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Bible Encyclopedias

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Parisian Sanhedrim

The year 1789, which marked an entirely new epoch in the history of Europe, was not without influence on the history and condition of the Jews. The contest between tradition and revolution, between the ancient order of things and the new lights, concerning the Jews and their position in society, began with that year in France. Two years before the Academy of Metz had convened an assembly to consider the best means of making the Jews happier and more useful to society at large. One of the prize essays on that occasion was written by the abbe Gregoire (q.v.): Essai sur la regeneration morale, physique, et politique des Juinfs (Metz, 1789), and another by Salkind Horwitz, afterwards librarian of the Royal Library at Paris Apologie des Juifs (ibid. 1789). The revolution which occurred a little while later triumphantly decided the question, and through the influence of Mirabeau and Rabaut St. Etienne, the National Assembly, in 1791, admitted the Jews of France to equal rights with other citizens. During the supremacy of Napoleon the condition of the Jews in France remained on the same footing as during the Reign of Terror. He only showed severity towards the Jewish population in the provinces of the Rhine, where they had long been in ill repute on account of their usury. Thus in 1808 he issued an imperial edict, imposing on every Jewish creditor who would go to law against a debtor the obligation to procure a certificate of good conduct, attested by the local authorities, declaring that the said creditor was not in the practice of taking usury or pursuing any disgraceful traffic.

Two years prior to this edict, in 1806, Napoleon conceived the idea of turning the peculiar talents of his Jewish subjects to his own advantage. He had doubtless discovered that their skill as financiers was unrivaled; that their commercial correspondence and intercourse throughout Europe was more rapid and trusty than any other; that the secret:ramifications of their trade in various countries gave them a great advantage over all their rivals in the world of traffic; and he purposed to convert them into devoted auxiliaries by more favorable measures and more ostentatious protection." As a preliminary step, he astonished Europe by summoning a meeting of the Grand Sanhedrim, to which deputies consisting of the most eminent and learned rabbins were to be sent, not only from France, but from all those adjacent countries over which the influence of Napoleon extended. It was on July 28, 1806 (by a mistake, upon the Sabbath-day), that this Sanhedrim began to sit, and nominated as president Abraham Furtado, a distinguished Portuguese of Bordeaux. The assembly consisted of a hundred and ten members, and among these were such men of distinction as Goudchaux, Cremieux, Cerf-Beer, Cologna, Rodrigues, Avigdor, and others. This assembly being constituted by order of the emperor, three imperial commissioners Mole, Portalis, and Pasquier presented themselves during the sitting with twelve questions, to answer, which was to be the first and principal occupation of the Sanhedrim. The questions were as follows:

1. Is polygamy allowed by the Jewish law?

2. Is divorce recognized and permitted among them?

3. Are Jews allowed, by their regulations, to intermarry with Christians?

4. Would the Jews in France regard the French people as strangers or as brethren?

5. In what relation would the Jews stand towards the French, according to the Jewish law?

6. Do those Jews who are born in France consider it their native land? and are they bound to obey the law and customs of the country?

7. Who are the electors of the rabbins?

8. What legal powers do the rabbins possess?

9. Are the elections and authority of the rabbins grounded on law, or merely on custom?

10. Are the Jews forbidden to engage in any business?

11. Is usury to their brethren prohibited by the law?

12. Is it lawful or unlawful to practice usury with strangers?

To these twelve searching inquiries the Sanhedrim, after due and careful deliberation, sent the following answers:

1. Polygamy is unlawful, being declared such by the synod of rabbins held at Worms in 1030.

2. Divorce is allowed by the Jewish law for various causes; but on this subject the Jews cheerfully obey the decisions of the civil laws of the land in which they may happen to reside.

3. Intermarriages with Christians are not forbidden; but as differences and disputes often arise as to the ceremony of marriage and the education of children, such unions are generally regarded as inexpedient.

4. The Jews in France recognize the French people, in the fullest sense, as their brethren.

5. The relation of the Jew to the Frenchman is the same as the relation of the Jew to the Jew, the only distinction between them being that of religion.

6. The Jews, even while they were oppressed by the French monarchs, regarded France as their country. How much more readily will they do so after they have been admitted to equal rights.

7. There is no definite and uniform rule in reference to the election of rabbins. They are usually chosen by the heads of each family in the community.

8. The rabbins have no judicial power; that belongs, exclusively to the Sanhedrim. As the Jews of France and Italy enjoyed the equal protection of the laws at that lime, there was no necessity to confer any jurisdiction or authority on their teachers.

9. The election and authority of the rabbins are governed solely by custom.

10. There is no law which forbids the Jew to engage in any kind of business. The Talmud enjoins that every Jew shall be taught some trade.

11 and 12. The Mosaic law forbids unlawful interest: but that was a regulation intended for an agricultural people. The Talmud allows interest to be taken from brethren and strangers, but forbids usury.

Napoleon expressed himself satisfied with these answers of the Sanhedrim. On Feb. 9, 1807, the second Sanhedrim was convoked, to which Jews from other countries, and especially from Holland, were invited, that the principles laid down by the first Sanhedrim might acquire the force of law among the Jews in all parts. The answers of the former were sanctioned, and a plan of reform adopted exactly suited to the emperor's purpose. The Jews, and even the rabbins, were to be governed by consistories, which, of course, were to be governed by Napoleon.

Art. 12 of this plan defines the duties of the consistories: "The functions of the consistories shall be, 1st, to see that the rabbins do not, either in public or private, give any instructions or explanations of the law in contradiction to the answers of the assembly, confirmed by the decision of the Great Sanhedrim." Art. 21: "The functions of the rabbins are, 1st, to teach religion; 2d, to inculcate the doctrines contained in the decisions of the Great Sanhedrim; 3d, to represent military service to the Israelites as a sacred duty, and to declare to them that while they are engaged in it the law exempts them from the practices which might be incompatible with it." Art. 22 fixes the salaries of the rabbins.

It is almost inconceivable that any Jew could approve, much less praise, this system of spiritual tyranny imposed by a Gentile despot. Yet Jost says, "The effects of these deliberations, to which the emperor gave his assent, were peculiarly beneficial." See Tama, Collection des Proces-Verbaux et Decisions du .Grand Sanhedrim (Par. 1807, 8vo); id. Collection des Actes de l'Assemblee des Israelites de France et dui Royaume d'Italie (ibid. 1807, 8vo); Gratz, Gesch. d. Juden, 11:290 sq., 620 sq.; Jost, Gesch. d. Judenth. u. s. Sekten, iii. 328 sq.; Dessauer. Geschichte der Israeliten, p. 475 sq.; Stern, Gesch. d. Judenth. seit Mendelssohn, p. 138 sq.; Schmucker, History of the Modern Jews, p. 256 sq.; Da Costa, Israel and the Gentiles, p. 364 sq.; Huic, History of the Jews, p. 216 sq.; H. Adams, History of the Jews, 2:154 sq.; M'Caul, Sketches of Judaism, and the Jews, p. 54 sq.; id. The Old Path, p. 366 sq.; Milman, History of the Jews (New York, 1870), 3:414 sq.; Palmer, History of the Jewish Nation (Lend. 1874), p. 297 sq. (B.P.)

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Parisian Sanhedrim'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/p/parisian-sanhedrim.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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