German Lands


The bridge across the Danube at Regensburg

The bridge across the Danube at Regensburg. By joiseyshowaa from Freehold, NJ, USA – Medieval Danube, CC BY-SA 2.0,

The German-speaking lands in the early modern period were a mosaic of small states and principalities, each with its own Jewry law. Altogether there were about 1,800 independent “states,” including 51 free imperial cities and 63 ecclesiastical principalities. Because of this political fragmentation, there was great inconsistency in the terms of settlement from one place to another. In many places, Jewish settlement was not permitted at all. But where Jews were permitted to settle, they were prohibited from practicing most occupations, and had to earn a living as peddlers, moneylenders, and pawnbrokers. Moreover, they were forced to wear a badge distinguishing them from Christians.

By the early sixteenth century, large numbers of Jews had already left their ancestral places of settlement in German lands – a result of harsh late medieval measures against Jews. The rise of a burgher class, along with anti-Jewish preaching by mendicant friars, led to accusations of the blood libel or ritual murder, to severe restrictions on the conditions of Jewish life, and often to outright expulsion. Some Jews fled the cities – including the famous medieval settlements of Mainz, Speyer, Cologne, and Regensburg – and found shelter in territories of petty lords, where they lived scattered in tiny villages and hamlets. Many others left German lands altogether, and settled in eastern Europe or Italy.

The early German Reformation only sharpened the rhetoric against Jews, and the expulsions and accusations continued. The great shtadlan, or advocate, of the Jews of the Holy Roman Empire in this period was Josel of Rosheim, who worked relentlessly to prevent the deterioration of the Jews’ position, and indeed sought to speak to Martin Luther (who refused to meet with him). The Jews were particularly vulnerable in this region because they were caught between the emperor, on the one hand, and the princes and cities, on the other. Josel of Rosheim favored the emperor, who was opposed to the Reformation and sought to protect “his” Jews against local rulers. But the emperor’s power was in decline, and as a result of the power struggle between the emperor and the local rulers, the Jews were often forced to pay taxes to multiple authorities.

By the seventeenth century, however, political developments began to reverse the downward spiral of conditions. The Thirty Years’ War in particular (1618-1648) was a turning point. The devastation of the population, trade and commerce of German lands in this period made Jewish services more welcome. When Jews in the countryside fled the invading armies, they took refuge in the larger cities, where their trade and taxes might make their presence desirable. They began settling in towns which had long claimed the right not to allow Jewish settlement (the privilege of non tolerandis Judaeorum). Often settlement was begun by a single Jew who received a privilege from the ruler and came with his family and entourage.

In almost all territories of the Holy Roman Empire, self-governing institutions called the Landjudenschaften were established, to which all Jews of the territory had to belong. The statutes of these assemblies created the framework for the inner life of the regional Jewry. At its periodic meetings, matters of social and religious concern were discussed, ordinances were passed, and taxes were assessed. The leadership of these bodies reflected the emerging structure of German-Jewish society. The chief elder (Oberparnass) was usually a “court Jew” (see below), often a member of a single family over several generations. The chief rabbi, too, whose judicial functions were defined by the lay leaders, was usually related to a court Jew family, and this position might also pass to a member of the same family over several generations. Thus a lay and rabbinic elite emerged in the early modern period whose members were linked by marriage, an elite that dominated Jewish communities throughout German-speaking lands.

It was after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which brought the Thirty Years War to an end, that the new structures of Jewish life fully crystallized. The treaty gave those German states that were not hereditary Habsburgs lands independence from the Habsburg emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, and this allowed for the emergence of a type of absolutism in some German states that paralleled absolutism elsewhere. German absolutist rulers and their bureaucrats, with their mercantilist vision of state-development, regarded Jews (that is, Jews with capital, financial experience, and commercial skills) as important instruments in achieving their aims of rebuilding war-torn lands and competing with western powers. Karl Ludwig, the elector of the Palatinate, invited Jews to settle there in order to help restore trade and establish manufacture. In 1671 the elector of Brandenburg, Frederick William, allowed fifty Jewish families who had been expelled from Vienna to settle in Brandenburg (from which they had been expelled a century earlier), granting them extensive settlement and commercial privileges; these Jews became the nucleus of a Berlin community that was to participate in the rapid growth of Prussia.

The upward mobility of some of these Jews was remarkable. We are given a taste of such careers in the rich autobiography of Glueckel of Hameln – a rarity in the Jewish literature of the premodern period. Such was the story of Abraham Cantor, whom Glueckel and her husband hired as a manservant to supervise their children. After making a modest nest egg, he established a small business of his own. He then married a Hamburg widow – a match that probably gained him legal privileges as well as further wealth; when she died, he married a young girl from Amsterdam. Wrote Glueckel, “We advanced him money and sent him to Copenhagen; and today, it is said, he is a man worth 10,000 Reichstalers or more.”

It was among these energetic, upwardly-mobile Jews that the “court Jews” emerged. They used their capital and their entrepreneurial skills to move into a number of lucrative but risky roles, among them provisioning armies, offering large loans to rulers, and supplying luxury goods to the court. With their commercial ties to Poland and the Mediterranean, they were particularly well-suited to such tasks. Moreover, they were impelled to pursue a risky career (indeed some of them ended in ruin) because of their desire to overcome the particular restrictions and special taxes imposed on Jews. By the second half of the seventeenth century, court Jews could be found in most of the principalities of the Holy Roman Empire.

Up to the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, Jewish community life was of little interest to rulers as long as the Jews paid taxes and maintained order. But absolutist rulers, with their passion for management, established highly intrusive measures to supervise the Jews and their communities, regulating in great detail who might settle in their territories and under what conditions.

Prussia led the other German states in this meticulous supervision. First in rank were the “protected and generally privileged Jews” (General-privilegierte Schutzjuden), of whom there were barely some sixty in all. They were entitled to settle in any city they chose, to engage in all branches of wholesale trade and industry, and to bequeath their rights of domicile to their sons. Most of the Jews legally entitled to reside in the state were classified as “ordinary protected Jews” (Ordentliche Schutzjuden). They were granted the right of domicile in one specified city and could only bequeath it to their eldest son. In 1763, on payment of the vast sum of 70,000 thaler, the king agreed to grant the right of domicile to second-born sons as well. More limited rights were conceded to “extraordinary protected Jews” (Ausserordentliche Schutzjuden). The heads of these families were generally widows of ordinary protected Jews or the husbands of such widows by marriage. Domestic servants, employees, private tutors, communal functionaries, and so on were included in the category of tolerated Jews (Geduldete Juden), to whom marriage was forbidden on pain of expulsion.

Over the course of the eighteenth century, governments increasingly sought to control the activities of the Landjudenschaften as well. Many of the functions of these bodies were transferred to a centralized bureaucracy that frequently had a special branch for the management of Jewish affairs. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the very existence of a separate Jewish community, with an autonomous judicial system, came under increasing attack.

The attention lavished on the Jews of the German states by rulers and the majority population seems quite disproportionate to their numbers. At the end of the eighteenth century, the total number of Jews in the German states probably did not exceed 175,000 persons. The largest community was Hamburg, with 9,000 Jews. Only two other communities had over 3,000 Jews- Berlin and Frankfurt am Main.

But in the early modern period, these Jews engaged in the important work of adapting to structures that in some ways foreshadowed modernity. To be sure, much was a holdover of medieval patterns – above all the autonomous, corporative structure of the Jewish society, and its traditional character. But the unprecedented degree of socio-economic mobility, the rise of the court Jew and widening social gap between rich and poor in Jewish society, and the breakdown of communal autonomy under government supervision all portended modern developments.

Secondary Sources

  1. Burnett, Stephen. “Jews and Anti-Semitism in Early Modern Germany,” Sixteenth Century Journal 27 (1996), 1057-1064.
  2. Carlebach, Elisheva. “The Last Deception- Failed Messiahs and Jewish Conversion in Early Modern German Lands,” in Millenarianism and Messianism in Early Modern European Culture 1 (2001), 125-138.
  3. Hsia, Ronnie Po-chia. “Christian Ethnographies of Jews in Early Modern Germany,” in The Expulsion of the Jews (1994), 223-235.
  4. Jersch-Wenzel, Stefi. “Jewish Economic Activity in Early Modern Times,” in R. Po-chia Hsia and Hartmut Lehmann, eds., In and Out of the Ghetto (2002).
  5. Israel, Jonathan. “Central European Jewry during the Thirty Years’ War, 1618-1648,” Central European History 16 (1983), 3-30.
  6. Carlebach, Elisheva. “Between History and Myth- The Regensburg Expulsion in Josel of Rosheim’s Sefer ha-miknah,” in Carlebach, Efron, Myers, eds. History and Memory- Jewish Perspectives (Brandeis/University Press of New England, 1998)- 40-54I, available to read on Google Books.


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