Seventeenth century Prague was not an easy place for the Jewish people. Confined to the ghetto, under pressure from the counter-reformation and oppressive imperial power, pressure to ‘convert’ was brought on them. This curious and variously interpreted incident sheds light on these difficult circumstances.
Shim‘on Abeles. Engraving from Processus Inquisitorius (Prague: C. Z. Wussin, 1728). (Jewish Museum in Prague)
Bernstein briefly notes without deeper investigation: Abilis, Simon, a convert in Prague. According to  the report of the Jesuit Eder, he was killed by his father, Lazarus, March 21, 1694, because he refused to renounce Christianity. The father was put in prison, where he committed suicide by hanging himself with his phylacteries.
Elisheva Carlebach, a magisterial scholar of “Jewish conversion” summarises here a more complex picture from her lecture “The death of Simon Abeles: Jewish-Christian tension in seventeenth-century Prague” (The third annual Herbert Berman memorial lecture):
ABELES, SHIM‘ON (1682/85–1694), Jewish youth in Prague whose father was accused of murdering him “out of hatred for the Christian faith.” The death of Shim‘on Abeles in February 1694 illuminates the tensions that beset Prague’s Jewish community in the late seventeenth century.
Coming at the height of the Catholic Habsburg Counter-Reformation, in which the Jesuit order played a leading role in reshaping Bohemian religion and culture, the case signalled a new stage of repression for Prague’s Jewish community. The boy’s grandfather, Mosheh Bumsle Abeles, a primas (leader) of the Jewish community, held a central position in communal affairs as a member of a powerful clan. Internecine rivalry with other clans may have played a role in the case. Young Shim‘on had apparently expressed interest in conversion to Christianity. When he died some months later, a Jewish informer denounced his family, and the royal court ordered the child’s body exhumed.
Map of Prague showing the Jewish Quarter circa 1958
The medical faculty of Charles University, then a Jesuit stronghold, found that he had died a violent death; his family, however, maintained that he had died of natural causes. Shim‘on’s father, Lazar Abeles, was arrested and charged with murdering his son to prevent his conversion. Lazar Abeles was then tortured, but died in custody before a confession could be obtained.
A second Jew, Löbl Kurtzhandl, was then named as the co-defendant. Kurtzhandl pleaded with Emperor Leopold I in Vienna for justice, but his multiple appeals were denied. Kurtzhandl was then broken and killed on the wheel. Although Shim‘on Abeles had never been baptized, he was beatified as a Christian saint and martyr. His burial place in Prague’s Týn Church became a shrine for pilgrims.
The case was elaborated in an anonymous treatise, Processus Inquisitorius (Inquisitorial Proceedings; 1696); in an account by the Jesuit Johannes Eder published in three languages; as well as in broadsides, paintings, and even a long published oratorio commemorating Shim‘on’s martyrdom. A Yiddish kloglid (dirge) remembered the martyrdom of Kurtzhandl, but surprisingly did not deny his culpability.
These sources shed much light on the daily interaction between Jews and Christians in Prague. The case highlights Jesuit attempts to attract young Jews to Christianity as well as the political manoeuvering between municipal, regional, imperial, and ecclesiastical authorities who shared power in Bohemia. Set within the context of the crowded conditions of the Prague ghetto that brimmed with bitter rivalry as well as mutual aid, the case highlights the precarious yet vital existence of this community half a century before Maria Theresa attempted to extinguish it in 1745.
Prayer: Lord we do not know all the circumstances, but see the tragic outcomes of this incident which led to the death of Abeles’ father’s death also. Lord, have mercy. Forgive us for demonising the ‘other’ and beatifying our own, as if the guilt for sin was only ascribed to the ‘other’ in our midst. Help us pray and put into practice the prayer of Yeshua – ‘Father, forgive them, they know not what they do’. In Yeshua’s name we pray. Amen.
Elisheva Carlebach, “The Death of Simon Abeles: Jewish-Christian Tension in Seventeenth-Century Prague” (Berman lecture, Queens College, New York, 2003); J. W. Ebelin, comp., Processus Inquisitorius (Prague, 1696); Alexandr Putík, “The Prague Jewish Community in the Late Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries,” Judaica Bohemiae 35 (2000): 4–140. —Elisheva Carlebach