Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

24 Cheshvan 5764 - November 19, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Story of Frankfurt

by Avrohom Stimler

For centuries, Frankfurt's tiny -- by modern standards -- Jewish community (only 3,000 Jews by the 18th century) was world famous as "the place where even the night watchman is a godol beTorah."

"Es geht mir nicht in den kopf hinein! Wie kann ein mensch nicht von Frankfurt zein?" proud Frankfurt Jews would exclaim. "I can't get in my head! How can anyone not come from Frankfurt?"

Early Roots

Frankfurt was probably founded originally by the Roman legionnaires who overran Western Europe about 2,000 years ago. Later the town, which lies next to a shallow ford on the Main River was taken over by a Germanic tribe known as the Franks, hence its name: Frankfurt = ford of the Franks. Alternatively "furt" may refer to Frankfurt's longtime importance as an inland port. This is suggested in a poem praising Rav Shimon Kara (Hadarshan) who lived in Frankfurt during the 1200s and authored the famous Yalkut Shimoni.

Rav Shimon an der Pfort,

Kann die ganze Torah, auf ein wort.

Rav Shimon of the port,/ Knows the whole Torah, every word.

Early Persecutions

Jews may have settled in Frankfurt as early as the 6th century C.E. and flourished there for centuries. It was known as Frankfurt on the Main, to distinguish it from another city also called Frankfurt that is located on the Oder River. (Note that gittin identify the location by the river.)

On November 26, 4855/1095, Pope Urban II declared that Christian Europe must "capture Jerusalem from the Moslems and subject it under Christendom." Within one year a ragtag army of knights and peasants was streaming from Europe like a horde of locusts on its way to Jerusalem on a quest that became known as the First Crusade.

"Does it make sense to go all the way to the Holy Land and slaughter Moslems while the heretics in our midst remain untouched?" they asked themselves. "The Jews must choose -- either baptism or the sword."

Jewish Europe became a bloodbath and the Frankfurt Jews and their yeshiva were eradicated.

This was the history of Jewish Frankfurt throughout the centuries -- a series of expulsions and rebuilding. By 5001/1241 the destroyed community was thriving and growing once again, thanks to an influx of Jews fleeing persecution in France.

But tragedy struck once again. Tension was mounting. Mongols invading Europe from the East were rumored to be the lost Ten Tribes coming to help the Jews. Franciscan and Dominican friars were whipping the town's rabble to antisemitic frenzy. And then came the spark that exploded the powder keg.

After centuries of Jewish martyrdom, an unthinkable thing happened. A young Frankfurt Jew was lured into conversion. Shocked and dismayed, the Jews in the town stirred up a hornet's nest of protest.

"Who do these Jews think they are?" the Christians asked themselves. "Is this how they react when we save one of their brethren from the jaws of hell? Let's force the whole lot of them to follow that Jew's example!"

On Shabbos night, 24 May 1241 a savage mob surged into the Jewish quarter and axed open the Jews' barricaded doors. Jews seized carving knives and sticks and desperately tried to drive the enemy back, but it was hopeless. 70 Jews fled to a military tower for protection but they too were murdered. A small number of Jews managed to flee. Twenty- four reportedly converted and 180 were murdered. The sifrei Torah were ripped to shreds and every Jewish home and the town's two yeshivos were burnt to the ground.

King Frederick II subsequently cleared the city of any wrongdoing, but he allowed Frankfurt Jews to return under a special Church treaty naming them imperialis servi Camerae, vassals of the king, and imposing heavy punishment on anyone who dared harm them. What caused this sudden change of heart?

First, the king's decree filled the church's coffers with the protection money constantly extorted from the Jews. And second, it preserved the Jews "as a living memorial to the Nazarene's memory."

Despite the king's decree, the community was wiped out once more a century later in 5109/1349, perhaps as result of the Black Death that had started two years earlier. Dozens of European Jewish communities were eradicated at that time, after some Jews were tortured into "admitting" that they had set off the plague by poisoning wells.

It is also possible that this pogrom was simply an excuse to seize the Jews' wealth. This time no one was given the chance to baptize.

Amazingly, the Jews returned a mere 11 years later in 5120/1360. A sign of the times is the special tefilloh to be said before dying al kiddush Hashem, composed by Rav Asher, a rov in Frankfurt at that time. It ends with the following brochoh:

"Blessed . . . Who sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to love His glorious and fearsome Name that was, is, and will be forever, with all our heart and soul."

Special Swearing Ceremonies

Another sign of those brutal times were the special oaths formulated for Jews in those days, known as Oath More Judaico. French and German cities instituted bizarre and shocking swearing ceremonies to scare the Jews into telling the truth. In France, Jews were forced to wear crowns of thorns on their necks and knees during the taking of an oath, while thorn branches were pulled between their legs.

A Jewish oath ceremony used in Frankfort around 5152/1392 ran as follows:

"The Jew shall stand on a sow's skin and the five books of Moses shall lie before him. His right hand up to the wrist shall lie on the book and he shall repeat after him who administers the oath of the Jews as follows:

"`Regarding such property of which the man accuses you, you know nothing of it nor do you have it. And may that sulphur and pitch flow down upon your neck that flowed over Sodom and Gomorrah, and swallow you up as it did Dosson and Avirom. And may your dust never join other dust, and your earth never join other earth in the bosom of Master Abraham if what you say is not true and right.' " (abridged)

The special oath for Jews, which was designed to intimidate the Jew taking it and also to humiliate him, was standard all over Europe where a Jew had a dispute with a non-Jew. They were very common until the 18th century, and persisted much longer. Special oaths for Jews were still used in the Frankfurt police courts as late as 5607/1847. There is a record of such an oath in Rumania from 5647/1886. When the Jews acquired general political rights in the 19th century there was often a section specifying that they did not have to take the special Jewish oath.

The Judengasse Ghetto

The Frankfurt gentiles eventually tired of having Jews in their midst. For centuries Jewish homes and shuls had clustered around the Christian cathedral, but now it was claimed that the "wailing of the Jews in their synagogue" was disturbing the services in the cathedral. The Jews were gradually ousted from gentile society. From 5210/1450 they were forced to wear special distinguishing labels. Christians were also forbidden to attend Jewish celebrations and Jews were barred from the city bathhouses.

Finally in 5222/1462, following a trend which had begun in Italy, the Jews were herded to a specially constructed ghetto called the Judengasse. A year later, there were 110 registered inhabitants. For three hundred years the Jews were restricted to this tiny quarter even after their population jumped over tenfold to about 3,000 by the 17th century. This tiny ghetto was 330 meters long and only about 50 meters wide. This is a total of only 16,500 square meters (165,000 square feet). An average apartment in Israel today is about 90 square meters, so that area could contain less than 200 apartments -- not counting room for streets and public buildings. To accommodate the ever-increasing population the ghetto had no way to stretch but upwards. Story was built on story until the streets below became shrouded in an eternal twilight.

"How dark and dingy this alley is!" a gentile wrote. "Too many houses crammed into its narrow sides give it a black and depressing aura."

The Pfefferkorn Fiasco and the Vincent Purim

Antisemitism never ceased.

In 5270/1510 a famous attempt was made to burn every Talmud in Germany. Johann Pfefferkorn, an apostate Jew, wrote a series of nonsensical, but hate-filled, pamphlets condemning the Talmud and demanding that it be burned. Emperor Maximillian was persuaded by his spurious arguments and the seforim of a number of Jewish communities including Frankfurt were confiscated.

But then an unexpected contender leaped into the fight -- Johann Reuchlin, a renowned Catholic scholar and humanist.

"Concerning the Talmud," he wrote, "I must own that it is to me a sealed book and it is evident that those who pass judgment upon it have as little knowledge of it as I. They have no idea of its nature or of its history, and nevertheless talk as if they knew and understood clearly all that it contains. I can only compare such people to those who would venture to criticize algebra while they are totally ignorant of the rudiments of arithmetic. If the Talmud really were as bad as they affirm, then our ancestors, who were much more religious than we, would long ago have put an end to its existence."

A years-long feud resulted between the "Reuchlinists" who supported Reuchlin and his opponents who were known as the "Arnoldists," resulting even in bloodshed until Pope Leo X finally interceded and the Talmud was spared. This controversy was the direct forerunner of the Protestant reform that split the Church.

As the Jews' prosperity grew, the hate and jealousy of their gentile neighbors increased, especially that of those who owed money to the Jewish moneylenders.

In 5372/1612 a group of tradesmen who were heavily in debt appealed that the Jews should be expelled.

"They are living off our blood!" they complained.

Two years later their unrest erupted in the Fettmilch rebellion. Led by Vincent Fettmilch, an enraged mob of craftsmen and small traders stormed the Jewish sector screaming, "Loot the Judengasse!"

Behind a makeshift barrier of barrels, benches and stones, the Jewish men defended their street for several hours while the women and children cowered in the Jewish cemetery, but after a few hours the rabble forced their way in. The Jews fled to the cemetery and the attackers went on a rampage of looting and burning. Fearful that the riot would spread to the rest of the city, armed citizens stopped the looters after 13 hours, and 1,380 Jews were thrown out of the town.

"We declared a fast for the 27th of Elul," recorded HaRav Yosef Hahn, the town's dayan afterwards, "because on this day we were expelled by the rebels." The refugees found shelter in neighboring towns.

On February 28, 5376/1616, about a year-and-a-half later, the civil rights of the returning Jews (who were allowed to return, due to the intervention of the emperor and German princes who outlawed and executed Fettlich and his accomplices) were reinstated in a special ceremony.

"We declared the 20th of Adar a day of feasting to be called Purim Vincent," wrote HaRav Yosef. "Indeed, miracles happened on that day, for the rulers of Mainz and Darmstadt escorted us with full honors together with a troop of soldiers in battle dress carrying flags and banners and led by a band.

"The entire population stared open-mouthed and helped us clear the rubble near our street entrance to clear the way for two chariots, one carrying the emperor's standard and the other one my father-in-law Rav Avrohom Breitingen the gabbai, who had gout and couldn't walk."

The Jews never received any compensation for their destroyed property.

Eisenmanger's "Endecktes Judenthum"

Another most famous antisemitic episode of this century was stirred up by Johann Andreas Eisenmanger, who devoted decades of his life trying to discredit the Talmud. He had spent years studying Hebrew all over Europe and even spent some years in Amsterdam in friendly contact with its local talmidei chachomim who thought he was interested in converting. But an event in 5440/1680 turned the budding scholar into a raging monster.

Three gentiles had converted to Judaism and Eisenmanger was "angered almost to death." He determined to write a work revealing the "wickedness" of the Talmud and to "save Christianity from danger."

Eisenmanger labored for the next 19 years translating from 193 seforim including the Talmud itself to produce a venomous book 2,000 pages long named Endecktes Judenthum (Unveiled Judaism). In 5460/1700 he finally handed over his manuscript to a Frankfurt printer.

Terrified that this would lead to massacres such as had taken place just a year earlier in Franken and Bamberg, the Frankfurt Jews appealed to Sampson Wertheimer, the Jewish banker of Emperor Leopold, to point out the dangers inherent in such a book to his employer.

Remembering that the antisemitic mobs of the previous year had also sacked the palaces of noblemen, the emperor forbade the printing of the book and the distribution of the copies already printed until it was carefully examined by gentile and Hebrew scholars. It was 11 years before the book was finally printed and by then Eisenmanger was dead and its influence was blunted.

On January 14, 5471/1711, a fire broke out in the home of Frankfurt's rov, HaRav Naftali Katz. The ghetto's wooden houses burnt like straw and by morning 500 houses were smoldering ruins. Many homeless Jews were hosted by friendly non-Jews including HaRav Naftali himself who was offered shelter by a master-tailor named Johannes Finger.

"May your descendants never be poor," HaRav Naftali blessed him on his departure.

Sure enough, Jew's patronized the businesses of Finger's descendants for generations and they always prospered.

Frankfurt's Gedolim

Through the centuries Frankfurt was famous for its rabbonim. We already mentioned the baal Yalkut Shimoni who lived there in the 12th century. Frankfurt's greatest rov in the 17th century was HaRav Yeshaya Halevi Horowitz, the famed Shelo Hakodosh, who authored his famed Shenei Luchos Habris in 5408/1648.

Another famed rov was Rav Meir Schiff who is remembered as the "Maharam Schiff" on the gemora. He tragically passed away in Prague in 5404/1644 at the young age of 36 "like the sun setting before its time" as is inscribed on his headstone. Then there was HaRav Yosef Shmuel of Cracow who printed the indispensable Messores Hashas in 5481/1721.

Two prominent rabbonim of Frankfurt in the 18th century were HaRav Avrohom Broide, the author of Eshel Avrohom, and HaRav Yaakov HaKohen Poppers, who was a staunch opponent of Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, the Ramchal. He forced Rav Moshe to sign a declaration, "on pain of cheirem, to not teach anyone in the world, whoever or wherever he be, the knowledge of Kabbala either orally or from a sefer, not even the writings of the Arizal or the Zohar, much less those things I myself innovate."

A third great Frankfurt rov of that century was HaRav Yaakov Yehoshua Falk, who authored the Pnei Yehoshua. The Pnei Yehoshua eventually left Frankfurt and passed away in Offenbach in 5516/1756.

In 5442/1772 Rav Pinchas the author of the Haflo'oh became the chief rov of Frankfurt. Living there at the time was another illustrious Frankfurt talmid chochom, HaRav Nosson Hacohen Adler, who was the rav muvhak of the Chasam Sofer. The Chasam Sofer left with his rebbe in 1781; he had to leave because of his special minhagim such as publicly reciting Bircas Cohanim every day and davening a different nusach tefilloh.

HaRav Adler left to be rov in Boskowitz in what is now Czechoslovakia. By around 5550/1790 he had returned to Frankfurt. The Chasam Sofer never returned to Frankfurt, but even many years later he used to sign himself, "Moshe Hakotton of Frankfurt on the Main." HaRav Adler was niftar in 5560/1800.

"We can find no consolation," cried the Baal Haflo'oh at HaRav Nosson's funeral, "for he was not a son of this earth."

The Haflo'oh vehemently opposed Moses Mendelssohn who had translated the Torah into modern German in his Biur, hoping to draw the Yiddish-speaking Jews closer to German culture. In 5542/1782 the Haflo'oh branded the Biur "an outrage committed against Israel."

Emancipation and Prosperity

By the 18th century things began to ease a little for the Frankfurt Jews. Till then they had been forbidden to leave their ghetto on Sundays and Christian holidays, but now they could leave in an emergency to fetch a doctor or mail a letter, provided they "reach their destination by the shortest route and behave quietly and decorously."

By the end of that century, Frankfurt was a vitally important banking and trading center and the Jews prospered more than ever. The Jewish community's income was estimated at the colossal sum of six million gulden.

Some idea of the Jews' wealth can be gained by examining the taxes of a later year, 5660/1900. In that year 5,946 Jews paid 2,540,812 marks in taxes while the 34,900 gentile taxpayers of the city only paid 3,611,815 marks.

One of the town's richest families was the famed Rothschild dynasty. The family's rise to power started with Mayer Amschel Rothschild (5504/1744-5571/1811). His oldest son, Amschel Mayer took over the Frankfurt banking house and his four brothers set up branches all over Europe. The Frankfort branch survived until 5671/1911.

In an article against antisemitism, Mark Twain recorded the family's integrity and honesty.

"I suppose that the most picturesque example in history of a trader's trust in his fellow-trader," wrote Twain, "was one where it was not Christian trusting Christian, but Christian trusting Jew.

"That Hessian Duke who used to sell his subjects to George III to fight George Washington got rich at it; and by and by, when the wars engendered by the French Revolution made his throne too warm for him, he was obliged to flee the country. He was in a hurry, and had to leave his earnings behind, nine million dollars. He had to risk the money with someone, without security.

"He did not select a Christian, but a Jew, a Jew of only modest means, but of high character, a character so high that it left him lonesome, Rothschild of Frankfurt. Thirty years later, when Europe had become quiet and safe again, the Duke came back from overseas, and the Jew returned the loan, with interest added."

In 5566/1796 Napoleon captured Frankfurt after his bombardment destroyed the North half of the Judengasse in a fire. This started the emancipation which, after decades of seesawing back and forth, culminated in 5624/1864 with Frankfurt's Jews becoming the civil equals of their gentile neighbors.

The Reformers

Unfortunately, concurrent with the Jews' emancipation came the wild growth of Reform. In the American Occident and American Jewish Advocate newspaper, an article of 5605/1845 expressed the shock.

"In our estimation," they wrote, "the above (Frankfort Reform) Society is but an evidence of the deplorable state of irreligion in which many of the continental Jews are sunk. This new manifestation which consists in the rejection of the rite of circumcision as well as the authority of the Talmud is but a step, though a very important one, farther than that which took place in London about three years ago.

"It has always been our boast that we were an homogeneous people, that we had One G-d and One Law and it has been reserved for modern times to give the lie to this honest boast. It has been reserved for the ultra-liberalists to form themselves into distinct sects with avowed peculiar doctrines, by which they sever themselves from the majority of Israel.

"We have thus a Temple Association at Hamburg, a congregation of British (Reform) Jews at London, and a Reform Society at Frankfurt. We must unhesitatingly condemn those who thus bring disunion in Israel."

The writer futilely believed that the tide could be turned.

"It may be," he wrote, "that these violent acts of the few will cause the many to think of the danger which such associations may ultimately cause to the congregation of G- d, and induce a union of all who fear the L-rd to swear fidelity to the Law of Sinai and promote a strict observance of the precepts. At least we hope so."

The article continues to relate how a Reform Jew agreed to circumcise his son only after his wife threatened him with divorce.

"The following occurrence," he writes, "which took place this week in our community, exhibits their truly religious sentiment in the best light.

"A member of the board of our congregation refused, because he is likewise a member of the Reform Society, to have his newborn son circumcised. His wife employed all means of persuasion to obtain from her husband the permission to have her child entered in the covenant. That which could not be obtained by the weeping eye and the mild petition of the wife, was at length yielded to the threatened prospective of an entire dissolution of the marriage.

"The angry earnestness of the wife effected this much, that the father, though he did not entirely consent to the circumcision, left the field, and let the religious act be performed, without, however, sanctioning this holy consecration by his presence."

For the reformers the Moshiach was not their goal. All over Europe Reform rabbis declared, ""We know no fatherland except that to which we belong by birth or citizenship." Frankfurt's Reform Jews reportedly went even further.

"If the Messiah arrived in our city," they reportedly quipped, "we would have to meet him at the gate and urge him to remove himself since his presence would obstruct the complete emancipation of German Jewry."

Little did they know what would happen a century later.

HaRav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch

There was a danger that Orthodoxy in Frankfurt might soon become a relic of the past. But in 5611/1851, 11 men received government sanction to separate from the community and created the new Israelitische Religionsgesellenschaft (Jewish Society for Religion-- IRG). They sent a letter to HaRav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch, who heroically gave up his position as chief rav of Moravia and Austrian Silesai (where he administered a community of some 50,000) to come and be their rov. By 5636/1876 the Orthodox IRG austritsgemeinde (separate community) of Frankfurt received government recognition and set the precedent for similar communities.

The leaders of the Khal Adas Jeshurun community after HaRav Hirsch were HaRav Shlomo Zalman Breuer, HaRav Hirsch's son- in-law. One of Frankfurt's best known citizens of this time was R' Yaakov Rosenheim, one of the founders of Agudas Yisroel.

Not all the Orthodox of Frankfurt belonged to Rav Hirsch's secessionist kehilla. In 5638/1878 Rav Mordechai Horovitz, a talmid of HaRav Moshe Teitelbaum of Ujhel, was appointed the rov of the town's Orthodox Jews who had remained part of the general community. It was assumed that this was mainly in response to the pressure exerted by the founding of the IRG as a separate kehilla. Up until then they were not allowed to daven together, and earlier the mikveh was closed. A shul with 900 seats was erected for them in 5642/1882 and it was enlarged to 1,300 seats in 5661/1901.

Destruction and Survival

When Hitler seized power in 5693/1933 over 26,000 Jews were living in Frankfurt. Plans to destroy the German Jewish community were implemented immediately and its final destruction started on November 10, 5698/1938 when 300 German shuls were destroyed on Kristallnacht. Soon afterwards the Khal Adas Jeshurun community was forced to remerge with the general community and on January 8, 5604/1944 a last transport of 56 Jews was sent to the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp.

However, the Khal Adas Jeshurun community started by HaRav Hirsch lives on. It continued thousands of miles away in Washington Heights, New York, first under the leadership of HaRav Joseph Breuer zt"l, and is still thriving till this day.

Above all, the spirit of Frankfurt lives on, the indomitable spirit to thrive and grow in the face of all opposition.

(Note: Many quotes and facts in this article are from Y. Alfasi's, Glimpses of Jewish Frankfurt.)


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