In Prague

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Horowitz in Prague


by Shlomo Gurevich

  • After the death of R. Yishayahu in 1514 the house was inherited by his eldest son Aharon Meshullam, also called "Zalman Horowitz of Prague". We know few details about R. Yishayahu's life. It is known only, that in later life, when the leaders of Prague's Jewish community decided to printing the Pentateuch with RaShI comments at a newly established printing house, R. Yishayahu and R. Yekutiel Zalman ben R. Yitzhak Dan Bomsella, committed themselves to financing this publication. But, unfortunately, before the printing of the two first books "Bereshit" (Genesis) and "Shmot" (Exodus) had been completed, R. Yekutiel moved to Russia and R. Yishayahu died.

  • The son of R. Yishayahu, Aharon Meshullam did not wish to bear the expenses for printing remaining volumes, so the publication of the Pentateuch was postponed for three additional years, finally being published only in 1518. R. Yishayahu's wife, Rivkah, a daughter of R. Yom-Tov, outlived her husband by only a year and died in 1515. They had 7 sons and a daughter, Rosa, who died early and left behind her a son, Shlomo. He was raised by his uncle, R. Yakov. R. Yakov, the 4th son of R. Yishayahu did not have children of his own and besides Rosa's son there was one more nephew in his house, his elder brother Aharon Meshullam's son, Moshe.

  • Aharon Meshullam, known also as Zalman and Munk (or Munka, evidently derived from "Menachem" by Czech transliteration of the name of his father-in-law, R. Menachem, written in Hebrew), who inherited his father's high position in Prague's Jewish community, towards the end of his life built a synagogue in this city, the "Pinkas (Pinchas) shul" (Pinkasova sinagoga). The synagogue was named after the second brother, Pinchas who completed its construction. The two brothers were very close to each other, and when in the year 1500 the authorities intended to inflict severe punishment on them, the brothers sent a petition to the king, protesting the injustice and the danger was averted.

  • R. Aharon Meshullam not only inherited his father's wealth, but multiplied it. He was a successful merchant and money-lender. He built two more houses on Gold Street, one of which burned down in a fire in 1516 and the property looted by the gentiles. The synagogue which he built was not simply "one more synagogue", it was the second most beautiful in terms of architectural design and splendor of its interior after the Alter-Neuye shul (Old-New synagogue) which previously had been called Neuye (New) synagogue, and now the Pinkas shul had become the new one.

  • After the death of Louis (Ludvik II), Ferdinand I of Habsburg, the husband of Louis's sister Anne, laid claim to the vacant throne. He made substantial concessions to the Bohemian magnates and was elected king in October 1526, the coronation taking place in February 1527. Gradually, he strengthened his rule and curtailed the rights of the landlords and royal boroughs. Simultaneously, the Catholic Church regained its positions. Thus, the atmosphere of tolerance to the Jewish community which characterized the first years of Ferdinand's reign was gone. Beginning in the early 1540s, he changed his attitude to the Jews, limited their rights and even revoking those which he himself had granted to them. In 1541 he ordered their expulsion from the kingdom because of a fire libel which the crowd foisted upon the Jews. In a year, when the innocence of the Jews was proved, the king ordered they be allowed to return. 18 years later, he once again ordered the Jews expelled, but the expulsion was repeatedly delayed. The frenzied crowd set fire to the Jewish ghetto, many Jews were killed or wounded, robbed of their property, and the sacred books were confiscated by order of the king. In 1561 Ferdinand ordered the Jews to convert, but only a few did so, the rest preferred to leave. His son, Maximilian II, who inherited the throne in 1564, was tolerant to Jews and even revoked the Expulsion Act of 1559. But he also continued his father's policy of strengthening the Catholic Church, yet not once during his rule was there an outbreak of Jewish pogroms.

  • The one who succeeded to persuade King Ferdinand in 1542 to revoke the expulsion of the Jews was R. Aharon Meshulam: he worked on the King steadily and persuaded him to issue still more protective edicts for Prague's Jews granting them permission to live in Prague's Jewish Town.

  • The 3rd son, R. Meir was a wealthy and respected man in Prague, not much less than his elder brother, R Aharon Meshulam. He engaged in various financial operations. When in the year 1540 the authorities imposed a heavy tax on the Jews - 2,000 guldens, the community appealed to the government, arguing that it could not pay such a sum. Then the authorities obliged every Jew to make a statement about his possessions and to swear an oath on a Torah scroll. Thus 60 wealthy Jews were identified, and each one of them was taxed 50 guldens, R. Meir being one of them.

  • The 5th son, R. Zeligman, also called Asher apparently after his great grandfather - in 1534 was a leader of Prague's Jewish community. He was a brave man, he was not afraid of anything but had a very bad temper. When he was enraged, he could not control himself, even before people more profound in their knowledge of Torah or of higher social standing. In 1534, when there was controversy between the Horowitz family and other community leaders and its rabbis, an incident happened in which R. Zeligman quarreled in public with the community's rabbi, R. Altshuller. In the heat of the argument R. Zeligman seemed to completely loose his self-control when in the presence of all he slapped his opponent. This case was brought before King Ferdinand, and he ordered that R. Asher be punished. Another time, during a trial involving some Christian, R. Zeligman clearly saw that the judges were biased and obviously inclined in favor of his opponent. Then R. Asher angrily asked them: "I am a resident of the city, the same as he, am I not? And I am respected and no less important than this Christian! But it was of no avail: the judges retorted that the Jews were not citizens of Prague, and "one may not even compare them with the Christians!"

  • The controversy and tension between the Horowitz family and other leaders of the Jewish community of Prague were no mere chance. The privileges granted to the family by King Ludvik were, in the view of their rivals, excessive. According to the king's order, "at all times there should be two community leaders and one rabbi (A.B.D. or head of yeshiva) in Prague belonging to the Horowitz family". R. Aharon Meshulam used this order to appoint his brother R. Zeligman, a leader of the community, and another brother, Shabtai Sheftel - a leader and dayan of the Prague Jewish community. These appointments were received with much discontentment by members of the community, either because of envy and because they were imposed on them by the king's order against their will. Gradually, the community was divided into two groups: the first one headed by Rabbi Avraham ben Avigdor, A.B.D. of Prague which numbered about 400 men, and the other group - all the Horowitz family, their friends, relatives, devotees and those dependent on them. The quarrels continued, and at some point, in 1533, someone informed the authorities that Aharon Meshulam allegedly had in his possession letters and articles against the government and that he had committed treason against the state. The false information reached King Ferdinand, and he ordered that all the papers and letters from R. Aharon Meshulam's home be seized, an inventory of all his property be made and confiscated in favor of the king's Treasury, and he himself be arrested. Among the confiscated papers was also the edict of privileges granted by the previous king, Ludvik. Very soon it became clear that there was nothing against the government in his papers, and that all the information about his treason was false. The king ordered that all R. Aharon Meshulam's property be returned to him, and the six agents provocateurs who had provided false information were imprisoned. At that point only one problem remained unresolved: the authorities, evidently influenced by the Horowitzes' opponents, did not wish to return to R. Aharon Meshulam the edict of privileges signed by King Ludvik. But, in the end, in 1534, after R. Aharon Meshulam protested before the king, the document was returned to him. It could be that exactly then, when he was in great peril, he vowed that if he would be released and his innocence proven, he would build a synagogue in honor of the G-d, blessed be His name. It could be the second reason why he decided to build the Pinkas shul.

  • At this time the quarrel reached its climax. The letters and articles were sent to famous rabbis of Poland and Germany. As a result, it was suggested that the Prague Jews address these issues to the most authoritative rabbis. The leaders of the community chose the famous and influential R. Yosef Yuzelman ben Gershon from the Alsacian town of Rossheim.who was important in the eyes of the emperor and enjoyed very special relations with him. The Prague community leaders hoped that R. Yosef Yuzelman, together with R. Avraham ben Avigdor, would be able to have strict regulations issued on elections within the community leaders and nomination of its rabbis. But the Horowitzes were against this project: they did not agree that someone from a foreign country should come and make order in their community without even asking their opinion. There were additional attempts to invite some reputable mediator but to no avail: quarrels and rivalry continued until 1542, when the danger of expulsion put an end to the controversy.

  • The only knowledge of the 6th son of R. Yishayahu, R. Yosef16 is that the authorities wished to punish him along with his brothers, R. Aharon Meshullam and R. Zeligman. They appealed to the king to consider their case, and the latter issued a favorable decision on their petition.

  • The 7th son, R. Shabtai Sheftel, the youngest of all was the most prominent in Torah learning. He was dayan in the Jewish community of Prague and one of its leaders. He was by right reputed to be the best expert on Torah and its most enlightened commentator. Thus, no one was surprised when the outstanding rabbi of that time, R. Akiva Katz, consented to give him his daughter Yocheved in marriage. Yocheved delivered 3 sons and 3 daughters and died three years after her husband, in 1555.

  • The numerous descendants of R. Yishayahu's sons gave the Jewish world prominent sons and daughters; the biographies of the most famous of them appear in the following chapters.

  • The son of King Maximilian, Rudolf II, was crowned King of Hungary in 1572 and of Bohemia in 1575. He became emperor after his father's death in 1576. The early part of his long reign (lasting until 1612) closely reflected Maximilian's policies. But in 1583 Rudolf transferred his court from Vienna to Prague, taking with him government offices and foreign envoys. The Bohemian capital became once more an imperial residence and a lively political and cultural center. Rudolf II inherited his father's tolerance toward the Jews, for them his reign opened a period of political, spiritual and intellectual flourishing later called the "Renaissance" or "Golden Age" of Prague Jewry, which ended with the beginning of the Thirty Year's War (1618-1648). The central figure in the constellation of Jewish scholars who resided there in that period was the famous R. Yehuda Liva ben Bezal'el (MaHaRaL of Prague). Also well known are the names of R. Yom-Tov Lipman Heller, the author of "Tosaphot Yom Tov" and R. Avraham Ha-Levi Horowitz, the father of SheLaH.

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Last updated: 06/11/07.