This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Pandemonium in the Pews*

What a wonderful spiritual serenity envelops us during the High Holy Day season! In keeping with our ancient tradition, before we beseech God to forgive us for our misdeeds, many of us take the trouble to approach our neighbours to seek their forgiveness for any affronts we might have committed against them. It is therefore a time of harmony and goodwill for the Jewish community.

Of course there are the occasional exceptions.

Take for example the medieval savant and moralist Kalonymos ben Kalonymos of Arles, Provence (in southern France). In his satirical tract Even Bohan (the Touchstone), composed in 1322, he singled out Yom Kippur as a day rife with communal bickering, as rival families and factions compete for the privileges of leading the prayers--until the service degenerates into anarchic strife. He tells of a particular occasion when one of those squabbles erupted into the breaking of synagogue vessels, acerbic mutual accusations and a general mood that was, to say the least, inappropriate for that solemn day.

Well, Kalonymos was writing a satire, a genre that depends on comic exaggeration, so we don't know how literally we should take his words. To be sure, violence in synagogues was not entirely unknown in Jewish society. It was rampant enough that the medieval rabbinic authorities had to issue special regulations to deal with it. This situation is implicit, we may assume, in the edict ascribed to Rabbi Jacob Tam declaring that the normal fine for assault is twenty-five denars, but if the attack takes place inside a synagogue then it is increased to fifty denars (if the victim returns the blow, however, he thereby forfeits his rights to compensation under the law).

Several incidents of a similarly violent character are recorded in medieval Provençal communities--including some that found their way into the local police records.

Let us begin with a case that occurred on the Day of Atonement itself, in the town of Manosque in 1338, and led to a trial that dragged on for many months--some sixteen years after the writing of the Even Bohan.

As in Kalonymos' story, this episode involved the controversial selection of a cantor for the festival, a decision that was complicated by the existence of a longstanding feud in the Jewish community. Indeed, the appointment of cantors was one of the more frequent causes of disputes--including violent ones--in traditional Jewish communities, and the gentile authorities would often be called in to intervene in the process. 

The congregational leadership of Manosque initially offered the position to a young man from a neighbouring town, Isaac of Alamania. Isaac diplomatically declined the invitation knowing that it would be likely to irritate an influential citizen of Manosque named Jacob of Baherias. A neutral substitute was found to serve as cantor, but for unexplained reasons was unable to continue his task beyond the Shaharit morning service. They approached the community's spiritual leader, referred to in the transcripts as "Magister Vitalis" (= Rabbi Hayim), but he bowed out pleading physical weakness. Isaac of Alamania appared to be the only viable candidate and attempts were made to achieve a reconciliation between him and Jacob. The negotiations broke down and Isaac--perhaps out of spite--proceeded to resume the service beginning from the reading of the Torah. 

The result was total pandemonium.

At this point, Jacob and his father Abraham commenced shouting and objecting that Isaac was ineligible to chant the service according to the halakhah. Indeed, an edict of Rabbi Simhah of Speyer had declared that cantors could not be appointed unless they were acceptable to every member of the community, and even a sole dissenter could exercise a veto for that purpose. Although Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg had mitigated that ruling in recognition of how difficult it was to find such consensus in Jewish society, even he had insisted on applying it strictly for the solemn worship of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Jacob went on to threaten Isaac with excommunication for this violation of protocol. 

With the congregation now split into two warring camps, the Baherias faction approached Magister Vitalis insisting that he take decisive action to dismiss that arrogant outsider from his cantorial post. To their disappointment, the rabbi urged them to continue the service peacefully.

In all this frantic activity, a certain Leonitus who was carrying the Torah scroll tried to stop Jacob's brother-in-law from rushing toward the rabbi. This led to a full-scale brawl. The damage from the scuffle included the ripping of a portion of the Torah mantle and perhaps worse.

The uproar of this altercation was not contained within the walls of the sanctuary. The decibel level reached sufficient intensity to be audible even in the nearby "poor people's synagogue." Isaac stood down at the conclusion of the Torah reading, and the weary rabbi was persuaded to take over the remainder of the service. By then the violent dispute had to be dealt with by the non-Jewish civil authorities.

Our knowledge of the details surrounding this disgraceful incident derives from the fact that it has been preserved in the archives of the Manosque judiciary. That is to say, the local gendarmes were called in to uphold public order and to punish those responsible, with a view to deterring future rabble rousers--as well as to fatten the municipal coffers with the lucrative fines that would be imposed on the culprits. 

The Manosque archives document additional synagogue brawls, including one that involved a formidable arsenal of sticks, stones, swords and spears, and yet another one in which a gravedigger's spades were used as weapons when the local community refused to interrupt its prayers to assist with the burial of a corpse form a nearby village. The issues that provoked the quarrels included such examples as (once again) the choice of a cantor (whether for Tish'ah beAv or during the Ten Days of Repentance), and a certain abusive shrew named Bianca who vocally questioned the right of her synagogue-neighbour to occupy a seat or to open her mouth in the company of respectable ladies.
Perhaps some of my readers have felt occasional frustration at the ill will or lack of decorum encountered in their own congregations. I find considerable consolation in the realization that, when we study the antics of some of of the Jewish communities of past generations, our own petty lapses into disharmony appear quite tame and forgivable by comparison.

This article and many others are now included in the book

For Signs and for Seasons
For Signs and for Seasons

published by

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