In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Early Modern Germany

  • Introduction
  • Defining the Subject
  • Primary Sources
  • Local Histories
  • Yiddish Language
  • The Impact of Print
  • Mysticism and Messianism
  • Families, Individuals, and Daily Life
  • Commercial and Economic Lives
  • Gender, Sexuality, and the Body
  • Toward Modernity

Jewish Studies Early Modern Germany
Joshua Teplitsky
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0141


“Germany” as we know it as a modern political entity properly came into existence only in the last third of the 19th century. Before that time, a bewildering array of polities of varying sizes stretched across the center of the European continent between France in the west and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the east, a region whose southern borders sometimes traversed the Alps and whose northern limits ran to the shores of the North Sea—none of which could claim the title “Germany.” Instead, these polities were held together by their loose structure under the Holy Roman Empire, but the empire was neither a unified body that could coerce the subjects of its constituent parts nor coextensive with the entirety of German-speaking Europe. The Austrian Habsburgs and the Swiss cantons, while using German in daily and administrative life, were not bound to the constitutional structure of the Holy Roman Empire. Conversely, kings beyond the realm of the Holy Roman Empire could inherit titles within its boundaries—the kings of Denmark and Sweden were rulers of portions of the northern Holy Roman Empire and, in that capacity, were subordinate to its rules even though the same men were sovereigns in their own kingdoms. The constitutional structure of German politics was similarly and impossibly complex: electors, princes, bishops, and town councils competed with and contested the rights of the imperial offices to interfere in their affairs. The history of the Jews of this region similarly reflects the fact of administrative fragmentation and cultural consanguinity. While they expressed both local affiliation and global forms of solidarity, they often considered themselves to be members of “Ashkenaz”—a cultural and jurisdictional association that was roughly coterminous with the coordinates of German-speaking Europe. In the 16th to 18th centuries, this territorial swath ran from Alsace in the west to the border of Poland Lithuania in the east and included Bohemia and Moravia (today’s Czech Republic) and Austria. At other times, “Ashkenaz” encompassed the men and women of a larger diaspora who traced their intellectual, cultural, and religious genealogies to the medieval Rhineland, long after the forces of history carried them into new settlements in Poland, Amsterdam, Italy, and even Ottoman Palestine. Rather than combat these competing designations, this article embraces the ambiguity of early modern political, cultural, and ethnic belonging in order to demonstrate the varieties of Jewish experience in central Europe in the Early Modern period. This article attempts a capacious definition of the Jews of early modern Germany, recognizing that Jews were simultaneously variant participants in the social and economic fabric of their immediate milieu, while also acknowledging the ties that bound Jews to a form of “German” identity even when they were beyond its political frontiers.

Defining the Subject

Given the challenges of even identifying an object of inquiry, scholars of early modern German Jewry have produced careful and nuanced reflections on the subject of their study. Carlebach 2002 represents an important overview of the geographic and temporal considerations involved in a study of the Jews of “Ashkenaz.” Davis 2002 approaches the question from a more focused lens: that of rabbinic law and its acceptance among Jews as a normative and binding legal code, and the dilemmas of territoriality and ethnicity that pertain to such a code for a diaspora community without the coercive power of a state. Teller 2010, on the other hand, engages the sphere of state law and privilege in order to consider the divergent political and legal fortunes of Jews in the German lands and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The most-accessible studies of German Jewish history in this period are Hsia and Lehmann 1995 and the synthetic Breuer 1996 and Liberles 2005 (the last cited under Families, Individuals, and Daily Life). More-specialized articles in Hsia and Lehmann 1995 and Hödl, et al. 2004 offer perspectives on the political and social dimension of Jewish life in early modern Germany. Two journals—Aschkenas: Zeitschrift für Geschichte und Kultur der Juden / A Journal of Jewish History and Culture in Germany and the Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook in London—dedicate themselves to the study of German Jewry, often with entries on the Early Modern period. Jahrbuch der Gesellschaft für Geschichte der Juden in der Čechoslovakischen Republik, which ran from 1929 to 1938, contains many articles on the Jews of Prague, Bohemia, and Moravia that have still not been surpassed. The periodical was continued by Judaica Bohemiae, which began in 1965.

  • Aschkenas: Zeitschrift für Geschichte und Kultur der Juden / A Journal of Jewish History and Culture. 1991–.

    Aschkenas is published twice a year and covers aspects in German Jewish history, language, literature, and culture from the Middle Ages until the 19th century, with a significant number of articles focusing specifically on the Early Modern period. Treats themes relating to local histories and Yiddish language and literature alongside larger regional dimensions. Articles appear primarily in German, although with English abstracts, and some English articles are included as well.

  • Breuer, Mordechai. “The Early Modern Period.” In German-Jewish History in Modern Times. Vol. 1, Tradition and Enlightenment, 1600–1780. Edited by Michael A. Meyer and Michael Brenner, 79–260. Translated by William Templer. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

    A composite portrait of the major features of medieval and early modern Jewish life in the German lands, treating religious life, relations with the state, emerging doctrines of absolutism, the role of the court Jews, and the functioning of the autonomous Jewish community.

  • Carlebach, Elisheva. “Early Modern Ashkenaz in the Writings of Jacob Katz.” In The Pride of Jacob: Essays on Jacob Katz and His Work. Edited by Jay M. Harris, 65–83. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.

    Framed as a critique of Katz’s conception of early modern “Ashkenaz” as a cultural entity that transcended geographic lines, this essay lays out many of the implicit dilemmas in constituting Ashkenaz as an object of study for this period. Carlebach considers both historical methods and sources to supply a trenchant rejoinder to notions of an undifferentiated Ashkenazic mode of practice and identity.

  • Davis, Joseph. “The Reception of the Shulḥan ‘Arukh and the Formation of Ashkenazic Jewish Identity.” AJS Review 26.2 (2002): 251–276.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0364009402000065

    Davis studies the implications of codification of law to provide insights into the contours of “Ashkenazi” identity from the perspective of submission to rabbinic authority. The composition, dissemination, and acknowledgement of the binding authority of Joseph Karo’s Shulḥan ‘Arukh (Code of Jewish Law) and Moses Isserles’s accompanying notes offer Davis a series of overlapping definitions of Ashkenazic identity as practices by early modern Jews.

  • Hödl, Sabine, Barbara Staudinger, and Peter Rauscher, eds. Hofjuden und Landjuden: Jüdisches Leben in der Frühen Neuzeit. Papers presented at “Die 12. Internationale Sommerakademie des Instituts für Geschichte der Juden in Österreich,” held in Sankt Pölten, Austria, in July 2002 and in Vienna in November 2003. Berlin: Philo, 2004.

    A collection of essays on Jewish life in the German lands in the Early Modern period. Opens with a treatment of settlement in the wake of expulsions, and subsequent essays range from elite politics to the culture of everyday life, including Court Jews, women’s struggles for property rights, politics, economics, and Jewish-Christian relations. Notably also includes treatment of Moravian Jewry, often overlooked during this period.

  • Hsia, R. Po-chia, and Hartmut Lehmann, eds. In and Out of the Ghetto: Jewish-Gentile Relations in Late Medieval and Early Modern Germany. Papers presented at a conference held 9–11 May 1991 in Los Angeles. Publications of the German Historical Institute. Washington, DC: German Historical Institute, 1995.

    Geared specifically toward a reassessment of relations between Jews and Christians in Germany, the essays represent a rethinking of the boundaries between these groups. Contributions are clustered around major themes, including social structure, economic activity, images of the Other, and the fate of Jews in varying political units within the Holy Roman Empire.

  • Jahrbuch der Gesellschaft für Geschichte der Juden in der Čechoslovakischen Republik. 1929–1938.

    This annual publication of the Society for the History of the Jews in the Czechoslovak Republic was published from 1929 until the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Germany in 1938. The articles in these volumes range across the history of the Jews in the Bohemian lands from the Middle Ages through the 19th century, with a particular emphasis on Jewish life in the Early Modern period. Articles are generally in German but occasionally appear in Czech as well.

  • Judaica Bohemiae. 1965–.

    In some regards, Judaica Bohemiae picks up the mission of the Jahrbuch der Gesellschaft für Geschichte der Juden in der Čechoslovakischen Republik. Its contents feature studies ranging from the Middle Ages to the present but often contain many articles of interest for the Early Modern period.

  • Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook. 1955–.

    Ostensibly dedicated to German Jewish life after 1789, the Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook consistently publishes articles of interest relating to German Jewish history and culture in the Early Modern period, occasionally with special issues dedicated to particular aspects of early modern life.

  • Teller, Adam. “Telling the Difference: Some Comparative Perspectives on the Jews’ Legal Status in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Holy Roman Empire.” Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry 22 (2010): 109–141.

    This essay adopts a comparative lens in order to assess the differences—and similarities—between Jewish life in early modern Germany and Poland-Lithuania. By focusing on legal status, Teller shows the devolution of power from centralized authority to more-localized nobility, explores the different perceptions of Jewish economic utility in their respective contexts, and highlights the difference between the corporate privileges enjoyed by Polish Jewry in contrast to the individuated privileges of German Jews.

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