Coffee en Route to Synagogue on Shabbat? No Problem in 18th Century Prague

250 years ago, the city’s rabbis ruled that coffeehouses in the Jewish quarter were permitted to open on the Sabbath

A Game of Draughts at Cafe Lamblin, by Louis Leopold Boilly.
Louis Léopold Boilly

Last week, a restaurant owner in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood petitioned the High Court of Justice to allow restaurants and cafes to be allowed to operate on Shabbat without losing their kashrut certification.

He argued that it is unfair that his restaurant, which scrupulously adheres to all the rules of kashrut, should be denied certification just because it opens on the Jewish Sabbath, as Haaretz reported on June 3.

Historical records preserved in the archives of the National Library show that, in fact, an interesting precedent does exist. In the mid-18th century, the rabbis of Prague sanctioned the opening of coffeehouses on Shabbat, and even permitted this in the city’s Jewish quarter.

Thus, in what historians refer to as the early modern period, something was occurring that seems practically inconceivable now, in the 21st century: On Shabbat morning, on the way to synagogue, members of the Jewish community would stop to “refuel” at a café.

The decision to permit coffeehouses to remain open on Shabbat was not made easily. It was the result of lengthy discussions, as recorded in the community ledgers. Next week, the National Library of Israel will be debuting a new online database containing hundreds of collections of historical records from Jewish communities throughout Europe.

Historical records from mid-18th century Prague.
Israel's National Library

In these volumes, the communities recorded their history and reported on public and private matters pertaining to religious, cultural, social and economic life. In addition to information on births and deaths, divorces and alimony payments, payments to ritual slaughterers, to dayyanim (religious arbiters) and to mohelim (who perform a brit milah, or ritual circumcision), reports on pogroms and records of taxes and regulations, one can also find records of discussions of less routine subjects, such as the coffeehouses, which at the time were perceived as a potentially threatening source of ferment that could upset Jewish life and compete with the Torah and synagogue for the community members’ free time.

In the latter half of the 18th century, there were at least eight coffeehouses in Prague’s Jewish quarter and all of them were open on Saturday morning.

No conflict with the rabbis

“Their owners were not in conflict with the community’s rabbinical leadership,” wrote historian Maoz Kahana in a 2013 article in the journal Zion, “The Shabbes Coffeehouse — on the emergence of the Jewish Coffeehouse in eighteenth-century Prague.” Quite the opposite.

In fact, he writes, that all signs indicate that the Prague Jewish community’s conservative leadership was consistently very keen to see these coffeehouses thrive and to operate on Shabbat.

In his research, Kahana found that the rabbis chose to embrace this new popular pastime rather than ban it, with the understanding that there was no way to fight it.

Prague, Czech Republic.
Shutterstock.com

“Internalizing the supervised threat,” Kahana calls it, explaining: “Apprehension over the active presence of the new type of establishment. ... led to its acceptance in an approved and regulated formula ... into the fabric of the Jewish community’s life and its patterns of Shabbat observance.”

In other words, the rabbinical authorities did not adopt a strategy of condemning and banning the cafes as they did towards other “dangerous” modern trends, but instead deliberately made them a part of communal life in the hope of overseeing and minimizing their “harmful influences” as best as possible.

The pinkas beit din (minutes of the Prague rabbinical court) reflects increasing concern with the spread of coffeehouses. Five hearings were devoted to the subject within a span of 15 years — an unusual frequency compared to other issues that came up for debate over the same period.

Coffeehouse rules

Again and again, the beit din convened to discuss the matter of the coffeehouses, and addressed legislation and regulation in connection with them.

Questions that came up included Is it permissible to add milk to coffee that was poured on Shabbat? Is it permissible to drink milk produced by gentiles? And is it permissible for women to drink coffee alongside men?

Initially, the rabbis tried to fight the trend. At a special session convened in 1757, the rabbis discussed what problems needed to be fixed in the community right away. The only thing on the list from the community records was the operation of the coffeehouses in the Jewish quarter.

“A fence and safeguard must be erected regarding the kove hoyz,” say the protocols of the meeting, in a characteristic mix of Hebrew and Yiddish.

The basic view expressed at the special session of the beit din was that, ideally, the coffeehouses in the Jewish ghetto should be closed, and people should instead devote their time to Torah study. 

mid-18th century records from Prague.
Israel's National Library

In 1765, one rabbi warned about the coffeehouse’s pernicious influence on the character of Shabbat, illustrating his argument with this description of how someone who comes to the synagogue after stopping at the coffeehouse disturbs his fellow worshippers: “He goes in the coffeehouse, and drinks ... and then he comes to the synagogue, tells what he saw and heard, and his voice in the house of God is distracting others from praying.”

However, even the rabbis realized that this train had already left the station, acknowledging that “we cannot be so stringent on this matter.” Hence, it was decided to formulate rules to regulate the coffeehouses’ operation. The first rule was that, on weekdays, the coffeehouses could only be opened for one hour in the morning, after the Shaharit morning service and again for another hour following the Minha afternoon service. These rules were later modified to allow the coffeehouses to remain open all day, except during services.

At first, women were not permitted to even enter the coffeehouses, but later they were allowed in, with certain restrictions: only until 6 P.M. and only on weekdays, and only in a separate, designated space or behind a partition separating them from the men.

And on Shabbat? The community records show that, at first, patronizing a coffeehouse on Shabbat was strictly forbidden, with penalties to be assessed for anyone who violated this rule: With regard to Shabbat, “No man should dare to go to the coffeehouse and drink coffee there on the holy Sabbath. This is punishable with a large fine!”  But eventually, the rabbinical authorities permitted the Jews to get takeaway coffee — and this in an era before disposable cups!

How was this possible? The customers paid for the coffee either before or after Shabbat and the coffee was prepared without violating the sanctity of the day — presumably by non-Jewish employees. It is notable that the rabbis’ main concern at the time wasn’t so much the desecration of particular laws pertaining to the Sabbath, but of worshippers’ wasting time and preferring to sit in coffeehouses rather than in synagogue.

This decree was later modified as well. In 1762, the community records show that coffeehouses were permitted to remain open until noon on Saturday. The proprietors accepted certain restrictions, such as not selling milk, in order to avoid causing a problem for those who would have meat as part of their Shabbat dinner.

Coffee yes, milk no

“We have accepted the beit din’s decree not to see any milk on the Sabbath, whether with coffee or milk alone, not on Sabbath eve or on the Sabbath day, in summer or in winter,” the coffeehouse owners wrote.

In 1774, a new term entered the lexicon in regard to the local coffeehouses — oneg Shabbat. The rabbis permitted the coffeehouse owners to sell coffee on Shabbat only to Jews and only for the sake of oneg Shabbat, delighting in the Sabbath for a purely spiritual purpose.

Enjoying Coffee, by an unknown French painter, early 18th century.
Pera Museum

The record states: “The owners of the coffeehouses stood before the rabbi and the rabbinic court, who warned them that they should be careful to avoid selling coffee on Shabbat and holidays to non-Jews, as the prohibition of commerce on the Sabbath applies. They are permitted to sell only to Jews, for the sake of oneg Shabbat, delighting in the Sabbath day, since not everyone is able to prepare coffee for himself on Shabbat at home.” By this point, the rabbis had determined that the coffeehouses and synagogues were not necessarily rivals. And that both could contribute to Prague’s Jews delight in the Sabbath.

Yoel Finkelman, curator of the National Library’s Judaica Collection, says that reading through the pinkasei hakehillot, the community records, is no easy task. The language, a mixture of Hebrew, Yiddish and other languages, the wording; the abbreviations and the abrupt transitions from one subject to another make it easy to get lost in all of these materials.

He says the project of making these materials accessible to researchers and the general public is of great importance, as it will enable these unique historical sources to be fully used to enhance our understanding of Jewish civilization in the last centuries.

“The pinkasei hakehillot reveal authentic testimony in real time of the Jewish politics of European communities,” he says.

On Thursday, June 20, Finkelman will speak about the subject at the library in Jerusalem at a launch for the online collection called Pinkas Patuah (“Open Pinkas”).

Prague is a unique case, since pinkasim from there that survived the Holocaust have been preserved, while the community there was decimated. Pinkasim from other cities record things like attempts to obtain etrogim for Sukkot just before the holiday (in Germany) or ways to limit card games (Poland), instances described as wanton or immodest behavior. One pinkas from Poland includes rules for management of the local pub, which was owned by the Jewish community.

One pinkas from Lithuania talks about setting rules for foreign Jews who moved for work purposes and then overstayed their welcome because they liked their new home. “They shall not remain in the country for more than two years, unless he has in hand a writ of permission from his wife and his wife’s relatives giving her permission to stay away longer,” a record from 1623 states. Anyone who could not produce such a permit from his wife was fined and expelled, the record says.