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Encyclopaedia Judaica

Jews in France 05: Revolution 1791 - Napoleon times

Portuguese and Ashkenazi Jews become Frenchmen - privileges lost - migration movements - Napoleon's regulations - consistorial system - debts elimination in 1806 - residential act - "useful" professions - names act for integration

Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): France,
                          vol. 7, col. 27. First page of Napoleon's
                          decree of July 20, 1808, ordering all Jews to
                          adopt surnames. Cecil Roth Photo Collection.
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): France, vol. 7, col. 27. First page of Napoleon's decree of
July 20, 1808, ordering all Jews to adopt surnames. Cecil Roth Photo Collection.

from: France; In: Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971, vol. 7

presented by Michael Palomino (2008)

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<The Modern Period.


[Jewish groups of 1790 - Portuguese Jews become French citizens in 1790, the Ashkenazim in 1791 - loss of privileges - Reign of Terror 1793-1794 - migration movements by opening ghettos and free residence]

On the eve of the French Revolution some 40,000 Jews were living in France. Those of the "German nation" were mainly concentrated in Alsace-Lorraine or Paris, while the "Spanish, Portuguese, or Avignonese" Jews were chiefly concentrated in the south.

The former who, excepting residents of Nancy, almost exclusively spoke or wrote in Yiddish, formed the vast majority (84%) of French Jewry while the latter were closer to French language and culture, less observant in religious practice, and more nearly integrated within local society. These various groups would no doubt have been fairly satisfied to obtain civic rights provided that they were consonant with the continuation of their internal communal autonomy.

After much petitioning and long-drawn-out parliamentary and public discussion, the Jews of France finally became French citizens, the Portuguese Jews on Jan. 28, 1790, and the Ashkenazim on Sept. 27, 1791.

The law of (col. 22)

1791, however, although conferring civic rights on Jews as individuals, was coupled with the abolition of their group privileges, i.e., their religious-legal autonomy. Later the communities in France suffered from the Reign of Terror (1793-94) in company with the other religious denominations. Synagogues were closed down and the communal organization abolished as a consequence of the general tendency to suppress all religious institutions. When the synagogues reopened their doors, the character of the former communities had already greatly changed. The opening up of the ghettos and the abolition of restrictions on residence encouraged many Jews to leave their former areas of residence and to reject, either entirely or partly, the discipline imposed by their erstwhile community.


[The aim of a Jewish "church organization" - Jews seen as a "nation within a nation" - new religious code by French Sanhedrin]

This anarchy, which led to complaints by former creditors of the dissolved Jewish communities, strengthened *Napoleon Bonaparte's determination to provide the Jews of France with a central organization supervised by the state and loyal to it, following the example of the arrangements he had already introduced for the other religions. Napoleon wished to create a Jewish "church organization" and at the same time to "reform" the Jewish way of life and Judaism, toward which he had an attitude of barely controlled hostility.

Napoleon considered that the Jews were a "nation within a nation", and their emancipation had not produced the anticipated results. The Jews would therefore have to be corrected and regenerated; [[to be Jewish is a religion and not a  nation. This principle fault is not corrected until now]];

in particular a solution had to be found to solve the problem of usury, still a major Jewish occupation, especially in Alsace.

With this in view, therefore, in 1806 he convened an assembly to serve as the "States General of French Judaism" (the *Assembly of Jewish Notables). Its first session was held on July 26. The Assembly had to reply to 12 questions put to it by the commissioners appointed by the government who were instructed to verify whether Jewish religious law held any principle contrary to the civil law. Having been informed of the deliberations of the Assembly and the answers it delivered, Napoleon determined on having them formulated into a type of religious code. He decided to convoke a Grand Sanhedrin (see French *Sanhedrin) - a gesture which was also within the framework of his European ambitions - whose religious authority could not be called in question. The Sanhedrin, composed of 45 rabbis and 26 laymen, met on Feb. 9, 1807, and dispersed two months later on March 9, having fulfilled its role by codifying "religious" decisions in the spirit of the answers to the 12 questions delivered by the Assembly of Notables. The Sanhedrin then gave way to the Notables, who continued their task with the intention of proposing the establishment (col. 23)

of an organization of the Jewish religion and measures to control Jewish economic activities.


[Consistory for every department with more than 2,000 Jews - schooling and rabbis]

The proposed regulation was amended by the Conseil d'Etat [[State's Council]] and promulgated by imperial edict in 1808, inaugurating what is usually called the consistorial system. This provided that a *consistory should be established for each department of France having a Jewish population of at least 2,000. Each consistory was constituted of a council composed of a grand rabbin, another rabbi, and three laymen elected by a small number of "notables". A central consistory composed of three grand rabbins and two laymen was to have its seat in Paris. Contrary to the provisions governing the organizations for the other recognized religions, expenses for religious purposes were still to be met by Jews. Thus, the new Jewish bodies were obliged, ipso facto, as inheritors, to repay the debts contracted by the former Jewish communities, whereas the other religions had been relieved of this burden.

The consistorial system partially re-created the Jewish communities, and provided them with a means of action. It also constituted the recognition of Judaism as a religion, centralizing its organization, and placing it under strict government control. While the consistory was empowered to exercise absolute and exclusive authority in Jewish affairs, it mainly concerned itself with the strictly religious aspects.

The consistory was supported by the rabbinate, which according to law was responsible for teaching the Jewish religion and the decisions of the Sanhedrin, promoting obedience to the civil laws, preaching in synagogue, and offering prayers for the imperial family. Although the authority of the rabbis was limited entirely to the religious sphere, it was nevertheless channeled into the service of the state. (col. 24) [[...]]

The central consistory was set up on July 17, 1808. Its three grand rabbins were the president and two vice-presidents of the Sanhedrin, David *Sinzheim, Joshua Benzion Segré, who died shortly afterward and was replaced by Emanuel *Deutz, rabbi of Coblenz, and Abraham Vita *Cologna, rabbi of Mantua. After the death of Sinzheim in 1812 and the resignation of Cologna in 1826, Deutz remained the only grand rabbin in the central consistory until his death in 1842. Subsequently only one grand rabbin served for the whole of French Jewry. (col. 24) [[...]]

Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): France, vol. 7,
                  col. 30. Emanuel Deutz,
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): France, vol. 7, col. 30. Emanuel Deutz,
grand rabbin of the Central Consistory of France from 1809 to 1842

[Debts elimination act of 1806 bringing the Jews to the verge of ruin]

These administrative measures were accompanied by complementary economic regulations. A decree abrogating a postponement previously granted on May 30, 1806, to persons owing money to Jews was issued, but it also laid down a mass of restrictive regulations. All debts contracted with Jews were to be annulled or liable to be annulled, reduced, or postponed by legal means (1808). As a result, a large section of the Jewish population of France, already in difficult circumstances, was brought to the verge of ruin.

[Professions and residential restrictions - "useful" professions]

Any Jew who wished to engage in trade or commerce had to obtain a license to be renewed annually by the prefect of the department in which he resided. Further measures were issued in an attempt to compel the Jews of France to assimilate into French society by regulating their place of residence. Thus a Jew who had not previously been resident in Alsace was prohibited from settling there. A Jew might settle in other departments only if he exercised a profession regarded as useful.

In order to preserve the educational value in performing military service in company with their non-Jewish compatriots, Jews drafted for the army were prohibited from procuring substitutes.

[Names act for the integration of the Jews]

Another decree which, however, confirmed an existing situation, made it obligatory for Jews to adopt surnames in the presence of an official of the registry.> (col. 24)

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Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): France, vol. 7,
                    col. 21-22
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): France, vol. 7, col. 21-22
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): France, vol. 7,
                    col. 23-24
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): France, vol. 7, col. 23-24

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