Parshat Vayigash – The Court Jew

Engraving of Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, 1738. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Engraving of Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, 1738. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Joseph Süss’s father, Issachar, was a trader (which was one of the few jobs open to a Jew) who later became a tax collector. His mother, Michal, — Issachar’s second wife — was the daughter of a chazan, who had led the synagogue choir in Frankfurt am Main. His father died when he was nine-years old, in 1707, and Joseph’s 27-year-old mother remarried soon afterwards, relocating from Heidelberg to be with her new husband. From then on, Joseph more or less had to fend for himself.

Technically, his last name was Oppenheimer, in keeping with the German custom to add the family’s original home as a name; but he was not related to any of the other famous Oppenheimers. He was a self-made man.

To everyone around him he was known as Joseph Süss. And to later generations he would be called simply “The Jew Süss.”

Fact and fiction are so closely entwined that it is very difficult to get an accurate picture of Süss’s life. Yet in books and movies, he was portrayed as one of the most infamous and nefarious people in history.

In her book, “Jew Süss: Life, Legend, Fiction, Film,” Susan Tegel untangles the threads to describe the real Süss.

Though raised in a traditional Jewish home, he was not particularly religious. When asked, soon before his death, about his religious views, he said that he was, “born a Jew but had the religion of an honourable man.” He had plenty of mistresses over the years, including — scandalously — several Christian lovers. He had two kitchens in his home, one kosher and one not. Yet the day before his execution, which happened to be the anniversary of his father’s death, Süss fasted, in keeping with the age-old custom.

From 1717 until 1732 Süss worked with his brother Daniel in a variety of jobs that brought him closer and closer to the Palatine Electors, who governed that part of the Holy Roman Empire that is today called southwest Germany. In 1718, the Electors moved their capital from Heidelberg to Mannheim and Süss moved along with the princes, nobles and officials with whom he did business.

In 1732 Süss was first introduced to Prince Charles Alexander (also known as Karl Alexander or Carl Alexander), who less than two years later would unexpectedly become the Duke of Württemberg, and the two became close.

Equestrian portrait of Karl Alexander of Württemberg. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Charles Alexander became ruler of the Duchy of Württemberg — a state with a population of less than 500,000 people — in January 1734. He was to rule for only three years and 43 days.

Soon after Charles Alexander’s coronation, Süss was appointed as “court Jew.” Initially, he received low-level diplomatic posts, then in 1735 he was appointed Privy Councillor for Finance (Geheim Finanzienrat) and Cabinet Treasurer (Kabinettsfiskal). Though he was one of the Duke’s most trusted advisors, he was never the actual finance minister. He was only the 27th most important person out of 145 people in the court.

In July 1734, Süss was appointed as head of the mint, and he managed to increase the Duke’s wealth. This income was used not only to enrich the Duke, but also to maintain a standing army and improve the country; most importantly, it was used to take power away from the Electors and nobles so that Charles Alexander could become sole ruler.

Süss used his elevated position to allow a few Jews to move to Württemberg, and later he brought two Jewish families to live in Stuttgart and six more in Ludwigsburg. Unsurprisingly, bringing Jews to the cities was just one more reason Süss was hated by those power-hungry nobles who surrounded the Duke.

The Duke, aided by the Jew, set up a commission to investigate officials, hold them accountable and replace those who were not fulfilling their duties. They instituted a law ensuring that all salaries had to be paid on time and that Openheimer, as Privy Councillor for Finance, had funds to make those payments. Süss also introduced a new system in which, rather than make the payments and collect the tax, he withheld a percentage from these payments which went into the state coffers. This became known as the “Jewish groschen.”

Selma Stern writes in The Court Jew: A Contribution To The History Of The Period Of Absolutism In Central Europe that Süss’s main goal was:

To make the State strong and invincible; a subordinate one was to improve the education and the welfare of the people… His primary interest was to improve the finances and economy of the country, thereby indirectly making the people richer, and thus happier and more content.

Süss was very careful to get countersigned written orders for everything he did, knowing that he had many enemies at court. His authority and his safety came solely from Duke Charles Alexander.

But Süss also enjoyed an extravagant lifestyle. To quote Tegel:

His servants wore livery; he owned precious objects – jewelry, expensive furniture, objets d’art such as Dresden porcelain and Delftware and other costly objects, as well as wine, including champagne. According to an inventory produced for his trial he had over 4,256 engravings… He had an extensive library, mainly in Frankfurt, with books on law, history and Judaica… At the time of his arrest Süss had three houses: two in Württemberg and one in Frankfurt.

The court Jew was rightfully worried about the future. He had good reason to be afraid. But on February 12, 1737, Süss received an Absolutorium from the Duke. This document absolved him from any personal liability for his actions, stating that in everything he did he was merely carrying out Charles Alexander’s orders.

Unfortunately, the Duke died suddenly less than a month later, on March, 2, 1737. Almost immediately, Süss was arrested and interrogated for months. Needless to say, the Absolutorium was ignored.

After a heavily publicized trial in which no proof was brought for charges, including fraud, embezzlement and treason and trying to reestablish Catholicism, Süss was sentenced to death.

Portrait of Joseph Süss Oppenheimer with the iron gallows as an emblem and surrounded by torture instruments and depictions of the devil. (Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons)

On February 4, 1738, after reciting, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” Süss was placed inside a suspended steel cage and hanged. His body was left dangling there for six years until Charles Alexander’s son Karl Eugen, came of age and allowed Süss to be buried at the foot of the gallows.

Süss was, perhaps, the first Jew to have an influence (albeit limited) on German history. He was executed six years before that most famous of Jewish financiers, Mayer Amschel Rothschild, was born.

And for the next 300 years, Süss would become the archetypal court Jew, the focus of anti-Semites all over Europe.

Most of the trial records are stored in the German State archives and were opened in 1918. It is clear that the charges against Süss were fabricated and that his punishment was retaliation by the nobles, and not due to any illegal actions by Süss. Yet even after the archives were made public, it did not stem the tide of anti-Semitism.

Many books, plays and movies were made about Süss, who as economic advisor to a small German duchy should not have been so important. But because he was Jewish and came to represent Jews, he became infamous.

A 1940 film made by the Nazis and simply entitled Jud Süß (Süss the Jew) is considered one of the most anti-Semitic movies ever made. Adolph Hitler’s Propoganda Minister Joseph Goebbels was personally involved in its production. It cost two million Reichsmarks to make, but took in 6.5 million at the box office. In total, more than 20 million people saw it, including members of the SS and police at the urging of Heinrich Himmler. It was so anti-Semitic that after the war, many cast members, along with Veit Harlan the director, were put on trial for their racist portrayal of the Jew.

Harlan told the German movie magazine Der Film that the film:

Is meant to show how all these different temperaments and characters – the pious Patriarch, the wily swindler, the penny-pinching merchant and so on – are ultimately derived from the same roots… Around the middle of the film we show the Purim festival, a victory festival which the Jews celebrate as a festival of revenge on the Goyim, the Christians. Here I am depicting authentic Jewry as it was then and as it now continues unchecked in Poland. In contrast to this original Jewry, we are presented with Süss, the elegant financial adviser to the Court, the clever politician, in short, the Jew in disguise.

Which brings us to the Biblical Joseph, who was in many ways the first court Jew (though of course he was an Israelite, not a Jew).

Last week, we read how he was appointed by Pharaoh to manage the country and prevent a famine. Following his success, Pharaoh could claim credit for appointing such a wise advisor. But had Joseph failed in the almost impossible task of saving Egypt, Pharaoh could have easily distanced himself from the enterprise and laid the blame squarely at the feet of the foreigner.

When the famine began and the people came to Pharaoh for food, he still did not want to get involved. He sent them on to Joseph (Genesis 41:55).

All the land of Egypt was starving, and the people cried out to Pharaoh for bread. Pharaoh said to all of Egypt, ‘Go to Joseph, and do whatever he tells you.’

In this week’s Torah reading of Vayigash, we read what Joseph demanded of the people in exchange for the food that would save them from starvation (Genesis 47:13-25):

There was no bread in all the land, for the famine was very severe, and the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan suffered due to the famine. Joseph collected all the money that was in the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan in exchange for the grain which he provided them, and Joseph brought all the money to the house of Pharaoh.

But the money ran out, from the land of Egypt and from the land of Canaan, and all of Egypt came to Joseph saying, ‘Give us bread, why should we die in front of you, for there is no more money. And Joseph said, ‘Bright your animals, and I will give it to you in exchange for your cattle, if there is no more money’

So they brought all their animals to Joseph and Joseph gave them bread, in exchange for their horses, their sheep, their cattle and their donkeys. He provided them with bread in exchange for all their animals in that year.

But that year finished, and they came to him in the second year and said to him, ‘We won’t hide from the master, that our money is gone and our animals are given to the master. We have nothing left before the master but our bodies and our land. Why should we die before you, both us and our land, acquire us and our land in exchange for bread, and we and our lands will become slaves to Pharaoh. Just give seeds so that we may live and not die and the land will not become desolate.’

And Joseph acquired all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh… And he transferred the people to cities, from one end of the border of Egypt to the other…

And Joseph said to the people, ‘I have acquired you this day and your land for pharaoh. Here is seed so that you may plant the land. But with all your crops, you must give a fifth to Pharaoh.’

Joseph took everything from the people, and then imposed a strict taxation system. Even though he told Egypt that everything was for Pharaoh, Joseph was very much the public face of this new reality that dispossessed the nation of their animals, their land and their homes.

Joseph the foreigner. Joseph, who wore fancy clothes and rode around the country in a fancy chariot. Joseph, who took their grain during the years of plenty, then took everything else they had to give it back to them during the years of famine. Joseph whose close family all immigrated to Egypt while the rest of the nation was starving, with their money and their animals, and were given their own area to live in. The Egyptians must have come to truly hate Joseph and his family.

Joseph and the other Israelites were safe as long as his protector, Pharaoh, was around to support him. But the moment Pharaoh dies, at the beginning of Exodus, the new king enslaved the Israelites and the people willingly become the taskmasters and afflict them in any way they can.

Even to this day Süss remains a target for anti-Semitism. The first comment on his entry in the Jewish Encyclopedia is from a Holocaust denier.

Similarly, hatred of Joseph and his family has continued throughout the centuries. Joseph saved the land of Egypt from starvation, but the cost to the Egyptians was extremely high and the cost to Joseph’s descendants far higher.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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