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Personal Seals

10. Seal of Samson Son of Samson

Shimshon bar Shimshon

Dimensions: 28 mm. Impression.

Location: British Library, London, No. 1.9.

Bibliography: Roman, 1870; Jacobs and Wolf, 1887, No. 42; Birch, 1900, No. 23, 202; Jewish Encyclopedia, 1907, s.v. “Samson ben Samson”; Victoria and Albert Museum, 1956, No. 15 (a); Blumenkranz, 1965–66, No. 2, 23 (4); Roth, 1971; Bedos, 1980b, No. 2, 23 (4)

This is considered by most writers on the subject to be the personal seal of the famous French Talmudic and biblical commentator called HaRaSH and, by anagram, Ha-Sar or “the prince” of Coucy. The seal impression shows a lion moving to the right, within a circle; round the circle are the letters of the name. Rabbi Samson was born in the second half of the twelfth century. From other sources, to be discussed in more detail later, we know that special district or town seals mandated by royal authority for the Jews replaced Jewish personal seals in France and Normandy shortly after 1200 by order of King Philip Augustus. This seal must have been cut before that date.*

Samson belonged to a distinguished family of French Talmudic scholars. He was a descendant of Joseph Bonfils; Judah of Corbeil was his uncle and Moses of Coucy his brother-in-law; he is frequently quoted in Moses’ famous Sepher Mitzvoth Gadol (SeMaG), or Great Book of Precepts, which deals with the prohibitions and commandments of the Mosaic law. Samson himself has his glosses quoted in the standard interpretation of several tractates. He was one of the prominent rabbis appealed to by Meir ben Todros Abulafia in protesting the writings of Maimonides.

The seeming fact that Samson son of Samson not only permitted but esteemed a personal seal clearly shows that some rabbis of the most unbending persuasion had no religious scruples concerning the use of certain objects showing graven images. The legitimacy of seals is alluded to in the Babylonian Talmud (Seder Neziḳin), Abodah Zarah (“Strange Worship”) 43b: “It is forbidden to put on a signet ring which is cut in relief but it is allowed to seal with it; and if the signet is cut in, one may put the ring on but not seal with it.” This clear distinction applies, of course, only to signet rings, since the ordinary seal matrix is always incised. However, the reference of certain authorities to the Babylonian Talmud (Nashim), Gittin (“Divorces”) 36a, that important rabbis had seals is based on a misreading of that text, confusing “sealing” with a commonly recognized and accepted mark for “witnessing.” This section of the text deals with the rules of witnessing a get or divorce decree, and mention is made that Rab signed by drawing a fish, R. Hanina by drawing a palm branch, and others by a letter of their names. The discussion centers on the identification of the witnesses, and these methods of identification are used as examples. Again, to substantiate this point, in Baba Bathra 161b such methods of identification are specifically called “marks.” In neither quotation is there any example of a rabbi using a seal. However, Cecil Roth writes that not only Samson son of Samson but also Israel Isserlein and Jacob Moellin (Maharil) had seals which showed lions (Roth, 1971). As to Maharil, ca. 1360–1427, rabbi at Mainz and later at Worms, our source is Joseph ben Moses, born shortly after Moellin’s death. Rabbi Joseph writes: “I remember that the seal of the Gaon [Maharil] of blessed memory had the head of a lion impressed on it” (quoted in Freimann, 1903–4, 2: 12). There is no known record of an impression from this seal.

We know quite a bit about the lives of a group of distinguished rabbis gathered in northern France: Isaac ben Joseph, Perez ben Elijah, Jacob “the Saint,” Moses ben Jacob and Samson bar Samson at Corbeil and Coucy, as well as their kinsmen in nearby Champagne, at Dampierre, Troyes, and Ramerupt. They lived by viticulture, moneylending, and other pursuits, which threw them into constant contact with their Christian neighbors. They travelled widely, throughout Germany, England, France, Spain, and Italy. They had Gentile friends, and Moses of Coucy specifically mentions their help. These medieval rabbis were more integrated into the surrounding culture than is often realized,* and the use of seals as a badge of honor was sanctioned by antiquity and indeed is mentioned several times in the Talmud. It may be said in general that the possession of a seal at this time, in imitation of the aristocratic coat of arms, represented a position of very high honor in the Jewish community, either rabbinical or financial, probably both together.

The seal impression of Samson comes from the collection of detached seals of the British Library in London. It was exhibited at the two great Anglo-Jewish exhibitions held in London, the first in 1887 and the second in 1956. Catalogues of both exhibitions state that the matrix was found at Westminster. However, this seal is officially listed at the British Library as an impression from the matrix. M. F. Borrie, assistant keeper of the Department of Manuscripts at the British Library, has looked into the matter and informed the writer that this seal is one of a small group of casts of Jewish seals acquired in 1880; nothing is known of the location of the matrix.

In 1870 the French Numismatic and Archaeology Society published a report on a group of seals exhibited by “M. Caron” (probably Émile Caron, a well-known collector of the time) which included two Jewish seals (Roman, 1870). The first of these seals was said to display a lion with the name, in Hebrew, of Shimshon bar Shimshon, or Samson son of Samson. Another reference states that this seal was in the Westminster Abbey collection in 1850 and then was sold to a collector in Paris. Either the seal exhibited by Caron in 1870 was received from Westminster or (which seems more plausible) the statement that the matrix was found at Westminster is incorrect, and this seal impression, among a few others of a Jewish nature, was acquired in 1880 by the British Museum from the French source. Since the impression is not appended to any known document, this mystery will probably remain unsolved. Some English writers believe that this seal belonged to an English Jew of the same name who attested a Hebrew document in Northampton about 1271 (Victoria and Albert Museum, 1956, No. 20). The writer is inclined to think this English derivation incorrect because the few English Jewish personal medieval seals known (with one rather crude exception) used Latin rather than Hebrew letters. The seal style is closer to the French Jewish seals we know from the earliest period as well.

It is instructive to observe than an Ashkenazi Jew bore the same name as his father in this period, which seems surprising to us. The practice, however, was not uncommon in pre-expulsion England, whose Jewish community had come from northern France and thus was also Ashkenazi by background. A late medieval signet ring was uncovered in Breslau in 1906 whose owner’s name was Abba son of Abba.* Such observations—like the evidence noted above that a strictly orthodox Jew used a seal with an engraved image—teach us that Jewish tradition was far more variable than commonly supposed.


*Unless the seal was made for personal correspondence rather than for legal use in stamping documents, a possibility that will be referred to later.

The Patriarch Rabbi Gamaliel (first century) used a signet ring engraved with a human head (Roth, 1961, col. 20).

*Rashi used French to explicate difficult passages in Hebrew, and it is said that modern French philologists are greatly indebted to him, since his work is one of the small group of documents with occasional French words and phrases preserved from the time when that language was evolving out of the vulgar Latin.

*It is always possible, of course, that the fathers of these sons died before the infants reached their eighth day, that is, before circumcision.

*Unless the seal was made for personal correspondence rather than for legal use in stamping documents, a possibility that will be referred to later.

The Patriarch Rabbi Gamaliel (first century) used a signet ring engraved with a human head (Roth, 1961, col. 20).

*Rashi used French to explicate difficult passages in Hebrew, and it is said that modern French philologists are greatly indebted to him, since his work is one of the small group of documents with occasional French words and phrases preserved from the time when that language was evolving out of the vulgar Latin.

*It is always possible, of course, that the fathers of these sons died before the infants reached their eighth day, that is, before circumcision.

This is considered by most writers on the subject to be the personal seal of the famous French Talmudic and biblical commentator called HaRaSH and, by anagram, Ha-Sar or “the prince” of Coucy. The seal impression shows a lion moving to the right, within a circle; round the circle are the letters of the name. Rabbi Samson was born in the second half of the twelfth century. From other sources, to be discussed in more detail later, we know that special district or town seals mandated by royal authority for the Jews replaced Jewish personal seals in France and Normandy shortly after 1200 by order of King Philip Augustus. This seal must have been cut before that date.*

The seeming fact that Samson son of Samson not only permitted but esteemed a personal seal clearly shows that some rabbis of the most unbending persuasion had no religious scruples concerning the use of certain objects showing graven images. The legitimacy of seals is alluded to in the Babylonian Talmud (Seder Neziḳin), Abodah Zarah (“Strange Worship”) 43b: “It is forbidden to put on a signet ring which is cut in relief but it is allowed to seal with it; and if the signet is cut in, one may put the ring on but not seal with it.” This clear distinction applies, of course, only to signet rings, since the ordinary seal matrix is always incised. However, the reference of certain authorities to the Babylonian Talmud (Nashim), Gittin (“Divorces”) 36a, that important rabbis had seals is based on a misreading of that text, confusing “sealing” with a commonly recognized and accepted mark for “witnessing.” This section of the text deals with the rules of witnessing a get or divorce decree, and mention is made that Rab signed by drawing a fish, R. Hanina by drawing a palm branch, and others by a letter of their names. The discussion centers on the identification of the witnesses, and these methods of identification are used as examples. Again, to substantiate this point, in Baba Bathra 161b such methods of identification are specifically called “marks.” In neither quotation is there any example of a rabbi using a seal. However, Cecil Roth writes that not only Samson son of Samson but also Israel Isserlein and Jacob Moellin (Maharil) had seals which showed lions (Roth, 1971). As to Maharil, ca. 1360–1427, rabbi at Mainz and later at Worms, our source is Joseph ben Moses, born shortly after Moellin’s death. Rabbi Joseph writes: “I remember that the seal of the Gaon [Maharil] of blessed memory had the head of a lion impressed on it” (quoted in Freimann, 1903–4, 2: 12). There is no known record of an impression from this seal.

We know quite a bit about the lives of a group of distinguished rabbis gathered in northern France: Isaac ben Joseph, Perez ben Elijah, Jacob “the Saint,” Moses ben Jacob and Samson bar Samson at Corbeil and Coucy, as well as their kinsmen in nearby Champagne, at Dampierre, Troyes, and Ramerupt. They lived by viticulture, moneylending, and other pursuits, which threw them into constant contact with their Christian neighbors. They travelled widely, throughout Germany, England, France, Spain, and Italy. They had Gentile friends, and Moses of Coucy specifically mentions their help. These medieval rabbis were more integrated into the surrounding culture than is often realized,* and the use of seals as a badge of honor was sanctioned by antiquity and indeed is mentioned several times in the Talmud. It may be said in general that the possession of a seal at this time, in imitation of the aristocratic coat of arms, represented a position of very high honor in the Jewish community, either rabbinical or financial, probably both together.

It is instructive to observe than an Ashkenazi Jew bore the same name as his father in this period, which seems surprising to us. The practice, however, was not uncommon in pre-expulsion England, whose Jewish community had come from northern France and thus was also Ashkenazi by background. A late medieval signet ring was uncovered in Breslau in 1906 whose owner’s name was Abba son of Abba.* Such observations—like the evidence noted above that a strictly orthodox Jew used a seal with an engraved image—teach us that Jewish tradition was far more variable than commonly supposed.

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780814344859
MARC Record
OCLC
1055142843
Pages
61-62
Launched on MUSE
2018-10-02
Open Access
Yes
Creative Commons
CC-BY-NC-SA
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