This Day in Jewish History

1724: Ultimate 'Court Jew' to the King of Austria Dies

Samson Wertheimer may have been known as the 'Jewish emperor' but he never forgot who had the real power.

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On August 6, 1724, Samson Wertheimer, the ultimate “court Jew” of his day, a figure who played a key role as financier, personal adviser, diplomat to the Austrian court, as well as Jewish community leader, died, at the age of 66. During the years he was active, 1694 to 1709, he served as chief financial administrator to the emperors Leopold I, Joseph I and Charles VI.

Samson Wertheimer was born on January 17, 1658, in Worms, in the Rhineland. His father was Joseph Josel Wertheimer (1626-1713), a learned man and member of the local Jewish leadership.

Samson had rabbinical training at the yeshivas both in his hometown and in Frankfurt am Main. Throughout his life, though he was principally a businessman, he was also consulted on matters of religious law. He also left behind a collection religious sermons he had preached.

Meanwhile, Wertheimer married Veronica Frumet Brilin, a rabbi’s daughter and widow, whose previous husband had been a close relation to Sam Oppenheimer, a financier and court Jew himself. This brought Samson into contact with the more senior Oppenheimer, and with whom he began to work, managing Oppenheimer’s Vienna counting house, and filling in for him when he traveled.

A disposable right hand

In the period before government and its institutions became permanently established, heads of state needed to be able to rely on private “factors,” or agents, to raise large funds quickly on their behalf – both for personal and national matters -- and to carry out other sensitive missions. When this confidant was a Jew, the leader had the benefit of knowing that if he felt the need to disregard their agreement, and refuse to pay a debt in the end, the Jew would have limited recourse to pressure him to make good on his obligations.

This is something that happened repeatedly with court Jews. Their position enabled them to amass great privileges, but they also took great personal risks each time they came to the assistance of royal potentates.

Wertheimer provided the court of Austrian Emperor Leopold I (1640-1705) with large sums to enable it to fight both the Spanish War of Succession and the Turkish War. As a personal diplomat, when the emperor’s brother Charles Philip married the daughter of the Polish king, Wertheimer negotiated the substantial dowry that was to accompany the bride. In that case, he was rewarded with a monetary prize and a portrait of the emperor – the latter a true sign of the high regard in which he was held.

Wertheimer’s role also involved devising new sources of income for the court. In his case, he proposed expansion of Austria’s salt industry to increase its salt exports.

When in 1700 the anti-Semitic scholar Johann Eisenmenger published his “Judaism Unmasked,” a sophisticated attack on the religion and its teachings, Wertheimer successfully petitioned Leopold to confiscate the book and prohibit its further sale. He and his son-in-law Moses Kann also sponsored the publication of a full edition of the Babylonian Talmud, an effort that took 10 years to complete. 

Widely known as the “Jewish emperor” for the power and privileges he amassed,  Wertheimer possessed numerous palaces and other homes, and had 10 imperial soldiers standing guard when he was resident in one of them. He bestowed money on synagogues and schools, and also oversaw the distribution of charitable contributions to the Jewish communities of the Holy Land.

Wertheimer was also a highly cautious man. When he witnessed how Samuel Oppenheimer’s family was treated after his death – the court refused to repay its substantial debt it owed his son, and in fact falsely accused him of fraud, leading the Oppenheimer estate to go bankrupt – Wertheimer decided to retire early, before he too, as historian Selma Stern described it, “had experienced the ‘gratitude’ of the house of Hapsburg.”

In the case of Wertheimer’s oldest son, Wolf, however, ruin was to come at the hands of the Bavarian government, in Munich. It borrowed significant amounts form him and then neglected to pay them back. Wolf Wertheimer had to close the family firm in 1733, a little more than a decade after his father’s death.

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