Last month’s column dealt with the activities of Reverend Gershom Mendes Seixas during and shortly after the American Revolution. Gershom, who served for almost 50 years as the hazzan of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York, chose to leave the city during the Revolution rather than live under British rule. From 1776 to 1780 he resided with his father in Stratford, Connecticut and from 1780 to 1784 in Philadelphia where he served as hazzan of Congregation Mickve Israel. Upon his return to New York in 1784 he served as hazzan of Shearith Israel until his passing in 1816.
In this concluding article about Seixas we will sketch his service to New York’s Jewish community as well as the wider New York community. In addition, we’ll get some insights into his family life based on his correspondence with one of his daughters.
Serving New York’s Jewish Community[i]
Hazzan Seixas was an expert mohel. “Gershom Seixas served in this capacity throughout his life, winning praise from a local doctor for his surgical expertise even at the age of seventy. The shortage of capable mohalim meant that a child would often be circumcized after the eighth day. Seixas’ correspondence indicates that it was not unusual for two weeks to pass before the operation, and we even find reference to the circumcision of a seven-month old baby. After the operation Seixas would attend the child to check on his health and progress, often administering necessary medicinal remedies. These tasks sometimes ended in Pyrrhic finance when the hazzan would in the end use most or all of his fee to pay for transportation and supplies.
“Seixas filled yet other positions of importance. Often his duties depended on knowledge of religious law and the subtleties of religious judgment based on such law. A number of times he sat on a board which would examine applicants for the position of shohet and supervise the practice of ritual slaughter within the community. At other times he would officiate at wedding ceremonies, often writing the necessary contracts in a handsome Hebrew script. These duties, too, required halachic knowledge in yet other areas.
“The growth in Seixas’ reputation and responsibility supplied him with the necessary stature for preaching to the congregation as their leader and minister. When the European rabbi spoke, it was usually in the form of learned Pilpulistic discourses or in an effort to arouse a transcendent piety, while Seixas’ sermons had a more secular tone. He preached sporadically, interweaving various topics under one heading. The subject which received the greatest amount of attention in these sermons was charity. It is significant that Seixas found it necessary to preach that poverty was no crime nor an outward manifestation of internal evil. He realized that ‘there are rich who are wicked,’ and for him this proved that wealth cannot, therefore, be a reward. He told his fellow congregants that the purpose of a rich man’s life is to help the poor, who in turn suffer poverty to test both the virtue of the rich and their own mettle.
“He asked the congregation to support various charitable societies that disbursed charity secretly to the needy without disclosing the names of the poor to the rest of the community. In these sermons he admonished the congregation, complaining that a few generous souls were forced to carry a disproportionate load. Charity, he preached, is a consummate act of faith. For Gershom Seixas it represented a recognition of man’s stewardship – his caretaker status. By the charitable act, man shows that wealth and goods are not really his but merely in his possession by favor of God for the purpose of doing good deeds.”