In This Article Early Modern Jewish History

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Mobility, Migration, and Social Mixing
  • Communal Organization
  • Crisis of Rabbinic Authority
  • Viewing the Modern Era in the Light of the Early Modern

Jewish Studies Early Modern Jewish History
David B. Ruderman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 July 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 April 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0011


The term “early modernity” as the name of a period roughly extending from the end of the 15th to the end of the 18th century has only recently been employed by historians of Jewish culture and society. Despite a plethora of new studies in the last several decades, there have been few attempts to define the period as a whole as a distinct epoch in Jewish history, distinguishable from both the medieval and modern periods. Some historians have remained indifferent to demarcating the period, or have simply designated it as an extension of the Middle Ages, or have labeled it vaguely as a mere transitional stage between medievalism and modernity without properly describing its distinguishing characteristics. A few historians have used the term “Renaissance” to apply to the cultural ambiance of Jews living in Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries alone without delineating the larger period and the more comprehensive geographical area. The bibliographical survey that follows focuses on the entire period of three hundred years and attempts to provide a panoramic view of European and Ottoman Jewries both as distinct subcommunities and in their broader connections with each other.

General Overviews

Prior to 1985, historians discussing the period between 1500 and 1800 viewed it as an extension of the Middle Ages or as a precursor or adumbration of the modern era. Baron 1928 was the first to see this era as more than simply one of decline, stagnation, and ghettoization. Katz 1993 clearly focuses on the period as a kind of extension of medieval society and fails to contextualize it against the background of European history. Meyer 1975, an important historiographical discussion of the notion of modernity among recent historians, ignores the early modern period altogether. Israel 1998 is the first work to offer a serious comprehensive portrait of the entire period, arguing that early modern Jewish history needs to be understood as a distinct era. As both an extension and revision of the author’s pioneering study, Ruderman 2010 is a recently published new interpretation of a transregional early modern Jewish culture. His students and colleagues (Cohen et al. 2014) have recently published in his honor a broad selection of essays on Jewish culture in Early Modern Europe.

  • Baron, Salo W. “Ghetto and Emancipation: Shall We Revise the Traditional View?” Menorah Journal 14.6 (1928): 515–526.

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    A seminal essay first questioning the conventional view that the period between the 16th and 18th centuries was a “dark age” and should be seen in stark contrast to the “bright” modern age that followed.

  • Cohen, Richard, Dohrmann, Natalie, Reiner, Elhanan, and Shear, Adam, eds. Jewish Culture in Early Modern Europe: Essays in Honor of David B. Ruderman. Pittsburgh, 2014: Hebrew Union College Press/University of Pittsburgh Press.

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    A comprehensive portrait of various aspects of Early Modern Jewish Culture and Society prepared by thirty-one active scholars in the field.

  • Israel, Jonathan I. European Jewry in the Age of Mercantilism 1550–1750. 3d ed. London: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1998.

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    The first important book to treat the early modern period in Jewish history as a distinct era, ably describing its economic and political foundations while characterizing Jewish social and cultural history as primarily reflective and derivative of general trends located in non-Jewish society. Originally published in 1985.

  • Katz, Jacob. Tradition and Crisis: Jewish Society at the End of the Middle Ages. Translated by Bernard Cooperman. New York: New York University Press, 1993.

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    An important sociological reconstruction of Jewish traditional society primarily in eastern Europe and its disintegration in a period Katz called the “end of the middle ages.” Originally published in 1961.

  • Meyer, Michael. “Where Does Modern Jewish History Begin?” Judaism 23 (1975): 329–338.

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    A classic essay presenting the principal interpretations of the beginnings of modernity by the leading Jewish historians and the author’s solution to see modernity as a gradual process rather than as a specific date.

  • Ruderman, David B. Early Modern Jewry: A New Cultural History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.

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    A recent interpretation of Jewish cultural history in the early modern period emphasizing cultural exchange and interconnections among diverse subcommunities.

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