An exciting acquisition I made this week is a rare and early publication printed in London, in 1707, with the circumstances leading up to its publication rather interesting. The background of this book printing reads like a novel, with gambling, escape to a foreign land, a herem and the traditional Jewish way of ending a fight, a split in the congregation, resulting in multiplication by division, the only Ashkenazi synagogue in London becoming two.
The very first Hebrew book printed in London for Jewish use, this publication was named Ma’aseh Rav, and was printed by a gentile printer. The first Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and minister of the Great Synagogue in London from 1704 thru 1756 was Chief Rabbi Aaron Hart. A Jew in London named Ascher Cohen, faced with a growing gambling debt, made plans to escape to the West Indies. Not wanting to leave his wife an agunah, he arranged in secret with the Chief Rabbi, to write a Get (a Jewish bill of divorce) for his wife, on the condition that he does not return from the West Indies. The get was kept a secret to avoid Ascher Cohen’s debtors, but eventually word of the arrangement got out. Another member of his community, Mordechai Hamburger decried this arrangement, claiming that such a Get, written with a stipulation is invalid.
Chief Rabbi Hart proceeded to put Mordechai Hamburger in Herem, for speaking out against the Get. Rabbi Jochanan Holleschau was then commissioned by Hamburger to defend his position and this volume Ma’aseh Rav was published as a result. Within it, Hart’s position is attacked and taken apart halakhically. In response, Hart went on to published Urim Vetumim, published in the same year defending his opinion. Ultimately, many other rabbis from continental Europe got involved and stated their positions on this matter, including the Chacham Tzvi of Hamburg and the Rabbis of Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Hart, now in herem, and unable to join services in the Great Synagogue where Hart was rabbi, founded his own synagogue, known as the Hambro synagogue, as it followed the ritual of Hamburg. Rabbi Jochanan Holleschau, the author of this Ma’aseh Rav was installed as the first rabbi of the Hambro, where he was succeeded by Meshullam Zalman, son of R. Jacob Emden.