The Mahamad as an Arbitration Court

London’s eighteenth-century Portuguese Jewish community numbered about two thousand souls living near their synagogue in Bevis Marks, in Aldgate Ward in the City of London, and was ruled by the four Parnassim (wardens) and a Gabai (treasurer) who made up its executive committee, the Mahamad. It was accepted that the Congregation supported the poor families of the community, who received regular allowances from the Sedaca fund and free matsot at Passover. The Gentlemen of the Mahamad presided over the synagogue services, managed the Congregation’s business affairs and also acted as the community’s magistrates.

The Ascamot (bye-laws) of the Congregation were taken very seriously. The London community aptly fits Professor Bernadete’s description of a Sephardi community as an ascamatocracy.1 The Ascamot prohibited its members from suing each other in the secular courts without the prior permission of the Mahamad. There were good reasons for this. It was in everyone’s interest that

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