Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home

France Carpentras

Carpentras (Heb. קארפנטראץ) is a town in the Vaucluse department, France, about 14 mi. (22 km.) northeast of Avignon.

History of the Community

Apparently Jews did not settle there before the 12th century. They were expelled at the beginning of the 13th century and, having returned briefly, were again expelled in 1269. Jews were present in the town when it was ceded by the king of France in 1274 to the Holy See (in whose possession it remained until 1791).

Frequent conflicts arose concerning the jurisdiction over the Jews of Carpentras between the recteur (the representative of the pope) and the bishop. The Jews had to pay imposts to the latter. An agreement on these dues was signed by 64 heads of families in 1276. Carpentras was one of only four places where Jews were allowed to stay after the Great Expulsion of French Jewry, decreed by King Philip IV in 1306. Jews were allowed to live in closed, guarded and crowded ghettos, known as ‘carrieres,’ in Carpentras, Avignon, Cavaillon and L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue because these locales in Provence were on lands owned by the pope, who took in Jews in exchange for payment, according to historian Ram Ben-Shalom. Additionally, he said, Jews were made to wear distinctive clothing, often a cape.

Besides exiles from the Kingdom of France who arrived in Carpentras in 1306, a number found refuge there after the renewed expulsion of 1322. This influx soon led to the exclusion of the Jews from the town and the destruction of the synagogue.

A new community was founded in 1343. The same year, authorization was given for the purchase of a cemetery and erection of a synagogue. During the second half of the 14th century, the community numbered 90 families. Its members occupied the first Jewish quarter, the rue Fournaque, near the ramparts. After a riot in 1459, the Jewish quarter was sacked and 60 people were killed. Subsequently, Cardinal de Foix banished several of the culprits. A short while later in about 1477, the Jews were compelled to move to the center of the town, into the new Jewish quarter consisting of the rue de la Galafet (or de Galaffe) and rue de la Muse (later known as the carrière or rue des Juifs). They were finally confined exclusively to the rue de la Muse, which was closed at both ends by gates. The very numerous notarial deeds extant show that from the end of the 14th century the Jews of Carpentras engaged in brokerage, moneylending, and commerce, especially in grain and other agricultural products. From the 15th century, the municipality frequently called for restrictions on Jewish trade and a decrease in the number of Jewish residents. A census held in 1473 shows that there were 69 families, totaling 298 persons. The average size of a family was thus 4.3, as against 5.2 for Christian families.

Under Bishop Jacopo Sadoleto, particularly in 1523, new restrictions were imposed on Jewish economic activities and severe measures were taken to prevent Jews from having social contacts with Christians. Then, as on subsequent occasions, the Jews found the pope willing to be their defender against the bishop of Carpentras. From the middle of the 16th century many Jews left Carpentras for Turkey and Ereẓ Israel. In addition there were large-scale expulsions in 1570 and 1593. The community considerably diminished, and in 1571 consisted of only six heads of families, with their wives, children, and domestics, four Jews in prison, and 14 newcomers without official rights of residence. In 1669, after the arrival of Jews from the smaller localities of Comtat Venaissin, there were 83 Jewish families in Carpentras.

Renewed demands for limitations in the occupations practiced by Jews were made by various guilds from the beginning of the 18th century. These were effectively imposed, especially in 1705, 1713, and 1720. A particularly severe regulation was issued by Bishop d'Inguimbert in 1735. During his period of office there was protracted dispute and litigation over the construction of a new synagogue. During the occupation of Comtat Venaissin by French troops from 1746 to 1758 the community was not troubled other than being forced to provide loans. The community protested, claiming that of its 160 families (approximately 800 persons), 30 were poor and 60 destitute, while the debts of the community amounted to 250,000 livres.

Toward the end of the 18th century the community of Carpentras reached its maximum size, numbering 1,200 persons in 1760 and 2,000 in 1782. If many lived in poverty or misery, there were also wealthy members. In 1766, Jacob de la Roque possessed over 200,000 livres; Abraham Crémieux left a fortune of 600,000 livres in 1789; the assets of Jassuda (Judah) David Crémieu were estimated as 728,000 livres in 1790. Especially from 1787, many Jews from Carpentras settled in Montpellier, Nîmes, Arles, and Aix-en-Provence and, by 1789, only 173 Jewish families (690 persons) remained in Carpentras. Even the municipal authorities showed concern over this exodus.

The French Revolution apparently brought little change in the position of the Jews in Carpentras. During the spring of 1790, conversionist sermons were still delivered (see J.F. Boudin ). Though the Representative Assembly of Comtat Venaissin decided on October 28 of the same year to suppress compulsory wearing of the yellow hat by the Jews, those of Carpentras did not take advantage of this measure to avoid provoking the Christians. Similarly, they did not participate in the municipal elections held at the end of 1791. It was not until the summer of 1792 that the Jews of Carpentras began to play an active role in the municipal institutions.

The synagogue became the meeting-place for the Jacobin club at the end of 1793, and the Jews agreed to its closure after 1794. It was not reopened for religious services until May 1800. By 1811 only 360 Jews remained in Carpentras, all living in modest circumstances. Liquidation of the community's debts, which still amounted to 306,866 francs, involved them in considerable difficulties. The community thereafter rapidly declined in numbers and by the 1920s services were held only on the Day of Atonement.

In 1843, David Naquet, the descendant of an old Carpentras Jewish family, became a municipal councilor. Between the two world wars, although the number of Jews in Carpentras had declined even further (35 in 1935), a Jew served as mayor of the town. During World War II, no more than 12 Jewish families were living there. The synagogue was partly restored in 1930 and again in 1953. The French government declared it a historic site and completed the restoration in 1959. A small community was reestablished after the arrival of Jews from North Africa, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It numbered 125 in 2017.

Statutes and Synagogues

The first statutes of the Carpentras community are thought to have been drawn up by 1276. The complete text of the statutes of 1645 has been preserved. The baylons, who, with the inclusion of councilors and collectors of dues, could number up to 18, were in charge of various spheres of the communal administration: taxes, welfare, education, synagogue maintenance and order, etc. They were elected by the three mains (hands), heads of family grouped according to their economic standing. Taxes were assessed not according to income but according to capital assets periodically declared in writing. Failure to declare or dishonest declaration was punishable by excommunication. The statutes were at times amplified in sumptuary laws, such as those issued after the earthquake of 1738, to restrict luxury in clothing and jewelry, and excesses in family festivities.

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 Carpentras 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 Synagogue of Carpentras, the oldest in Western Europe, celebrated its 650th anniversary in 2017. The present synagogue was built between 1741 and 1743 and includes parts of the synagogue first established in 1367. The interior decoration is harmonious and elegant, with fine wainscoting, and banisters and chandeliers of wrought iron. In the former synagogue, the section reserved for women was situated in the basement and the only communication with the men's synagogue was through a small garret window. To enable the women to follow the services, a special official known as the rabbi of the women was appointed. In the present basement are to be found the bakery for the unleavened bread (matzah) and the ritual bath, known locally as the cabassadore. Unlike most French synagogues, visitors may enter without first undergoing a security inspection. 

The earliest Jewish cemetery in Carpentras, confiscated after the expulsion of 1322, was situated in the north of the town. Some of its tombstones were used for constructing the ramparts. Others are to be found at the museum. The present cemetery, to the northeast, dates from 1367, but owing to the restrictions during the period of Papal rule it has no ancient tombstones or inscriptions. In 1990,  Neo-Nazis smashed dozens of tombstones.

Rabbis and Scholars

It is unlikely that the rabbis of Carpentras took part in the synod of Troyes. In general, this community produced few scholars of renown. Among these are: Ḥanan b. Nathan Ezobi, the poet Abraham Malakhi during the 13th century, and Mordecai b. Isaac, who took part in the controversy over Maimonides' writings in the early 14th century. Several celebrated physicians lived or originated in Carpentras. Solomon Ezobi, originally of Sofia, held the office of rabbi in Carpentras from 1617 to 1635. His disciple was David b. Joseph Carmi (Crémieu[x]). Mordechai Astruc, late 17th century, was a liturgical poet, as were Saul b. Joseph of Monteux and Mordecai b. Jacob, of the same period. Several rabbis were called from abroad to officiate in Carpentras. They included, besides Solomon Ezobi, Abraham Solomon of Amsterdam (1650–60), and Elie Vitte Ispir of Prague (1775–1790). The community was one of the Four Communities of the Comtat Venaissin which had a specific liturgy based on the old Provençal rite. Long preserved only in manuscript, the volumes for the High Holidays, the Festivals and the fast days according to the Carpentras rite were printed in Amsterdam in the 18th century. A literary style particularly in vogue in Carpentras and the Comtat Venaissin generally was poems of a popular character in which Hebrew words or verses were interspersed with the Provençal text. Of the same popular nature are several plays, such as La Reine Esther of Mardochée Astruc of Carpentras and Jacob de Lunel (The Hague, 1739), which to some extent inspired the comic opera Esther de Carpentras of Armand Lunel (first presented in Paris in 1938).


Gross, Gal Jud, 605–13; J. Liabastres, Histoire de Carpentras (1891), passim; A. Mossé, Histoire des Juifs d'Avignon et du Comtat Venaissin (1934); Bardinet, in: REJ, 1 (1880), 262–92; 6 (1882), 1–40; idem, in: Revue Historique, 12 (1880), 1ff.; 14 (1880), 1ff.; Loeb, in: REJ, 12 (1886), 34–64, 161–235; Kaufmann, ibid., 18 (1889), 133–6; Bauet, ibid., 27 (1893), 263–8; Chobaut, ibid., 101 (1937), 5–52; 102 (1937), 3–39; C. Roth, in: REJ, 84 (1926), 1–14; idem, in: JQR, 18 (1927/28), 357–83; idem, in: Mitteilungen zur juedischen Volkskunde, 80 (1928), 16–20; idem, in: Journal of Jewish Bibliography, 1 (1939), 99–105; R. Caillet, Spectacles à Carpentras (1942), 18ff.; Bautier, in: Annales (1959), 255ff.; Z. Szajkowski, Autonomy and Communal Jewish Debts… (1959), passim; Lavedan, in: Congrès archéologique de France, 121 (1963), 307ff.; W. Reinhard, Reform in der Dioezese Carpentras (1966), passim; H. Ameye, En flânant: rues et places de Carpentras (1966), 107ff.

Sources: Bernhard Blumenkranz, Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
Cnaan Liphshiz, “How this 650-year-old French synagogue withstood centuries of anti-Semitism,” JTA, (July 13, 2017).