Assuring Perpetual Jewish Learning:
The Halberstadt Archive of 1713–1847
The Jewish people have been the custodians of that precious, divine gift—the Torah—for over 3,600 years. And during all these years the Jewish people have understood how to perpetuate the intensive learning of the Torah, despite the greatest handicaps and crises. There were moments in our history when Torah learning was threatened with total extinction. And yet, at the moment of greatest crisis, one man would arise to single-handedly save the perpetuation of Torah learning.
Fortunately, we have historical records relating the deeds of those great individuals. One such person was Behrend Lehmann, 1661-1730, the greatest of the court Jews of the 17th and 18th centuries. I have in my possession an archive documenting the herculean effort of that great Jew to secure Torah learning at a time when, after the Thirty Years War, unspeakable pogroms had nearly wiped out the Jewish people in Poland, where the centers of Torah learning had been located. This archive shows the foresight and feeling of profound responsibility that this rich community leader felt in facing history's call for his services—services that only he could perform.
Lehmann was the Hof-Faktor, or court financier, for the extravagant king of Saxony, August the Strong, as he is known in the history books. Lehmann not only helped finance the king's extravagant lifestyle and military campaigns, but also succeeded in procuring for his royal master the Crown of Poland which in those days was awarded by the Polish nobility to the highest bidder. Lehmann had to raise the astronomical sum of 10 million thaler to compete successfully with the rulers of England, France and Sweden.
In 1697, August was crowned king of Poland. He did not forget Lehmann, whom he now elevated to "Polish Resident"—equal to an ambassadorial title. The king offered to fulfill Lehmann's three wishes. These were: 1) the rebuilding the synagogue in Halberstadt, Lehmann's native town; 2) the reprinting of the Babylonian Talmud of which practically no more copies could be found; and 3) the establishing of Klaus—in modern terms, a kollel.
All three wishes became the greatest blessings of the time. The magnificent synagogue in Halberstadt in Central Germany stood until 1938 when, in the Kristallnacht, German hoodlums destroyed it. The Lehmann Talmud was a magnificent edition which was praised profusely by the rabbinical leaders of the Sefardic and Ashkenazic communities of the time; and the Klaus was a seminal institution of learning, where selected scholars were given stipends to sit and learn without any economic worries.
For 235 years the Lehmann Klaus was the mainstay of Torah learning in Germany and Western Europe. Lehmann brought with him from Poland leading Torah scholars who helped create a center of learning in the small German town. Lehmann applied his amazing financial ingenuity entirely to perpetuate his foundation which was in charge of the kollel. My archive contains extremely interesting contracts and documents which reflect the legal trappings used to make the kollel viable into perpetuity.
On 27 Nissan, 1714, the 32 leaders of the Halberstadt community signed a contract with Behrend Lehmann that acknowledged receipt of an amount of 6,000 thaler toward the construction cost of the new synagogue. This amount was to be regarded as a loan—which however was immediately waived. The "loan" carried an interest of 6 percent per annum, to be paid in perpetuity to the "Yoshvei Beth Hamidrash"—the Klaus scholars. This rate of interest was to be reduced to 5 percent in the year 1740 "unless Moshiach comes by then" (be’ikuv bi’at Meshichaynu chalilah).
The contract, demonstrating Lehmann's great concern for uninterrupted Torah learning, took into consideration the tragic, frequently occurring interruptions of Jewish community life through local riots, pograms and expulsions. The contract therefore provides that no interruption in learning should be permitted—"Kedey shelo yibbatel Talmud Torah chas veshalom." But in case of some catastrophe—If a year or years unusual circumstance occur by political events or reasons which cannot be written down, all that the mouth may pronounce and the heart think of (Im shehaya chas veshalom shanah o shanim shelo kedarkan o mikoach makkat medinah o shum sibbah asher lo nitan lichtov kol mah sh’hapeh yuchal ledabber ve’halev lachshov) —then the community undertakes to pay the amount due as interest to other communities but only for Torah learning. And as soon as the crisis has passed and the Jews of Halberstadt can return to their town, Torah-learning in the Klaus must resume immediately, and the amounts due will again be paid to the Halberstadt Klaus scholars.
In further support of the Halberstadt scholars, Lehmann also extended a loan to the community of Berlin for the construction of the first synagogue built by royal permission. Lehmann "lent" them 3,000 thaler with a similar proviso: The loan was waived but interest of 6 percent would go to the Halberstadt Klaus scholars, to be lowered to 5 percent in the year 1740. This synagogue—the famous Heiterreutergasse Synagogue—was one of Germany's most beautiful Jewish edifices and was also destroyed by the German mob in 1938.
We have many contemporary eyewitness accounts of Behrend Lehmann. For example, one Swedish traveler described how Lehmann came to the printing shop to inspect the printing of the Talmud in a magnificent coach driven by six horses, with six lackeys and coachmen attending him. This account shows that the great community leader gave his personal attention to every detail. Lehmann's financial business extended to most European commercial centers. He left family members in charge of his various branches. In this he set an example for the Rothschild family 100 years later which placed five sons in its major branches to start the fabled Rothschild banking empire.
Lehmann's love for Torah was of historical value. While he himself was not noted as a scholar—as some of the other famous court Jews were—his father and grandfather had been noted, pious scholars. Behrend inherited from them a love of Torah and an outstanding sense of responsibility to use his great political and financial influence strictly to enhance Torah learning and to improve the political plight of his Jewish brothers. No wonder that he was held in greatest esteem by all generations after him. In my own case, my family originated in Halberstadt and my late father educated his sons to see in Behrend Lehmann a role model: Torah u'Gudulah be'Makom Echad (Torah and Greatness in One Place). The name of the Halberstadt synagogue, Kehal Adat Yeshurun, was the name that my father gave to the synagogue that he saved from Hamburg and moved to Stockholm after the Kristallnacht. It is still in daily use.
There can be no doubt that without Behrend Lehmann, Judaism would have died out in Germany. But by importing great Polish Torah scholars and establishing the Klaus, Germany revived as a Torah center. Some of the "graduates" of the Halberstadt Klaus were the leaders of German Jewry. Among them was Rabbi Ezriel Hildesheimer, the founder of the Berliner Rabbinerseminar—the Orthodox Rabbinical Seminary which spawned great educators, among them, Rabbi Josef Carlebach, the head of the Hamburg Jewish Day School "Talmud Torah" which became the model for all day schools in the United States. Thus in a sense, American Jewry is a direct heir to the Judaism of Behrend Lehmann's foundation.
There is a sequel in my archive to the initial foundation contracts. After the community had paid the interest to the Klaus scholars for over 120 years, they moved to reduce the interest rate; they claimed they could only afford to pay 4 percent. The archive contains various documents showing how the community approached leading rabbinical personalities of the time including the last German av bet din (chief of the rabbinical court), R. Yukev Ettlinger, of Altona, to get permission for this reduction, which he refused to grant. The community ultimately turned to the state government with the same request, but were sharply rebuked and rebuffed for the "constant discord" with which Jewish communities are beset. At this point the community unilaterally went ahead and reduced the interest payment by I percent. There follow heart-rending complaints by two scholars in the Klaus, Zevel Eger and Gershon Yehoshafat, who demonstrated they could simply not make ends meet unless the interest payments were reinstated as per contract. At this point the archive ends: a treasure of documents evidencing Jewish history, dated 1713, 1714. 1730, 1770, 1788, 1789,1790, 1791-1795 and 1836-1847.
It is interesting to observe that Gershon Yehoshafat—who later became rabbi of Frankfurt am Main—had a brother named Issachar Ber Yehoshafat, who was a book dealer. After a while he became a "news monger," but found that business for a Jew in the field was bound to fail. So he converted and changed his name to Reuter.
He was knighted as "von Reuter" and moved to England where the famous news empire of Reuters was founded!
The towering personality of Behrend Lehmann and his accomplishments are ever inspiring for every generation. In the letter in my archive of 1841, R. Ettlinger fittingly called him "oto tzaddik asher zichro lo yassuf mi-zaro" (that tzaddik whose memory will not disappear from his descendants). In a sense we are all his descendants and it is incumbent on us to honor his memory.
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