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Maisel, Mordecai

(also Meisel; 1528–1601), financier, merchant, philanthropist, Jewish community head, and builder of Prague’s Jewish Town. References to Mordecai Maisel’s family in Prague date from as early as 1477; he is first mentioned as a business partner of his father-in-law, Yitsḥak Rofe, in 1569. From 1576 on, Maisel was a member of the Prague Jewish Communal Council, he later became its head.

Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II was well disposed toward Maisel; in return for financial assistance during the Turkish wars he appointed him counselor and later granted him personal privileges such as the right to lend money against promissory notes, pledges, and real estate. In 1592, Maisel was permitted to record his loans in the register of the Supreme Burgrave, and in 1593 he was granted the right to trade freely and to receive special protection against Christian lawsuits. Officers of the law were not entitled to enter or inspect his synagogue or house, or to obstruct his trade. Among Maisel’s clients were the sovereign’s family and leading noblemen. He traded in luxury goods, gold, art, and silver, as well as wool and fats. In 1598, Rudolf reconfirmed all of Maisel’s privileges and decreed that Maisel could dispose freely of his wealth.

Maisel used his means to care for the Prague Jewish community. His work is mentioned in his epitaph and is detailed in David Gans’s chronicle Tsemaḥ David (1592), which describes Maisel as “a patron of science, hero of charity, father of the poor and tireless benefactor of his people, friend of coreligionists, and leader of the merchant class.” Maisel supported charities and social organizations in Prague’s Jewish district, including the hospital and burial society. He provided craftsmen and the poor with interest-free loans, financially supported scholars and students, and also paid for the ransoming of captives. In addition, he sent money to Jerusalem and granted considerable loans and donations to the Poznań and Kraków communities.

Maisel’s name was also connected with the majority of building projects in the Prague Jewish district of his day. With the help of Italian builders, he undertook the construction of the High Synagogue in 1568; afterward, he probably contributed to the building of the Jewish town hall. He donated Torah scrolls as well as gold and silver ornaments to synagogues in Prague, Poland, and Jerusalem. He built a hospital for the poor and sick next to the Old Jewish Cemetery, and had the streets of the Jewish Town paved. In 1590, he bought land for his own synagogue, for which, in August 1591, the emperor granted him tax immunity and the right to display the “Flag of David” within it.

Maisel and his wife Frumet furnished the synagogue with curtains, mantles, and adornments for the Torah. The largest synagogue in Prague, it was built on 20 pillars at a cost of more than 10,000 thalers and was dedicated on Simḥat Torah in 1592. In 1598, Maisel enlarged the Old Jewish Cemetery by purchasing an adjoining house with a garden. At its edge he erected the original klausen buildings, housing a bet midrash and a synagogue.

Maisel’s last will and testament was written in accordance with the Imperial Charter on 1 March 1601 and contained provisions for his synagogue (to benefit the poor), his two houses (bequeathed to his nephews), and numerous monetary bequests to the emperor, relatives, and the poor, amounting to more than 50,000 gulden. He died on 13 March 1601. Although Rudolf II was represented at the funeral, all of Maisel’s assets (worth about 545,000 gulden) were confiscated by representatives of the Bohemian Chamber, and his nephews Shemu’el Maisel and Mosheh Kafka were even imprisoned. Maisel’s heirs and the Jewish community protested, but disputes over the inheritance persisted until 1699.

In addition to the Gans chronicle, the life and deeds of Mordecai Maisel are described in appendixes to the chronicle ‘Emek ha-bakha’ (Vale of Tears) by the sons of Yehudah Kohen, and also in an ode by Ya‘akov Sergé. In the nineteenth century, Maisel’s name was connected to various Prague Jewish legends published in the sipurim collection compiled by Wolf Pascheles.

The historical importance of Maisel’s activity may be assessed from two perspectives: one, the local Jewish–Bohemian connection; the other, the general Jewish–European relationship. From the local perspective, Maisel’s work on behalf of the Prague community led to unprecedented expansion and flourishing in the four decades following his death. Indeed, the community was transformed into the second largest in Christian Europe after Rome. With regard to European Jewry as a whole, Maisel prefigured the phenomenon of the court Jews, who became agents of European Jewish modernization during the years 1650 to 1750.

Suggested Reading

Alexander Kisch, Das Testament Mardochai Meysels: Mitgetheilt und nach handschriftlichen Quellen beleuchtet; Festschrift zum 300-jährigen Jubiläum der Meiselsynagoge (Frankfurt a.M., 1894); Otto Muneles, ed., The Prague Ghetto in the Renaissance Period (Prague, 1965); Giuseppe Veltri, “‘Ohne Recht und Gerechtigkeit’: Kaiser Rudolf II. und sein Bankier Markus Meyzl,” in An der Schwelle zur Moderne: Juden in der Renaissance, ed. Giuseppe Veltri and Annette Winkelmann, pp. 233–255 (Leiden, 2003).



Translated from Czech by Stephen Hattersley