Legal document: Halper 347

Legal document Halper 347

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In PGP since 2017


A court decree made in the last decade of the month of Iyyar in 1543 (1232 in the Julian calendar), banning the use of synagogue holy objects (kele kodesh) as collateral for loans by congregants for twenty years. The decree is described as being instituted by both the court (bet din) and "elders whose names are signed below," likely referring to the only names on the fragment: "Netanel b. Sa'adyah" and "Eliyahu b. R. Zechariah, may his soul be gathered into life everlasting." In this context, these elders likely acted in a similar manner as amicus curiae ("friends of the court") do today, and who, despite not having official judicial appointments, nevertheless occupied important roles in relation to the court, due to their dignity and standing in the synagogue and community. Given the fairly intact nature of the fragment, it is improbable that those who signed were the court officials themselves, given that there are only two names (the court would have had three judges), though it may have been enough that only two judges signed, or there might have been more names at the bottom that were lost. The ban comes as a result of congregation officials who, short on funds, pledged synagogue property to creditors, which resulted in these important objects being repossessed when they were unable to pay. These objects, which would have included the customary silk robes for the Torah scrolls (seferim) and inscribed breastplates, silver bells, and pomegranate pendants that are hung on the scrolls, would have been important for use in the synagogue and their absence would immediately have been felt by the congregation. The decree describes two reasons for the ban, one being that their absence is "causing anguish of mind to some of the Congregation", and the second being that congregants would refuse to donate further expensive sacred objects to the synagogue if they believe they will be used as collateral for loans by officials of the congregation. Interestingly, the court merely forbids future use of sacred objects of collateral, but does not enjoin the congregation officers to restore or place the sacred objects already taken. The court puts "under the ban" anyone who violates the decree in the future; in this context, such a ban is akin to excommunication, and would have put a violator outside the protection of the community. They would have been unable to enter into any business or personal arrangements with members of the community, would be formally cursed, might have property confiscated, and might even have been subjected to corporal punishment. The public announcement of the ban would have been necessary in order to ensure its enforcement, and was likely very effective. The decree is noted as issued in the name of Avraham Maimonides, son of the famous Moshe Maimonides, and refers to him as "our Lord, our Nagid [prince]". The Nagid functioned as both religious and judicial head of the Egyptian Jewish community, and was supreme judge in criminal and civil matters. Similarly to his father whom he succeeded as Nagid, Avraham was a scholar and a physician, and even treated the caliph El Kamil. (Information from David Werner Amram's article "An Injunction of a Jewish- Egyptian Court of the Thirteenth Century" from the July 1901 issue of The Green Bag legal magazine, which also includes a full translation by Professor Richard Gottheil of Columbia University, as well as further analysis)