Shim‘on Abeles. Engraving from Processus Inquisitorius (Prague: C. Z. Wussin, 1728). (Jewish Museum in Prague)

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Abeles, Shim‘on

(1682/85–1694), Jewish youth in Prague whose father was accused of murdering him “out of hatred for the Christian faith.” The death of Shim‘on Abeles in February 1694 illuminates the tensions that beset Prague’s Jewish community in the late seventeenth century. Coming at the height of the Catholic Habsburg Counter-Reformation, in which the Jesuit order played a leading role in reshaping Bohemian religion and culture, the case signaled a new stage of repression for Prague’s Jewish community.

The boy’s grandfather, Mosheh Bumsle Abeles, a primas (leader) of the Jewish community, held a central position in communal affairs as a member of a powerful clan. Internecine rivalry with other clans may have played a role in the case. Young Shim‘on had apparently expressed interest in conversion to Christianity. When he died some months later, a Jewish informer denounced his family, and the royal court ordered the child’s body exhumed. The medical faculty of Charles University, then a Jesuit stronghold, found that he had died a violent death; his family, however, maintained that he had died of natural causes. Shim‘on’s father, Lazar Abeles, was arrested and charged with murdering his son to prevent his conversion. Lazar Abeles was then tortured, but died in custody before a confession could be obtained. A second Jew, Löbl Kurtzhandl, was then named as the codefendant. Kurtzhandl pleaded with Emperor Leopold I in Vienna for justice, but his multiple appeals were denied. Kurtzhandl was then broken and killed on the wheel.

Although Shim‘on Abeles had never been baptized, he was beatified as a Christian saint and martyr. His burial place in Prague’s Týn Church became a shrine for pilgrims. The case was elaborated in an anonymous treatise, Processus Inquisitorius (Inquisitorial Proceedings; 1696); in an account by the Jesuit Johannes Eder published in three languages; as well as in broadsides, paintings, and even a long published oratorio commemorating Shim‘on’s martyrdom. A Yiddish kloglid (dirge) remembered the martyrdom of Kurtzhandl, but surprisingly did not deny his culpability. These sources shed much light on the daily interaction between Jews and Christians in Prague. The case highlights Jesuit attempts to attract young Jews to Christianity as well as the political maneuvering between municipal, regional, imperial, and ecclesiastical authorities who shared power in Bohemia. Set within the context of the crowded conditions of the Prague ghetto that brimmed with bitter rivalry as well as mutual aid, the case highlights the precarious yet vital existence of this community half a century before Maria Theresa attempted to extinguish it in 1745.

Suggested Reading

Elisheva Carlebach, “The Death of Simon Abeles: Jewish-Christian Tension in Seventeenth-Century Prague” (Berman lecture, Queens College, New York, 2003); J. W. Ebelin, comp., Processus Inquisitorius (Prague, 1696); Alexandr Putík, “The Prague Jewish Community in the Late Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries,” Judaica Bohemiae 35 (2000): 4–140.