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Background of the Swiss Seals

These seven seals tell a fascinating tale of medieval Swiss Jewry, as presented in a 1967 study by Florence Guggenheim-Grünberg. Her basic material is derived from the State Archives of Zurich. The seals of Mordechai (Gumprecht), Moses (Mose), and Israel (Susman) are attached to a document dated January 31, 1329; the seal of Jacob is attached to a document dated March 27, 1343; that of Vivlin (Vifli) is attached to a document dated June 21, 1352.* From the Bern archives comes a document dated April 15, 1391, to which two Jews had originally appended their seals, Benjamin, whose seal has now fallen off, and another Vivlin, whose fragmented seal can still be seen.

According to Guggenheim-Grünberg, almost nothing is known of the Jews of Zurich in the first half of the fourteenth century. One person, however, a Mrs. Minne, is first mentioned in 1324, at which time she was already a widow. Her husband was named Menachem (Mennli). She had two sons, Mordechai and Moses, whose seals appear as Nos. 69 and 70. They, with their mother, who did not have a seal, signed a receipt for 950 silver marks along with another Jew of Zurich, by name Israel (Susman), whose seal is No. 71, the money having been returned by Count Johann von Habsburg. This is the January 31, 1329, document bearing the three seals mentioned and illustrated here. Israel must have been the brother of Mrs. Minne and the uncle of Mordechai and Moses because various documents mention that the father of Israel and of Mrs. Minne was a man named Rabbi Samuel.

Moses is apparently the person who is recorded as living for a while after 1347 at Bern, acting as a rabbinical teacher. This Moses is known for his gloss of the SeMaK, the Sefer Mitzvot Katan, or Small Book of Precepts, written by Rabbi Isaac ben Joseph of Corbeil, France. Moses’ gloss was called the Zurich SeMaK. The fact that this distinguished rabbi had a personal seal is another indication that even the most conservative Jews allowed the practice.

A great many Jews, particularly in Switzerland and Germany, were burned alive or murdered in other ways in 1348 and 1349 as having caused the Black Death. Moses is entered in the Zurich Memorbuch. His brother Gumprecht was killed at Frankfort on the Main, where he was then living. His name is mentioned in the Frankfort synagogue records with other Jews from Zurich.

Quittance from Zurich, January 31, 1329, sealed by Gumprecht, Mose, and Susman (reduced in size). State Archives of the Canton of Zürich, Doc. C I, No. 277.

Another Zurich document involving Jews is still extant from the period immediately preceding the Black Death catastrophe and is shown here. On March 27, 1343, Jacob son of Solomon of Schaffhausen, also in Switzerland, (see No. 72) gave a receipt to the city of Zurich for monies borrowed from him, excluding the interest. Jacob’s seal, as noted, is in Hebrew lettering only, and the pious phrasing would seem to indicate that his father was a rabbi or a person of some importance in the community. Nevertheless, the decoration of this seal resembles contemporary Christian iconography more than the other Swiss Jewish seals do; indeed, the Gothic-style almond shape of the seal was favored by high churchmen.

Quittance from Zurich, March 27, 1343, sealed by Jacob son of Solomon (reduced in size). State Archives of the Canton of Zürich, Doc. C I, No. 278.

Surrender of property from Zurich, ]une 21, 1352, sealed by Vifli (reduced in size). State Archives of the Canton of Zürich, Doc. C I, No. 280.

Mrs. Minne’s son Moses had two children who survived the massacres following the Black Death, Vivlin (Vifli), No. 73, and Guta. A document dated June 21, 1352, and illustrated here, shows the seal of Vivlin, which imitated that of his father and uncle and also tells a poignant story. It relates the surrender of the rights of Vivlin and Guta to the family property, the beneficiary being the mayor of Zurich. The family estate seems to have been legally seized, probably in exchange for the lives of this third generation. One can conjecture that with the brothers Moses and Gumprecht murdered, it was easy for the mayor to swindle their inheritance from the two young people. A Vifli who may be identified as Moses’ son was established at Raspreswil, a nearby town across the Austrian border, and is mentioned from 1380 to 1386. This Vifli, however, may be a Vivlin son of Isaac who sealed a document at Bern dated April 15, 1391. The principals in this document were Benjamin (No. 75), his wife, Meria, and his grandson, Bennfelt. The document is a plea to the officials of Bern to permit the Jews to continue their privileges as moneylenders, which were being threatened by the introduction of the Cahorsins. The Christians had begun to supplant the Jews in usury, almost their sole means of livelihood, and in the next century expulsion from Switzerland was to be the fate of the few descendants of the survivors of the Black Death massacres. With minor exceptions, Jews were not permitted to live in Switzerland again until 1798, when the Helvetian Republic was pro-claimed; not until 1866 were they granted freedom of residence and guaranteed legal equality.


*As noted above, the first three seals all bear the device of linked Jews’ hats. Three other seals with the same device, those of Moses son of Joseph Halevi (No. 76), Merolt son of Joseph Halevi (No. 77), and Meir son of Asher Halevi (No. 78), appear together on a document from Überlingen in 1332, at about the same time as the Swiss document. Since Überlingen is on the German side of Lake Constance, adjoining Switzerland, the symbol probably was used as a kind of Jewish badge or emblem in the region.

*As noted above, the first three seals all bear the device of linked Jews’ hats. Three other seals with the same device, those of Moses son of Joseph Halevi (No. 76), Merolt son of Joseph Halevi (No. 77), and Meir son of Asher Halevi (No. 78), appear together on a document from Überlingen in 1332, at about the same time as the Swiss document. Since Überlingen is on the German side of Lake Constance, adjoining Switzerland, the symbol probably was used as a kind of Jewish badge or emblem in the region.

These seven seals tell a fascinating tale of medieval Swiss Jewry, as presented in a 1967 study by Florence Guggenheim-Grünberg. Her basic material is derived from the State Archives of Zurich. The seals of Mordechai (Gumprecht), Moses (Mose), and Israel (Susman) are attached to a document dated January 31, 1329; the seal of Jacob is attached to a document dated March 27, 1343; that of Vivlin (Vifli) is attached to a document dated June 21, 1352.* From the Bern archives comes a document dated April 15, 1391, to which two Jews had originally appended their seals, Benjamin, whose seal has now fallen off, and another Vivlin, whose fragmented seal can still be seen.

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780814344859
MARC Record
OCLC
1055142843
Pages
161-163
Launched on MUSE
2018-10-02
Open Access
Yes
Creative Commons
CC-BY-NC-SA
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