The General Privilege of 1641: An Important Step in the Formation of a Jewish Congregation in Altona

J. Friedrich Battenberg

Source Description

Numerous handwritten copies of this document have been preserved in the State Archives of Schleswig-Holstein and Hamburg in addition to contemporary printed versions and excerpts from the 17th and 18th centuries. This alone testifies to its significance. Both the official original of this “General Privilege”—which would have been given to the Jewish community in Altona and its legal successor, the Dreigemeinde [“triple congregation”] of Altona, Hamburg, and Wandsbek formed in 1671—and the official record as an entry in the registry of the district of Pinneberg are no longer existant.

The articles—eleven altogether—ensure the following rights, among others: the congregation was to be allowed to worship in their synagogue according to the Jewish tradition and to bury their dead in their cemetery in keeping with their customs. Those who perform ritual duties within the community like rabbis, cantors, and beadles were exempted from the protection money because it was implicitly assumed that they could not practice a commercial trade. Similarly, the children of those who paid the protection money were exempted from payment as long as they resided in their father’s house, even if they were married. The Jews were permitted to participate in commercial trade and in the kosher slaughter of animals. They were permitted to lend money or act as pawnbrokers at a rate of 27% interest per week—more than twice the previous limit. The sale of pawned items was permitted after a period of one year, provided that they met certain conditions and notified the Vogt [bailiff] in Ottensen. Further legal limitations applied to what they could accept as a deposit. It was important, however, that they were permitted to amicably resolve minor differences before the rabbinical court without the involvement of the Vogt from Ottensen. Their right to exert punishments, however, was quite limited; the only significant disciplinary method at their disposal was the threat of excommunication. In addition, according to article ten they were obligated to maintain the peace, which included the punctual payment of the protection money (at Easter). Finally, it was not permitted to lodge foreign Jews (i.e. from outside the community) for longer than fourteen days.

  • J. Friedrich Battenberg

Renewal and consolidation of individual privileges

The privilege included here is the first one which King Christian IV of Denmark issued to the Jews of Altona. Christian IV became the heir of the Counts of Holstein-Schauenburg when the patrilineal line of the family ended. After the death of Count Otto VI, who had been the patron of the Jews in Altona, the thirty or so families living there felt it necessary to confirm and update the rights that had last been granted to them in 1622. The Ashkenazi Jews living in Altona thus turned to the Danish king, who now wielded authority over Pinneberg, and petitioned for a comprehensive renewal of their privileges. They apparently used the opportunity provided by the transfer of power to consolidate those rights previously outlined in various documents and to extend these wherever possible. The draft which they negotiated with the officials in Pinneberg claimed to merely confirm the preexisting rights while actually going far beyond these; at the very least it represents a divergence from the norms of practice up to this point. However, in exchange the Jews were to pay a relatively high sum for protection money (five Reichstaler per year). This applied to those Jews who lived in Hamburg as well, as long as they were affiliated with the community of Altona. Apparently, when this protection was issued in the 1640s, ten Jewish families in Altona profited from the privileges outlined. Assuming a household size of just over six Jews per family—as calculated in a study of this period for the Landgraviate of Hesse—suggests that at least sixty Jews benefited from this General Privilege.

Letters of protection or safe conduct

To avoid misunderstandings, it should be added that the practice of granting a letter of protection or safe conduct had been customary since the late Middle Ages in all the territories where Jews had been permitted to settle. Such documentation allowed Jews—under various stipulations—to practice their trade without the threat of expulsion as long as they were punctual with the payment of protection money and performed those duties imposed on them. In this context, a “general privilege” was nothing other than a letter of safe conduct issued on behalf of an entire group of Jews.

Gradual step-wise recognition

As the first instance in which protections were granted to an entire congregation, regardless of its size, instead of to individuals, as had been usual heretofore, this “General Privilege” in Altona marks the beginning of an important constitutional development for an influential Jewish community, and its importance for legal history can hardly be overestimated. The transition from an individual letter of protection to a collective privilege represents a step towards granting a separate non-Christian group the same rights as Christian subjects, and, even more, it recognized a limited autonomy of a Jewish congregation within the wider society. It was thus no longer just the sum of these various individual rights of protection. It did stipulate—though not in the abridged version here—that the privileges should only be honored in so far as they had been previously granted under the counts’ reign. This limitation, however, was essentially meaningless given the lack of previous documentation. The explicit formulation was that the privileges applied to the same extent they had been granted to the Jews in Altona under the previous counts “and not any further.” This caveat served to preserve a possibility for the monarch to retract the privileges, but only if he was able to definitely prove that the right in question had not previously existed.

Granting of uniform protection

Within the context of legal history, it is particularly significant that the privilege was not simply determined by a unilateral legal act. Instead it represents the culmination of deliberations between the representatives of the authorities—presumably the Vogt in Ottensen—and representatives of the congregation. A unilateral negation was thus also unlikely if not impossible, meaning that the congregation had a relatively stable legal basis. The promise of safe conduct, which under the rule of Holstein-Schauenburg had been granted to individuals and could thus also only be defended from the authorities on an individual basis, was transformed into a “state-guaranteed” right to protection for the entire congregation. This meant that the Jewish congregation of Altona—even if this title was not used at the time—was recognized as a legal entity starting in 1641 and placed under the protection of a consistent patron. Members of the community enjoyed this protection as long as they paid their annual protection fee money and remained in good legal standing with their patron and everyone else (i.e., were “law-abiding, amicable, and peaceable”).

Judicial powers

This is also apparent in the granting of various corporative rights to the congregation. The most important of these for their religious standing was the institutional guarantee of their religious rights, even if it is still difficult to speak here of religious freedom per se. The Jewish community acquired the right to maintain synagogues and cemeteries and to perform worship and funerals according to the halakha (Mosaic laws), and also to employ religious functionaries for these purposes (Articles 1 and 2). The granting of the authority to mediate minor disputes within the congregation (though “minor” remains undefined in quantitative terms) and the right to discipline infractors presupposed a certain administrative and forensic authority, a competence for administrative organization and the dispensation of justice and penalties, even if to a limited extent. Although they were not explicitly mentioned in the text, the privileges granted here required the existence of an appointed leader of the community and rabbi who were to be in charge of arbitration within the congregation and administering the Jewish ban (“herem”) as necessary. The extent of this judicial authority was unclear at first and became increasingly defined in later privileges. A decree from 1664 clarified that the jurisdiction of the congregation extended only in so far as it did not concern the interests of the monarchy. This was a foundational approach which was adopted in many territories of the Holy Roman Empire and became the standard in such edicts (Policeyordnungen).

“Foreign” Jews and guest rights

Their formation as a basically autonomous corporation included the exclusion of other “foreign” Jews subject to other authorities. These were granted only limited rights as guests. By differentiating between “subjects,” a category which included the Jews, and “strangers,” the pre-modern state indicated its willingness to accept responsibility for the former but not the latter. “Strangers” were required to register with the local authority (the Vogt in Ottensen), they were only allowed to remain within the territory for a maximum of fourteen days, and were forbidden from mercantile or industrial activities (“Handling”). The system imposed preordained punishment for infractions and thus allowed the ruler to maintain control over the migration while also relying on the cooperation of the congregation.

Economic and fiscal fees and taxes

The fiscal or economic interests of the authorities in the codification of the rights and responsibilities for the members of the Jewish congregation cannot be overlooked. Although imposing a monetary sum for protection, the details of which were to be determined by the local authorities, was not unusual from the typical practice associated with letters of safe conduct, the regulations of trade and craft go far beyond these. There were few normative limitations of trade and craft aside from the fact that the (Christian) Vogt of Ottensen was granted the rights of control. Even kosher butchering (shekhita(h)) was not subject to any restrictions, and especially noteworthy is that even “usury” (the collection of interest on debts) was allowed quite extensively. This is an apparent attempt to preserve and stabilize the capital and buying power of the members of the congregation. This is quite in line with the mercantile Mercantilism refers to an economic system in the absolutist state between the 16th and 18th century. Under mercantilist policies, the state intervenes in order to increase economic output and state revenues, for example, by means of investment and protective tariffs. spirit of the age in which authorities hoped to improve their own financial standing. Jews were no longer recruited to settle in the territories so that they could be exploited, but rather because the local authorities hoped to profit indirectly from their presence.

Foundation of the High German Jewish Community in Hamburg

The privilege in 1641 can thus be considered a definitive step in the constitution of a Jewish congregation in Altona and therefore also the formation of the Dreigemeinde a generation later in Hamburg. Despite the influences of the practice of privileges in the German Empire (e.g. Frankfurt am Main), the foundation for an independent development of Jewish society in Germany was laid in Hamburg. For the territorial princes, the Jewish communities played an important role in the process of state formation to the extent that they contributed significantly to the consolidation of state finances.

Selected bibliography

J. Friedrich Battenberg, Jüdisches Recht, Judenrecht, in: Handwörterbuch zur deutschen Rechtsgeschichte (HRG), vol. II, 22012: col. 1414–1420.
J. Friedrich Battenberg, Fürstliche Ansiedlungspolitik und Landjudenschaft im 17./18. Jahrhundert. Merkantilistische Politik und Juden im Bereich von Sachsen-Anhalt, in: Aschkenas 11 (2011), pp. 59–85.
J. Friedrich Battenberg, Die jüdischen Gemeinden und Landjudenschaften im Heiligen Römischen Reich. Zwischen landesherrlicher Kontrolle und Autonomie, in: Helmut Neuhaus (ed.), Selbstverwaltung in der Geschichte Europas in Mittelalter und Neuzeit, Berlin 2010, pp. 101–142.
J. Friedrich Battenberg, Die jüdische Wirtschaftselite der Hoffaktoren und Residenten im Zeitalter des Merkantilismus – ein europaweites System?, in: Aschkenas 9 (1999), pp. 31–66.
J. Friedrich Battenberg, Die Privilegierung von Juden und der Judenschaft im Bereich des Heiligen Römischen Reiches deutscher Nation, in: Barbara Dölemeyer/Heinz Mohnhaupt (eds.), Das Privileg im europäischen Vergleich, Frankfurt am Main 1997, pp. 139–190.
J. Friedrich Battenberg, Strukturen jüdischer Bevölkerung in Oberhessen im 17. Jahrhundert, in: Menora 7 (1996).
Günther Marwedel, Die Privilegien der Juden in Altona, Hamburg 1976.

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About the Author

J. Friedrich Battenberg, Prof. Dr. jur., born 1946, was Director of the State Archives of Hesse in Darmstadt and teaches medieval and premodern history at the Technical University of Darmstadt. His focus of research is: history of the Jews in the late Middle Ages and early modern period, legal and constitutional History in the late Middle Ages and early modern period.

Recommended Citation and License Statement

J. Friedrich Battenberg, The General Privilege of 1641: An Important Step in the Formation of a Jewish Congregation in Altona, in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, September 22, 2016. <> [May 28, 2017].

This text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Non commercial - No Derivatives 4.0 International License. As long as the work is unedited and you give appropriate credit according to the Recommended Citation, you may reuse and redistribute the material in any medium or format for non-commercial purposes.