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Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

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Old Hungarian city, now incorporated in Budapest as the third district. The earlier history of the Jews in AltOfen begins with the twelfth century and ends with 1541, when the Turks obtained possession of the city. Jews probably settled at Ofen at the time of the Crusades, when so many fled from Germany into Hungary. The first certain information about the Jews in Alt-Ofen is of the year 1217, when Isaac ben Moses of Vienna, the author of "Or Zaru'a," mentions that the Jews of Ofen (meaning Alt-Ofen) submitted the question to him, whether the warmsprings there might be employed for ritual baths. In the last half of the fifteenth century, according to the testimony of Israel Isserlein (died 1470), of Wiener-Neustadt, there was a Jewish congregation at that place ("Pesuḳim u-Ketabim," 184).

Under Feudal Lords.

The modern period began with the final expulsion of the Turks from Buda in 1686, when a few Jews returned. From this time on the congregation rapidly increased, fostered by the broad administration of the baronial family of Zichy de Vásonykeö, who as lords of the domain of Alt-Ofen exercised their feudal rights over the Jewish community in a most liberal and kindly manner. Owing to this attitude, the number of Jews constantly increased. In 1727 only 22 families lived there; in 1735 these had increased to 43 families, numbering 138 individuals, who collectively paid annually 160 florins "protection money" to the Zichy family. Two years later, the community was able to purchase the site of their synagogue from their feudal lord and a large district for a cemetery; the seller, Countess Susannah Zichy, contracting "to defend the Jewish congregation in the possession of this land against every one, native or foreign." On their part the congregation was bound to bury no stranger in this cemetery without permission of the feudal lord, under penalty of 24 Rhenish florins for each stranger. The burial tax was 6 florins for every corpse brought from outside the community; and one pound of pepper for the interment of every one dying by accident. This cemetery was located in the middle of the town (in the present Kasernengasse), upon the ruins of an old Roman bath, and was used by the Alt-Ofen community—which, in course of time, reached nearly 4,000 souls—until 1888. It was likewise used by the community of Pest until the year 1795. From the year 1765 until the end of the century it was the only Jewish cemetery in the territory of the cities of Pest, Ofen, and Alt-Ofen. The Ofen community, which in 1735 had numbered 32 families or 156 persons, was entirely disbanded in 1765, and the remains of those interred in their cemetery were exhumed and reinterred in the Alt-Ofen burial-place.

Here reposes, among others, J. B. Oppenheim—the first rabbi of the community—who was buried in 1754; and the inscription upon his tombstone designates him as "a luminary of Judaism." He was followed in office by Nathan Günsburger of Belgrade, who was also buried in this cemetery, in 1781.

Under the Jurisdiction of the Crown.

During the official life of these first two rabbis, the progress of the community of Alt-Ofen was continuous, owing to the constant acquisition of new rights and privileges conferred by their feudal governors. All these rights were secured by formal agreements, which were made—sometimes for a period of six years, sometimes for ten—with the baronial house of Zichy. Upon the transfer of Alt-Ofen back to the Crown, these privileges were confirmed by the successive kings of Hungary. These agreements secured to the Jewish community of Alt-Ofen at that time an aggregate of privileges of a character that scarcely another congregation in Hungary enjoyed. They were guaranteed the undisturbed practise of their religion under the protection of the baronial house; the right to decide, as a court of first instance, in disputes between Jews and Jews, and even between Christians and Jews; the liberty to buy and to sell the large mansions and grounds of the nobility upon securing specific permission in each case. In 1774 there were twelve such estates; and in 1806 twenty-four. These residences were exempt from the billeting of troops and the compulsory furnishing of post-horse relays. But new settlers, as well as those who desired to leave the city, had first to satisfy all congregational dues before they were entitled to the baronial protection. By this means the feudal lord secured to the community a source of revenue that at times was very considerable. In some cases as much as 1,500 florins was paid for the privilege of permanent residence.

Marriage was permitted without hindrance until 1787, after which every young couple had to pay a "Kremnitz-ducat" to the count, in return for which they were enrolled in the list of Schutz-Juden (Jews under protection). On their own premises the Jews might dispense beer, brandy, and kosher wine; they could pasture their cattle on the town common; might dress every kind of meat in the slaughter-house that they owned; "Sabbathposts" ('Erubin) might be set up, under the protection of the government; they might follow any trade with the exception of shoemaking, in regard to which the royal government in 1818 enforced certain limitations. The amount of the protective tax the community paid varied from 1,350 to 1,800 florins annually; in addition they were required to present the count with 200 florins on his birthday and at the Christian festivals of the New-year, Easter, and Martinmas (Nov. 11). It was not difficult for the community to raise these relatively large sums, because their own indirect revenues were very considerable. For instance, the returns from the sale of kosher liquor in 1807 amounted, for wine alone, to 6,500 florins ($3,250), for beer and brandy 210 florins ($105), irrespective of 150 firkins (1,500 gallons) of untaxed wine for private use.

In addition to the rights guaranteed to the community, they enjoyed certain prerogatives not less important. The right of jurisdiction naturally brought with it the right to carry their verdicts into execution; and when the matter was of a police or religious nature, they could incarcerate the condemned in the prison which was in the synagogue yard, or inflict blows with a stick—a maximum of twelve blows being fixed by the government. The community had the care of funds belonging to orphans, the administration of estates, and the settlement of disputed inheritances. The community thus gradually attained almost to the power of a political body. It became interested in the disposition of public works, as for instance the laying out of streets; and, indeed, the baronial authorities consulted in such matters with the Jewish community as well as with the Christians.

The Inner Organization.

The inner organization of the congregation was on a scale commensurate with this outward aspect. At its head was a judge, called "Judge of the Jews," who was elected by the twenty-four Councilors of the Community upon the issuance of the baronial permission, and in the presence of a baronial representative, of the rabbi and of two men learned in the Law. Of the Councilors, twelve belonged to the Inner, and twelve to the Outer Council. The tax-receiver, president of the community, and two "orphan-fathers" were also elected by the whole community. After their election they proceeded to the synagogue, where they took the oath of office at the hands of the rabbi. The Inner Council held sessions every Tuesday and Thursday, taking cognizance only of the more petty matters. Deliberation upon questions concerning the community as a whole required the presence of the Outer Council as well. The members of the Inner Council drew a small salary from the communal treasury, which was withheld, however, for unpunctuality. Accordingto a decree of the baronial prefecture in 1801, absence from three sessions, without sufficient reason, was followed by arrest. Civil matters were decided by the judge and the Inner Council without consultation with the bet din—whose jurisdiction extended over religious affairs only—and they were paid after every session, the rabbi receiving 30 kreutzers,The value of a kreutzer to-day is about half a cent (U. S.) or a farthing (Eng.). the members or "dayyanim" 17 kreutzers each. The written transactions of the community were in charge of a notary, who was required to know both German and Hebrew, but the minutes had to be kept in German. The great power with which the Jewish judge was thus invested gave him considerable standing in the outer world as well as in the community; and this, after the fashion of the times, was expressed by various insignia of office. He carried a heavy staff embellished with an enormous silver knob as a sign of his rank, and in the street was always accompanied by a liveried footman.

Institutions Founded.

The inner development of the community kept pace with its ever-growing influence and standing, and a number of religious, congregational, and benevolent institutions were organized in the second half of the eighteenth century. One of the first was certainly the Ḥebrah Ḳadisha, which was founded in 1770 at the latest, as may be inferred from the fact that in 1780, at the instance ofDr. M. Oesterreicher—who was the first Jew to be graduated from the University of Pest—the Jewish hospital was established and placed under the management of the Ḥebrah. The still-existing "Biḳḳur Ḥolim Association," which took care also of the young with a view to the inculcation of religion among children, was established in that period. Several private synagogues, in addition to the large congregational one, afforded ample religious facilities. The synagogue possessed more than thirteen scrolls of the Law in 1760, as is apparent from the appendix to the "Masoret" of Meir Todros; the "Buda" (the Hungarian name for Ofen) mentioned there is most undoubtedly Alt-Ofen, because at this time there were no Jews in Ofen proper.

The greatest acquisition was, however, the Jewish public school, which, in pursuance of a special edict of Emperor Joseph II., was opened on May 17, 1784. This school was the first Jewish public school in Hungary. Considerable opposition attended its foundation, as it was generally feared that it would become a nursery of irreligion; indeed, so great was the fear of disturbance that public proclamation was made in all the synagogues by order of the prefect, that, under penalty of flogging, nobody should stand at the doors or windows of the school during sessions. The attendance was at first very sparse, so that endeavors were diligently made to close up the opposing private schools, and compel their pupils to attend the congregational one regularly. Slowly, however,the new institution won its way, and when in due time its accommodations became too small, Emperor Joseph II. presented the community with the adjoining house. Doubtless the loyalty and piety of the first teachers contributed a great deal to the increased esteem which the institution enjoyed; its fame extended through the length and breadth of the land. One of its first teachers was called to the public school of the Brody community, and the first preacher of the Pest community, Joseph Bach, was a teacher here.

Moses Münz, Rabbi.

From 1781-90, the community was without a rabbi. Nathan Günsburger died in 1781, and although the prefect urged it repeatedly, the community could arrive at no agreement as to a successor. Wolf Boskovitz, a wealthy man, well versed in Jewish literature and a member of the community, had a high opinion of his own fitness for the post, but his own family worked against him. Some Galician linen-dealers directed the attention of their Alt-Ofen friends to Moses Münz, born in Podolia, and living as a private citizen in Brody (Galicia). An inquiry of Ezekiel Landau, the chief rabbi of Prague, elicited an answer which not only strengthened the recommendation, but styled Münz "a miracle of our times"; accordingly in 1790, Moses Münz, then forty years old, became chief rabbi of Alt-Ofen, which post he held until his death in 1831. The choice of the congregation was a most fortunate one; Münz's learning carried the reputation of the congregation far beyond the confines of Hungary. Numerous religious questions were submitted to him by congregations in all parts of the monarchy.

Inner Life of the Community.

In 1799 a number of remarkable regulations were enacted by the Council and bet din of Alt-Ofen, which were no doubt dictated by the circumstances of the times. These regulations afford an insight into the social and religious life of those days. The following prohibition (Issur) was proclaimed in all synagogues: "It is forbidden to give or receive presents: (a) to or from newly elected officers of the congregation and Ḧebrah; (b) upon a wedding engagement; (c) before or after a wedding; (d) upon a bar-miẓwah (a boy's religious majority), or upon receipt of the degree of 'Ḧaber' [associate] or 'morenu' [rabbi]; (e) upon taking up residence in a new dwelling." The following were also forbidden: the extravagant "third" Sabbathmeal before and after a wedding (of which usually almost the whole community took part); the banquet after a bride took her ritual bath, and dancing by the young people on that night; the extravagant wedding-dinners, in which uninvited guests participated; and finally the procession by the newly married pair—a custom imported by Swabian Jews—free passage for which had to be purchased with money. The reason for these prohibitions was the tendency toward display which led many to the verge of financial ruin. Many refused to accept office in the congregation, or to perform certain religious functions, because of the very considerable monetary outlays attendant thereon, outlays which had been allowed to grow into a species of almost religious duty. Possibly also the continuous influx of newcomers, who were for the most part poor, had some influence in bringing about this curious legislation.

Public Spirit.

Parallel with these regulations of the community run many of humane and patriotic nature, dating from the first half of the nineteenth century. Whenever the country at large was in dire need, the community rose to the occasion. In the national troubles of 1800 they took up a collection among their members, heading it with a communal contribution of 400 florins ($200); in 1810 they gave 2,625 florins ($1,312.50)—in those days a considerable sum—toward the foundation of the National Museum; which evidence of generosity induced the Palatine Archduke Joseph to send a very cordial letter of thanks to the community. In 1830 they gave 150 florins ($75) to the vicar Alt-Ofen von Pécsy, toward the building of the Metropolitan Church at Gran.

Jewish Scholarship.

In 1831, Rabbi Moses Münz died, after a short illness, and before the close of the year of mourning intriguing for the vacant post began. A large majority of the congregation elected Hirsch Heller, called "Ḥarif" (sagacious or quick-witted), who had been formerly rabbi in Bonyhad, and just before his call to Alt-Ofen had accepted a like position in Ungvár. Heller declined at first, because, according to the testimony of a friend, he knew nothing of the outer world, and had been overwhelmed with threatening letters from a vigorous reform party which existed in the Alt-Ofen congregation. In addition, the Ungvar congregation declined to release him from his engagement with them until he had served them long enough to defray the expense they had been put to. Only when the Alt-Ofen congregation paid 2,500 florins in compensation to that of Ungvar, and Heller had been convinced that by far the larger majority of the members were enthusiastically in his favor, would he enter upon the position in Alt-Ofen (April, 1834), where he, however, died, six months later, on October 27th. After Heller's death the rabbinate remained vacant for twenty-seven years; all religious matters were, during that period, attended to by the dayyanim, among whom, as among their predecessors, there were many who enjoyed a wide reputation for Jewish scholarship; for instance, Elhanan Dayyan, P. L. Freudinger, Jacob Neuschloss of Wetsch, I. H. Oesterreicher, M. I. Oesterreicher, his son and successor, and his son again, P. L. Oesterreicher, who died in 1899. There were numerous scholars among the lay members of the community, who maintained their own schools, some of which attracted many Talmud students. Prominent among these scholars were L. L. Löwenthal, L. H. Schlesinger, and M. L. Boscovitz. There were other scholars, as F. Goldberger, I. Totis, and J. Reuss, who had synagogues in their own homes, in which stipendiary Talmud scholars studied, and for their maintenance rich legacies were provided.

Closely following the death of Heller, several causes contributed to the decadence of the Jewish community at Alt-Ofen. Pest came rapidly into prominence, and since the feudal system of "protective agreements" fell into disuse, the wealthy merchants and residents of Alt-Ofen moved to Pest, leaving the poorer and straitened contingent behind to manage communal affairs. As a result, some 33,000 florins ($16,500) of the legacy-funds were applied to current communal expenses, thereby endangering the maintenance of many testamentary obligations. Another disintegrating influence was exercised by the growth of the many private synagogues, splitting up the community into many small congregations, and leading in 1851 to a bitter struggle between them and the official congregation, which continued till 1889, when the last of these small synagogues was definitively closed up. The political affairs of the country contributed much in those days to the decline of the community. Its patriotic stand in the fight for freedom in 1848 brought it almost to the verge of financial ruin. It donated of its own accord a large portion of thesynagogal silver paraphernalia to the Hungarian government for coinage into money. Inasmuch as its young men had been found bravely fighting in the ranks of the defenders of the country, General Haynau, "the hangman of the Hungarian nation," laid a war-contribution upon it of 14,270 florins ($7,135) and of 50 horses with complete equipment for the same: a burden imposed upon no other congregation in Hungary. Under this load the community labored until at last, in 1889, the king (Francis Joseph) was pleased, on the proposition of the minister of public worship, Count Csaky, and on the application of the chief rabbi, Dr. Julius Klein, to remit the payment of the balance, amounting to 1,328 florins ($664).

Preamble of the Charter Given to the Jews of Altona (see next page) by King Christian of Denmark.

The reawakening of the Hungarian nation after 1860 injected new vigor into the community, which began to recover from the saddened circumstancesof the previous decades. The first promising sign was the reappointment to the vacant rabbinate, of the young Marcus Hirsch, of Tisza-Bö, who in addition to profound Talmudic scholarship possessed wide secular knowledge, acquired at the university of Prague. Soon thereafter the management of the business affairs of the community was entrusted to the hands of Michael Stern and Samuel Ehrlich: two men of noble character and enthusiastic love for Judaism. They restored matters to something like order, and to their experienced administration it was owing that the sums which had been diverted from the legacy-fund were soon replaced. At this time 1863-65), too, the first Hungarian Jews were raised to the ranks of the nobility (S. W. Schossberger as "De Tornya" and Samuel F. Goldberger as "De Buda"); these were descended from Alt-Ofen families. In 1880, Dr. Hirsch was elected chief rabbi of Prague, and left Alt-Ofen, which remained without a rabbi another seven years till Dr. Julius Klein, of Szigetvár, became his successor. After his death in 1896, Dr. Elias Adler became rabbi.

The Present Community.

The following are statistics of the present condition of the community. It possesses a synagogue of classic architecture, built in 1820; owns thirty-eight Torahrolls, silver synagogal paraphernalia weighing 23,000 grams; curtains for the Ark—some of which are masterpieces of the gold-embroiderer's art—all of which represent a value of 20,000 florins ($8,000). In its legacy-fund are nearly 100,000 florins ($40,000), the income from which is devoted to benevolent purposes. It has eighteen charitable societies, which are a veritable blessing for the numerous poor of the congregation. There are 810 families on its register, of whom nearly half are artisans, the majority of them being employed in the calico-print works of Samuel F. Goldberger & Sons, founded in 1780. Another important calico-factory is that of Gerson Spitzer, whose products find extensive sale in all parts of the world; it was founded in 1826. Other contributors to Hungarian industries are Wilhelm von Leipziger, knight of the order of the Iron Crown, who took a prominent part in securing the distillery law of 1889, which contributed so much to the rehabilitation of Hungarian finances.

  • Kohn, Héber Kútfök (Hebrew sources), 1884;
  • idem, Magyar Zsidotört. (History of the Hungarian Jews), 1884;
  • Löw, Nachgelasscne Sehriften,;
  • Magyar Zsido Szemle, 1891;
  • Reich, Bet-El,; also synagogal and national archives.
J. K.
Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Alt-Ofen'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​a/alt-ofen.html. 1901.
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