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The Patrons and Their Poor

Debra Kaplan offers the first extensive analysis of Jewish poor relief in early modern German cities and towns, exploring the intersections between various sectors of the populations—from wealthy patrons to the homeless and stateless poor—providing an intimate portrait of the early modern Ashkenazic community.

The Patrons and Their Poor
Jewish Community and Public Charity in Early Modern Germany

Debra Kaplan

2020 | 288 pages | Cloth $75.00
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Table of Contents

Note on Currencies and Translations

Chapter 1. Early Modern Jewish Communities and Their Records
Chapter 2. Something Happened to Charity in Early Modern Europe
Chapter 3. Charity, Economy, and Communal Discipline
Chapter 4. The Residential Poor
Chapter 5. The Transient Poor
Chapter 6. Constructing a Community of Donors

Epilogue. Charity Across Borders
Appendix. Foreign Jews in Frankfurt's Judengasse, 1694

Glossary of Foreign Terms

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


On October 1, 1657, Lazer, a Jewish refugee from Wilno, approached the leaders of the Jewish community in Frankfurt am Main. Already in the summer of 1655, Muscovite forces had invaded the city, starting a six-year occupation that led many inhabitants of Wilno to leave their homes. Lazer, one such refugee, brought with him to Frankfurt several ritual items that had been in use in Wilno, among them a special curtain for the ark housing the Torah scroll, embossed with golden letters and intended for use on the occasion of a circumcision on a Sabbath or holiday. Apparently desperate for funds, Lazer sought to sell this communal artifact to the Frankfurt Jewish community for its appraised value of one hundred reichsthaler. Wishing to assist Lazer, the rabbi and the lay leaders of the community started an official collection to raise money to purchase the curtain. To enable many residents to participate in this charitable act, they decided that individuals could each contribute a minimum of half a gulden, whereupon a note with the individual's name would be placed in a box. When the sum of one hundred reichsthaler had been raised, the Frankfurt community purchased the curtain from Lazer. They then drew the name of one of the donors, a man by the name of Lazer Miess, out of the box. Miess was selected to oversee the use of the curtain and to ensure that it would be hung only on Sabbaths and holidays on which circumcisions took place in the synagogue. Should more than one circumcision be scheduled for the same day—one in the new synagogue and one in the old—the curtain was to be used in the old synagogue. Finally, it was "explicitly decreed that when the holy community of Wilno will be swiftly reinstated and reestablished as it once was, as is our hope, they will not be permitted to redeem this curtain back, because it was purchased from them on this condition [that it remain in Frankfurt]."

This transaction exemplifies many dynamics characteristic of early modern Jewish public charity. The Jewish community aided a needy refugee by establishing a formal collection on his behalf, including public announcements proclaimed in the synagogue on three occasions. Indeed, charity was a dominant aspect of early modern Jewish piety, as legal rabbinic texts and sermons stressed the ethical and moral imperative to aid the poor. Yet this virtuous action was also blended with communal self-interest. The curtain, a highly prized work of art, was purchased by the community of Frankfurt with the explicit understanding that it was to remain in Frankfurt for perpetuity. This was not only an act of piety intended to assist a refugee community in its time of need; rather, the purchase was also inspired by the desire to own what must have been a magnificent piece for the synagogue.

Poor relief certainly provided support for the indigent and marginal members of society; yet it also signified family or communal status and reinforced bonds of kinship, ethnicity, and patriarchy. Research on gift giving and on charitable activities conducted by anthropologists, sociologists, and historians has clearly demonstrated that gifts and donations were often driven by altruistic as well as egoistic motives. When giving gifts, donors were not simply being generous; they frequently expected something intangible in return. Liturgical texts, rituals, and wills, for example, reflect that early modern Jews held a profound belief that donating charity would redeem the donor's soul. Yet gifts allotted merit in heaven and simultaneously granted public recognition or other forms of social status on earth. In early modern Jewish communities, rituals of public charity were frequently performed in communal spaces such as the synagogue, where donors' generosity would be visible. In addition, many gifts were inscribed into official records, some of which were read aloud. Being seen, heard, or written about were all performative elements of charity rites, which rewarded donors with public acknowledgment of their largesse.

Liturgical blessings performed publicly for benefactors and their families in exchange for their generosity, for example, merged heavenly and earthly forms of recognition. During a charity ritual performed on holidays known as matnat yad, a blessing was recited in honor of all the donors. In Worms, the benediction read: "He who has blessed our forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, may He bless this holy congregation, they and their wives and their sons and all that belongs to them, on account of the charity [matnat yad] for the honor of God, and the honor of the Torah, and for the honor of the holiday. As a reward, may the Holy One, Blessed be He, protect them, and save them from all troubles and travails, and may He send blessing and success to all their handiwork, and may He bless them, and merit them to go on pilgrimage [to the Holy Land] with all the people of Israel. Amen." In many early modern communities, these blessings were pronounced individually, listing donors by name, thereby affording them public recognition and bestowing upon them requests for heavenly and earthly rewards.

Patterns of giving, therefore, tell us about both donors and recipients—not only about their finances but about their values, perceptions, roles in society, and the dynamics of power that existed between and among those who gave and those who received. The Patrons and Their Poor uses the lens of public charity to provide an intimate portrait of the early modern Ashkenazic community. The prism of charity allows for this expanded view of daily life in the Jewish community for three reasons.

First, since public charity involved both donors and recipients, it encompassed various strata of the community. This included the wealthy communal leadership that administered the charity funds, communal members (both middle-class and well-off), and the various types of poor who were deemed eligible or ineligible for assistance. Examining rituals of charity allows us to draw additional distinctions within these classes along the lines of gender and marital status. Different opportunities for donation were available to male and female donors, and commensurate degrees of public recognition were granted in exchange for their gifts. This book argues that over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, communal authorities sought to reduce both the acknowledgment and autonomy of female donors, whose donations were increasingly subsumed in the official record as family gifts. Unmarried adults were also excluded from certain forms of communal donations and from the public commemoration of those gifts and of those donors.

Second, by the sixteenth century, charity had become more standardized, institutionalized, and communally administered. The purchase of the curtain from Wilno by the Frankfurt Jewish community exemplifies this trend, as seen by the heavy involvement of the communal leadership in creating a formal and regulated process for donating. Intensive management of issues large and small was emblematic of Jewish communal life at this time. Moreover, the administration of charity overlapped extensively with other aspects of the community's budget. That budget, however, was not large enough to support what seemed like an endless influx of poor. Communal leaders therefore had to decide whom to support, and their decisions inform us about communal values and hierarchies that shaped daily life.

Third, the increased administration of public charity by Jewish communal leaders did not occur in a vacuum. Between the late fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, the number of poor of different faiths rose exponentially throughout Europe. New systems were developed to regulate their presence, eventually leading to the formation of the modern welfare state. During this same period, public charity became increasingly institutionalized in Christian communities of western Europe. In many German towns and cities, local governments took control over charity from the church, often in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. Whereas Catholics understood charity as a means for the donor to procure merit in heaven, Protestant reformers, by contrast, insisted that the act of giving could not in and of itself yield salvation. The latter nevertheless believed that a proper Christian community should care for the poor. Luther and other reformers therefore advocated that charity be shifted from clerical to municipal control.

Earlier scholarship had thus linked the increased civic management of charity to reformed theology. Yet later research, which allowed for a broad comparison of Catholic and Protestant communities, has since demonstrated that from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, both Catholic and Protestant communities sought to curtail and regulate the poor, often in similar ways. Across confessions and throughout Europe, civic plans were instituted to relieve poverty. The growing number of poor necessitated a practical, rather than a solely theological, approach to charity.

Because poor relief was highly regulated by Christian municipal leaders over the course of the early modern period, they delegated the task of regulating the Jewish poor to the Jewish community living in their respective cities. Exploring the communications between Jewish and Christian leaders, as well as the specific manner in which Jewish communal leaders opted to implement and enforce those policies, allows for a robust and concrete discussion of the relations between the Jewish and Christian communities and a better understanding of the shared spaces they inhabited. This analysis moves beyond pointing to parallels between contemporaneous Jewish and Christian communities and argues that there was often a direct connection between their policies of poor relief.

The Patrons and Their Poor thus provides a full-blown analysis of the Jewish community across various vectors, taking into account the intracommunal dynamics of class, gender, and marital status, as well as exploring its relations with the Christian authorities outside it. The story of Jewish public charity is an integral, and largely unrecognized, part of a larger narrative of early modern European poor relief. This Jewish story is deeply intertwined with, yet also distinct from, that of the Christian community surrounding it.

Indeed, it would be a mistake to view the deep parallels in Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish poor relief as the dawn of a secular, rather than a religious, approach to charity, as Max Weber and various subsequent scholars have argued. The institutionalization of charity in the early modern period remained deeply rooted in theology and piety. Sometimes theological distinctions led to differences in how poor relief was meted out. For example, hospitals for foundlings and licensed public pawnshops were present in Catholic, rather than Protestant, regions. Jewish poor relief similarly reflected particularly Jewish theological understandings of charity, remembrance, merit, and death, although these ideas were not as hotly contested among rabbis as they were in debates between Catholic and Protestant thinkers.

Yet theology did not completely shape practice, for realities on the ground differed from prescribed religious ideals across all three communities. Early modern Catholics, Protestants, and Jews were all battling a similar problem. Confronted with an increase in the number of people seeking aid from a limited budget, authorities were forced to make tough decisions, prioritizing who should receive support, and how much. Given this dilemma, leaders from various religious confessions distinguished between the worthy and unworthy poor and, over time, built institutions to enclose the poor and to discipline them. Many ideas about poor relief, including mistrust and fear of the poor, and the desire to support only the "worthy" among them, date back to the thirteenth century. Yet it was not until the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries that communal poor ordinances were instituted to control the poor. Nicholas Terpstra recently argued that both Catholics and Protestants saw it as a moral obligation to care for the poor physically and spiritually. He points to various systems of enclosure implemented in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that were used to purify the "donating" community and simultaneously contain and reform the many migrants and refugees, the latter being viewed with suspicion and hostility. By the eighteenth century, municipal governments in most cities had prohibited begging house-to-house and had founded institutions to employ those poor they deemed worthy.

Notwithstanding the similarities in the framework of public charity across regions and confessions in Europe, there was a decidedly local aspect to the precise policies and intricacies of poor relief, particularly in German lands. In an attempt to capture both the broad strokes and the fine details of Jewish public charity, this book focuses on three major urban Ashkenazic Jewish communities from the western part of the Holy Roman Empire: Altona-Hamburg-Wandsbek, Frankfurt am Main, and Worms. The leaders of these three communities corresponded with one another about poverty and debt, coordinated their efforts to give, and informed one another when encountering a fraudulent collector. Yet despite their commonalities and collaboration, each of the three communities possessed distinctive features. The Jewish communities of Frankfurt and Worms each date back to the medieval period, while Altona-Hamburg-Wandsbek was settled by Jews only in the late sixteenth century, facilitating a comparison of the development of public charity in older versus newer communities.

Moreover, the Jewish populations in the three locations differed in size. The Jewish community of Worms was much smaller than that of Frankfurt, while the community in Altona-Hamburg-Wandsbek developed from a small to a large community during this time. Finally, the first two communities were confined to ghettos, while the third community was forged across European political boundaries. Examining what these three communities had in common and how they differed from one another because of their local contexts allows for a deeper, more nuanced study of the development and institutionalization of Jewish public charity.

Chapter 1 traces the history of these three communities, pointing to demographic changes and the growth of administration and record-keeping that made the early modern Jewish community distinctive. Chapter 2 discusses the expansion and regulation of public institutions of charity from 1500 to 1750, a period that witnessed the appointment of several official administrators and the establishment of fixed procedures for collection. It explains the developments in poor relief that transpired during the early modern period and sheds light on the class of communal officials who managed public funds.

Faced with constant deficits, the communal leadership devised myriad ways to fill its coffers, including instituting mandatory payments, taxes, and fines. Honors in the synagogue were acquired through donations, and transgressions were disciplined by levying financial penalties to be paid to charity. Chapter 3 focuses on the links between charity, honor, and discipline, against the backdrop of the economic necessities that drove the communal leaders to develop these policies.

Chapters 4 and 5 shift the focus to look at charity from the bottom up, attempting to answer an important yet understudied topic: Who were the poor, and how did they fare in these Jewish communities? The term "poor" actually encompassed a wide range of individuals whose experiences in the Jewish community differed markedly from one another. Until now, scholars have largely shied away from a deep analysis of the different categories of poor in early modern European Jewish communities. After all, many poor individuals were illiterate and lacked the means or skills to record their lives. Moreover, most historical sources, such as tax records, are silent regarding this segment of the population. Michel Mollat explained decades ago that "difficulties with the sources deepen our ignorance of actual poverty." Consequently, historians of various societies across time periods have utilized sources written by others about the poor to reconstruct their lives. Quantitative data from institutions such as soup kitchens, hospitals, and orphanages offer some insight into the poor. Another common approach is to examine theological and ethical writings that deal with the poor. These same methodological challenges apply to the study of the poor in premodern Jewish communities of Europe, for sources about the Jewish poor are similarly limited in number.

Using various types of communal and municipal records, along with rabbinic writings and analyses of rituals, these chapters separate the poor into two broad categories, each of which is, in turn, explored in greater depth. Chapter 4 focuses on the residential poor, including official members of the community, their kin who lacked official communal membership, and poor laborers such as domestic servants, guards, teachers, and students. Also present in Jewish communities were the transient poor, who traveled in search of daily sustenance and who are the subject of Chapter 5. The lines dividing the different types of poor were both highly regulated and quite porous. Losing a job led to a swift demotion in status from laboring poor to that of an itinerant beggar seeking employment and aid. There were further distinctions within these groups. Men and women, single individuals and married couples, pregnant women, children, orphans, and the physically and mentally disabled all received varying levels of care. Different expectations were set as to their behavior within the community, depending on age, gender, and marital status.

The same social hierarchies that were used to differentiate between the poor were applied within the community of donors. Chapter 6 analyzes the form and evolving content of official communal donation records, which acknowledged and preserved donors' largesse for posterity. These documents were consciously constructed, with some residents being intentionally omitted from the record. Unmarried men and women and foreigners were excluded, and over time, married women's donations were subsumed as part of family gifts. These records fashioned a highly specific community of donors, documented in a manner that would enhance familial prestige.

The Patrons and Their Poor is the first book to explore the intersections between these different sectors of the community, from wealthy patrons to the homeless and stateless poor. In Jewish communities, particularly in Frankfurt and Worms, the two ghettos studied here, rich and poor individuals lived together in the same houses, and thus a study of charity is essential to understanding daily life.

This analysis of public charity draws on sources in German, Hebrew, and Yiddish, culled from various archival and manuscript collections in Germany and Jerusalem, as well as early printed works. These include communal balance sheets, donation lists, housing and burial records, and the logbooks that charity collectors used as they disbursed funds to local and foreign poor. Although these records were essential to regulating the poor, they have until now been ignored by scholars. Along with these data, the book examines a broad mix of descriptive sources, including rituals and contemporary customs, rabbinic responsa, criminal cases, police records, correspondence between communal officials, templates for and actual letters of solicitation, and even a contemporary poem written by a poor individual.

Because this book examines the dynamics within Jewish communities through the lens of charity, the scope of the inquiry is limited to public and communal forms of charity and does not include private charity and confraternities. While these fascinating and historically significant forms of giving did flourish in early modern Europe and are briefly surveyed in the overview in Chapter 2, they are not the main focus. Rather, this book examines charity as undertaken and administered by the official apparatus within each Jewish community. That examination is conducted against the particular historical backdrop of poor relief in early modern German cities between the sixteenth and mid-eighteenth centuries. The conclusion of the book considers the transregional aspects of early modern public charity, which were essential to the philanthropic networks that developed in the nineteenth century.

Scholars have shown that an essential aspect of the formation of a community is the decision to provide certain individuals with benefits, while declining to award those benefits to others. As standardized systems for poor relief developed in Christian and Jewish communities in early modern German cities, leaders of these communities made decisions balancing the competing demands of piety and budget. Ultimately, their choices were shaped by a blend of cultural and religious assumptions and by a changing reality that necessitated dealing with a large segment of needy individuals. Determining which poor were to obtain what level of care and which donors were to receive specific forms of public recognition was thus an essential expression of communal belonging, identity, and self-fashioning. The study of public charity opens a new frontier for understanding daily life in early modern Jewish communities.

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