publisher colophon

176. Seal of the Magistrate of the Communities

Dimensions: unknown.

Location: unknown.

Bibliography: see No. 175.

According to Maria José Pimenta Ferro, whose detailed study of the Jews of Portugal focused on the fourteenth century, the chief rabbi (“Rabi Mór” in Portuguese) backed the decisions he made as minister of the monarch to the Jewish community by the sanction of the royal seal. Though he owned his own seal, he did not have the authority to use it officially. This is clearly established by legislation from 1373 in which King Fernando (Ferdinand I, 1367–83) defined the duties of Judah Aben Menir, his chief rabbi as well as royal treasurer. In 1382 this monarch conceded to Dorn Judah the right to wear a seal hanging from a chain, like other state magistrates, though it is not expressly stated that this seal was to be used in performing his official duties.

Earlier scholars have written about the internal structure of the Portuguese Jews and all agree that the chief rabbi, who had jurisdiction over the Jews in that country, was ordered in 1402 by King John I (the Great, 1385–1433) to have a signet engraved showing as its device the coat of arms of Portugal and a legend: “Sêlo do Rabi Mór de Portugal.”* The signet was used by his secretary to seal all responsa, decisions, and other documents which he issued. This practice would seem to be an extension of the chief rabbi’s use of the seal in the preceding period. No document stamped with this seal (nor any other medieval Jewish seal) could be found by this writer after a canvass of every major city and university archive in Portugal. It is likewise stated that the seven provincial magistrates appointed by the chief rabbi used a seal of the same type, bearing the Portuguese coat of arms and an inscription translated as “Seal of the Magistrate of the Communities.” No document stamped with this seal could be found either.

The extent to which seals were used by Jews in Portugal is a matter of conjecture rather than evidence, but seems to resemble the situation in Spain. E. H. Lindo, the first writer to analyze the position of the Portuguese Jews, emphasizes the importance of the small Jewish community, whose superior administrative abilities and financial acumen enabled them to rise above their medieval status as chattel. For example, in 1190 under Sancho I Don Solomon Jachia was appointed commander-in-chief of the Portuguese army. Lindo claims that Don Solomon’s family must have been ennobled because all his descendants were allowed to use the title of “Don.”* Sancho II appointed Jews to various public offices in preference to Christians, causing complaints from Pope Gregory IX. A distant source, Monumenta Hungariae Judaica (1, issue 20), says that on December 12, 1359, the pope granted the request of King Béla IV to allow him, “like the king of Portugal,” to lease public offices to Jews. The pope stipulated that Jews should not have priority over Christians and that, “as with the king of Portugal,” trustworthy Christians had to be treated the same as Jews. At this time in Hungary there were Jews who had become feudal lords, directly ennobled by the monarch. Despite the faulty Portuguese records, we can assume that a similar situation existed in Portugal, as the Hungarian record states. We do have evidence of the high position of Portuguese Jewry a century earlier. In 1289 the clergy made forty charges against King Dennis to the Papal See, the twenty-seventh being that the king had appointed Jews to the highest offices of state, the chief rabbi Judah being his treasurer and minister of finance, and it seems apparent that Jews with such prestigious positions would possess seals. Cecil Roth writes (1971) that Jewish seals were already in use in Portugal in the twelfth century, though he cites no authorities.

The separate question of the juridical validity of Jewish seals in Portugal again seems to follow the situation in Spain. Lindo states that the chief rabbi, official head of all Jews in the country, was accompanied at all times by his ouvidor, a magistrate who hears causes: “The ouvidor was to be a well-informed Jew, possessing all the necessary qualifications for an upright and just judge. He affixed the official seal to all letters, sentences, and releases or acquittals, given by the chief rabbi or himself.” Also accompanying the chief rabbi, says Lindo, was “a notary, to note, and give notarials acts and documents of everything that passed before him, for which he was entitled to make the same charges as the royal notaries. . . . He might either be a Christian or a Jew, but must know to read and write well” (p. 308). The matter is thus described but not categorized in legal terms. The chief rabbi exercised the same authority over the Jews as the chief magistrate of the court did over the Christians, but there is no specific evidence that he was considered de jure a clergyman or official member of the Second Estate. His ouvidor sealed all papers of consequence, and his notary notarized in the same fashion, without indication of a hierarchy of importance if a decision were questioned or contested. However, in further descriptions of civil actions the seal is downgraded. For example, Lindo writes that “actions between themselves [i.e., Jews] were to be proved in the same manner as suits between Christians were, that is by documentary evidence, witnesses, or by oath” (p 310). He continues that, in the reign of Dom Pedro, “when Jews bought, hired, assigned, farmed, or exchanged landed property with or from Christians, they should be sworn before the judge of the place, or the two notaries that draw up the deed, that the transaction is neither fraudulent nor usurious” (p. 312). It would thus seem that the Portuguese followed the same set of juridic values as Spain, as crystallized in the Siete Partidas referred to in the discussion of Spanish seals.

To summarize, the evidence seems to point to the existence of Jewish seals in medieval Portugal; these seals, however, would have been of secondary importance compared to notarial attestation or evidence before a judge, supported by documents, witnesses, and oaths. Since Jewish documents were of a private nature, concerned with lending money and buying and selling, these seals with their documents have long since disappeared. Such seals, insofar as commoners were concerned, had so little importance that Maria José Pimenta Ferro, who extensively reviewed the archival literature, does not even list seals in his index of subjects.

*Lindo, pp. 306, 309; Kayserling, p. 10; Remédios, p. 376. Also see Ordenações Afonsinas, that is, the Ordinances of [King] Alphonso, Bk. II, sec. 81.

*“Don” and “Dom” probably derive from Dominus, the Latin for “Lord.” “Dom” is usually the form used in Portuguese. It is uncertain whether in Portugal this titular mark of respect meant one was a nobleman; in Spain at that time, many Jews not ennobled were addressed as “Don.”

*Lindo, pp. 306, 309; Kayserling, p. 10; Remédios, p. 376. Also see Ordenações Afonsinas, that is, the Ordinances of [King] Alphonso, Bk. II, sec. 81.

*“Don” and “Dom” probably derive from Dominus, the Latin for “Lord.” “Dom” is usually the form used in Portuguese. It is uncertain whether in Portugal this titular mark of respect meant one was a nobleman; in Spain at that time, many Jews not ennobled were addressed as “Don.”

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