Commentary Magazine


The Laws and Charities of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews' Congregation of London, by Neville Laski

English Jewry’s Oldest Congregation
The Laws and Charities of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation of London.
by Neville Laski.
The Chesset Press. 223 pp. 32/6.

 

Anglo-Jewry will celebrate the tercentenary of its resettlement in England this year, just about the time when American Jewry will be closing its tricentennial celebration. The Jews were expelled from England in 1290, and Jewish resettlement did not begin officially until around 1655, following negotiations carried out between Menasseh ben Israel and the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell.

English Jewry’s oldest congregation, the Shaar Hashamaim in Bevis Marks in London, was established shortly after the Jewish resettlement. In this book Mr. Neville Laski, one of the leaders of the Bevis Marks congregation, supplements, with this story of its laws and charities, other recent valuable publications of that congregation: Bevis Marks Records, and El Libro de Los Acuerdos (The Book of the Agreements) of 1663, edited by Lionel D. Barnett; Treasures of a London Temple, edited by R. D. Barnett; and Albert M. Hyamson’s The Sephardim of England. There is no Jewish congregation in the United States, with the partial exception of Shearith Israel in New York, that possesses such ancient and picturesque records of its internal administrative life as does Shaar Hashamaim. The early story of the oldest American Jewish communities, such as those of Newport, Savannah, Philadelphia, or Charleston, seems by contrast to have an essentially modern character.

The New York congregation of Shearith Israel was from its beginning never exclusively Sephardi in character; on the contrary, it welcomed all Jews who came to the city. The London congregation has been far more rigid, though both congregations have been equally undeviating in their adherence to the Sephardi minhag. The strict line drawn of old between Sephardim and Ashkenazim in London strikes us at once in the first order of business on the agenda of the Mahamad (governing officers) of which we have a record. This was consideration of “the petition of our poor, as well natives as foreigners.” Yet except in case of dire need or for other urgent reasons, no man married to a Tudesco (Ashkenazi) woman, nor a married woman or widow of Tudesco origin, was admitted to the congregation’s charity rolls.

The London congregation carried over from the parent congregation in Amsterdam its characteristic Sephardi administrative regulations. How the Mahamad, the Velhos (elders), and the Yehidim (members) have conducted the affairs of the congregation since 1663, and what charities were established, are faithfully set forth by Mr. Laski in all their vividness and detail.

Matters of synagogue decorum, priorities in the synagogue, the status of the haham and the hazan, allotment of seats, the control of kosher meat, charity for Terra Santa, support of the poor, care of all who had died, the promotion of Hebrew learning, the rescue of captives, the problems of proselytization, intermarriage, and apostasy—all these and other varied aspects of individual and congregational life were subject to the stern control of the synagogue authorities. How all-controlling was their power can be illustrated by the fact that literature of Hebrew or Ladino origin could be printed by a member of the congregation only after leave was expressly given by the Mahamad, the penalty for violation being herem (excommunication).

A clear and detailed exposition is given of the numerous trust funds administered by the London congregation for various types of beneficiaries, including dowries for brides and aid for poor lying-in women. A description is also given of the historic almshouses and schools maintained from bequests left to the congregation.

All this and much more is to be found in this fascinating piece of historical writing. It should be added that the glossary at the end of the book makes its reading intelligible to Ashkenazim and Sephardim alike.

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