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The Legal Validity of the Jewish Seal in England

We learn nothing about Jewish seals from the English charters dealing with the validation of Jewish documents. The first of these charters, dated March 22, 1190, was granted by King Richard I to “Ysaac, son of Rabbi Joce, and his sons and their men.” The charter was thus issued to individuals. In 1201 King John adopted almost the precise wording of the earlier charter and applied it explicitly to all the Jews of England and Normandy. This charter stipulates: “And if any dispute arise between a Christian and a Jew he who summons the other to answer his complaint should have witnesses, viz.: a lawful Christian and a lawful Jew. And if a Jew has a writ about his complaint, the writ shall be a witness for him, and if a Christian have a complaint against a Jew, let it be judged by peers of the Jew.” In the charter of Duke Frederick II to the Jews of Austria, issued in 1244, the legitimate proof of a seal protected the Jew against a violation of a contract. But there is no mention of sealing in these English charters, or even in the charter of Edward I, given in 1275, which ruined English Jewry by prohibiting the practice of usury. The charter States that when settling debts “the Chattels shall be valued by the Oaths of good Men,” that is to say, by sworn witnesses. It should be noted, however, that John’s charter allowed that “the writ shall be a witness for him,” so that Jews could use documentary evidence in place of or in contradiction to oral testimony, though validation by sealing is not mentioned.

In most surviving Jewish documents of this period, the word ḥotam (“seal,” in Hebrew) appears at the beginning or end, but whether this means “seal” or “sign” is not clear. Israel Abrahams (Abrahams, Stokes, and Loewe, 1930–32) translates it as “sign,” ignoring the sealing function. M. D. Davis (1888) does the same except in those very few cases where a Jewish seal is actually appended. In contrast, Cecil Roth writes in Encyclopaedia Judaica, “Many promissory notes of Jews, which were deposited with the Exchequer of the Jews of England, had Jews’ seals affixed to them, some engraved with figures.” These must have been seals for the Jewish Exchequer, the official Christian seals used for Jewish documents.

The most careful study of the matter is that of Herbert Loewe (1932). After reviewing the history of the term and showing that it clearly was used to stand for the word “seal” as it is usually understood, Loewe refers to the fact that Jewish medieval seals from England are known. Then he points out that certain phrases in documents unmistakably refer to sealing and cannot, even when straining the imagination, be rendered otherwise. Two examples may suffice. In one case the Latin reads: “sigilla nostra apposuimus, litera ebraica signata,” which clearly is separating the affixing of seals from the signature in Hebrew letters. In another case, a French document uses the antique French verb enseler, which means “to seal” and cannot mean “to sign.”

Loewe then points out that when those starrs were written the signature was growing more important than the seal in England and that, as a consequence, ḥotam acquired the meaning of signing as well as sealing even though Jews still had seals. The word sometimes meant “seal” but more often “sign.” In normal usage, the Hebrew word katav, “write,” now meant “draw up” and the Hebrew ḥotam meant “sign” rather than “seal.” Loewe makes two further telling points. The first is that regardless of whether the document was sealed, the opening phrase in Hebrew always refers specifically to sealing and does not use the Hebrew phrase stating that the document is both signed and sealed. The second is that Jewish marriage contracts regularly begin with “I have sealed below” and end with “We have sealed,” and yet the meaning here is not sealing but signing.

This writer has carefully reviewed the documents listed in M. D. Davis’ Hebrew Deeds of English Jews before 1290 in order to try to arrive at an independent conclusion. These deeds cover the period beginning with 1230 at Nottingham, 1182 at Lincoln, 1235 at Norwich, 1230 at Canterbury, and 1250 at London. Over two hundred documents are analyzed, covering sales of land and of land and buildings; the rental of shops; acknowledgment, transfer, and quittance of debts; the deposit of security monies; betrothal and marriage deeds, as well as releases therefrom; and miscellaneous subjects such as gifts to children. It is apparent, as Loewe states, that the words referring to the function of sealing are largely ritualistic, for certain formal expressions are used irrespective of whether the document is sealed or not. The most common forms in Hebrew are “I the sealer” or “We the sealers”; “I have signed and sealed” or “We have signed and sealed”; “I have sealed”; “This is the seal”; and “And what I here acknowledge, I herewith seal.” All these expressions are used without evidence of seals. It is theoretically possible that all the seals attached to these deeds have fallen off, but this is unlikely. Furthermore, where seals are missing the slit in the document from which the parchment strip with the seal hung would remain.

What could be more definite than the expression in Hebrew, “And what I here acknowledge, I herewith seal,” followed by a signature in Hebrew, as in Davis’ documents 186 and 187? Yet there is no seal in either case. Adding strength to the conviction that this is only a ritual formula is that document 186 takes place between a Christian and a Jew, while 187 is a transaction whose validity would be determined by a bet din, a Jewish court. As for document 201, it concerns an agreement among Jews of Colchester regarding the inheritance of a house. It states, “Be ye witnesses for us, and write and seal in the language of the law of acquisition,” and continues, “What we have seen and what they asked us we have sealed with our seal, so that the document should be in the hand of each as proof.” Yet there is no indication of sealing. An even stronger example is document 15, which is a betrothal contract between R. Yomtob ben Moses, father of the bride, and Solomon ben Eliab, the bridegroom, for nuptials to take place in 1249. The bet din added the words in Hebrew, “And what we have done we have sealed,” with no evidence of a seal. It would be redundant for a bet din to seal a betrothal contract.

Caution is still required. Because the word ḥotam might be translated as “sign” or “deed,” it does not follow that it cannot also mean “seal.” A rather ambiguous document in Davis’ book, 63, states that certain eminent Jews signed and sealed; eight pendants remain, but the seals themselves have disappeared. Only scraps of this document were intelligible. It is quite possible that the seals belonged to the Christian jurors or witnesses, the deed being an inquisition into a series of transactions over several years. Yet these might also be Jewish seals.

A clearer case is a document illustrated in discussing the seal of Aaron, No. 5 in this catalogue, in which Aaron of York was a witness and beneath which is written, “This is the seal of Aaron in testimony.” We know that Aaron had a seal, which he used; in the technical sense it was a cameo and thus not a specifically Jewish seal, but it was a seal owned and used by a Jew.

There is no question about the seals of Bonefay son of Barton (or Briton) and his son Yosi (Nos. 3 and 4 in this catalogue) attached to Davis’ document no. 143 and reproduced in No. 4 above. The Hebrew written at the bottom of the Latin document commences with the words “We the sealers,” and in this case the words definitely mean “sealers” and not “deeders” or “signers.”

It is the opinion of this writer that the custom in medieval England probably resembled that existing in the United States and Israel at the present time; that is to say, the wording of a legal document, now even more ritualized in a printed form, still calls in many cases for both a signature (and witness) and a seal, but the document is almost always legally binding if signed even if the seal is not appended. The seal does add extra weight but has become rather superfluous legally. Under common law in the United States a contract under seal could not be modified by a subsequent contract which was not sealed, and the seal thus imparted a consideration. The common law, however, has been superseded by statutes in most states so that the sealing or lack of sealing has no real legal value and, at best, the seal becomes prima facie evidence of a consideration, a presumption which can be rebutted.

It would seem that, in imitation of Christian custom, certain Jews (Jacob of London and Aaron of York were among the richest) had seals made in order to feel themselves equals of their fellow (Christian) burghers. Most other Jews did not feel this necessary or did not want to go to the expense of having a seal cut, and a seal thus became a mark of status rather than a necessary legal instrument. This is the more probable explanation of the lack of English Jewish seals from the pre-expulsion period.*

English records of the medieval period are by no means completely explored. The enormous collection of the Public Record office is still unknown territory, as is that of Westminster Abbey. The writer has been informed that the Muniments Room at Magdalen College in Oxford has a vast collection of uncatalogued medieval documents, and it has been estimated that the Oxford colleges alone possess about fifty thousand charters which are earlier than the fourteenth century. Further research may invalidate the conclusions presented here. On the other hand, William Urry, the archivist of the cathedral at Canterbury (another huge collection), has examined those holdings carefully and has informed me that he has not seen a Jewish seal in his archives. Since Canterbury was an important Jewish center in the Middle Ages, the lack of Jewish seals there is an indication of their extreme rarity.


*The legal value of the Jewish seal probably was no different from that accorded the Christian seal. It has been noted that royal seals were used by the crown in the archa system of the Jewish Exchequer. The validation depended, however, on registry. Lipman (1967, p. 67) informs us that two Christian and two Jewish keepers of the archa or chest were appointed. “All loans had to be drawn up in their presence and registered; a copy of the deed was deposited in the archa and the handing over of this to the debtor became an essential formality for the acquittance of the debt.”

*The legal value of the Jewish seal probably was no different from that accorded the Christian seal. It has been noted that royal seals were used by the crown in the archa system of the Jewish Exchequer. The validation depended, however, on registry. Lipman (1967, p. 67) informs us that two Christian and two Jewish keepers of the archa or chest were appointed. “All loans had to be drawn up in their presence and registered; a copy of the deed was deposited in the archa and the handing over of this to the debtor became an essential formality for the acquittance of the debt.”

It would seem that, in imitation of Christian custom, certain Jews (Jacob of London and Aaron of York were among the richest) had seals made in order to feel themselves equals of their fellow (Christian) burghers. Most other Jews did not feel this necessary or did not want to go to the expense of having a seal cut, and a seal thus became a mark of status rather than a necessary legal instrument. This is the more probable explanation of the lack of English Jewish seals from the pre-expulsion period.*

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780814344859
MARC Record
OCLC
1055142843
Pages
56-58
Launched on MUSE
2018-10-02
Open Access
Yes
Creative Commons
CC-BY-NC-SA
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