Jerusalem’s Kedem Auction House will be hosting a special auction on February 7 featuring the proclamation of French Jewry to convene Napoleon Bonaparte’s “Grand Sanhedrin.” The proclamation is written in Hebrew and Italian and “speaks in extravagant terms of the importance of the Sanhedrin and of the greatness of Napoleon, its imperial protector.”
The Grand Sanhedrin’s Proclamation Photo Credit: Kedem Auctions
Like a time machine appearing out of nowhere, compelling pieces of Jewish history in the form of documents, letters and one-of-a-kind proclamations are becoming available in public auctions. The reappearance of the proclamation of French Jewry to convene Napoleon Bonaparte’s “Grand Sanhedrin” at a forthcoming auction at Kedem Auction House in Jerusalem on February 7 is destined to spur lively debates on how the decisions of former Jewish communal leaders impacted contemporary Jewry hundreds of years into the future.
For French Jews and their European brethren who constantly lived under the threat of violence from a variety of anti-Semitic rulers, the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) ushered in a new era of democracy, fiscal prosperity and religious freedom.
During the First French Empire, he enacted laws that first emancipated Jews in France, making them equal citizens to other Frenchmen. Napoleon also emancipated the Jews in other countries he conquered and overrode old laws restricting Jews to reside in ghettos as well as lifting anti-Semitic laws that limited Jews’ rights to property, worship, and certain occupations.
Thus, Napoleon greatly improved the condition of the Jews in France and Europe, who admired him. On May 30, 1806, following a wave of anti-Semitism in the area of Alsace-Lorraine (near the border of the rising Germanic Empire), Napoleon gathered an Assembly of Notables, rabbis and Jewish communal leaders in France and in Italy, and presented them with 12 questions that were posed to assess their relations with the French empire and especially to see if Jewish law (halacha) contradicts French laws. The answers he received from the Jewish community satisfied Napoleon. Hence, he wished to convert the answers into decisions and make them the basis of the future status of the Jews.
Towards this end, Napoleon convened another smaller assembly of rabbis and Jewish community notables which he called the “Grand Sanhedrin of Paris.” The Sanhedrin would authorize the answers of the assembly, thereby allegedly giving them halachic authority.
On October 6th, 1806, the Assembly took the initiative to anticipate and prepare the first meeting of the Grand Sanhedrin in a printed proclamation to the Jewish community. Fast forward 210 years… It is this proclamation that will be featured as one of the centerpieces of the Kedem auction.
Written in Hebrew and Italian the proclamation speaks in extravagant terms of the importance of the Sanhedrin and of the greatness of Napoleon, its imperial protector.
“Blessed be the Lord G.-d of Israel forever, who has placed on the throne of France a prince according to his heart. G.-d saw the lowering of the descendants of the ancient Jacob and chose Napoleon the Great to be the instrument of his mercy. In the shadow of his name, security has returned to our hearts and we can now build, plant, harvest, cultivate the human sciences, belong to the great family of the State, serve it and glorify ourselves in its noble destinies. “
The first formal meeting of the Grand Sanhedrin of Napoleon, composed of 71 members, took place in Paris City Hall (Hotel de Ville), on February 9th, 1807, with the specific purpose to define the principles of Judaism and to grant it an official institution in France.
And as the saying goes, the rest is history. However, in this instance, you can actually OWN the original proclamation that created the foundation for modern day French Jewry, which in an ironic twist of historical fate, once again finds itself threatened by nefarious forces.