CJS Rare MS. 493: A historical record and eyewitness account from 18th century Jewish Alsace

CAJS Rare Ms. 493 is a manuscript donated to the Penn Libraries in 2018 and part of the Moldovan Family Collection of Judaica at Penn Libraries.

This manuscript is called a Pinkas, which is a historical ledger most often owned by a community. The purpose of these were to document histories and people important to the specific community. Also, Pinkasim are sometimes especially valuable because of eyewitness accounts of events and personalities which can be written in the hand of the author.

In this case, a Pinkas was a ledger for Avraham Freimann, a mohel (ritual circumcisor), using it to record each circumcision ceremony, while providing the name of the family and child, the place, date, and often time of day. He often provides even more detail; if a prominent person was in the audience, or another event was taking place.

Bischheim is a suburb immediately north of Strasbourg, the capital city of the Grand Est region of France. During the 18th century Alsacian Jews lived in suburbs and villages around Strasbourg, but most often not in the city. The information provided in the Pinkas is very valuable showing the spread of Jewish life across Alsacian towns in the Strasbourg area.

Hebrew tombstones in the Jewish Cemetery in Bischheim. Credit: Beit Hatfutsot

Freimann visited many towns and some cities to perform his work. Towns and villages cited in Alsace include Botwiller, Mundolsheim, Ittenheim, Haguenau, and Osthoffen; some travels across the Rhine into German lands include mention of ceremonies in Shopfloch, Dresden, Friesenhausen, and Reishaufen.

Freimann’s opening entry for his relocation to the Alsace (on f. 2r)

He also records two ceremonies performed in the presence of a famous philanthropist and member of the courts of Louis XVI of France, Herz Cerfbeer von Mendelsheim (Mendelsheim? ca. 1730 – Strasbourg 1793) and notes his prominence in the entries. Cerfbeer was a supporter of a yeshivah in Bischheim as well.

Oil portrait of Herz Cerfbeer von Mendelsheim, now in the collection of the Musée historique de Strasbourg. Wikimedia Commons.
Entry describing a ceremony in the presence of Herz Cerfbeer von Mendelsheim.

So, this volume contains Freimann’s eyewitness accounts to historical events as well. For example, he notes hurrying a procedure during an expected invasion on the synagogue he was in by armed mercenaries from neighboring La Wantzenau, though it didn’t happen; as he writes, “God foiled their evil plot”. I will paste the full cataloging note, including the war that was taking place during this time in the Alsace environs:

“Document[ed] events in the community involve the War of the First Coalition between France and the European Powers: a hurried ceremony on 19 Av 1794 in Bischheim during a riot of “haters of Rofichlun [?], שונאי ראפיכלין” from neighboring “Ṿantsine” (La Wantzenau, sometimes called Wanzenowe) would destroy the synagogue, but “God foiled their evil plot” (f. 10r); an elaborate inscription celebrating a family arriving on a boat on the Rhine after being held capture by the invading German troops, in which Shimon b. Mosheh and his family escaped using the Schiffsbrücken (pontoon bridges) near Strasbourg to Kehl in secret while the Germans were dozing (“yeshenim shenat ha-sus”) after the enemies were driven to the Donau, and upon the arrival of the hostages and a circumcision ceremony there was great celebration (f. 13r-13v). He inscribes his grief and sorrow on the day his son was enlisted into service by the armies of Napoleon, in Switzerland, and had to move to Basel to wage war against England and notes that he prayed daily for his return and that he should remain Jewish (f. 19v-20r); the last entry by Freimann possibly mentions his son’s return, during a ceremony in which he served as sandaḳ, perhaps for his grandson. The entries are written in simple form, most being two lines containing the date, name, and sometimes place of the circumcision performed. Written in Ashkenazic cursive script, with many entries hastily written and with different color inks. In a colored board binding with a soft leather spine, likely original.”

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