On February 9, 1807, the newly constituted Sanhedrin of Paris convened, under the authority vested in it by the Emperor Napoleon. The establishment of this body, intended to be an heir to the court and governing body of the same name that existed briefly in ancient Israel in the years before and after the destruction of the Second Temple, came in the wake of Napoleon’s emancipation of the Jews.
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The year before the Sanhedrin met, an Assembly of Jewish Notables had gathered in Paris to consider a list of 12 questions from the emperor on Jewish practice and belief. The assembly was comprised of 112 distinguished Jews, both rabbis and laymen, led by Rabbi David Sinzheim of Strasbourg. Napoleon’s questions had to do with Jews’ relations with non-Jews and with the French state and its laws, and with Jewish laws of marriage and divorce -- including the possibility of intermarriage. The assembly was also asked about Jewish law’s position on usury.
Napoleon (who reigned from 1804 to 1815) was pleased with the responses he received from the Assembly, but had some questions about their specific content. Hence, he conveyed to its members his desire to convene a second body, a Sanhedrin, representing Jews from around the empire, which was to consider his questions and reservations, and to formally ratify its decisions.
The 71 members of the Sanhedrin opened their meetings on February 9, 1807, at the Hotel de Ville of Paris. Their three leaders were Sinzheim of Strasbourg, joined by Joshua Benzion Segre, from Vercelli, Italy, and Abraham de Cologna, rabbi of Mantua.
Just to be clear, he told the Sanhedrin the answers he hoped to receive. In particular, he requested of its members to reconsider the question of intermarriage, which he thought would be beneficial to the Jews. He also suggested they consider other “methods that might end or contain the Jews’ evil ways.”
The body’s members held their ground on issues of principle. They were not, they said, able to give their imprimatur to the idea of intermarriage, but made it clear that they accepted that a civil marriage between a Jew and a Christian was legal. They also declared the need for Jews to adhere to French civil law -- except in cases where its laws conflicted with halakha (Jewish law). They also stated that Israelites were forbidden from lending money for interest, both from other Jews or from Christians.
The Sanhedrin’s final session took place on March 9, and on April 6, the body conveyed its responses, in French and Hebrew, to Napoleon. A year later, on March 17, 1808, the emperor effectively placed the Jews on probation, issuing a number of new restrictions on the citizenship they had been offered 17 years earlier.
Apparently, Napoleon was under pressure from a number of different Christian communities, whose leaders were unhappy with the equality he had offered the Jews. These included his own uncle, Cardinal Joseph Fesch, who had warned the emperor that equality for the Jews would have catastrophic consequences: “Do you not know that the Holy Scriptures predict that the end of the world will happen when the Jews will be recognized as a corporate nation?”
Within a year, however, Napoleon, who received the appeals of Jews from around France, revoked the restrictions he imposed following the meeting of the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin, on the other hand, never convened again.