Grand Sanhedrin

The Grand Sanhedrin was a Jewish high court convened in Europe by Napoleon I to give legal sanction to the principles expressed by the Assembly of Notables in answer to the twelve questions submitted to it by the government.[1] The name was chosen to imply that the Grand Sanhedrin had the authority of the original Sanhedrin that had been the main legislative and judicial body of the Jewish people in classical and late antiquity.

Assembly of Notables

An Assembly of Jewish notables was summoned in April 1806 by the Emperor to consider a set of 12 questions. Those who attended were largely from the Bordeaux or Rhine regions (Alsace and Lorraine). They were led by Rabbi David Sinzheim of Strasbourg, who presently became the president of the Sanhedrin.

The questions presented were:

Cover page to siddur used at the Grand Sanhedrin of Napoleon, 1807.
  1. Is it lawful for Jews to have more than one wife?
  2. Is divorce allowed by the Jewish religion? Is divorce valid, although pronounced not by courts of justice but by virtue of laws in contradiction to the French code?
  3. May a Jewess marry a Christian, or [May] a Jew [marry] a Christian woman? or does Jewish law order that the Jews should only intermarry among themselves?
  4. In the eyes of Jews are Frenchmen not of the Jewish religion considered as brethren or as strangers?
  5. What conduct does Jewish law prescribe toward Frenchmen not of the Jewish religion?
  6. Do the Jews born in France, and treated by the law as French citizens, acknowledge France as their country? Are they bound to defend it? Are they bound to obey the laws and follow the directions of the civil code?
  7. Who elects the rabbis?
  8. What kind of police jurisdiction do the rabbis exercise over the Jews? What judicial power do they exercise over them?
  9. Are the police jurisdiction of the rabbis and the forms of the election regulated by Jewish law, or are they only sanctioned by custom?
  10. Are there professions from which the Jews are excluded by their law?
  11. Does Jewish law forbid the Jews to take usury from their brethren?
  12. Does it forbid, or does it allow, usury in dealings with strangers?

Creation of the Sanhedrin

At one of the meetings of the Notables, Commissioner Count Louis-Mathieu Molé expressed the satisfaction of the emperor with their answers, and announced that the emperor, requiring a pledge of strict adherence to these principles, had resolved to call together a 'great sanhedrin' which should convert the answers into decisions and make them the basis of the future status of the Jews, create a new organization, and condemn all false interpretations of their religious laws. In order that this sanhedrin, reviving the old Sanhedrin of Jerusalem, might be vested with the same sacred character as that time-honored institution, it was to be constituted on a similar pattern: it was to be composed of seventy-one members—two-thirds of them rabbis and one-third laymen. The Assembly of Notables, which was to continue its sessions, was to elect the members of the sanhedrin, and notify the several communities of Europe of its meeting, "that they may send deputies worthy of communicating with you and able to give to the government additional information." The Assembly of Notables was to appoint also a committee of nine, whose duty it would be to prepare the work of the sanhedrin and devise a plan for the future organization of the Jews in France and Italy (see Consistoire).

On October 6, 1806, the Assembly of Notables issued a proclamation to all the Jewish communities of Europe, inviting them to send delegates to the sanhedrin, to convene on October 20. This proclamation, written in Hebrew, French, German, and Italian, speaks in extravagant terms of the importance of this revived institution and of the greatness of its imperial protector. While the action of Napoleon aroused in many Jews of Germany the hope that, influenced by it, their governments also would grant them the rights of citizenship, others looked upon it as a political contrivance. When in the war against Prussia (1806-7) the emperor invaded Poland and the Jews rendered great services to his army, he remarked, laughing, "The sanhedrin is at least useful to me." David Friedländer and his friends in Berlin described it as a spectacle that Napoleon offered to the Parisians."

Medallion struck by the Paris mint in commemoration of the Grand Sanhedrin.

The opening of the sanhedrin was delayed until Feb. 9, 1807, four days after the adjournment of the Assembly of Notables. Its seventy-one members included the rabbis sitting in the Assembly, to whom were added twenty-nine other rabbis and twenty-five laymen. Its presiding officers, appointed by the minister of the interior, were: Joseph David Sinzheim, rabbi of Strasbourg (president); Joshua Benzion Segre, rabbi, and member of the municipal council of Vercelli (first vice-president); Abraham de Cologna, rabbi of Mantua (second vice-president). After a solemn religious service in the synagogue, the members assembled in the Hôtel de Ville, in a hall specially prepared for them. Following the ancient custom, they took their seats in a semicircle, according to age, on both sides of the presiding officers, the laymen behind the rabbis. They were attired in black garments, with silk capes and three-cornered hats. The sittings were public, and many visitors were present. The first meeting was opened with a Hebrew prayer written by David Sinzheim; after the address of the president and of Abraham Furtado, chairman of the Assembly of Notables, it was adjourned. At the second sitting, Feb. 12, 1807, deputies Asser, Lemon, and Litwack, of the newly constituted Amsterdam Reform congregation Adat Jeshurun, addressed the sanhedrin, Litwack in Hebrew, the others in French, expressing their entire approval of the Assembly and promising their hearty support. But the deputies were greatly disappointed when the president, after having answered them in Hebrew, invited them to be silent listeners instead of taking part in the debates as the proclamation of the Notables had caused them to expect. Addresses from congregations in France, Italy, and the Rhenish Confederation, especially from Neuwied and Dresden, were also presented.

Sessions of the Sanhedrin

In the sittings of Feb. 16, 19, 23, 26, and March 2, the sanhedrin voted without discussion on the replies of the Assembly of Notables, and passed them as laws. At the eighth meeting, on March 9, Hildesheimer, deputy from Frankfurt-am-Main, and Asser of Amsterdam delivered addresses, to which the president responded in Hebrew expressing great hopes for the future. After having received the thanks of the members, he closed the sanhedrin. The Notables convened again on March 25, prepared an official report, and presented it on April 6, 1807; then the imperial commissioners declared the dissolution of the Assembly of Notables.

The decisions of the sanhedrin, formulated in nine articles and drawn up in French and Hebrew, were as follows:

  1. that, in conformity with the decree of R. Gershom ben Judah, polygamy is forbidden to the Israelites;
  2. That divorce by the Jewish law is valid only after previous decision of the civil authorities;
  3. That the religious act of marriage must be preceded by a civil contract;
  4. That marriages contracted between Israelites and Christians are binding, although they cannot be celebrated with religious forms;
  5. That every Israelite is religiously bound to consider his non-Jewish fellow citizens as brothers, and to aid, protect, and love them as though they were coreligionists;
  6. That the Israelite is required to consider the land of his birth or adoption as his fatherland, and shall love and defend it when called upon;
  7. That Judaism does not forbid any kind of handicraft or occupation;
  8. That it is commendable for Israelites to engage in agriculture, manual labor, and the arts, as their ancestors in Israel were wont to do;
  9. That, finally, Israelites are forbidden to exact usury from Jew or Christian.

In the introduction to these resolutions the sanhedrin declared that, by virtue of the right conferred upon it by ancient custom and law, it constituted, like the ancient Sanhedrin, a legal assembly vested with the power of passing ordinances in order to promote the welfare of Israel and inculcate obedience to the laws of the state. These resolutions formed the basis of all subsequent laws and regulations of the French government in regard to the religious affairs of the Jews, although Napoleon, in spite of the declarations, issued a decree on March 17, 1808, restricting the Jews' legal rights. The plan of organization prepared by the committee of nine, having for its object the creation of consistories, was not submitted to the Sanhedrin, but was promulgated by Napoleon's decree of March 17, 1808.

See also


  • M.Graetz, tr. J. M. Todd, The Jews in Nineteenth-Century France, Stanford, CA, 1996.


  1. ^ Jew. Encyc. v. 468, s.v. France

External links

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainSinger, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "Sanhedrin, French". The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.

Abraham Furtado

Abraham Furtado (1756–1817) was born to a French Jewish family of Portuguese Marrano descent. He was elected president of the Assembly of Notables; later he served as secretary of Napoleon Bonaparte's "Grand Sanhedrin", a Jewish high court convened in Europe.

Bischheim Musée du bain rituel juif

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Consistory (Judaism)

A Jewish consistory (see conventional meanings: consistory in Wiktionary), (or Consistoire in French), was a body governing the Jewish congregations of a province or of a country; also the district administered by the consistory.

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History of the Jews in France

The history of the Jews in France deals with the Jews and Jewish communities in France. There has been a Jewish presence in France since at least the early Middle Ages. France was a center of Jewish learning in the Middle Ages, but persecution increased as the Middle Ages wore on, including multiple expulsions and returns. During French Revolution in the late 18th century, France was the first country in Europe to emancipate its Jewish population. Antisemitism has been in cycles, reaching a high level in the 1890s, as shown in the Dreyfus affair, and in the 1940s, under the Nazi German occupation and the Vichy regime.

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During World War II, the Vichy government collaborated with Nazi occupiers to deport numerous French and foreign Jewish refugees to concentration camps. By the war's end, 25% of the French Jewish population had been lost to the Holocaust, but a higher proportion survived than in some European occupied countries.In the 21st century, France has the largest Jewish population in Europe and the third-largest Jewish population in the world (after Israel and the United States). The Jewish community in France is estimated to be 480,000–550,000, but depends on the adopted definition. French Jewish communities are concentrated in the metropolitan areas of Paris, which has the largest population; Marseille, with the second-largest population of 70,000; Lyon, Nice, Strasbourg, and Toulouse.The majority of French Jews in the 21st century are Sephardi and Mizrahi North African Jews, many of whom (or their parents) emigrated since the late 20th century from former French colonies of North Africa after those countries became independent. They migrated to France beginning in the late 20th century. They span a range of religious affiliations, from the ultra-Orthodox Haredi communities to the large segment of Jews who are entirely secular and who commonly marry outside the Jewish community.Approximately 200,000 French Jews live in Israel. Since 2010 or so, more have been making aliyah in response to rising anti-Semitism in France.

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The Sanhedrin (Hebrew and Jewish Palestinian Aramaic: סנהדרין; Greek: Συνέδριον, synedrion, "sitting together," hence "assembly" or "council") were assemblies of either twenty-three or seventy-one rabbis appointed to sit as a tribunal in every city in the ancient Land of Israel.

There were two classes of rabbinical courts called Sanhedrin, the Great Sanhedrin and the Lesser Sanhedrin. A lesser Sanhedrin of 23 judges was appointed to each city, but there was to be only one Great Sanhedrin of 71 judges, which among other roles acted as the Supreme Court, taking appeals from cases decided by lesser courts. In general usage, "The Sanhedrin" without qualifier normally refers to the Great Sanhedrin, which was composed of the Nasi, who functioned as head or representing president, and was a member of the court; the Av Beit Din or chief of the court, who was second to the nasi; and sixty-nine general members (Mufla).

In the Second Temple period, the Great Sanhedrin met in the Temple in Jerusalem, in a building called the Hall of Hewn Stones. The Great Sanhedrin convened every day except festivals and the sabbath day (Shabbat).

After the destruction of the Second Temple and the failure of the Bar Kokhba Revolt, the Great Sanhedrin moved to Galilee, which became part of the Roman province of Syria Palaestina. In this period the Sanhedrin was sometimes referred as the Galilean Patriarchate or Patriarchate of Palaestina, being the governing legal body of Galilean Jewry. In the late 200s, to avoid persecution, the name "Sanhedrin" was dropped and its decisions were issued under the name of Beit HaMidrash (house of learning). The last universally binding decision of the Great Sanhedrin appeared in 358 CE, when the Hebrew Calendar was abandoned. The Great Sanhedrin was finally disbanded in 425 CE after continued persecution by the Eastern Roman Empire.

Over the centuries, there have been attempts to revive the institution, such as the Grand Sanhedrin convened by Napoleon Bonaparte, and modern attempts in Israel.

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