The Jewish Presence in Transylvania from Ancient Times to Modern Era

Transylvania’s rich history reveals aspects of the first traces left by various communities. Among these stories is that of the Jewish community, whose presence in the region dates back to ancient times. From their early arrival with the Roman legions, to their flourishing settlements in the Middle Ages, to their final emancipation in the modern period, Transylvania’s Jews left an indelible mark on the cultural and social fabric of the region. In this article, we embark on a historical journey to explore the roots of Transylvania’s Jewish community, shedding light on their struggles, contributions and enduring legacy.

Roman Age

Our exploration begins in antiquity, when the first Jewish individuals arrived in Transylvania with the Roman legions in the 2nd century BC. Through archaeological finds such as altars, inscriptions and coins, we gain insight into the early presence of Jews in the region. These artefacts bear significant symbols, such as the Star of David, the Shofar and the menorah, which attest to the historical references of the Jewish people in Transylvania.

Bronze coin issued in the time of Bar Kokhba discovered at Pojejena, Caraș-Severin County. The obverse shows a palm tree with seven branches; three on the sides and one at the top; at the base of the branches, on each side of the stem, two bunches of fruit; on each side of the bunches and below the one on the right, the Hebrew inscription SHIM(on). On the reverse side is a vine leaf with the tip downwards; around it is the inscription in Hebrew: Year II of the liberty of Israel.

The historian Iosif Kemény of Mănăstireni receives a letter written in Hungarian, published on January 26, 1846 in the Brașov magazine “Blötter für Geist, Gemüth und Vaterlanskunde”:

“In Transylvania, where history does not mention us at all, we are always seen as foreigners, although in the year 90, according to the Christian era, we committed epoch-making deeds, being called by King Decebal of the Goths for the defeat of the Romans. Our ancestors came to our aid, it is said, in great numbers, about 50,000 souls, crossing the Dardanelles, the Black Sea, Moldova, and the Romanian Country, fighting and bleeding against Trajan’s troops in Transylvania at Turda, hence the toponym Enyed (Aiud).”

In conclusion, Count Iosif Kemény is asked not to forget them and their history in the course of his historical studies. Kemény had intended to fulfil the request of the “Israelites of the Ardeal”.

Although the Transylvanian Jews reversed their roles regarding the Dacian-Roman battles, we note how the “Transylvanian Israelites”, in 1846, claimed their presence on Transylvanian territory since the time of Trajan (98 – 117 AD).

The presence of Jews in the current Romanian geographic area dates back to Roman times. The first Jews arrived in Transylvania with the Roman legions in the 2nd century AD. Archaeological research has uncovered altars, inscriptions, and coins that shed light on the early history of the Jewish people in Transylvania. The Jewish symbols that can be found on these archaeological traces, such as the Star of David, the Shofar, the seven-armed menorah, the lulav and the etrog, which were drawings of objects of worship used in the Temple of Jerusalem, as well as the word Theos (Greek for God), an indication of monotheism, or YHWH (Latin for Adonai) show that we are dealing with historical sources of Jewish reference.

Studies of the various ethnic groups present in Roman Dacia confirm that the presence of Jews in the province was modest relative to the number of inscriptions found. The most obvious archaeological finds linked to Jews in Roman Dacia are the Tetragrammaton inscriptions for Jehovah and a small sandstone slab with a ram on the central side, the Star of David on the right side, and a failed altar with seven human heads and the inscription Judaea. Another piece was found at Porolissum, probably a game piece with the Star of David.

Trajan brought Roman legions from Palestine for the campaign against Decebal, who then participated in the defeat of Simon Bar Kochba’s rebellion in 132-137. With these legions may have come soldiers from the auxiliary troops or Jewish merchants.

At the beginning of the new era, the majority of the Jewish people lived outside ancient Israel. The anti-Ottoman Jewish uprisings, beginning around 60 BC (the Great Jewish Revolt) and ending with the Bar Kochba Revolt, which ended with the victory of the Roman army over the Jews, had tragic consequences for the defeated: the burning of Jerusalem and the Second Temple, massacres, slavery, and exile throughout Roman-controlled territory. The extent of Jewish settlement in Dacia is also debatable.

Coins from the time of Bar Kochba, which have emerged from archaeological excavations in Transylvania and Banat, may have been brought by Roman soldiers or the Jews who accompanied them. In 1971, during the research carried out in the Roman castrum of Pojejena, Caraș-Severin County, a coin was discovered with a vine leaf on the obverse and the following inscription around it: In the second year of the freedom of Israel and on the reverse a palm branch with the first name of Simon Bar-Kochba. Coins issued during Bar Kochba’s revolt have also been discovered at Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa.

Archaeological finds in Roman Dacia can only provide information about the presence of Jewish individuals but not entire communities, as in other provinces.

Middle Ages

Moving into the Middle Ages, we encounter a complex landscape marked by shifting attitudes towards Jews. While Ladislaus I and Coloman in the 11th and 12th centuries introduced decrees hostile to Jews, subsequent rulers displayed varying degrees of acceptance and discrimination. We delve into the privileges and restrictions imposed on the Jewish community, examining the impact of edicts and policies issued by notable figures like Gábriel Bethlen and Maria Theresa. Despite periods of hardship, Jewish settlements continued to grow, influenced by waves of migration from Spain, Poland, Moravia, and other regions.

 

Detail of the map of the Grand Principality of Transylvania in the 18th century.

The earliest written records of the Jews in these parts date from the time of Ladislaus I and Coloman in the 11th and 12th centuries, Ladislaus I’s decrees of 1092 being hostile to the Jews: intermarriage between Jews and Christians was forbidden; Christians could not be servants of Jews (on Sundays and Christian holidays Jews were not allowed to work. Those who violate the arrangement have their tools confiscated, and fairs are moved from Sunday to Saturday).

Article XXIV of the Golden Bull issued by Andrew II forbids the employment of Saracens and Jews in Hungary as “commercial mint commissioners or salt and fiscal directors”, a provision that also applies in Transylvania. In 1231, the same Andrew II ordered again (Decree II, Chapter XXI) that “Jews and Ismailies may not become monetary and salt rulers, nor may they hold other public offices”.

Pope Gregory IX forced Andrew II and his son Bela IV to take anti- Jewish measures. Jews were forbidden to engage in coin minting, mining, or collecting taxes, and they were also forbidden to wear Christian clothing.

In 1239, Bela IV asks Pope Gregory IX to allow him to employ Jews in the administration of public revenues. He acquiesces on the condition that the Jews are doubled by trustworthy Christians, on whose behalf Jewish rulers administer the public revenues. Bela IV adopts humane measures towards the Jews.

The publication of Bela IV’s privilege certainly stimulated the Jews to settle in Hungary and Transylvania. The first documentary evidence of this dates from August 20, 1357. The city authorities of Sibiu record the presence of Petrus Iudaeus as a witness in the trial between the inhabitants of two communes in the seat of Sibiu.

The 30 points of Bela IV’s privilege granted protection in  many respects to Jews: the right to free movement, the possibility to buy houses, to benefit in their trials from Jewish judges judging on the basis of Jewish laws, the rapist of a Jewish woman to be punished with the cutting off of an arm, Jews could not be forced to disobey their own holidays, etc.; all these provisions may have contributed to the immigration of Jews.

In the 14th century, Jews came from Central Europe, mostly Ashkenazi Jews, and during the Ottoman rule, mainly Sephardic Jews of Spanish origin settled. Jewish settlement in Transylvania may have begun in the 14th – 15th centuries. Documents mentioning Jews date from this period. The Jews appear little by little in all corners of Transylvania (Alba-Iulia, Sibiu, Brasov, Oradea, Lipova, Arad County, Cluj, Carei, Sighet) and Banat, excluding the surroundings of the mining towns. At the diet of Cluj in 1578, the states complained that “never have so many Greeks and even Jews come at once as now to this fair on the day of St. Gal”. They ask to be stopped from entering the city.

Several documents date from the late 15th and 16th centuries, mainly concerning commercial affairs, court cases, and anti-Jewish persecutions.

Jews acquired the right of settlement primarily from landowners and military commanders. Their right to resettle or bring in new families depended on them. For example, we have the provision of Baron Stefan Cosa, commander of the fortress of Arad, according to which two Jewish families aflect themselves in 1717 under his protection; they can move around and trade unhindered, but the condition of approval is not to call others. Another example would be the military commander of  Oradea, Baron Subetich, disturbing the Hungarian court chancellor, who asked the court war council in Vienna to order the military commander of Oradea to take a “proper” attitude towards the Jews.

In the 16th century, a wave of Yiddish speaking Ashkenazi Jews arrived. In documents from the beginning of this century, we read of financial loans. Wealthy and influential Jews living in Buda, Emeric Szerencsés (Fortunatus) and Mendel Fekete, provide loans to some inhabitants of Cluj and Buda.

On August 29, 1543, the Hungarian nobles of Transylvania revolted against the trusted man and supplier of the Ottoman Porte, Aloisio Gritti, who, with the support of John Zápolya, became governor of Hungary. He surrounded himself with Greek and Jewish merchants.

After ascending the throne, Michael the Brave entered Cluj on  August 11, 1601, together with Basta, and killed the Jews and Anabaptists found there, setting fire to the city. The Jews also suffered at the hands of Sigismund Báthory, who believed that they had joined Michael the Brave.

The first Jews were most likely of Spanish origin (Sephardim). They came to the Banat from Turkey and Turkish-occupied territories in the early 17th century. They earned their living by making brandy, trading in grain, hides, and skins, or trading on the road.

A radical change occurred in the 17th century with the reign of Gábriel Bethlen. The official attitude towards Jews in Transylvania, which was part of the Kingdom of Hungary, was extremely varied, ranging from the granting of privileges to discrimination and expulsions. After the Prince of Transylvania, Gábriel Bethlen, issued an edict in 1623 allowing Jews to settle in certain limited areas and granting them freedom of worship and trade, the presence of Jews in Transylvania gradually increased. Most of the newcomers settled in Alba-Iulia, the capital, but small communities also formed in other settlements, including Cluj. Despite discriminatory measures, their cultural influence continued to grow amid economic competition.

In the 17th century, the privilege issued by Gábriel Bethlen was a key turning point in the settlement of the Transylvanian Jews. In the following years, Jews from Poland, Moravia, Germany, Hungary, and Moldavia came to the principality in addition to Spanish (Sephardic) Jews.

By issuing this privilege, Gábriel Bethlen wanted to reconstitute “the country desolated and plundered by the invasions of foreign peoples” through “the colonisation of various nations”. Here are a few lines from this privilege:

 

“[…] to restore this country of ours, desolated, plundered by various warlike events, by the invasion of foreign peoples, by the colonisation of various nations […] to regain its old power and […] to approach the old Dacia […].] in order to make this desire of ours come true and Transylvania to become civilised and through the colonisation of different peoples […] we order that the present privileges be  gladly accepted, respected and fulfilled by all the inhabitants of our country towards all those of the Jewish nation who wish to settle in Transylvania […]”.

Cluj, June 18, 1623

Map of the Grand Principality of Transylvania in the 18th century.

With the death of Prince Bethlen in 1629, Jewish merchants had their rights restricted. As a result, the Jews turn to Prince Michael Apafi I, who, in 1673, issues a privilege ordering that all personal harm to Jews be stopped.

During Maria Theresa’s reign, anti-Jewish political measures such as deportation or expulsion were discussed. During this period, many towns in the region banned Jews from settling on their land. Jews were not allowed to buy land, build factories, or practice crafts until the 1840s.

In 1780, Maria Theresa accepted Governor Brukenthal’s proposals, prohibiting the settlement of Jews outside Alba Iulia and concentrating Jews in other parts of Transylvania. This was impossible, and Brukenthal asked Empress Maria Theresa to postpone it for at least a year. The result was an imperial order sent to the Transylvanian authorities, instructing them to take care that no Jews should in the future enter the principality illegally.

From the second half of the 18th century and especially in the first part of the 19th century, due to the hardening situation of the Jews in Galicia, a new wave of Jews took refuge in Moldova and Transylvania, where the authorities were more tolerant.

It is very difficult to find exact figures about the number of the Jewish population in Transylvania and Banat in the 16th and 19th centuries. After the region was incorporated into the Austrian Empire in the 18th century, the Jewish population in Transylvania grew even more as a result of immigration. Because of the large Jewish population in the empire, a so- called toleration tax was imposed, which lasted for about a century and a half.

Lithograph, Market in Transylvania at the beginning of the 19th century, Lanzedelly Joseph.

Modern Period

The modern era witnessed a significant transformation in the status of Transylvanian Jews. With the granting of civil and political rights under Francis Joseph I, their emancipation began in 1867. Jewish communities convened congresses to reorganise their internal structures, culminating in the legal recognition of Judaism as a religion in 1895. We explore the dynamic changes that occurred during this time, highlighting the cultural and social developments that shaped Jewish life in Transylvania.

 

Rákóczi G., Approbatae Constitutiones, Claudiopoli(s), 1653.

With the territorial expansion of the empire, an increasing number of Jews from Galicia, Bukovina, and Hungary emigrated to Transylvania.

Until the early 19th century, most Jews lived in rural areas and worked in commerce, the spirits distilling industry, renting, and other occupations such as tailoring and butchery. The real emancipation of the Jews began in 1867, under Francis Joseph I, when Transylvania was once again annexed to Hungary, ending Austro-Hungarian dualism. Jews were granted civil and political rights equal to those of the Christian population at the time, and Judaism was legally recognized as a religion in 1895, after centuries of being merely tolerated.

A new era has dawned in Jewish life as well. In 1868, Baron Joseph Eötvös summoned the Jewish leaders of Hungary to a congress in Budapest, where decisions were taken on the reorganisation of Jewish communities and the structure of their internal life. The representatives of the Jewish communities in Transylvania also decided to hold a meeting in Cluj between May 10–14 and July 7-8, 1866, to discuss the proposals initiated by Baron Iosif Eötvös and to clarify their position on them. At this time, there were 2,821 Jews in Cluj.

Lyrics of the poem under an Israeli flag.

An interesting event to mention is that in 1881, when the first Zionist congress was held in Focșani, Hatikvah was sung for the first time, its music being based on a Romanian folk tune.

According to the Romanian census of 1930, the number of the Jewish population in Transylvania was 178,699, while the Hungarians recorded 193,000. In 1940, when part of Transylvania (the northern part) was annexed to Hungary, 170,694 Jews again came under Hungarian authority, which sealed their fate.

 

Total Jewish population of Transylvania and Banat.

*

As we conclude our historical exploration, we reflect upon the lasting impact of the Jewish community in Transylvania. From their earliest settlements to their struggles for recognition and eventual emancipation, the Jews of Transylvania have weaved their stories into the tapestry of the region’s history. Today, their legacy stands as a testament to resilience, cultural diversity, and the enduring spirit of a community that found a home in the heart of Transylvania.

 

Sources

Barclay John, Sweet John, Early Christian thought in its Jewish context, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996.

Carmilly-Weinberger Moshe, Istoria evreilor din Transilvania (1623-1944), Ed. Enciclopedică, București, 1994.

Goodblatt David, Elements of Ancient Jewish Nationalism, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2006. 

Hașdeu Bogdan Petriceicu, Istoria toleranței religioase în România, 1868.

Nicolae Gudea, Evreii în provinciile dacice 106–275 p. Chr., în Ephemeris. Napocensis, 9–10, 179–208.

Onofrei Cosmin, The Jews in Roman Dacia. A Review of the Epigraphic and Archaeological Data, în Ephemeris Napocensis, XXIV, Ed. Academiei Române, p. 221-236.

Streja Aristide, Schwarz Lucian, Sinagoga în România, Ed. Hasefer, 2019.

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Evelyn Ciocan is an archaeologist and PhD student of the Doctoral School `History.Civilization. Culture` at Babes Bolyai University. She holds a degree in History from the Faculty of History and Philosophy of UBB, specializing in Ancient History-Archaeology. She also holds a Master's degree in History, specialising in Archaeology at UBB. She has participated in some of the most important archaeological sites in the country, such as Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa, Apulum, Napoca and in various restoration projects of important monuments in Transylvania. Evelyn has a particular passion for heritage, for the past, for memory and museums.

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