Family Megillah of Joseph Shohet, son of Hersh Mizlap of Prague
manuscript on parchment, Hebrew square and Rashi scripts,
black ink and red pigment, pen-and-ink drawing, single sheet, 504 x 348 mm
Prague (?), after 1744
The Hebrew manuscript that has recently been added to the museum’s collections contains a first-person narrative of an experience of Joseph Kirschner, a ritual slaughterer (in Hebrew, shohet, from which his nickname is derived), written in the genre of the family megillah (scroll). Family or community Purims were established to commemorate the survival of individuals or communities in the face of life-threatening situations, with the help of God. They are inspired by the festival of Purim, when the Book of Esther (in Hebrew, Megillat Esther) is read in the synagogue to commemorate the failure of the wicked Haman’s anti-Jewish plot during the reign of Ahasuerus, King of Persia. Similarly, family megillot are supposed to be read by descendants of the people involved on the anniversary of the event.
This megillah, entitled Ele toledot Josef (“This is the Story of Joseph”) describes an event that the author suffered at the end of the Prussian occupation of Prague during the War of the Austrian Succession. The main action takes place on the 21st and 22nd of Kislev 505 (26th and 27th November 1744). The Prussian army was then leaving Prague, bringing anarchy in its wake. Looting and acts of violence broke out in the Jewish Quarter, leading to loss of life. This megillah provides a fascinating and as yet unpublished source relating to the anti-Jewish disturbances of 1744. It is also an addition to the group of family scrolls in the museum’s collections.
So what was Joseph’s story? When the Prussian army was evacuating the city on the 26th of November 1744, Prussian soldiers, the infamous Austrian Pandurs (Banduren) and some inhabitants of Prague went pillaging in the Jewish Quarter. At first, Joseph sought advice from a wealthy pharmacist and influential community official Mishel Jeiteles, who assured him that he had nothing to worry about as he (Mishel) had good contacts with the city council and the military. Despite this assurance (for, “the help of man is hollow”), soldiers ransacked Josephs’ house soon afterwards and a Prussian “death head” (Totenkopf) seriously injured Joseph in the pharmacist’s house where he had tried to reach his friends Simon Kuh and Hersh Porit. Badly cut by a sabre, Joseph pretended he was dead in order to save his life. He eventually managed to get to his family and the deep wound on his right shoulder was then washed and treated with hot wine. As the bleeding would not stop and Joseph was quickly losing his grip on life, he was proclaimed a “goner” by a doctor (Fizitator), who Joseph’s wife Hayalah had sought in the morning at risk to her own life. The doctor stitched the wound, however, using some kind of vinegar or sour wine as an anaesthetic. The wound soon became inflamed and Joseph’s life was again in danger. Joseph bitterly rejected his doctor’s recommendation that he have his arm amputated, as this would have put an end to his livelihood. The prospect of leading a miserable and dependent existence as a disabled person apparently compelled Joseph to resist his doctor’s suggestions and opinions. Having given himself over to God’s care, he was cured by God, “the only true and free doctor.” This is why an expression of thanks to the Lord symmetrically frames the entire narrative at the beginning and end.
Historical and archive sources tell us of Joseph’s subsequent fate. His worries were far from over, despite making an unexpected recovery: his wound could not have been completely healed yet and another disaster was already weighing down upon him – the expulsion of the Jews from Prague (on the 18th of December 1744), by which Empress Marie Theresa punished the Jews of Bohemia for their alleged collaboration with the Prussians. All the Jews of Prague – including Joseph – had to leave the city by the end of January 1745, and all Jews were to leave the country by the end of June of the same year. From archive records, it appears that Joseph spent his exile in a makeshift camp in Čelákovice near Prague. He came back to his home town in the first wave of returnees on the 3rd of September 1748, moving into a rented apartment in the house of Joseph Fleischhacker in Fleischbankh (Butchers’) Street.
In the narrative, the protagonist’s personal story is briefly placed in a more general context. In the introductory paragraph, the narrator describes the event from the perspective of the entire Jewish community of Prague; he then goes on to describe his own personal experience. The megillah is written in Hebrew using a few German terms transcribed in Hebrew letters for phenomena for which no Hebrew word existed. The Hebrew text may have been written by Joseph, as he must have completed a traditional course of study as a trained ritual slaughterer. The text is composed and laid out using some typical scribal decorative means: the highlighted initial letters on the right form the author’s name, Joseph Shohet, son of the revered Hersh Mizlap, from the Holy Community of Prague. The three large letters on the left give the Hebrew year Tav Kuf Heh (505 by the Jewish calendar, i.e. 1744–45) and also form the last letter or syllable of the word in the lines with which they are linked by dots. The year of the event is also indicated in a chronogram at the top: “Thou wilt have compassion upon Zion; for it is time to be gracious unto her” (Psalm 102:14), and also in the word netanah (line 8). Also highlighted in the text are words of thanksgiving from Shabbat morning prayers (line 5-6), the letters of the Tetragrammaton (the four-letter Hebrew name for God) Yud Heh Vav Heh (row 4), and the name of the protagonist’s wife Hayalah (in the lower third of the sheet in the middle). The manuscript itself is not dated; the second known copy (in a private collection in Israel) was made in 607 (1846–47); neither mention the place where it was copied.
Archives of the Jewish Museum in Prague, the Prague Jewish Community Collection, Konsignace pražských židů [List of Prague Jews]. I. 1748, No. 185
National Archives, ČDK [Bohemian Chancery], Sg. IV T 1, Konsignace vypovězených pražských židů [List of Jews Expelled from Prague]. 1748
Bergl, Joseph, “Die Ausweisung der Juden aus Prag im Jahre 1744.” In: S. Steinherz, Die Juden in Prag, Prag 1927, pp. 187–247.
Lieben, Salomon Hugo, “Igereth Machalath. Eine hebräische Chronik des 18. Jahrhunderts.” In: Ročenka Společnosti pro dějiny Židů v Československu [Yearbook of the Society for the History of the Jews in Czechoslovakia], II (1930), pp. 281–390.
Cermanová, Iveta, “Protižidovské bouře v Praze roku 1744. Židovský a křesťanský pohled.” [Anti-Jewish Disturbances in Prague, 1744. Jewish and Christian Perspectives] In: Židovská ročenka na rok 5767 [Jewish Almanac for the Year 5767], Prague 2006, pp. 47–62.
Text: Olga Sixtová, Alexandr Putík
Translation: Stephen Hattersley