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The Commander of Imperial Jewry – Josel von Rosheim (c. 1480-1554)

Josel (Joselin, Yoselmann, Joseph ben Gershon mi-Rosheim) was the Empire’s leading Jewish political figure under emperors Maximilian I and Charles V. Born at Hagenau in Alsace, he became a rabbi, merchant, and money-lender. During the 1510s, he advocated for Alsatian Jews and Jewish communities in the securing of market rights. He also helped defend Jews against charges of host desecration, and he brought Jewish grievances before the emperor. By the 1520s, he was called – or called himself – “commander” [Befehlshaber] of Imperial Jewry. Josel attended the royal coronation of Charles V in 1520, and he later secured charters of protection from Charles and Ferdinand I for the whole of Imperial Jewry. In 1525, he persuaded rebellious peasants to leave his town of Rosheim in peace.

Josel went on to advocate on behalf of Jews in the kingdom of Bohemia, the margraviate of Brandenburg-Ansbach, and the electorate of Saxony, where he met Martin Luther, who impressed him as a violent enemy of the Jews. During the 1540s, Josel acted to counter Luther’s scurrilous attacks on the Jews, and he went to the Diet to defend their right to serve as moneylenders. In general, Josel saw loyalty to the emperor and his vicar, King Ferdinand, and opposition to the Protestants as the safest course for the Jews. Whatever the legal implications of the titles with which he was honored, his leadership and advocacy was an important sign that under Charles V the Imperial Jews began to be treated as a legally distinct body of Imperial subjects. Josel left an account of his life (in Hebrew), from which this document is taken.

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In the year 5279 (1518/19), the Emperor died, who is remembered for good (1), and the community of Regensburg was driven out and uprooted from all the splendour and from our most precious possessions—the apple of our eye. The exiles were sent away in boats on the River Danube. A small remnant, including the Auerbach family, remained in Stadtamhof, in the domain of the dukes of Bavaria (2). At that time the villagers of Dangolsheim arrogated powers to themselves, and they plotted together to expel all the Jews; indeed, they carried out their design. On one day in the month of Adar 5279 [2 February-2 March], they drove out all the Jews from Dangolsheim. And when the evil neighbours got word of this that same day, they wished to learn kal ve-homer from them and follow their example (3). And God inclined the hearts of our master the Unterlandvogt (4) of Hagenau and the Bishop of Strasbourg to heed my supplications that I pour out before him. I went with our master the Unterlandvogt to Dangolsheim, and gave a stern warning, whereupon they [the villagers] repented of their evil intentions and deeds, and their violation of the privileges and the Public Peace. They restored the Jews to their homes, and afterwards the Unterlandvogt came with horsemen and hired soldiers to mete out vengeance upon them. And if God had not been with us, aiding the [Jews] in Dangolsheim through this said act of vengeance, and with us in Rosheim, all the Jews in the Rhine [region] would have been in danger. Blessed be God who has not failed [us] in his loving kindness.

In the year 5280 (1519/20), our lord, the Emperor Charles, was crowned king. I came to him and to his servants to plead for our people and our inheritance. We (that is to say I and the man who was with me) obtained comprehensive privileges for all of Germany. Notwithstanding this, in the same year, charters (5) were issued authorizing the expulsion of [the Jews] from Rosheim and from the Vogtei of Kaysersberg. With the help of God, blessed be He, I interceded with the King, and succeeded in having the expulsion from the Vogtei of Kaysersberg cancelled altogether, with the annulment of that particular charter of expulsion. However, the charter to Rosheim was not rescinded, [nor was that city's decision to expel the Jews]. By dint of supreme efforts we succeeded time after time, with great difficulty, in obtaining yet another postponement. To this day we still do not know [how matters will turn out], and we can but place our trust in our Father in Heaven. He will redeem us and save us from [our] assailants. May it be His will. Amen.

In the year 5282 (1521/22) we were required to come to Nuremberg by the decree of the great rabbi, our teacher Rabbi Samuel of blessed memory, and on that occasion I submitted a complaint about that place Oberehnheim, and what had been done to us inside the city and outside in the fields. I succeeded in securing the appointment of the Abbot of Weissenburg as commissioner, to hear our bill of complaint and the legal charges to which [the city leaders] were obliged to respond. Afterwards they were summoned before a judicial assembly, and during the interrogation they were filled with dread. Through the mediation of the Underlandvogt, they [the city] made a covenant with us. The [city] opened the gates and behaved peaceably towards us, in accordance with the text of the agreement signed between us.

(1) Josel considered Maximilian I (r. 1493-1519) to have been a benevolent monarch. All footnotes taken from: Joseph of Rosheim, The Historical Writings of Joseph of Rosheim: Leader of Jewry in Early Modern Germany, edited by Chava Fraenke-Goldschmidt and Adam Shear, translated by Naomi Schendowich. Leiden: Brill, 2006, pp. 314-39.
(2) And thus not in the city's jurisdiction. Stadtamhof was a suburb of Regensburg.
(3) The term means a conclusion from a minor law to a major one and vice versa, a well-known Talmudic rule. The meaning here is that if a small village could expel its Jews, all the more could large towns do so.
(4) An Imperial district governor in Lower Alsace.
(5) The emperor also approved the expulsions mentioned below.

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