In honour of Jew of the Week’s 7th birthday this November, we will feature a month-long series on the most famous (and sometimes infamous) Jewish family of all time: the Rothschilds. This is part one of five.
Mayer ben Anshel Rothschild (1744-1812) was born in the Jewish ghetto of Frankfurt. His father was a merchant and dabbled in currency exchange. The family had lived in the same house of the Frankfurt ghetto for over a century; a house with a red sign above the door. The family would thus become known as Rothschild meaning “red sign”, referring to that first house, even when they later moved to another property in the ghetto. Although his father wanted him to become a rabbi, Mayer Rothschild became an apprentice of Simon Wolf Oppenheimer, a banker and “Court Jew”. (Some say Mayer had to leave his rabbinic studies after his parents died.) From Oppenheimer he learned the financial business, and become a dealer of rare coins. This brought him into the court of the Prince of Hesse (a duchy within pre-Germany’s “Holy Roman Empire”). By 1785, Rothschild had become one of the Prince’s main bankers. The French Revolution erupted just a few years later, and Britain would handle its hiring of Hessian mercenaries in the conflict through Rothschild. This made Rothschild quite wealthy, and at the turn of the 19th century, he began loaning money internationally. This business was facilitated by the help of his five sons: Nathan in London, Jacob in Paris, Salomon in Vienna, Kalman in Naples, and the eldest son Amschel taking over in Frankfurt. As the family prospered and entered into the nobility, they adopted a coat of arms, the simpler version of which features a red shield with five arrows to represent the five sons (based on the words of Kings David and Solomon in Psalm 127: “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth”), and a motto: concordia, integritas, industria, “Unity, Integrity, Diligence”. Mayer Rothschild also had five daughters, and instilled in all ten of his children the importance of maintaining Jewish values. Unlike other wealthy European Jews, the Rothschilds did not assimilate, intermarry, or convert to Christianity. They played a central role in easing the plight of Europe’s Jews, and later in the establishment of the State of Israel. They would amass the largest private fortune in modern history, and possibly of all time. As per Jewish tradition, Mayer and his five sons were generous philanthropists. The Rothschild model of a tightly-controlled family business, with multiple branches established by siblings, inspired many other successful banks and companies, both Jewish and gentile. Mayer Rothschild himself has been described as the “founding father of international finance”, and ranked by Forbes among history’s most influential businesspeople. Next week we will explore the lives and achievements of his sons.
Words of the Week
The Three Financial Golden Rules of the Rothschild Family:
1. Keep a third of your wealth in securities (stocks, bonds, cash, etc.), a third in real estate, and a third in jewels and physical goods. [Based on the Talmud, Bava Metzia 42a.]
2. Stocks should be like a cold shower: quick in, quick out.
3. Always leave 10% for charity. [Based on the Torah law of ma’aser, or tithes.]