Court Jews

Court Jews were purveyors who provided food, fodder, and munitions to the European courts in return for special privileges.

Print this page Print this page

It was not uncommon, after all, for a duke, a margrave, or a bishop to renege on his debts, leaving his Jewish creditors penniless. Except for their dealings with the ruler, none of these elegant "exception Jews" possessed any valid connections whatsoever with the Christian world. Although they made important contri­butions to the nation‑state and modem capitalism, they were never involved as integrally in the mainstream of Europe's business ac­tivity as the armies of Jewish peddlers and retailers who continued to live under the bans and restraints of the ghetto.

Relationship between Court Jews and Other Jews

In view of the opportunism that characterized many of these court purveyors and bankers, it would have been natural for them to sever connections with their less privileged coreligionists. The fact was, however, that most of these Hofjuden remained remarkably loyal and exerted themselves to the utmost in behalf of their fellow Jews. As a consequence of their exalted position they were the shtadtlanim, the intercessors, through whom Jewish petitions were presented to the ruler. It was through the shtadtlanim, for example, that the cities of Dresden, Leipzig, Kassel, Brunswick, and Breslau were opened to Jewish settlement.

Most Jewish communities paid dearly for this paternal care, for Jewish bankers and purveyors made their influence felt in the ghetto by exercising control over Jewish corporate life. This pattern of obsequious Jewish dependence upon a few wealthy intercessors was destined to endure in Jewish life long after political emancipation. But in an age of ghettos and Jewish disabilities the wealthy shtadtlan was the only available lifeline to physical security and economic opportunity. The Jewish masses may have resented the brazenness and the ostentation of the Oppenheimers, Sinzheims, Beers, and the others, but they were grateful for the welcome words spoken with timeliness in the right places.

The Legacy of the Court Jews

As for the ruler, the internal structure of the Jewish community was a matter of complete indifference. He was quite willing to be persuaded that the gradual and selective emancipation of Jews could have useful consequences for the state. To him Jewish financiers were the one truly dependable source of funds for bureaucratic purposes. He could not rely upon Christian entrepreneurs, who bore little love for the courtier‑ridden administrations of the ancien regime, and who stolidly concentrated on their own private business ventures.

This canny willingness to unlock Jewish funds for state needs was inherited by the later bourgeois administrations, and was as important a factor in raising the status of Jewish life as the middle-­class egalitarianism that burgeoned up from below. Of course, there were other circumstances, too, that were responsible for eventual Jewish emancipation.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Howard Sachar

Howard M. Sachar is the author of numerous books, including A History of Israel, A History of the Jews in America, Farewell Espana, Israel and Europe, and A History of Jews in the Modern World. He is also the editor of the 39-volume The Rise of Israel: A Documentary History. He serves as Professor of Modern History at George Washington University.