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  • In the Kuna and in the Synagogue: Punishments for Adultery and Homosexuality in the Nineteenth-Century Ashkenazi Community of Jerusalem
  • Abraham Ofir Shemesh (bio)

Societies and cultures around the world have different laws and prohibitions concerning family and sex life. Interpersonal and family sexual restrictions were evident in ancient times and some are common in modern society to this day. The current article discusses punishments given for breaching sexual morals in the Ashkenazi-Perushim society of Jerusalem in the nineteenth century. The study focuses on historical testimony provided by Yehoshua Yellin (1843–1924), a major figure in the Perushim congregation and one of those who, in the nineteenth century, initiated the practice of banishing those found guilty of adultery or homosexual relations to residences outside the walls of Jerusalem.1 Yellin’s testimony is given in his book “Zichronot Leven Yerushalayim” (“Memories of a Son of Jerusalem”), which depicts the history of the Yishuv and of communities in Jerusalem in this period, and it illuminates the image, character, and values of the Perushim community, as well as its legal system and customary modes of punishment.2

In this study three major questions will be discussed:

  1. 1. What are the historical and Jewish roots of the modes of punishment for sex offenses mentioned in Yellin’s testimony?

  2. 2. Were there common guidelines and principles typical of forms of punishment utilized for adultery and homosexual relations?

  3. 3. Were the punishment patterns mentioned unique to the Ashkenazi community and how were similar offenses treated in other Jewish communities throughout the Ottoman Empire? [End Page 271]

the ashkenazi-perushim community of jerusalem and its legal system: a historical review

The Ashkenazi-Perushim court, officially called the “Court of Justice of the Ashkenazi Holy Community” (in short: “Badatz Perushim”), dealt mainly with matters of the Perushim community in Jerusalem and in the entire country, and was one of the important institutions of the Old Yishuv.3 One of the conspicuous figures in the court was Rabbi Shmuel of Salant (1816–1909) who, after arriving in the country in 1841, served as head of the rabbinical court under the auspices of his father-in-law, R. Yosef Zundel of Salant, who occupied the role of the Ashkenazi rabbi of Jerusalem. After the passing of R. Yosef Zundel in 1866, Rabbi Shmuel Salant was appointed rabbi of the Ashkenazi community in his father-in-law’s place, and Rabbi Meir Auerbach replaced the former as head of the court.4

The court of the Perushim was located in the complex of the Hurvat Yehuda ha-Hassid synagogue (known as the Hurva) in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. The Hurva complex was the religious–spiritual and organizational–communal center of the Old Yishuv, and particularly of the Perushim congregation. Aside from the synagogue, the complex also encompassed a Talmud Torah and the Etz Haim yeshiva, the hevra kadisha, the ritual baths, the ritual slaughter committee, and was the place where the Kolels convened.5

Due to the differences in lifestyle, language, and even religious customs, the Ashkenazi Jews constituted a separate congregation from the start. Since the first Hasidic waves of immigration in 1777, and until the Egyptian conquest of the Land of Israel (1831–40), the Ashkenazi Jews were considered subservient to the Sephardic community economically, legally, and politically.6 The Ottoman regime saw the Sephardic Jews as the exclusive representatives of all Jews in the Land of Israel, and by law the Ashkenazi Jews were subject to the Sephardic Hacham Bashi (Chief Rabbi). 7 Over the years, members of the Ashkenazi community made repeated efforts to be released from the authority of the Sephardic communities and asked for the right to have an independent court, as well as to establish houses of prayer and an independent burial system.8 After a lengthy struggle, and with the assistance of the foreign consulates, the Ashkenazi Jews managed to dissociate themselves from the Sephardic authorities. As a result, they obtained a distinct legal status and separate legal institutions, were no longer obliged to obey the Sephardic court, and could follow their own version of Jewish law and of European customs.9 As we shall see below, this...


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