History of Jewish Ljubljana pt. 2

History of Jewish Ljubljana pt. 2

14 Jul 2016


Little is known about everyday life, customs and habits of the Jewish community in Ljubljana [in medieval times].

In order to provide a more comprehensive insight into their medieval life, one must consider written sources by Jewish and non-Jewish authors.

It is a fact that there existed a synagogue or a house of prayer for at least two centuries. However, no written record exists to testify any activity that took place in it.

The synagogue ran religious, social, and to some extent also educational activities. Religious laws require the construction of synagogues or arrangement of a prayer house with the most basic liturgical objects to perform the rituals, in places where at least ten adult men assemble (minyan). Therefore, one can conclude that there was a considerable number of Jews, residing in Ljubljana during the medieval period, although we have no accurate data. For comparison’s sake, it is interesting to refer to the description of the Maribor Synagogue, which was one of the most important synagogues in the lands of Styria, Carinthia and Carniola. It is possible to conclude that the Ljubljana synagogue could have hardly been larger in size or more lavishly equipped. The Jews in Maribor were relatively active, both within their community, as well in terms of their broader social impact and activity beyond their own community. This was reflected above all in the economic progress recorded in the entire land of Styria. According to Travner, the Maribor sanctuary was small and simple.

"The interior of the synagogue was modest in equipment and decoration.”

There were no wall decorations or paintings. In a narrow space on its east side the Ark of the Covenant was placed, where the Books of Moses were kept - the Torah, and it was covered by a precious carpet. There was also a seven-branch menorah. In the centre of the synagogue a pulpit was erected, where the rabbi read from the holy books. Women were designated a special enclosure.

Even the courtyard of the synagogue was used to enable practicing religious rites. The wedding ritual of orthodox Jews were held according to the old custom: a wedding ceremony was conducted in the open air, under the open sky. In the courtyard there was usually a classroom, where the rabbi lectured on the Talmud, the Midrash. Men were allowed to read and study old Talmudic writings in the classroom on an individual basis.

In this period, Jewish communities had no organized schools for children. It was the fathers’ duty to teach and educate their children (boys only) according to the wisdoms of Jewish faith. Emphasis was placed on the transfer of religious traditions, which was associated with the preservation of Jewish identity.

An indispensable part of Jewish lifestyle is ritual immersion, which was carried out in the baths near the synagogue. On the one hand, this was stipulated by the religious rules relating to purity, on the other hand, the Jews were not allowed to take baths together with the Christians. The ritual baths were associated with steam baths and immersion baths. The records of Ljubljana and Maribor suggest that the Jewish quarters were located next to the water, which is undoubtedly related to their rules on purity. The Old Testament contains 613 rules that regulate the religious, cultural, economic and family life of Jews. 248 of these rules are to be followed strictly, while 365 rules relate to prohibitions relating to morality.

Jewish life existed in arduous conditions, because on the one hand the Jews had to observe their own religious requirements, and on the other hand, the restrictions imposed by the rulers of the lands and ecclesiastical authorities.

Maribor was an important rabbinical centre. Many eminent rabbis lived there. The most distinguished rabbi of Maribor was Rabbi Israel Isserlein who lived in Maribor between 1427-1435. He was also a provincial Rabbi of Inner Austria.

His importance for the history of Judaism in the 15th century is due to his seminal writings Teratumat ha Ten (a document containing 354 responsa), Pesakim u-Ketabim (decisions and rulings). His writings represent an important source and a good starting point for reconstructing the spiritual (religious) life and everyday conditions of Jewish life. They help us explain the organization of institutions within the Jewish community as well as rules pertaining to food. The collection is composed in the form of questions associated with daily life issues, and the responses on how to act in accordance with religious restrictions.

Rabbis of other towns often turned to rabbi Isserlein when they needed advice or assistance in dealing with problem solving, as well as in dealing with breach and violations of rules within the Jewish community, as well as in the relationship between the Jews and the Christians. This is a brief summary of some interesting restriction as described by Schulsinger:

“Jews were not allowed to visit certain sites, which gave rise to a question whether in such cases they were allowed to wear the same clothes as Christians. This was allowed, but only in the case if their lives were at stake. Jews were not allowed to dress as Christians with the aim to dodge payment of customs duty or toll. What were they allowed to sell to priests and students? They were allowed to sell books, provided that their content was unrelated to Judaism, but they were not allowed to sell ink and vellum.”


After Ljubljana was granted town rights, it was obvious that contacts between the Jews and the rest of the population existed in everyday life, despite ecclesiastical injunctions. However, only those records have been preserved that show the Jews in a negative light. They were made main offenders and scapegoats. Valvasor wrote about this too. It remains open, however, whether he did not simply relocate the events that took place somewhere else and set them in Ljubljana.

In 1290 there was a dispute and a brawl between the townspeople of Ljubljana and the Jews because of a missing Christian child. In 1408, a Jew was executed, because he engaged in a relationship with a Christian woman. Since the Jews protested against this sentence, a fight ensued between the Jews and the townspeople of Ljubljana. In both fights the Jews were beaten, and there were some [instances of death]. There is no written record of any consequences of the fights.

Verbal disputes and insults between the Jews and the townspeople were results of various prejudices. In 1478, Salam, who was a son-in-law of Aram from Ljubljana complained that a fur maker in Ljubljana scolded and ridiculed him. There existed independent Jewish law courts within the Jewish communities that resolved disputes and litigation among the Jews, but also those that arose among the Jews, the members of the nobility and the Christian townspeople. In the latter case, members of the jury included members of nobility and Christian townspeople.

It seems that the Jewish communities were considerably autonomous in terms of their social functioning, and that the feudal administration did not interfere with their inner affairs.
The Jews were allowed to resolve disputes on their own terms in accordance with their legal code - the tahnud.

It remains open, however, whether the Jewish community of Ljubljana had its own court of law or not. According to Vilfan, there were no Jewish courts of law in Carniola and Carinthia. They did, however, exist in Styrian towns with a Jewish population. Contrariwise, some authors claim that a Jewish court of law did exist in Ljubljana too.

"When giving oath, a Jew had to stand on a pig skin and place his arm up to his wrist on the book - the tahnud.”

The social position of the Jews in various countries, as well as their status in political and economic terms, often depended on the interests of the respective monarchs and aristocracy on the one hand, and the citizens on the other. These were often highly conflicting interests. The monarchs needed the Jews because of economic interests, while the nobility and the townspeople regarded them as their competitors and an obstacle to their material progress. During the last two decades of the 15th century, forced expulsions from German lands had begun. This process gradually spread to towns in the lands of modern Austria, Styria, Carinthia and Carniola.

While the Jews were expelled from Styria and Carinthia as early as in 1496, they were permanently expelled from Carniola, including Ljubljana, in 1515.

After their expulsion the church authorities converted the synagogues into chapels and named them after saints.
The former synagogues of Ljubljana and Maribor were renamed as the Chapel of All Saints. The person responsible for the conversion of the Ljubljana synagogue into a chapel was a townsman Peter Gajser, whom the former bishop of Ljubljana, Jurij Sladkonja, granted 40-day indulgences for converting the interior of the chapel and the erection of the altar.

After the expulsion, the Jews were not allowed to settle permanently in Ljubljana until 1809.

Nevertheless, there existed trade links during this period too, as well as cooperation, between the merchants of Ljubljana and the Jews from the Austrian lands, as well as from Trieste and Gorizia. Also, individual Jewish merchants and travelling traders used to frequent the area of modern Slovenia during annual fairs. They used to sell their goods in rural areas too.

Finally, after a nearly 300-year gap, during the period when Ljubljana became the centre of the Illyrian Provinces, and the French government promoted the settling of foreign traders, a Jewish merchant was allowed to settle in Ljubljana. After 1867, when the act on the universal rights of citizens was issued, the Jewish issue was resolved. Restrictions on Jewish settlement were lifted.

Author: Mihaela Hudelja, translated from Slovenian by Tina Mahkota

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