In 1573, the leadership of the Jewish community in Prague was very corrupt. They were selfish, they took bribes and they generally didn't work to better the lives of the residents of the Jewish ghetto of Prague, which was called Joseph's Town, or Josefov. All except one man. His name was Mordechai Maisel, and he worked tirelessly throughout his life to help the people of Josefov.
Maisel was the stereotypical 'Court Jew' of Prague in the medieval age. He was a banker who made a lot of money. He was therefore subject to the medieval triangle of the Jews:
/ Jews \
The concept of the triangle springs from the traditional Jewish occupation of the time, which was money lending. Both the Jewish and Christian traditions claim that one cannot lend money to one's brother on interest; however the difference is in the interpretation of the word 'Brother'. Jews interpret this as a fellow Jew, whilst the medieval Catholic Church interpreted this as your fellow human being. Therefore many ideologically Christian kingdoms of the age banned lending money on interest. As any economist will know, for a successful economy to develop, people must be able to borrow and invest money, and this simply does not happen without financial incentive, and therefore many kingdoms nearly went bankrupt. Therefore a compromise was found: Jews.
The Triangle shows the Jews in the middle, supported by the monarch, who wants a stable economy, and being brought down by the Church and the merchants.
The Church were ideologically opposed to Jews during this period because of the idea that the Jews killed Jesus, but also because the Church wanted Christians to be as religious as possible, and the presence of Jews who refused to go to Mass and did not take Confession did not help outreach.
Merchants did not like the Jews because that was the teaching of their Church, but also because they owed the Jews money and no one likes their creditor! Also, the Jews gave loans based on collateral, i.e. an object of value that you own is put up as security on your repayments, and if you are unable to make the repayments, the creditor simply takes the object of collateral. When this happened, the merchants' hatred of the Jews only increased, as the Jews would take family heirlooms as collateral when the merchants defaulted on payments.
At certain points in history, Jewish communities can be said to have had a 'Golden Age'. This happens when there is an outpouring of Rabbinic and religious innovation, a healthy relationship with the local community and a secure financial situation. Maisel certainly took care of the third part of that, and was a vital contributor to the Golden Age of Jewish Prague, so much so that Maiselova Street is named for him.
Maisel was an incredibly successful real estate mogul, and purveyor of luxury goods, but he made the vast majority of his money as a banker for the Emperors' Maximillian II and Rudolph II during the wars with Turkey, so much so that he rebuilt most of Josefov, the Jewish quarter of Prague himself, including paying 90% of the tax levied on the Jewish community by the Emperor out of his own pocket. From 1576, Maisel was the mayor of the Jewish town, and was held in such high esteem by the Emperor that he was made the equivalent of Minister of Finance. In all, Maisel financed the building of:
- The High Synagogue
- The Jewish Town Hall (now community centre and Shalom Restaurant)
- A School
- A ritual bath, or Mikvah
- A Poor House
- The Chevra Kedisha building and Tahara house, where the administration of the burial society was housed and where bodies were prepared for burial.
- The Maisel Synagogue
- The Klausen Synagogue
- The Yeshiva (institute of Jewish learning) in the upper story of the Klausen Synagogue
- Purchased extra land for the Cemetery
- Paved the streets of Josefov
After Maisel's death in 1601 at the age of 73, troops loyal to the Emperor raided Maisel's house and stole most of his property. The plunder is described by the noted Rabbi and historian, David Gans in his book Zemach David:
Prague, the 5th Day of April, 1601
A short time ago, there died the Jew, Maisel. Notwithstanding that he had left his Imperial majesty 10,000 florins, and much cash also to the hospital for poor Christians and Jews, his Imperial Majesty, on the following Saturday, that is the Shabbat, ordered Herr von Sternberg, at that time President of the Bohemian Chamber, to enter the Jew's house forcibly and to seize everything there was. The widow of Maisel handed this over willingly, for she had already set aside and hidden the best part of the treasure. That which was taken away came to 45,000 florins in cash, besides all manner of other things, such as silver plate, promissory notes, jewels, clothes and all kinds of coins.
After this however, the President, against whom the Jewess and the sons of the two brothers of Maisel had raised a strong protest to the privy councillors, was not satisfied with all this money and booty, and no doubt once more at the command of his Majesty, once more broke into the house at night. The son of one of the brothers was taken away prisoner, secretly led away and tortured in such guise that he confessed to the executioners as a result of which the following substance was handed over to the Bohemian Chamber:
- 80,000 Single Ducats, 2 Florins a piece 160,000 Florins
- 5,000 pure gold Portuguese coins, 20 Florins a piece 100,000 Florins
- 15,000 golden Rosenobles, 4 Florins a piece 61,250 Florins
- 30,000 turnip Ducats, 2 Florins a piece 20,000 Florins
- 60,000 silver Thalers of 70 Kreuzer a piece 70,000 Florins
- Together with the above mentioned 45,000 Florins
In addition to recording the happenings after Maisel's death, Gans also eulogised him, in the following, touching, piece of poetry. It serves as a fitting tribute to a man whose name lives on today.
"He built a shrine, a temple on a small scale
In honour and praise of the Lord in a magnificent robe
Baths and hospitals, he paved the streets with stone
In our Jewish town
And he purchased a garden for the cemetery
Built a house for the gathering of the wise
And he bestowed his grace
On tens of thousands of scholars of the Holy Writings