In the Ancient Period
The seal was employed from the beginning of the historical era as a method of identifying property, as protection against theft, to mark the clay stoppers of oil and wine jars or the strip with which packaged goods were bound, and for other uses. Gradually seals became invested with magic powers. With the spread of writing in the early days of the Mesopotamian dynasties, seals were used as signatures on clay-tablet inscriptions. In Egypt, seals were used to sign papyrus scrolls. In various regions, including Palestine in the early Canaanite period, earthenware vessels were imprinted with seals before they were fired. Seals were made of a variety of stones which were usually semiprecious. The carving and relief were done by means of a simple drill, an auger, or a stylus. Cylinder seals were usually pierced through their length and threaded on a fastening pin, cord, thread, wire, chain, or – from the second millennium b.c.e. – on a ring. Ancient seals are of great value in the study of ancient art, religion, and mythology, as well as the legal and social structures of ancient societies. Seals found in archaeological excavations are important for chronology, and Hebrew seals are useful in the study of Hebrew paleography and the Hebrew onomasticon.
Four main types of seals, classified according to their shape and function, were used.
(1) Cylinder seals, pierced lengthwise, and between 1 and 2 in. (3 and 5 cm.) in length. They originated in Mesopotamia and spread over the entire Ancient Near East. They were engraved with symbols of worship and mythological and hunting scenes. When they were inscribed with writing, it was in the cuneiform of Western Asia. The cylinder when rolled over the soft clay imparted a long row of impressions. Clay vessels have been found in Palestine bearing impressions of cylinder seals from the early Bronze Age (third millennium b.c.e.), and from the second millennium b.c.e. Some of these seals were imported, from Mesopotamia, but most of them were made in Ereẓ Israel and in adjoining countries, particularly Syria. Syrian-Hittite, Mitanni, and mixed styles can be distinguished among them. Most of them are made of hematite.
(2) Scarab seals, which were small Egyptian seals, oval-shaped, approximately 7/10 × 4/10 in. (18 × 12 mm.), and generally made of amethyst, carnelian, or faience. They were generally slightly convex and were carved to resemble the sacred scarabaeus beetle of Egypt, often including legs around the perimeter. The base was level and engraved with hieroglyphs representing the names of kings, officials, and individuals; and titles, blessings, and incantations. It was also engraved with the figures of gods, men, animals, and birds; and floral and geometric designs which were imprinted by means of pressure. Many such scarabs were exported to all the countries of the region, but others were made in Palestine and other lands under Egyptian influence. Some unusually large scarab seals imported from Egypt have been found in Ereẓ Israel. Such seals have been discovered in most archaeological excavations of the second millennium b.c.e. They are particularly numerous in the Hyksos period (18th–17th century b.c.e.). During that period and after, Egyptian writing and words were carelessly copied, and the names of Egyptian monarchs – especially of Tuthmosis iii and Ramses ii – were engraved long after their deaths. Many of these seals were obviously not used functionally but rather as charms or jewelry.
(3) Scaraboid seals. These became widespread during the middle Israelite era (ninth to fifth centuries b.c.e.). They resemble the former category but are not carved with the beetle shape on their backs or legs along the perimeter. They were used mostly for signatures or to mark possessions and were common in Syria, Phoenicia, and Palestine. The base of these seals was generally engraved with an inscription in the Phoenician-Hebrew script, in Hebrew, Phoenician, or Aramaic, and they are commonly known as Hebrew seals. The inscriptions were sometimes combined with decorative designs in the mixed Phoenician style, with mythological subjects, flora and fauna, and geometrical patterns. It would appear that the mythological figures lost some of their religious significance and gradually became common decorative motifs throughout the region. These motifs include the figures of human beings, animals, and winged legendary creatures, such as the griffin or the sphinx, the winged beetle, winged serpent (uraeus), the winged sun, and so on. The chief function of the seal was vested in the name engraved upon it, which was often left undecorated. The name of the owner of the seal was frequently given together with that of his father, sometimes with the word "son" and sometimes without it (e.g., Shebna Ahab, Remaliah son of Neriah, etc.). There were also women's seals (Abigail wife of Asaiah, Aliah handmaiden of Hananel, etc.). While most of the seals were personal, a few contained the name of a "servant" (official) and his monarch (Shema servant of Jeroboam, etc.) or the official's name and title (Jaazaniah servant of the king, Gealiah son of the king, Gedaliah the steward of the palace, etc.). The importance of the seal and its usage in biblical days is evident in various texts, letters, or documents that were sealed with a seal (i Kings 21:8; Isa. 29: 11; Job 38: 14). The king's ring was synonymous with the king's seal, and it symbolized royal power (Esth. 8:8). Ordinary citizens also carried seals (Gen. 38: 18). As a figure of speech the seal represented something precious and cherished (Jer. 22:24; Haggai 2:23; Song 8:6). Scaraboid seals were also used during the Persian era (fifth and sixth centuries b.c.e.).
(4) Conical seals. During the late Babylonian and Persian eras (seventh to fourth centuries b.c.e.), conical seals with round, or octagonal, somewhat convex, bases, usually made of clear chalcedony, were commonly used. They originated in Mesopotamia, and their bases are generally inscribed with ritual motifs. In later periods they also had decorative motifs engraved on their outer surface.
Archaeological excavations in Palestine have yielded many vessels of the second part of the middle Israelite era (eighth to sixth centuries b.c.e.) imprinted with their owners' seals. Some bear the name of a royal official (Elikam, Eliakam steward of Yaukin (= Jehoiakin)). A lump of clay with the seal imprint "Gedaliah steward of the palace," which was used to seal the cord around a papyrus scroll, has also been found. There has been a great deal of interest in vessels bearing upon their handles a royal stamp consisting of the inscription "of the king," together with one of the following names: Hebron, Soco (swkh), Ziph, and Mamshith (mmsht). The first three are names of towns; there is some dispute concerning the fourth. In any event, these vessels appear to have been used in collecting royal taxes. Similarly, vessels of the Persian and early Hellenic eras were also imprinted with official seals bearing one of the words: Judah, Jerusalem, or Moza. Among the Yahud (Judah) imprints, there are some which include the name of a person followed by the Aramaic word peḥārā (the potter). Two important Jewish impressions have been found from the late Second Temple period. They are little clay plaques between 1 and 2 in. (3 and 5 cm.) in length. One bears the name of the city of Gezer and the other the name of a type of wine, "tamad," and the name of the vintner, "Hoshea," engraved between the arms of a swastika. Both seals are in the square Hebrew script and were probably used to seal wine jars.
Apart from the biblical חותם, rabbinical literature used the Aramaic words גושפנקא and עזקא ,עזקתא (ibid.) and the Greek ספרגיס (σφραγίς) as synonyms for seals or signet rings. Seals could be made not only from gems but also from sandalwood and metal (Kel. 13:6; for iron see Ber. 6a). They were engraved with emblems and figures, except the human one, though a halakhic distinction is made between a figure in relief and one engraved (Tos. to Av. Zar. 5:2, 468 and parallels); emblems on the seals of some well-known rabbis are mentioned (Git. 36a). The use of seals was restricted for Jews in the event that the emblem was idolatrous (ibid., cf. tj, 4:4, 44a for an incident with Bar Kappara), and there are a number of instances in which seals are reported to have been used for magical purposes (Ber. 6a; Shab. 66b; Git. 68a). They were normally used for signing documents, however, though generally the signature of witnesses alone was sufficient. Vessels containing foodstuffs were sealed to assure the ritual fitness of the contents (Av. Zar. 31a). In addition, all sorts of objects, valuable or less valuable, were stamped to mark ownership (Tos. to Av. Zar. 5:1, 468 and parallels). The Mishnah speaks of seals for packing bags as distinct from letter seals (Shab. 8:5). While men may go out with a signet ring on their hand on the Sabbath, women may not as this is not adornment for them (Shab. 6:1; 3). While, by implication, women did not normally wear signet rings, the Talmud mentions the גזברות ("woman treasurer") as an exception (ibid. 62a). Seals were also worn hanging from one's neck or garment (Tos. Shab. 5:8, 116; tb, 58a). The Albertinum Museum in Dresden formerly had two seals dating from the second to the third centuries c.e., one of which was an amethyst with a *menorah emblem and the other a cornelian with a seven-branched menorah between two pillars. A small bronze seal ring in Isaac Einhorn's collection in Tel Aviv bears a similar seven-branch menorah on it. A seal in the Israel Museum (formerly in the Heinrich Feuchtwanger Collection no. 615) bearing the inscription כנשתא דפרג is probably from Babylonia dating from the fifth or sixth century.
After the Arab conquest of Babylonia, the caliph Omar (634–44) prohibited the use of seals by Jews (and Christians), except for the exilarchs, on whose seal a fly was engraved (*Bustanai b. Haninai). This privilege was no doubt granted to the exilarchs and the geonim. The gaon*Hai b. Sherira (d. 1038) had a seal with a lion as an emblem, signifying Davidic descent. With the revival of the exilarchate in the 12th century, the right to have an official seal was restored as well. Large wooden seals for meat, bread, or cheese are known from the East, mainly from Egypt from the Fatimid period, as for example, Berlin Staats-Museum, cf. Synagoga, Recklingshausen no. a. 32.
In Europe the use of seals spread among the Jews in imitation of the coats of *arms and other heraldic devices prevalent among kings and the nobility, the higher clergy and monasteries, and cities and guilds; later the custom spread to the rising class of burghers. Jewish businessmen and financiers needed seals for the purpose of signing business documents; in the 13th century the seal on a document was regarded as more important than the signature. Not only did individual Jews have their own seals but Jewish communities had them as well (e.g., Augsburg, Cologne, Metz, Regensburg, Ulm). The use of seals met with the opposition of some rabbis, who regarded it as imitating non-Jewish practices. Others, however, such as *Baruch b. Isaac of Regensburg and *Moses of Coucy, defended the use of seals, some even using them themselves, such as the tosafist *Samson b. Samson, Israel *Isserlein, and Jacob *Moellin (Maharil, 14th century), whose seals bore the emblem of a lion. *Meir b. Baruch of Rothenburg permitted the wearing of a signet ring on the Sabbath. In 1906 the gold ring of a certain Abba b. Abba was found in Breslau. Made and ornamented in the Gothic style, it had a seal and the inscription, "This is not in imitation of Amorite (non-Jewish) practices."
In several countries the authorities intervened in the use of seals by Jews. As early as 1206, Philippe ii of France decreed that promissory notes should have the special Jews' seal attached to them – which was to remain, however, in the custody of two city notables – while his son Louis viii prohibited the use of seals by Jews entirely. In Navarre they had to seal their documents with the royal seal. In Portugal, Jews' seals were already in use in the 12th century, and in the 15th, the chief rabbi (*Arraby Moor), as well as the seven provincial dayyanim, had their own seals by virtue of royal decree. Later in the century the chief rabbi was entitled to use the royal seal. The earliest Jewish seal mentioned in Central Europe is that of an Austrian official in 1257, while that of a Jewish banker of Regensburg is noted in 1297. In the 14th century reference is made to a decree of Duke William of Austria concerning promissory notes to be sealed by the Jews' judge, to be entered in the Judenbuch of the city of Pressburg (Bratislava), and to be signed with seals by a Christian and a Jew. Among the taxes levied on the Jews, "seal taxes" occupied an important place.
From the 13th century onward in Spain and Germany many seals of Jews, mainly of communities, have been preserved. That of Augsburg had the double eagle with the Jews' hat; the Regensburg one had a crescent with a star, an emblem that can be found on contemporary non-Jewish seals as well. Two Jewish seals from Spain are preserved in the British Museum, London, probably dating from the 14th century; one was the seal of the Seville community, the other of Todros b. Samuel ha-Levi. Many promissory notes of Jews, which were deposited with the Exchequer of the Jews in England, had Jews' seals affixed to them, some engraved with figures. A Jewish sigillificus (seal maker) is mentioned in Dijon, France, about 1363. The absence of errors in the Hebrew inscriptions is an indication of Jewish craftsmen having been employed, while the cock on the seal of Peter b. Moses of Regensburg (1391) points to a Christian seal maker.
Jewish seals were distinguished from others by their inscription in Hebrew and the absence of the human figure. Apart from Hebrew, some seals had Latin or vernacular inscriptions as well; double seals, in particular, had Hebrew on one side and the other language on the reverse. Such a seal was used by Saul *Wahl, the 16th-century Polish financier. Emblems in use included animals, flowers, cups, hats ("Jews' hat"), the crescent, and stars. Occasionally the figures reflect the name, so-called armes parlentes (but also Davidic descent), e.g., a lion for Judah, a bear for Issachar, a bull's head for Joseph – as in the seal of *Josel of Rosheim – a stag as on the seal of Herz (= Hirsch) Wertheimer of Padua (16th century), the rose bush of the Rosalis family in Hamburg, and Spinoza's thorny branch. Men of priestly descent had outspread hands on their seals, levites a water jar. Solomon *Molcho's seal had two mountains (the hills on which he had his vision) and that of *Shabbetai Ẓevi, a serpent (נחש being numerically equivalent to משיח – Messiah). David Portaleone, the physician, had a lion crouching on a gate as his seal in accordance with the family tradition. The handle of his seal, in the Einhorn Collection, depicts the sacrifice of Isaac. Certain families of Frankfurt and Worms used their house signs on their seals as well. Other emblems reflected the occupation of the owner, e.g., the anchor for merchants. The seal used by three brothers had three Jews' hats with their points meeting. Some of these symbols were set in an escutcheon and appeared on the background of a three-cornered shield, a pentagram, or David's shield, as in the seal of Jacob b. Nathaniel-Daniel, treasurer of the archbishop of Trier (1341–47). This was really the privilege of those "born to the shield and helmet," but Jews used the shield only (écu français). The name was usually engraved on the periphery of the generally round but also square and parabolic seals.
From the Middle Ages there are also seals of kashrut, mainly for meat. A metal seal in the collection of Cecil Roth has the word kosher inscribed on it.
From the 16th century the seals of the Jews of Poland were generally crudely made. In Hungary the use of seals by the leaders of the Jewish community was common from the end of the 15th century. These seals showed engraved human figures, animals, and Hebrew monograms in the Renaissance style. In the 16th–17th centuries the use of seals by the Jews in Germany and Austria became more widespread, mainly for business purposes. They reveal a tendency to reproduce the signs of the zodiac, due to a belief in astrology, as well as allegorical designs in the baroque style.
The Prague community, by privilege of Ferdinand ii in 1627, had the Shield of David surrounding a Swedish hat; the inscription was Sigillum Antiquae Communitatis Pragensis Judaeorum, with the letters מגזדרד (Magistrat) in the corners. In Prague the Jewish butchers' and barbers' guilds also had their own seals, traditionally of great antiquity but certainly not later than the 17th century. The communities of Vienna (1655), Fuerth, and Kremsier (1690) also had the Shield of David on their money. Halberstadt (1661) had a dove with an olive branch over the Holy Ark with the inscription "Gute Hoffnung," and Ofen had the Ark as well. In the mid-18th century the chief rabbi of Swabia at Pfersee had an official seal. Some-what later (1817) both the Sephardi and Ashkenazi congregations of Amsterdam were granted seals, as was the Sephardi congregation of Hamburg. The Paris *Sanhedrin of 1807 had a seal with the imperial eagle and the two Tablets of the Law; the *consistory of Westphalia bore the arms of the state on its seal, as did the Philanthropin school of Frankfurt. Moses *Mendelssohn's seal had his initials both in Hebrew and German. Seals – generally those of the authors themselves – on printed Hebrew books were intended to prevent forgery and theft; the first known seal of this type dates from 1598. A comparative study of medieval seals throws light on Jewish-Christian relations and on the influence of one community on the other. Much research is still required in this field, particularly relating to Jewish seals in Italy, Spain, and France, as well as in Germany from 1350 onward.
One of the largest Palestine seal collections of the last century in the Israel Museum is mostly from the former Heinrich Feuchtwanger Collection. To a large extent these are seals of institutions and individuals – as well as kasher seals – of 19th- and 20th-century Ereẓ Israel. The inscriptions are in Hebrew, Arabic, Latin, and Cyrillic letters, sometimes with dates, both Jewish and secular. The engravings are of the panoramas of the holy cities of Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, or particular holy places in them such as the Western Wall, the Ḥurvah Synagogue, and the Cave of Machpelah. Other figures used are animals, trees, outspread hands in priestly blessing, etc. While most of these seals belong to the old yishuv, there is a seal of *Yesud ha-Ma'alah, one of the early new settlements (founded 1883). The collection also contains a series of 18th- and 19th-century seals of German, Austro-Hungarian, East European, Italian, Turkish, and even Yemenite origin, mostly of communities and their rabbinates, and kasher seals. Among them is that of S.J.L. Wormser, the Baal Shem of Michelstadt, and another belonging to a woman.
P.E. Newberry, Egyptian Antiquaries: Scarabs (1906); Diringer, Iscr; A. Rowe, Catalogue of Egyptian Scarabs, Scaraboids, Seals, and Amulets in the Palestine Archaeological Museum (1936); H. Frankfort, Cylinder Seals (1939); S. Yeivin, Toledot ha-Ketav ha-Ivri (1939), 129ff.; idem, in: Eretz Israel, 6 (1961), 47–52; B. Parker, in: Iraq, 11 (1949), 1–43; A. Reifenberg, Ancient Hebrew Seals (1950); S. Moscati, L'epigrafia ebraica antica (1951). post-biblical period: A. Wolf, in: je, 11 (1925), 134–40 (important bibliography); Drauss, Tal Arch, 1 (1910), 200–2; C. Roth, in: jhset, 17 (1953), 283–6; P.J. Diamant, in: eh, 17 (1965), 228–30 (bibliography); Z. Avneri, in: Ha-Congress ha-Olami le-Madda'ei ha-Yahadut, 2 (1969), 163–70 (also summary in French); M. Narkiss, in: bjpes, 12 (1946), 72–74; I. Shachar, Osef Feuchtwanger, Masoret be-Ommanut Yehudit (1971), nos. 541–662.