Medieval Jewish Society Wasn't so Law-Abiding and Chaste After All

A new book rescues the period from the jail of nostalgia and didactic parables about righteous men, turning it into something like The World of Our Fathers meets The Wire.

From the cover of Jews and Crime in Medieval Europe. WSU Press.

From the cover of Jews and Crime in Medieval Europe. WSU Press.

Sept. 9 2020
About the author

Matti Friedman is the author of a memoir about the Israeli war in Lebanon, Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story of a Forgotten War (2016). His latest book is Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel (2019).

Ah, the medieval world of Jewish Europe—a world of study halls and sages, exalted poverty and true religion! Sure, there were pogroms and depredations. No one thinks the premodern Rhineland was a picnic. But we all know the Jews themselves weren’t mediocre like us. They were Rashi and Rabbi Judah the Pious. The Jews of medieval Europe were the real thing.

Anyone inspired by that knowledge should probably avoid Jews and Crime in Medieval Europe, a fascinating forthcoming work of academic history by Ephraim Shoham-Steiner. This study introduces us to a very different slate of characters, like Reuven the Fence, the etrog thief Gedalyah of Stamford, and the notorious Medros, a family of crooks implicated in the burglary of their own synagogue. Rescued from the jail of nostalgia and didactic parables about righteous men, the period leaps to life in disturbing human color: it’s The World of Our Fathers meets The Wire.

Shoham-Steiner, a history professor at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, makes brilliant use of rabbinic legal texts—including some that were long known to historians but avoided because of concerns they could be kindling for anti-Jewish animosity. “Jewish scholars have deliberately disregarded some of the source materials I mine in this book, out of fear of its implications for the image of the Jews, and as part of a long tradition of apologetics,” he writes. “Indeed, I was advised by some colleagues not to pursue the subject.” He understands the hesitation. But the upshot has been the mistaken idea that “medieval Jewish society was inherently law-abiding and chaste, if not outright holy.” This was not the case.

Take, for example, the case of Reuven the Fence, who operated in the wine country of the middle Rhine in the early 11th century. (His name wasn’t really Reuven—that was just the alias given in rabbinic legal documents to the first party in a dispute. The second party was always “Shimon.”) Reuven’s line of business involved contracting with non-Jewish criminals to carry out robberies, for which he’d provide financing and tools, like a mallet to break a lock. He then sold the goods. This seems to have been common in what the author calls the “plunder economy” of the chaotic German territories, which were often ruled by feudal lords who were little more than glorified thugs. The case came to a Jewish court when “Shimon,” another Jew involved in the same field, tried to cut in on Reuven’s turf and claim ownership of a few valuable coats that fell—so to speak—off the back of a cart.

The question before Rabbi Gershom ben Judah of Mainz (d. 1028), to whom the sides appealed, wasn’t one of morality. If the rabbi is disturbed by the criminal context, he doesn’t mention it. His concern, instead, was which of the two Jews had primacy in the business relationship with the non-Jewish thieves. (He ruled for Shimon and against Reuven.) The business itself seems to have been unremarkable. “Given the circumstances of the 11th century,” writes Shoham-Steiner, “it may well be that these Jews, whose behavior today would likely be deemed criminal, were just typical business people attempting to make money in the turbulent waters of their day.”

Another case around the same time involved the disappearance of another “Reuven” who fenced goods for a living, and who worked specifically with German feudal lords—providing an incentive for those lords to go raiding their neighbors, knowing that Reuven would be happy to buy the haul. Reuven set off one day and never returned, perhaps falling victim to business rivals or unhappy associates. Here, too, the rabbi wasn’t asked to rule about the activities that might have led the unfortunate Reuven to sleep with the fishes of the Rhine. The legal question was narrower: the case was brought by a man who wanted to marry Reuven’s wife, and simply wanted to know if her first husband could be considered dead even if his body never turned up.

The strength of Jews and Crime in Medieval Europe is less the crimes themselves than the way the misdeeds and legal proceedings illuminate the life of the time, both of the Jews and of their neighbors. In another case that appears in the rabbinic literature, for example, a Jew bought golden ornaments from a dissolute monk who seems to have stolen them from his own monastery, possibly the Benedictine priory of St. Alban’s in Mainz. In a further indication of his character, the same monk was later spotted with a prostitute. Whatever the moral nature of this kind of transaction, it was clearly unwise, given the consequences if a Jew was found holding Christian ritual objects. In the 12th century rabbis ruled that anyone trafficking in Christian statues, chalices, vestments, or missals would be excommunicated.

Some Jewish criminals, we learn, had no problem trafficking in ritual objects stolen from other Jews. One case involved the capture, red-handed, of Yitzhak, son of Avraham Medro, and Avraham, son of Yosef, as they were breaking into their community’s synagogue in Daroca, Spain, one night in 1314. The two were apprehended, according to the legal documents, “in the midst of breaking the doors of the ark that holds the Torah scrolls in an attempt to steal the silver.”

The mother of the second defendant pleaded for lenient treatment, telling the rabbis that her son was a good kid who’d fallen in with bad company. The Medros, it turns out, were known troublemakers, not just the thief Yitzḥak but also his siblings Oro, Sabach, Nissim, and Joseph, and their mother Djamila. The rabbis banished the entire family from the town, but instead of obeying, they shrewdly escaped the rabbis’ jurisdiction by converting to Christianity.

Some of the criminal cases shed fascinating light on the Jews’ relations with their non-Jewish rulers. In far-off England, for example, at his royal hunting lodge in Northamptonshire, King Henry III took time out of his busy 1252 schedule to meet a Jewish delegation from Winchester. At their request, he ordered the sheriff there to look into whether a certain Jew named Cresse, or Gedalyah, had “violently seized and took away the Apple of Eve from the synagogue of the Jews in the same city, to the shame and opprobrium of the Jewish community.” In an indication of the importance of the matter for these Jews, they’d traveled an astonishing 120 miles for their audience with Henry.

The “Apple of Eve” appears not to have been an ornament of precious metal but the etrog, the citrus fruit used to celebrate the festival of Sukkot. “It may be,” we learn from the author, “that Cresse stole the etrog because of the healing properties it was reputed to have—in particular, to cure his wife’s infertility or ease her labor pains, or possibly to enhance his own virility.”

We don’t know if Cresse ever got what he deserved. But the case illustrates, like the rest of Shoham-Steiner’s book, a strange world where some of the forces are familiar to us—greed, selfishness, fear of punishment—while some are utterly foreign. In the latter category we can file a book of Hebrew spells that the author cites, written in Italy in the early 15th century. The book includes one spell that you might find useful—if a bit tricky to execute—if you need to burgle a house:

And the thieves that go from one house to another take the hand of the dead with them. [Once they enter a house] they place it in the middle of the room and this way it causes everyone in the house to shiver and to fall asleep. And they take four burning candles and they throw diamond dust on the candles. Then they place the candles in the four corners of the house and it seems to the house dwellers that the house is rolling and moving. And when the thieves wish, they take the hand of the dead and place it on the heart of the owner of the house and they ask him where he has hidden the keys to the gold and the silver hidden in the house and he tells them about all his belongings.

But if Jewish criminals could harness the supernatural, so could the law. Rabbi Judah the Pious of Regensburg (d. 1217), for example, appears in some stories as a kind of mystical Inspector Poirot. A student of his once came to him, we learn, and reported that some of his clothes had been stolen. The rabbi employed magical powers that allowed him to discover that a maid was the culprit, and to track her whereabouts without drones or GPS: Without ever leaving the study hall, he saw her “walking through the marketplace and he also saw her putting the clothes away in a certain house and later moving the clothes to another location.” When the clothes were indeed located, the astonished student asked his teacher if the solution had come in a dream. “Not so!” Rabbi Judah replied. “I used an incantation to compel the angels to tell me.” Elementary.

In most Jewish histories, Christian persecutions are portrayed as the central feature of this time. Indeed, expulsions and ritual murder accusations were frequent, and the catastrophic First Crusade blew through in 1096. A striking aspect of Shoham-Steiner’s book is the way all of this fades into the background, allowing us to see the communities living on their own terms, dealing with all of the usual human weaknesses, from petty theft to prostitution and even murder. The external persecution is there: in a case involving the resale of stolen Jewish books, for example, we learn that the books were probably looted in the Mainz pogrom of 1283. The alleged sexual misdeeds of a lonely woman turn out to be rooted in the killing of her husband in the Black Death pogroms of 1349. But this rich and surprising book portrays communities that were more than just victims, and Jewish people who were energetic and intelligent—if occasionally unscrupulous—in their interaction with their brutish and complicated times.