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Derivation of Word.

Originally the street or quarter of a city in which the Jews were compelled to live, and which was closed every evening by gates; the term is now applied to that part of any city or locality chiefly or entirely inhabited by Jews. "Ghetto" is probably of Italian origin, although no Italian dictionary gives any clue to its etymology. In documents dating back to 1090 the streets in Venice and Salerno assigned to the Jews are called "Judaca" or "Judacaria." At Capua there was a place called "San Nicolo ad Judaicam," according to documents of the year 1375; and as late as the eighteenth century another place was called "San Martino ad Judaicam." Hence it is assumed that "Judaicam" became the Italian "Giudeica," and was then corrupted into "ghetto." Other scholars derive the word from "gietto," the cannon-foundry at Venice near which the first Jews' quarter was situated. Both of these opinions are open to the objection that the word is pronounced "ghetto" and not "getto" (djetto); and it seems probable that, even if either of the two words suggested had become corrupted in the vernacular, at least its first letter, the sound of which is the dominating one in the word, would have retained its original pronunciation. A few scholars, therefore, derive the word "ghetto" from the Talmudic "geṭ," which is similar in sound, and suppose the term to have been used first by the Jews and then generally. It seems improbable, however, that a word originating with a small, despised minority of the people should have been generally adopted and even introduced into literature.

The ghettos in the various cities were not all organized at the same time, but at different periods. Venice and Salerno had ghettos in the eleventh century, and Prague is said to have had one as early as the tenth. There were ghettos in Italy, Bohemia, Moravia, Austria, Hungary, Germany, Poland, and Turkey. They were chiefly an outcome of intolerance, and oppressive conditions were often added to compulsory residence within the ghetto. When a ghetto was about to be established in Vienna in 1570, the citizens objected to having a place outside the city assigned to the Jews for the following three curious reasons: (1) they feared that if the Jews lived alone outside the city they could the more easily engage in their "nefarious practises"; (2) the Jews would be liable to be surprised by enemies; (3) the Jews might escape! The citizens therefore proposed that all the Jews should live in one house having only one exit; that windows and doors should be well fastened, so that no one might go out at night; and that the possibility of entrance or exit by secret passages should also be guarded against. As the Jews objected to this scheme the project was soon dropped.

Ghetto in Rome.

The Roman ghetto was established by Pope Paul IV., and was entered on July 26, 1556. Its site was between the Via del Pianto and the Ponte del Quattro Capi. It consisted of a few narrow, dirty, and unhealthful streets, which soon became painfully overcrowded. Its first name was "Vicus Iudacorum"; later it came to be called the "ghetto." It was annually flooded by the Tiber. Each year the Jews had to go through the humiliating ceremony of formally imploring permission to continue living there during the ensuing year, for which they paid a yearly tax. This ceremony was observed as late as 1850. The restrictions and regulations which were issued from time to time in regard to life in the ghetto, and which were alternately abolished and reimposed by succeeding popes, were repeated inthe cruel legislation of Pius VI. in 1775. In 1814 Pius VII. permitted a few Jews to live outside the ghetto; in 1847 Pius IX. finally decided to do away with the ghetto gates and walls and to give the Jews the right of residence in any part of Rome; but the reactionary movement of 1848 reestablished the restrictions. In 1870 the Jews of Rome presented to Pope Pius IX. a petition for the abolition of the ghetto. But it was reserved for Victor Immanuel, who entered Rome in that year, to fulfil their desire by definitely and finally abolishing the ghetto. Its walls remained until 1885, a memorial of medieval tyranny (see Berliner, "Aus den Letzten Tagen des Römischen Ghetto," Berlin, 1886).

Frankfort and Nikolsburg Ghettos.

On Jan. 14, 1711, a fire, the largest conflagration ever known in Germany, destroyed within twenty-four hours the entire ghetto of Frankfort-on-the-Main, including thirty-six scrolls of the Torah that had been placed for safety in a cellar. Blind to the interests of the city, the magistrate put great difficulties in the way of the emperor, who was anxious to rebuild the ghetto, and also created obstacles for Samson Werthelmer, the court factor of Austria, who desired to rebuild the two houses he had owned in the ghetto, and also to erect a house on a plot of ground immediately adjoining the ghetto, which he had bought from a widow on June 10, 1710, for 5,000 reichsthaler. The magistrate not only attempted to confine the Jews still more strictly within the space they had occupied for centuries, but also made regulations regarding the height of the new houses, and would not allow Wertheimer to build on his plot outside the ghetto, although he had the special permission of the emperor to do so. Disregarding the rescript sent by Joseph I. March 4, 1711, and that sent by Charles VI. July 6, 1716, the magistrate yielded only to the emphatic second rescript of the latter of June 28, 1717. The following is a further example of the way the citizens in general endeavored to restrict the limits of the ghetto: On April 10, 1719, fire destroyed the entire ghetto of Nikolsburg, with the exception of a single house, the destructiveness of the fire being ascribable only to the narrow streets and the lack of any open spaces in which movable property might have been saved from the flames. Samson Wertheimer, the loyal protector of his oppressed coreligionists, hearing soon after that Councilor Walldorf of Brünn had a plot of ground for sale near the ghetto of Nikolsburg, entered into negotiations for the same, and asked permission of Charles VI. to purchase it "ex causa boni publici," pointing out that in case of epidemic or fire the crowded buildings of the ghetto would be a source of danger to the Christians also (June 30, 1721). The magistrate, however, anticipated Wertheimer by inducing Walldorf to sell the plot to the city for the sum of 1,700 gulden, "for the sake of Christian charity," as against the 2,500 gulden offered by Wertheimer.

Reason for Segregation.

Although the ghettos owed their origin primarily to the intolerance and tyranny of the citizens, yet the Jews themselves must have found it undesirable to live scattered among a hostile population, and must have regarded the ghetto as a place of refuge. Lippmann Heller, rabbi of the community of Vienna, claims credit for having been instrumental in organizing the ghetto of that city; it existed, however, only from 1625 to 1670. The Jews of that time found it in many cases impossible to live together with the Christians. Not only were they in constant fear of being derided and insulted, injured in property, health, and honor, and even of being murdered, but they were in continual danger of being falsely accused of crime and condemned. Another reason assigned for the origin of the ghettos is that the Jews in their pride would not mix with their non-Jewish fellow citizens, and in support of this is cited the following inscription, said to have existed on a ghetto gate in Padua in the sixteenth century: "The people, the inheritors of the kingdom of heaven, shall have no communion with the disinherited." It is more likely, however, that this sentence, if it really was affixed to the gate of the ghetto of Padua, was placed there by the Christians, who applied the term "disinherited" to the Jews, at that time the pariahs of society.

Entertainments in the Ghetto.

The gates of the ghettos were closed at night—from the outside in those localities where the object was to confine the Jews, and from the inside where the gates served chiefly as protection against attack. During the Middle Ages, and later in some localities, the Jews were strictly forbidden to leave the ghetto not only after sunset, but also on Sundays and on the Christian holy days. In some localities where the ghetto did not afford room enough a certain place outside the ghetto was assigned to the Jews for mercantile purposes, as, for instance, the Jewish "Tändelmarkt" at Prague. Seclusion from the outer world developed a life apart within the ghetto, and close communion among the members was in a certain way a power for good, fostering not only the religious life, but especially morality. Constantly within sight of his neighbor, each person was obliged to keep strict watch over himself. The Bohemian chronicles of the sixteenth century designate the ghetto of Prague as a "rose-garden," and add that when the gates of the ghetto were closed at night there was not one woman inside whose reputation was in the least tarnished. Social life, also, was developed along peculiarly Jewish lines. The women, who could not appear beyond the ghetto limits dressed in their finery without exciting the envy and ill-will of the populace, made Sabbaths and feast-days, and weddings, betrothals, and other family festivals, occasions for arraying themselves as proudly as their means would allow. At Purim the large ghetto of Prague was crowded with hundreds of girls in festive garb, who were entertained in whatever house they entered. At weddings and banquets professional jesters—called "Schalksnarren" in Germany, "Marshalka" in Poland—furnished entertainment for the company.

At the end of the seventeenth century theatrical representations were given in the ghetto of Frankfort-on-the-Main in the house "zur weissen Kanne" (or "zur silbernen Kanne"); the "Comedy of theSale of Joseph," in which, according to trustworthy witnesses, "fire, heaven, thunder, and all sorts of curious things could be seen," was especially popular. Even a "Pickel-Hering" (clown) occasionally appeared there, in a ridiculous motley garment. Extravagance in dress was carried so far in some ghettos that the rabbis preached against it from the pulpits, and the elders of the communities, in Moravia even the elders of the whole province, were obliged to restrict such luxury. Their decrees, called "taḳḳanot," contained specific regulations in regard to the mode of dressing, determining the ornaments the women might wear respectively on Sabbaths, festivals, week-days, weddings, and other occasions, and also the materials for garments to be worn on feast-days and week-days. Similarly, regulations were issued regarding the number of persons to be invited to a banquet, and even the number of courses to be served. Those failing to observe these rules were punished by fines and sometimes imprisonment.

Ghetto of Prague.

The administration of the communities also developed along peculiar lines, and a description of the governments obtaining in the different communities would fill a large-sized volume. It must suffice here to describe as a prototype the administration of the largest and most famous ghetto, that of Prague. This ghetto was, in a way, a state within a state, a peculiar microcosm, officially designated as the "fifth chief district" of the city of Prague. It was considered the leading ghetto in existence, in virtue of its size, its learned rabbis and scholars, its famous Talmudic schools (to which students from all parts of the world flocked), the prominent position occupied by some of its members, and its magnificent institutions. The ghetto had its own town hall, built by the famous philanthropist Mordecai Meisel; on its tower there was a clock, a rare distinction for the period; it was the only tower-clock in existence, and had a dial lettered in Hebrew, the hands of which moved from right to left. The directors of the community, who were chosen from those owning houses in the ghetto, held their sessions in this building; it is at present the administrative building of the Jewish congregation of Prague.

There were one large and many small synagogues in the ghetto. The community enjoyed great privileges and distinctions. Since the earliest time there were four gilds in the ghetto of Prague, namely, the butchers', goldsmiths', tailors', and shoemakers'. At the entry of the emperor, the butchers had the signal privilege of preceding with their flags all the gilds of the four quarters of Prague, a privilege conferred in recognition of the courage they had displayed when Prague was besieged by the Swedes in 1648.

The religious affairs of the community were directed by the rabbinate under the presidency of the chief rabbi, and the secular affairs by the college of directors under the presidency of the primator. The college had police authority in the ghetto, and was empowered to punish by imprisonment in the communal prison; a number of "gassenmeshorsim" (communal servants) were detailed as policemen to keep order in the Jews' city. Legal difficulties arising in the ghetto of Prague were hardly ever carried into the courts of the state. The plaintiff could appeal either to the college of directors in cases involving his honor or simple business affairs, or to the rabbinate in more difficult cases, as of settling estates or disputes relating to the possession of land. The latter frequently arose in consequence of peculiar conditions in regard to ownership of real estate, such as are found now here else except in Salzburg. Through bequests and the sale of separate parts, every house in the ghetto had two or more owners severally owning the separate parts, and numerous difficulties arose whenever it became necessary to repair the parts held in common, such as the house-door, the stairs, or the garret and roof, or to paint the outside.

The rabbinical courts consisted of an upper and a lower court. Verdicts were rendered in agreement with the Mosaic-rabbinic law. There were "meliẓim" (lawyers) in the ghetto of Prague to advise plaintiff and defendant. The party which thought the decision of the lower court unfair might appeal to the superior court; hence the members of this court were called by the state "higher judges," and popularly, though incorrectly, "appellants." Generally, the decisions of these judges, were implicitly obeyed.

A long hierarchy of officials had developed in the larger ghettos. There were many persons eager to take charge of the numerous philanthropic and religious institutions, either for the sake of engaging in a good work or from ambition. The ḥebra ḳaddisha of Prague was founded toward the end of the sixteenth or the beginning of the seventeenth century. There were also a hospital and a school for poor children, both founded by the philanthropist Mordecai Meisel. Although the numerous synagogues were under the general direction of the communal authorities, they were largely autonomous, the relation of the authorities to them being, so to speak, that of a suzerain, not that of a sovereign. In consequence of a dispute as to precedence at the call to read the Torah on occasions of solemn processions, the following order was adopted after much debating: chief rabbi, primator, upper judges, directors of the community, lower judges, directors of the hospital (also in charge of the poor, and with the pompous title of "city gabba'im" = "city directors "), directors of the ḥebra ḳaddisha, rabbis of the synagogues, directors of the synagogues, etc. In the German ghettos the directors were called "barnossim" (i.e., "parnasim," "p" being pronounced "b" in the southern German dialects).

Immigrants in the Ghetto.

Foreign Jews were treated most hospitably in the ghettos, especially in the centers of learning, where the yeshibot attracted pupils from a great distance; these were boarded by the members of the community. The wealthy students ("baḥurim": see BaḤur) formed clubs for the support of their indigent fellow students. The men of the ghetto wore a special dress on the Sabbath, in conformity with the rabbinical rule that the Sabbath should be kept distinct in every way, even in the matter of dress. The piety of the ghetto was shown in the frequent services in the synagogue. The "Schulklopfer" called the people to morning andevening service. In the ghetto of Prague it was customary for this official, who bore the title of "Stadt-Shammes" (city servant), to summon once a day in German and once in Bohemian. In consequence of the seclusion within the ghetto, the Jewish dialect, a mixture of the vernacular with Hebrew, was kept alive. The ghettos were situated in the most unwholesome parts of the cities, generally near a river, where they were liable to be flooded.


It is a noteworthy fact that the ghettos were frequently devastated by conflagrations. This was due to the crowded conditions that prevailed and to the narrow streets where fire was subdued only with difficulty, the Jews being left to their own resources; in fact, they often closed the gates of the ghetto on the outbreak of a fire, lest the mob coming in from outside might take advantage of the general confusion to plunder. Aside from the great conflagrations at Frankfort and Nikolsburg, mentioned above, the fire that destroyed the ghetto of Bari in 1030 and the two fires that raged in Prague in 1689 and 1750 may be noted here: in the fire of 1689 many persons lost their lives and all the synagogues were destroyed; in the fire of 1750 the town hall was burned. The ghettos were often attacked by mobs bent on plunder. The most noteworthy affair of this kind was the pillaging of the ghetto of Frankfort-on-the-Main (Aug. 22 old style, Sept. 1 new style, 1614; see Fettmilch, Vincent).


The Jews were frequently expelled from their ghettos, the two most important expulsions occurring in the years 1670 and 1744-45. In 1670 they were driven from the ghetto of Vienna, which had been organized in 1625, and which covered part of the site of the present Leopoldstadt; this expulsion was due partly to the ill will of the merchants of the city, who desired to be rid of Jewish competition, and partly to the religious fanaticism of the Bishop of Wiener-Neustadt, subsequently Cardinal Count Kolonitz. The Jews heroically bore their fate, not one of them renouncing his faith for the sake of remaining in the city. After a time, however, the city and even the court began to suffer in consequence of the departure of the Jews, which meant a serious loss of income in taxes. The exiles were therefore permitted to return. They did not go back to their former ghetto, which by that time was occupied by other tenants, the synagogue having been transformed into a church; but they settled in the inner part of the city. A few obtained special privileges, Samuel Oppenheimer, the chief court factor, and Samson Wertheimer, the chief rabbi of the German empire and of the Austrian crown lands, being among them. Both acquired magnificent palaces.

In 1744-45 the Jews of Prague were expelled from their ghetto for a short time. While the French were in possession of that city during the Austrian War of Succession, Jonathan Eybeschütz, then living in Prague, was called to the rabbinate of Metz, and had several conferences with the commander of the French army for the purpose of obtaining a passport. On Dec. 24, 1744, Maria Theresa ordered the expulsion of the Jews from Bohemia on the ground that "they were fallen into disgrace," and on Jan. 2 following she included the Jews of Moravia also. Eybeschütz's personal enemies later on denounced him, saying that he had left Prague under the protection of the French. It is not surprising, therefore, that he occasionally complains of the denunciatory spirit which prevailed at this time among the Jews of Prague. Maria Theresa's order, however, met with the disapproval of the whole of Europe, and the ambassadors of England and Holland especially protested so energetically that the empress felt obliged to revoke her decree (see Frankl-Grün, "Gesch. der Juden in Kremsier," i. 163; Freymann, "Beiträge zur Gesch. der Juden in Prag," ii. 32-37, Berlin, 1898). Meanwhile the Jews, who were not aware of this powerful advocacy, had sent a delegation to the empress offering to pay a special yearly tax for the privilege of returning; thus it came about that the Jews of Bohemia paid a separate Jews' tax, which was abolished only in 1846, under Ferdinand I.

The most important ghettos were those at Venice, Frankfort-on-the-Main, Prague, and Triest. The French Revolution (1789), which proclaimed the principle of freedom and equality, first shook the foundations of the ghetto, and the general uprising of 1848 throughout Europe finally swept away this remnant of medieval intolerance. In the whole civilized world there is now not a single ghetto, in the original meaning of the word. The gates of the ghetto of Rome were recently destroyed.

  • D. Philipson, Old European Jewries, Philadelphia, 1894;
  • Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, pp. 62 et seq.;
  • Berliner, Aus dem Leben der Deutschen Juden im Mittelalter, passim, Berlin, 1900.
G. S. K.