My francophone friends will look at the title of this post and immediately think of the movie “The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob” (French: Les Aventures de Rabbi Jacob) featuring the great Louis de Funès.
But this is about another Rabbi Jacob!
Jewish life in the Paris region in the middle ages was a veritable roller coaster. Local edicts would allow Jews to live in Paris, only to be reversed 20 years later. Yet, Jewish communities would re-establish themselves quickly, principally along trade routes. In 1182, King Philippe II ( Auguste) seizes the debts owed to Jews and their real estate, forcing synagogues to become churches. Jews are called back in 1198. They are partially expulsed in 1253, but a royal order gives them access to old cemeteries and synagogues.
In 1272, there are signs of Yeshivots on the right bank of the Seine. In 1283, Phillipe le Hardi, Duke of Burgundy, enabled the community to expand somewhat. During the 13th Century, there were about 4,500 to 7,500 Jews or 3% to 5% of the total population of about 150,000. Yet, 20 years later, the Jews were driven out of Paris by Philippe le Bel in 1306.
This brings us to the cemetery at the rue Pierre-Sarrazin…
In 1849, during work on a building belonging to Louis Hachette on the Rue Pierre-Sarrazin, about 80 headstones were uncovered, belonging to a Jewish cemetery dating back to the XIIth Century. This large cemetery was contemporary to a prosperous era for the Jewish community of Paris.
What about Rabbi Jacob?
One of the most amazing headstones found at the cemetery of the Rue Pierre-Sarrazin is that of Rabbi Jacob, son of Rabbi Haïm. (see below)
Traduction (Nahon, 1986)
זאת מצבת קבו[רת]
|This is the headstone of
Rabbi Jacob son of Rabbi
Haïm who left us for
the garden of Eden the first day
of the parasha Emor
in the year three
ten of the computus
May his soul be bound up in the bond of life
The headstone was discovered in 1849 and given to the Museum of Cluny in Paris (Museum of the Middle Ages), cataloged in 1912, and given to the Paris Museum of Jewish Art and History. The estimated date of Rabbi Jacob’s death is April 17, 1253.
Jewish life survived the Middle Ages despite incredible odds. Communities were regularly pushed from one place to another, losing their fortunes, places of worship and cemeteries. The headstones found under the Hachette building on the Rue Pierre-Sarrazin are a miracle of history. And the history told through them enables us to better appreciate the struggles and the extraordinary resilience of our people.