Jewish Marriage in Amsterdam 1598-1811

By Dave Verdooner & Harmen Snel

The Amsterdam Municipal Archives possess a complete set of registers of intended marriages from 1578 to 1811, the year when the present Civil Registry was started. Between 1598 and 1811, 15238 Jewish couples were entered in these books. Both the number of records and the volume of data that may be extracted from them are unprecedented.
The indexes available up till now often proved unsatisfactory due to the intractable nature of the material with such a large group of persons using the same limited number of first names and, in the case of Ashkenazi Jews, very few family names. The existing indexes give only the names of bride and groom in the spelling used by the clerk at the time of entry. In order to remedy this situation, the authors rechecked all the relevant books page by page, compiling a new index of all Jewish couples occurring in the registers. Names of witnesses and of places of origin have also been indexed. In this way it is hoped that the large volume of data contained in the registers of intended marriages will finally have been made accessible to students of Jewish history in seventeenth and eighteenth century Amsterdam.
In the year 1563, the 24th session of the Council of Trent resolved that henceforth parish priests would be obliged to keep records of marriages and christenings. In those parts of the Netherlands where the Catholic church had been superseded by the Protestant church the latter soon followed suit, and so, in part, did the civil authorities. In 1580 the States of Holland decided to institute a Civil Register of intended marriages. The Amsterdam municipal archives contain an unbroken series of marriage registers of the Dutch Reformed Church from 1578 on, and from 1581 a smaller,complementary, set of civil registers. Since the Dutch Reformed Church was the only recognized church in the Dutch Republic, no other marriage was legal. This meant that members of other denominations, such as Catholics, Anabaptists, Jews, had to legalize their marriages in a civil ceremony at the Town Hall. Both the Dutch Reformed and the civil ceremony were preceded by the official registration of the marriage and the publishing of the "banns", which meant that public notice of the intended marriage was given on three successive Sundays. Civil marriages were announced from the steps (pui) of the Town Hall, whence the registers in question derive their name of "Puiboeken"(boeken = books).
Each deed registered in these books contains, in addition to the names of bride and groom, their places of origin (birth), ages, addresses, and the names of witnesses. Appended were the signatures of both bride and groom. The witnesses were supposed to be the fathers on both sides, or if the father was deceased, the mother. If neither parent was alive, their place would be taken by a relative or friend. The deed always specifies the nature of the relationship between bride or groom and witness, though many inaccuracies occur, for instance the designation "cousin" may refer to a sister-( or brother-) in-law. Persons who came from other countries often declared that their parents were no longer alive, since otherwise they would have to provide written parental permission, which might obviously be difficult to obtain. At first the rules were not always strictly obeyed, and especially in the 17th century, but also in the l8th, Jews did not always register their marriages with the civil authorities. This explains why in 1621 a special register was made for those Sephardi Jews who were married by Jewish law, but who had "forgotten" to legalize their marriages at the Town Hall. Our sources indicate that others, especially among the poor Ashkenazi Jews, similarly failed to comply with the law.
From 6 June 1795, with the French occupation of the Netherlands, the govemment was secularized, church weddings no longer recognized, and henceforth the Amsterdam register of intended marriages continued in a single series of books until the introduction of the Register of Births,Deaths and Marriages in 1811.
One of the most serious problems confronting researchers of Dutch Jewish history in the 17th and 18th centuries is that of identifying persons by name.
The Sephardi Jews who settled in Amsterdam from the late 16th century originated from the Iberian Peninsula, Spain or Portugal, where they used to employ Christian first names as well as family names. In Amsterdam these marranos, as they were called, adopted Jewish names which only occasionally contained a reference to their former names. In their trading contacts, however,they continued to use those former names for a long time. This means that, especially in the 17th century, one person might be registered under different names. The register of intended marriages frequently mentions these aliases, but by no means always.
Another aspect of Sephardi names that causes much confusion is the fact that the marranos had adopted the Portuguese and Spanish custom of naming a child fully after one of its grandparents, that is, in respect of both first and family names. This makes it extremely difficult to recognize siblings, as they may have different Christian family names, though usually their jewish family names will be the same. The use of aliases disappears in the course of the 17th century, and the Amsterdam registers cease to record Christian-type names for this group of jews.
The Ashkenazi jews who began settling in Amsterdam in the early years of the 17th century used either Yiddish first names, or names derived from the Old Testament. Most Ashkenazim did not have family names. They were registered, like many of their Dutch contemporaries, by first name plus patronymic, that is, their father's first name. In some cases we find the mother's first name used instead (matronymic). Occasionally a place of origin or a trade or profession furnished a fixed family name. The number of family names increased in the course of the 18th century. On the other hand, many people employed several different names. In their contacts with the authorities, for instance, they might use a common Dutch first name, while using a Yiddish one with their jewish acquaintances and an Old-Testament one in the synagogue. Similar problems arise with last or family names. A person might be registered once with a family name based on a geographical name of origin, another time with a name indicating a profession, or even without anything resembling a family name, while in jewish records he may turn out to have a totally different name again. In general, however, it is true to say that in the books of intended marriages most Ashkenazi jews were registered without family names except in those cases where an appended Cohen or Levi was interpreted as such.
Moreover it must be kept in mind that the clerks in the registry office were not aware of these problems, and simply recorded what they thought was right. Since many of the Jews who appeared before them came from other countries and did not speak Dutch, language problems will undoubtedly underlie many an erroneous or incomplete record.