GHETTO, formerly the street or quarter of a city in which Jews were compelled to live, enclosed by walls and gates which were locked each night. The term is now used loosely of any locality in a city or country where Jews congregate. The derivation of the word is doubtful. In documents of the 11th century the Jew-quarters in Venice and Salerno are styled "Judaca" or "Judacaria." At Capua in 1375 there was a place called San Nicolo ad Judaicam, and later elsewhere a quarter San Martino ad Judaicam. Hence it has been suggested Judaicam became Italian Giudeica and thence became corrupted into ghetto. Another theory traces it to "gietto," the common foundry at Venice near which was the first Jews' quarters of that city. More probably the word is an abbreviation of Italian borghetto diminutive of borgo a "borough."
The earliest regular ghettos were established in Italy in the 11th century, though Prague is said to have had one in the previous century. The ghetto at Rome was instituted by Paul IV. in 1556. It lay between the Via del Pianto and Ponte del Quattro Capi, and comprised a few narrow and filthy streets. It lay so low that it was yearly flooded by the Tiber. The Jews had to sue annually for permission to live there, and paid a yearly tax for the privilege. This formality and tax survived till 1850. During three centuries there were constant changes in the oppressive regulations imposed upon the Jews by the popes. In 1814 Pius VII. allowed a few Jews to live outside the ghetto, and in 1847 Pius IX. decided to destroy the gates and walls, but public opinion hindered him from carrying out his plans. In 1870 the Jews petitioned Pius IX. to abolish the ghetto; but it was to Victor Emmanuel that this reform was finally due. The walls remained until 1885.
During the middle ages the Jews were forbidden to leave the ghetto after sunset when the gates were locked, and they were also imprisoned on Sundays and all Christian holy days. Where the ghetto was too small for the carrying on of their trades, a site beyond its wall was granted them as a market, e.g. the Jewish Tandelmarkt at Prague. Within their ghettos the Jews were left much to their own devices, and the more important ghettos, such as that at Prague, formed cities within cities, having their own town halls and civic officials, hospitals, schools and rabbinical courts. Fires were common in ghettos and, owing to the narrowness of the streets, generally very destructive, especially as from fear of plunder the Jews themselves closed their gates on such occasions and refused assistance. On the 14th of June 1711 a fire, the largest ever known in Germany, destroyed within twenty-four hours the ghetto at Frankfort-on-Main. Other notable ghetto fires are that of Bari in 1030 and Nikolsburg in 1719. The Jews were frequently expelled from their ghettos, the most notable expulsions being those of Vienna (1670) and Prague (1744-1745). This latter exile was during the war of the Austrian Succession, when Maria Theresa, on the ground that "they were fallen into disgrace," ordered Jews to leave Bohemia. The empress was, however, induced by the protests of the powers, especially of England and Holland, to revoke the decree. Meantime the Jews, ignorant of the revocation, petitioned to be allowed to return in payment of a yearly tax. This tax the Bohemian Jews paid until 1846. The most important ghettos were those at Venice, Frankfort, Prague and Trieste. By the middle of the 19th century the ghetto system was moribund, and with the disappearance of the ghetto at Rome in 1870 it became obsolete.
See D. Philipson, Old European Jewries (Philadelphia, 1894); Israel Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages (1896); S. Kahn, article "Ghetto" in Jewish Encyclopedia, v. 652.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)