Poland – Jew who Bought It

The 17th and 18th centuries were the era of the great court Jews including the Wertheimers and Oppenheimers of Vienna, Yosef Suss Oppenheimer of Stuttgart, Leffman Behrens of Hanover, the Rothschilds of Frankfort on the Main, and perhaps greatest of them all, the hero of this article, the pious Berend Lehman of Halberstadt. The shtadlandim represented ahavas Yisroel at its finest; through their connections with kings and rulers, they averted decrees against their fellow Jews and strove to improve their lot. Lehman lived in the years after the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) that devastated central European Jewry, followed by the Chmelnitsky Uprising of 1648-49 and the Swedish-Russian War that all but destroyed Polish-Lithuanian Jewry where most Torah centers were located. During this critical time, Lehman helped raise Torah and Judaism from the ashes.

Kingdom for Sale

Berend Lehman was born in Halberstadt of Saxony, Germany in 1661. Although not particularly learned, he inherited a great love for Torah and understood the importance of maintaining talmidei chachomim who devoted their lives to studying Torah. The first document relating to Lehman finds him conducting business affairs at the famous Leipzig Trade Fair in 1687. He eventually became the hoffactor, or court financier of Elector Augustus II ofSaxony (1670 – 1733), otherwise known as Augustus the Strong because of his vast physical strength; he broke horseshoes with his bare hands and the grip of his pinky more than equaled the grip of a normal man’s hand. Lehman’s job was to find the funding for Augustus’s giant sized lust for luxury, extravagance, and power.

Lehman spent years traveling through the length and breadth of Europe finding loans to provide the king’s soldiers with weapons and supplies, buying priceless jewels and ornaments for his palace, dealing in real estate, and acting as the king’s diplomat. Astronomical sums were necessary for the king’s wars and extravagances. Even more money was needed in 1697 when King Augustus commissioned him and others to raise vast sums to influence electors (nobles with the right to vote) of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to choose him as their new king. Other contenders included the kings of England, France, and Sweden. Although Saxony was the largest and most affluent territory of the old Holy Roman Empire,Poland was twenty times larger and well worth paying for. It is estimated that Augustus raised 86 million thalers for the kingship of Poland, ten million of them through Lehman’s efforts. In modern terms, this was equivalent to tens-of-billions of dollars.

To be eligible to rule over Catholic Poland, Augustus dropped his Protestantism and converted to Roman Catholicism, while continuing to act as an influential figure in the leading ofSaxony’s Protestant church. After all, when all you want is power, even religion is negotiable.

Success bred gratitude. In return for Lehman’s help, Augustus appointed him as “Resident of the King of Poland in the Lower Saxon Circle,” which made him an official diplomatic representative of the king. He also granted him permission to build a magnificent new shul in Halberstat and to print a new edition of the Talmud Bavli.

Not everyone was appreciative of Lehman’s high standing with the king. Biographers record how a priest, who was very jealous indeed, persuaded the king that Lehman was a traitor. This instigated the king to send Lehman to a military governor with a note stating that the bearer of the note should be put to death. On the way, Lehman stopped to perform a bris and sent the note with someone else who was killed in his stead.

The Halberstadt Kloiz

In 1714, Lehman capitalized on the king’s first promise, granting the Halberstadt kehillah a 6,000 thaler loan to build one of the most magnificent shuls in Europe, which lasted 230 years until Kristalnacht, 1938. This replaced a previous shul that had been destroyed by order of the town’s mayor in 1669. Symbolizing the townsfolk’s resentment of all things Jewish, the ax that initiated the destruction of that old shul had pride of place in the town’s museum for many years. In an agreement with the kehillah’s 32 leaders, Lehman stipulated that he was waiving repayment of the shul loan on condition that the kehillah pay five percent interest until 1740 (360 thalers annually). Afterwards, “be’ikuv bi’as hamoshiach, cholilah, if, heaven forefend, the moshiach delays, the interest would be lowered to five percent (300 thalers annually) in perpetuity.” This interest was to be paid to the yoshevi beis hamedrash of the Halberstadt kloiz. For the past century, wealthy Jews had begun establishing trusts for the perpetual maintenance of kloizes, the forerunners of modern day kollels. Generally, they had no more than two or three members.

The Halberstadt kloiz also had a shul, a library, learning rooms, and apartments for its three talmidei chachomim whose number was later reduced to two. These scholars taught Torah to the kehillah and surrounding areas, and sometimes served as dayonim.

Lehman was very insistent that the kloiz scholars devote themselves exclusively to high level learning. When he heard, while doing business in Minsk, that the kehillah was trying to enlist their services to teach children, he protested that this was a violation of his agreement.

“The kloiz that I established with the permission of the king and your agreement for the study of Torah by talmidei chachomim, is intended solely for this purpose and I spent great sums of money on it,” he wrote. “Now, opponents are complaining about it and trying to influence the representative to see that it should be used for the education of youngsters and for teachers of children.”

He warned that if the kehillah ignored his message, he would move to another town and pay taxes elsewhere. This was no small threat as he bore the lion’s share of the town’s taxation.

During the 235 years of the kloiz’s existence, it produced leading talmidei chachomim including Rav Akiva Eiger the Older (died 1758), Rav Azriel Hildesheimer, and Rav Yosef Nobel. Another member of the Kloiz was the Hungarian Rav Gershon Yehoshafat who became rov ofFrankfort amMain. Rav Gershon’s brother, Yissachar Ber Yehoshafat, converted to Christianity, changed his name to Reuter, moved toEngland, and founded the famous Reuters news agency.

A year earlier in 1713, Lehman had made a similar deal with the Berlinkehillah when he lent it 3,000 thalers towards building its Heiterreutergasse Shul. As with the Halberstadt loan, he waived payment of the loan on condition that five percent interest be paid to the chachmei hakloiz of his hometown. The Nazis destroyed this shul in 1938.

The Frankfort Talmud

In fulfillment of King Augustus’s second favor, between 1697 and 1697, Lehman organized the printing of two thousand magnificent twelve volume Shasses in Frankfurt am Oder and donated many of them free of charge to poor Jewish kehillos.

Approbations of this Shas emphasized its importance at that time.

“Our world had turned into void and desolation,” Rav Naftoli ben Yitzchok Katz of Posen wrote in his haskomah. “Twenty men had to use one Talmud, and each day the holy books grew fewer in number. We faced the danger that the Torah, heaven forefend, would be forgotten. There was no hope and no means of having the Talmud reprinted.”

Similarly, Rav Yosef Shmuel of Cracowwho was serving as rov of Frankfurt am Main at the time wrote in his haskomah to the Shas: “There was no more than one copy of the Talmud in a city. Many tried to reprint it but failed, until God inspired the prince and leader, Reb Berend of Halberstadt … for the honor of the Torah to print the Talmud on fine paper and good type, and engage good scholars to supervise the work to guard against mistakes or corruption of the text.”

Twenty years later, Lehman helped print a second edition of the Gemara inFrankfort amMain.

Among Lehman’s myriad other chasodim was the establishment of a foundation to help marry off poor orphan boys and girls of Halberstadt. During the winter of 1719-1720 when food was scarce, he imported 40,000 bushels of grain from Russia and Poland and sold them to the German populace at very low prices.

Meanwhile, King Augustus had suffered a temporary setback whenSwedentemporarily toppled him from the Polish throne, but with the help ofDenmarkandRussia, he recovered the throne in 1709. This is when Lehman reached the zenith of his wealth and prominence. From then onwards it was downhill.

For various reasons, Lehman was forced to declare insolvency in 1727, and even after his death in 1730, claims of several hundred thousand thalers were only partly satisfied by auctioning off most of his real estate. Despite this, he was never forgotten. One hundred and fifty years later, Rav Binyomin Hirsh Auerbach of Halberstadt recorded Lehman’s history and legends in the Geschichte der israelitischen Gemeinde Halberstadt (History of the Israelitic Community of Halberstadt, 1866), and the famous German author, Rav Marcus Lehman of Mainz, recorded his life in a story that has been translated as The Royal Resident.

Lehman’s kloiz was a Jewish stronghold during the stormy years of the 19th century when Reform threatened to destroy German Jewry. Tragically, the building it moved to during the 18th century is now the home of the Moses Mendelssohn Akademie, which opened the Berend Lehman Museum in 2001. This museum documents Halberstadt’s Jewish history and the lives of court Jews. Above all, Lehman’s shem tov survives for all generations. In 1841, Rav Yaakov Ettlinger (the Aruch Laner) of Altona described him as “that tzaddik whose memory will not cease from among his seed.”

(Sources include: Manfred R. Lehman, Massos Umasa’os, Mossad Harav Kook, Yerushalayim, 1982. Manfred R. Lehman, Assuring Perpetual Jewish Learning; The Halberstadt Archive of 1713–1847.)

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