Reflections on the Oxford Medieval Synagogue

Friday, 30 August, 2019 - 6:29 am

CHCH.jpgOne of the known sites of medieval Jewry in Oxford is the location of the synagogue, currently the site of Christ Church, established in 1532 by Henry VIII.  I would like to outline the history of the site from the medieval period until today and provide a study in Jewish teaching relating to the sanctity of an historic sacred site in Judaism and how that relates to the site of the medieval Oxford synagogue.


The Jewry in Oxford settled in what is now the area of St Aldate’s Street, then known as Great Jewry Street. There were Jewish houses on both sides of St. Aldate's Street, situated in St. Martin’s and St. Aldate’s parishes and bordering the Parish of St Edward’s. The main street in the Jewry was known as Great Jewry Street, now known as St Aldate’s. The two other street on the east side of Great Jewry Street coming from the north was Civil School Street and Jewry Lane and further south Frideswide Lane.[1] Streets on the west side of Great Jewry Street included Pennyfarthing Lane (now Pembroke Street) that contained Moyses Hall - the home of Rabbi (Magister) Moses of Oxford son of Rabbi Yom Tov, and Lombard Street (now Brewer Street) where Lambard Hall - the home of Lambard of Cricklade - was located. Other streets on the west side of Great Jewry Street included Kepeharm Lane and Beef Hall Lane, which are now part of Pembroke College. In addition, Jewish houses were occupied or rented out also in other areas of the town.[2] After 1190 when the Jews of England were granted permission to have cemeteries outside London, the Oxford Jewry established a cemetery first on the site of what is now Magdalen College until 1231, after which Henry III gave the land to St John’s the Baptist Hospital and the cemetery was moved across the road to the site of what is now the Oxford University Botanic Garden. The cemetery remained in use until 1290.[3]


Copin of Worcester

In 1228, Copin of Worcester, (d. 1235) an English Jew, exchanged a building belonging to the nearby Priory of St. Frideswide for the purpose of a synagogue. Copin of Worcester had four sons: Bonamy, Josce, Vives and Abraham. Copin’s sons, Bonamy and Vives, were part of the Parliament of the Jews in 1441 held at Worcester. Abraham's wife was Joya and they had a son Bonefey. Josce had four children: Jacob, Benedict, Bonamy and Moses. Copin also had a daughter (name unknown) who married Bonefey, whose son in law was Rabbi (Magister) Moses of Oxford. Copin is known to have done business with David of Oxford, who also lived on Great Jewry Street, a few doors down on the same side of the street from where the synagogue was located.


Synagogue location and neighbours

Information about the synagogue and surrounding properties may be gained from an Inquisition on 24th  April, 1306, looking into the properties left by William Burnel for Balliol College after he passed away shortly before 6th November, 1304.[4] There were four properties (tenements) held by William Burnel in the former Jewry on St Aldate’s, one of which was the synagogue bought by Copin of Worcester. The row of four properties, subdivided into at least seven tenements, was situated between two lanes: Civil School Street and Jewry Lane to the north and St Frideswide’s Lane to the south. According to historian Rev. 20th H.E. Salter, author of Medieval Oxford (Wiley), the exact location of Civil School Street and Jewry Lane is represented by the two parallel walls on the north side of the quadrangle, evident in all maps since the 16th century,[5] located today in the gardens of the Canons of Christ Church. The lane was most likely closed after the current Blue Boar Lane was built in 1553. St Frideswide’s Lane to the south would have run through what is now the gardens of the Dean of Christ Church and Professor of Pastoral Theology.[6]


The ownership of these four properties before the expulsion and shortly afterwards can be gleaned from a deed[7] from 1306 after William Burnel died and the land granted to Balliol College. The northernmost belonged to a Jewess, Argilicia, bounded by tenements on either side, Nicholas de Coleshulle to the north and one belonging to Richard de Morton to the south; the second belonged to Richard de Morton; the third was the synagogue (scola Judeorum); the fourth belonged to a Jewess called Mildegod, a financier and wife of Copin of Oxford, who died in 1252, leaving Mildegod a widow. Copin of Oxford was a grandson of Copin of Worcester and brother in law of Rabbi (Magister) Moses of Oxford. Burnel acquired this property from the Hospital of St John’s, after the king granted it to the hospital after Copin died. It was subsequently leased to Mildegod.[8] It was boundaried on the south by a tenement, possible a few tenements, of the priory of St. Frideswide.


A History of the County of Oxford[9] writes: ‘In 1307 part of the former Jewish synagogue in St. Frideswide's Lane, then an inn, comprised a hall parallel to the street, flanked at each end by a solar over a cellar; there was also at least one chamber, and a bakery, probably a free-standing building.’[10] It further states: The synagogue, known as the Jews' school and later Burnel's Inn, was on the east side of the street on the site of the north-west tower of Christ Church.’[11]


A further mention of the synagogue is found in a Balliol document[12] from 3 December, 1367, in which it states that a wall between the tenement of Edmund de Ludlow on the north and a tenement of Balliol called ‘Bredeshot,’ formerly the synagogue of the Jews (Synagoga Iodorum), on the south, was 79 ½ feet long. The wall stretched from Burnel’s Inn in the parish of St Edward on the east until the ‘gable of the upper shop’ of the synagogue.[13] This implies the site of the synagogue was still called ‘synagogue’ almost eighty years after the expulsion. It also places the northern wall of the synagogue sufficiently north on St Aldate’s (Fish St/Great Jewry) that its wall extended within the parish of St Edward.


The exact location of the site of the synagogue is thought to be the site of the current Archdeacon’s lodging in Tom Quad, situated in the northwest corner of the quad. From the street, it is approximately opposite Pembroke Street, formerly known as Pennyfarthing Street. This would place the synagogue, as can be found in other medieval Jewries, like Lincoln, a short walking distance from the home of the rabbi, renowned Rabbi Moses of Oxford, who lived at Moyses Hall (thought to be 13 Pembroke St), to the west of the synagogue, and great financier of the 13th century David of Oxford to the north.


After the expulsion

There are somewhat conflicting reports of what happened to the synagogue after the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290. After the expulsion, the Archdeacon of Wells, William Burnel, acquired the synagogue site along with three other properties, for the purpose of a student hall. When William Burnel died in November 1304, he left a will granting all the houses he owned in Oxford, constituting nine shops and a messuage,[14] including the site of the former synagogue, to Balliol College (est. c. 1261).[15] The king’s permission for the execution of the will was granted on 16th January 1305. After some delay and difficulty in confirming the execution of the will, in a deed from 2nd February 1307, we find mention of the synagogue in the possession of Balliol College.[16] At this time there was Burnel’s Inn to the east and shops to the west (facing the street). In Balliol College deed from 24th April 1306,[17] it’s evident that Burnel had converted the four properties he acquired into nine shops and behind the shops an inn. In deed 202 from 2nd February 1307, it states the former synagogue in the parish of St Aldate’s (erat synagoga Iudeorim) is leased by Balliol to John de Aylesbury, described as the Taverner of Oxford (dicto le Tauerner de Oxonia).[18] This indicates that by February, 1307 the site was no longer a hall for students and had become an inn. Access would have been through an arch, possibly from Fish Street or from St Frideswide Lane. In deed 206 from 3rd December 1367, the synagogue appears to be called in Latin ‘Bredeshat’[19] or ‘Brodyates’[20] and is referred to as ‘once called the synagogue of the Jews’ (quondam vocabatur synagoga Iudeorum).[21]


Screen Shot 2019-08-30 at 09.40.41 am.pngRebuilding

The site of the synagogue remained in the hands of Balliol College, providing, together with its neighbouring properties, from rent, about an eighth of its income,[22] until the 16th century, when, under the reign of Henry VIII, the building was eventually acquired by the Archbishop of York, Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, to make way for Cardinal’s College. The construction of the college took place in several stages and took different forms, eventually becoming, as we know it today, Christ Church.


The first stage took place in 1524, when Wolsey gained permission of the Pope to dissolve the monastery of St. Frideswide that had dwindled and to use the site as a nucleus to establish a new college in Oxford, called Cardinal’s College that would be ‘for the increase of good letters and virtue.’ Thus, the first part of the construction began only on the site of the properties belonging to St. Frideswide, including the buildings of the priory and perhaps the nearby Peckwater’s inn. The building of the college began eighteenth of April 1525.


The second stage took place around December 1525, when Wolsey gave the instruction to buy up surrounding properties from Balliol College, amongst other landlords, further north, including the site of the former synagogue, to make space for a grand Qhadrangle. Wolsey wrote to his agent that since the properties that he intended to acquire are ‘now so little profit and advantage to them,’ only promises of benefices or lands should be offered as compensation. If necessary, however, they should offer payment, but to ‘bring the price to as low as may be possible.’[23] Balliol agreed to the offer, and Wolsey razed[24] the site including the synagogue, as well as the former Canterbury College, which lends its name to the present day Canterbury Quad, to make way for the construction of the Quadrangle. The Quadrangle was planned to be of such grandeur that it became know as the Great Quadrangle or Tom Quad, after Thomas Wolsey, and is still the largest quad in Oxford, measuring 264 by 261 feet. The actual building of the quad began in 1525 but the northern part, the site of the synagogue, was not completed, as Wolsey fell from power in 1529.


The third stage was when the college was re-founded in 1546 by Henry VIII and renamed Christ Church.[25] The northern party of the quad remained incomplete for another century, until Dean John Fell completed the north side of the quad in 1665, representing the forth and final stage of the construction, followed by the completion of the clock tower, designed by Christopher Wren in 1682. The tower rang for the first time in 1684,[26] thereby completing the four hundred year history of the transformation of the mediaeval synagogue of Oxford and the construction of Oxford’s grandest college on the site.[27]



While the building of the college proceeded successfully, the financing of the purchase of the site of the synagogue and surrounding properties appears, according to historian HE Salter, unresolved.[28] Three years after Wolsey ordered the purchase of the buildings in 1525, Balliol became anxious that the promises for recompense were not fulfilled. On September 1529 a deed was drawn up in which the Cardinal’s agent, Robert Carter, asserts that no payment had been given. Within a month, however, Wolsey fell from power in 1529 and the properties were passed to the king’s possession; the debts however remained. A year later, on 5 October 1530, Balliol proposed to recover the land and occupy the buildings recently built upon it.[29] As late as 1557, however, the debt remained unpaid and the subsequent history how the debt was absolved is uncertain.[30]


In summary, the history of the site of the synagogue after the expulsion began with its acquisition by William Burnell, in 1290, immediately after the expulsion of the Jews, its transfer to Balliol College, one of Oxford’s three medieval colleges, after Burnell’s passing in 1307, followed by its sale to Wolsey’s agents in 1525 for the erection of the quad, though no actual payment documented, followed by the transfer to the possession of Henry VIII in 1529, after Wolsey’s fall and the actual construction of the site in 1665. Interestingly, this brief history indicates the completion of the north side of Tom Quad, where the synagogue was situated, took place just nine years after Jews were allowed to return to England under Oliver Cromwell in 1656.[31]


Oxford Synagogue

With the identification of the site of the medieval synagogue, it’s interesting to outline what the medieval synagogue may have looked like. The layout of the medieval synagogue would have been similar to other medieval synagogues, as presented in Jewish teaching from that period. There would have been an ark facing east of Great Jewry Street, which would have been also the direction the benches would have faced.[32] A tradition would have been to have windows in the walls of the synagogue and lamps adorning the prayer hall.[33] A platform (bimah) would have been placed in the centre of the hall, widthwise and longwise, for the one reading the Torah or giving a sermon to stand on, and be heard by the community.[34] In addition, there appears to have been a mobile cupboard (teivah) containing the Torah that would have been placed also in the middle of the synagogue, as Maimonides states: When one positions the teivah which contains the Torah scroll, one should position it in the centre of the hall, in the direction of the heichal (ark) and facing the people.’


People would have most likely sat in the synagogue in Oxford following Jewish law, as outlined in the Etz Chaim that reflected the custom of England in the 13th century.[35] The first part of the description is that the elders of the community would sit facing the people with their backs toward the ark.[36] This was customary until the 16th century, when Rabbi Mordecai Yoffe (1530 – 1612) writes that this was no longer the custom in his times. In the 18th century Rabbi Joseph ben Meir Teomim (1727–1792) writes the elders may sit facing the ark, if the platform (bimah) is sufficiently elevated.[37]


The leader of the congregation would have stood on the ground facing the ark, as opposed to the custom to stand either on the bimah, in the middle of the congregation or to the right of the ark, as became the custom in Germany.[38] All the people would have sat row after row, each row facing the back of the row in front of it, facing the ark, the elders, and the teivah, that held the Torah scroll that was placed in the middle of the synagogue. There would have been no people sitting between the middle of the synagogue and the ark, besides the elders.


Regarding the height of the synagogue building, Maimonides records there is an obligation for it to be the highest building in the town. However, as medieval English compendium of Jewish law Etz Chaim points out, and as found also in medieval legal commentary Hagahot Maimoniot,[39] roofs in England were gabled and there this height requirement does not apply. In addition, if other non-Jewish houses would in any case be higher than the synagogue, this rule does not apply to Jewish houses in the town either.[40] This would have been the case in medieval Oxford.



The liturgy used in the Oxford medieval synagogue would have followed the French custom (nusach tzarfat), as opposed to the German custom (nusach ashkenaz). This is evident from the two extant prayer books from England from that period. The first is a 12th century manuscript prayer book held at Corpus Christi College (CCCMS133) that follows the French liturgy. The second is the prayer liturgy found in the English compendium of Jewish law Etz Chaim by Rabbi Jacob ben Judah Chazan of London, a disciple of Rabeinu Tam.[41] The version of the liturgy in Etz Chaim also follows the French rite.[42] While there are differences between these two prayer books, they distinctly follows the French custom, as evident from a number of passages that are only found in the French liturgy, some of which are condemned by the German rabbis for having included these sections. In addition the sages is Germany would see the liturgy of the Jewish of England and France as the same in the thirteenth century.[43]


Some of the distinct characteristics of the French liturgy, compared to the German liturgy, include the following six variations: a. L’olam yehei adam (A man should forever be G-d fearing) is recited after Karbonot (order of the daily sacrifices).[44] b. Ashrei temimei darech (Happy are they whose way is perfect)[45] is added before Psalms 145 in Verses of Praise (Pesukei d’Zimrah).[46] c. Lo hametim yehalelu kah (Neither will the dead praise G-d) is added at the end of Psalms 145 in Verses of Praise (Pesukei d’Zimrah).[47] d. Kein techanenu u’telamdeinu (be gracious also to us and teach us) is added in the blessings before the Shema.[48] e. In the prayer for healing in the Amidah, it adds ‘Elokeinu’ in the blessing: Refaeinu Hashem Elokeinu Venerafe’ (Heal us, O Lord, and we will be healed) [49] f. The paragraph niten b’afar pihu (His mouth was placed on the ground) is added in the Monday and Thursday Tachanun (supplication) prayer.[50] In addition, the Chazan,[51] the leader of the prayer, known as Shliach Tzibbur (messenger of the community), would have begun leading the service during the morning prayers not from the beginning of the morning service, as was the custom in Spain and as is the custom nowadays,[52] but just before the blessing Yishtabach.[53]


Holy sites in Jewish tradition

With the identification of the site of the medieval synagogue, how does Jewish tradition view sacred sites which were used in the past as a house of worship but are no longer in use, the site abandoned and a new building erected in its place? Do these places maintain any sanctity and should they be regarded as a sacred site in Judaism or merely as historic sites of interest but with no inherent sanctity? With the long history of places of worship in Judaism going back thousands of years, including many exiles and expulsions, the question of how one should approach abandoned sacred sites has been discussed in some detail in Jewish teaching. We will aim to outline the principles of this subject in this essay.


Sacred site

The first mention of a sacred site in the context of prayer in Judaism is found with Jacob regarding the future site of the Temple. It states in Genesis:[54] ‘And he (Jacob) arrived at the place and lodged there because the sun had set, and he took some of the stones of the place and placed them at his head, and he lay down in that place… And Jacob awakened from his sleep, and he said, ‘Indeed, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it. And he was frightened, and he said: How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of G-d, and this is the gate of heaven.’ According to the Midrash, this refers to the Temple Mount and is a place of prayer, where a person’s prayers ascend to heaven.[55]


Sacred ground can also be found regarding Mount Sinai, when it was first sought out by Moses for a place of seclusion,[56] as it says in Exodus:[57] Moses was pasturing the flocks of Jethro, his father in law, the chief of Midian, where Moses led the flocks after the free pastureland, and came to the mountain of G-d, to Horeb. An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire from within the thornbush, and behold, the thornbush was burning with fire, but the thornbush was not being consumed. So Moses said, ‘Let me turn now and see this great spectacle why does the thornbush not burn up?’ The Lord saw that he had turned to see, and G-d called to him from within the thornbush, and He said, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am!’ And He said, ‘Do not draw near here. Take your shoes off your feet, because the place upon which you stand is holy soil.’


After this early designation of a place where Moses found G-d’s presence, the site later became the mountain upon which G-d’s presence rested when the Torah was given:[58] ‘The Lord descended upon Mount Sinai, to the peak of the mountain, and the Lord summoned Moses to the peak of the mountain, and Moses ascended.’ Following the giving of the Torah the presence of G-d departed, as it states:[59] ‘When the ram's horn sounds a long, drawn out blast, they may ascend the mountain.’ The presence of G-d returned with the construction of the tabernacle:[60] ‘And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst.’ When the tabernacle was completed, the Torah relates that the Divine presence rested:[61] ‘And the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud rested upon it and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.’ The presence of G-d was then removed to the Temple. This is indicated in Psalms:[62] ‘O Lord, I love the dwelling of Your house and the place of the residence of Your glory.’ Rabbi David Kimchi explains ‘dwelling of Your house’ refers to the place that housed the ark in the Temple.


The idea that the Temple was also a house of individual prayer is mentioned in the book of Samuel,[63] Hannah would travel to the Temple in Shilo to pray for a child: ‘And so Elkanah would do year by year, as often as Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, so Peninah (her rival) would anger her, and Hannah wept and would not eat. And Elkanah her husband said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not better to you than ten sons?” And Hannah arose after eating and after drinking, and Eli the priest was sitting on the chair beside the doorpost of the Temple of the Lord. And she was bitter in spirit, and she prayed to the Lord, and wept.’


Similarly, in Isaiah:[64] ‘I will bring them to My holy mount, and I will cause them to rejoice in My house of prayer, their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be acceptable upon My altar, for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples,’ and I Kings:[65] ‘And also to the stranger, who (is) not of Your people Israel, but will come from a far country for the sake of Your Name. For they shall hear of Your great Name, and of Your mighty hand, and of Your outstretched arm, and he will come and pray toward this house.’


While the Temple served as a place for individual prayer, like with Hannah, the Temple also served as a place where prayer was offered on behalf of the entire Jewish people, like the prayer the High Priest would offer on Yom Kippur.


Outside the Temple, a prayer would have first been an individual praying to G-d without a particular location but also in communal spaces. This is the case during the Babylonian exile when Daniel prayed to G-d for the end of the exile and the return to Jerusalem:[66] ‘And I turned my face to the Lord G-d to beg with prayer and supplications, with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.’ Similarly, public spaces were used for prayer on fast days when there was a shortage of rain and there were designated places for prayers during the sacrifices.


The origin of a designated place with set prayers as we are familiar with today began during the Babylonian exile, when the Hebrew language was no longer the vernacular and people began speaking a variety of different languages, Ezra and his court established the eighteen blessings prayer, called the Amidah, the praying of three times a day, morning, afternoon and evening (Shacharit, Mincha and Arvit), and additional prayers on Shabbat and holidays (Musaf), all corresponding to the sacrifices. In addition, an additional prayer for fast days was instituted (Ne’ilah). No further obligatory prayers were permitted from that time. Voluntary prayers were permitted for an individual but not as a community, similar to the prohibition for communities to offer voluntary sacrifices. This development thus established the concept of a set structure of prayer and most likely the institution of a synagogue where these prayers were recited in an organised manner.[67]


The first synagogue was thus most likely in Babylon and the tradition was brought back to Israel when Jews returned under Cyrus the Great. This explains why even during the second Temple period there were synagogues in Israel and the diaspora. The oldest known synagogue is however shrouded in mystery. Three places of prayer from the 1st century CE have been discovered in Israel, in Gamle, Herodium and Masada, which the Romans destroyed during the revolt of 70 CE.[68] Outside Israel, synagogues existed earlier, serving the diaspora community. There are two inscriptions, dating from the reign of Ptolemy III Euergetes (246-221 BCE) that mention synagogues.[69] Such synagogues consisted of stone benches built along the walls and aisles formed by columns that supported the roof.[70] After the destruction of the Temple, synagogues became established and prevalent. In the third century CE Tiberias, where the Talmudic sages Rabbi Ammi and Rabbi Assi resided, had thirteen synagogues, separate to study halls.[71]



The sanctity of the synagogue may be seen throughout history as an extension of the Temple, outside of Israel during the temple period, as well as an extension of the Temple after its destruction. The elevated importance and sanctity of the synagogue, as sacred as the Temple itself, may be seen in the following Jewish teachings.


1. It states in Numbers:[72] ‘How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.’ The Talmud interprets the verse as referring to the synagogues and Beit Midrash and the Divine presence that rests within them.[73] Italian Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno (1475-1550) elaborates that the benefit of synagogues and study halls is not only for those who occupy them but the Jewish people as a whole.


2. In Psalms, it states:[74] ‘O Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations.’ The Talmud[75] interprets the verse homiletically that the dwelling place of G-d ‘refers to the synagogues and study halls post the destruction of the Temple (in all generations).


3. The same interpretation is given to Psalms:[76] ‘Lord, I love the habitation of Your house.’ The resting of the Divine presence in the synagogue is expressed by the comment of the Talmudic sage Abaye, who said: ‘Initially, I used to study Torah in my home and pray in the synagogue. Once I heard and understood that which King David says:[77] ‘Lord, I love the habitation of Your house,’ I would always study Torah in the synagogue, to express my love for the place in which the Divine Presence resides.’


4. A similar interpretation is offered to Ezekiel:[78] ‘Say then: Thus said the Lord G-d: I have indeed removed them far among the nations and have scattered them among the countries, yet I have been to them as a minor sanctuary in the countries where they have come.’ Rashi comments that ‘minor sanctuary’ refers to synagogues, which are in a position second to the Temple. Rabbi David Kimchi elaborates that despite being distant from the Temple, G-d is with the Jews in the synagogues where they gather to pray. He listens to their prayers and saves them from destruction by their enemies and will yet gather them in.


5. It is taught in a baraita: ‘Rabbi Elazar HaKappar says: In the future, the synagogues and the study halls in Babylonia will be transported and reestablished in Israel, as it is stated:[79] As sure as Tabor is among the mountains, and Carmel is by the sea, it shall come about.’[80]


Two levels in the sanctity of synagogues: Synagogue of Exilarch vs other synagogues

While all the synagogues are referred to as ‘minor sanctuary,’ The Talmud suggests a gradation to the sanctity of synagogues post-Temple. This is indicated in the following three texts:


1. In reference to ‘minor sanctuary’ in Ezekiel, the Talmud presents two views:[81] ‘Rabbi Yitzḥak said: This is referring to the synagogues and study halls in Babylonia. And Rabbi Elazar said: This is referring to the house of our master, i.e., Rav, in Babylonia.’ Both agree however that all synagogues are considered ‘minor temples,’ and both views are also in agreement that the main ‘minor sanctuary,’ after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, is the ‘house of our master,’ which is a place of prayer and from where ‘Torah issues forth to the entire world.’[82]


2. This gradation may also be seen from the interpretation offered in the verse in Psalms:[83] ‘The Lord loves the gates of Zion [Tziyyon] more than all the dwellings of Jacob.’ The Talmud elaborates:[84] ‘Rafram said to him, Rav Ḥisda said as follows: This means that the Lord loves the gates distinguished [metzuyanim] through the study of halakha (Jewish law) as they are the gates of Zion, the outstanding gates, more than the synagogues and study halls. Although those places are the most outstanding of the dwellings of Jacob, they are not engaged in the study of halakha. According to Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (1555 - 1631), known as Maharsha, the fact that the synagogues are called dwelling places (mishkanot) of Jacob, this compares synagogues to the resting of the Divine presence in the sanctuary. Nevertheless, G-d loves the places of the study of Jewish law more.


3. It is taught in a baraita:[85] ‘Rabbi Shimon bar Yocḥai says: Come and see how beloved the Jewish people are before the Holy One, Blessed be He. At every place they were exiled, the Divine Presence went with them. The Talmud asks: Where in Babylonia does the Divine Presence reside? Abaye said: In the ancient synagogue of Huzal and in the synagogue that was destroyed and rebuilt in Neharde’a. And do not say that the Divine Presence resided here and there, i.e., in both places simultaneously. Rather, at times it resided here in Huzal and at times there in Neharde’a. Rashi comments that the greatness of the synagogue of Huzal and Neharde’a is that in those places the Divine was recognizably present, while in the other places it was not. Nevertheless, as explained previously, in truth the Divine presence is found in all synagogues.[86]


In summary, the synagogue in Jewish thought has a sanctity similar to the Temple. Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein (1829 – 1908), in his legal work Aruch haShulchan,[87] writes: ‘Synagogues and study halls have great holiness since we pray and learn Torah in them. These locations reflect the sanctity of the Temple. Therefore, Synagogues and study halls are not treated with lightheartedness, for example, with games, humour and small talk. Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as The Arizal, was very careful to only speak words of prayer in the Synagogue.’


Dispute: level of sanctity

Regarding the sanctity of the synagogue in comparison with the Temple, there are three opinions regarding the degree of this sanctity: German Rabbi Eliezer ben Samuel of Metz (1115-1175), author of the halachic work Sefer Yereim, maintains the sanctity is biblical, while Nachmanides and Rabbi Jonah of Gerondi maintain it is rabbinical. Nachmanides argues the sanctity is connected with the respect that should be attributed to an item with which one performs a mitzvah (tashmishei kedusha), which should not be used for mundane purposes. Rabbi Jonah of Gerondi maintains the sanctity is sanctioned by the rabbis, who also instituted that the sanctity departs through sale by a committee of seven communal dignitaries in the presence of the people of the town.[88]


Mundane purposes

Once a synagogue has been consecrated, as a holy site, the place may not be used for mundane purposes. This includes idle conversation, eating, sleeping, non-charity related administrative work and leisure.[89] The great sage of the Talmud Rabbi Meir maintained that the sanctity of a synagogue is absolute and can never be removed under any circumstances.[90] The majority opinion of the sages is that under certain circumstances sanctity may be removed and a synagogue may become deconsecrated. We will explore this subject in detail in relation to the medieval synagogue in Oxford in the context of the majority view that deconsecration is indeed possible in Jewish law. Based on this we will outline the position of Jewish law towards this historic site. The subject will be explored first by outlining the use of a synagogue while standing for other purposes, followed by the method of deconsecration in circumstances where a community desires this outcome. We will then discuss the particular circumstances of the history of the Oxford medieval synagogue.


Conditional use

If one constructed the synagogue with the explicit condition that it can be used for mundane purposes, then one may do so.[91] In fact, all synagogues in Babylonia were built from the outset with a stipulation that they not have the full sanctity of a synagogue, in order that it be permitted to use them for the community’s general needs.[92] This stipulation is however subject to a dispute between Nachmanides and the French Tosafists. Nachmanides maintains that if a synagogue was constructed with such a condition, guests may eat inside it and it may be used for other mundane purposes. The Tosafot disagree, however, maintaining that the condition has no effect while the synagogue is standing and applies only after it has been destroyed. Thus, were a synagogue built with such a condition, as were the synagogues in Babylonia in Talmudic times, mundane activities could be carried on within its premises only after it was destroyed but not while standing. Jewish law follows the Tosafot's opinion.[93]


Destroyed site - grass

The basis for the idea that a destroyed synagogue retains its sanctity and may not be used for mundane purposes unless a condition was made, and for disrespectful purpose even with the condition, is based on the biblical verse:[94] ‘I will make desolate your sanctuaries.’ Jewish law expounds on this verse: ‘Even though they are desolate, they remain holy.’ This is legislated in Jewish law: ‘Just as one must treat them with respect while they are standing, so must they be treated with respect when they are destroyed.’ There is even discussion about what to do with overgrown grass on the site. If grass grows on the site, it should[95] be pulled out but left there so that it will be seen by people and rouse them to rebuild the synagogue[96] or, if rebuilding is not possible, to inspire repentance.[97]


All purposes

While mundane activities are subject to a dispute, Nachmanides and the Tosafot agree that activities directly opposed to the sanctity of the synagogue, e.g., sowing crops on the land, are forbidden.[98] Certainly without a condition having been made, the site may not be used even for mundane purposes.


Change of status

When may the site of a synagogue be used for all purposes? Once a synagogue has been consecrated, a change of status can occur, based on the stipulation in Jewish law that one may redeem sacred food, like second tithe (ma’aser sheni), if one is not able to travel to Jerusalem. The same concept is possible for other sacred items and places, as long as a process of deconsecration takes place. Jewish law discusses the following four scenarios: selling, gifting, lending, depositing.


Selling or gifting a synagogue for all purpose – dispute

The question whether a synagogue may be sold and used for all purposes is the subject of a medieval dispute. The Talmud states:[99] the restriction against selling a synagogue for an unbecoming purpose, like a bathhouse, a leatherworks, a mikveh, or a laundry, does not apply when the communal officials in the presence of the community sold the building. When it is sold in this manner, it can be ‘used even as a tavern.’


Selling a synagogue for mundane use – community officials

Maimonides and Rabbi Jacob ben Judah Chazan of London follow the literal reading of the above view of the Talmud that, if, at the time of the sale, the seven officials of the community made a condition in the presence of the entire community that the purchaser be allowed to use the building for all purposes, they may do so. Catalan Rabbi Menachem Meiri (1249–1306) maintains even if an explicit statement was not made to the effect that the synagogue could be used for an unbecoming purpose, it is understood that the village’s inhabitants consecrated the synagogue with the understanding that it be subject to the decisions of the community’s officials. Therefore, they have the right to sell the synagogue for whatever purposes they wish. 16th century Rabbi Moses Isserles (1530-1572), the Rema, goes further[100] that a public announcement of the sale is sufficient for it to be considered as if all the inhabitants of the city were present.


Ra'avad – can never be sold for mundane purposes

Rabbi Abraham ben David of Poisquires, known as Ra’avad (1120 – 1198), objects to Maimonides’ decision and maintains that the above license granted only applies to the money received from the sale, while the building that was used as a synagogue can never be used for a purpose which is unbecoming. Though Rabbi Joseph Karo in the Shulchan Aruch quotes Maimonides’ permissive view, 20th century Polish Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (1839-1933) suggests[101] following the view of the Ra’avad.[102] Rabbi Moses Feinstein (1895-1986)[103] enforces the view of the Ra’avad in regard to the sale of synagogues in neighborhoods where Jews no longer live, in particular when sold for the purpose of another place of worship inconsistent with Jewish belief, claiming that in such a case even Maimonides would agree in prohibiting such a use.



Just as it is permitted to sell a synagogue, it is permitted to give the site of a synagogue away as a present.[104] The rationale is that Jewish law accords to a gift the same status as a sale, since if the community had not received benefit from giving it as a gift, it would not have done so.[105] Rabbi Yom Tov ben Avraham Al Asevilli (c. 1260 – 1320), known as the Ritva, states that even when the community has not yet received any benefit from a person, it may give him a synagogue in the expectation of receiving such benefit. In the 17th century, Rabbi Abraham Gombiner (c. 1635 – 1682), stipulates[106] that community officials, in the presence of the villagers, must make the gift. Rabbi Joseph ben Meir Teomim (1727–1792) in the 18th century countered[107] that these conditions are not required, similar to a sale in principle[108] that does not require such conditions. In a case where there is no benefit from the transfer of ownership, as in the case of renting the property out or mortgaging it, the sanctity does not transfer and the site remains sacred for all purposes.[109]


In summary, a synagogue may be deconsecrated only through a process of deconsecration that includes either a sale or gift, so that the purchase can serve as a substitute for the sanctity. The funds generated from a sale are then subject to the same restrictions of use as was the building. It would seem, then, that with the seizure of all land at the time of the expulsion in 1290, evident from the fact that the English authorities only allowed the expelled to take with them cash and personal property,[110] there would have been no sale of buildings to serve as a medium for the deconsecration of the synagogue. This would suggest that from 1290, when William Burnel obtained the synagogue, and subsequently transferred its ownership to Balliol College in 1306, followed by the destruction of the synagogue buildings in the 16th century by Wolsey, the sanctity of Jewish places of worship remained though no Jews were allowed to remain in England.


Two categories of destroyed synagogues

It may be argued however that when Wolsey constructed the college on the site of the former synagogue and took down all the buildings in the vicinity to clear the space for the construction of his grand college and quadrangle, the status of the site from a Jewish legal point of view may have changed. Although the destruction of a sacred site does not remove the sanctity, a distinction can be made between destruction of a site whereby the building material from the former building remains and is left on the site or reconstituted in the new building and a case where the site is demolished and all remnants of the former building are removed.


There are two readings of the Talmud relating to ruined synagogues:

1.     Rabbi Yehuda said further: A synagogue that fell into ruin still may not be used for a mundane purpose. Therefore, one may not eulogize in it. And nor may one stretch out and repair ropes in it. The wide expanse of the synagogue would have been particularly suitable for this. And nor may one spread animal traps within it. And nor may one spread out produce upon its roof to dry. And nor may one make it into a shortcut.[111]

2.     Ravina had a certain piece of land on which stood a mound of the ruins (tel olam) of a synagogue. He came before Rav Ashi and said to him: What is the halakha with regard to sowing the land? He said to him: Go, purchase it from the seven representatives of the town in an assembly of the residents of the town, and then you may sow it.’[112]


Rabbi Abraham ben David of Posquières (1120 – 1198), known as the Ra’avad, in his responsa Tamim De’im,[113] argues that the first case refers to an abandoned site but the building still standing. In such a case the sanctity remains and may not be used for mundane purposes without being deconsecrated. The second case, however, refers to a demolished building with the material removed from the site and only a mound remains. In such a case it may be used for mundane purposes, as sanctity has departed, though should not be used for disrespectful use.[114] The precedent for this is after the return of the first exile to Babylon when they found former holy sites razed to the ground, no concern is mentioned in Jewish teaching about avoiding using these spaces for unholy purposes. Jewish law still stipulates that a sale should take place by community representatives before being used for gardening and other unbecoming purposes.[115]


Rashi and other commentators and legalists don’t however make this distinction. Rashi comments that all destroyed houses (bayit harus) are called in Hebrew a ‘mound’ (tel) similar to the verse in Deuteronomy:[116] ‘And you shall collect all its spoil into the midst of its open square, and burn with fire the city and all its spoil completely, for the Lord your G-d; and it shall be a heap (tel) forever, never to be rebuilt.’ The source of Rashi’s translation appears to be the Onkelos translation of ‘tel’ – destroyed mound (tel charuv), implying material remains on the site.


Polish Rabbi Meir Lublin (1558 - 1616), known as the Maharam, argues that utilising the second case of the Talmud above that in a case of a building having fallen into disuse and there being no possibility of restoring it to the Jewish community, deconsecration is possible by community representatives without consent of the whole community, even in the case of a large city.[117] Nevertheless, Rabbi Meir Lublin maintains that deconsecration is necessary.[118]


Rationale – land cannot be stolen

The rationale why a destroyed building, even if a site has been cleared and only a mound remains, requires deconsecration, is based on a distinction drawn from a responsa of Maimonides that maintains that if synagogue utensils are seized their sanctity departs, due to lack of original ownership.[119] Property, however, according to Jewish law,[120] cannot be stolen and always remains the possession of the original owner. Likewise, a synagogue building will always remain in the possession of the original owner until a sale takes place.[121] Regarding the sanctity of such a site, and its use, as mentioned, the Ra’avad would argue that in a case where the site has been razed completely, the sanctity is considered to have also departed, though a sale is still necessary in Jewish law, before being used for all purposes. If the building is in ruin but not razed, the sanctity still remains and may not be used even for mundane purposes.


At this point in this study, the above would suggest that the view of Jewish law towards the site of the medieval synagogue of Oxford is contingent on whether remains of the original site exist beneath the current buildings on the northwest corner of the quadrangle or it was completely razed and all remnants removed when the construction took place in the 16th and 17th century. If the former, the site is no longer a sacred site but is still considered sacred in regard the limitation of its use without a full sale. If the latter, the site would be considered sacred, due to the biblical verses in Leviticus[122] and due respect should be shown when using and entering the site, as per Jewish tradition.


Mitigating reasons

Two considerations, however, that might mitigate any residue of holiness to the site is the Jewish legal concept of a. loss of hope and b. the ‘law of the land’ (dina d’malchuta dina).[123] The first relates to the question in Jewish law about whether loss of hope (yi’ush) for return of property to the original owner constitutes transfer of ownership. This is in fact a subject of a dispute in the medieval period. According to Rashi abandoned hope of returning of land has no effect on the ownership, while Rabbi Isaac the Elder, known as the Ri, grandson of Rashi, maintained that the Jerusalemite and Babylonian Talmud both indicate that ownership of land may be transferred when the original owner loses hope of regaining the property.[124] This final point would appear to suggest that in the case of a medieval synagogue (outside Israel),[125] faced with expulsion of the Jewry for centuries, as with the Jews of England in 1290, hope of restoration of ownership of a property that housed a synagogue would have been abandoned, [126] thus allowing for ownership to be transferred and the consequent departure of sanctity.[127]


A second consideration[128] is the doctrine of ‘law of the land’ (dina d’malchuta dina) in Jewish law, whereby Jewish law recognizes the ‘law of the land’ as part of Jewish law.[129] There are however important qualifications to this rule: a. its relevance is only regarding matters that are of the ‘king’s interest,’ like roads, customs duties, other taxes, currency,[130] not civil matters.[131] b. it must follow the principle of non-discrimination. This second qualification was proposed by 12th century Rabbi Joseph ibn Migash, known by his acronym Ri Migash,[132] and accepted by all halachic authorities.[133] Maimonides codifies this principle in his legal work Mishneh Torah:[134]


            The general principle is: Any law that a king decrees to be universally applicable, and not merely applying to one person, is not considered robbery. But whenever he takes from one person alone in a manner that does not conform to a known law, but rather seizes the property from the person arbitrarily, it is considered to be robbery.


Based on this principle, the transfer of ownership of the property of the synagogue site occurred in three stages. When the Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and the land seized,[135] the principle of non-discrimination would have meant that the land remained in ownership of the original owner, according to Jewish law. This would have continued during the second stage of the use of the property when Wolsey took control of the property to make way for Cardinal College to be established. The status would have changed however when Henry VIII took over the project of building the college and possession of the land in 1529, confirming the transfer of the land together with adjoining properties, including properties that were never Jewish owned, for the completion of the construction of the new college on the site. As this was without discrimination, the doctrine of ‘the law of the land’ would have been effective to transfer the full ownership and also the departure of sanctity from the site.[136]



In conclusion, the case of a medieval synagogue that has been demolished and rebuilt for another purpose is the subject of a significant discussion in Jewish law relating to the sanctity of a synagogue, when and whether synagogues may be used for mundane purposes, and what constitutes the process of deconsecration allowing for all uses of the site. In particular, the case of the Oxford medieval Synagogue relates to the view in Jewish law towards destroyed synagogues, where no process of deconsecration would have likely taken place. Does the site still bear any sanctity? I argue that there are fundamentally three points to consider: firstly, a distinction may be made between a site that has remains of the former building still present and a site that was completely razed and cleared before a new building was built in its place. In the former, sanctity would remain, while in the latter, according to the Ra’avad, no sanctity would remain, though limitations on the use would still exist. A second point to consider is whether the expulsion of the Jews from England represents a situation of ‘loss of hope’ (yi’ush) that would have constituted in itself transfer of ownership and no residue of sanctity and limitation of use. A third point to consider is whether the direct involvement of Henry VIII in the completion of the building of the college on the site of the synagogue represents the doctrine of ‘law of the land’ that Jewish law recognizes, when there is no discrimination involved. While the latter appears straight forward, the first two points suggest more research is required in order to bring this discussion to a fruitful conclusion. This may include the excavation of the site and further research of the situation of the Jews during the expulsion,[137] and the centuries that followed the expulsion, both of which there is only scarce material available.[138]




[1] There may have been a lane also on the site of what is now Blue Boars Lane. The Oxford Deeds of Balliol College, H.E. Salter (1913), p. 93.

[2] Jacob the Jew of London, son of Magister Moses, owned property, together with his wife Leah, on Merton Street, that was rented out to students and later bought by Walter de Merton to establish Merton College. The sale deed exists today in the archives of Merton College.

[3] See Oxford University Botanic Garden: A Jewish perspective


[4] The Oxford Deeds of Balliol College, H.E. Salter (1913), p. 92.

[5] Agas map, attributed to surveyor Ralph Agas (c.1540-1621).

[6] The Oxford Deeds of Balliol College, H.E. Salter (1913), p. 93.

[7] Deed 188. The Oxford Deeds of Balliol College, H.E. Salter (1913), p. 93.

[8] Deed 179. The Oxford Deeds of Balliol College, H.E. Salter (1913), p. 100. The status of Mildegod as a financier in her own right is indicated by the fact she had her own seal depicting a pheasant with a reptile in its mouth, that can be seen in the archive of Magdalen College, who inherited the hospital properties after being dissolved by Waynflete to make way for the establishment of Magdalen College.

[9] Volume 4, the City of Oxford.

[10] Balliol Deeds (O.H.S. lxiv), 117-19.

[11] Cecil Roth, Jews of Medieval Oxf. (O.H.S. N.S. ix), 83-111.

[12] Deed 206.

[13] The Oxford Deeds of Balliol College, H.E. Salter (1913), p. 93. See also: Thank you to Marcus Roberts, director of JTrails for bringing this deed to my attention.

[14] A dwelling house with the adjacent buildings and curtilage and other adjoining lands used in connection with the household.

[15] Deed 202. The Oxford Deeds of Balliol College, H.E. Salter (1913), p. 91.

[16] The Oxford Deeds of Balliol College, H.E. Salter (1913), p. 92.

[17] Deed 188.

[18] The Oxford Deeds of Balliol College, H.E. Salter (1913), p. 117.

[19] The Oxford Deeds of Balliol College, H.E. Salter (1913), p. 121.

[20] The Oxford Deeds of Balliol College, H.E. Salter (1913), p. 94.

[21] The Oxford Deeds of Balliol College, H.E. Salter (1913), p. 121.

[22] The Oxford Deeds of Balliol College, H.E. Salter (1913), p. 98.

[23] The Oxford Deeds of Balliol College, H.E. Salter (1913), p. 97.

[24] It’s unclear if the northern part of the site of the intended quad was razed at this point or when the northern part of the quad was constructed.



[27] According to Marcus Roberts, director of JTrails: ‘There is the primae facie appearance that some of the relict boundaries of Burnel’s Inn are still preserved as walls and gardens at Christ Church. In addition, excavations in the terrace running around Tom Quad have shown that medieval archeology survives in the raised area, as Wolsey’s builders had no need to dig it up. The only relic of the synagogue is the stained glass given to Balliol in informal compensation for the site.

[28] The Oxford Deeds of Balliol College, H.E. Salter (1913), p. 97-98.

[29] The Oxford Deeds of Balliol College, H.E. Salter (1913), p. 96-97.

[30] The Oxford Deeds of Balliol College, H.E. Salter (1913), p. 98.

[31] The Jewish community of Oxford was not re-established until around 1841. See:

[32] Talmud Berachot 30a. 

[33] It is unlikely there was a section for women, as the custom in England as recorded in Etz Chaim by Rabbi Jacob ben Judah Chazan of London (Laws of Prayer 1:1) was following Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer 1:1), as opposed to Nachmanides, that prayer essentially is biblical in origin, to ask G-d for one’s needs without any fixed time and thus obligates women also. However, this would not have required of women to pray more than once a day and may have been as one desires, as opposed to following the set liturgy recited in the synagogue. If women would have been present it would have followed the custom of having the women and men separate so they would have been unable to mix, as per institution in the Temple during the celebration of the water drawing on Sukkot (Mishneh Torah, end of laws of Sukkah, quoted also in medieval English compendium of Jewish law Etz Chaim, end of Laws of Sukkah).

[34] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer 11:3. The text follows the published edition of Mishneh Torah. The same text is found in the Tur, Orach Chaim 150 and Rabbi Joseph Karo comments that the same text is found in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah. In Oxford MS Huntington 80 authenticated by Maimonides’ signature, it however corrects the text. Instead of writing: ‘A platform is placed in the centre (b’emtza) of the hall,’ there is a line crossing out ‘centre of hall’ (b’emtza habayit) and replaces the wording in the margin above the crossed words with: ‘in the Beit Hakneset (synagogue).’ Etz Chaim that claims in his introduction to be based on the Mishneh Torah follows the text as found in the printed edition and the Tur. This would have therefore also reflected the custom in England in the 13th century to have the platform (bimah) in the middle of the synagogue. The source for the bimah exactly in the middle of the synagogue is based on the idea that a synagogue is similar to the Temple. As the incense altar stood exactly in the middle of the sanctuary, so should the bimah in the synagogue.

[35] Laws of Synagogue, ch. 1. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer 11:4.

[36] Tosefta, Megilla 3:14; Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer, 11:4; See Rema, Orach Chaim 150:5 where it omits the detail of the elders sitting with their backs to the ark (heichal). This allows for an alternative arrangement, where they sit on either side of the ark, facing the congregation (L.Y. Raskin, Kehillat Lubavitch, London). See also Mishna Brura 150:14.

[37] Mishneh Berurah, 150:14. See Nesivim B’sdeh Hashlichus 1:197 – if there are a row of tables between the bimah and the ark, as long as the row closest to the bimah has people seated only on the side closest to the bimah but not on both sides of that table, other tables further away from the bimah may have people seated on both sides of the table. This makes sure the leader of the prayers standing on the bimah, when bowing in prayer will not be perceived as bowing towards the people seated right opposite – one of the major concerns of the Levush.

[38] Etz Chaim, Laws of Beit Hakneset, ch. 1. The text follows the wording of the Tur, Orach Chaim, 150. This may have been similar to the layout in the Rema synagogue in Krakow. This is different than Maimonides, who writes in Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer (9:1): ‘In the morning, [while] all the people are sitting, the leader of the congregation descends before the ark in the midst of the people and recites the Kaddish.’ Nesivim B’sdeh Hashlichus 2:76-77.

[39] Hagahot Maimoniot on Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayers 11:2.

[40] Mishnah Berurah 150:5.

[41] Seder Rav Amram (Machos Yerusholayim), p. 43.

[42] Seder Rav Amram (Machos Yerusholayim), p. 43.

[43] In Siddur Hatefilah L’rokeach ch. 52 it places Tzarfat (France) and Iyei Hayam (England) together in the context of liturgy (see Machzor Vitry, p. 112, footnote 9 (A. Goldschmidt, Jerusalem).

[44] Machzor Vitry, p. 102, footnote 10 (A. Goldschmidt, Jerusalem).

[45] Psalms 119:1.

[46] Machzor Vitry, p. 106, footnote 52 (A. Goldschmidt, Jerusalem). This is only found in Etz Chaim together with a number of other verses, but not in CCCMS133.

[47] Machzor Vitry, p. 106, footnote 52 (A. Goldschmidt, Jerusalem).

[48] Machzor Vitry, p. 109, footnote 24 (A. Goldschmidt, Jerusalem). This addition was criticized by Rabbi Elazar of Worms (c. 1176–1238).

[49] Machzor Vitry, p. 112, footnote 9 (A. Goldschmidt, Jerusalem). The additional word ‘elokeinu’ is found in the Machzor Vitry and Etz Chaim but not in CCCMS133.

[50] Machzor Vitry, p. 123, footnote 10 (A. Goldschmidt, Jerusalem). This addition was harshly criticized by Rabbi Elazar of Worms (c. 1176–1238).

[51] Literally: ‘to see,’ as the leader of the community must see the text of the prayers.

[52] Machzor Vitry, vol. 1, p. 3 (A. Goldschmidt, Jerusalem).

[53] Etz Chaim, Prayers, fol. 59. See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 53:1.

[54] Genesis 28:11-17.

[55] Rashi on Genesis 28:11 and 28:17.

[56] Alshich on Exodus 3:1.

[57] Exodus 3:1-5.

[58] Exodus 19:20.

[59] Exodus 19:13. See Rashi: ‘When the ram’s horn sounds a long, drawn-out blast: When the ram’s horn sounds a long, drawn-out blast, this is the sign of the Shechinah’s withdrawal and the cessation of the voice [of G-d]. As soon as the Shechinah withdraws, they are permitted to ascend [the mountain]. — [from Mechilta]’

[60] Exodus 25:8.

[61] Exodus 40:34-35.

[62] Psalms 26:8.

[63] I Samuel 1:7-10.

[64] Isaiah 56:7.

[65] I Kings 8:41-42.

[66] Daniel 9:3.

[67] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer, ch. 1.

[68] Gamla was destroyed 67 CE, Herodium 71 CE and Masada 73 CE or 74 CE.



[71] Talmud Berachot 8a.

[72] Numbers 24:5.

[73] Sanhedrin 105b: Rabbi Yoḥanan says: From the blessing of that wicked person, Balaam, you can ascertain what was in his heart. G-d transformed the curses that he planned into blessings. He sought to say that they should not have synagogues and study halls, and he said instead: ’How goodly are your tents, Jacob’ (Numbers 24:5), a blessing on their synagogues. He sought to say that the Divine Presence [shekhina] will not rest upon them, and he said instead: ’And your dwellings [mishkenot] Israel.’ Rabbi Abba bar Kahana says: All of the blessings ultimately reverted to be fulfilled as the curse that he originally intended, as all of those circumstances befell the Jewish people, except for the destruction of synagogues and study halls, as it is stated: ‘And the Lord your God transformed the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord your God loved you’ (Deuteronomy 23:6). A curse in the singular, not curses in the plural, was transformed permanently.

[74] Psalms 90:1.

[75] Talmud Megillah 29a, according to the commentary of Chidushei Agadot Maharsha.

[76] Psalms 26:8. Talmud Megillah 29a.

[77] Psalms 26:8.

[78] Ezekiel 11:16.

[79] Jeremiah 46:18.

[80] Talmud Megillah 29a.

[81] Talmud Megillah 29a.

[82] Kuntres Zeh Beit Rabeinu Sh’babovel, p. 3

[83] Psalms 87:2.

[84] Talmud Berachot 8a.

[85] Mishnaic era teaching left outside the work of the Mishnah.

[86] Talmud Megillah 29a.

[87] Orach Chaim 151:1.

[88] Sha’alot Uteshuvot Maharsham 1:10.

[89] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer 11:6. Shulchan AruchOrach Chaim 151:1.

[90] Talmud Megillah 26b.

[91] Megillah 28b: Rav Asi said: Synagogues in Babylonia are built from the outset with a stipulation that they not have the full sanctity of a synagogue, in order that it be permitted to use them for the community’s general needs. But nevertheless, one should not act inside them with frivolity.

[92] According to the Tosafists (Megillah 28b), a stipulation is only possible for synagogues outside Israel, since their sanctity will always remain, whereas synagogues outside Israel will in any event lose their sanctity at the time of redemption.

[93] Shulchan AruchOrach Chaim 151:11.

[94] Leviticus 26:31.

[95] The Mishnah (Megillah 28b) states: ‘If grass grow in it, it should not be pulled out.’ The Talmud comments that one is not allowed to pull out the grass to use as fodder for animals, but one may pull out the grass and leave it there. In his Commentary to the Mishnah, Maimonides writes that one is permitted to pull the grass out and leave it in its place. The published text of the Mishneh Torah by Maimonides and Etz Chaim by Rabbi Jacob ben Judah Chazan of London (Laws of Prayer ch. 2) appear to imply that one should pull them out. However, the version found in manuscripts is closer to the understanding in the Commentary to the Mishnah. The Shulchan Aruch (151) quotes the version of the halachah in the published texts of the Mishneh Torah. However, the Mishnah Berurah (151:29) quotes the Commentary to the Mishnah.

[96] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer 11:11.

[97] Maimonides’ Commentary to the Mishnah on Megillah 28b.

[98] Interestingly, Maimonides and in Etz Chaim by Rabbi Jacob ben Judah Chazan of London reflecting Jewish law in 13th century England does not mention at all the possibility of making a condition for mundanely using a synagogue.

[99] Megillah 26a-b: Rava said: They taught that there is a limitation on what may be purchased with the proceeds of the sale of a synagogue only when the seven representatives of the town who were appointed to administer the town’s affairs had not sold the synagogue in an assembly of the residents of the town. However, if the seven representatives of the town had sold it in an assembly of the residents of the town, then even to drink beer with the proceeds seems well and is permitted. The seven representatives have the authority to annul the sanctity of the synagogue, and therefore the proceeds of its sale do not retain any sanctity.

[100] Shulchan AruchOrach Chaim 153:7.

[101]Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 21, Be'ur Halachah.

[102] He bases his decision on the law (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 21:2) that forbids using a tallit for an unbecoming purpose even after its tzitzit have been removed.

[103] Responsa, Orach Chaim, Vol. II, 45.

[104] In the Talmud this is a matter of dispute. Jewish law follows the view that it is permitted.

[105] Talmud Megillah 26b.

[106] Shulchan Aruch, Orach ChaimMagen Avraham 153:26.

[107] Pri Megadim on Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 153:26.

[108] As opposed to changing its use, as explained above.

[109] Talmud Megillah 26b.

[110] The Jews of England: A portrait of Anglo-Jewry through Original Sources and Illustrations, p. 59. The edict of expulsion is lost but in a letter to Sheriff of Gloucester it states that the king granted the expelled to take with them their chattels. The edict of expulsion took place on 18th July, 1290 and had to be implemented before 1st November, 1290. Ibid.

[111] Talmud Megillah 28a.

[112] Talmud Megillah 26b.

[113] Ch. 114.

[114] Jewish law views a garden on the site as disrespectful compared to using it for the purpose of dealing with the welfare of the inhabitants of the town. Sha’alot U’teshuvot Maharam Lublin ch. 59. According to Dayan LY Raskin, the responsa is referring to a vegetable garden and not a garden for relaxation purposes.

[115] Talmud Megillah 26b. Ra’avad argues that one does not need to perform the sale in the presence of the villagers, since there is no benefit for them with this sale, as the site will most likely be in any event disrespected.

[116] Deuteronomy 13:17.

[117] A large city is usually viewed differently regarding deconsecration than a smaller town, as the ownership of the synagogue in a city includes wayfarers who would frequent the synagogue and therefore has more restrictions regarding its deconsecration.

[118] Sha’alot U’teshuvot Maharam Lublin ch. 59.

[119] Teshuvat Harambam 131.

[120] Talmud Sukkah 31a.

[121] Afikei De’ah, Kedushat Beit Hamidrash u’Beit Hakneset, p. 95.

[122] Leviticus 26:31 and Leviticus 19:30.

[123] Talmud Bava Kamma 113a in the name of the Talmudic sage Shmuel. Gittin 10b.

[124] Tosafot, Baba Batra 44a. The Tosafot on Talmud Bava Kamma 113a, however, writes that even if there is loss of hope in a case when theft has taken place and therefore transfer of ownership, it is obscene for one to be a recipient of such an item.

[125] This would be different regarding former sites of synagogues inside Israel, where Jews have never given up hope for returning to the land and recovering former land ownership. Afikei De’ah, Kedushat Beit Hamidrash u’Beit Hakneset, p. 95.

[126] It’s not clear whether the fact that the northern part of the quadrangle of Christ Church, the site of the former synagogue, was not completed until after the Jews were allowed to return in 1656 has any impact on the hope of the returning Jews to England to have former (communal) property returned to them where possible. In Lincoln, the Jews’ house – the only extant medieval Jewish house in England - that is still standing in its original structure has indeed been returned to the local Jewish community. 

[127] Jewish law stipulates that even in the event of abandonment of hope of recovery of a stolen item, the item must still be returned (Rema to Shulchan AruchChoshen Mishpat 356:7 and Shulchan AruchChoshen Mishpat 368:1). See Jewish Law: Hamishpat Ha-Ivri (Elon), p. 73, footnote 86. According to the second consideration of the ‘law of the land’ in Jewish law, Jewish law would recognise the right of a king to seize land for purposes that the king chooses without compensation.

[128] Dayan L.Y. Raskin suggested this consideration.

[129] Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 4:1-7) follows the opinion of Shmuel in the Talmud that the king has broad powers, including to seize land, though he states a king must compensate the owners. Rabbi Dovid ben Zimrah (d. 1573), known as the Radbaz, writes that the power of the kind is based on ‘Dina d'malchuta dina.’

[130] This would include debasement of coinage (coin clipping) in the Middle Ages, for which a person would receive capital punishment. See Jewish Law: Hamishpat Ha-Ivri (Elon), p. 69, footnote 66.

[131] Sefer ha-Terumot, gate 46, ch. 8. Par. 5. See also Teshuvot Chachmei Provence (ed. Sofer), pp. 420ff. See Jewish Law: Hamishpat Ha-Ivri (Elon), p. 69.

[132] Commentary to Talmud Baba Batra 54b. See Jewish Law: Hamishpat Ha-Ivri (Elon), p. 72.

[133] Tur Choshen Mishpat 369:14 and Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 369:8. The concept is described as ‘gazlanuta de-malchuta lav dina.’

[134] Mishneh Torah, Laws of theft and lost articles, 5:14.

[135] They were allowed to take with them only cash and personal property during the expulsion. See: The Jews of England: A portrait of Anglo-Jewry through Original Sources and Illustrations, p. 59.

[136] As mentioned in above footnote 86, Jewish law would still require a king to compensate the value of property seized for his own purposes. See Tosafot on Sanhedrin 20b for a discussion about the limitations of a king to seize land in Jewish law

[137] The edict of expulsion itself is not extant and only two letters of instruction about the passage of the Jews to the Sheriffs can be found. See The Jews of England: A portrait of Anglo-Jewry through Original Sources and Illustrations, p. 58-59.

[138] In The Jews of England: A portrait of Anglo-Jewry through Original Sources and Illustrations, p. 58, footnote 2, it states: the majority of the English Jews settled in France, and nothing further is known of them.


Comments on: Reflections on the Oxford Medieval Synagogue
There are no comments.