The mystique behind a 600-year-old treasure
Erev Shabbos, 29 Av — Friday, August 5, 1842. Over the din of bustling servants, the elderly Shlomo von Rothschild motions for his son Anselm to join him in his room. Shlomo, known as Solomon Mayer Baron von Rothschild, the patriarch of the family’s Viennese branch, is visiting Anselm, who lives in Frankfurt with his wife and six children.
“My dear boy,” Shlomo says, “as you know, soon after Shabbos, I will be returning to Vienna to be back home for Rosh Hashanah. Before I leave, there is something I wanted to give you. G-d blessed my late father with vast riches, which he bequeathed to us and future generations. At the same time, he endowed us with another legacy — a staunch belief in G-d and His Torah.”
He walks over to the desk and places his hands on an old book. “I give you this antique machzor for the Yamim Nora’im as a gift and a mission — never forget who we are.”
Anselm is deeply moved as he gingerly lifts the antique leather cover and reads the beautiful dedication inscribed beneath the family’s coat of arms.
“… this book I acquired in the city of Nuremberg for one hundred and fifty-one gold coins and presented as a gift to my dear and fine son who is crowned with merits and virtues — Anselm Baron von Rothschild — to safeguard for all generations, so that the Torah of Hashem remains in our mouths from now on forever, amen selah.”
Turning the page, Anselm reads, “Machzor for the entire year … written in March 1415.” A work that must have taken months to complete, the machzor contains all of the tefillos of Rosh Hashanah as well as those said on the eve of Yom Kippur. A perfectly timed gift for the new year.
“Thank you, Father,” Anselm says. “I shall cherish it forever.”
While the above story is a product of my imagination, it is based entirely on recorded historical facts, clues I have gathered over the past several years since discovering this precious sefer in the collection of the Austrian National Library.
In 2013, I was hired by Dr. Andreas Fingernagel, head of the Department for Manuscripts and Rare Books, to join a team for a one year project at the Austrian National Library, digitalizing its Hebrew manuscripts. I had the privilege to see centuries-old sifrei kodesh, ranging from the oldest existing complete set of the Tosefta to letters written by the Chasam Sofer. This job sometimes highlighted the painful treatment of our people, such as when I found fragments of sifrei Torah, but also profoundly fulfilling as I made new discoveries.
One morning, Dr. Fingernagel and project manager Friedrich Simader approached me with a manuscript that needed identifying. Before me lay a thick tome, its wooden cover bound in light-colored leather decorated with engravings and iron ornaments. With gloved hands, I carefully opened this formidable volume and there on the first page was the unmistakable Rothschild family insignia.
While every Hebrew manuscript in the Austrian National Library is of tremendous significance and its collection has brought numerous talmidei chachamim and scholars to its halls, the possible story behind this machzor had me captivated. This one page, added to an early 15th century machzor, with an inscription dedicated by Shlomo, the son of Mayer Anschel Rothschild, to his son Anselm, told the story of a family that rose from the ghettos of Frankfurt to the courts of European emperors and kings.
If these pages could talk…
They would tell its story from its early beginnings in the first years of the 15th century, when it was transcribed by writer Moshe ben Menachem, of unknown origin, in collaboration with artists who designed its magnificent illuminations. Doubtless commissioned by a person of means, the machzor must have taken months to write.
Before the Rothschilds, the only documented identity of ownership is a Shlomo Zalman ben Moshe Auerbach, who presumably lived in the 17th century.
What else did this machzor witness? How many shuls did it see in its 605 years of existence? How many baalei tefillah moved communities with tefillos from this machzor during the Yamim Nora’im, the very same tefillos we recite to this day? And how did this tome get from the Rothschilds’ possession to the Austrian National Library?
The earliest books in the Austrian National Library date back to the 14th century, 200 years before the library was established. Hebrew manuscripts seem to have been part of the collection from its early days.
“Friedrich III (1415-1493) speaks of Judenbücher*,” Dr. Fingernagel says, “though I doubt these refer to Hebrew books. The first catalogue of our manuscript collection, from 1576, lists 10 Hebrew manuscripts.”
In 1726, under Emperor Karl VI, construction of the library with its magnificent Prunksaal (State Hall) was completed. Built with an entrance from inside the palace for the royal household and one from the street, it was a library intended to benefit the broader public. With a capacity to hold a quarter-million books, the library rapidly outgrew its walls, forcing them to extend underground into an extensive network of corridors with book storage spanning the entire Hofburg Palace complex and beyond. It is assumed that the monarchs used the passages whenever they wanted to leave the palace grounds undetected.
Today, the library counts almost four million books, including 244 complete and 327 fragmented Hebrew manuscripts, almost exclusively sifrei kodesh.
Among the fragments preserved at this library are those that tell entire tales of their own, such as the four rectangles of the famed Kremser Kesubah dated 1391, where the names of the chassan, kallah, and their respective fathers are still as clear as the colorful drawings of bride and groom on its ornamental frame.
Working with fragments is not an easy task for me, especially when I discover snippets cut at various angles inside Christian works. Dr. Fingernagel is doubtful it was done out of spite. “In Christianity, repurposing religious works is not seen as desecration,” he explains. “there might not have been the [hateful] intention when sacred Hebrew manuscripts were cut up. Written on parchment, which is appreciated for its durability, they were used to reinforce spines and covers (in books). Interestingly, I have also found such fragments in some Hebrew works.”
Numerous fragments have been removed and categorized, while many remain in Latin works because of conservational reasons. “The ones pasted with water-soluble glue were easy to remove, while the decision to leave others in those works usually depended on the risk of destroying the entire book,” Fingernagel reasons.
The provenance work in the Austrian National Library is quite thorough, with the practice of owners registering their names inside books aiding in the research. It gets difficult with books obtained during the Holocaust with a shrouded background. “During our restitution inquiries, we were very meticulous in tracing any additions to the library during the Holocaust to rule out illegal obtainment of looted books,” Dr. Fingernagel says. “Those works often have the unmistakable ‘P38’ (Police 1938) stamped inside and interestingly, there were very few hebrew books amongst them.”
The notes on these procurements contain comments such as, “The Jew gladly bequeathed us these books.” This highlights the Nazis’ cynical twisting of a blackmailed and forced confiscation. Some items came directly from the owners, while others made their way through antique book dealers.
An Untraceable Mystery
For all the conducted research, the arrival of the Rothschild machzor cannot be traced. Some believe that it reached the library’s shelves in the late 19th century. According to Dr. Fingernagel, it seems more likely to have arrived in the late 1920s.
“Had it been a gift from the Rothschilds in the 1800s, then Schwarz would have included it in his catalogue,” he reasons, referring to the catalogue of Hebrew manuscripts of the Austrian National Library compiled by Arthur Zacharias Schwarz. Schwarz, an expert in Hebrew codicology, published his work on 220 complete manuscripts and numerous fragments in the library in 1925.
The Rothschild Machzor received number 242, meaning it was not yet part of the collection at that time and must have arrived soon after — though it is unclear whether it was sold or endowed to the library and by whom.
This question joins the other mysteries of the machzor. Was it the only volume that the writer Moshe ben Menachem wrote? Does the title “Machzor L’chol Hashanah” (for the entire year) allude to more machzorim?
“Some people are of the opinion that he did not write any others,” Fingernagel says. “They base their argument on the word ‘completed’ on the last page. To me, this isn’t necessarily proof that there were no further volumes written, or at least planned.”
For a long time, it was presumed that the machzor was written in Germany, but researchers disagree with that assumption. Dr. Fingernagel points to two clues noted by researchers of the Bezalel Narkiss Center of Jewish Art.
“Some of the piyutim in this machzor are of the Österreich rite, not recited in the Rhineland,” he says, “and then there is the reference to Vienna on folio 108.”
Indeed, on that page, one finds the opening lines to “Melech Elyon,” above which are the words “b’Vina poschin aron — in Vienna, the aron [kodesh] is opened [here].” Though I am not convinced it is the original scribe’s writing, it most certainly dates back to that period and proves that this machzor was used in a community that adhered to Viennese customs.
Who was Moshe Mayer?
Every Jewish child at some point hears the story of Asher Anschel, who took the family name Rothschild from his house in the Frankfurt ghetto with the red shield — Roth-Schild. It is well-known how, from an impoverished childhood, his integrity and the brachah of a tzaddik gained him financial success. His son, the famed Mayer Anschel Rothschild, went on to establish one of the most successful and influential Jewish banking families in the 19th century.
Mayer Anschel, the founder of the Rothschild dynasty, was sent to train in banking at the age of 15, soon after his father’s passing. While the name Rothschild became emblematic in Europe of anti-Semitic legends of Jewish conspiracies, composed of secret networks of Jews seeking to dominate the world, the name took on an entirely different meaning in Jewish history. Known for his generous hand and excellent ties with important figures, Mayer Anschel was the address for people in need.
The question that begs explanation is: why does the machzor call him Moshe Mayer when he is known as Mayer Anschel? Where did the name Moshe come from?
The Rothschild family tree shows Mayer Anschel’s paternal grandfather was Moshe and the maternal grandfather Mayer. Historian Bathya Chaya Markovits deduces that he was named Moshe Mayer after both grandfathers, yet he was known as Mayer Anschel.
“It was common practice at the time in German-speaking countries to add the father’s name without the word ‘ben,’” says Markovits. “A classic example is Harav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, whose name was actually Shamshon ben Raphael.
“So, Mayer Anschel’s real name was actually Moshe Mayer ben Anschel. The Rothschild family retained this practice even after they adopted the family name, presumably to distinguish the individuals in the various branches of the family, because they were repeatedly given their ancestors’ names.”
Continuing the Legacy
Moshe Mayer ben Asher Anschel Rothschild, a man who used his gifts to build a legacy spawning continents and generations, raised his children as Torah-true Jews, men of integrity, and benevolence.
He sent four of his sons to open branches of the bank and business in France, England, Austria, and Naples, the fifth remaining in Germany. His son Shlomo (Solomon), who was dispatched to Austria, settled in Vienna with his wife Caroline and their two children, Anselm and Betty. As was common for the Rothschilds, his children married within the family. Solomon’s son, Anselm, married his cousin Charlotte, daughter of his uncle Nathan from London, and settled in Frankfurt where he worked on behalf of his father and uncle.
In 1848, upon the Vienna Uprising, Anselm’s father Solomon, the target of numerous anti-Semitic conspiracies, was forced to flee Vienna. Three years later, his son Anselm moved back to the imperial capital to take over the reins of the family business.
While undertaking large investments in Austrian infrastructure, such as the railway systems, Anselm indeed continued to keep the legacy of his father and that of his grandfather before him, assisting people in need and supporting Jewish life. He founded the Jewish hospital in Vienna known as the Rothschild Hospital and funded several tzedakah agencies. Upon his passing on 13 Av, 1874, at the age of 71, he endowed millions to Vienna’s Jewish community and various tzedakah organizations.
Austria seems to have forgotten its Rothschildian benefactors, their contribution left for historians to discover after much of it was wiped away along with the rest of Austrian Jewry during the Holocaust. Today, the machzor, a symbolic slice of Jewish history, rests on a shelf in the Austrian National Library, a silent missive reminding us to cherish our legacy.
Machzor 1: The first page of the machzor with the transcription by the writer Moshe ben Menachem in the year 1415.
Machzor 2: A page in the machzor dedicated by Shlomo Rothschild to his son Anselm.
Machzor 3: The matzeivah of Mayer Anschel Rothschild in Frankfurt.
Machzor 4: His son Shlomo Rothschild