Cavaillon is a town in Vaucluse department, Southeast France, about 14 mi. (22 km.) S.E. of Avignon. From the 13th century, there was a Jewish community in Cavaillon, which later was one of the four tolerated in the French possessions of the Holy See. The Jews lived in the Rue Hébraïque, which from 1453 was their compulsory quarter (and still exists) and was stormed by the populace in 1456.
The community at the end of the 18th century was so small that it was governed by a council of only three baylons. The numbers declined through emigration, especially after the French Revolution opened up France to the Jews. There were 49 Jews living in Cavaillon in 1811 and only eight in 1935.
After a temporary influx of refugees during World War II, the community ceased to exist until the arrival of a small number of Jews of North African origin, who formed a new community. The communal statutes of 1620 have been published.
The original synagogues were designed by Christians because Jews were only allowed to work as traders or moneylenders. Unlike typical synagogues where the rabbi sits on a platform in front of the ark, or in the middle of the sanctuary, the synagogue in Cavaillon was built with the bimah on the opposite side so that congregants must turn their backs to the ark if they want to face their rabbi. To read from the Torah, the rabbi carried the Torah scroll up to their balcony. The Cavaillon synagogue still has a portable ark with wheels for this purpose.
The present synagogue, classified as a historical monument, which was constructed in 1772, incorporated parts of the 16th-century former building. The original synagogue was built in 1494. Smaller than that of Carpentras, it surpasses it in the richness of the interior decoration, especially the carved wood and wrought-iron work. Adjoining the synagogue is the ancient bakery for unleavened bread which now forms part of the small Musée Judéo-Comtadin. The community followed the same liturgy as Carpentras, with slight differences, extant in several manuscripts written by local scribes.
Gross, Gal Jud, 538ff.; A. Mosse, Histoire des Juifs d'Avignon et du Comtat Venaissin (1934); Chobaut, in: REJ, 101 (1937), 3–52; 102 (1937), 3–39; C. Roth, in: Journal of Jewish Bibliography, 1 (1939), 99–105; Lavedan, in: Congrès archéologique de France, 121 (1963), 310ff.
Sources: Bernhard Blumenkranz, Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
Cnaan Liphshiz, “How this 650-year-old French synagogue withstood centuries of anti-Semitism,” JTA, (July 13, 2017).