publisher colophon

68. Seal of Solomon Son of Isaac

Shelomah bar Yitzḥak al-Muammam Allāhu Valiyyō Solomon, Son of Isaac, the Man with the Turban, May God be His Friend

Dimensions: 28 mm. Impression.

Location: British Library, London, No. 1.8.

Bibliography: Gentleman’s Magazine, 1787, Pl. 11, fig. 8; Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1855, pp. 39–41; Jacobs and Wolf, 1887, No. 43; Jacobs, 1893, PP. 25–27; Birch, 1900, Nos. 23, 203, 23, 204; Loewe, 1932.

This interesting and mysterious personal seal comes from the collection of detached seals of the British Library in London. There are two impressions listed, the first described by the library as “recent impression in gutta percha from the matrix”; the second is labeled “recent impression in red sealing-wax.”

The writer is indebted to S. D. Goitein for explaining the meaning of the legend. The first Arabic word, ’L-m’mm is to be read al Mu’ammam and can be translated literally as “the man with the turban,” a reference to the male figure shown in the center of the seal, facing left, who wears a turban. Joseph Jacobs, in his study of the Jews of Angevin England, thought that the seal owner had converted to Islam. However, Goitein points out that in Moslem countries Jews were not permitted to wear turbans, which were a mark of high distinction, but that exceptions were occasionally made for outstanding Jews such as physicians or government officials. Thus this Solomon is shown to be a very important person. H. Loewe agrees, defining the Arabic expression as “one who has been ennobled or given high rank or office,” and concludes that it denotes “a Jew who had been advanced in the service of the Government” (p. 116). The last Arabic phrase, Allāhu valiyyō, with the third-person ending as in spoken Arabic, not the more elegant literary form, is a standard expression, the full form of which is “may God be his friend and supporter.”

The seal was described and illustrated in a Scottish antiquarian magazine in 1855 (see the Bibliography above). The article shows not only the seal impression but also the bronze matrix, with a hoop on the reverse to which a ring is attached. The matrix is said to have been found in 1850 by a laborer ploughing a field near the Scottish village of Duddingstone, an ancient ecclesiastical site.

Complicating the mystery of this seal is that an English magazine had illustrated the same seal impression in 1787, sixty-three years before the matrix was “discovered” in Scotland; that illustration is shown here. Dr. D. Wilson, the man who exhibited the seal in 1851, may have been a fraud, or it may be that the seal impression printed years earlier was taken from a document, and that the matrix itself was indeed found by Wilson over sixty years later. It is difficult to believe that a Scotsman in 1850 would or could engrave a fake seal matrix in Hebrew letters with an Arabic text based on thirteenth-century grammatical conventions!

As for the seal impressions at the British Library, one of which is shown as No. 68, no mystery exists. M. A. F. Borrie, assistant keeper, writes that the earlier impression in gutta-percha was part of a large lot of seal casts assembled by Henry Laing of Edinburgh which the British Library acquired in 1877; presumably the later impression, in red sealing wax, was cast from the earlier one.

Seal of Solomon son of Isaac. From Gentleman’s Magazine, June, 1787, Pl. No. II

Though there are Jewish seals showing figures cut in the round, it is extraordinary to find one from a country influenced by Moslem tradition, where the prohibition of the human figure was even stronger than among Jews. The few Jewish seals from Spain at this time, even though they appear to originate from Christian rather than Moslem areas, also avoid such depictions. In size and style, including the border of beads, No. 68 is similar to bracteates (thin silver coins) issued from the late twelfth to the early fourteenth century, mainly in central Europe. It would seem that the seal was modeled on the contemporary bracteate, yet why this should be done by a Jew from an Arabic-speaking country in this period is yet another mystery. Jacobs relates this seal to one R. Solomon ben Isaac, who is recorded as a witness in a legal action. There is no evidence other than the rather common combination of names, however, to support this conclusion. It is Goitein’s feeling that a Jewish physician from Sicily or Spain came to London, just as Abraham ibn Ezra did somewhat earlier, and that his seal somehow traveled to Scotland.*

It is curious that the four seal impressions with Hebrew legends held by the British Library are not of English Jews. The seal of the Jewish congregation of Seville (No. 57) is Spanish, as is the seal of Todros Halevi (No. 50). The personal seal of Samson son of Samson (No. 10) is French. No. 68, with its Arabic cut in Hebrew letters, could come from any Mediterranean Arab country. These seals indicate the international nature of medieval Jewry and the financial activities of European Jews in this period, including those of England. There was little tourism in earlier times: Jews often traveled to the Land of Israel to die, but rarely went from one European country to another on matters unrelated to commerce.


*This seal must have made a deep impression on Jews of the time. H. Loewe quotes from a twelfth-century French manuscript, one of the tosafot of R. Elchanan and R. Judah ben Isaac: “Seal rings, such as it is now customary to make in England, contain a human figure” (p. 117).

*This seal must have made a deep impression on Jews of the time. H. Loewe quotes from a twelfth-century French manuscript, one of the tosafot of R. Elchanan and R. Judah ben Isaac: “Seal rings, such as it is now customary to make in England, contain a human figure” (p. 117).

Though there are Jewish seals showing figures cut in the round, it is extraordinary to find one from a country influenced by Moslem tradition, where the prohibition of the human figure was even stronger than among Jews. The few Jewish seals from Spain at this time, even though they appear to originate from Christian rather than Moslem areas, also avoid such depictions. In size and style, including the border of beads, No. 68 is similar to bracteates (thin silver coins) issued from the late twelfth to the early fourteenth century, mainly in central Europe. It would seem that the seal was modeled on the contemporary bracteate, yet why this should be done by a Jew from an Arabic-speaking country in this period is yet another mystery. Jacobs relates this seal to one R. Solomon ben Isaac, who is recorded as a witness in a legal action. There is no evidence other than the rather common combination of names, however, to support this conclusion. It is Goitein’s feeling that a Jewish physician from Sicily or Spain came to London, just as Abraham ibn Ezra did somewhat earlier, and that his seal somehow traveled to Scotland.*

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780814344859
MARC Record
OCLC
1055142843
Pages
142-144
Launched on MUSE
2018-10-02
Open Access
Yes
Creative Commons
CC-BY-NC-SA
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