Three Jewish Heritage Plaques at Oxford

Monday, 12 November, 2018 - 8:34 pm


Oxford has one of the best-preserved records of medieval Jewish history in Europe and is home to the only artifact of the interior of a preserved Jewish home dating back to the 13th century, belonging to David of Oxford, alongside the exterior of Jews’ House in Lincoln. Commemorating the medieval Jewish history of Oxford, three plaques were placed in 1931 by Dr. Herbert Loewe and are still standing today. Herbert Loewe was born in 1882, and was appointed lecturer in Semitic languages at Exeter College, Oxford, from 1913 until 1931, before accepting a post at Cambridge as Curator of Oriental Literature, and Reader in Rabbinics. Before leaving Oxford in 1931, however, he was responsible for erecting three plaques relating to Oxford Jewish heritage in the city: the site of the Medieval Jewish cemetery, currently Botanic Gardens; the site of Great Jewry Street, currently St Aldate’s; and the site of the old Osney Abbey, where the martyr Haggai the Jew of Oxford (formerly Robert of Reading) was burned for refusing to convert to Christianity. Herbert Loewe passed away in 1940 and his library of 5,000 items is held at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.


In this brief article, I would like to present the details of these three plaques that are easily overlooked with the proliferation of more visible, most recently blue and in many cases larger, plaques that have since been erected around the city marking sites of historic interest.


Town Hall


One plaque is on the façade of Oxford Town Hall and states:


This street known till 1300 as great Jewry contained many houses of the Jews including the synagogue which lay to the north of Tom Tower 1931.




The only remaining artifact of medieval Jewish life in Oxford is in fact the Jewish home of David of Oxford that until today lies beneath the current Town Hall on St Adate’s, formerly Great Jewry Street, the heart of what was a prominent Jewry in Oxford. The current Jacobethan Town Hall was built in 1893, on the site of the first town hall that was built in 1752. The 1752 Town Hall was built on the site of Oxford's Guildhall built  in 1292, shortly after the expulsion of the Jews from England. The site of the Town Hall was actually the site of two Jewish homes in medieval times, David of Oxford and Moses ben Isaac. The home of Moses ben Isaac was on the upper end of the site and was confiscated from him in 1220 and given by the king for the use of the first Guild’s Hall. The home of David of Oxford was seized after his passing in 1442 and used as a Domus Conversum and continued to be in use at the time of the expulsion until it was combined together with the upper building as a single Guild’s Hall. The Guild’s Hall was in turn used as the site for the current Town Hall.


In what is the most likely the best preserved medieval Jewish site in England, the living room of the medieval home of David of Oxford, replete with windows and outline of a door that accessed the subterranean cellars that crisscross St Aldate’s, can still be visited today. This can be done by requesting to visit the Plate Room in the basement of the Town Hall.


David of Oxford


David of Oxford, formerly known as David of Lincoln, was one of the most prominent English Jews of the 13th century. His father was Asher and it is not clear when exactly he moved to Oxford. However, in 1219, he was one of the six representatives of the wealthy class selected from all English Jewry to apportion tallage. He had dealings all over the country, including Warwick, Berkshire, Buckingham and Northampton and his clients included many of the aristocracy. In addition, he frequently transacted business with other prominent Anglo Jewish financiers, like Aaron of York, Hamo of Hereford, one of the wealthiest Jews of the day, Benedict of Crispin of London and his brother Jaqcob, and especially his fellow townsman, Copin of Oxford. He also played an important role in communal life, though not always by choice. The king used David's influence to ensure other Jews were paying the tallages (taxes) that were imposed upon them. He was also one of the commission of eight Anglo-Jewish magnates who were appointed at the request of the communities in 1238 to collaborate with Justices of the Jews in an enquiry ‘touching Jews who are clippers of coin, thieves, and receivers', so as to root out the alleged abuse if it existed, and thus rid the community of this perpetual opportunity for blackmail.


David of Oxford's private life became a major subject of discussion in the Jewish community in 13th century England, and Oxford in particular, involving the king, and leading rabbinic scholars of England and France. David was married to Muriel, who appears to also have been involved in his business affairs (Roth, 1941), but in 1242 David chose to issue his wife a divorce due to the fact they did not have any children. This appears in the Close Rolls (C.R. 1242 p. 464) with the following entry:


Winchester, 27 August, 1242. For David of Oxford: The King to Masters Moses of London, Aaron of Canterbury, and Jacob of Oxon', Jews, greeting. We do hereby forbid you to hold henceforth any plea concerning David Jew of Oxford and Muriel who was wife of the same; nor under any circumstances are you to distrain him either to take or to keep that wife or any other. Know for certainly that if you do otherwise, you will incur grave punishment therefore. 


Simultaneously, the following rescript was issued:


Winchester, 27 August, 1242. For David of Oxford: Whereas by the council of venerable father of Christ W. archbishop of York and others if the King's council, it has been provided that henceforth no chapters shall be held concerning the Jews in England, instructions have been issued to the Justices of the Jews firmly enjoining all the Jews if England on the King's behalf to hold no chapters in England henceforth. Moreover, Peytevin of Lincoln, Muriel who was the wife of David of Oxford, Benedict f. (son of) Peytevin of Lincoln, Vaalyn', and Moses de Barbun', Jews, are to appear before the aforesaid Archbishop and others of the King's council on the octave of St Michael, wheresoever they shall be in England, to shew cause why hey sent to France to the Jews of France to hold a chapter on the Jews of England. And the said justices are enjoined not to permit David of Oxford to be constrained to take or to keep any wife save of his own desire.


Cecil Roth, in his book 'Jews of Oxford', offers the following suggested background to understand the royal intervention. It is clear that the three Masters (Magistri) to whom the first letter is directed are a Jewish court of law or Beth Din. David and Muriel were apparently childless, and probably it was for this reason that David, desiring to have a son to inherit his enormous fortune, wished to marry again. He accordingly gave Muriel a Bill of Divorce (Get). But, by the Ordinances issued by Rabbi Gershom of Mainz, 'the Light of the Exile' (c. 1,000) and generally accepted in Northern Europe, it had been declared improper for a man to divorce his wife without her consent, or to remarry if he did so; and a Jewish court had the power to invalidate any divorce not executed in accordance with the rules which it approved.


Muriel accordingly protested and invoked help. Her relatives from Lincoln (where probably David had found his wife before settling in Oxford) rallied to her assistance, headed by her brother (Peytevin) - presumably Peytevin the Great, who had his own synagogue in that city, and who was one of the victims of the ritual murder allegation of 1255 associated with the name of Hugh of Lincoln. English Jewry freely acknowledged the intellectual supremacy of their French Co-religionists, and the problem was accordingly submitted to certain Rabbis beyond the Channel, who assembled to deliberate the matter.


They gave their decision in favour of Muriel, and an ad hoc Beth Din which assembled in Oxford, composed of the three 'Magistri' mentioned in the royal letter, quashed the divorce and instructed David to take Muriel back again. He was not the sort of man to acquiesce in ecclesiastical dictation and, confidant in the overriding power of his wealth, appealed to the king. This played in the hands of the clerical party at Court. The Church naturally disliked the idea of the enjoyment by Jews of a species of autonomy, which was restricted in the case of the clergy, and henceforth the Archbishop of York had obtained a royal decree forbidding 'chapters' or Courts to be held by the Jews in England. The appellants were therefore ordered to appear before him to justify their conduct; moreover, the ruling of the three English Rabbis was quashed by royal order, and the divorce was upheld.


In accordance with Jewish law, provision had to be made for the divorced wife. David's own house was at the top of Great Jewry, currently St Aldate's, comprising today much of the southern part of the area of the present Town Hall. He assigned her on the other hand for life another house of his round the corner, at the junction of Jury Lane and St Edward's Lane, where she continued to reside long after his death. David chose a new wife Licoricia of Winchester. She was a widow, and mother of two children, Benedict and Cockerel (Isaac). She beared him a son named Asher after his grandfather, but more usually known as Douceman or Sweteman. However, shortly after his second marriage, at the beginning of 1244, David of Oxford died.


Licoricia was given administration of her husband's property after setting relief or death-duty of 5,000 marks that was given to the royal Treasury. £2,591 of the amount was ordered to be paid to the new Exchequer recently established at Westminster in connection with the king's ambitious building projects there, and was used for the construction of Westminster Abbey. David's main residence in the Great Jewry with all the utensils, furniture and clothing, was immediately, after his death, presented to the Home for Converted Jews (Domus Conversorum) that was recently set up by the king in London. This story provides an insight into the illustrious Jewish owner of the home that exists until today beneath Town Hall. No doubt this home would have reverberated with the sounds of many visitors, possibly the housing of a synagogue, and to the sound of Jewish celebrations.


Osney Abbey


A second plaque in Oxford is at the entrance to the site of the former Osney Abbey. It states:


Robert of Reading, otherwise Haggai of Oxford, suffered for his faith on Sunday 17 April 1222 A.D. Corresponding to 4 Iyyar 4982 A.M.


It relates to Haggai of Oxford, formerly Robert of Reading, who converted to Judaism from Christianity and married a Jewish wife in the Oxford Jewry. He was given an ultimatum by the provincial council, held at Osney Abbey, charged with applying the Lateran decrees in England, that he must abandon his faith or be burned at the stake. Upon responding negatively to the ultimatum, on 4th Iyar, 27 April, 1220, he was burnt alive at the stake at the entrance to Osney Abbey. A plaque was erected on the site in 1931 to commemorate this heroic act of Jewish martyrdom of the medieval period.


Botanic Garden


A third plaque may be found on the right hand wall behind the Danby Gate – the entrance to the Oxford University Botanic Garden. The plaque is in Hebrew and English with small arrows above some of the Hebrew characters forming a cryptogram of the year the cemetery was established in 1177 until 1290, when the Jews were expelled from England.


I will first present the text of the plaque as it is translated from the Hebrew into English with the sources for the quotations in the text:


For a stone shall cry from the wall (Hebrew: even m’kir tiz’ak) (Habakkuk 2:11). This is a tombstone for a Jewish burial site from the year: ‘He shall come in peace; they shall rest in their resting place (Hebrew: עַל־מִשְׁכְּבוֹתָ֑ם יָנ֖וּחוּ שָׁל֔וֹם יָב֣וֹא) (Isaiah 57:2) until: These for eternal life (Hebrew: עוֹלָ֔ם לְחַיֵּ֣י וְאֵ֥לֶּה) (Daniel 12:2). 4936-5050 (1176-1290). This stone marks the place of the Jewish cemetery until 1290.


The three sentences quoted are 1. Habakkuk (2:11): ‘For a stone shall cry from the wall, and a chip shall answer it from a beam.’ 2. Daniel (12:2): ‘And many who sleep in the dust of the earth will awaken-these for eternal life, and those for disgrace, for eternal abhorrence.’ 3. Isaiah (57:2): ‘He shall come in peace; they shall rest in their resting place, whoever walks in his uprightness.’


Gematria - cryptogram


The choice of the last two verses for the plaque is to allow for the formation of a cryptogram of the year the cemetery was established and the year of the expulsion. The small arrows above some of the characters form the cryptogram. In the first verse, in the Hebrew word ‘Shalom’ – ‘peace,’ the Hebrew letter ‘lamed’ and ‘vav’ indicates the Hebrew calendar year 4936, which corresponds to 1176, the year, according to this inscription, the site was first used as a Jewish burial site. The words ‘עוֹלָ֔ם לְחַיֵּ֣י וְאֵ֥לֶּה’ ‘These for eternal life’ from Isaiah indicates the Hebrew calendar year 5050 that corresponds to 1290, when the Jews were expelled from England. This is through the arrows over the last letter of each of the three words ‘hei’, ‘yud’ and ‘mem.’ As each letter has a numerical value, the ‘hei’ that equals 5, ‘yud’ 10, and ‘mem’ 40, offers the Hebrew calendar year five thousand and fifty, corresponding to 1290.




The first verse from Habakkuk (2:11): ‘For a stone shall cry from the wall’ - may be explained by the Talmud on this passage that understand this verse to be saying that a person can not sin in private as the beams from the house will testify against him (Chagigah 16a):


And “intimate friend” is referring to none other than the Holy One, Blessed be He, as it is stated: “You are the intimate friend of my youth” (Jeremiah 3:4). Lest you say: Since I am acting in private, who will testify against me? The stones of the house and the beams of the house of each person testify against him, as it is stated: “For the stone shall cry out of the wall, and the beam out of the timber shall answer it” (Habakkuk 2:11).


Other Biblical commentators understand the verse to refer to the building of the Babylonian empire that was built on the backs of nations that they conquered. This verse then may have a combined purpose od describing the tombstone as a stone in the wall, as Herbert Loewe positioned it, but also relevant as a commemoration of a Jewish burial site that was a sacred ground for the Jewish community in the past, for over a hundred years, until the expulsion in 1290, after which at some point the cemetery was destroyed and repossessed before being granted as a Botanic Garden in 1654 until today.


The second verse quoted is from Daniel (12:2): ‘And many who sleep in the dust of the earth will awaken-these for eternal life’ - that according to the Talmud refers to resurrection. The Talmud states:


The Talmud returns to the topic of the source for resurrection in the Torah. Rava says: From where is resurrection of the dead derived from the Torah? Ravina says that resurrection is derived from here: “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awaken, some to everlasting life, and some to reproaches and everlasting disgrace” (Daniel 12:2). 


The third verse from Isaiah (57:2): ‘He shall come in peace; they shall rest in their resting place,’ like the first verse, would seem to be also appropriate for the history of the commemoration of the Jewish cemetery before the expulsion as the context of the verse is (57:1): ‘The righteous man perishes, And no one considers; Pious men are taken away, And no one gives thought That because of evil The righteous was taken away. Yet he shall come to peace, He shall have rest on his couch Who walked straightforward.’


The commentaries explain that the verse is referring simply to a greeting by angels upon the passing of the righteous (Bamidbar Rabbah 11:7). Alternatively, Isaiah is implying that the righteous may die before their time so as not to see evil and tragedy during their lifetime (Rabbi David Kimchi). This would, then, seem to hint to the burial of the Jews in the medieval cemetery, who, though died, would have been spared witnessing the tragedy of the expulsion of the whole of the Jewry of England under Edward I in 1290.


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