Jitte Glückstadt’s Testament. The Soul’s Care and Salvation in the Early Modern Era

Monika Preuß

Source Description

Jitte Glückstadt, an unmarried Jewish woman in Altona, had her last will and testament recorded on April 8, 1774. A testament (from the Latin testare, to testify or bear witness to) enables a person to arrange what is to happen to one’s personal property after death, as well as the details of the burial and funeral ritual. Jitte Glückstadt performed this act. Two men came to her sickbed, heard her dictate her last will, and recorded it. The extant testament is not the Hebrew or Yiddish original, but rather a translation into German. This is noteworthy because in the 18th century, High German had not yet developed into the everyday language of German Jews. After the death of Jitte Glückstadt on July 8, 1774 The death date is known from the preserved gravestone of Jitte Glückstadt. See the Steinheim Institute‘s epigraph database for the Hamburg-Altona cemetery (Königstrasse): gravestone of Jette, daughter of Mattijahu ben Mosche Elasar., the translation was prepared for non-Jewish officials so that non-Jewish residents of Altona could be informed as to the provisions Jitte had made. The testaments of Jewish women and men were translated and delivered to non-Jewish officials only if there were tangible grounds. Such grounds might be that debts were greater than the estate [could meet]. In this way, Jewish or non-Jewish creditors would be informed as to whether they would have to forego payment or if there was a sufficient estate with which to settle the debts.
  • Monika Preuß

Concerning the person of Jitte Glückstadt

We know only very little about the life of Jitte Glückstadt. From her will we can see that she was unmarried. She had at least two sisters, one of whom was married and had a daughter. The other sister Keile Glückstadt, as can be deduced from details in the will, was apparently quite ill, inasmuch as she had been taken to the Jewish infirmary. Evidently, Jitte was not poor, given the silk dresses which she bequeathed to her niece. Less well-off women would have worn cotton dresses; poor women, dresses out of linen or wool.

Provisions of the will: the soul’s welfare and earthly possessions

Jitte Glückstadt made her will from the sickbed. We can see from this fact that in the 18th century, a will was not drawn up without immediate cause, that is, unless someone reckoned with his or her death. The two men to whom Jitte Glückstadt dictated her last will simultaneously served as witnesses to the soundness of her mental faculties. This was important so that no one could later contest the will. The first, and therefore most important, of the dispositions of Jitte’s will provided for the welfare of her soul. For 18th century people it was important to die “correctly”—that is, well-prepared. At that time, care for the soul’s salvation was a concern shared by all social strata and religions. Merely the manner by which the dying prepared themselves and what measures they prescribed for the time of their death varied, depending on the religious affiliation of the person. Specifically for Jewish wills, communal learning was stressed as the means to ease the departed soul’s crossing over into the other world. In Judaism, learning, that is, the communal study of the Talmud, is a religious rite. In the event of a death, learned Jews devote themselves to determining the textual passages appropriate to the occasion.

Jitte Glückstadt prepared for her death and put her affairs in order so as to be able to leave this world peacefully. She prescribed in her testament who should perform the requisite prayers for her soul. A share of these prayers were taken on by orphans, for which service they were to be paid. This money went to the orphan fund and thus helped defray the costs of caring for the orphans. She settled the funeral rituals and further provided that two women in a carriage escort the funeral procession. She also set aside an indeterminate sum of money for the production of a gravestone. Yet she was not concerned with her own soul alone but also devoted a certain sum to ensure that the prayer for the dead be recited on the anniversary of her mother’s death, in perpetuity.

Only as a secondary consideration was the disposition regarding the further distribution of her possessions formulated. These pertain to the remainder of the money and also the goods and chattels left by Jitte Glückstadt. It is remarkable how little she possessed. Next to the silk clothing mentioned above only a few chemises (undergarments) are itemized. Beyond this, one of her sisters Pæschen Glückstadt was meant to receive a brass candlestick as well as six tin plates.

Care for ill family members

Jitte Glückstadt took special care for the maintenance of her ill sister Keile, who had been brought to the Altona Jewish infirmary. Because Keile was unmarried and their parents were no longer living, her sisters had to provide for her. Whether Jitte undertook this duty because they were particularly close, or because no one else was ready to do it, we cannot say. Infirmaries served mixed functions, housing the ill and the poor. Those who were able worked and thus helped bear a portion of the costs of their accommodation. The infirmary where Jitte’s sister was taken was administered by a confraternity. Membership in such a body was a special honor and was rewarded with social recognition.

As executor of the will Jitte Glückstadt appointed the infirmary’s treasurer, Rabbi Lipmann Ladomir, who was responsible for the running of the infirmary and the administration of its funds. In this way she likely sought to make certain that the infirmary was accurately informed about her assets so that no false notions could arise. Debts had already accrued for Keile’s care. It appears that Jitte’s estate was not sufficient to cover these debts as well as the future costs of care that would accumulate.

As is the case today, so, too, there existed [in Jitte’s day] a social consensus as to how much money a person should have at his or her disposal in order to cover the basic necessities—one can speak of a minimum subsistence level. According to this standard, it was established what sort of burial was appropriate for each person. Strikingly, in the 18th century the not inconsiderable expenditures for the wake, prayers for the dead, interment, and gravestones were seen as sacrosanct. Care for the welfare of the soul was deemed so important that the expenditures could not be dispensed with, even if it meant that care of a sick relative could no longer be sustained. Creditors, as a rule, agreed that funeral expenditures would take precedence over payment of debts from the estate.

Where did the infirmary find the money to care for patients and bury the poorer dead? Firstly, members of the confraternity, that is, those who were responsible for the infirmary, paid a membership fee. Beyond that, the confraternity depended upon families giving generous amounts of money for services rendered, or, alternatively, donating money without special cause. The weak point of such a system of healthcare is obvious: Those who could not pay were not admitted to the infirmary. Those whose families could or would no longer pay were dependent on the confraternity’s good will.

The basis for the confraternity’s activity on behalf of the ill and dying was the belief in the life of the soul after death. Providing for the correct kind of death, one that eased the passage of the soul from the body and then handled the body in a dignified way, was the confraternity’s real purpose. In this regard, the early modern era (roughly 1500 to 1800) differed from modern times. Caring for others was primarily the fulfillment of religious obligations. These obligations self-evidently included caring for the poor and the ill. The boundaries for rendering such aid depended on the individual’s financial capacities.

For whom did Jitte Glückstadt feel responsible? In the first place for her female relatives, to whom she left her most valuable possessions. In the second place, for her ill sister Keile Glückstadt, for whose support she undertook responsibility. Only in the third place came people who were unrelated to her. Aside from the men who were supposed to pray for her as well as her mother, the orphans are especially worthy of mention in this respect. These parentless children were in the unfortunate situation of having no close relatives left alive and thus having no one who felt responsible for their fate. For this reason there existed a special, general responsibility to be assumed, in order to compensate for the absent family.

Jitte Glückstadt’s will reflected these essential elements of the early modern era’s attitude toward caring for others: it was characterized by a religious motivation and put its focus primarily on the closest family members. She provided compensation for those who had no family.

Jitte Glückstadt’s will contains many of the same elements typical for the early modern era as can also be found in Christian testaments. The will was composed at the approach of death and governed primarily the religious requirements of the dying person. Nevertheless, it also contained specifically Jewish features. The Halacha (body of Jewish law) was self-evidently the foundation of the procedure. For example, learning and prayer were thought to be the essential religious practices that would enable the soul’s easiest transition to the other world.

Clearly, documents that can provide us with information about Jewish women are rarer than those that speak of men. This also applies to testaments, the majority of which were instituted by men. All the more important, then, are testimonies by and about Jewish women, for they allow us to gain insight into the feminine life experiences of the past.

Select Bibliography

Gabriele Zürn, Die Altonaer jüdische Gemeinde (1611–1873). Ritus und soziale Institutionen des Todes im Wandel, Münster et al. 2001.

Selected English Titles

Marvin Lowenthal, Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln. Trans., New York 1977.
Mary Lindemann, Patriots and Paupers: Hamburg, 1712–1830, Oxford 1990.
Mary Lindemann, Health and Healing in Eighteenth-Century Germany, Baltimore 1996.

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.

About the Author

Monika Preuß, Dr. phil., is collaborator at the “Central Archives for Research on the History of the Jews in Germany” in Heidelberg. She has published several works on Jewish history in early modern Europe.

Recommended Citation and License Statement

Monika Preuß, Jitte Glückstadt’s Testament. The Soul’s Care and Salvation in the Early Modern Era (translated by Richard S. Levy), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, September 22, 2016. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-50.en.v1> [June 21, 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.