The Black Death, which erupted across Europe and lasted for about four years (1347-51), caused immense devastation, and it appears that the mortality rate among the European population was between 25% and 45%. The immediate consequences of that pandemic had a significant impact on the Jewish population, as the Jews were accused of poisoning the wells that led to the outbreak of the plague, which spread on a massive scale. Throughout Europe, severe persecutions against Jews began, resulting in the death of many Jews and the extinction of hundreds of communities. Various sources, both Hebrew and Christian, bear witness to these events, preserved in our hands, descendants of that time and later.
Knowledge of Jewish martyrology during the Middle Ages, specifically lists documenting Jews who were martyred for sanctifying the Name of God, has been preserved in the manuscript books of various communities, primarily in Germany, which were collected by Siegmund Salfeld, Das Martyrologium des Nürnberger Memorbuches. Information regarding the events of the Black Death is somewhat fragmented. Salfeld heavily relied on one of the manuscript books, but he also supplemented the lists with information from other sources, including individual prayers and elegies that address those persecutions. Additional lists pertaining to martyrdom have been conserved in Hebrew manuscripts.
An unknown memory list has been preserved in a compilation of legal and liturgical texts from the 14th century, or possibly slightly thereafter, which were bound together and written on parchment in various Ashkenazi scripts. This compilation is housed in the library of the University of Gießen in Germany, and it includes: (a) a prayer book following the Ashkenazi custom, (b) laws of prayers according to Rabbi Elazar ben Nathan (Rabbanite), (c) Sha’arei Dura by Rabbi Yitzchak ben Meir Dura, (d) a collection of prayer customs following the “Würzburg” and “Mainz” traditions, (e) Tashbetz by Rabbi Shimson ben Tzadok.
In Hebrew manuscripts, it is common for the owner to add something from a source that is at their disposal in an empty space in the manuscript. Here, someone added a list of communities during the outbreaks of the Black Death in Germany. They undoubtedly saw a need for it, as it would serve them in the prayer of “Yizkor” (Remembrance). In this compilation, a prayer book according to the Ashkenazi custom can also be found, and through this addition, they sought to express the devastation that befell German Jewry during these difficult events. It is unclear whether the individual recorded the names of the communities from memory or copied an existing list. The exact date of its composition is also unclear. I estimate that it was written in the second half of the 14th century or shortly thereafter. Indeed, a similar list is not recognized in our records. It should be noted that there is no direct connection between this list and the accompanying text. A digital photograph of the manuscript was provided to me by Mr. Olof Schneider of the mentioned library in Gießen, and for that, I am grateful.
Upon reaching the end of the fourth composition, which consisted of a compilation of prayer customs based on the “Würzburg” and “Mainz” traditions, one of the owners took the initiative to include a list of remembrances on a nearly blank page. The list begins with the mention of outstanding scholars and sages from the Ashkenazi community, ranging from the 11th to the 13th centuries, whose names also appear in the versions of prayers documented in the lists published by Siegmund Salfeld, Das Martyrologium des Nürnberger Memorbuches. Finally, two formulas unrelated to the Black Death are presented, and their significance will be clarified later on.
Within the compilation, an incomplete cluster of communities vanished during the severe persecutions that afflicted the Jews of Ashkenaz (Germany and surrounding lands), likely in the aftermath of the Black Death. This conclusion is derived from the common fact that Jews residing in all the mentioned locations in the list were affected by the events of the Black Death. The names of most of the mentioned communities in our list have already been included in the lists presented by Salfeld. There is undoubtedly a connection between this list and one or more of the lists published by Salfeld, not only because of the shared place names but also due to slight variations in the formulations of the remembrance prayers found at the beginning and end of our list, which correspond to one of the lists provided by Salfeld. However, there is no direct correlation between the lists, as there are differences in the wording of the place names. Overall, there does not appear to be a common source for these lists.
The place names in the handwritten list generally appear according to their affiliation with principalities, although systematicity is not consistently maintained, and at times the names of places within a particular principality are not listed consecutively. It is also worth noting that the chronological order of the persecutions in Jewish communities was not linked to geographic order, and they occurred during different time periods spanning two years or more. It can be inferred that they occurred due to rumors and speculations that circulated in the region.
The list begins with principalities from northwestern Germany toward the east, south, and west: Sachsen, Brandenburg, Nordrhein Westfalen, Bayern, Franken, Hessen, Thüringen, Schwaben, Elsass, Rheinland Pfalz. In this list are included also the names of countries in the vicinity of Germany: Brabant Holland, Austria, Bohemia, and Switzerland, without mentioning the names of the cities. The transliteration of place names, influenced by the distinctive pronunciation of Ashkenazi Jews during the Middle Ages, occasionally presents puzzling aspects. The presence of vocalization marks alongside these names, a rarity during that time, emphasizes their pronunciation within the Ashkenazi Jewish community, prompting further investigation. It is advisable for a scholar with expertise in vocalization and Ashkenazi pronunciation during the medieval era to provide a comprehensive analysis and valuable insights regarding this subject matter.
May the God remember the soul of Mr. Shlomo and his wife, Mrs. Rachel, along with the souls of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah, for they purchased the cemetery in Mainz and annulled the excommunication of the communities. May God remember them for good, together with the other righteous men and women in the Garden of Eden, and let us say Amen. May the God remember Mr. Yitzchak and his wife, Mrs. Bila, along with the souls of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah, for they annulled the tax in Koblenz. May God remember them for good, together with the other righteous men and women in the Garden of Eden, and let us say Amen. May the God remember the soul of our Rabbi Shimon the Great, may his memory be for a blessing, for his toil and the establishment of the yeshiva and commendations. May God remember him and reward him for good, along with the other righteous men and women in the Garden of Eden, and let us say Amen. May the God remember the soul of our Rabbi Gershom from the exile who enlightened the eyes of the diaspora with his teachings and instituted communal ordinances. May God remember him and commend him for good, along with the other righteous men and women in the Garden of Eden, and let us say Amen. Our Rabbi Shlomo, who enlightened the eyes of the diaspora with his commentaries. Our Rabbi Chananel and our Rabbi Shmuel and our Rabbi Yitzchak and our Rabbi Yaakov, who spread Torah in Israel. Our Rabbi Meir, the son of Rabbi Baruch, and all the other rabbis of the Holy Community who disseminated Torah in Israel. And afterward, the mention of the souls who volunteered for charity.
May God remember the souls of the martyrs and victims of the Jewish community of Köln, along with the souls of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah, who were killed and suffered death due to their loyalty to the Name. May their God remember them for good, along with the other righteous men and women in the Garden of Eden, and let us say Amen. Münster, Dortmund, Osnabrück Minden, Soest and other cities in Münster vicinity of Westphalia, Bremen, and Stade, Seeland, the communities and settlements in the territories of Wendland, the communities and settlements in the territories of Oder, the communities and settlements in the territories of Mark, Magdeburg, Halle, Sachsen, Erfurt, Mühlhausen, Nordhausen, Ellrich, Weissensee, Thuringen, Fulda, Bobingen, Frankfurt a. Main, Friedberg, Wetterau, Kassel, Hassen, Göttingen, Northeim, Rothenburg, Nürnberg, Bamberg, Schweinfurt, Meiningen, Griefswald, Mainz, Worms, Oppenheim, Speyer, Rhein, Trier, Mosel, Eger, Weida, Luxemburg, Koblenz, Neumagen, Weissenfels, Osterland, Dresden, Meissen, Augsburg, München, Landsberg, Straubing, Speyer, Landau, Strassburg, Schlettstadt, Kolmar, Breisach, Elsass, Nördlingen, Heilbronn, Schwaben, Zürich, Bodensee, Brabant, Ungarn[?], Burgau, France, Österreich, and Böhmen.
May the God remember the souls of all the communities, for the souls of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah, and so on. They were killed, burned, stoned, suffocated, slaughtered, drowned, hanged, dragged, raped, and buried alive. They endured various severe afflictions and were killed in various ways, and their blood was shed for the sanctification of the Name. By virtue of their dedication to the Name, may He avenge their blood and seek justice for their destruction, and may He remember them for good, along with the other righteous men and women in the Garden of Eden. May the God remember the souls of all the communities for the souls of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah, who toiled for their sake, and let us say Amen.
The communities were abolished, their sanctuaries were desecrated, their books and Torah scrolls were confiscated at the hands of the Gentiles, whether they preserved the sacred items or not. May they be remembered and accounted for good, along with the other righteous men and women in the Garden of Eden, and let us say Amen.
These final formulations of the "Yizkor" prayer are not related to the persecutions of the Black Death. One is a general remembrance of the sanctuaries of the Lord throughout the generations, and the other is a remembrance of the efforts made by Ashkenazi Jews to revoke “decrees” alongside the abolition of certain “taxes” imposed on various communities at different times. Similar formulations can be found in the Siegmund Salfeld, Das Martyrologium des Nürnberger Memorbuches, which reads:
May God remember the souls of all the communities ... that were killed, stoned, burned, strangled, slaughtered, drowned, hanged, buried alive for the sanctification of the name ... May God remember the souls of all the communities ... who labored for the communities and revoked decrees, abolished taxes, and retrieved Torah scrolls from the hands of the nations, whether they left them or not, because of the good they did. May He remember them together with the righteous and the righteous women in the Garden of Eden, and let us say, Amen.
The horrific bloodshed events that befell the Jews of Europe during the ravages of the Black Death in the mid-14th century are documented in both Hebrew and non-Hebrew sources that have been extensively studied in recent generations. As part of this article, a new list is published, containing dozens of Jewish communities in the Ashkenazi region and neighboring countries that disappeared during those events. It is highly likely that the community leader to whom the list’s copyist belonged would mention them in the "Yizkor" prayer during the High Holy Days and perhaps even during the three pilgrimage festivals. Most of the affected communities are known from various sources, but this list includes unique communities that are not known from other sources, highlighting the importance of this list.
This article is a translation with minor modifications from a Hebrew article originally published in “An Unknown Commemorative List of Communities in Ashkenaz That Were Obliterated in the Black Death Violence,” Zion, vol. 88, no. 3 (2023). It is being reprinted here with the permission of the Historical Society of Israel.
Abraham David is renowned for his significant contributions to the study and preservation of Hebrew Manuscripts. With a career spanning decades, he served as a researcher at the Jewish National and University Library, ultimately becoming the Head Researcher of Hebrew Manuscripts in 2006.