The so-called “court Jews” emerged in Central Europe in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as rulers throughout that region sought to centralize the administration of their territories and to create lavish courts. Jews, with their ties to coreligionists in eastern Europe, the Ottoman Empire, and elsewhere, were well-positioned to provision armies with grain, cloth, horses, and cattle, to supply metal to the mints, to provide courts with luxury items, and to extend credit to rulers. During the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) the activity of such Jews became conspicuous; and in the wake of that war, court Jews increasingly became an indispensable part of the mechanisms of government throughout Central Europe.
The court Jews also played an important role in Jewish life. Through strategic marriages, they created a network of interdependent families with representatives situated throughout Germany, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands. As absolutist rulers sought greater control over Jewish communal governance, court Jews, who dominated communal affairs, were faced with the task of balancing the interests of the community with those of their masters. Frequently they became, in effect, agents of the state, imposing the will of the ruler in the supervision of communal life.
One of the reasons why Jews came to exercise such crucial roles in the financial and commercial structures of early modern states is that they were willing to take risks a Christian merchant would not, because, unlike the Christian merchant, they might be rewarded by the ruler for good service with the removal of discriminatory restrictions. By accepting the management of a failing textile factory and putting it on its feet, for example, a Jew might gain settlement rights for his children, or freedom from special taxation. In this way, court Jews achieved a kind of personal emancipation long before Jews as a group were relieved of special burdens and restrictions. To some extent, this produced increasing alienation between court Jews in urban centers and the many Jews in more rural areas who made a living from petty trade. A cultural divide also developed as court Jews cultivated European tastes in dress and speech, and became consumers of European luxury items. It was no accident that court Jews offered crucial financial support to the reform program of the Berlin maskilim in the 1780s, with particular interest in its aim of “productivizing” and Europeanizing their coreligionists.
Alongside the greatest of the court Jews – the Gomperz, Ephraim, and Itzig families in Prussia, Leffman Behrens in Hanover, Samuel Oppenheimer and Samson Wertheimer in Vienna – were the many lesser court Jews who served rulers in the small German states. Particularly in Denmark, Sweden, Hamburg, and the Netherlands, Sephardi Jews like Manuel Texeira and Jorge Nunes da Costa performed some functions typical of court Jews.
By the eighteenth century, however, the financial activities of governments were increasingly being handled by a more sophisticated state apparatus. Moreover, the processes of emancipation and democratization, though uneven in Central Europe, made the “court Jew” obsolete, both as the dominant player in Jewish life and as a pliable instrument of princely will.
Cesarani, David. “The Forgotten Port Jews of London: Court Jews Who Were Also Port Jews.” Jewish Culture and History 4, no. 2 (2001): 111-124.
Eidelberg, Shlomo. “Abraham Aaron, a Court-Jew of the Seventeenth Century.” Michael: On the History of the Jews in the Diaspora 2 (1973): 9-15.
Graetz, Michael. “Court Jews in Economics and Politics,” in From Court Jews to the Rothschilds (1996), 27-43.
Graetz, Michael, and Herbert A. Strauss. “From Corporate Community to Ethnic-Religious Minority, 1750-1830.” Leo Baeck Institute. Year Book 37 (1992): 71-82.
Images from JTS:
Portrait of Jud Süss
Portrait of Jud Süss
Date and place unknown, probably Germany, ca. 1738
Depicts man in cage