Introduction to Jews in the Early Modern Period


The early modern period (approximately 1450s-1750s) was a period of both transformation and continuity, characterized by the religious upheavals wrought by the Reformation, the invention and spread of printing, the growing power of the centralized state, new ideologies and economic structures, and rapid population growth. A convergence of many factors brought about the extension of European global influence, and with it the migration of large numbers of Europeans to distant lands.

It was a period of dramatic change in Jewish history as well. In fact, Jews were never isolated from developments in their non-Jewish environment, but participated in and responded to those developments in ways that reflected their distinct cultural patterns. Particularly important for them, in the early modern period, were the beginning of Hebrew printing, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and the emergence of Kabbalah as one of the dominant factors in their religious culture. Eastward migrations of Jews from Spain and the German states gave rise to new cultural centers in the Ottoman Empire and Poland-Lithuania. By the seventeenth century, Jews and conversos (descendants of baptized Jews from the Iberian Peninsula) were renewing Jewish settlement in the Atlantic states where Jewish settlement had long been prohibited. Encouraged by mercantilist rulers, Jews who possessed capital and international trade connections also began resettling in central Europe, and as part of the wider saga of European expansion, Jews and conversos also made their way to the Americas.

In Europe, the Reformation had a transformative impact on Jewish life in often unexpected ways. Although many of the early Protestant leaders harbored harshly negative attitudes to Jews, and although reaction to the Reformation produced severe anti-Jewish measures in Catholic states, in the long run the breakup of a monolithic western Christendom led to theological experimentation across old boundaries and notions of religious toleration that also boded well for Jewish existence. At the same time, the religious ferment of the age encouraged internal criticism of rabbinic authority and even theological skepticism, particularly among Portuguese Jews, in ways that foreshadowed the erosion of distinctive core traditions.

For the most part, however, traditional rabbinic Judaism remained firmly rooted in Jewish society, and was perhaps even defined more rigidly with the advent of printing. Among the important works that were disseminated with new speed after the introduction of the printing press were the Shulkhan arukh, a code of Jewish law that quickly became normative throughout the Jewish world, and traditional commentaries on the Bible and Talmud. Yet in the mid-sixteenth century, kabbalistic teachings emanating from Safed spread quickly through the Balkans, Italy, and elsewhere, introducing an essentially new Jewish cosmology. While it was often fused eclectically with older traditions, in many communities kabbalah came to dominate the ethos of Jewish life. It is only in light of widely popularized kabbalistic beliefs that the explosion of messianic enthusiasm around Sabbatai Zevi in 1666 can be understood, as well as the emergence of Hasidism a century later.

On the eve of the modern period, world Jewry was more diverse culturally and more scattered geographically than it had ever been. Still, the language of Scripture and prayer, the basic rituals of Jewish life, and the high degree of communal autonomy that was characteristic throughout the diaspora continued to define the boundaries between Jew and Gentile rather clearly. And yet the ideas and trends that would eventually lead to the radical breakdown of those boundaries were gaining increasing expression on both sides of the divide.

Primary Sources

  1. The expulsion decree- published in Edward Peters, “Jewish History and Gentile Memory,” Jewish History 9 (1995), pp. 23-28.
  2. Judah Abravanel Poem to His Son (1503), translated by Raymond Scheindlin published in “Judah Abravanel and His Sons” in Judaism 41 (Spring 1992).
  3. Charter of Boleslaw the Pious to the Jews of Poland (1264) in Robert Chazan Church, State and the Jew in the Middle Ages.

Secondary Sources

  1. Baron, Salo. “Ghetto and Emancipation,” Menorah Journal 14 (1928)- 515-526.
  2. Ravid, Benjamin. “From Geographical Realia to Historical Symbol- The Odyssey of the Word “Ghetto”.” In Essential Papers on Jewish Culture in Renaissance and Baroque Italy, edited by David B. Ruderman. New York- New York University Press, 1992.


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