(More fully, Jakub Becal, son of Natan; Heb., Ya‘akov Betsal’el ben Natan), factor of Polish King Jan III Sobieski (1629–1696). Probably hailing from Ruthenia, Jakub Becal is said to have lost his father in the Khmel’nyt’skyi uprising, though in court files from 1676 Becal’s home is given as Dybów near Toruń.
Becal was in contact with the Crown Treasury by the 1670s in relation to business dealings with Armenians from Lwów. In the 1680s, he developed ties to the royal court; it was probably then that he received a privilege of servitor regis. In 1682, he bought a house in Żółkiew (Zhovkva), which was the most important home of Jan III. Becal did not receive ḥazakah (right of residence from the Jewish community) in Żółkiew until 1685, when he renounced the royal privileges that exempted him from jurisdiction of the Jewish courts. In 1689, he was elected to be an elder of the Żółkiew kahal.
By the end of the 1680s, Becal was managing most of the income of the royal family. He was one of the first general arendarzy (lessees) mentioned in Polish sources (Żółkiew, 1685; Jarosław, 1689), leasing the income of the Sambor royal estate as well as that of royal and crown customs in Ruthenia. He also leased noble estates, thus assuring himself the protection of magnates such as the primate Michał Radziejowski (1645–1705). Assumed to have considerable influence on the king, Becal is said to have been a part of a literary circle at the royal court, together with another Jew, the physician Emmanuel de Jona (Emanu’el ben Yonah).
During a treasury tribunal for the crown in Lwów in 1691, Becal was accused of blasphemy and corruption. This charge was used by the antiroyalist opposition as a means of discrediting the king. Becal was also accused of breaking church and state laws that forbade Jews to employ Christian servants and to lease customs and state taxes. Sentenced in absentia by the Supreme Court in Lublin for corruption including customs charges, he was eventually summoned to the Grodno Sejm (31 December 1692–11 February 1693). The affair soon became a cause célèbre and one of the main topics of the election campaign and later Sejm sessions. The opposition wanted to appoint a special commission to try Becal, but thanks to the king’s support he was eventually cleared of the charge of blasphemy. However, he was forced to take a humiliating oath to clear himself.
On 13 May 1693, the Senate Council cleared Becal of the other charges, too, and the plaintiff was punished for making false accusations. The charges and trials, however, caused Becal financial losses; he was said to have spent huge sums looking for support. He eventually was unable to meet his obligations and so lost his credibility, and even was arrested for debt. In 1695–1696, he lost his leases.
Becal died in 1696 and was buried in Żółkiew. His son Gershon Natan was a leader of the Ruthenian Council. Becal’s trial served as a pretext for some to involve nobility in anti-Jewish agitation and attempts to pass restrictive legislation. Tradition has it that his case contributed to the failure of the Sobieski family to have their children elected to the monarchy.
Majer Bałaban, “Becal, celnik ziem ruskich: Szkic historyczny,” in Z historji żydów w Polsce: Szkice i studja (Warsaw, 1920); Stefan Gąsiorowski, “Relationship between the Owners of Żółkiew and Jews in the 17th Century,” Studia Judaica 2 (1999): 203–222; Adam Kaźmierczyk, “Jakub Becal: King Jan III Sobieski’s Jewish Factor,” Polin 15 (2002): 249–266.
Translated from Polish by Joanna Nalewajko-Kulikov