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Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

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Rules of Election.

The board of directors of a Spanish-Portuguese congregation. The word is of Neo-Hebrew origin, and in the Talmud is applied to the representatives of the people present at the Temple service (Ta'an. 15b). The board consisted of four wardens and a treasurer, and its members were elected, or, more exactly, cooptated, from the "yeḥidim"—those who had full rights of membership in the synagogue. Whenever a vacancy occurred between elections, which happened chiefly through death, the remaining members, with eight ex-members, formed an electoral committee, and conferred upon one of their number, by lot, the right to nominate a new colleague from the congregation. If the assembly approved of the choice, it held good. This system naturally resulted in a monopoly of the administration of the congregation by a limited number of families. That this oligarchic circle might not become too narrow, it was decided that no one could be a member of the mahamad at the same time as his son, grandson, son-in-law, stepson, brother, brother-in-law, nephew, or cousin; and, furthermore, in order to insure just decisions, no one under twenty-five could be elected treasurer of the mahamad, and no one under forty could be warden, unless he had already served as treasurer. This was the rule in the BEVIS MARKS SYNAGOGUE of London, and the regulations were practically the same in the other Portuguese communities.

Despotic Rule.

The laws of the mahamad, according to which the affairs of the synagogue were administered, were called Ascamot. Basing its authority on them, the mahamad exercised over the members of the congregation a despotic control which degenerated into a sort of police supervision. No member could marry or be divorced without the consent of this board, nor could one bring a lawsuit against a fellow member without first consulting the mahamad on the subject, except in cases where such a delay in bringing complaint would cause him injury. No book, and no treatise of a religious or political nature, in any language whatsoever, could be printed without the permission of the mahamad. Thus Haham David Nieto published his "Maṭṭeh Dan" "con licencia de los Señores del Mahamad" (London, 1714), and Isaac Nieto dedicates his sermon on Yom Kippur "a los muy Ilustres SSrs. del Mahamad, y pot su Orden Impresso" (ib. 1756). In London, for the greater political security of the congregation, every one was forbidden by the mahamad to join parties "which any of the people may form against the government, the ministry, or the judicial administration of the kingdom."

In the synagogue, or in the law-court of the mahamad, no one might oppose an order of the mahamad or of the presiding officer who represented it, or criticize such an order, or write or circulate writings containing adverse criticisms of actions taken by it. The haham of the congregation enjoyed the same protection. No non-Portuguese Jew might pray in the Portuguese synagogue without the permission of the mahamad, nor might any one refuse an office or function in the services, or in the administration of synagogal affairs, which the mahamad or its president might assign him. According to the ascamot of the Bevis Marks Synagogue of London, any one who did not accept election as a member of the mahamad, or who had not shown his willingness to accept it before the expiration of eight days, was fined £40; if he had been elected treasurer, he was fined £30. The strict application of this rule, in 1813, led Isaac D'Israeli to sever his connection with the Bevis Marks Synagogue, since he would neither accept the office of warden nor pay the fine of £40. The board was especially strict in the observance of the first ascama, that no one might hold services outside the synagogue, except in a house of mourning during the first seven days thereof.

Disciplinary Measures.

The mahamad was very prompt in imposing penalties where its regulations were ignored or violated, though excommunication, exclusion from the synagogue for a certain length of time, fines for the benefit of the poor-fund, withdrawal of all "miẓwot," forfeiture of the right to vote, and similar disciplinary measures began naturally in the course of time to lose their desired effect. Occasionally, moreover, the mahamad appealed to the secular authorities to execute its decrees, as in London in 1783, when it desired to remove those who, during the service on Purim, according to ancientcustom, beat on the synagogue kettle-drums whenever the name of Haman was read from the Megillah. At Amsterdam, in the year 1670, the mahamad applied to the magistracy for confirmation and support in the execution of its decree that no one might sever his connection with the congregation even when under the strictest excommunication. A confession of repentance made by the delinquent before God and the congregation was sufficient to bring about a mitigation of the punishment or to secure a total revocation of the decree of excommunication.

The members of the mahamad were at the same time members of the tax-commission, and in this capacity were comprised among the "fintadores" (see Jew. Encyc. 5:388b, s. FINTA).

In the Portuguese communities the affairs of the congregation and of the synagogue are still administered by a mahamad, although the disciplinary powers granted by the old ascamot have been very materially curtailed. The régime of the old mahamad of London is humorously described by lsrael Zangwill in "The King of Schnorrers" (pp. 105 et seq.).

  • Jew. Chron. June 11, 1897, p. 11;
  • M. Gaster, History of the Ancient Synagogue, passim, London, 1901;
  • J. Picciotto, Sketches of Anglo-Jewish History, Index, ib. 1875.
M. Sc.
Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Mahamad'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​m/mahamad.html. 1901.
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