The Great Synagogue, Câmpulung Moldovenesc, 2006. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber. (Courtesy of the photographer)

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Region of Romania, between the southern Carpathian Mountains and the Danube River. Walachia (Rom., Valahia, or Vlahia; known also as Țara Românească [Romanian Land]) is made up of two provinces: Muntenia (east of the Olt River) and Oltenia (west of the river). Until its political union with Moldavia in 1859, followed by an administrative amalgamation in 1862, Walachia was a principality that had been founded at the beginning of the fourteenth century. Its princes were vassals of the Ottoman Empire, to which it paid tribute beginning about 1417. The population spoke Romanian and practiced Greek (Romanian) Orthodoxy. Its capitals were Curtea de Argeş (fourteenth century), Târgovişte (fifteenth century), and Bucharest (Rom., Bucureşti; beginning in the sixteenth century).

Hebrew sources from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries mention Walachia as Valakhyah ha-Gedolah (Great Walachia), as opposed to Valakhyah ha-Ketanah (Small Walachia), which refers to neighboring Moldavia. Jewish merchants from Hungary and Transylvania were present at the end of the fifteenth century and in the first half of the sixteenth. There was a small settlement of Sephardic Jews, merchants who had emigrated from the Ottoman Empire, in Bucharest in the middle and second half of the sixteenth century.

Jewish merchants from the Ottoman Empire, who exported cattle and imported textiles, traveled throughout Walachia, some lending money to candidates for princely thrones; the candidates were appointed by the sultan and subject to tribute and bribes. Wealthy Jews from Constantinople also used their influence at the Ottoman court to help their preferred candidates. Often, Jewish moneylenders arrived in Walachia with the new princes. Jews also lent money to boyars (Romanian noblemen), bishops, priests, and peasants; it was legal for Jews to loan money against land and to foreclose if a loan were unpaid. In 1594, Prince Mihai Viteazul (Michael the Brave; 1593–1601) killed the Turkish and Jewish creditors who had accompanied him to Bucharest, in order to avoid repaying them. After his regime ended, Jewish merchants and moneylenders returned to Walachia. In 1661, salt-mine revenues and tax collection were leased to some Jews of Constantinople. An Ashkenazic physician, Mathea (Matityahu) of Lwów, treated the Walachian Prince Mihnea III in 1659.

The Jews’ judicial position was first mentioned in the middle of the seventeenth century. Pravila de la Govora (The Code of Govora; 1649) states that a priest who befriends Jews and eats with them will be ostracized. Another legal code, Îndreptarea legii (Guide to the Law; 1652) included discriminatory elements against Jews and encouraged their conversion to Christianity. A Jew could not testify against a Christian but in a robbery trial was permitted to describe the objects a Christian robbed from him. A Jewish criminal who agreed to convert to Orthodox Christianity would not be punished, or would receive a lighter penalty. These Byzantine-inspired laws were promulgated by Prince Matei Basarab (1632–1654). In 1646, a Jew (probably a rabbi) who converted to Christian Orthodoxy was baptized by the same prince and was appointed by him to an important official function, receiving an estate.

The Jews’ economic position was consolidated in the period of Prince Constantin Brâncoveanu (1688–1714). Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews, the latter probably of Hungarian and Polish origin, lived in a number of Walachian towns, including Bucharest, Focşani, Craiova, Strehaia, Bucov, and Ploieşti. In addition to moneylenders and merchants (also sellers of brandy), there were Jewish suppliers to the prince’s court, including providers of gunpowder for the army. There were restrictions on how Jews could dress: they were compelled to wear black and violet-blue clothes and black shoes. Their status was that of an ethnoreligious guild, known as Breasla Ovreilor (The Guild of the Jews), and as was true of ethnoreligious isnafs in the Ottoman Empire, they paid a poll tax. The community was led by a staroste (elder); it owned a synagogue and a cemetery in Bucharest.

After a period of relative tolerance, a short age of intolerance began during the reign of Prince Ştefan Cantacuzino (1714–1716). On his order, the synagogue was demolished and Jews were forbidden to pray together. A pogrom took place, and the head of the community, Mordekhai ben Yehudah, was killed in 1715. The inscription on his tomb is the earliest Jewish epitaph preserved in Bucharest.

In the period of the Turkish–Phanariot regime (1716–1821), Greek princes, who had formerly been translators from the Ottoman foreign office, were appointed and lived in the Phanar quarter of Constantinople. Many were influenced by West European culture and ideas of tolerance. One such prince, Nicolae Mavrocordat, appointed his friend, the Jewish (ex-Marrano) physician Daniel de Fonseca, to be his secretary, adviser, and librarian (1719).

The elder of the community collected funds that the Jewish community was required to pay as taxes. From 1753 to 1783, the staroste was Pilat of Bucharest, a producer and seller of brandy who was probably an Ashkenazic Jew. In 1763, Yesha‘yahu, a Torah scholar and son of Betsal’el ha-Kohen, the rabbi of Iaşi, died in Bucharest; Yesha‘yahu’s brother Yitsḥak ha-Kohen, also rabbi of Iaşi, was then confirmed as rabbi of Walachia, had administrative and fiscal responsibilities, and was referred to as bash-ḥakham (Rom., baş-haham; after the term ḥakham bashi [chief sage] used under Ottoman Turkish rule) by Prince Ştefan Racoviță. Although Yitsḥak did not settle permanently in Walachia, he had a representative (Rom., vechil) who served as staroste. Trials between Jews took place before the rabbinical court, but cases could also be judged by the Vel-cămăraş and by the divan (boyars’ assembly). A special Jewish oath was established in 1800.

The number of Jews living in Walachia in the second half of the eighteenth century remains unknown. However, some data refer to an increase in the Jewish population in the period of the Russian–Turkish War and the occupation of the principalities by the Russian army (1769–1774). After the peace treaty of Küçük Kainargi (1774), when the Ottoman Empire was obliged to grant some liberties to the import–export commerce of the principalities, the Jewish population of Walachia grew even larger. Jewish merchants imported European-style clothing and jewels, and exported agricultural products, wood, salt, and other local items. There were also Jewish craftsmen and manufacturers, chiefly Ashkenazic, who were organized into Jewish professional guilds. In 1783, Prince Nicolae Caragea forbade Jewish and Armenian merchants to open shops on Christian Orthodox holidays.

In the period of the rebellion of the Turkish officer Pazvantoglu (1797–1812), many Sephardic Jews from the north of the Balkan peninsula took refuge in Walachia. The number of Sephardic Jews grew, too, and the Sephardic rabbi Eli‘ezer Papo served in Bucharest (ca. 1819).

The Greek anti-Ottoman revolt of 1821 and the Walachian revolt of the same year brought about a change in regime, with local princes replacing the Greeks. During this revolt, many Jews left Walachia for Transylvania and settled in Braşov. After the treaty of Adrianople (1829), which put an end to the Russian–Turkish War of 1828–1829, the Romanian principalities became a Russian protectorate and declared free commerce. There was then a further increase in the number of both Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews; many of the former immigrated to Walachia from Moldavia. Feelings of insecurity led a number of Jews to take out foreign citizenships, chiefly Austrian, Prussian, and Russian. Their status as foreign subjects (Rom., sudiți) enabled them to enjoy consular jurisdiction, unlike the native subjects (pământeni or raiale).

The number of Jews in the period preceding the first modern code of laws, Regulamentul Organic (Organic Regulation; 1832) is unknown. The first census—not necessarily reliable—was in 1838; it counted some 5,960 Jews. The Regulamentul Organic and other laws of the 1830s and 1840s, which changed the social and administrative structure of the Romanian principalities, also changed the Jews’ judicial position. The corporate system was abolished; in place of the Jews’ guild, the Nația Ovreiască (Jewish Nation; i.e., the Jewish community) was founded, and included all Jews, native and foreign subjects. Jewish children were permitted to attend public schools, and a new system of taxation, which placed a tax on kosher meat, was established. In 1832, as a result of a declaration of some representatives of Bucharest Jews, the Extraordinary Administrative Council decided that all court cases involving Jews would be brought before the vornic (a town’s justice of the peace). A committee of four representatives of Jewish communities (Rom., proistoşi)—two Sephardic, two Ashkenazic—would collect taxes.

In the 1830s and 1840s, Sephardic Jews founded a separate community, which became completely independent in 1842. This separation, based on ritual and halakhic differences, happened in various towns, including Bucharest and Ploieşti. At the end of the 1850s, a group of Jews who held Austrian and Prussian citizenship founded yet another separate community, but after a short period returned to the Ashkenazic group.

The influence of the Haskalah was felt in Walachia from the beginning of the nineteenth century, but gained strength only in the 1850s. Active maskilim included Iuliu Barasch, Davicion Bally, and Naftali Popper. A trend for religious reform also began in that decade. The struggle for emancipation had commenced in the decade before, but without results: emancipation was not achieved in the revolutionary period of 1848, although it was called for, and some Jews, such as Bally, Berush Dov Popper, and Hillel Manoah, who had supported the revolution, demanded it. The national assembly (Rom., Divanul ad-hoc) of 1857 also did not grant emancipation to Walachian Jews.

In 1857, the first Jewish journal in Romanian (bilingual Romanian–French), Israelitul Român (The Romanian Israelite), was published in Bucharest. The community of Austrian- and Prussian-subject Jews established the first “modern” Jewish school there in 1851. Among the rabbis who functioned in Walachia in the 1830s–1850s were Avraham Ventura (Sephardic; 1828–1837) and the Ashkenazic Menaḥem Zalman Frenkel, Ḥayim Focşaner, David Halperin, and Ya‘akov Me’ir Spielman (a polemicist against the Haskalah). In 1858, the Ashkenazic community hired Me’ir Leib ben Yeḥi’el Mikha’el (Malbim). Because of conflicts with maskilim and especially with promoters of religious reform (who were supported by the government), Malbim was initially dismissed (1862) and later expelled from Romania (1864).

The attitude of society, the church, and the authorities toward Jews was ambivalent. Some anti-Jewish pamphlets, such as Praştia (The Sling; 1858) and Alcătuire aurită a lui Samuil Rabbi Jidovul (The Gilding of Rabbi Samuel the Jew; 1857) were published, reflecting the church’s attitude during the debate on emancipation. Their circulation was nevertheless limited.

In the period of the liberal Alexandru Ioan Cuza (1859–1866), during which the Danubian principalities of Moldavia and Walachia were unified, Jews had great expectations for emancipation, but were disappointed. In 1860, when Walachia ceased to exist as an autonomous principality, the Jewish population numbered 9,234.

Suggested Reading

Victor Eskenasy, Mihai Spielmann, Lya Benjamin, Sergiu Stanciu, and Ladislau Gyemant, eds., Izvoare şi mărturii referitoare la evreii din România, 3 vols. (Bucharest, 1986–1999); Mayer A. Halevy, “Comunitățile evreieşti din Iaşi şi Bucureşti, pâna la Zaveră, 1821,” in Sinai: Anuar de studii judaice 3 (1931): 111–112; Lucian-Zeev Herşcovici, “Yehudim sefaradim be-nesikhuyot Romanyah be-me’ot ha-16 veha-17,” in Sugyot be-ḥeker yahadut Romanyah: ‘Erev ‘iyun she-hitkayem be-yom 26 be-detsember 1990, pp. 17–35 (Tel Aviv, 1991); Eli‘ezer Ilan, Divre yeme yehude Romanyah me-yeme bayit sheni ‘ad shenat 1850 (Ḥolon, Isr., 1985); Andrei Oişteanu, Imaginea evreului în cultura română, 2nd ed. (Bucharest, 2004); Andrei Pippidi, “The Mirror and Behind It: The Image of the Jew in the Romanian Society,” Shvut 16 (1993): 73–83; Toldot ha-yehudim be-Romanyah, vol. 1, Me-Re’shit ha-hityashvut ha-yehudit ‘ad ha-me’ah ha-19, ed. Paul Cernovodeanu, (Tel Aviv, 1996), also in English as The History of the Jews in Romania, vol. 1, From Its Beginnings to the Nineteenth Century (Tel Aviv, 2005).