Anglo-Jewry which is nowadays exercised by a dayan of a Bet Din. He gives rulings on the requirements of Jewish law both for the community as well as for individual Jews. As Judaism is an all-embracing way of life, the rabbi's authority extends to the very warp and woof of a Jew's life, both religious and secular. Not only religious services, observance of the Sabbath and dietary laws and other religious precepts, but also business dealings such as contracts, loans and their repayment, credit purchase and interest agreements, as well as matters affecting personal status such as marriage and divorce, contraception and abortion, organ transplants and the like, are the legitimate province of the rabbi, who advises how these matters may be carried out consonantly with Jewish law and who settles any disputes which may arise. Theoretically, and largely in practice, in Jewish communities throughout the world at least until the seventeenth century, the rabbi was the head and leader of the congregation over which he was appointed. 
In the Anglo-Jewish community from the re-settlement in the mid-seventeenth century until towards the end of the nineteenth century few Congregations elected a rabbi of the type just described. [See Williams, Manchester Jewry, p. 182.] Even the appointment of Rabbi Dr Schiller-Szinessy to the Manchester community in 1851 was subject to the agreed proviso that 'he would not assume for himself any decision on rabbinical questions' (Williams, Manchester Jewry, p. 188). For an account of Manchester Jewry's struggle to appoint its own independent Rabbi in the mid-nineteenth century, see Williams, Manchester Jewry, pp. 209-20, 234-7. Orthodox, small, independent hevrot in Manchester and London began to appoint dayan-type rabbis towards the end of the nineteenth century (see B. Williams, 'East and West', The Making of Modern Anglo-Jewry, ed. D. Cesarani, (Oxford, 1990), p. 17. In Liverpool, no rabbi had any special power in the running of the community, as late as the 1920's, the authority of the communal Rav, Rabbi S. J. Rabbinowitz, was not recognized by the Old Hebrew Congregation (Kokosalakis, Ethnic Identity, pp. 69, 147).] [142a]
ship which was loath to share its authority with a local religious authority and thus possibly lose it altogether. For all these [142c]
It has also been argued that after 1870 the Chief Rabbi's authority was strengthened by Anglo-Jewish communities which wanted an equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury. [142d]
[S. Sharot, Judaism: A Sociology (1976), p. 72, quoted by Kokosalakis, Ethnic Identity, p. 78.] [142d n]
of rabbinical functions. [142e]
[See Gartner, Jewish Immigrant, pp. 190, 215.] In the first place, newly emerging congregations were rarely suf-[142e n]
as late as 1961. When he demurred, he was asked how the Gentile population would recognize him as the Minister of the Jewish community? The 
dung in Wyatt's stables. Wyatt was hanged for this crime. 
Contact JCR-UK Webmaster:
This website is
owned by JewishGen and the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain. All
material found herein is owned by or licensed to us. You may view, download, and
print material from this site only for your own personal use. You may not post
material from this site on another website without our consent. You may not
transmit or distribute material from this website to others. You may not use
this website or information found at this site for any commercial purpose.
Copyright © 2002 - 2023 JCR-UK. All Rights Reserved