Bohemia and Moravia, ca. 1780.

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Bohemia and Moravia

The lands of the Bohemian crown (also referred to as Bohemian lands or Czech lands) comprised the geographic regions of Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia (after 1742, only the part of Silesia that remained part of the Habsburg domains). After 1918, these territories constituted the westernmost regions of Czechoslovakia; since 1993, they have formed the Czech Republic. The lands of the Bohemian crown were attached to the Přemyslid dynasty from roughly the ninth to the fourteenth century, and to the house of Luxembourg in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. In 1526, they passed definitively to the Habsburg dynasty (during the reign of Ferdinand I) where they remained for nearly 400 years, up to the dissolution of Austria-Hungary in 1918.

Jewish Settlement and Population Patterns

One cannot locate with certainty the earliest Jewish settlement in Bohemia and Moravia. The Iberian Jewish traveler Ibrāhīm ibn Ya‘qūb of Tortosa visited Bohemia in 965 or 966 and mentions Jewish merchants in his descriptions of Prague. It is a matter of some dispute as to whether or not he was describing a settled Jewish community. Indirect evidence, however, attests to the presence of Jewish communities in these lands by the eleventh century at the latest. The Bohemian chronicler Cosmas of Prague (ca. 1039–1125), who wrote about the disastrous effects of the First Crusade on the Jews, had knowledge of established Jewish communities in Bohemia in 1090 and in Brno (Ger., Brünn) in Moravia in 1091. Yitsḥak Dorbello, a student of Ya‘akov ben Me’ir Tam, described the Olomouc (Olmütz) Jewish community in 1146.

The Altneuschul (Old-New Synagogue), built ca. 1270, the oldest building in Prague’s Jewish Quarter and the oldest preserved synagogue in Europe. From Antiquitates Judaicae Pragenses (Jewish Antiquities in Prague), a postcard album printed by M. Schulz for the Gomel Hasidim Burial Society in Prague, ca. 1920s. (YIVO)

With regard to Prague, the capital of Bohemia, the best guess is that the oldest Jewish settlements were to be found in the Lesser Town (Malá Strana; Ger., Kleinseite); it appears that Jews did not establish themselves in what later would become known as the Jewish Town, or “ghetto” just north of the Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí; Ger., Altstädter Ring) until after 1142—following the destruction, by fire or riot, of the Malá Strana community—and possibly not until the thirteenth century.

Přemysl Ottokar II (margrave of Moravia, duke of Austria, and king of Bohemia) issued a general privilege, modeled on an Austrian charter for Jews in 1244, to the Jews of his kingdom in 1254. It was reaffirmed twice in the following decade and soon adopted, with minor modifications, for the Jews of Hungary, Silesia, Poland, and Lithuania. The privilege (or charter) affirmed the juridical autonomy of local Jewish communities in civil and domestic law, inheritances, and the regulation of religious life. Cases on appeal—even those involving Christian litigants—were to be tried before the king’s chambers and not by city magistrates. Ottokar II’s privilege granted wide latitude on the adjustment of rates of interest on loans, sought to protect Jewish moneylenders from having to redeem pledges on the Sabbath and holidays, and publicized recent papal bulls that condemned ritual murder accusations. In claiming exclusive jurisdiction over the legal status of the Jews, as well as the exclusive right to Jewish tax revenues, Přemysl Ottokar reaffirmed what was to become a principle of medieval royal politics, namely, that Jews fell under the purview of the royal treasury and that the crown—not local authority—had the right to collect Jewish taxes, regulate Jewish affairs, and offer Jews protection.

One sign of the vitality of Jewish life in Bohemia and Moravia in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was the flowering there of rabbinic culture associated with the Tosafist schools of northern France and Germany (the Holy Roman Empire). A number of leading Tosafists worked in Prague, including Yitsḥak ben Ya‘akov Lavan; Avraham ben ‘Azri’el Chládek (end of twelfth to mid-thirteenth century), author of the liturgical commentary ‘Arugat ha-bosem; and Yitsḥak ben Mosheh (known from the title of his work as Or Zaru‘a; ca. 1180–1260). Rabbinic writers of the period frequently glossed biblical and Talmudic terminology in the language of their surrounding culture; in the case of Bohemian and Moravian rabbis, the glosses were in Czech, referred to by Yitsḥak ben Mosheh as “the language of the land of Canaan.” The glosses in medieval Hebrew manuscripts from Bohemia and Moravia are of value not only to scholars of medieval Czech; they also suggest that Jews in this region in the high Middle Ages were Czech speakers. It is significant that the texts in question do not provide German or Judeo-German glosses.

In the thirteenth century, Jewish communities established themselves for the most part in fortified royal towns. Prague appears always to have been the largest and most influential example, but significant communities also arose in Brno, Cheb (Eger), Příbram, Plzeň (Pilsen), Jihlava (Iglau), Znojmo (Znaim), Olomouc, and elsewhere. Jewish occupations clustered around moneylending, trade, artisan crafts, and communal and rabbinic functions. The exact size of the medieval Jewish population, however, cannot be determined; indeed, no population figures are to be found before the sixteenth century and no reliable statistics existed before the eighteenth century.

Music of Jews in the House of God. Miniature from the breviary of Count Lobkowitz, Prague, 1494. XXIII F 202/fol. 110v. National Library of the Czech Republic. Illustration depicting Jewish worship. (National Library of the Czech Republic)

Until the middle of the fifteenth century, Jewish settlement patterns in the Bohemian and Moravian parts of the kingdom were predominantly urban and relatively small in size. Between the mid-fifteenth and mid-sixteenth centuries, however, both the burgher estate and the nobility increased their economic and political strength and pressured the crown to relinquish control over the resources and the legal status of Jews. In consequence, the royal towns of the two lands (with the exception of Prague) succeeded in having their Jewish populations expelled. The process of urban depopulation of Jews began in 1426 when Margrave Albrecht V acceded to the demands of the burghers of Jihlava to remove Jews, purportedly because of their support of the followers of Jan Hus. A second stage took place at mid-century in response to the agitation of the Franciscan preacher John of Capistrano (1386–1456), who traveled widely in Central Europe conducting an unremitting campaign against heretics—particularly Hussites—and Jews. A combination of religious zeal and economic competition moved the burghers in four additional royal towns (Brno, Olomouc, Znojmo, and Uničov [Ger., Märisch-Neustadt]) to demand—and win—the expulsion of Jews. The sixth and last royal free town in Moravia, Uherské Hradiště (Ungarisch Hradisch), followed suit in 1514. By the early sixteenth century, then, no Jews were living in the royal towns of Moravia.

In Bohemia, the expulsion of Jews from the royal free towns did not occur until 1541, during the reign of Ferdinand I (r. 1526–1564), who acceded to the demands of the burghers that Jews be expelled from all crown cities in Bohemia, but excluded Prague from this order despite pressure from the town council, thus maintaining royal prerogative at least over the capital. The expulsion order, which was passed by the Czech estates, was supposed to apply to the kingdom as a whole. But it was resisted by the Moravian nobility and rescinded by the monarch in 1545. The newly won urban freedoms of the royal towns, however, meant that they did not need to readmit their former Jewish communities. Ferdinand reversed course once again in 1557 and once more expelled the Jews from Bohemia—this time including Prague, while excluding Moravia. The 1557 decree was never fully enforced, however, and a remnant of the Jewish community managed to stay in place until the new emperor, Maximilian II (r. 1564–1576), inherited the kingdom.

In Moravia, noblemen who owned their own towns generally welcomed Jewish settlement. During this time, the Jewish population in Moravia acquired a pattern quite distinct from that of neighboring Bohemia—much closer, in fact, to what could be found in Central and Eastern Poland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Moravian Jews lived mainly in small- to medium-sized towns under the patronage of the nobility. They were able to preserve many of the features of urban culture and occupational life but were shielded from burgher control and competition, as the towns that they now inhabited belonged to the private domain of magnate families. Bohemia, by contrast, maintained Prague as a large and dominant Jewish center (except for two periods of expulsion, 1557–1564 and 1745–1748), supplemented by much smaller Jewish settlements in privately owned villages and small towns. These distinctive population patterns became entrenched, indeed accentuated, over the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century by the effects of the Familiants Laws (1726–1848) and had long-term implications for Jews of the region in the realms of politics, language, and culture.

Prague’s Jewish Town expanded considerably between the 1480s and the 1520s, during which time its many open spaces were covered over with new construction, the surface area of the quarter was extended through the purchase of non-Jewish homes, and the Jewish population of the city is thought to have doubled. The Jewish quarter was an urban enclosure whose borders were made up largely of contiguous houses punctuated by six gates, some of them fortified. A wall enclosing the remaining open areas of the quarter was constructed in 1523. With its wall and gates, its synagogues, schools, and town hall, Prague’s Jewish Town had the appearance of other fortified cities in the kingdom. It could, if necessary, shut itself off from Christian neighborhoods. But it was not yet a ghetto, as freedom of movement for Jews was not restricted by law, and it was not even the only area of the city in which Jews at the time lived.

On the eve of the 1541 expulsion, as many as 1,300 Jews may have made Prague their home; this figure dropped to below 1,000 in the immediate aftermath of the banishment but then embarked on a steady climb, reaching 5,000 in the early seventeenth century; 7,800 in 1638; and some 11,000 by the beginning of the eighteenth century, making it the largest Jewish community in Central Europe, eclipsed in other parts of the continent only by Amsterdam and Salonika.

Coat of arms of Ya‘akov Bassevi of Treuenberg, seventeenth century. A painted stone shield from the former house of Bassevi in Třistudniční (Three Wells Place), in the Prague ghetto. The house was demolished between 1893 and 1907. (Archives of the City of Prague)

The Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) ravaged the Central European countryside, destroyed urban economies, and decimated the population, yet curiously did not undermine the conditions of Jewish life in the region. Faced with the daunting prospect of mobilizing, provisioning, and sustaining an army to put down the rebellion of the Protestant Czech nobility (and soon thereafter to combat the armies of various invading countries), Emperor Ferdinand II (r. 1619–1637) took great care not to jeopardize the well-being of one of his most important human assets. Raising funds from Bohemian and Moravian Jews, he was able to help put down the original rebellion during the years 1618 to 1620. He cultivated Jewish financiers such as Ya‘akov Bassevi, who specialized in handling the output of Bohemia’s silver mines. Finally, he protected those who might be of benefit to the state and rewarded with special concessions those who offered aid. In 1623, Ferdinand issued a new privilegium to the Jews of Prague and Bohemia, reaffirming all traditional rights while guaranteeing to the Jews freedom of residence, protection from expulsion, and virtually unhampered trade and commercial activity throughout the kingdom, including the royal cities and the domains of the nobility. He reaffirmed the charter for the Jews of Bohemia and Silesia in 1627 and applied it to Moravia two years later.

The long-term effects of the war, however, were not so favorable to the demographic position of the Jews. In 1650, Ferdinand III (r. 1637–1657) sought to expel Jews from all localities in which they had not resided legally on 1 January 1618. Jews were to be disqualified from the leasing of toll and monopoly rights and from the management of rural estates. True to form, the Moravian Landtag (diet) managed to delay implementation of the royal edict. Eventually it forced Ferdinand’s successor, Leopold I (r. 1658–1705), to change the cutoff date from 1618 to 1657, a move that granted de facto recognition to the expansion of Jewish settlement during the Thirty Years’ War. But a reversal of Jewish fortunes—directed largely by imperial officials in Vienna—was unavoidable.

In 1714, Charles VI (r. 1711–1740) created a commission to consider a number of proposals, among them the reduction of the Jewish population of Prague, the limitation of Jewish economic influence, and the effective separation of the Jewish quarter from the Old Town. The commission came back with drastic recommendations to reduce the number of Jews in the city, and these proposals were passed on to the emperor by the governor’s office in 1719. In the end, the emperor pursued a more moderate course, which, rather than roll back the Jewish population to its 1618 levels, established a cap based on the existing situation. He issued the notorious Familiants Laws in 1726 (for Bohemia) and 1727 (for Moravia and Silesia), limiting the number of Jewish families that might legally reside in Bohemia to 8,541 and in Moravia to 5,106. To keep these numbers constant, the laws stipulated that only one son from any household could obtain the right to marry and establish a family.

More than any other single piece of legislation, the Familiants Laws came to symbolize the repressive stance that the Habsburg state had taken on Jewish policy. The intent of the laws was to block Jewish mobility, stifle economic development, and discourage growth, while maintaining, at the same time, a minimum level of tax contribution. They stayed in effect until the Revolution of 1848, playing havoc with Jewish family life, significantly delaying the age of marriage for most, forcing younger members of Jewish households to emigrate or, at best, to settle in the towns and villages of the nobility where they might be protected from the watchful eye of the state. 

Although thousands of Jewish males from Bohemia and Moravia are presumed to have migrated from their places of birth after 1726 (primarily to Poland and Hungary), the Familiants Laws did not fully succeed in stopping growth in the Jewish population. The eighteenth-century state remained relatively weak after all; its coercive powers were limited. Frequently the means by which Jews attempted to evade the draconian effects of the laws worked to intensify the separate demographic patterns of the two regions. In Bohemia, where the large center in Prague was a relatively easy target of supervision by royal and municipal officials, one way in which Jews circumvented the law was to disperse to small villages throughout the countryside. A government census of 1724 indicated that the Jews of Bohemia were scattered among 800 localities, as many as 600 of which comprised small villages in which only a handful of Jews lived. Over the course of the next 125 years, this dispersed pattern of settlement seems actually to have become more pronounced. In 1849, Jews in Bohemia were living in 1,921 localities, only 207 of which formed communities of more than 10 families and a formal synagogue; 148 managed to assemble a minyan (quorum) for prayer on Sabbaths and holidays; the rest were too small even for that.

In Moravia, by contrast, the privately owned towns of the nobility continued to provide shelter to Jews, helping to prolong the pattern of numerous medium-sized Jewish communities. Meanwhile, the Jewish population in both parts of the kingdom did grow somewhat. In the general census of 1754, Habsburg officials counted slightly more than 29,000 Jews in Bohemia (though some argue that this figure is too low), somewhat under 20,000 in Moravia, and fewer than 600 in Silesia. By 1849, the Jewish population of Bohemia stood at more than 75,000, while the numbers of Moravian and Silesian Jewry had grown to almost 41,000.

Rabbinic Culture and Institutions

From the close of the middle ages to the middle of the nineteenth century, Bohemia and Moravia hosted some of Europe’s leading rabbis; the regions were home to distinguished yeshivas; and, in close communication with Jewish centers in Poland and the German states, they took part in the main intellectual currents of rabbinic Judaism. Among the major figures of the sixteenth century were Mordekhai ben Avraham Yafeh (Levush; d. 1612), a native of Prague who was elected to the chief rabbinate in 1592; and Yehudah Leib ben Betsal’el (d. 1609), known widely by the acronym Maharal.

Die Meiselgasse (Meisel Street), drawing by Adolf Kašpar. From Das Prager Ghetto, by Ignat Herrmann, Josef Teige, and Zikmund Winter (Prague: Verlagsbuchhandlung der Böhm. Graphischen Gesellschaft “Unie,” 1903). (Leo Baeck Institute, New York)

Maharal served for two decades as Landesrabbiner of Moravia (1553–1573) before moving to Prague to become head of the city’s yeshiva. The chief rabbinate eluded him, however, until 1597, when, at the advanced age of 77, he assumed the position he had prized for many years. His books Tif’eret Yisra’el,Be’er ha-golah, and Netsaḥ Yisra’el—as well as his major commentary on the Book of Exodus, Gevurot ha-Shem—contain remarkable contemplations of Israel’s place among the nations of the world, the nature of nationality and national distinctiveness, the dilemma of exile, and the promise of redemption. In his Netivot ‘olam (1596), one finds not only a treatise on ethics but also an elaborate statement of pedagogical theory, rejecting conventional methods of Talmudic study in favor of a graduated approach emphasizing the “plain” meaning of text and according separate and distinct status to the three pillars of Jewish learning: Bible, Mishnah, and Talmud.

In the seventeenth century, Bohemia and Moravia continued the pattern of participation in a common, Ashkenazic rabbinic culture, sharing some of its leading rabbis with communities in Poland and the empire. Efrayim Shelomoh of Luntshits (Pol., Łęczyca; 1550–1619) had been rabbi of Lwów before arriving in Prague in 1604. The author of a commentary on the Pentateuch, Efrayim also wrote a number of penitential prayers for the Prague community. Yesha‘yahu ha-Levi Horowitz (1565–1630), best known for his ethical and mystical opus Shene luḥot ha-berit, achieved an early reputation in Poland and also served as rabbi in Frankfurt am Main. It was only in 1614 that he returned to his native Prague, where he stayed until 1621 before finally settling in Palestine.

The dominant rabbinic personality of the seventeenth century, and ultimately the object of controversy, was Yom Tov Lipmann Heller (1578–1654), a student of Yehudah Leib ben Betsal’el and the author of the highly influential commentary on the Mishnah, Tosafot Yom Tov (1614–1617). Heller was active for many years as a rabbinic judge in Prague before serving as chief rabbi of Moravia, Vienna, and Prague respectively. In 1629—in the midst of the Thirty Years’ War and on the basis of anonymous reports from within the Jewish community—he was arrested by imperial authorities on charges that his writings slandered both Christianity and the imperial house. Incarcerated in Vienna, and threatened with capital punishment, Heller managed to have his sentence commuted to a monetary fine, but was banned from holding office again in Prague. Embittered by the experience, he made his way to Poland where, eventually in 1643, he became the chief rabbi of Kraków.

During the early modern period, the institutions of Jewish self-government in Bohemia and Moravia became more highly structured and diversified. At the same time, the patterns of Jewish autonomy in the two provinces diverged. In Bohemia, Prague acted as the dominant force in communal affairs, at times representing all of Bohemian Jewry and at times competing with the rest of the province, which was organized as a single unit to serve as a counterweight to the dominant center. The power struggle between Prague and the Bohemian periphery stemmed in large part from the demographic effects of Habsburg Jewish policy. Following the removal of Jews from the royal free towns (and despite the two temporary expulsions of 1557 and 1745), the Prague community expanded while the rest of Bohemian Jewry spread out in ever-widening circles in small towns and villages. Prague’s subsequent ability to dominate Jewish affairs in Bohemia depended on its relative size, wealth, and security at any given time. By the middle of the seventeenth century, for example, the rural Jewish population had increased to a sufficient degree that the state came to recognize the Böhmische Landesjudenschaft as an independent entity whose main function was to collect and distribute Jewish tax monies. The only formal connection to Prague Jewry at this time was through the office of the chief rabbi, Simon Spira-Wedeles.

The Landesjudenschaft consolidated its separate status during the last quarter of the seventeenth century, when fire, plague, and political indecision reigned in Prague. It was not until the second decade of the eighteenth century that David Oppenheim (1664–1736) managed to extend his authority over all of Bohemian Jewry, which by now had devolved into three chief rabbinates. As chief rabbi of Prague from 1702, Oppenheim assumed the two provincial rabbinical posts in 1713 and 1715, and won the title of rosh yeshivah in 1718. Meanwhile the state had also stepped in to impose “rationality” on the situation, creating positions of district rabbi (Kreisrabbiner), abolishing the title of Landesrabbiner in 1749, and recognizing the chief rabbi of Prague as the top religious official for all of Bohemia. From this point until 1939, Bohemian Jewry retained a bifurcated communal structure—Prague on the one hand; the rest of Bohemia on the other—while the state recognized only the chief rabbi of Prague as the supreme religious authority.

In Moravia, Jewish autonomy operated along very different lines. Unlike Bohemia, there was no single urban center that retained a large, permanent, Jewish community. Moravian Jewry’s distribution among the small- to medium-sized towns of the nobility seems to have resulted in greater intercommunal cohesiveness than was the case in Bohemia, reminiscent of the situation in early modern Poland. As in Poland, Moravian Jewry created a supercommunal council, the Va‘ad Medinat Mehrin, which operated under the supervision of the Landesrabbiner and whose principal functions included the collection of taxes, the representation of Jewish interests before the authorities, and legislation in matters affecting the larger Jewish community.

Under the leadership of Menaḥem Mendel Krochmal (1600–1661), the Moravian Va‘ad began a project of assembling and publishing its legislative acts in 1651–1652. The first installment consisted of 311 articles, or takanot. To this were added pieces of communal legislation down to the year 1748, the last year in which the “large” legislative council met. At the behest of the Habsburg state, which thought it necessary to establish limits to Jewish autonomy in Moravia, the entire collection was translated and published in 1754 as the General Polizei-, Prozess- und Kommerzialordnung für die Judenschaft des Markgraftums Mähren (General Police, Court, and Commercial Regulations for the Jews of the Margravate of Moravia). The person who translated the collection from Hebrew to German was the convert Alois Wiener, father of the famous Joseph von Sonnenfels.

The Takanot medinat Mehrin amounted to nothing less than a body of constitutional law governing the lives of Moravian Jewry. And, although Empress Maria Theresa (r. 1740–1780) insisted on certain amendments to this “constitution” in 1754, the principle of Jewish autonomy remained intact. The Va‘ad enacted a new set of laws dealing with educational matters during the later part of the 1750s, which guaranteed the operation of yeshivas in Mikulov and other locations throughout Moravia. Moravian Jewry’s strong sense of communal cohesiveness lasted well into the nineteenth century and helped to produce a Jewish “national” voice in Austrian politics in the midst of the emancipation process.

Four Sons, from a Haggadah produced by Mosheh Leib ben Volf, Trebitsch, Moravia, 1716-1717. Ink, oil on parchment. The illustrations are based on engravings found in the printed Amsterdam Haggadah of 1712. (HUC Ms. 444.1, Second Cincinnati Haggadah. Klau Library, Cincinnati, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion)

The eighteenth century, with its two towering personalities, David Oppenheim and Yeḥezkel Landau (1713–1793), represented the pinnacle of rabbinic power and influence in Bohemia and Moravia. Oppenheim, a native of Worms, followed the by-now typical pattern of serving first as Landesrabbiner of Moravia (1689–1702) before assuming the position of chief rabbi of Prague and rosh yeshivah. A consummate politician and institution builder, he was also a great bibliophile. By the time of his death, his library numbered some 7,000 printed works and 1,000 manuscripts; it was later acquired by the Bodleian Library of Oxford. Landau, who hailed from Opatów in Poland, was appointed chief rabbi of Prague in 1754 and went on to become a dominant force in Jewish cultural and political life over the next four decades. He helped to rebuild a community ravaged by expulsion and natural disaster (fire), and to reestablish Prague as the most prestigious Jewish community in Central Europe. At the same time, he amassed unrivaled political authority, becoming the undisputed spiritual head of Bohemian Jewry. The author of a major commentary on the Talmud as well as a famous collection of responsa (Noda‘ bi-Yehudah), Landau stood as an outspoken opponent of the Berlin Haskalah. He railed against those, such as Naftali Herts Wessely (author of the work Divre shalom ve-emet), who advocated raising secular studies to the level of the Torah or even higher. Yet it was Landau, in the 1780s, who would have to negotiate a policy of accommodation to the ambitious reforms of Emperor Joseph II’s reign.

Rabbinic culture in the Bohemian lands changed significantly in the nineteenth century, reflecting less and less the traditional Judaism of Poland and Hungary and increasingly the influence of intellectual developments born of the Enlightenment, including Haskalah and Wissenschaft des Judentums. The last Polish-born scholar to become chief rabbi of Prague was Shelomoh Yehudah Rapoport (1790–1867) during the years 1847 to 1867. Though fully traditional in appearance and religious practice, and an opponent of religious reform, Rapoport was also a pioneering figure in modern Jewish studies.

Other leading rabbis of the period were even more fully identified with modernizing trends within Jewish culture and were usually graduates of modern seminaries and European universities. Among these were to be found Michael Sachs (1808–1864) and Saul Isaak Kaempf (1818–1892), who were among the first preachers at Prague’s Reform synagogue, founded in 1837; Nathan Ehrenfeld (1843–1912); Alexander Kisch (1848–1917); and Heinrich Brody (1868–1942). While the last yeshiva in Bohemia shut its doors in 1881, traditional rabbinic culture in Moravia had greater longevity. Mordekhai Banet (1753–1829) and Neḥemyah Trebitsch (1779–1842) provided strong rabbinic leadership in the first half of the century. And two of the major representatives of European Orthodoxy in the nineteenth century spent a portion of their careers in Moravia: Mosheh Sofer (Ḥatam Sofer), who later came to epitomize ultra-Orthodox opposition to Western culture, served as rabbi in Dresnitz before moving to Hungary at the end of the eighteenth century; Samson Raphael Hirsch, who later led the Orthodox community in Frankfurt am Main, served as chief rabbi from 1847 to 1851 and was elected to the Moravian Diet during the Revolution of 1848.

Enlightened Absolutism, Cultural Reform, and Emancipation

Spice container in the shape of a locomotive. Craftsman known only as “ee.” Brno, Moravia, ca. 1880. Silver, filigree. It is customary for boxes of spices to be passed around during the recital of the Havdalah blessing at the conclusion of the Sabbath and festivals. (Gross Family Collection)

Emperor Joseph II (r. 1780–1790) ushered in an era of state-mandated Jewish reforms in 1781 with his Edicts of Toleration (Toleranzpatente) for the various parts of the monarchy. Separate patents were issued for each of the three Bohemian–Moravian territories: Bohemia in October 1781; Silesia in December 1781; and Moravia in February 1782. Though groundbreaking in their own right, the edicts represented but one part of a much larger package of reforming measures, among which also stood the application of religious toleration to Austrian Protestants, the partial liberation of the peasantry from its ties to feudal land, and the institution of compulsory elementary education. He did not view the reforms as bequeathing any special advantages to Jews. As he explained in a memorandum of October 1781: “It is by no means my intention to expand the Jewish nation in the hereditary lands or to reintroduce them to areas where they are not tolerated, but only—in those places where they already exist and to the extent that they are already tolerated—to make them useful to the state.” To this end, Joseph opened all forms of trade and commerce to Jewish participation, encouraged Jews to establish factories, and urged them to engage more fully in the artisan crafts and in agriculture. The edicts resisted the temptation to undermine the status quo in the shop and the countryside, however, as they continued to bar Jews from owning rural property as well as from attaining the rank of master or citizen in the crafts.

The more far-reaching changes occasioned by the Toleranzpatente took place not in the area of economic activity but rather in the cultural and educational realm. A major intent of the legislation was to extend compulsory education (first adopted in 1774) to the Jewish community. Thus the state invited all of the Jewish communities of Bohemia and Moravia that were of sufficient size to set up government-supervised schools (Normalschulen) to instruct students in mathematics, geography, German language, history, and morality. Parents who lived in communities that could not afford to establish and maintain their own schools could send their children to non-Jewish establishments.

Meanwhile, the doors of universities and institutions of higher education were declared open for Jewish enrollment. Additionally, the Toleranzpatente eliminated the use of Hebrew and Yiddish in business records. Subsequent edicts went on to bolster the cultural provisions of the Josephinian reform and further transformed the community’s social and legal character. In 1785, the juridical autonomy of the Jewish community in civil and criminal matters was abolished. An ordinance of 1786 made the granting of marriage certificates to Jews contingent on the parties’ ability to demonstrate that they had attended a Normalschule. Legislation in 1787 required the adoption of regular family names (rather than patronymics) and German first names. And in 1788 Jews became liable for service in the Austrian army.

Inspired by the Mendelssohnian enlightenment and encouraged by Joseph’s policies of “reform from above,” Bohemia and Moravia produced its own Haskalah movement in the 1780s and afterward. Active in the party of Jewish enlighteners (maskilim) were such people as Peter Beer (1758–1838), author of numerous textbooks on Jewish history and religion and a teacher at the Prague Normalschule for 27 years; Herz Homberg (1749–1841), a radical maskil whose textbook of Jewish morality, Bne-Zion, was designated a required work for all prospective Jewish brides and grooms in order to obtain a marriage license; the brothers Barukh (1762–1813) and Yehudah (Juda; 1773–1838) Jeitteles; the Hebrew printer Yisra’el Landau (1758–1829), a younger son of Prague’s chief rabbi Yeḥezkel Landau; and Wolfgang Wessely (1801–1870), who was the first (and, for many years, the only) Jewish university professor in the Habsburg monarchy.

A systematic review of Jewish legislation in 1797 (the so-called Judensystemalpatent) acknowledged the extent to which Jews had been incorporated into state and society, but it was deliberately retrospective in its orientation. In reaction to the political upheavals of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, the Habsburg state would propose no new, ameliorative legislation with regard to Jews before the 1840s. Bohemian, Moravian, and Silesian Jews achieved full legal equality in a piecemeal fashion over a period of time that stretched from 1841 to 1867. The first year saw a loosening of the restrictions on the purchase and possession of real estate by Jews and on places where Jews could reside. Special Jewish taxes were abolished in 1846, and the free practice of the Jewish religion was guaranteed in 1848. The imperial constitutional edict of 1849 gave Jews equality with Christians in matters of state and private law, and though the constitution was revoked in December 1851, no new restrictions were placed on Jews.

In 1850, Prague’s Jewish quarter merged with the rest of the city as its fifth district and was renamed Josefstadt. The Jewish community was thereby transformed into a Cultusgemeinde (religious community). Imperial decisions in 1860 removed the last remaining barriers to occupational choice and economic activity, to the movement of Jews throughout the monarchy, and to the ownership of most forms of real property. Finally, in 1867, Jews living in the Austrian half of the monarchy received full legal equality.

Moravian Exceptionalism: The Political Jewish Community

Moravian Jewry in the second half of the nineteenth century constituted a historical anomaly. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, there were 52 autonomous Jewish communities in the province that functioned—much like the Jewish Town in Prague—as distinct municipalities. These were supposed to be dissolved in 1849 and incorporated into neighboring Christian towns. Jewish religious communities were to be established in their place to deal with the confessional aspects of Jewish life. Following a spate of anti-Jewish violence in the 1850s, however, the government permitted a certain number of Jewish communities to continue to exist as separate municipalities. Twenty-five Jewish communities eventually were incorporated into the surrounding municipalities, but 27 remained autonomous municipalities and continued to exist down to the end of the Habsburg monarchy. They were not abolished by the Law Regulating the State of the Israelite Religious Communities (1890) or by the Moravian electoral reforms of 1905–1907.

Members of the Sadl family near the synagogue, Schaffa (Safov), Moravia, 1914. (YIVO)

Because elections to both the provincial diets and the Austrian Reichsrat were conducted on the basis of electoral colleges, or curiae, and because the balance of power between Czechs and Germans in urban areas was often extremely close, the political Jewish communities (politische Judengemeinde) in Moravia took on an importance at election times that far exceeded their size. In fact, because of their small size, the political Jewish communities ought to have been included in the rural curia (in which Czechs dominated). The government in Vienna, however, eager to preserve German dominance in the Moravian Landtag, allowed the large majority of Jewish political communities (22 out of 27) to vote in the same curia as the much larger Christian towns in which they were located; the remaining five voted in the rural curia. As predicted, the Jewish vote was often decisive in close elections, and political Jewish communities came to be seen as “rotten boroughs” of German political hegemony.

The Moravian Compromise of 1905 added a new complication to the political calculus of Jews. This solution retained the traditional curial system (now expanded to five curiae), but it reorganized the urban, rural, and the new general curia along national lines. Voters now had to register in a national—Czech or German—cadastre, or voting list, within their curia. Moravian Jews now faced the question of having to decide which national list to participate in. In theory, Jews were to be included in the list of the majority of voters for a given town. Where Czechs were the majority, Jews would vote in the Czech cadastre, and vice versa. But the law also allowed individuals to switch their assignment if they could show that they had been registered on the wrong list. Zionists, meanwhile, sought to have Jews of Moravia recognized as a separate cadastre, but this tactic was rejected by Jewish organizations such as the Österreichisch-Israelitische Union, Habsburg officials, and the majority of Moravian Jewish voters.

Although they did not abolish this curious institution, the election laws of 1905 (for the Moravian Landtag) and 1907 (for the Austrian Reichsrat) seem to have put an end to the political influence that the politische Judengemeinden had exerted up to now. The new laws effectively abolished the old curiae, instituted universal male suffrage, called for the inscription of voters in various national cadastres, and delimited electoral districts according to national majorities (with provisions for minority representation in larger districts with mixed population). With these reforms, the political Jewish community—a curious hybrid of premodern Jewish autonomy and postemancipatory political intrigue—lost whatever power it once possessed.

Cross-Cultural Relations, Conflicts, and New Directions

Social and cultural relations between Jews and non-Jews in Bohemia and Moravia were carried out in multiple contexts and were constrained by a variety of factors. Jews engaged in political relations with city councils, lords, and monarchs (later, with elected assemblies and political parties); they encountered non-Jewish artisans, peasants, and merchants on a daily basis in economic interactions; and on many occasions had to endure hostile confrontations with crowds, individuals, and institutional forces. These relations were structured by often overlapping expectations and systems of knowledge: popular wisdoms, church teachings, political expediency, ethnic mobilization and competition, and, not infrequently, mutual attraction.

“Drowning Men Grasping at a Straw.” Humoristicke listy (Funny Pages), Prague, September 1899. Cartoon depicting Leopold Hilsner with Alfred Dreyfus, the French Jew convicted of espionage and recently pardoned by the French government, grasping at the straw of “denial” of guilt. (National Museum, Prague)

Jewish life in the kingdom suffered serious disruptions in the form of violent attacks on a number of occasions: the Prague Jewish community fell victim to violence in 1096 during the First Crusade; in 1389 following accusations of blasphemy and desecration of the Host; in 1744 during massacres carried out by irregular forces in the Austrian army; in 1848 during the days of the revolution; in 1897 in the aftermath of the resignation of the Badeni government; and in 1919 following the end of World War I. The Jews of Cheb were massacred at the time of the Black Death; Moravian Jews, as we have read, were expelled from the royal free towns in the fifteenth century; the Jews of Bohemia, in the sixteenth century; and the Jews of Prague, temporarily, in 1557 and 1745. Numerous local accusations of Jewish “ritual murder” erupted in the 1890s in the Bohemian lands and culminated in the Polná affair of 1899–1900, in which the accused, Leopold Hilsner, was twice tried and twice sentenced to death. On this occasion, also, anti-Jewish riots broke out in a number of cities and towns throughout Bohemia and Moravia.

But relations between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors were multifaceted and complex. As we have seen, textual evidence from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries attests to Jewish mastery of the Czech language in that era. In the Renaissance period, during the reigns of Maximilian II (1564–1576) and Rudolph II (1576–1612), Prague Jewry is thought to have enjoyed a golden age, in which rabbinic culture and European science came into close contact and the Jews of Bohemia enjoyed the active protection of the imperial house. Recent scholarship has shown that Yehudah Leib ben Betsal’el, while residing in Mikulov (Nikolsburg; the seat of the Moravian rabbinate), read Calvinist writings (in Hebrew translation) and had contact with circles of Czech humanists, including the Bohemian Brethren. This cultural exchange may well have influenced Maharal’s own educational and national theories, which have long stood out as among the most original of the early modern era.

Rudolph’s court in Prague, meanwhile, appears to have been marked by a tolerance and cultural iconoclasm uncharacteristic of post-Reformation Central Europe. During his reign, a segment of Prague’s Jewish intellectual elite may have communicated extensively with non-Jewish scientists and their schools. David Gans (1541–1613), a German-born astronomer and historical chronicler, embodied the most thorough appropriation of Renaissance science and cultural concerns, subordinated, to be sure, to the parameters of traditional Jewish culture. After having studied with prominent rabbinic personalities of his day, including Mosheh Isserles in Kraków and Maharal in Prague, Gans took the unusual step for a Jew of his era of devoting himself entirely to the study of the secular sciences, namely mathematics, astronomy, geography, and history. Mordecai Maisel (1528–1601), perhaps the original court Jew, financed large-scale projects for Rudolph II and received unprecedented privileges in return (including the right to bequeath his property). During his lifetime, Maisel supported numerous scholars and educational institutions, constructed synagogues, and reportedly paved the Jewish quarter at his own expense. Upon his death he left an estate worth more than 500,000 florins, which immediately became the object of a fierce contest pitting the crown against the Jewish community and leaving the unfortunate heirs to fend for themselves.

The linguistic patterns of Jews in Bohemia and Moravia shifted in the direction of western Yiddish and German beginning in the later Middle Ages and extending well into the nineteenth century. A number of factors contributed to this change: the migration of Jews from German-speaking parts of the empire to Bohemia; the proximity of Moravia to Vienna (and the Viennese origins of part of Moravian Jewry); the defeat of the Czech estates in 1618 and their suppression by Habsburg authorities; and the active involvement of the Habsburg state—beginning with Joseph II—in promoting Jewish acculturation to high German, among others.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Jews of Prague and the medium-sized towns in Moravia were fully engaged in a modernization process that combined attendance at German-Jewish primary schools, mastery of German language, and various tracks to social and economic mobility. But conditions also existed that militated against a complete identification of Jews with German language and culture. One of these conditions concerned the distribution of Jewish population in Bohemia. The dispersal of Jews throughout the Czech countryside in very small communities assured their immersion in Czech language and culture independent of their participation in the Josephinian school system. In the decades following the Revolution of 1848 (particularly after the 1860s and 1870s), tens of thousands of Jews from Czech small towns and villages migrated—to Prague and the larger cities of Bohemia and Moravia; to Vienna; and overseas. While some Jewish families moved directly from a small town or village to Prague, many others made intermediate stops in Czech provincial towns, where a significant number sent their children to the recently expanded system of Czech primary and secondary schools. Eventually the “new Jews” of rural, Czech background overwhelmed the older strata of traditional Jewish society in Prague and in other cities. The Jewish population of Prague and its inner suburbs grew from 15,214 in 1869 (6.3% of the city’s total population) to 27,289 in 1900 (7.9%): more than two-thirds of this expansion resulted from migration from the countryside. As late as 1921, 60 percent of all Prague Jews had been born outside the city; 8 of 10 of these had come from a Czech-speaking environment.

The urbanization of Czech Jews produced a collision of cultures within Jewish society, a clash between the dominant pattern of German Jewish liberalism and a growing inclination to identify with the language, culture, and political aspirations of the Czech majority. The first Jewish organization to challenge the liberal consensus of the mid-nineteenth century was the Spolek Českých Akademiků-Židů (Association of Czech Academic Jews), founded by Jewish university students in Prague in 1876. It was joined in 1883 by the Or Tomid (Eternal Light) Society, which aimed to create a Czech linguistic vehicle for religious ceremonies and public ritual. When in 1893 the Národní Jednota Českožidovská (Czech Jewish National Union) emerged—and with it the first Czech Jewish newspaper, Českožidovské listy—the growing Czech Jewish integrationist movement had come of age. For the next 25 years it would challenge both the institutions and the established practices of Bohemian and Moravian Jewry. Along the way, the Czech Jewish movement would close down the century-old network of German Jewish schools that had been the hallmark of Jewish acculturation since the days of Joseph II. It would help to change the voting patterns and linguistic declarations of Bohemian and Moravian Jewry and would achieve no small success in transforming the overall national orientation of the Jewish community.

An alternative to an exclusively Czech or German national affiliation presented itself with increasing cogency during the turbulent, final decade of the nineteenth century. Pockets of university students, businessmen, and young professionals reacted to the general radicalization of political life in Bohemia and Moravia by questioning the very premise of national integration, insisting that their “nation” was neither German nor Czech, but Jewish. Many of the more creative minds of the younger generation of Prague Jews—among them the philosopher (Shemu’el) Hugo Bergmann, the historian Hans Kohn, the journalist Robert Weltsch, and the writer Max Brod—applied themselves energetically to the task of creating a modern, national, Jewish culture appropriate to the multinational context of Habsburg Central Europe. Most of these people emerged from the student Zionist organization Bar Kochba, which had been founded in 1899. A number were active in the influential Zionist weekly Selbstwehr, published by Jewish nationalists in Prague from 1907 to 1938. All were committed to the cultural and political renaissance of the Jewish people—primarily in Europe, but also in Palestine.

It is possible to view both Prague Zionism and Czech Jewish integrationism as aspects of a single process of secondary acculturation affecting broad segments of the Jewish population. This is not to say that the Jewish communities of Bohemia and Moravia possessed a single cultural profile. To the contrary, they exhibited much variation in historical development, communal structure and size, and linguistic and cultural preferences. Jews in Moravia, for example, tended to retain a greater allegiance to German language and culture. In 1900, more than 54 percent of the Jews of Bohemia declared their language of daily use (Umgangssprache or obcovácí řeč) to be Czech, while only 17 percent of the Jews of Moravia made the same declaration. Moravian Jews also exhibited a greater willingness to identify with Jewish nationalism than did Jews in Bohemia (perhaps a result of the tradition of Jewish political communities). Nevertheless, Jewish life in both regions had been transformed dramatically—not only from premodern patterns, but also from the primary script of acculturation that had been put forward during the European Enlightenment.

By the close of the 1860s, the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia had already experienced one modernization: a restructuring of religious practices, political identification, and economic profile that had been set in motion by the reforms of the 1780s. Though still predominantly rural, Jewish society had abandoned most of its premodern forms. The community had no juridical autonomy; traditional Jewish education had fallen into disuse, as had the Yiddish language; and Bohemian and Moravian Jews no longer suffered from residential, demographic, or occupational restrictions. By 1914 a new complex of social, cultural, and political factors had altered the face of Bohemian and Moravian Jewry once again. Demographic upheaval, migration, and urbanization; the realization of secular, universal education; Czech nationalism’s challenge of German cultural and political dominance; and the general radicalization of national politics, had elicited an array of Jewish responses and ultimately produced a new social and cultural entity: modern Czech Jewry.

Whereas Bohemian and Moravian Jewry had been predominantly rural and small town, modern Czech Jewry was decidedly urban. More than one-third of the Jewish population of Bohemia in 1910 lived in Prague; nearly 70 percent lived in towns of more than 10,000 people. Seven decades earlier, there had been 347 separate Jewish communities in Bohemia alone, only 22 of which had a population of more than 50. If Bohemian and Moravian Jewish culture had been colored largely by the German–Jewish alliance of the late eighteenth century, the Czech Jewish orientation was highly nuanced, increasingly alienated from Austrian–German liberalism, and self-consciously bilingual.

By the first decades of the twentieth century, German Jewish culture in the Czech lands was in full retreat. It was by no means dead, however. Jewish parents in Prague, Brno, and other large cities continued to send their children in significant numbers to German schools and universities. These were also the years in which the phenomenon known as Prager Deutscher Literatur broke through the confines of provincial culture and emerged as one of the truly great achievements of world literature. Writers such as Oskar Baum, Max Brod, Ernst Weiss, Franz Werfel, and Franz Kafka helped to define the contours of modern German letters. This great burst of literary creativity reflected not so much the confidence of these Jewish writers in the long-term viability of German culture, as their sense that they were standing at the end of a historical process. Theirs was to be the last generation educated before World War I, the last to enjoy the rewards accorded German speakers in the multinational empire, and, at the same time, the first generation to represent Jewish aspirations in the new Czechoslovakia.

Suggested Reading

Ruth Kestenberg-Gladstein, Neuere Geschichte der Juden in den bömischen Ländern (Tübingen, 1969); Hillel J. Kieval, The Making of Czech Jewry: National Conflict and Jewish Society in Bohemia, 1870–1918 (New York, 1988); Hillel J. Kieval, Languages of Community: The Jewish Experience in the Czech Lands (Berkeley, 2000); Michael Laurence Miller, “Rabbis and Revolution: A Study in Nineteenth-Century Moravian Jewry” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 2004); Tomáš Pěkný, Historie Židů v Čechách a na Moravě, 2nd ed. (Prague, 2001); Alexandr Putík, “The Prague Jewish Community in the Late 17th and Early 18th Centuries,” Judaica bohemiae 35 (1999): 4–140; Alexandr Putík, “Prague Jews and Judah Hasid: A Study on the Social, Political and Religious History of the Late Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries,” pts. 1 and 2, Judaica bohemiae 38 (2002): 72–105 and 39 (2003): 53–92; Ferdinand Seibt, ed., Die Juden in den bömischen Ländern (Munich, 1983); Rudolf M. Wlaschek, Juden in Böhmen: Beiträge zur Geschichte des europäischen Judentums im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, 2nd ed., rev. and exp. (Munich, 1997).