Photo: akg-images, Bildarchiv Pisarek
Jewish life in England goes back almost 1,000 years. It is believed that the first Jews were brought over from Normandy by William the Conqueror in 1066; there is reference to Jews in Oxford as early as 1075 and the Domesday Book of 1086 records the Jew Mennasseh owning land in Oxfordshire.
Several Baalei Tosafot (commentators) lived in England including R.Yaakov Mi’Orleans, (martyred in London at the coronation of Richard the Lionheart in 1189), R. YomTov Mi’Yoigny, author of Omnam Kein recited on Yom Kippur Maariv (martyred in the York massacre of 1190) and the R'i Mi’Londri, who is mentioned by the Rema in Hilchot Pesach (Siman 473, Sif 76) as recommending that the Haggadah be recited in the vernacular.
In 1290, however, Jewish life in England came to abrupt end when the Edict of Expulsion was proclaimed by King Edward I, resulting in the banishment of the entire Jewish population from Britain. The edict was issued on 18th July, which fell on Fast of Tisha B'Av.
While some Jews may have clandestinely remained in England, their formal return wasn’t permitted until 1656 when R. Menashe Ben Israel successfully petitioned Oliver Cromwell to allow the readmission of Jews. It is said that Menashe Ben Israel pressed Oliver Cromwell on the grounds that England -Angleterre- was one of the four "angles" of the earth referred to in the prophecies of the ingathering of the exiles, and thus resettlement would hasten the coming of the Messiah!
Within only 50 years the offices of the Chief Rabbi and the London Beth Din came into being to provide a central religious authority for Jewish communities in London and throughout the United Kingdom - a role reflected in the London Beth Din's official title "D'Kehila Kedosha London Vehamedina" - The Beth Din of London and the Country.
Among the early Chief Rabbis who helped to establish the central Orthodox authority for which the UK is renowned was R. Dovid Tevele Schiff (Chief Rabbi 1765-1791), whose explanations on the Mishna, Lashon Hazahav, is printed in the Yachin Uboaz Mishnayot, and R. Nosson Adler (Chief Rabbi 1845-1890) author of the famous commentary on the Targum Nesina LaGer.
For information on the history of the Chief Rabbinate click here.
HaRav Yechezkel Abramsky
In 1934 the prestige of the London Beth Din as a world ranking halachic authority was greatly enhanced with the appointment of the Gaon HaRav Yechezkel Abramsky (the Chazon Yecheskel) as Rosh Beth Din. Although other renowned Talmidei Chachamim have served both during and since his time - such as Dayan Arieh Leib Grosnass (Lev Aryeh) and Dayan Rapaport (Be'er Avroham), it was Dayan Abramsky above all who established many of the policies and customs that are followed by the London Beth Din to this day.
Av Beth Din and Rosh Beth Din
In 1984, Dayan Chanoch HaCohen Ehrentreu z’l was appointed the Rosh Beth Din. Previously he was Rosh Beth Din of Manchester and Rosh Kollel in Sunderland. Dayan Ehrentreu retired from the London Beth Din in January 2007. He was succeeded by Dayan Menachem Gelley (son of R. Zacharia Gelley of Washington Heights). The other Dayanim are Dayan Ivan Binstock, Dayan Shmuel Simons, Dayan Dovid Shlomo Englander and Dayan Eliezer Zobin. The title of Av Beth Din is formally held by the Chief Rabbi of the day, currently Chief Rabbi Sir Ephraim Mirvis KBE. Due to the extensive and diverse nature of his duties, the Chief Rabbi is not personally involved in day-to-day London Beth Din work but remains in regular contact with the Dayanim.