Jewish Law in Non-Jewish Courts. A Case from Eighteenth-Century Frankfurt at the Imperial Aulic Council of the Holy Roman Empire

No. 2022-21

In 1785, a Frankfurt Jew brought a credit dispute between himself and a local Jewish couple before the Imperial Aulic Council in Vienna. Intra-Jewish cases were often appealed to the Council, but here the plaintiff argued the suit should be decided based on Jewish law and the Imperial Aulic Council concurred. Recent research has shown that Jewish law was frequently invoked in intra-Jewish conflicts in non-Jewish courts not only in the Holy Roman Empire, but wherever Jews lived. However, as in all cases of overlapping systems of law (legal pluralism), there was a need to explain different legal traditions to the jurists of the general courts. In cases between Jews, how halakah (Jewish law) was mediated for the non-Jewish jurists remains a question. In this case study, the plaintiff supplied the Council with a selective compilation of sources of Jewish law, lavishly prepared with fine, colorful calligraphic writing on gilt-edged pages. The material was offered to the judges in the Hebrew original and in German translation, so they could make an informed decision. The analysis focuses on the presentation of the sources of Jewish law by the plaintiff, the arguments forwarded, and how the material was mediated for the members of the Imperial Aulic Council. Highlighting the need for a cultural translation, this study traces the dispute from the Frankfurt Jewish-lane (Judengasse) to the Frankfurt municipality, to a university law faculty, and on to Vienna.

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