The Act of Separation and the End of the Triple Congregation

Jörg Berkemann

Source Description

On April 26, 1812, the ten members of the Committee of Separation signed a handwritten document. It would be immediately designated simply as the “Act of Separation.” The Committee of Separation was composed equally of members of the Altona and Hamburg Jewish congregations. Certainly, they had come to an agreement, but under the pressure of changed constitutional conditions.

The Act is among the earliest longer documents of the Jewish congregations in the Hamburg region. It is composed in the German language and in Latin script. In form and content it deals with contractual negotiations, essentially concerning financial assets. The contents of the Act of Separation were published in excerpts by Moses M. Haarbleicher, to whom posterity owes its knowledge of the essential paragraphs of the document (see M[oses] M. Haarbleicher, Aus der Geschichte der Deutsch-Israelitischen Gemeinde in Hamburg [From the History of the German-Israelite Congregation in Hamburg], 2nd ed., Hamburg 1886, p. 81). The complete text, with related relevant documents, is preserved in the Hamburg State Archive, Sign. STAHH Jüdische Gemeinden 112 Separations-Contract der Altonaer Gemeinde d. d. April 26, 1812.

  • Jörg Berkemann

The Origins of the Jewish Triple Congregation (Altona, Hamburg, and Wandsbek)

The initial settlement of Ashkenazi Jews in the Hamburg region can be dated from the end of the 16th century. In the middle of the 17th century, three centers of settlement formed, namely, Altona, Wandsbek, and a kind of double congregation in Hamburg, with Jews from Altona and Wandsbek, so-called branch congregations [Filialgemeinden], which saw themselves as belonging to their respective mother congregations in Altona or Wandsbek. The political and juridical background for this “dispersal” lay in the fact that the Danish king, in exchange for payment, issued letters of protection to Jews settled in Holstein. At almost the same time there arose in Hamburg an independent center of settlement of “Hamburg” Jews. For these Jews, the Hamburg City Council was solely responsible. Thus, even the legal status of Jews living within Hamburg was quite varied. Altona at first belonged to the Schauenburg County of Pinneberg, then to the Duchy of Holstein since 1640 to which Wandsbek also belonged. The legal status of Hamburg was disputed. Up until the Gottorper Compromise of 1758, the Danish crown was of the view that Hamburg lay in Danish territory.

In the years 1669 and 1671, a compromise was reached by which the Altona and Wandsbek Jews, with their respective Hamburg branch congregations, as well as the Jews of Hamburg came together in the “triple congregation” AHU. In this way, the political and territorial boundaries were burst asunder. The grouping thus created was dominated by Danish-administered Altona. The chief rabbi’s seat was in Altona. He also exercised jurisdiction over the Jews in Hamburg and Wandsbek, as well as the Jews in Schleswig-Holstein. On the other hand, the Hamburg congregation became increasingly stronger in economic and demographic terms.

The End of the Triple Congregation

This development in the direction of a single great Jewish congregation was interrupted by external political events. On November 18, 1806, the French military occupied Hamburg. In the following year, the Code Napoléon was introduced. French legislation concerning the constitution of Jewish religious institutions that went into force in a Napoleonic decree of March 17, 1808 made the dissolution of the triple congregation inevitable. On December 10, 1810, Hamburg was annexed by the French Empire as the Département des Bouches de l’Elbe [Department of the Mouth of the Elbe River]. Thereby, the Jews of Hamburg came under the French Emancipation Law of November 13, 1791. The Law mandated the immediate and unconditional civil equality of Jews. Now, as citizens of France, the Jews of Hamburg enjoyed freedom. The Jews of the Altona and Wandsbek congregations remained so-called protected Jews under Danish rule. The triple congregation AHU was thereby shattered.

This situation urgently necessitated a new ordering of Jewish institutions in the whole Hamburg region. To this end, and by official order of the French Prefect, two commissions were formed. A smaller commission was supposed to make suggestions about the dissolution of the existing structures of the Altona branch congregation in Hamburg. Five Jews from Hamburg and five from Altona sat on it. The dissolution was confirmed in a Mémoire, drafted in French, which was formulated by Moses Isaac Hertz and Jacob Oppenheimer and published by Moses M. Haarbleicher (pp. 71-77). Haarbleicher provided no date for the Mémoire. According to a reference in the text to the resignation of the City Senate on February 13, 1811, however, it can be fixed more or less between the middle and end of February 1811.

The (smaller) commission was later generally referred to as the Separation Commission. For the Altona mother congregation, the members were Mayer Benjamin Cohen, Amsel Jacob Rée, Isaac Bendix Schiff, Abraham Heymann von Halle and Salomon Meyer; for the Hamburg side, they were Levin Herzig Wallach, Raphael Samuel Haarbleicher, Lazarus Jacob Riesser, Ruben Moses Ruben, and Jacob Amsel Oppenheimer. It is a well-founded assumption that the Hamburg members were exclusively from the Altona branch congregation in Hamburg and that this especially qualified them to belong to the Separation Commission. In this capacity they were simultaneously members of the 15-person “great Committee.” The mission of this body was to develop suggestions for an organizational restructuring of the Hamburg congregation. The members of the branch congregations, which were in the course of dissolving, should be integrated into this “new”congregation. Superimposed upon the activity of both commissions were the political interests of the Danish government and the French Prefect. Concerning the concrete, largely technical working procedures of the two committees, more can be learned from the Hebrew-language minutes of the commissions, which reside in the Hamburg State Archive.

The Contractual Negotiations between Altona and Hamburg

The basic model for an understanding was simple in its content: each party to the contract retained that which it already possessed de facto (see §3). This pertained also to the synagogues. An exception was made of the common cemetery on “Danish” soil, newly acquired in Altona in 1810, which was to continue to be used by both congregations (see §6). Hereafter, Hamburg was to receive two thirds, Altona one third, whereby the previous intermixing of the two congregations’ corpses would cease. A relocation [of corpses] would therefore take place in the future. Furthermore, the Hamburg congregation was granted the shared use of the Altona hospital for the following two years (see §10). Debts were defined and fundamentally distributed to the two contracting parties on the basis of their origin (§12). The Hamburg congregation, moreover, paid Altona a sum of 20,000 Marks in Danish three percent state bonds (see §11). Interestingly, the contract reckoned on the Hamburg side a total debt of 328,771 Mark Courant and 11 shillings; the Altona congregation had a debt of 155,360 Mark Courant. The Mark Courant, similar to the Lübeck Mark, was basically only for bookkeeping purposes in Hamburg, essentially an accounting unit of the Hamburg Bank of 1619. The distinctive coins were denominated not as “Mark” but rather as “Shilling Hamburger Current.” The specified level of debt for Hamburg corresponded to a value of approximately 2.26 t of fine silver; for Altona it was approximately 1.07 t of fine silver. In respect to the debts, a judicial public announcement (“proclamation”) of a lawsuit was expected, in order on one hand to protect possible creditors and on the other to preclude reneging on debts (cf. §13ff). The procedures were supposed to visibly align with Hamburg’s Bankruptcy Ordinance of 1753, therefore following the bankruptcy and insolvency laws. This pertained first and foremost to Jews who were the executors of wills. Whether the legally cumbersome procedures were ever implemented is uncertain. Haarbleicher doubted this in the report on the congregation, he prepared in 1866.

Books, documents, or papers were to be divided so that each congregation received those “which issued from its particular earlier circumstances up to the present dissolution of the nexus, or which might have a bearing on its future condition” (see §16). The minutes of the previous common board meetings remained in Altona, the testaments in Hamburg. A special arrangement was made for the two cantors of the preceding joint congregation (§18). The dissolution of the triple congregation and the planned founding of a “united” Hamburg congregation required a reorganization of the existing burial societies. They had always existed in Altona, in Hamburg only since 1670. In this matter, the Act of Separation could not arrive at a definitive solution (see §19). Negotiations dragged on into September 1812. In case of differences in interpretation of the contract, both sides would submit “to the arbitration of an assembled Mosaic court.” Its decision (“laudum”) would have the same force as if pronounced by a court of the highest authority (see §21). In what manner the Wandsbek branch congregation separated from the mother congregation is not known.

The New Jewish Congregation in Hamburg

The agreement in the Act of Separation was without doubt a significant presupposition for spurring the “Great Committee” to form an autonomous Hamburg congregation. On April 5, 1812, the Committee approved the unification of the Jews of Hamburg and those of the dissolved branch congregations with the Hamburg congregation and issued a provisional constitution for “the establishment of a Council of General Administration and the naming of notables for the Israelite congregation in Hamburg.” An assembly of delegates composed of 25 notables had to be selected. From this body was chosen an executive committee of seven board members. The current rabbis were authorized to continue practicing. The Hamburg members of the ten-man “small” committee made careers in the new congregation. Three became members of the executive committee, another was the “General Collector,” that is, the congregation member responsible for the financial system.

Henceforth, the Jews of Hamburg formed an autonomous congregation which was initially placed under a provisional administration. On November 12, 1812, a letter from the senior president of the royal chancellery of Schleswig-Holstein in Copenhagen, Conrad Daniel Blücher, confirmed “the abolition of private relationships between the Jewish congregations of Hamburg and Altona.” One can equally designate the “Act of Separation” as the founding document of the Hamburg congregation. This was, in any case, the view of Hamburg Jews in the 19th century. Whether there was a formal juridical act that ended the triple congregation may be doubted. In a juridical sense, the Act of Separation did not have as its purpose the dissolution of the triple congregation AHU, for this had long been a fact. Thus it stands rather clearly and affirmatively in the document: “Abrogation of the community of the two congregations in which each one of them will exist in itself and operate on the share that falls to them according to the laws of property ownership.” The authority of the Napoleonic laws and decrees had factually and legally created the framework from which practical principles of rule were developed. The French administration exerted pressure to this end. Given the constitutional status of Hamburg, it was not reconcilable for Jews to have legal relationships outside French state territory. The document encoded and reflected the “conditions of the time.”

For the Jews of Hamburg it was certainly not unwelcome to be able to shake off the traditional religious hegemony of the Altona congregation. French law offered them the possibility of forming their own chief rabbinate. The jurisdiction of the prevailingly conservative chief rabbinate of Altona over the Jews of Hamburg could be ended by this means. Yet a further factor came into play. The economic situation in Hamburg had become critical. The consequences of Napoleon’s continental blockade were felt. The north German port cities were strongly affected by the decline in shipping and by the outflow of capital to Great Britain. To the Hamburg congregation “the necessity soon became clear of finally separating from the Altona congregation, which it had had to help year after year” (according to Moses M. Haarbleicher, p. 70). A favorable opportunity had presented itself to get free of Hamburg’s share of the protection money that the Altona congregation paid annually to the German Chancellery in Copenhagen. In any case, all payments ceased. Demands by the Danish crown were ignored. The response presented was unmistakable when it stated: “The community which heretofore existed between a part of the High German Jewry of Hamburg and the High German Jewry of Altona, under the designation of Jewish congregation of Altona and Hamburg, is forever abolished” (§1 of the document). Near the end of the text of the contract this was further strengthened: “Finally, both sides of the High Commissioners declare reciprocally that the Act of Separation, mutually agreed to, separates and dissolves the heretofore two parts of the now superseded community” (see §21). Not until 1821, at the behest of the Hamburg Senate, was the designation of “German-Israelite congregation in Hamburg” adopted.

Select Bibliography

Max Grunwald, Hamburgs deutsche Juden bis zur Auflösung der Dreigemeinden 1811, Hamburg 1904.
M[oses] M. Haarbleicher, Aus der Geschichte der Deutsch-Israelitischen Gemeinde in Hamburg, Zweite Ausgabe. Herausgegeben und mit einem Vorworte versehen von H. Berger, Hamburg 1886.
M[oses] M. Haarbleicher, Zwei Epochen aus der Geschichte der Deutsch-Israelitischen Gemeinde in Hamburg, Hamburg 1867.
Ina Lorenz / Jörg Berkemann, Streitfall Jüdischer Friedhof Ottensen (1663–1993). Wie lange dauert Ewigkeit, 2 vols., Hamburg 1995.
Günter Marwedel, Die Königlich privilegirte Altonaer Adreß-Comtoir-Nachrichten und die Juden in Altona, Hamburg 1994.
Günter Marwedel, Geschichte der Juden in Hamburg, Altona und Wandsbek. Vorträge und Aufsätze Hamburg 1982.
Günter Marwedel, Die Privilegien der Juden in Altona, Hamburg 1976.
Gaby Zürn, Die Altonaer jüdische Gemeinde (1611–1873). Ritus und soziale Institutionen des Todes im Wandel, Hamburg 2001.

Selected English Titles

Dean Phillip Bell, Jewish Identity in Early Modern Germany. Memory, Power and Community, Burlington, VT. 2007.
Stefi Jersch-Wenzel, “Legal Status and Emancipation,” in: Michael Meyer (ed.), German-Jewish History in Modern Times. Vol 2: Emancipation and Acculturation 1780-1871, New York 1996, pp. 5-50.
David Sorkin, The Transformation of German Jewry, 1780-1840, New York 1987.
Mary Lindemann, The Merchant Republics. Amsterdam, Antwerp, and Hamburg, 1648–1790, New York 2015.

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About the Author

Jörg Berkemann, Prof. Dr. jur. Dr. phil., born 1937, is a former judge of the German Federal Administrative Court. He is honorary professor for public law at the University of Hamburg and teaches at the Bucerius Law School in Hamburg. His focus of research is: public construction and planning law, environmental law, procedural law and union law, constitutional history as well as German-Jewish history.

Recommended Citation and License Statement

Jörg Berkemann, The Act of Separation and the End of the Triple Congregation (translated by Richard S. Levy), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, April 08, 2019. <> [July 22, 2024].

This text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Non commercial - No Derivatives 4.0 International License. As long as the work is unedited and you give appropriate credit according to the Recommended Citation, you may reuse and redistribute the material in any medium or format for non-commercial purposes.