In light of the prevalent phenomenon of exile in Jewish history, the role of the Jewish courtier has been iterated in multiple times and places. Yet there is no intrinsic causality between diasporic existence and prominent appointments; the fact that Jews were able to occupy positions of influence and power in the courts of foreign potentates throughout the millennia attests to the aptitude and industry of both the individual Jews who attained high office and of the Jewish civilization and culture that fostered such indispensable excellence.
The figure of the Jewish courtier first emerges in the Egyptian Pharaonic epoch, then reemerges in the Babylonian Captivity, the Achaemenid Persian imperium, the first and last centuries of the Second Temple period, the nascent Holy Roman Empire in the Middle Ages, the golden era in medieval Spain, the turbulent and truculent age of the Crusades, early modern Europe, the Emancipation in Britain, and present times.
In early modern Europe, the “Court Jew” was a standard figure who often served additionally as an influential shtadlan (intercessor) on behalf of his fellow Jews, meliorating difficult circumstances for his local Jewry and perhaps even Jewries elsewhere. In the last millennium, Jewish courtiers appeared in Europe against the social, political, and intellectual backdrop of the Renaissance, Protestant Reformation, Age of Enlightenment, and Jewish Emancipation, navigating the currents of these cultural movements with great prudence and aplomb.
Anti-Semitism specifically and xenophobia generally were a constant element troubling the prospects of Jews as persons and as a people subject to foreign rulers, ever existing as a vulnerable minority dwelling among a gentile majority. If not for their innate talent, resourcefulness, and adaptability, the following exemplars could never have distinguished themselves in their own times and brought credit to the Jewish people for all time.
- Joseph (c. 1562–1452 BCE) – Son of Jacob/Israel, and the eleventh of 12 sons. He was the favorite son of Jacob, from his favorite wife Rachel. After his jealous brothers threw him into a pit and sold him into slavery, he was brought to Egypt and became steward of a household, but soon found himself incarcerated anew, this time in an imperial dungeon. His ability to interpret dreams proved useful to the pharaoh, whose dreams, Joseph revealed, foretold 7 years of abundance followed by 7 years of famine. He counseled Pharaoh to appoint a discerning overseer with officers to gather and store food during the time of plenty as a reserve against the years of scarcity. Joseph’s interpretation and advice indelibly impressed Pharaoh, who made the 30-year-old Joseph his chief minister: “Since God has shown you all this—there is none as discerning and wise as you—you will be in charge of my household; all my people will be ruled by your word. Only when I rule from my throne will I be superior to you…. Here, I place you in charge of the entire land of Egypt…. I, Pharaoh, decree that without your approval none shall raise his hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.” Pharaoh gave Joseph his signet ring, clothed him in fine linen with a gold chain around his neck, and offered him his second-best chariot, which conveyed Joseph as attendants cried out for onlookers to bow down (“Avrekh!”). Pharaoh also gave Joseph the Egyptian name Tzafnat-Paneah and furnished him with a wife, Asenat, daughter of Poti-phera, priest of On (Heliopolis). Thereafter, Joseph traveled throughout Egypt and plenished urban storehouses. He and Asenat had 2 sons: Menashe and Ephraim. The ensuing famine reunited Joseph and his family, and after Joseph’s premeditated machinations they were finally reconciled. Jacob and his household settled in Goshen, in the Nile Delta. On behalf of the pharaoh, Joseph collected money and livestock from the Egyptians and Canaanites in exchange for grain and bread rations. At the people’s behest, he purchased all of Egypt’s farmlands for pharaoh aside from those owned by the priests, and accepted the people as bondmen who were resettled in the cities but also supplied with seed to sow the fields, in exchange for rendering to pharaoh a fifth of their harvest. He lived to see his great-great-grandchildren and died aged 110. He was embalmed and coffined in Egypt; centuries later, during the Exodus from Egypt, his remains were conveyed to the Land of Israel, where they were buried in Shechem during or immediately following the leadership period of Joshua.
- Daniel (c. 618–535 BCE) – In 606/605, he was taken hostage among other Judahite youths—including Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah—and pressed into the imperial service of the Neo-Babylonian Emperor Nebuchadrezzar II, and given the additional name Belteshazzar (the Hebraicized form of Balatshu-ussur, “His Life Be Protected”). The youths may have been castrated as palace eunuchs. Daniel and his peers chose to eat pulse (legumes) instead of the royal fare, in order to observe kashrut (Jewish dietary laws). Under the supervision of Ashpenaz, he and the other youths were taught Babylonian and trained as scribes. With divine inspiration, Daniel was able to reveal and explain Nebuchadrezzar’s first dream of a metallic statue with partly clay feet that was shattered to pieces as depicting a succession of kingdoms and their qualities; as a reward, he was appointed governor of the province of Babylon and chief of the wise men. He then interpreted the emperor’s second dream of the great tree chopped to its stump and roots as a warning that the mighty conqueror would be made to live as a wild beast (perhaps suffering from lycanthropy) for 7 years unless he mended his arrogant ways. At a banquet during the reign of Belshazzar, Daniel interpreted the astonishing handwriting on the wall, “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin”, as “God has numbered the days of your dominion and put an end to it; you have been weighed in the balances and are found wanting; your realm will be divided among the Medes and Persians.” After the Persian conquest, Daniel served Darius, who was tricked into placing Daniel in a den of lions for contravening a newly issued edict by praying to the God of Israel; miraculously, he survived, and returned to high office. He triumphed against the Babylonian chief deity Marduk (Bel) in the tests put to him by Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great. His graphic visions featured hybrid creatures, animals, angels, and a portrayal of the end of days. Daniel consists of 12 chapters and was composed in Hebrew and Aramaic; Daniel also features in the non-canonical works Susannah and the Elders and Bel and the Dragon. The Mekhilta D’Rabbi Ishmael, Josephus Flavius, Rabbenu Hananel, and Elijah ben Solomon Zalman (the Vilna Gaon) regarded Daniel as a prophet, although Judaism normally regards him as a righteous saint and a visionary, whereas Christianity considers him a full-fledged prophet.
- Mordechai (c. 535–460 BCE) – Son of Yair, and a Benjamite descendant of Kish and King Saul of Israel, like his first cousin, Hadassah. Mordechai’s grandfather may have been exiled along with King Jehoiachin of Judah, the prophet Ezekiel, and the other Judahite aristocrats to Babylonia in 597 BCE. In the Talmud the Sages identified Mordechai with Mordechai Bilshan, a Jew who returned from Babylonia to Judah in the days of Zerubbabel (c. 538), and they maintained that he prophesied along with Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi during the reign of Persian Emperor Darius I the Great (according to Maimonides, Mordechai received the prophetic tradition from Baruch ben Neriah). If so, Mordechai would have had to depart Judah in order to have been in Susa during the reign of Darius I’s son and successor Xerxes I the Great (485-465). He was also traditionally thought to have been a member of the Sanhedrin, conversant in 70 languages, and a Torah teacher to many disciples. He resided in Susa (Shushan), which became the Persian capital. Mordechai reared his orphaned cousin Hadassah into Queen Esther. Once, while sitting at the King’s Gate, he overheard 2 imperial officers, Bigtan and Teresh, conspiring to carry out an assassination plot targeting Ahashverosh/Ahasuerus (Xerxes I), and duly relayed the planned regicide to Esther, who informed her husband and credited her cousin. The matter was investigated, discovered to be true, and the conspirators were hanged. Mordechai staunchly refused to make obeisance to the haughty vizier Haman the Agagite, a descendant of Amalek. With Esther’s instrumental assistance, he was then also able to thwart the genocidal scheme of Haman to extirpate the Jews and plunder their possessions. Ahashverosh ordered Haman to be hanged on the 75-foot high gibbet that the latter had prepared for Mordechai, then appointed Mordechai viceroy in Haman’s stead. He left the king’s presence arrayed in royal blue and white, donning a large gold crown and a purple robe of fine linen. He was then able to exact retribution against Persian Jewry’s hateful foes. He recorded all of these events in what became Megillat Esther (which the queen had ordered confirmed in writing) and established the Jewish holiday of Purim annually on Adar 14-15, “that these days would be remembered and observed throughout every generation, family, province, and city, and that these days of Purim would neither cease among the Jews nor be forgotten by their descendants.”
- Hadassah (Esther) (c. 505–445 BCE) – Daughter of Avihayil, from the tribe of Benjamin. Orphaned at a young age, the Persian Jewess Hadassah was raised by her older cousin Mordechai in Susa (Shushan), the imperial capital. She was among the maidens called to the palace by Persian Emperor Ahashverosh/Ahasuerus (Xerxes I the Great) when he sought to replace his defiant wife Vashti. “Hadassah” means myrtle in Hebrew, and “Esther” may have derived from its Median cognate, astra; otherwise, it may have derived from the Babylonian goddess, Ishtar, and may have been adopted by Hadassah either when she entered the imperial harem or exited it once elevated as queen. Alternatively, Esther may derive from the apropos Hebrew word hester (concealed). Plucked from obscurity, Hadassah initially concealed her Jewish origins from her royal consort. But when the Persian grand vizier Haman the Agagite (a descendant of the Amalekites) plotted to eradicate Jewry and obtained the imperial permission to execute his intention, Queen Esther was confronted with the choice of advocating on her people’s behalf or preserving her silence and saving her own neck. Mordechai highlighted for her that her accession may have come about for just such a time and purpose. She resolved to reveal herself to her husband and accuse Haman at a pair of private banquets, and simultaneously requested the observance of a 3-day fast by all Jews. Haman and his sons were hanged on a gibbet and the enemies of the Jews were killed in their stead. With Mordechai’s instrumental assistance, Esther saved the Jewish population of the Persian Empire. The traditional tomb of Esther and Mordechai is in Hamadan, Iran. There remain doubts among modern scholars about the historicity of Megillat Esther, with some critics considering it historical romance literature (much relies on the identification of Ahasuerus with Xerxes I, Artaxerxes I, or Artaxerxes II). Clearly historical is the Purim festival, attested in the Hasmonean era in II Maccabees.
- Ezra (c. 505–430 BCE) – Son of Seraiah, and a descendant of Zadok the high priest. Ezra was an imperial scribe and a Jewish priest who came to the fore once the last Jewish prophets—Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi—had departed from the leadership scene. Born in Babylonia, Ezra attained a prominent rank under Persian Emperor Artaxerxes I Longimanus, who in 458 allowed Ezra to lead a band of 1,754 Judahites back to Judah and Jerusalem. Upon his arrival in Jerusalem, Ezra was appalled to learn that many of the Judahites already returned from exile had intermarried with neighboring Samaritans. After engaging in mourning rites, prayer, fasting, and confession on the nation’s behalf, Ezra addressed an assembly of Jerusalemites and then of Judahites, adjuring the people to divorce their foreign wives, making them swear to do so. A commission was appointed to study the intermarriage matter, and in the end the foreign wives and the children of intermarriages were dismissed. Around 445, at the Judahites’ behest, Ezra also reintroduced the Torah to the people, reading from it all morning to a gathered assembly who wept in shame upon hearing the Law, though Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites insisted that the people rejoice. Ezra, the priests, and Levites also oversaw the celebration of Sukkot, which had been in abeyance, and Ezra read from the Torah every day of the festival. He is considered to have been the leader of the Knesset HaGedolah (Great Assembly), precursor of the Gerousia and Sanhedrin. Ezra and Chronicles are attributed to Ezra. He is also credited with placing dots on doubtful words in the Torah, and introducing Assyrian square characters into Hebrew writing. His traditional tomb is in Babylonia, although Josephus claims that he died and was buried in Jerusalem.
- Nehemiah (c. 480–410 BCE) – Son of Hakhaliah. He served as cupbearer (a position of great trust) to Persian Emperor Artaxerxes I, and received his permission to ameliorate Jerusalem’s lamentable conditions and bolster Judah’s returnees. In 445, he was appointed Tirshata/Pehah (governor) of Judah and journeyed to the Holy City. He rebuilt Jerusalem’s walls, which Ezra earlier had tried but failed to do, and completed the task in 52 days despite interference from malign neighbors. He also arranged for the cancellation of debts for the poor to alleviate their distress. Although himself a layman, Nehemiah helped Ezra reinforce Jewish practice, including festival and Sabbath observance, sabbatical year (shmittah) adherence, Temple maintenance, and the dissolution of intermarriages. He further repopulated Jerusalem with a tenth of Judah’s Jewish populace. In 433, after 12 years in Judea, he returned to the Persian capital Susa to confer with the emperor, but later returned to Jerusalem to purify the Temple’s chambers and restore its procedures and provisions, and once again restore Sabbath observance and combat intermarriage. In addition to his memoirs that constitute Nehemiah, he may have also completed Chronicles, mostly composed by Ezra, and was lauded in Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus/Sirach), II Maccabees, and Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities.
- Joseph ben Matityahu HaKohen (Josephus Flavius) (37/38–103 CE) – Son of Matityahu, and matrilineally of Hasmonean descendant. A native of Jerusalem, he was born into a family of aristocratic Jewish priests. In 64, aged 26, he journeyed to Rome where he successfully assisted certain of his fellow priests and, with the aid of the Jewish actor Aliturus, was able to earn the favor of Empress Poppaea Sabina. He returned to Judaea in time for the outbreak of the Great Revolt in 66, in which he played a leading part. He was appointed governor of Galilee by the provisional/revolutionary government in Jerusalem, and set about preparing the province’s defenses against the Romans. In Galilee he ran afoul of nationalistic Zealots such as John of Gischala, who contemned his temporizing proclivities. In 67, he proved unable to withstand the Roman onslaught and soon found himself besieged within the fortress of Yodefat (Jotapata), which fell after a siege of 47 days. Joseph hid in a cave with 40 other soldiers, whom he convinced to slay each other after casting lots. He and another were the last to survive, and they finally emerged to surrender to the Romans. When brought as a prisoner before Vespasian, he claimed to be a prophet and foretold that the general would become emperor. After the Year of 4 Emperors, Vespasian was indeed awarded the purple and Joseph was freed from his chains. He accompanied Vespasian to Alexandria, then returned to Judaea where he served Vespasian’s son Titus, who besieged Jerusalem and employed Joseph to call on the Zealots to surrender, albeit in vain. After Jerusalem’s destruction, Joseph helped save hundreds of Jews, and was allowed to remove a Torah scroll from the ruined capital. He accompanied Titus to Rome, where Vespasian honored him with Roman citizenship, an annual pension, palace quarters, and a tax-free estate in Judaea. With the protection and support of Vespasian, Titus, and later Domitian, Joseph turned to writing history, and indited several major works: The Jewish War, a septempartite, mostly eyewitness account of the Great Revolt composed first in Aramaic then in Greek; Jewish Antiquities, a 20-volume history of the Jews from Creation to the outbreak of the Great Revolt; Life, a memoir and a defense against the accusations of his rival Jewish historian Justus of Tiberias; and Against Apion (a.k.a. On the Antiquity of the Jews), an apology on behalf of the Jewish people and a refutation of anti-Semites. He married 4 times and had several sons, some of whom predeceased him. A posthumous statue of him was erected in Rome. Loathed as a quisling, he was largely ignored by his fellow Jews for centuries, and was notably disdained by the sage Isaac Abravanel but lauded by the maverick Azariah dei Rossi. Although a controversial figure, Joseph was both an opportunist and a pragmatist, and through his written works ultimately proved to be a loyal son of his people.
- Isaac of Aachen (c. 765–825 CE) – A remarkable but little known emissary. In 797, he was appointed by Frankish king Charlemagne as 1 of his 3 ambassadors to Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid in Bagdad, probably due to his skills as a translator and his connections to Jewish communities along the precarious route eastward. Charlemagne’s pair of Christian envoys, Lantfried and Sigismund, both perished on the return journey, leaving Isaac to complete the embassy and return to Francia with numerous marvels from Iraq, especially the prized elephant Abu’l Abbas and the intricate clepsydra (water clock). His mission is accounted an unqualified success.
- Hasdai ibn Shaprut (c. 915–970/90 CE) – A native of Jaen, Andalusia (Spain), he studied medicine and discovered a panacea known as al-Faruk before becoming court physician in Cordova to Umayyad Caliph Abd ar-Rahman III. Recognized for his deft ability and subtle intellect, he also became the caliph’s customs administrator and minister of foreign affairs (secretary of state), engaging in international diplomacy and statesmanship. Adept in Hebrew, Arabic, and Latin, he negotiated treaties with the Byzantine Empire in 949; with the envoy of Holy Roman Emperor Otto I from 953–956; and between the inimical kingdoms of Leon and Navarre from 956–958. Under the auspices of Hasdai, who became the head of Spanish Jewry in Muslim Spain, the Hebrew grammarians and poets Mehahem ben Jacob ibn Saruk and Dunash ben Labrat flourished and debated their scholarly findings. He appointed first Moses ben Hanokh then his son Hanokh ben Moses as chief rabbi of Cordova. His generous patronage fostered a thriving Judaic culture in Spain, and he also sponsored the Talmudic academies of Sura and Pumbedita in Babylonia. Hasdai himself was a learned scholar who imported Hebrew books from the East, and assisted the Greek monk Nicholas in translating into Arabic a pharmacological treatise by the Greek physician Dioscorides. Through the visiting Slavic Jews Mar Saul and Mar Joseph, he corresponded with Joseph, king of the Khazars, a Turkic people converted to Judaism in the 700s, and he also was in contact with Dosa ben Saadia, son of the eminent sage Saadia ben Joseph. He continued serving in high office Caliph Al-Hakam II, son and successor of Abd ar-Rahman III. He died in Cordova. Hasdai is regarded as the initiator of the Andalusian golden age of Spanish Jewry, and a central figure in the shift of Jewish creative and scholarly activity from Babylonia in the East to Western Europe.
- Samuel HaLevi ben Joseph ibn Nagdela (Samuel HaNagid) (993–1055 CE) – A disciple of Hanokh ben Moses of Cordova and Judah ben David Hayyuj. A native of Cordova, Spain, he was forced to flee his hometown in 1013 after the Berber conquest, and settled in Malaga where he earned his livelihood as a spice dealer. Samuel’s skillful Arabic calligraphy brought him to the attention of the vizier of Granada, whose private secretary and advisor he became, and whose position he himself eventually occupied. In 1027, the title of nagid (prince) was conferred upon Samuel by the Jewish community, and he served in this capacity for almost 30 years. Samuel paid for copies of books to be distributed to impoverished Jewish students in various quarters and also furnished Jerusalem synagogues with olive oil. While Samuel served the Berber rulers Habus and his profligate son Badis, he led their Muslim army into battle against Arab Seville and composed war poetry in Hebrew. In 1049, he indited the multilingual (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic) halakhic compilation Sefer Hilkhata Gevurta, fragments of which survive. Samuel also composed the Mevo HaTalmud, a historical introduction included in standard editions of the Talmud, and works on Hebrew grammar. The Hebrew poet and philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol dedicated poems to his patron Samuel, whom he addressed as “my father, my rider, my chariot”, and the poet Moses ibn Ezra said of Samuel: “In Samuel’s time the realm of science was elevated from lowliness, and the star of knowledge shone forth once more. God gifted him with a great mind that reached to the spheres and touched the heavens, so that he loved knowledge and those who pursued it, that he might glorify religion and its adherents.” Later sage Abraham ibn Daud counted Samuel among “the first of the generation of the rabbinate” that brought the supremacy of the geonim to a close. Samuel was himself a prolific poet who wrote several works including Ben Tehillim (Sequel to Psalms), Ben Mishlei (Sequel to Proverbs), and Ben Kohelet (Sequel to Ecclesiastes), many of whose poems evince a longing for Zion, and he also wrote poems in, and translated them from, Arabic. In addition, he authored a critique of the Qur’an, which was later rebutted by the Muslim polemicist Ahmad ibn Hazm. He corresponded with the leading sages of Kairouan, Hushiel ben Elhanan, Hananel ben Hushiel, and Nissim ben Jacob ben Nissim ibn Shahin (whose daughter married Samuel’s son Joseph), and was a friend of the last major gaon of Pumbedita, Hezekiah ben David I. He had 3 sons (Joseph, Eliasaf, and Judah) and a daughter; some of his children may have died during his lifetime. He was succeeded as nagid (prince) by his firstborn son, Joseph, who was distrusted by the Muslim populace and crucified in 1066, on the day before 1,500 Jewish families of Granada were massacred.
- Moses ben Maimon (Rambam/Maimonides) (1135–1204 CE) – A disciple of his father Maimon ben Joseph and Judah HaKohen ibn Susan. A native of Cordova, Spain, he and his family fled the fanatical Muslim Almohads, migrating first to Fez, Morocco, then to the Land of Israel, and finally settling in Fostat (Old Cairo), Egypt, where through his efforts the dominant Karaites lost their influence. Moses soon became the nagid (prince) of Egyptian Jewry, a title applied to 5 generations of his descendants. Early on he wrote the tracts Sefer HaIbbur, on the Jewish calendar, and Millot Higayon, on logic. He initially earned his living in partnership with his brother David, a jewel dealer, but after the latter’s tragic drowning in the Indian Ocean Moses became a court physician to Sultan Saladin and treated Prince Afdal for chronic depression. During his travels he composed in Arabic a commentary on the Mishnah, Kitab as-Siraj (translated into Hebrew as Sefer HaMaor), which he completed after 7 years in 1168 and wherein he formulated the 13 Articles of Faith incumbent upon Jews (these are communally sung in a synagogal hymn, “Yigdal”, on the Sabbath). His next masterwork, indited in Hebrew from 1170–1180, was the magisterial halakhic code Mishneh Torah (a.k.a. Yad HaHazakah), comprising 14 volumes and covering all legal subjects discussed throughout the Talmud. The tome’s tremendous breadth and systematic order were unequaled, but its lack of source references, its non-Talmudic arrangement, its use of Mishnaic Hebrew instead of Talmudic Aramaic, its periodic preference for the Jerusalem Talmud and Tosefta over the Babylonian Talmud, and certain of its rulings elicited sharp criticism from the likes of Abraham ben David of Posquières and Samuel ben Ali of Bagdad. It also stimulated over 325 commentaries from later sages, thereby negating Moses’ original intent for the code. In 1190, Moses indited in Arabic his last masterpiece, Dalalat al-Ha’irin (translated into Hebrew as Moreh Nevukhim and into English as the Guide for the Perplexed), a philosophical treatise whose tripartite structure comprised 176 chapters, and whose intent was to rationalize Judaism and harmonize it with Neo-Aristotelian philosophy. This tract prompted a storm of protest even during Moses’ lifetime and thereafter evoked violent controversy lasting generations. It nevertheless proved highly influential for later philosophers including Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhart, Duns Scotus, John Spencer, Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza, Gottfried Wilhelm Liebniz, Moses Mendelssohn, Solomon Maimon, Nahman Krochmal, Hermann Cohen, and Asher Ginsberg. More easily accepted was Moses’ Sefer HaMitzvot, originally written in Arabic, which enumerated and classified the 613 commandments, though his severe criticism of the earlier taxonomy Halakhot Gedolot educed a defense of it by Moses ben Nahman. Moses also composed famous letters such as Iggeret HaShemad, regarding forced converts, Iggeret Teman, concerning the coming of the Messiah and encouraging Yemenite Jewry, and Ma’amar Tehiyat HaMeitim, on the doctrine of bodily resurrection. Additionally, he wrote numerous medical monographs on subjects including healthy living, coitus, asthma, hemorrhoids, and poisons, as well as a compilation of medical maxims that was studied in European universities for centuries. He was among the first to denounce astrology as distinct from astronomy. Moses’ incredible erudition was unsurpassed; he towered over his age as the premier sage of world Jewry, and his overall legacy is inestimable. He died aged 70 and was mourned by Jews and Muslims alike. He was buried in Tiberias, Israel, where to this day his tomb and heritage center attract devout pilgrims. His disciples included his son Abraham, Joseph ben Judah ibn Shamun, and (via substantial correspondence) Samuel ibn Tibbon and Jonathan of Lunel.
- Isaac ben Judah Abravanel (Abarbanel) (1437–1508 CE) – A disciple of Joseph ben Abraham ibn Hiyyun of Lisbon. A native of Lisbon, Portugal, he earned his livelihood as a merchant and financier and succeeded his father Judah as treasurer of King Alfonso V of Portugal. While Isaac excelled as a statesman and diplomat serving gentile rulers, he demonstrated early on his fealty to his people, contributing funds to redeem 250 Jewish captives brought to Portugal and enlisting wealthy friends to raise additional monies for them. In 1483, after Alfonso’s death and as a result of his son Joao II’s suppression of the nobility, Isaac was forced to flee to Toledo. He then served the royal court of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Castile and oversaw governmental revenues. Isaac again rendered sterling service to the monarchy, but neither this nor his bribe were able to avert the royal decree, urged by Torquemada, Grand Inquisitor of Spain, expelling Jewry from Spain. In 1492, although he was exempted from the edict, Isaac accompanied his fellow Jews into exile and moved to Naples, Italy, where yet again he served the royal court, of King Ferrante I and his son Alfonso II. When Naples was conquered by the French, Isaac embarked on an odyssey through Italy and Greece, ending up in Venice in 1503. He indited a commentary on the Tanakh; a treatise on Providence and prophecy, Ateret Zekenim; a commentary on the Passover Haggadah, Zevah Pesah; a commentary on Pirkei Avot, Nahalat Avot; a treatise on restitution and penalties, Zedek Olamim; a commentary on Moses ben Maimon’s Moreh Nevukhim; 4 refutations of Moses ben Maimon’s rationalistic and naturalistic theories, Shamayim Hadashim, Rosh Amanah, Mifalot Elohim; and Lahakat HaNevi’im; and 3 works concerning messianic redemption, Mayenei HaYeshua, Yeshuot Meshiho, and Mashmia Yeshua (together known as Migdal Yeshuot). Notably, Isaac in his biblical commentary incorporated the exegesis of Christians when he considered their interpretations acceptable. He also considered Daniel as a prophet, as did Christians, though in Judaism Daniel is traditionally considered a righteous saint who interpreted dreams and experienced visions but did not prophesy. He died in Venice but was interred in Padua. He had 3 sons: Judah, Joseph, and Samuel. His son Judah (a.k.a. Leo Hebraeus) became a renowned physician, poet, and philosopher.
- Joseph Nasi (1510/20/24–1579 CE) – Son of Samuel Agostinho Miguez (a professor at University of Lisbon), and nephew and son-in-law of Dona Gracia Mendes Nasi (a.k.a. Beatrice de Luna), wealthy Portuguese Jewess and leader of Turkish Jewry. A native of Portugal, he was born Joao Miguez into a family of conversos (Jewish converts to Christianity who secretly practiced Judaism). In 1536/1537, he accompanied his aunt from Lisbon, Portugal to Antwerp, Belgium in order to escape the Inquisition. He studied at University of Louvain in Belgium and became a banker. In 1545, his aunt Gracia moved to Venice, Italy. Thereafter, Joseph gained access to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and the queen regent of the Netherlands and became jousting partners with the future emperor Maximilian II. Unable to preserve his family’s property from imperial confiscation, he joined his aunt in Istanbul, Turkey in 1554. There he openly professed Judaism, and married his cousin Dona Reyna Mendes, Gracia’s daughter. Joseph soon became a favorite of Selim II, heir to the Ottoman sultanate, and was appointed an Ottoman imperial minister. In 1561, he obtained an imperial lease on Tiberias and 7 adjacent villages in the Land of Israel, and was helped by Selim in establishing settlements and rebuilding walls in Tiberias and Tzfat for oppressed Jews from Europe. In 1562, he negotiated peace between Poland and Turkey. In 1566, Selim became sultan and Joseph was made duke of Naxos and count of Andros, overseeing his duchy from his palace in Belvedere, Turkey. In 1569, he urged the Netherlands to revolt against Spain and pledged Turkish support for the effort. As a merchant, he secured lucrative commercial privileges in wine and beeswax, and for a time was able to confiscate French merchandise from ships docking at the port of Alexandria, Egypt as compensation for France’s sequestration of his family’s property in that country. Sultan Selim promised Joseph the viceroyalty of Cyprus if it became Turkish, but Joseph’s secret negotiations with Cyprus’ Jewish community were exposed and many of Famagusta’s Jews were consequently expelled by the Venetians. As a leading member of the war party, Joseph was considered largely responsible for the Fourth Ottoman-Venetian war (1570–1573) over Cyprus. In 1571, he was perhaps appointed voivode (governor) of Wallachia, though his prestige subsequently diminished. In 1577, he indited Ben Porat Yosef, a polemical treatise against astrology that preserved his debate with Christian dignitaries. After his death, the duchess Reyna maintained her husband’s Hebrew printing press and library.
- Samuel Wolf Oppenheimer (1630/1635–1703 CE) – A native of Heidelberg, Germany, he became purveyor to the elector Karl Ludwig. He later moved to Vienna, Austria, where he engaged in trade before the 1670 expulsion of Jewry from Vienna. From 1672, he was a supplier for the Austrian army, and in 1676 as Imperial War Purveyor was the first Jew permitted to resettle in Vienna. He hosted synagogue services in his home for his Jewish entourage that ultimately numbered 100. Although he was instrumental in supplying the needs of the Austrian army during its war with France (1673–1679), his debtors defaulted and he was forced to appeal to Emperor Leopold I to receive partial payment. In 1682, he was again instrumental in the Austria-Turkish War, and did much to relieve the siege of Vienna in 1683. He was able to procure foodstuffs, livestock for the cavalry and artillery and fodder for the animals, military uniforms, soldiers’ salaries, and medical supplies for the wounded and hospitalized. He later arranged a fleet of rafts on the Danube River to relieve besieged Buda, whose conquest by Austria in 1686 devastated Hungarian Jewry: merely half of Buda’s Jewish population of 1,000 survived the siege, the Jewish quarter was ransacked, and Torah scrolls were set afire. In 1688, he was prevailed upon again following the French invasion under King Louis XIV. In addition to his financial services, he was entrusted by Leopold with diplomatic missions. In 1697, Bishop Kollonitsch, state treasurer, falsely accused Samuel of conspiring to murder his relative and rival Samson Wertheimer, and imprisoned him until he established his innocence and was extorted 500,000 florins for his release. In 1700, Samuel took measures to suppress the 2,500 printed copies of Johann Andreas Eisenmenger’s anti-Semitic German tract Entdecktes Judenthum (Judaism Unmasked), expending considerable sums to win the favor of the court and the Jesuits; ultimately, an imperial edict was issued forbidding circulation of the hateful book. Subsequently, his mansion was mobbed and looted by rioters; the 2 instigators were hanged, others were imprisoned for participating in the disturbance, and order was restored. Central to Samuel’s business success was his network of agents (including his niece’s husband and his future rival, Samson Wertheimer), spread across Europe’s financial and commercial centers. He borrowed money from Jewish and Christian lenders. Samuel was a munificent benefactor who sponsored many synagogues, academies, and scholars, and ransomed numerous Jewish captives after the Turkish wars. For all such efforts, he became known as the “Judenkaiser” (Jewish caesar). Prince Eugene of Savoy brought Samuel copious Hebrew manuscripts from Turkey that formed the core of the David Oppenheimer Library, whose collection was incorporated into Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. In 1703, he died in Vienna. Samuel and his wife Sandela Carcassonne had 9 children, including a son Emanuel, who for many years sought in vain to obtain the significant monies owed his father by the state, which once again shamefully reneged on its obligations to its reliable and repeat savior.
- Samson Wertheimer (1658–1724 CE) – Son of Joseph and Juedchen Wertheimer. A native of Worms, Germany, he studied in the Talmudic academies of Worms and Frankfurt and was ordained a rabbi. In 1684, he married Veronica Frumet Brilin, widow of Nathan Yehiel Oppenheimer, and moved to Vienna, Austria, where he became manager of affairs for his wife’s uncle, the purveyor Samuel Oppenheimer. He gained the favor of Emperor Leopold I, who bestowed gifts upon him and his son Wolf. He lent large sums of money to the emperor, leased imperial revenues, and became a major purveyor to the Austrian army. In addition to his crucial financial services, he was entrusted by Leopold with diplomatic missions. In 1700, he petitioned the emperor to act against the malicious calumny published by Johann Andreas Eisenmenger in his anti-Semitic German tract Entdecktes Judenthum (Judaism Unmasked), resulting in the confiscation of copies of the book and the proscription of its sale. In 1701, he helped Samuel provision and equip the Austrian army during the Spanish War of Succession. In 1703, he was appointed court factor (crown agent) by the emperor and had his privileges extended for 20 years; Leopold’s successor, Emperor Joseph I, confirmed Samson’s position and status, and Samson went on to serve Emperor Carl VI as well. 10 imperial soldiers stood guard outside his home and, like Samuel before him, he became known as the “Judenkaiser” (Jewish caesar). Foreign Jews were allowed to remain in Vienna overnight only with his written permission. Samson owned many Viennese palaces and gardens and German properties and estates. He successfully intervened with the ruling authorities on behalf of the German Jewish communities of Rothenberg, Worms, and Frankfurt. He founded Judaic schools, and sponsored Jewish communities in Europe and the Land of Israel (his fund to assist paupers in the Land of Israel existed until 1914). He maintained a private synagogue in his home and delivered Talmudic expositions there in addition to sermonizing at the funerals of several notable rabbis. He served as head of a rabbinical court (beit din) and responded to ritual questions submitted to him from near and far. He also left behind some manuscripts dealing with halakhah, midrash, and kabbalah. He built a beautiful synagogue, Samson’s Shul, in Eisenstadt, Austria, and helped establish 40 Hungarian synagogues. He also founded a Talmudic academy in Frankfurt headed by his son-in-law Moses Kann, whose printing of the Babylonian Talmud at Frankfurt from 1712–1722 was financed by Samson. In 1719, he was appointed chief rabbi of Hungary, with judicial authority, by Carl VI. He had 5 sons (Wolf Simon, Judah Leib, Joseph Joel, Isaac, Joseph Simon) and 5 daughters (Hava Rivka, Hanna Miriam, Sarah, Serchen, Tolze); his son Wolf married a daughter of Emanuel Oppenheimer.
- Joseph Süss Oppenheimer (the “Jew Süss”) (1694/1698/1699–1738 CE) – Son of Issachar Susskind Oppenheimer, a merchant and tax collector. A native of Heidelberg, Germany, he was raised by an uncle after his father’s premature death and worked for commercial firms in Frankfurt, Germany; Amsterdam, Holland; Prague, Bohemia; and Vienna, Austria. He courted scandal while still a young man as a result of his being openly secular. In 1732, he was appointed by Prince Carl Alexander as chief factor and keeper of the prince’s privy purse at Württemberg. In 1733, he became financial advisor to the prince, who was now duke of Württemberg, and in 1734 the resident and privy factor and director of the mint. Joseph maintained residences in Mannheim and Frankfurt. He arranged for Jewish suppliers to be awarded contracts to provision the army on the Rhine River, and thereafter enmity towards Jews increased in Germany. The duke appointed Joseph privy councilor of finance, in which role he was able to settle many Jews in Ludwigsburg. In 1736, the duke instituted a tutelary council to tax and fine those of means and an investigatory commission to evaluate and replace certain officials; the measures were rife with corruption and consequently intensely unpopular, and as the duke’s advisor Joseph bore the brunt of the blame. The duke’s ever increasing taxes, levies, and fees proved intolerable, and fomented widespread grievances and fierce animus. Many Germans sought to disgrace Joseph, but in 1737 the duke decreed “that the Privy Councilor of Finance Oppenheimer was a faithful servant of his prince and of the state, and was intent in every way upon the welfare of both, for which he deserved the thanks of all. Since instead he was persecuted by envy and ill-will to such an extent that attempts were even made to bring him into disfavor with the duke, the latter accorded him his especial protection and expressly forbade the continuation of such attacks.” The fact that the duke was a Catholic in a Protestant country meant that his regime was innately viewed with suspicion. Notwithstanding the duke’s official expression of confidence, Joseph saw the writing on the wall and prepared to depart the country. He spent his final night at Ludwigsburg in the company of the duke, who unexpectedly died. Joseph went to Stuttgart to inform the duchess, but that night was imprisoned along with all of Stuttgart’s Jews. Joseph was accused of embezzling state finances and for having sexual relations with Christian women. While incarcerated, he prayed and requested kosher food, and prepared to die as a martyr. At Asberg he was put on trial, pressured to renounce Judaism (which he staunchly resisted), and condemned to the gallows. In 1738, Prince Rudolph confirmed the death sentence and Joseph was again urged to embrace Christianity, to which he replied: “I will die as a Jew; I am suffering violence and injustice.” Thousands of rejoicing Germans assembled to witness his execution at Stuttgart, where he was forced into a cage fastened atop a gibbet as he declared the Shema prayer before a noose was placed around his neck and he was hanged until dead. Then a chain replaced the rope around his neck and his caged body was exhibited postmortem. Germany’s Jewish communities lit memorial candles for him in the following year. His execution had been a judicial murder and was recognized as such by later historians. 2 of his siblings converted to Christianity and changed their name to Tauffenberger. Joseph’s story was later treated by Jewish fiction writers Marcus Lehmann and Lion Feuchtwanger.
- Meyer Amschel Rothschild (1744–1812 CE) – A native of Frankfurt, Germany, he hailed from a family whose origins were in the Jewish ghetto, in a house on the overcrowded narrow lane Judengasse (Jews’ Alley) marked by and/or named after a red shield (roten schild, hence his surname). His father Amschel Moses Rothschild was a moneychanger and silk cloth dealer. His parents’ early death during a smallpox epidemic forced him to abandon plans for the rabbinate. Instead, at 13 he moved to Hanover and spent 5 years as an apprentice at the bank of Wolf Jakob Oppenheim. In 1763, he returned to Frankfurt and began his independent business career dealing in luxury items and trading ancient or rare coins. A discreet foreign-exchange merchant, he diversified from the outset, selling antiques and procuring loans. In this capacity he made the acquaintance of Crown Prince Wilhelm, future prince of Hesse and heir to a vast fortune mostly derived from renting out soldiers to the English to suppress the American Revolution. In 1769, Wilhelm appointed Meyer court factor (crown agent). In 1770, he married Guttele Schnapper, with whom he went on to have 10 children. In 1783, he was finally granted the special privilege of leaving the Judengasse at night and on Sundays. In 1784, he bought a larger house (The House at the Green Shield) on the Judengasse that featured the luxury of a water pump. In 1785, the crown prince became Wilhelm IX, Europe’s wealthiest man, and increased his dealings with Meyer, who with his sons became a major wholesaler of wool, cotton cloth, and flour, and whose commercial enterprises came to include a transportation and forwarding agency. During the French Revolutionary War and Napoleonic Wars (1792–1815), Meyer and his 5 sons (Amschel Mayer, Nathan Mayer, Jakob, Salomon Mayer, Karl Mayer) established themselves in Europe’s financial centers: Frankfurt, Germany; Vienna, Austria; Paris, France; Naples, Italy; and London, England. He supplied the Austrian army with wheat, uniforms, horses, and equipment. He and his family issued loans to warring princes and dealt in staple products including cotton, colonial produce, and arms. They also transferred payments between Britain and continental Europe and prospered by selling English goods such as textiles, indigo, tea, dried fruit, sugar, and coffee—all of which contravened Napoleon’s 1806 embargo against England. In peacetime, his banking consortium continued its international business transactions but also turned to dealing in state securities and shares in insurance and industrial companies, eventually investing in railways, coal production, ironworking, and metallurgy. In 1800, Meyer and his son Amschel were appointed imperial crown agents (which included the right to bear arms) by Emperor Franz II. In 1803, Prince Wilhelm IX appointed Meyer chief court agent. That same year, Meyer established a Jewish elementary school that taught religious subjects as well as languages, philosophy, and science. In 1810, he made his sons full partners and largely retired to study English. Even as his health declined, he was appointed to the Frankfurt electoral college despite objections against admitting Jews therein. In 1811, Meyer successfully negotiated with Karl von Dalberg to obtain equal rights for the Jews of the Frankfurt ghetto (in exchange for furnishing Dalberg with a huge sum). In 1812, he died in Frankfurt. In 1817, his sons were elevated to the nobility and made barons by Austrian Emperor Francis II. Meyer contributed greatly to the invention of modern banking by pioneering concepts including diversification, rapid communication, confidentiality, and high volume. Counterintuitively, he increased the volume of his business by accepting more modest profits. In 2005, he was ranked as the seventh most influential businessman of all time by editors and readers of Forbes.com. The Rothschild family continues to be active in banking and winemaking, operating business branches in Europe, America, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Japan, China, Singapore, and Australia.
- Benjamin Disraeli (Dizzy) (1804–1881 CE) – Eldest son of Isaac D’Israeli, an English author, and Maria Basevi. Born into an Italian-Jewish family, he was baptized as an Anglican Christian at 12 (before his bar mitzvah) in 1817 after his father had become estranged from the Bevis Marks synagogue and London’s Sephardic community in 1813 (Isaac had waited until the death of his own father, Benjamin, to proceed). As a young man, he dabbled in law, investing, and publishing without success then became a novelist, and continued his writing career even after venturing into politics. In 1826, his satirical novel Vivian Grey, published anonymously but soon ascribed to him, established his reputation. From 1830–1831, he traveled through the Mediterranean countries and visited the Land of Israel. In 1837, after repeatedly falling short while running as an independent radical, he was finally elected as a Tory to the British Parliament and went on to lead the Conservative Party (Jews by religion remained proscribed from being elected until 1858). While his maiden speech delivered in the House of Commons was shouted down by his unimpressed peers, he closed defiantly by averring: “I will sit down now, but the time will come when you will hear me.” In 1839, he married Mary Anne Evans, the wealthy widow of deceased MP Wyndham Lewis; in 1848, he purchased Hughenden Manor near High Wycombe in the county of Buckinghamshire. He was thrice chancellor of the exchequer and House of Commons leader of the Conservatives, and twice was elected prime minister (1868, 1874–80). Upon being congratulated after his first election as PM, Benjamin quipped: “Yes, I have climbed to the top of a greasy pole.” Queen Victoria referred to Benjamin as her “favorite prime minister”, under whose premiership she became Empress of India. The queen would often send him bouquets of primrose flowers (his favorite kind) from Windsor Castle or Osborne House. He employed his political clout and literary talent to advance the cause of the poor and working class members of British society. His administration passed the Factory Act (1874); the Artisans Dwellings Act (1875); the Public Health Act (1875); the Pure Food and Drugs Act (1875); the Climbing Boys Act (1875); the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act (1875); the Education Act (1876); and the Employers and Workmen Act (1878). Benjamin ever remained proud of his Jewish origins and ancestry, and defended Jews and Judaism against their detractors. He championed Jewish Emancipation in parliament, and as an author based some of his finest historical novels on Jewish history (David Alroy, Tancred). He was a frequent guest at the table of the Rothschilds, and upon hearing intoned in Hebrew the Grace after Meals prayer remarked: “I like to listen to the old tunes.” With funds advanced by the Rothschild family, he acquired for Britain a controlling stake in the Suez Canal Company to ensure its access to India. He was imperially inclined and established a strong foreign policy against Russia. In 1878, he represented Great Britain at the Berlin Congress and was inducted into the House of Lords as Earl of Beaconsfield and Viscount Hughenden of Hughenden in recognition of his sterling service to the British Empire. He refused the offer of a dukedom from Queen Victoria, but accepted the Order of the Garter. Following his defeat in the general election of 1880, his health rapidly deteriorated and he died and was interred in the family tomb at Hughenden. A few days later, Queen Victoria laid a wreath of primroses on his sepulcher. A statue of Benjamin was posthumously erected outside of Westminster Palace. The anniversary of his death, April 19, is still commemorated annually as Primrose Day in the United Kingdom of Great Britain.
- André Azoulay (1941– CE) – A native of Essaouira, Morocco, he was born into a Jewish Berber family. He studied economics, journalism, and international relations in Paris. From 1968–1990, he worked at the bank BNP Paribas in Paris, France, achieving the rank of executive vice-president. In 1991, he became counselor to King Hassan II of Morocco, a position in which he served for 8 years. In 1999, he continued to serve as senior advisor to Hassan II’s son and successor, King Mohammed VI of Morocco. In 2008, he became president of the Anna Lindh Foundation, which fosters inter-cultural dialogue. He has served on numerous boards of directors, including of Alliance Israelite Universelle, YALA (Young Arab Leaders for Peace), and Mediterranean University in Fez, Morocco. He is also a member of the Royal Academy of Morocco and of the Royal Academy of Spain for Economic and Financial Sciences. His wife Katia, also a native of Essaouira, authored 2 books on her beloved hometown, and with André worked to foster its renascence. In 2014, his daughter Audrey was appointed Culture and Communication Advisor to President François Hollande of France.
- Jacob (Jack) Joseph Lew (1955– CE) – A native of New York City, he earned his baccalaureate at Harvard University and his law degree from Georgetown University. In 1993, he became Special Assistant to the President during the Clinton administration. In 1998, he was among the federal officials who during Chanukah lit Habad’s public menorah in Washington, D.C. From 1998–2001 and 2010–2012, he served as Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and between these periods worked at New York University, Citigroup, and served as the initial Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources. In 2012, he became Chief of Staff of the White House, a position in which he served for almost 2 years. In 2013, he was appointed Treasury Secretary of the United States of America. He has received honorary degrees from Yeshiva University and Georgetown University.
It is worth underscoring that prior to the advent of modern political initiatives such as affirmative action and gender parity, the rise of individual members of a minority into the lofty echelons of the elite establishment resulted solely from their inherent merit. Promoting inclusivity, plurality, or diversity was not a priority either for gentile rulers or their societies, whether in the ancient, classical, medieval, or early modern eras. There were no equal opportunity employers or government hiring quotas, and foreigners in powerful positions were generally met with suspicion at best, violence at worst.
Yet time and time again, Jews were sought out as top-ranking stewards, ministers, statesmen, governors, counselors, administrators, treasurers, translators, purveyors, and physicians by various sovereigns of numerous dominions and periods. The trust placed in and the responsibilities given to these outstanding Jews serve as potent testimony to the individual human being’s capacity to surmount hurdles and surpass limits imposed artificially from without. Wherever and whenever the merit of merit remains unchallenged, opportunity exists for society’s best and brightest—regardless of their identity or background—to earn leadership roles and, by excelling therein, civic esteem.