Inscribing the Signature of Friendship Into History

Written by Paul J. Blank on . Posted in Travel

In 2012, my aunt and I traveled to Prague, Czech Republic. We wanted to see the grave of Rabbi Yechezkel Landau (1713-1793), who we had recently discovered was our ancestor. We prayed at the Altneuschul, Europe’s oldest active synagogue; walked through the Old Jewish Cemetery; studied artifacts at the Jewish Museum; admired the architecture of the historical synagogues; attended a classical music concert; and visited the Kafka Museum, which I highly recommend. Because the trip was during Simchat Torah, we also joined the Jewish community and danced with the Torahs on a closed-off street.

A highlight of the trip was meeting Norman Eisen, who was then the American Ambassador to the Czech Republic. Ambassador Eisen’s appointment was noteworthy because his mother was a Czechoslovakian Holocaust survivor. The Ambassador’s Residence belonged to a Jewish family, but, during the war, it became the headquarters of the occupying German army. Knowing this history, it was a moment of great pride when we entered the Residence and saw a sukkah, prompting my aunt to say aloud: “Am Yisrael Chai.” Ambassador Eisen was a gracious host and, upon his return to Washington, his daughter became one of my students.

The most notable part of the trip, however, was when we entered a used book store and purchased a Chumash (the five books of Moses) published in 1804. As I was paying, I noticed an attached handwritten document inside the cover. Translating the document, I learned that the Jews had used this Chumash to take oaths in the secular courts of Prague. The document was signed by Karl Fischer, the government censor and a Christian, and Rabbi Eleasar Flekeles, a member of the Prague Bet Din. I understood that my purchase had historical significance, and I decided to do additional research.

Initially, Jews in Europe who participated in secular courts were required to take a special oath that was oftentimes degrading or dangerous. For example, in Frankfurt in 1392, a Jew would take the oath while standing on the hide of a pig; in Silesia in 1422, a Jew would take the oath while standing on a three-legged stool and had to pay a fine each time he fell. The enlightened city of Prague had a comparatively even-handed treatment of Jews, but, still, the oath involved a lengthy procedure whereby a Jew would hold a Torah scroll and recite various Biblical passages.

This procedure changed as a result of Joseph II’s desire to end the isolation of the Jews and grant them civil rights, including full participation in legal proceedings. In 1785, the rabbis’ authority to adjudicate civil cases was eliminated, and, in 1798, an official procedure was approved whereby Jews were able to take an oath on a Chumash. Given the larger number of Jews going to secular courts, this proved more practical; it also made Jewish participation in the courts less conspicuous, as using a Chumash was comparable to the use of the New Testament by Christians. Each Chumash needed to be certified by the Government Censor and a member of the bet din (Jewish court). They would then sign a document and it would be attached to the inside cover.

An interesting part of my research was finding out about the relationship between Fischer and Rabbi Flekeles and their commitment to the full participation of Jews in legal proceedings. In one exchange, Fischer asked whether there is a difference between a Jew taking an oath to a Jew or to a non-Jew. Rabbi Flekeles answered that whenever the Torah mentions an oath, it gives no indication that there is any difference. What is astonishing is that this question became part of a book of responsa written by Flekeles. Indeed, a question asked by a non-Jew and included in a book of responsa is unique.

In addition, despite their different religions, Fischer and Flekeles were the best of friends. Fischer wrote of Flekeles, “We love each other as two good brothers,” and Flekeles considered Fischer to be “his dear friend, whom he loved like his soul.” To have purchased this Chumash and discover the signatures of Fischer and Flekeles is to reflect upon how two esteemed leaders of different religious communities were able to inscribe the signature of their friendship into history.

My research culminated in the writing of an academic paper that I presented in 2016 at the Jewish Lawyers Association International Conference at Tel Aviv University. Today, I prominently display the Chumash in my house. It is a reminder of my wonderful trip to Prague, made all the more special because I got to experience the city together with my aunt.

By Paul J. Blank

 Paul J. Blank is a teacher at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School.