The 19th Century Jewish Orientalist Who Took a Stand Against Racism

Rabbi Márton Schreiner, a religious educator, orientalist and scholar of Semitic languages, struggled against the Ethnic Cultural Movement’s intent to be substitute for Jewish religious life.

Zsidó Egyetem

The building of the University of Jewish Studies at Guttenberg Square in Budapest towards the end of the 19th century. (Photo: Fortepan / Capital Archives of Budapest. Archive reference: HU.BFL.XV.19.d.1.05.161)

Rabbi Márton Schreiner was active mainly between 1881 and 1902 in Hungary and Germany. His manuscripts kept at the National Library indicate that he opposed the racist element of the ethnic cultural ideas of the period (biological anthropology), according to which Judaism is a race community (a concept based on the idea that race is an unchanging hereditary characteristic). In addition, he saw the cultivation of religious customs as a historical necessity resulting in the liberation of the Jewish spirit. He also appealed against the German liberal parties and their Jewish representatives who adopted the ethnic cultural thoughts that did not see any contradiction between the Torah and the discoveries of science, and sought for a total separation between them:

“The liberal representatives [referring to Jewish politicians] have forgotten that the Jewish community is a religious community and not a race community. …”

“We must realize in our religious lives that our love for the Jewish customs and Jewish life does not require supernatural support. We recognize that our institutions [referring to the Jewish religious community and its institutions] are historical needs …”

“If the Liberal Party wants to be the outpost of the Reform Judaism, then it has no justification within the community. …”

“One of the movements that tries to replace the historical religions is the “Ethnic Cultural Movement” [Ethnische Kulturbewegung]. To the extent that it seeks to realize the general moral ideals, it should be accepted with joy from the point of view of Judaism. But, it cannot serve as a substitute for religion and Judaism in particular. … The historical religions are inextricably inconsistent with the scientific results of science. If Judaism is defined as compatible with science, it is no longer Judaism. … As for the morality of life: Judaism teaches effectively this morality without relating to its believers level of education. The worship of God, the holidays, and certainly the Jewish institutions, have always reminded the followers of Judaism of the teachings of the Torah. …”

“The recent reports of the Board of Directors indicate that in the past three years 347 members of the community have left Judaism … , but we believe that … Judaism, as the Bible science opines today, has been a religious community since the days of the Second Temple, which reaches beyond the borders of the nation … . Our community, in its special status, is the basis of Christianity and Islam. …”

(Quotations from Schreiner’s manuscripts written following his activities and involvement in the life of the Jewish community in Berlin. Archive reference at the National Library of Israel: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 03 05)


Schreiner in Hungary

Márton Schreiner was born in the city of Nagyvárad (today Romanian Oradea) in Transylvania in 1863. A study of the documents in his personal archives at the National Library reveals that his family was a relatively poor. His father, Albert Schreiner, who died during Márton’s youth, served as an official of the local community and a highly knowledgeable Jewish religious scholar who also gave his son the basic knowledge of Jewish literature.

School and university studies

He completed high school at a Catholic school in his hometown. After receiving his matriculation certificate, he moved to Budapest, where he signed up to the Jewish Theological Seminary, also known as University of Jewish Studies (Országos Rabbiképző – Zsidó Egyetem). At the same time he studied at the University of Budapest (today: Eötvös Loránd Tudományegyetem). His spiritual development was significantly influenced by the well-known lecturers of the Theological Seminary, such as Benjamin Bacher, Bloch Mózes Löb and David Kaufmann. At the University of Budapest, Schreiner spent some time mainly studying philosophy and Arabic. He was a student of the great scholar and researcher in the field of Islamic studies, Ignác Goldziher. Schreiner’s correspondence with Goldziher is famous. According to Kinga Dévényi, Schreiner wrote more than 150 letters to Goldziher. The letters are a part of the Oriental collection of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Parts of the letters were published in Goldziher’s diary edited by Rabbi Alexander (Sándor) Scheiber.

He received his doctorate in 1886 based on his scientific work Supplements to the History of Biblical Pronunciation, which he published already a year earlier. He completed his studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary and served as a rabbi of Dunapentele community (today Dunaújváros).

Certified rabbi

In 1887 he received a rabbinical ordination certificate and moved to the Csurgó community, which sought to employ a rabbi who studied at the Rabbinical Training Institute.

As a rabbi, Schreiner focused on youth education. Thus he introduced the practice of the boys’ prayer in Csurgó’s community. He delivered his sermons and speeches in Hungarian and German. Some of them he published in 1887. The National Library of Israel holds about 70 handwritten sermons and speeches that Schreiner delivered in many communities in which he hosted or performed for events and festivals between 1881 and 1892.

Teacher at the Jewish teachers’ training seminary in Budapest

Schreiner felt uncomfortable in the small community of Csurgó and tried to apply for a position in larger communities. In 1891 he received a teacher position at the Institute for the Training of Jewish Teachers in Budapest (Országos Izraelita Tanítóképző Intézet). As a teacher, Schreiner showed great responsibility for the education of the future Jewish teachers. He focused on pedagogic tasks and wrote a textbook for religious education on the prophets of Israel. He also taught religion at the Catholic high school )Nagyváradi Premontrei Főgimnázium( where he himself graduated in 1881. Evidence of this is found in the examination notebooks of his students, which Schreiner kept in his archive. Among his students: Armin Stern, Vilmos Rosenberg, the future Hebrew teacher Henrik Blau, the author Kornél Hüvös and many others.

Schreiner in Germany

Despite his devotion to his role as rabbi and lover of Jewish religious education, Schreiner always aspired to academia. His search for an opportunity to engage in scientific research eventually led him to transit to Germany.

Active community member in Berlin

Quite a few documents, such as the protocols and drafts of Schreiner indicate that he was involved and took actively part in the politics of the Berliner Jewish community. He supported the constitutional equality of the Jewish religion with the Christian religion, but opposed Jewish religious observance on Sundays instead of or in addition to Sabbath.

Lecturer at the Graduate School of Jewish Studies

Schreiner tried to apply for a position as a lecturer at the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary (Rabbinerseminar zu Berlin). Although he was rejected by David Cassel (prominent docent of the above institute), but later, about eleven months after Cassel’s death, he was accepted as a full professor supported by Moritz Lazarus in December 1893. There, too, his full effort and obligation to his students were his characteristics. He taught linguistics, religious history of Semitic nations, religious philosophy, interpretation of ancient texts, and more. He felt at his best in Berlin. He was an inspiring teacher arousing interest among his listeners. Some of his students: Leo Baeck, George Alexander Kohut, Yehuda L. Magnes, Shmuel Avraham Poznanski, Elyakim Gotthold Weil, and others.

Schreiner believed that it was inconceivable to be engaged in the study of languages ​​without taking into account the philosophy and the religious-cultural history of the peoples. He referred to any text intended for interpretation as a historical-intellectual document of humanity. He studied the Islamic sources in their original language in order to explore the post-Islamic influences on Jewish literature, religious philosophy, the history of sects and linguistics. The study of these influences was the main subject of Schreiner’s scientific activity. Although all, this important and rich activity was suddenly interrupted when Schreiner became mentally ill in 1902. He was interned in the Lankwitz Sanatorium in Berlin. The National Library of Israel holds a few letters that he sent and received in this chapter of his life. The letters indicate that despite his illness, he kept in touch with colleagues and relatives remaining in the sanatorium until his death in 1921. Márton Schreiner’s personal archive, containing biographical material, notes, lectures, articles, sermons, correspondence and some handwriting of his father, was deposited at the National Library of Israel in the second half of 1965.

Documents from Schreiner’s personal archive

מרטון שריינר - תעודת סיום שנה א' של התיכון
Graduation certificate for the school year 1872/73, Márton Schreiner’s first high school year, including a grade sheet. (To view the item, click on the image.)

Link to the record of the above document: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 01 01 


תעודת בגרות
Márton Schreiner’s matriculation certificate from 1881. (To view the item click on the image).

Link to the record of the above document: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 01 01


מסמכים המעידים על משפחת שריינר כדלת אמצעים
On the left: a certification from the Jewish community of Nagyvárad, dated 1879, confirming that the Schreiner family was a low income one. On the right: Márton Schreiner’s 1881 request for a scholarship from the Jewish Students Aid Fund. (To view the item, click on the image.)

Links to the records of the above documents: Certification, Request, (ARC. Ms. Var. 347 01 02 and 04)


כתב ידו של אלברט שריינר
Booklet of commentaries on the Talmud, probably written by Albert Schreiner, Márton’s father. This booklet includes the signatures of the recipient Israel Epstein as well as those of personalities from the city of Papa, Hungary. (To view the item, click on the image.)

Link to the record of the above document: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 02 10


דרשה לראש השנה מאת אלברט שריינר
A sermon for Rosh Hashana by Albert Schreiner, Márton’s father. (To view the item, click on the image.)

Link to the record of the above document: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 02 10


דוח על השוחט
Albert Schreiner, Márton’s father, was a community official. Here: a report on the level of knowledge of a certain Shlomo, who came to the community of Nagyvárad to study Jewish ritual slaughter. The name of Rabbi Yisrael Yitzchak Aharon Landsberg is mentioned in the document.

Link to the record of the above document: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 02 10


דרשה לרגל ראש השנה בפני קהילת סקשפהרוואר
Schreiner gave his speeches and sermons in German and Hungarian in various communities during festivals and events. Here: A sermon in German addressed to the community of Székesfehérvár on Rosh Hashanah in 1886. (To view the item click on the picture).

Link to the record of the above document: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 03 03


נאומו של מרטון שריינר לרגל חנוכת בית כנסת בראצקווה
Márton Schreiner’s speech in Hungarian on the occasion of the dedication of the Ráckeve synagogue in 1886 (to view the item click on the picture).

Link to the record of the above document: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 03 04


דרשתו של מרטון שריינר לרגל חתונה בנדיפרקטה
A sermon by Márton Schreiner at a wedding in the city of Nagy-Perkáta in 1886. (To view the item click on the image).

Link to the record of the above document: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 03 04


דרשתו של מרטין שריינר לרגל ראש השנה בצ'ורגו
Márton Shreiner’s sermon in Hungarian held on Rosh Hashana 1887 at the community of Csurgó. (To view the item click on the picture).

Link to the record of the above document: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 03 03


מרטין שריינר - נאום כניסה לתפקיד כרב
Márton Schreiner’s speech in Hungarian on the occasion of his appointment as rabbi of the Csurgó community in 1887. (To view the item click on the picture).

Link to the record of the above document: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 03 04


פרשת נחמו - דרשה של מרטין שריינר
Márton Schreiner’s sermon in Hungarian for the Shabbat of Nachamu in 1890. (To view the item click on the picture).

Link to the record of the above document: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 03 02

שיר מאת מרטין שריינר על הפסח.
Pesach” – an undated 18 stanza Hungarian poem by Márton Schreiner. The song deals with Passover from the point of view of comparison between present and past. (To view the item, click on the image.)

Link to the record of the above document: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 02 08


מכתב מאת מרטין שריינר אל יצחק גולדציהר
Letter from Márton Schreiner to his teacher Ignác Goldziher from his time as rabbi of the Csurgó community. (To view the item, click on the image.)

Link to the record of the above document: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 03 08


עבודתו של ארמין שטרן בנושא מונותאיזם
Márton Schreiner taught religious studies to Jewish students in the Catholic high school where he himself had studied. Here: the work of Armin Stern, one of Schreiner’s students. (To view the item, click on the image.)

Link to the record of the above document: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 04 07


עבודתו של הנריק בלאו בנושא מונותאיזם
The work of high school student Henrik Blau on the subject of monotheism. Later on Blau became a Hebrew teacher. (To view the item, click on the image.)

Link to the record of the above document: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 04 07


Kornel Hüvös - עסודת בית ספר תיכון
A high school work by the Hungarian Jewish writer Kornel Hüvös on the subject of the concept of holiness in Judaism. 1893. (To view the item click on the image).

Link to the record of the above document: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 04 08


כתביו של מרטין שריינר בנושאים שהקהילות היהודיות עסקו בברלין
Schreiner took an active part in local Jewish politics in Germany. His writings dealing with the political life of the Berlin community are preserved in the archives of the National Library in Israel (to view the item click on the picture).

Link to the record of the above document: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 03 05

Zsido Egyetem Budapest
The Jewish Theological Seminary, also known as the University of Jewish Studies (Országos Rabbiképző – Zsidó Egyetem) today. (Photo: Shaul Greenstein)


The Martin (Márton) Schreiner Archive has been reviewed and described thanks to the generous support of The Leir Foundation.

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Meet the Jewish Circus Performer Who Could Bend Iron with His Bare Hands

Zishe Breitbart was known as the "Modern Day Samson" and performed all over the world until his untimely death.


Siegmund Zishe Breitbart, from the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

By Dr. Yochai Ben-Ghedalia

Jewish culture has always preferred brains to brawn, placing more of an emphasis on scholarship than the gymnasium. Jews shine in many fields, but you usually won’t see too many of them in your typical sports highlight reel – and yet, despite the odds, there have been some exceptional Jewish sports stars, such as boxer Daniel Mendoza (champion of England in 1792–5) and baseball’s Sandy Koufax. U.S. swimmer Mark Spitz and Russian gymnast Yelena Shushunova  also won plenty of Olympic medals.

And then there was Siegmund Zishe Breitbart.

Siegmund Zishe Breitbart, from the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel.

The Modern Day Samson

Zishe Breitbart was born circa 1883 to a poor family in Stryków, Poland. His father was a blacksmith and Zishe followed in his footsteps but with one twist: much to their customers’ amazement, Zishe could successfully bend metal with his bare hands.

Siegmund Zishe Breitbart, the blacksmith. From the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Stryków was under czarist rule when World War I broke out and Breitbart enlisted in the Russian army, only to be captured by the Germans. Lucky enough to survive and be freed, he joined Busch, a German roving circus. Renamed “Siegmund,” he appeared and performed all over Germany as well other European countries, then toured America. He straightened horseshoes and bent iron bars with his bare hands, broke chains with his teeth, and lifted strange and various weights including wagons loaded with passengers – and even the occasional elephant.

Settling in Germany, Breitbart married a rabbi’s daughter and fathered a son. Performing his one man show, he solidified his reputation among Eastern European Jewry as the Iron Man, the World’s Strongest Man, and of course, the Modern Day Samson.

Siegmund Zishe Breitbart, from the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Posters advertising his performances in Poland promoted a new Jewish national image. Between the two world wars, as Jews integrated more than ever into modern economies, these ads broadcast Jewish strength, raising Jews’ spirits – and non-Jews’ expectations.

Of the four posters preserved in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, a couple are particularly large. One, printed in Cologne, shows the champ chomping on chains. The date and time of the act were left blank, to be filled in later. The other three were printed in Stanisławow – now Ivano-Frankivsk, part of Ukraine – in Polish as well as Yiddish, indicating that Breitbart’s fans weren’t all Jews.

One of four posters from the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People advertising a Zishe Breitbart performance.

Beloved by Millions

As president of the Maccabi Berlin sports federation, Breitbart symbolized a Jewish renaissance. He never hid his Jewish identity or his Zionism. Some claim he visited Palestine, but there are no records of such a trip. The rumors probably testify more to the breadth of his popularity, extending even as far as the Middle East.

Breitbart’s career was cut short after just six years by a tragic work accident. While driving a spike through a thick pile of tin sheets – using his hand as a hammer of course – he was stabbed in the knee by a rusty nail, resulting in blood poisoning. Antibiotics had yet to be invented, so he struggled against the infection for eight weeks, submitting to ten operations, including the amputation of both legs. He died on September 29, 1925, the 24th of Tishrei,and was buried in the Adass Yisroel cemetery in Berlin.

The Sentinal,  Friday, October 20, 1925. From the National Library of Israel Historical Jewish Press collection. Click image to enlarge.

The funeral of this Jewish celebrity was covered by Doar Hayom (The Daily Post), published in Mandatory Palestine by Itamar Ben Avi (son of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew). The article was entitled “On the Death of a Second Samson:”

The massive funeral was attended by thousands of Jews and Christians. A good few kilometers around the graveyard were jammed with hundreds of cars filled with people coming to the funeral. There were so many people that the elderly cemetery officials declared they couldn’t remember ever seeing such an enormous Jewish funeral in Berlin. The police had to send numerous constables out to maintain order and supervise the procession.

Cameras and filming equipment were set up on the surrounding roofs and photographed various scenes throughout the funeral….

Siegmund Zishe Breitbart, from the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Chief Rabbi Dr. [Esra] Munk delivered the eulogy, emphasizing that the deceased had won the hearts of millions…. [Munk] particularly praised the deceased for disregarding all the glory and honor accorded him by the world at large, for Breitbart never forgot he was a Jew. He always came back to be with his fellow Jews, wherever they might be, telling them how happy he was that today Jews could claim the strongest man in the world as one of their own….     A black flag belonging to the Berlin Maccabi sports federation, of which Zishe Breitbart was honorary president, fluttered throughout the funeral. Telegrams of condolence arrived, and wreaths were laid on the grave by sports associations from Paris, London, Rome, Vienna, and Warsaw.
(Doar Ha-yom, 7 Marheshvan 5686, October 25, 1925)


A version of this article first appeared in Segula Magazine, October 2016, Issue 34.


The Oldest Ashkenazi Synagogue in London

The Sandys Row Synagogue has kept its doors open through two World Wars and remained active from its original consecration in 1870 until today.

sandys row

Sandy's Row, corner of Frying Pan Alley. Photo copyright of The Bishopsgate Institute Archives London

Today it is almost impossible to get any sense of a Jewish presence in the neighborhood of East London, but there were once nearly one hundred and fifty synagogues operating in the area. Now Sandys Row is the last functioning Ashkenazi synagogue in Spitalfields, an area of East London at the heart of the former Jewish East End. Dutch Jewish migrants, who began arriving in London from Amsterdam in the 1840s, established the synagogue in 1854. They were economic migrants seeking a better life, rather than refugees fleeing persecution like the thousands of Ashkenazi Jews who came after them in the 1880s from the Pale of Settlement.

This small, distinctive, tight-knit Dutch Jewish community of a few hundred people settled in the streets of Spitalfields. They had their own traditions and customs which were different from other Ashkenazi Jewish groups and continued to practice the trades they had brought with them from Holland. These trades were predominately cigar making, diamond cutting and polishing, and slipper and cap making. Many small workshops were established and businesses were passed down through generations.

“The Chuts,” as they were known locally, refused to join any of the larger existing synagogues. They wanted their own establishment and formed a “Chevra”; the Society for Comfort of the Mourners, Kindness, and Truth, which originally functioned as a burial and mutual aid society and later became a way of raising funds to purchase their own building. By 1867 the Society had amassed enough money to acquire the lease on a former Huguenot Chapel in Sandys Row, a small side street in Spitalfields near Liverpool Street Station and the City of London.

sandys row
Copyright of The Bishopsgate Institute Archives London

The community employed Nathan Solomon Joseph, one of the most famous synagogue architects of the time, to remodel the chapel. He kept many original features of the Georgian interior, including the roof and the balcony and added a new three-story extension onto the building, creating a vestry and accommodation for a rabbi and caretaker. He also designed a beautiful mahogany ark which can still be seen recessed into the eastern wall of the building framed by neo-classical columns. Since it was consecrated in 1870, with ‘an immense throng of Jewish working men assembled – with devotion, enthusiasm, and solemn demeanor – to join in dedicating the humble structure to the worship of God,’ Sandys Row Synagogue has never closed its doors, operating through both World Wars and into the twenty-first century.

Sandys row
Sandys Row Synagogue. Photo copyright of Jonathan Juniper

Apart from some pine wood paneling which was added in the fifties along with some pine pews, the synagogue today looks much the same as it did when it opened in the nineteenth century. It was described in the Jewish press in 1870 as ‘a sacred place…simple, yet charming,’ a building that ‘invites the worshipper to religious meditation.’ The same holds true for the interior of Sandys Row today; it is an oasis of calm from the bustle of the city outside. The building still evokes the sense of awe and quiet meditation described by the journalist who witnessed the consecration ceremony nearly a hundred and fifty years ago.

Until recently, little has been known outside the congregation about this wonderful building and the Dutch Jewish community who established the synagogue. But during the past few years, I have been working with the synagogue as a historian and archivist to uncover more about the history and heritage of the building thanks to a grant from an anonymous benefactor.

Sandys row
The entrance to Sandys Row Synagogue. Photo copyright of Jonathan Juniper

The project began by collecting oral histories of past and present members of Sandys Row. We have recorded interviews with members in their homes across London, as well as locally with the few elderly Jewish people who remain in the area. They spoke of a neighborhood once bursting with life, filled with kosher butchers, bewigged women, friendly societies and Yiddish speaking traders. They told of a time when there was a synagogue or house of prayer on nearly every street in the area and the vicinity of Sandys Row was filled with Jewish shops, workshops and thousands of stalls from Petticoat Lane.

sandys row
The basement of Sandys Row Synagogue, photo by Morley Von Sternberg.

All of our interviewees had fond memories of Sandys Row Synagogue. Some, like Pamela Freedman and board member Rose Edmands, are directly related to the Dutch founding members.

‘It was a family shul, they used to call it the Dutch shul. All my late husband’s family were members. He was the president, his uncle was the president, I think the grandfather was president,’ said Pamela.

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Rose, whose original Dutch surname was Engelsman, said her entire family were members.

My great aunts used to sit in the front row and my mother’s generation sat in the row behind, and we kids sat in the back. And, now I sit in the front row – there’s nobody. So the reminder of time passing is very poignant there.’

The current president of Sandys Row, Harvey Rifkind, told me ‘during the fifties and sixties, the synagogue flourished. On Shabbat, there were one hundred to two hundred people there and on the high holy days, you could not get a seat. People literally sat on the floor in the aisles.’

Sandys Row
The Torah ark at the front of the synagogue. Photo copyright of Jonathan Juniper.

Today the synagogue is still functioning with afternoon services every weekday and weddings taking place regularly as a younger Jewish community has started to move back into the heavily regenerated tourist area of East London.

Alongside gathering the oral history recordings of people’s memories of the synagogue my role at Sandys Row has also involved depositing a great deal of handwritten records and other artifacts from the synagogue at the Bishopsgate Institute Archives in London.

sandys row
Sample of the materials preserved from Sandys Row Synagogue, 1919.

Over time, most of the synagogue’s records had been scattered around the building. Some were found in the safe in the vestry, but the majority were retrieved from the eighteenth-century basement which is practically unchanged from when the building was erected in 1766 as a Huguenot Chapel. The documents we found include nineteenth-century marriage certificates and an almost complete collection of handwritten minute books from the time the synagogue opened until the mid-twentieth century. This original material has now been safely deposited at the institute. Furthermore, we have spent many years digitizing the entire collection, which is available to view both online at and has also been deposited at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP) at the National Library of Israel. Dr. Yochai Ben-Ghedalia, the director of the archives had this to say:

sandys row
This is the earliest minute book for Sandys Row Synagogue. The first minutes of a meeting to be written in English are dated Saturday 6th September 1873. The rest of the minute book is written in Dutch and appears to cover general synagogue business. The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. View the rest of the book here.

The CAHJP holds thousands of archives of Jewish communities, institutions, international organizations and prominent individuals from all over the globe. Despite the extensive coverage of communal collections, the CAHJP holdings do not include any full-scale archives of Ashkenazic congregations from London. Hence, the rich archive of the Sandys Row Synagogue, going back to the mid-19th Century, deposited at the CAHJP as a digital copy, is an important contribution, adding missing stones to the mosaic of Jewish history.

sandys row
This book holds a registry of 99 marriages containing biographical information regarding the bride and groom and the date of their marriage. This marriage register covers the period leading up to WWI. View the complete book here.

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.


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The Eastern European Pinkas Kahal: Image and Reality

Through the pinkas of a given community, we can assess the life of the individual and the kahal in all its breadth and depth


Examining the Frankfurt Pinkas in the National Library of Israel Rare Books Reading Room

The word pinkas means “notebook.” These notebooks were widely used in pre-modern Jewish society by both communal organizations and individuals.  Mohalim (Jews trained in the practice of Brit Milah) would keep pinkasim to note and track the circumcisions they had performed, businessmen kept pinkasim to note the various deals they made, students kept pinkasim into which they copied the texts they were studying, and mystics kept pinkasim in which they noted their sins (and sometimes their dreams, too).  Thus, the term pinkas was distinguished from the “Sefer” – book – in both its physical form and the way texts were entered into it.  The pinkas was a notebook, initially of blank pages, into which its owner penned various texts or entries that were of interest to him from time to time.

This format of record keeping was, of course, very useful for institutions, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, that wanted to keep a running record of their activity.  European Jewish society in the early modern age (about 1500-1800 C.E.) was a complex web of institutions – from the small, local guilds (“hevrot ba’alei melakhah”) to the great trans-regional councils such as the Lithuanian Jewish Council and, of course, the Polish “Council of Four Lands.”  Pinkasim or fragments of pinkasim from these different institutions have survived over time, giving the distinct impression that maintaining a pinkas was an integral part of early modern Jewish organizational life.

The Frankfurt Pinkas, from the National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge.

The Pinkas Hakahal – the record notebook of the community’s governing council – formed only one part of a complex of communal pinkasim. Community administration was made up of many other bodies each of which kept their own pinkas.  The gabbaim, the communal treasurers, would keep a pinkas, noting synagogue organization, particularly as it related to financial and charitable disbursements, as well as the different decisions they made to regulate their work.  The judges of the Beit Din, the rabbinic court, would a keep a pinkas to record the cases they heard, and the tax assessors would keep a record of the taxes assessed for and paid by each community member. The Kahal also kept a pinkas and as the community’s supreme governing body, its pinkas might be viewed as the most important. When brought together, these various record notebooks make up what we might call “pinkasei ha-kehillah” which provide a rich and multifaceted view of the broad sweep of Jewish communal life.

frankfurt pinkas
Dr. Yoel Finkelman, curator of the Judaica Collection at the National Library, examines the Frankfurt Pinkas.

Grasping how the pinkas functioned, and understanding its role in the life of both the community council and the community as a whole is no easy task. As Prof. Israel Bartal of the Hebrew University has shown, there are many layers of misconceptions about the early modern pinkas kahal which developed in the various cultural and political milieu of eastern European Jews in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but were picked up and repeated, often uncritically, by future generations of scholars.  The maskilim of the nineteenth century adopted a view of the community pinkas as somehow embodying the entire history of the early modern Jewish community – an institution and a history they despised. In his satirical novel, “Kvurat Hamur – An Ass’s Burial,” Peretz Smolenskin was scathing:

A pinkas can be found in every town where Jews live, and in it, they and everything that happened in the town will be written as an everlasting memory.  There is mention of girls who lost their virginity by accident and through rape, of denouncers and those who caused Jews to lose money to non-Jews, of those who rebelled against communal authority and those who ate non-kosher meat, of those who stole the silver from synagogues and those who carried a kerchief on the Sabbath.  [It tells of] the house that was destroyed by demons and ghosts, and of sinners whose sins or mockery of the burial society caused the outbreak of plague.  In this text will be inscribed all those who transgressed the law of Israel and in their death will they pay for their sins, for they will be given an ass’s burial.

A page from the Zülz Pinkas, dated 1796 to 1805, from the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. Click image to enlarge.

In the twentieth century, Jewish nationalists of many different stripes took an equally romantic, but highly positive, view of the pinkas. Many of them viewed it as the ultimate expression of the Jews’ autonomous bodies of the early modern period, bodies the nationalists saw as foreshadowing the development of the Jewish national institutions they wanted to develop.   Others took it as somehow embodying the spirit of the nation.  Avraham Rechtman, who participated in An-Ski’s great ethnographic expedition of 1912, expressed this in lyrical terms:

The pinkas is the mirror of the people’s life (folks leben) in past generations.  The pinkas reflects the people’s feelings, its joys and its sadness, how it expressed its concerns and what made up its demands.  Through the pinkas we can assess the life of the individual and the kahal in all its breadth and all its depth.  We can learn from them about the way of life as it was, as well as relations within society, between one society and another, between one community and another, and also of the Jews’ attitude towards the outside, non-Jewish world which surrounded them.

What was common to both, of course, was a highly romanticized view of the pinkas as embodying the history and spirit of the Jews as a whole, though the values they imparted to it were quite different.

In the face of this product of the overheated Jewish imagination, it is probably worth engaging in a more sober discussion of the pinkas kahal.  Unfortunately, despite the deepest desires of both maskilim and Jewish nationalists, the pinkas was not a kind of “communal memory.”  The vast majority of entries dealt with highly technical matters, such as taxation and other economic issues that fell into the purview of the kahal. Major events in the community’s life were recorded only in so far as the kahal had to make decisions or regulations to deal with them.

Pages 101- 102 of the Halberstadt Community Pinkas, dated 1773-1808, from the Manuscript Department of the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge the image.

In addition, the pinkas was not available to the community but was zealously guarded by the members of the Kahal.  The Krakow community constitution of 1595 specified that the pinkas hakahal should be in the hands of the two community scribes (called at that time, “edim demata”) and locked away in a box that only they could open.

In truth, the pinkas kahal in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was very much a technical document.  Only matters dealt with by the kahal were included in it.  These could, of course, be of enormous significance for running the community though not in the romantic idealist way previously envisioned.

Crucial topics such as the question of population control through the granting or retraction of residence rights (“hezkat hayishuv”) were included in a pinkas. This was sometimes connected with regulations concerning dowries since only those wealthy enough to pay handsome dowries would be able to settle their children in the community.   The management of the annual elections to the kahal was another issue that would be included.  Other issues dealt with by the pinkasim include the management of communal charity (most often done by means of regulations concerning the gabbaim), the employment of community officials (cantors, slaughterers, doctors, midwives, teachers, etc.), most particularly the rabbi, and relations with the non-Jewish authorities.

Though the Pinkas Hakahal does not provide a window into the Jewish soul, for the good or the bad, it does shed a great deal of light on how Jews organized their communities and ran their lives hundreds of years ago.

The National Library of Israel, together with the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem, holds the largest collection of pinkasim in the world. Through international academic co-operation, the Pinkasim Collection aims at locating, cataloging, and digitizing all surviving record books, making them freely available. At the first stage of the project, the focus is on pinkasei kahal, the pinkasim of the central governing body of Jewish communities. On June 20th, the National Library hosted an event marking the launch of the Pinkasim Collection, which featuring experts from around the world.


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