In 1840, the first Reform synagogue in the UK, The West London Synagogue, was established under the leadership of several prominent families dissatisfied with both the Sephardic and Ashkenazic synagogues, beginning a controversy that would last centuries to come. The Chief Rabbi at the time, Solomon Hirschell, dismissed the new synagogue for not adhering to Orthodox Judaism, which he then received backlash for, as many believed he was being too “frum”, beginning century old disputes throughout the British Jewish community to this day.
As the phrase goes, ‘words are our greatest weapons.’ The printing press created numerous rabbinic quarrels throughout the 19th century within the English Jewish community. Chief Rabbi of the Polish and German Jews in England, Solomon Hirschell, fell victim to controversy as did his predecessors. With different ideas and perspectives, came dispute amongst the Rabbis of the Great Synagogue.
As Queen Elizabeth II nears her Platinum Jubilee, marking 70 years of her reign, the Jewish community in Britain will be celebrating this royal occasion as they have done for centuries. “The United Synagogue: 150 Years of Service” features prayers and texts that have been composed in honour of the Royal Family for times of joy, sorrow and celebration throughout past generations.
In 1765, Rabbi David Tevele Schiff was appointed the new rabbi of the Great Synagogue in London, only to find that the dust had not yet been settled between the rival Ashkenazi synagogues. Another rabbinic leader refused to acknowledge Rabbi Schiff’s authority, and this communal dispute continued to rage. The eventual triumph of Rabbi Schiff was a key event in the development of the UK Chief Rabbinate as we know it today. My collection features some fascinating works portraying the efforts that each rabbi made in fight for authority to their communities.
As the feud between the two Ashkenazi synagogues, the Great Synagogue and the Hambro Synagogue, subsided, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch was appointed Chief Rabbi of both communities. Yet, he began to grow frustrated with the lack of Jewish learning and he left the UK. Rabbi Zvi Hirsch frequently wrote his name and scholarly notes in the books he owned. However, in my possession is the only known book he ever signed in English and Hebrew as Chief Rabbi in London as well as the signet ring he used as a seal during this time.
The very first Hebrew books printed in London for Jewish use were produced in 1707 by a non-Jewish publishing house and were neither prayer nor scholarly books, they are thought to be the earliest recorded rabbinic “machlokes” (controversy) within the Ashkenazi community in the U.K
As the Jewish community became established in the U.K there was a demand for locally printed prayer books to replace those imported from elsewhere. The first Hebrew Siddur was accordingly printed in the U.K in 1770. It is exceedingly rare, perhaps because in the same year a more enterprising publisher produced a Hebrew-English version which was the forerunner of the dual language Siddurim used up until the present day.