Jewish Settlement of Poland By Robert S. Sherins, M.D.
PGSCA Vice-President and Membership Chairman
January 20, 2005


In 2004, the Polish Genealogical Society of California (PGSCA) initiated a series of publications about the history of Poland in an attempt to assist its membership to better understand the relevance of genealogical research within the context of Polish history. King Mieszko established the Piast dynasty in the 10th century thereby creating the future nation of Poland that has endured for more than one millennium. Poland achieved great geopolitical successes, which were marked by periods of enormous economic achievement, the political union with Lithuania to form the Commonwealth of Lithuania-Poland, and staggering geographic expansion from the Baltic Sea in the northwest to the Black Sea in the southeast that incorporated both western Russia and Ukraine.

Jews were first recorded to be present in Poland as early as 950 CE and the first Jewish settlements were known since 965 CE. By the 16th century, Jewish communities flourished in Poland and Rabbinic scholarship attained its greatest achievements during that six-century span. A unique political self-governance of the Jewish communities was established, which was known as the “kahal system.” Under the kahal, every aspect of Jewish life from birth to death, marriage, its spiritual life, kosher dietary laws, property and business rights, legal courts and punishments, education, taxation, and even military conscription was organized.

Polish national borders with its neighbors were never static and required numerous revisions throughout the past millennium. In the 14th century, the territories of western Russia and Ukraine were overtaken by the Poles and were incorporated within the Commonwealth of Lithuania-Poland. Present-day Belarus was similarly part of Poland during the 14th century. The Polish monarchy sat on the Russian Throne in Moscow and attained suzerainty from 1610-1612. As a result, most Russian Jews had Polish ancestry due to the shifting Polish-Russian political boundaries.

As will be discussed in subsequent PGSCA publications, the mighty nation of Poland was crushed by the three Partitions of Poland in 1772, 1794, and 1795. Weakened by the continued conflicts and battles with the Mongol/Tatars since the 14th century, followed by other conflicts with the emerging Ottoman Turks in the 15th – 17th centuries, and the Cossack uprisings against the Polish and Jewish communities in the 17th century, Poland became vulnerable to the armies of its ambitious neighbors, Russia, Prussia, and Austria-Hungary, who invaded and then occupied Poland until the end of World War I in 1919. The nation of Poland was politically and geographically dismembered by the invasions of its neighbors. As a result, Russia inherited over two million Jews from Poland after 1772. Russian Empress Catherine the Great decreed that all Jews were restricted from residence in Russia, and evicted them from the large towns. Jews were isolated within the western part of that region called the “Pale of Settlement,” which extended from Lithuania and Belarus to Bukowina, Romania. Russian Czar, Alexander I, maintained the restriction of the Jews within the “Pale” refusing to permit Jews to emigrate elsewhere. By the 18th to 19th centuries, 80% of all Jews in the world resided in the “Pale.” And, Poland housed 80% of those poor and disenfranchised Jewish populations.

Numerous libraries have compiled documents about the detailed history of Poland and its Jewish communities. Many archives that were concealed for protection have now been rediscovered and are being made available to the public. For the first time since the Soviet Revolution in 1917 and since the end of World War II in 1945, vital information about the history of the Jewish communities that functioned successfully for the past millennium in Poland are surfacing to be translated into English. The ability to access this data has been significantly enhanced by the Internet, thus making it possible to share the information from multinational research libraries and genealogical societies. During the Soviet era, which dominated the Eastern Bloc nations, the history of early Poland including its Jewish communities, was expunged from the textbooks and libraries. After the downfall of the Soviet system in 1991, there has been widespread eagerness of Poles to learn as much as possible about their origins, including its Jewish history.

Origin of the Jews of Poland

The first Diaspora (migration) of Jewish communities began 2800 years ago, when the Assyrian King, Tiglath-Pilesar III, conquered the Ten Tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and its capital, Samara. From 850-722 BCE, Jews were brought to Babylon. Although most of the Jews remained in Babylon, dispersion of some of the Jewish communities in Assyria began about 741 BCE.

Assyria was initially unable to conquer the Southern Kingdom of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin until 586 BCE, when Babylonian (Caldean) King Nabukhadnessar succeeded in capturing Jerusalem. The Hebrew Temple was destroyed in the process and several thousand Hebrew leaders, military commanders, and nobility were exiled to Babylon in the famous “March to Babylon.”

Within the next fifty years, the Assyrian Empire was defeated by Cyrus, King of Persia. Babylon was overthrown in 538 BCE. Cyrus permitted Jews and other minorities to freely observe their religions. Jewish communities then began to spread rapidly throughout the Persian Empire from Georgia to India, and included towns in Anatolia and the Caspian region of Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Bukhara, Daghestan, Georgia, and Samarqand. Jews migrated along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers of Mesopotamia and southward to Antioch and Aleppo, Syria, and into Egypt and North Africa. Cyrus was an unusually generous king and he helped to provide significant funding to rebuild the Second Hebrew Temple in Jerusalem. However, in 70 CE, the Romans destroyed the Second Temple.

Most importantly, the Jewish communities began to intermix with the local populations in which they newly found themselves. Some of the Jews began to adopt the cultural traditions of the new lands. This subsequent migration into new lands is referred to as the “Second Diaspora.” Numerous “Yeshivot” (sacred religious/academic institutions) were established in Persia. Orthodox traditions were revered and were passed from father to sons by oral means. The resulting Persian form of Hebrew tradition is known as “Mizrahi.”

Some of the Jews were able to own or lease land for agricultural purposes, others became merchants or traders, craftsmen, and artisans. Many Jews served in the Persian military throughout the Empire. The regions encompassed by the Persian Empire were enormous, so Jewish communities had the opportunity to migrate over vast distances and were exposed to numerous new cultures and languages. Jewish merchants developed far reaching commercial contacts and were experienced with export/import trade throughout the Empire from Asia to the Mediterranean regions. They traveled from Thrace, Athens, and Macedonia, to Cappadocia (Anatolia, Turkey), Cilicia, Cyprus, and Armenia. They traded in North Africa in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Yemen, as well as in the Caspian region at the Aral Sea, the Black Sea, the port of Odessa, and the Crimean Peninsula. In the far Eastern Persian Empire, Jewish traders were known in the outposts of the Indus region.

Some Jews intermarried with Persians and converted to the Zoroastrian religion. Much later after the 7th century, conversions to Islam occurred. The “Lost Tribes of Israel” were in fact not lost at all, but rather absorbed into the regional cultures and religions. Today in isolated villages of the region, families can be observed, who continue to wear the long side-curls of the Hebrews (Pe’ot), light the Friday night religious ceremonial candles, and dress with the white prayer scarves (Tallit) around their necks, which they spread on the ground as prayer rugs facing Mecca.

During the reign of Persian King Artaxerxes in the 4th century BCE the Bible was written. Because of increasing assimilation of the Jews, as well as the developing restrictions by the Greeks and Romans against restoring Jewish traditions, it was believed among the Orthodox that Judaism would vanish and be supplanted by gentile religious cultures. Therefore, the Orthodox scholars at the several Yeshivot decided to commit the previous Hebrew oral teachings to a more permanent written form, the Bible. Previously, writing of the sacred word of God had been forbidden.

The Judaic secular oral traditions also became written laws (Talmud), which were compiled from the daily Jewish regulations, civil laws, and customs. The Talmud included opinions about every phase of life from birth to death and consisted of two parts, the Mishna, which described the codes of laws, and the Gemara, which were the commentaries. Publication took several centuries and involved prolonged debates among many rabbinic scholars. Ezra, who served the Court of Persia, was both a priest and a scribe. He became the major proponent of the writings and brought the “Babylonian Talmud” to Jerusalem. Another version of the Talmud had been written in Jerusalem, but the Babylonian edition remains the most accepted manuscript.

In 333 BCE, Alexander of Macedonia invaded and conquered the Persian Empire. It was an act of retribution against the Persians, who had killed his father, Phillip of Macedonia (335 BCE). Following Alexander’s victory over Darius III at the Plain of Issus (southeastern Turkey), Greek armies spread over the entire Persian Empire to India, Central Asia, and the Middle East, including Egypt. Hellenization of the known world permitted Jewish merchants to travel freely to the frontiers of the Greek Empire, where they established prosperous trade routes. Most importantly, Jewish occupations had shifted significantly away from agriculture, or as former artisans and craftsmen, to become merchants and traders. The scope of their distant migrations became enormous.

At first, Jewish traders migrated to the distant Greek frontiers as individuals.

The risks from their journeys were dangerous. As early as 500 BCE, prior to Alexander’s conquests, Greek merchants and ships regularly plied the waters of the Black Sea to fish for the enormous schools of abundant fish (sturgeon) and the bountiful crops grown easily on the arable Crimean plains for export back to Greece. Greece required ever-increasing food supplies for its expanding military and civilian populations. Soon thereafter, Jewish merchants could be found in the Crimea and many new Settlements of Jewish communities were established as the regions were systematically developed.

After Alexander’s rule was established, the families of Jewish merchants migrated even further throughout the Mediterranean, North Africa, Crimea, the Black Sea, and the Sea of Azov. In the Eastern Greek Empire, new Jewish settlements were established as far as India and Central Asia.

It was only a matter of time before Jewish merchants and the communities, which followed, began to appear in Central Asia and the Caspian region. By the 8th century CE, Jewish communities appeared in Kiev. By the 10th century, Norwegian Princes established the Duchy of Kiev (Kievan Rus), which became the basis of the Russian nation. By the 14th century, Jewish communities had successfully settled in the Duchy of Moscovy (Moscow).

With the death of Alexander in 323 BCE (age 32), Greek rule became increasingly problematic. Regional conflicts recurred between the Greeks and the Parthians and Egyptians (250 BCE). The Macabee victory in 165 BCE ended Greek rule in Judah. Chanukah is the celebration of that victory. By 133 BCE, Roman armies began to invade Greek communities; by 56 BCE, they invaded Iran. With the defeat of Iran, the Romans then conquered Jerusalem and General Titus burned the Hebrew Second Temple in 70 CE. Many Jews fled Palestine.

The Roman Empire was established between by the 1st century and was at its zenith until the 3rd century. It replaced the authority and control over the former Greek Empire. Political conflicts, economic difficulties, and anti-Semitism in Palestine became the stimulus for many Jewish traders to migrate to the furthest frontiers of the Roman Empire. Thus, Jewish communities, comprised of the merchants and their families, became established in Spain and in the Mediterranean regions of Western Europe. In the Eastern Roman Provinces, Jews settled in North Africa, Egypt, Turkey (and Anatolia), Mesopotamia along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and in the Caucasus Mountains north of the Caspian Sea.

As Roman armies marched northward into Western Europe, Jewish traders and merchants followed the frontiers of the Roman Empire. By the 6th century, Jewish settlements were established in many regions of Western Europe. Mohammed (570-632) founded the Islamic faith in the 7th century. Although it was initially a fledgling religious tradition, its adherents quickly settled the Middle East, Persia, and North Africa. In the 8th century, Spain became Islamic. Islam flourished in previous Roman territories. Through the previous intervention of Mohammed’s wife, Jews were granted licenses that provided privileges of international commerce, which was considered a lofty profession by the Muslims. This act of the Muslim rulers further enabled Jewish settlers to migrate from the Middle East.

In the 6th century, nomadic Oghuric Turkic people, the Khazars, migrated from Central Asia and settled the Russian steppes. Their language was Turkic Oghur and their religion was shamanistic. Later, the kingdom consisted of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, who came from both Byzantium and Persia.

The kingdom was ruled by a succession of Turks, but their empire lasted until the 13th century. They spread to the region of the Dniester River. Initially the Khazars paid tribute to the Huns who reigned, but they adopted Judaism in 861 to preserve their governance in face of competition from both the Persian Islamic Empire and the Byzantine Christian Empire. Khazarians, who spoke both Hebrew and Slavic, established Jewish schools and synagogues in the 10th century, where an estimated 35,000 Jews lived. They settled throughout the northern Caucasus and Ukraine.

The kingdom was vast and included southern Russia, northern Caucasus, eastern Ukraine, Crimea, western Kazakhstan, and northwestern Uzbekistan. Khazarian power extended over the eastern Slavs, Magyars, Pechenegs, Burtas, and the Huns from the northern Caucasus.

Khazarians founded Kiev, which was named from the Turkic words, “Kui,” (riverbank) and “ev,” (settlement). Trading was an essential part of their economy and included rice, fish, barley, wheat, melons, cucumbers, hemp, silk, candle wax, honey, jewelry, silverware, coins, and spices. Fox, rabbit, and beaver were exported as furs. Active trade provided commerce with the Byzantines, Europeans, Azerbaijanis, Uzbeks, Persians, Volga Bulgarians, Chinese, and other Central Asians.

All religious persuasions prospered. Legal courts were composed of members from all religious groups, but Khazarians made their judgments according to the Hebrew Torah (Bible). Documents were written in Hebrew. Jews from neighboring regions continued to immigrate to Khazaria. Crimea had a large Jewish community, but increasing numbers of Jews sought refuge from Persia, Byzantium, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Hungary, Syria, Turkey, and Iraq.

The kingdom ended with defeat by the Kievan Rus in 965. Prince Svyatosalv conquered the Khazars at Sarkel. Itil was conquered two years later. Then the “Rus” invaded the Balkans. It was said that no Khazarians remained, but it was only the nation that did not survive, because the people merged with the neighboring regions of Hungary, Romania, and Poland.

During the past two and one-half millennia Jewish communities spread throughout the known world of the Assyrian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Islamic, and Khazarian, Empires. As a direct result of their vast migrations (Diaspora), Jews acquired enormous proficiency in commercial trading of imports and exports, monetary exchanges, and fluency in speaking multiple languages. Those abilities had a direct bearing upon the later successful settlement of Jewish communities in Poland after the 10th century. The Piast kings encouraged Jewish merchants and traders to migrate to Poland, where they were able to create essential links between the new nation and international commercial centers that were so vital to the economic development of Poland. Over the vast river networks in Central and Eastern Europe, from Pomerania and the Baltic Sea ports of the northwest, to the southern ports located along the Caspian, Black, and Aral Seas, as well as to the many ports located in regions bordering the Mediterranean, Jewish merchants and traders helped to create the prosperous nation of Poland.

Jewish Settlers of Poland

Jewish international merchants traveled regularly throughout the world from the Iberian Peninsula to China. They were known as Radhanites (Radhaniya or Rahdaniya in Arabic) and were fluent in Arabic, Persian, Greek, Frankish, Andalusian, and Slavonic. Radhanite traders regularly took several routes around the Mediterranean. They transported goods across land or sailed to Constantinople, Antioch, and North Africa. Traders sailed the rivers in Khazaria or used overland routes to Baghdad, India, and China, where they traded in aloe, brocade, camphor, cinnamon, furs, musk, slaves and swords.

Historians recorded that the Muslims excluded Christian traders from the Mediterranean Sea. Jews were considered neutral, accepted by both Muslims and by Christians, and had contacts all over the world. They shared a common language, Hebrew, and a common legal system. The major activities of the Radhanites ended with the Crusades.

Jewish arrival in Poland was estimated about 965. Whether or not a significant number of Jewish exiles from the Khazarian Empire immigrated to Poland has not been firmly established. However, Ibrahim ibn Jacob, a Sephardic Jewish merchant from Toledo, Spain, wrote several early accounts about his journey to Poland in 965.

Europe in the Middle Ages was comprised of inefficient feudal societies, where wealth and political power was concentrated among the monarchs and nobility. The peasants were enslaved to the noble lands. The earliest Piast Dukes recognized the poverty and inefficiency of the region and their vulnerability to the political and military powers of surrounding nations (Scandinavia, the Baltic nations, Prussia, France, Germany, Italy, and the Kievan Rus, created by Norse Viking Princes). European feudal systems were disintegrating. Trading of commodities based upon commercial monetary systems became essential to the development of Polish society. This development favored the settlement of Jewish communities in Poland.

The earliest influx of Jews into Poland came from families escaping anti-Semitic persecution and banishment in Western Europe, followed by those escaping the ravages of the Crusades, Khazarian exiles whose kingdom was overthrown by the Kievan Rus, and the Radhanites. In the 11th century, Jews arrived from Prague (1097), Bohemia, and Germany, and settled primarily in Silesia. While a very few may have owned estates, most were engaged in trade or worked in agriculture. Jews settled in Plock (1237), but later on they settled Kalisz (1287), and Krakow (1304). Mieszko III, Duke of Great Poland, employed Jews as engravers and supervisors in minting the currencies (1173-1202). Most importantly, Jews worked on commission for the Polish Dukes, Casimir the Just, Boleslaus the Tall, and Ladislaus Spindleshanks. Minted coins were called bracteates and were struck with the images of the Polish rulers. The coins also were engraved with Hebrew letters.

In 1264, political privileges and civil rights for the Jewish communities were granted by Boleslaus the Pious. The “Kalisz Statute” exempted Jews from municipal jurisdiction and made them subject only to the princely courts. Jews were granted free trade and the right to conduct money lending on loans secured by immovable properties. Jews were granted personal and property protection, and religious freedom to worship. Similar regulations were established in Silesia in the last quarter of the 13th century. There were two sets of often conflicting regulations in early Polish society, a noble jurisdiction and a civil system. As a result, there were extremely hostile responses against the royal privileges that were granted to the Jews.

In 1267, Jews were segregated in Wroclaw, forced to wear identifying emblems, banned from serving in political offices, and forbidden to build more than one prayer house in a town. Similar restrictions appeared in many other Polish towns by the end of the 13th - 14th centuries. Feudalism continued to disintegrate in Poland. Conflicts arose between the nobility and the burghers over the privileges granted to the Jews. But, commodity transactions based upon a money economy favored granting of new Jewish immigration and continued privileges. Therefore, most of the opposition by the burghers had to be disregarded by the nobility. Poland would not have survived without the contributions from the Jewish communities. Jewish exemptions in law continued and the jurisdictions of new Jewish communities were sustained under the voivodes.

By the 14th and 15th centuries, Jews were involved in both local and long distance trade. They acted as commercial middlemen between Poland and the traders from ports in the Baltics, transporting goods over the major rivers of the Vistula, Oder, and Elbe, to Hungary and the Turkish and Italian traders situated in seaports along the Mediterranean, Adriatic, and Black Seas. Trading was hugely successful for Poland. The Jewish communities prospered and not surprisingly there was a strong backlash of resentment. By the latter part of the 15th century, Jews were forbidden from granting loans against mortgages or letters of credit. Loans were restricted to the more risky operations involving moveable goods. Despite the competition and conflicts created by the special privileges, a few Jewish traders succeeded and were able to amass considerable capital. Leaseholds were created for the royal mint, salt mines, and collecting customs and tolls in Luck, Drohobycz, Lvov, Zydaczow, Hrubieszow and Belz. As well, a few Jews from Grodno owned manor houses, meadows, fishponds, and mills. In the 15th century, agriculture played only a minor role as a source of income for Jewish families. Instead, crafts, such as fur making, tanning, and tailoring became more important.

In difficult economic times, competition between the Jews and their Christian counterparts resulted in open conflicts (14th to 15th century). Anti-Jewish riots occurred in Silesia. In Western Europe, Jews had been accused of causing the Black Plague and poisoning the wells. Pogroms and banishment of Jews resulted, who then sought refuge in Poland. Jewish immigrants received Royal protection from Casimir the Great. Jewish settlements grew in Lvov, Sandomierz, Kazimierz, as well as in other communities of Great Poland, Little Poland (Malopolska), Pomerania, and Ruthenia.

Jews, who observed the religious traditions of Western Europe, are known as Ashkenazim. They represented the majority of Jewish families in Poland. With the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal starting in 1492, which resulted from the policies of the Inquisition, a new influx of Jewish immigrants entered Poland, who observed Sephardic religious traditions. Not all Jews, who were expelled from Spain and Portugal, migrated to Poland. Many of them initially settled in Italy, North Africa, and the Ottoman Empire, but later on, some Jewish families migrated secondarily to Poland. Turkish Sultan Beyazed II recognized that the Ottoman Empire would prosper enormously from the addition of the skilled Jewish populations that had been expelled from the Iberian region. The Sultan could not comprehend how the Spanish and Portuguese chose to voluntarily eliminate their most educated and skillful populace. The Ottomans became the recipients of a huge Sephardic infusion, which continued to benefit the welfare of their society. Ottomans protected their Jewish communities for the next five centuries until the Empire was eliminated after World War I.

By the 16th century, Jews began to move eastward within the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania. There were one-half million Jews living in Poland, which represented about 5% of the total population. Some towns were segregated with only Christian families, “privilegia de non tolerandis Judaeis,” which included such towns as Warsaw, Grodek, Vilna, Bydgoszcz, Stryj, Biez, Krosno, Tarnogrod and Pilzno. The bans were not always completely observed. Other towns had Jewish “quarters.” Later on, some separate towns were designated as “Jewish towns” and had obtained “privilegia de non tolerandis christiandis” (Lublin, Piotrkow, Bydgoszcz, Drohobycz, and Sambor).

A distinctive third type of land management and governance existed for some towns in Poland, which were called Magnate towns. Privileged gentry, called Szlachta, could be awarded the ownership of a town. Such feudal lords lived on huge estates, which they owned along with the accompanying towns. Their incomes were derived from the taxes collected from the production by the serfs, who work the lands, as well as the customs, tolls, and craftsmanship or businesses of its inhabitants. Magnates were able to determine their own policies over towns. Thus, enterprising landlords with more liberal regulations often reaped big financial rewards. Magnates were also allowed private military forces.

Nobility could also own Magnate towns. Under this system, the Church also owned land and could create towns. In order to keep possession of a Magnate town, the several privileged families, who resided there, had to produce a male heir. Not all Jews could live in Magnate towns, but a privileged few Jewish families often resided in the town for the direct benefit of the “Magnate” owner. Jews were often involved as artisans, craftsmen, and local traders. They rivaled the royal and ecclesiastical towns.

What has become apparent in reviewing the history of the different types of Polish towns was that the regulations governing civil rights and privileges were inconsistent. Liberalization of those privileges was often associated with increased incentives, improved production, higher incomes, and increased tax collections. Regulation of the monetary commodity system created better economic outcomes from the different forms of town jurisdictions. In modern terms, we might make comparison to the liberal democracy form of government in the United States and other European nations and the economic effects of high tariff restrictions versus a free trade economy.

In the Polish towns, artisan’s and craftsmen’s guilds were developed to control which individuals would be allowed to participate. It was a type of worker’s “union.” When competition was severe, Jewish traders and craftsmen could be excluded. However, Jews often carried out their skills/occupations clandestinely. Royal and gentry jurisdictions over crafts and trades continued to expand. By the 17th century, Jews were involved in over fifty trades and in all types of craftsmanship, including foods, leather, textiles and tailoring, as well as the manufacturing of objects of gold, pewter, and glass. Jews joined Christian tailoring and slaughtering guilds in some of the towns, such as in Biala Cerkiew. In other towns, there were Jewish guilds, such as in Krakow, Lvov, and Przemysl. Most importantly, Jewish merchants helped to build the International trade of Poland with merchants in England and the Netherlands, through the port at Gdansk, and with Hungary and Turkey, through the land routes via Lvov and Krakow.

Polish agricultural products, cattle, furs, and clothing were sold to wholesalers at market fairs in Venice, Florence, Leipzig, Hamburg, Frankfurt on Main, Wroclaw, and Gdansk. Other trade routes extended from Brest Litovsk, Tykocin, Grodno, and Sledzew with markets in Lvov, Lublin, Krakow, and Poznan.

The majority of Jewish merchants owned very small shops and inns or sold wares from a small stall in front of the house, from a handcart, or carried their proffered goods in sacks on their backs. Large manufacturing enterprises were rare. International traders and wholesalers were relatively few, but when successful, they amassed large amounts of capital. The relatively unrestrictive policies regarding money lending and financing, permitted those few special wealthy Jewish traders to become lucrative bankers to the monarchs, nobility, and other wealthy entrepreneurs.

Few Jews owned land, but some tended land as leaseholders. Restrictions against landownership had existed for centuries since Jews had inhabited Palestine before the Diaspora. But, agriculture was becoming an important resource for the Jews in the 16th century in Poland. In some cases, Jews toiled the land adjacent to the inns, mills, and breweries that they held in leases. Some Jews worked for the Kahal self-administration as officials, horse drivers, worked on gentry’ estates, or as salesmen, servants, and middlemen for rich merchants. The poorest of the Jews, even some beggars, received subsistence from the charitable organizations supported by the Kahal. The Kahal also sponsored hospitals, schools, slaughterhouses, sale of kosher meats, baths, free loan societies, cemetery burial societies, and other community and welfare activities.

Repeated attempts to restrict Jewish trades were generally unsuccessful, despite intense political pressure from the burghers and Christian merchants. Occasionally Jews were evicted, but were brought back to the towns soon thereafter because the town’s economies suffered so greatly in the absence of the Jewish communities.

A few Jews served as managers of large enterprises for the nobility, including the leaseholds of breweries, inns, mills, mines, and mints. They also served as rent and tax collectors, employed by the wealthy merchants. In Lithuania, Michal Ezofowicz was knighted for his efforts as the main collector of Jewish taxes (1525). His brother, who was baptized, attained the office of Lithuanian deputy treasurer. The gathering of taxes, customs, and tolls was known as “tenancies.” Later in the 16th century, the gentry forbade Jews to collect public tenancies, which had otherwise been granted by the Magnates. Such restrictions did not always remain in force. A notable example relates to the absentee landownership of the Polish nobility in Western Ukraine. Abuses by the Polish policies and tenancies led to feudal exploitation of the serfs. Local revolts occurred against both the Poles and the Jewish tax collectors and managers. The Cossack uprising in 1648 led by Chmielnicki was such an example.

The Zaporozhe Cossacks, disgruntled because of economic pressures exerted on them and the loss of serf’s rights, allied themselves with disaffected Tatars and Ottomans in 1648. The Cossack victory left vast regions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth open to their raids. The undisciplined Cossacks and Tatars plundered the countryside, burning nobles' estates, killing Poles and Jews. In 1649, Polish forces reorganized and defeated the Cossacks. Polish regular forces reestablished their control over western Ukraine, but the Cossacks recognized only the sovereignty of the Czars of Russia, so the Cossack rebellion turned into the Russo-Polish War.

Autonomous Jewish Government Under the Kahal

The Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania attained enormous wealth, political power, and intellectual achievement. It became the home of the largest Jewish population in the world. After emerging from the Middle Ages, Polish society had to be reorganized and its institutions rejuvenated. Political subdivisions, such as the principalities, duchies, estates, and cities, were reassessed. Governors focused their attentions on rebuilding the infrastructure of the roads and towns devastated by wars, increasing military protection, and restoring the palaces and governmental buildings. There were “Corporate Societies,” that overlaid the political divisions of Poland, whose concerns about their status and privileges did not always coincide with the monarchy and nobility. As well, there was often opposition from the clergy, which did not always concur with the nobility. Jews were routinely excluded from those corporate layers. However, the monarchy established Jewish self-governance, the Kahal, which regulated every aspect of Jewish community life.

The monarch and nobility of Poland-Lithuania simplified their interaction with the Jewish communities by governing the officers of the Kahal. Jews were excluded from Christian towns, could not own land, were required to wear “Jewish dress,” and could not hire a Christian worker, maid, or servant. No Jew could testify in court against a Christian. Christian religious customs prevented any Christian from banking or lending money, which placed the responsibility for economic matters of all commercial and private loans squarely into the hands of the Jewish merchants. Even noble and royal debts were held by Jews, which became an easy target for anti-Semitic revenge during economic difficult times.

As a result of Polish laws, Jews enjoyed social autonomy and were regarded as a separate “estate.” They were subjected to different rules, taxation, and privileges. They were also not included among the general estates and therefore, not administered by the same magistrates, trade unions, nor tried in the same Christian law courts. Jewish communities were protected as a special civil and cultural entity, and thus became a “Jewish city within a Christian city. Jews had special religious regulations, civil administration, judicial institutions, and charitable institutions.

Kahals were established in Poland by 1540. On August 15, 1551, King Sigismund Augustus proclaimed a legal charter called the “Magna Carta of the Jews.” It provided for complete Jewish autonomy, which insured the fundamental principles of Jewish self-government in Greater Poland. This also had a profound effect on governance of Jews in Little Poland (Galicia).

The “Kahal” was the administrative agency and guardian of the Jewish communities and functioned as a “self-governing institution.” Its officers assigned special taxes on the Jews, which provided an opportunity for the Christian monarchy/government to deal with a single organization rather than the mass of population. Special rabbis, “seniors,” were selected, who defined the laws that were obeyed by all Jews, without exception. Kahals also named the judges, who determined the laws and legal practices within their communities. Disputes were always settled “according to the Laws of Moses.”

Every city and town had its separate Kahal. In larger cities, there were up to forty members selected, while in the smaller towns there may have been only ten members. Synagogues appointed Electors, called “Borerim,” who served on the Kahal boards as “Elders.” They headed the Kahal administration and were in charge of all general affairs. Also appointed were the judges, “Dayyanim,” who administered the courts (beth din), and the directors, “Gabbaim,” who all reported to the chief rabbi serving as the chief justice, “av beth din.” The Kahals exercised additional powers over the decisions concerning execution of title deeds on real estate, school instruction, charitable institutions, commerce and handicrafts, and the settling of all civil, domestic, and religious disputes within their communities. Kahals provided for supervision of hospitals (beth cholim), cemeteries and burial societies (chevra kadisha), visitors to the sick (bikkucholim), homeless shelters (hekdeish) and orphanages (beth yetomim), where food, money, clothing and education for the poor were assured. Loan societies were established. Observance of Kosher dietary laws (kashrut) was assured by the proper koshering of slaughtered meats by the butcher (shochet). Overall, the Kahal benefited each Jewish community by providing regulation, discipline, and charity. However, there was a negative aspect concerning the absolute degree of authority over all matters, since the Kahal appointed both the lawmakers and the judges. Jews with different ideas may not have faired well.

Kahal elders and senior rabbis met in Lublin to settle between different Kahals. The decisions made at the Lublin convention were effective over all matters in Greater Poland, which included: Posen; Little Poland (Galicia) including the cities of Krakow and Lublin; Red Russia (Ruthenia), including Lemberg (L’wow, L’viv); and Lithuania, including Brest and Grodno. Eventually, Lithuania separated from the oversight of the Kahal elders in Poland and formed their own administrative oversight. Those supervisory bodies were collectively known as the “Council of the Three Lands.” Later, it was increased to the “Council of Four Lands,” and still later to “Five Lands.” Lithuania maintained its own federation (Va’ad Medinat Lita).

Most interestingly, the Kahal methods were modeled after ancient Hebrew policies enacted during the era of the First Temple, known as the “Chamber of Hewn Stones, lishkath ha-gazith.” Collectively those self-governing bodies were called the “Waad.” Matters dispensed through the powers of the Waad were preventive measures, obligatory enactments, and they imposed justice and penalties to all Jews within the Polish realm. They governed as they saw fit. The elders then sought approval of the king to ratify the Jewish laws enacted, taxes imposed, or restrictions applied over the Jewish communities.

The effects from the Kahal administrations carried over into the personal life of Jews. As an example, in 1607, Joshua Falk Cohen, Rabbi of Lublin, proclaimed, “The following rules are presented for the purposes of fostering piety and commercial integrity among the Jewish people: to pay special attention to the observances of the dietary laws; to refrain from adopting the Christian form of dress; not to drink wine with Christians in the pot houses, in order not to be classed among the disreputable members of the community; to watch over the chastity of Jewish women, particularly in the villages, where there are Jewish “arendars.” Arendars were Polish or Russian lessees, originally of a farm, but subsequently of the taverns or other sources of revenue. The name arendar later became synonymous with the name, “village Jew.”

Legislative “Diets” were formed that were interposed between the many organizations of the Kahals and Waads under the Crown. In all, the system fostered a spirit of discipline and obedience to the Jewish law. Instead of “Nationalism” the system provided for public spirit, civil virtue, genuine Jewish culture, and Jewish education.

“Heder” was the school for religious instruction of boys between ages 6 and 13. The “Yeshivah” was reserved for higher education, where religious subjects were also taught. Subjects included: Bible study; Yiddish (the Germanic dialect was brought from Germany to Poland); the Mishna and Talmudic commentaries (Gemara); Hebrew grammar; and fundamental arithmetic. Private education was provided by the “Melammed” (teachers) at Heder. For orphans or poorer children, whose families could not afford Heder, “Talmud Torah” schools were provided that were supported by charitable public funds. Hours of instruction were from 8:00 a.m. to noon.

The Kahals and rabbis supervised all instruction in the Yeshivot (plural). It was completely religious, including mandatory Judaic education and Talmudic Law. This was sanctioned by the king and supervised by trustees, “Gabbai.” There were collegiate Yeshivot, where final study and mastery of Talmudic and rabbinic literature was obtainable. Secular studies were forbidden. The writings of Aristotle were considered “contraband.” Rabbis tried to prevent students from “straying” from the teachings of the Torah and Talmud.

Jewish children had a high level of literacy. While Heder was mandatory for boys (or Talmud Torah schools), girls were educated at home. Girls learned to read prayers, although they were seldom formally instructed in Hebrew. They understood Hebrew and the basis of their religious readings. Scholastic achievements in the Jewish communities were based upon the economic prosperity enjoyed and upon the complete social autonomy. In that way, rabbinic authority was enhanced by the Kahal system. Those achievements resulted in Poland being compared to the “Second Babylonia.” Jewish literature was therefore, almost exclusively consecrated to rabbinic law.

Talmudic learning in Poland was first introduced from Bohemia. General education in Heder was brought from Germany. There were different “codes” of Talmudic and rabbinic learning developed in Lithuania, Poland, Galicia, and other regions within the “Four Lands.” Sephardic scholarship was not considered as authoritative as that among the Ashkenasic laws. As a result, there were severe conflicts between the followers of the various schools of rabbinic laws. Jews constantly criticized each other’s theories, looking for weaknesses in opposing scholarship.

Sharp criticism almost led to a split in the rabbinic world of Eastern Europe. Literature was hand copied and very valuable. The first printed Jewish book in Poland appeared in Krakow in 1530. Later printing presses were available in Lublin. They published works from the Talmud, Rabbinic law, and also popular, but approved, didactic literature.

The authority of the Kahals in the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania lasted for over two centuries. However, it began to disintegrate after the Partitions of Poland in the late 18th century, the restrictions imposed by the Russians over the Pale of Settlement, Napoleonic campaigns that established a new Empire, and later Polish uprisings in the former territories. The Russians abolished the Warsaw Kahal officially in 1821. Not long afterwards, there was resistance to the activities of the Kahal by both Jews and Gentiles.

Secular Education in Polish Jewish communities

Education of the Jews in Poland was focused on religious matters. There was little opportunity to be exposed to secular subjects. Only physicians received secular educations at universities. The early physicians in Poland had been trained in Spain, but were expelled after 1492. Later on, Jewish physicians in Poland were trained at Catholic universities, often in Padua, Italy.

Jewish physicians often treated the Polish kings and noble families. As a result of their exceptional education, a few Jewish doctors ascended to lofty offices as diplomats to the royal courts of both Poland and the Ottoman Empire. So-called “other secular commentary and literature” was edited and fashioned philosophically by the rabbis in Poland, thus rendering the material as “harmless.” Judaic scholarship reached its zenith in Poland.

  • Dubnow, Simon M.: “History of the Jews in Poland and Russia.” Avotaynu, Inc., New Jersey, 1918, Reprinted 2000.
  • Greenbaum, Masha: “The Jews of Lithuania, A History of a Remarkable Community, 1316 – 1945.” Gefen Publishers, 1995.
  • Iancu, Carol: “Jews in Romania, 1866 – 1919, From Exclusion to Emancipation,” East European Monogaphs, Boulder, Distributed by Columbia University Press, New York, 1996.
  • Levy, Habib: “Comprehensive History of The Jews of Iran, The Outset of the Diaspora,” English translation edition by George W. Maschke, Mazda Publishers in association with the Cultural Foundation of Habib Levy, Costa Meza, California, 1999.
  • Lowenstein, Steven M.: “The Jewish Cultural Tapestry,” Oxford University Press, New York, 2000.
  • Sarshar, Houman: “Esther’s Children, A Portrait of Iranian Jews,” The Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History, Beverly Hills, California; The Graduate Society Foundation: in association with The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 2000.
    Atlas Maps:
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  • Barnavi, Eli: “A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People,” Schocken Books, New York, 1992.
  • Gilbert, Martin, “Atlas of Jewish Civilization, 4000 Years of Jewish History.” Macmillan Publishing Co., New York, 1990. JGS 911 G374i.
  • Gilbert, Martin: “Atlas of Jewish History.” Dorset Press, U.S.A., 3rd Edition. JGS 911g374. 1984.
  • Gilbert, Martin: “Atlas of Russian History from 800 B.C. to the Present Day.” Oxford University Press, New York, 1993. PGS 947 E7g 1993
  • Gilbert, Martin: “The Illustrated Atlas of Jewish Civilization, 4,000 Year of Jewish History,” Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1990.
  • Gilbert, Martin: “The Jews of Russia: their History in Maps.” Hippocrene Books, Inc. New York, 1987.
  • Hupchic, Dennis P. and Cox, Harold E.: “A Concise Historical Atlas of Eastern Europe,” St. Martins Press, New York, 1996 [947H 3hd]
  • Lenius, Brian J.: “Genealogical Gazetteer of Galicia.” PGS 943.8 E5L.
  • Pogonowski, Iwo Ciprian: “Poland A Historical Atlas,” Hippocrene Books, Inc., New York, 1987. [PGS 943.8 E7p.]
  • “Polska, Atlas Drogowy,” 1:200,000. Geo Center, Warszawa, 1998. PGS 943.8 E7ad