“Portuguese” and “High German” Jews in Hamburg
Good grounds against the marriage?
The Career of Benjamin de Lemos
The profession of medicine, a family tradition
It is apparent from the first reading of the petition that its author has turned to the king in a state of great agitation. In the narrative part of the petition, he blames the “cunning wench” for the seduction of his son and the son for having run through the paternal study money with this person. Where he obtained this information and how he knew about the marriage that took place without his consent, he does not reveal. Only with difficulty does he overcome his anger about the marriage of his son in order to present his multifaceted argument as to why the king should annul it. He builds his case with the information that his son is still in his minority according to Hamburg law, and thus insists that he is still under paternal authority, and in no position to support himself, much less a family. He caps the recital with an astonishing argument, namely “marriage between Portuguese Jews and High German Jews are as extraordinary and objectionable as those between Christians and Jews.” This comparison relied on false premises because in that period Christians and Jews could not marry. It serves to dramatize the case but nevertheless also represents an important key to understanding the text and references to a larger context.
Abraham de Lemos, or by his full name, Abraham Benveniste de Lemos, identified himself in the introduction to his petition as a “Portuguese Jew and broker, resident of Hamburg.” In contemporary usage, “Portuguese” signified a descendant of Jews who were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula at the end of the 15th century. The more general term for these Jewish emigrants and their descendants, who at first settled mainly around the Mediterranean, is “Sephardim”, corresponding to the Hebrew term for Spain, “Sefarad.” The German Jews, on the other hand, were identified according to the Hebrew designation for Germany (“Ashkenaz”) as Ashkenazim or Ashkenazic Jews. In the petition they appear as “High German” Jews.
From the end of the 16th century, Hamburg recorded the arrival of a significant influx of Sephardic Jews, who frequently came from Amsterdam. Many reached the Hansa city as Catholics – due to forced conversion – but once there soon converted back to Judaism. They formed the first Jewish congregation in Hamburg, which, during its heyday around 1650 numbered 500. It survived –quite diminished in number – into the 20th century as a separate congregation. The Sephardic merchants of Hamburg were wealthy long-distance traders, welcomed for economic reasons by the City Council; the influential Lutheran clergy and citizenry opposed them. The Sephardim, among them many scholars and physicians, were self-confident and cosmopolitan and felt themselves to be culturally superior to the German Jews. Ashkenazic Jews arrived only at the beginning of the 17th century and served as employees of the Sephardim; however, they founded their own, rapidly growing congregation. Soon they constituted the majority of Hamburg’s Jews, while many Sephardic Jews left the Hansa city at the end of the 17th century because orthodox Lutherans with the help of the city assembly imposed restrictions on both Jewish communities.
The Sephardim in Hamburg rejected marriage relations with Ashkenazic Jews. They had gone so far as to establish a multinational association to promote marriage exclusively between the “Portuguese” of various countries. Abraham de Lemos descended from such a purely Sephardic family. His maternal great grandfather, the Talmud scholar Abraham da Fonseca, had come from Amsterdam to Hamburg where he died in 1651. His son, Dr. Josua da Fonseca, was physician to the Sephardic congregation of Hamburg and died in 1701. Abraham de Lemos himself married the daughter of this physician. As a broker and tobacco handler he was a highly regarded merchant. His gravestone speaks to his significance and can be found in the Sephardic section of the Königstrasse cemetery in Hamburg-Altona.
Abraham de Lemos saw the life plan he had worked out for his son as endangered by his marriage to a German Jew. Presumably, he had hoped that his son would one day, like his own father-in-law, become the physician to the Hamburg Sephardic congregation. Angered, he came up with the idea of appealing to the University of Halle’s sovereign lord to abrogate the marriage of his son. The idea was all the more surprising because, according to religious law, Jewish marriages could be dissolved only when the husband granted his wife a letter of divorce. The petition to the sovereign to dissolve a Jewish marriage was an affront to Jewish law. Moreover, repudiation of a Sephardic-Ashkenazic marriage was also not justifiable according to religious law. Abraham de Lemos had extravagantly brushed aside both objections. Contrary to his representation, isolated cases of marriage between Portuguese and German Jews had been performed in Hamburg. From the end of the 17th century such marriages steadily increased.
Abraham de Lemos made an effort to present the matter in terms the king was most likely to understand. Thus, he speaks of the “Jewish Easter,” when he means Passover, and adduces as an argument against the marriage the fact that his son could neither support himself or a family. The latter had no bearing on Jewish couples at this time since young marrieds typically “boarded” with parents, until they were economically self-sufficient.
We learn little from the petition concerning the son, Benjamin de Lemos. His father had sent him to the “world-famous” University of Halle to study medicine. Although founded in 1694, the university had already acquired an outstanding reputation as a modern educational institution and a sanctuary of the Enlightenment. It was one of the first German universities to accept Jews and had already granted a doctorate to a Jewish medical student in 1724. Benjamin found room and board with another Jewish medical student, Samuel Simon Charleville. Charleville was at least ten years older than Benjamin de Lemos and, following the death of his father, lived with a sister and brother in a common household.
The father’s assumption of his lazy son’s sinister seduction by Chana Charleville can be put into serious doubt on the basis of other sources. To begin with, Jewish marriages in this period almost always proceeded through an intermediary and not through the initiative of the potential wife. In this case the brother was responsible for the marriage of his sister, who, allegedly over thirty years old, had exceeded the average age for marriage. Notwithstanding the difference in ages, the brother saw Benjamin de Lemos, a future physician, and one whom they had come to know well, as an eligible candidate for marriage. All the more so because he was soon to complete his doctoral studies. According to university documents, the dean of the medical faculty on February 4, 1735 had requested that the state ministry allow the promotion of Benjamin de Lemos, whereupon he received his doctorate in Halle on May 24. The doctoral candidate was in no doubt that his parents in Hamburg would not agree to his marriage. That he did not even inform them of the upcoming marriage was an affront because normally Jewish marriages were agreed to beforehand by both sets of parents. His decision therefore meant a break with his family and with the Portuguese congregation of Hamburg. Returning to Hamburg as a physician was out of the question.
Benjamin de Lemos and Chana Charleville were married for 27 years, until Chana’s death; they had several children. Dr. Benjamin de Lemos began practicing medicine in the Jewish congregation of Dessau, in the Duchy of Anhalt, where he presumably had as a patient the boy Moses Mendelssohn. In 1744, he became the physician to the Berlin Jewish congregation, a prestigious position which he held until his death in 1789. After the death of Chana, the successful physician married again, this time Chana’s niece, the daughter of his brother-in-law Dr. Samuel Simon Charleville, who had in the meantime become the community physician in Glogau.
The petition not only tells of one of the earliest marriages between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews in Germany, but, if the prehistory of this marriage is considered along with the intentions of Benjamin de Lemos and his brother-in-law, it also reveals the beginning of a medical dynasty. Medicine in general and also among the Jews was taught for centuries as a manual craft. One of the first academically trained physicians in Germany was the grandfather of Benjamin de Lemos, Dr. Josua da Fonseca, doctor to the Hamburg congregation. He took his doctorate in 1648 at Leyden University, at that time the leading university in Europe. Leyden, like the University of Padua, matriculated Jews before any of the German universities. By 1719, three further members of the de Fonseca family of Hamburg had enrolled at Leyden. It was his wife’s family tradition that Abraham de Lemos wanted to tie into when he sent his son to study in Halle.
Jewish physicians possessed a high social standing in their congregations, for they were expected to have good knowledge of the Talmud as well as command of the natural sciences. They belonged among the best educated Jews of their times and often were exponents of the Haskala, the Jewish Enlightenment that advocated uniting Talmudic and secular knowledge.
Benjamin de Lemos, grandson of a Hamburg physician and himself a doctor, married twice, first the sister and then the daughter of a physician. His children also carried on the medical tradition; two of his daughters married physicians and two of his sons studied medicine. The dynasty thus formed lasted over 150 years. He married his 15 years old daughter Henriette to a Berlin colleague, Dr. Markus Herz, who had not only studied medicine in Königsberg but also philosophy with Kant. Through the private lectures of Markus Herz, which attracted a circle of enlightened Jewish scholars, as well as by the famed literary salon of his wife, Henriette and Markus Herz became the most famous Jewish couple in Berlin.
The petition of 1735 marked the moment at which Benjamin de Lemos was one of the first to have broken through the tradition of marrying within the Hamburg Portuguese congregation, and from then on began his career as Sephardic physician by serving in Ashkenazic congregations. Apparently, he saw the barriers between German and Portuguese Jews in Hamburg as having become outmoded in an age of the incipient Jewish Enlightenment, an era in which Jews, no matter their descent, were expected to have more than exclusively Jewish knowledge. Physicians were among the first to help creating and realizing this new Jewish educational ideal of the Haskala
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.
Monika Richarz, Prof. Dr. phil., born 1937, was until her retirement in 2001 director of the Institute for the history of the German Jews (IGdJ). She has conducted broad research in the field of German-Jewish history between the 18th and the 20th century and taught at Hamburg University.
Monika Richarz, An Ashkenazic-Sephardic Marriage against the Father’s Will (translated by Richard S. Levy), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, October 19, 2017. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-79.en.v1> [May 29, 2023].