Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer
Portrait of Emperor Franz Joseph I..

When Emperor Ferdinand abdicated as part of the plan to end the Revolutions of 1848 in Hungary, his nephew, Franz Joseph I (1830-1916) assumed the throne and went on to serve as emperor of Austria and king of Hungary and other states of the Habsburg monarchy. His realms were reconstituted in 1867 as the dual monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with Austria and Hungary coexisting as equal partners and, although he was an immensely popular monarch, his reign was marked by revolutions fueled by rising liberalism and nationalism. His annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908 led to the assassination by Serbian nationalists of his nephew and heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his declaration of war against the Kingdom of Serbia ultimately led to World War I.

At a time when antisemitism ran rampant through Europe, Franz Joseph involved himself personally in Jewish causes and he became one of the greatest emancipators in modern European Jewish history. His policies evidenced extraordinary benevolence toward the Jews and, almost from the start of his reign, he implemented bold changes that had a transformative effect on the Jews of his realm. In 1849, he launched a constitutional monarchy by adopting a constitution that affirmed: “I, Franz Josef I, declare that everyone is entitled to his own beliefs and religious customs. Civil and political rights are not dependent on religion. Civic duties, however, must not be obstructed by religious customs.”


In 1852, he officially sanctioned an autonomous Jewish religious community in Vienna, leading to the “Golden Age of Viennese Jewry,” the establishment of the Israelite community of Vienna, and the construction of dozens of synagogues in the city. In 1860, he issued a decree pursuant to which Jews would be permitted to become landowners and to pursue the profession of their choice and, through the Fundamental Law of 1867, he nullified all limitations on Jewish participation in public life.

The emperor publicly and firmly condemned the antisemitism that was so widespread in Austria, advising his cabinet ministers that “I will tolerate no Jew-baiting in my empire.” In the Lower Austrian Diet, he called allegations that Jewish physicians were killing Christian children a “scandal and disgrace in the eyes of the world” (1892). In an 1895 correspondence to his wife, Empress Elizabeth of Austria (see discussion below), he wrote “Antisemitism is an illness spread by now in the highest circles, and the propaganda of it is incredible . . . its excesses are awful.”

During his frequent visits to synagogues and other Jewish institutions, he would compliment the Jews on their virtues, including particularly their devotion to family life and charity. In one notable incident, when he praised the generosity of a Viennese Jewish family in donating a large sum of money to build a hospital, and an astonished Prince Waldemar of Denmark asked, “Your Majesty, I hope you are not a philosemite,” he smilingly replied, “Indeed I am.”


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Exhibited here is an 1860 medal minted to commemorate a decree by Franz Joseph granting the right of some Jews to purchase land, which was given as a souvenir to the Jewish community in the town of Gura Humorului (today in North Romania). On the obverse is a relief of a woman holding a scroll with the legend Din Echad Le’Am Echad (“One Law for One People”); she is facing a youth holding a bouquet and between them is an altar with the portrait of the Emperor surmounted by the Tablets of the Law with the Hebrew legend, “One law will be for all of us.” The German text at the bottom reads, “Thanks to Your Highness Emperor Franz Joseph I, the Jews throughout the Austrian Empire have been Granted the Right to Own Lands.”

Inside the medallion (not shown) is a Magen David with the Hebrew inscriptions “This memory will be a sign for a covenant forever, amen,” and “Made and finished well for the city of the holy community in the year of `I will resurrect my covenant between me and you’’” [in gematria, this is the year 5622-1861/1862].

In the infamous Edgardo Mortara case, papal emissaries acting on behalf of Pope Pius IX kidnapped a seven-year-old Jewish boy in 1858 and brought him to Rome as a ward of the pope after a servant told a priest that she had surreptitiously baptized the child when he was a baby. Franz Joseph interceded, publicly urged the pope to return the child, and sent a formal protest to the Vatican, but Pius refused. (Notwithstanding the passionate international protest against the Vatican, Mortara was never released and he eventually became a priest.)

When the vehemently antisemitic Karl Lueger, whom Hitler would later venerate, was elected mayor of Vienna (1895), Franz Joseph refused to confirm him multiple times over a two-year period on the grounds that Lueger’s conduct established that he could not serve as an unprejudiced mayor and would not assure equal treatment for “all citizens” under law (and it was manifestly clear which citizens he was talking about). But with the growing popularity of Lueger’s Christian Social Party and its massive electoral victories, and with the intercession of Pope Leo XIII, the emperor could no longer block him from office.

Antisemites, who derisively nicknamed Franz Joseph Judenkaiser (“the Kaiser of the Jews”), endeavored to turn him against the Jews. In one infamous incident, they covertly removed photos of the emperor from the synagogues and other Jewish sites in Cracow prior to his arrival there. Even this daring plot failed to incite his enmity against the Jews after Rav Shimon Sofer (the son of the Chatam Sofer) placated him with an explanation that such photographs were unnecessary at a time when the Jewish community was graced with his actual royal presence.

During his famous trip to Eretz Yisrael in 1869, during which he was warmly greeted by the Jewish population everywhere he went, Franz Joseph visited the Tiferet Israel Synagogue in Jerusalem and asked why it had no roof. Told with a wink by Rav Nissan Beck that “Your majesty, the synagogue has doffed its hat to you,” the monarch personally donated the funds to complete the construction – and the newly-constructed dome became known as “Franz Joseph’s cap.”

Prayer pamphlet for service honoring Franz Joseph’s birthday (1853).

On the final day of the Emperor’s visit, Rav Beck led a Yishuv delegation to present him with a precious bowl carved by noted artist Mordechai Schnitzer. (The Moses stone vase and plate that Schnitzer sent to him in 1853 in celebration of his surviving an assassination attempt is on exhibit at the Natural History Museum in Vienna.) Profoundly moved, Franz Joseph said that he would never forget the Jerusalem Jewish community, and he expressed the wish that “may my Jewish subjects always remember me.”

And they did.

The adoring Jewish community affectionately referred to their sovereign as “Ephraim Yossel” and as h”rych, ha-keisar, yarum hodo (“the Emperor, may his Majesty be exalted”), and Franz Joseph, in turn, was appreciative of the devotion and loyalty of the Jews, particularly at a time of growing internal and international tensions. Synagogues held annual services to celebrate his birthday and Jews wrote heartfelt prayers, poems and songs about him, some of which were printed in their siddurim. Among other Jewish institutions that bore his name, the St. Polten synagogue, also known as the “Franz Joseph Jubilee Synagogue,” was dedicated on the eve of his birthday on August 17, 1913.

Tefillah L’shom Medinah (“Prayer for the welfare of the Government”) in honor of Franz Joseph and Elizabeth from a Passover machzor.

The jubilee celebration of the 50th anniversary of Franz Joseph’s ascension to the throne became a widely celebrated Jewish holiday, and the Jewish community recognized him with two notable tributes. First, the Austro-Galician Jewish community gave him a Scroll of Esther in the neo-baroque style common in European art at the time, which included a double acrostic spelling out the emperor’s name and featured renditions of the Jewish holy places in Eretz Yisrael captioned in Hebrew. Also included as part of the gift was a silver filigree scroll case and a carved olivewood case. Second, the Austro-Hungarian, Bohemian and Moravian Jewish communities gave him an epistle featuring a Torah crown and featuring micrography, a traditional art form, and addressing Franz Joseph through heraldic symbols of the Dual Monarchy. The accompanying mother-of-pearl box also featured renditions of the Jewish holy places in Eretz Yisrael, but captioned in German.

Other laudatory Jubilee tributes were sent by the Yishuv in Eretz Yisrael, including an epistle from the Rothschild Hospital in Jerusalem, which was founded in the Old City in 1854 by James Mayer de Rothschild with Franz Joseph’s blessings. Drawn in the Oriental artistic style, it included a rendition of the hospital; representations of Jewish holy sites; oriental cityscapes with domes, palm trees, and minarets; and the coats-of-arms of Austria and Hungary, Austro-Hungarian heraldry, and the 50 years of Franz Joseph’s reign (1848 to 1898) framed by a gate of honor, an artistic element that represented the Gates of Heaven through which prayers reach G-d. These tributes were designed to arouse Franz Joseph’s affection for the Jews, and they proved highly successful in this regard.

Ironically, the most extensive anti-Jewish rioting since Franz Joseph established a constitutional monarchy in 1867 broke out in the early months of 1898, and debates regarding the violence dominated the last sessions of the parliament in Vienna before the December 2, 1898, celebration and commemoration of the Emperor’s Golden Jubilee. In Sefer Sandz, Jewish historian Raphael Mahler writes that Galician Jews remember the 1898 outbreak as “The Plunder.”

During the antisemitic attacks through more than 400 Galician communities, Jews were assaulted, their houses and business were ransacked and destroyed, and they otherwise sustained significant material loss. However, although scores of Jews were injured, none were killed, due in large part to Franz Joseph’s soldiers, although government militias killed 18 antisemitic Christian rioters. By January 1899, government prosecutors had charged 5,170 people, including peasants, shopkeepers, and even city council members, 2,328 of whom received prison sentences ranging from a few days to three years. Franz Joseph’s continued support for the Jews in the wake of The Plunder was all the more remarkable given the very difficult contemporary political and antisemitic environment in which he found himself, and his response provided a dramatic contrast to the response by previous governments to pogroms against Jews, which was, at best, to stand by while Jews were slaughtered.

In the 1908 pageant in Vienna celebrating Franz Joseph’s 60th year on the throne, among the nations depicted in national costumes was a Jew dressed in a kaftan and fur cap. Once again, the Austro-Galician Jewish community sent a Scroll of Esther and the Austro-Hungarian, Bohemian and Moravian Jewish communities sent an epistle.

The Megillah scroll features four iconic Jerusalem scenes, including two of the Western Wall and images of Mount Zion and the Temple Mount and Franz Joseph’s coat-of-arms, oak and laurel branches, and his motto, Viribus Unitus [“United in Strength”]. Below is an eagle spreading its wings, a metaphor for G-d and the emperor who protect their people under their wing, and the images and text reinforce the prayer that G-d bless the righteous monarch and his dominion. Franz Joseph’s name appears in gold letters atop the legend: “[a blessing from] the city after which you are named, for King of Jerusalem is your name.” Wishing the monarch glory and prosperity akin to King Solomon’s monarchy, the accompanying caption from Psalms 72:7 reads “In his days shall the righteous flourish and abundance of peace as long as the moon endures.”

The decorated epistle features a group of painted postcards which, reflecting the increasing popularity of photography, exhibit Jewish monuments in realistic settings, including the Western Wall; new Jewish neighborhoods and institutions in Jerusalem; and agricultural settlements and towns built and established with pride by the new early twentieth century Yishuv. Encircling the postcards is a frame designed in the new Bezalel style, and printed on top in royal crimson is the verse from Isaiah 32:17: “Your eyes shall see the king in all his glory” and from Psalms 61:6, “You will prolong the king’s life and his years as many generations,” purposely drawing an analogy between King David and Franz Joseph.

Exhibited here is a fine example of Jewish esteem for the Emperor, Versi Ebraici (“Hebrew Verses”), a beautiful poem by Rav David Samuel Luzzatto, aka “The Shadal,” on the occasion of the marriage of Franz Joseph to Elizabeth (nicknamed Sisi), princess of Bavaria, in 1854:

The Shadal’s poem congratulating Emperor Franz Joseph on his marriage.

Rejoice and raise a song, you daughters of Austria,
stir your violins,
let every hill and ravine within your borders sing,
because our king, Franz Joseph and Elisheva,
will unite today in an immutable covenant.

Now your throne is true, it will never lack,
your offspring are heirs to the throne.
The shoots of your stem will bloom forever. A lover of peach and righteousness,
a mighty king who redeems,
will never cease from the house of Franz,
his light will shine forever like the sun.

Blessings to the great and esteemed
Franz Joseph our king;
bless our queen,
may their crown sprout forever.

As they will be his offspring,
they will succeed forever;
and in the land of his kingdom,
a bloom will strengthen peace.

Franz Joseph’s marriage ceremony to Duchess Elizabeth of Bavaria, aka Sisi, which was marked by immense joy, ultimately became a great tragedy. His infatuation with his young wife – she was only 15 – was unreciprocated and, suffocated by the intense, strict, and isolating life in the royal court, she prevailed upon him to agree to establish a royal residence 15 miles outside the capital. Nonetheless, by 1860, she developed an aversion to food, suffered a nervous breakdown and, in response to her demand that she be permitted to leave the capital, he sent her to a region in Madeira for five months, after which she seemed somewhat improved.

By the 1880s, however, Sisi often spoke of harming herself, and Franz Joseph’s concern for her deepened in 1889 when she descended into a whirlpool of depression in the wake of the suicide of their son, Prince Rudolf, heir to the throne. Finally, on September 10, 1898, Sisi was murdered in Geneva by an Italian anarchist. (Ironically, the Emperor himself had survived an 1853 assassination attempt.)

Portrait of the Shadal, Rav David Samuel Luzzatto.

In response to Franz Joseph’s order that all rabbinical students must receive philosophical training, the Shadal (1800-1865), an extraordinary child prodigy and polymath, renowned Rav, Bible commentator, teacher, Jewish historian, philosopher, poet, philologist, and linguist, founded the Collegio Rabbinico, considered to be the first modern rabbinical seminary in Europe, where he served as Professor of Hebrew, Bible, Theology and History, and taught for 36 years.

Rav Luzzatto’s versatility is evidenced by wide-ranging commentaries and studies. Listing only a few of his myriad accomplishments, he translated the Ashkenazi siddur into Italian (1821); wrote Hebrew commentaries on the Chumash and the Haftarot; edited the medieval chronicle Seder Tannaim v’Amoraim (1839); conducted pioneering work in his editions of Yehuda Halevi’s poetry and published an anthology of medieval Hebrew poetry; published various linguistic and grammatical works; and, in Avnei Zikaron (1841), he became the first to treat Hebrew tombstone inscriptions as an important primary source for Jewish historical research.

The Shadal’s beliefs, teaching, and writings were characterized by the strictest fidelity to halacha, and he was perhaps the fiercest critic of “Jewish Science” and “higher Torah criticism.” However, his guiding principle was that the Torah is revealed law, not “revealed articles of faith,” and the central thesis of his work often evidenced an attempt to shift the emphasis upon theology to anthropology and from abstract Aristotelian philosophy to ethics and proper conduct.

Rav Luzzatto’s views sometimes proved controversial and often conflicted with majoritarian traditional Jewish views. Though he was a passionate supporter of Torah min Hashamyim (the doctrine that the Torah was divinely given to the Jews at Mount Sinai), he felt free to amend certain biblical texts; questioned the authorship of various prophetic texts, including particularly a rejection of the idea that Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) was written by King Solomon; and, proving that vowels and accents did not exist in Talmudic times, he concluded that the Zohar must have been written at a later time and, hence, could not have been written by R. Shimon ben Yochai as was commonly believed.

He believed that tikkun hadat (moral behavior) and shmirat hadat (preservation of the faith) are not only the main goals of the Torah but, indeed, its raison d’etre. As such, he was highly critical of “rabbinical legalism” and he viewed the Mishna and Talmud as treatises of practical morality. He rejected both the Rambam’s attempt to base faith upon reason and Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch’s attempt to provide reasons for the mitzvot; what R. Hirsch ascribed to faith, the Shadal explained by means of historical, ethical, and socio-psychological rationales – and he was a vehement opponent of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].