Two major types of Jewish regional councils existed in Eastern Europe. The first encompassed all the communities in any particular region or state, such as Great Poland, Lithuania, or Moravia; the second was the Polish Council, sometimes known as the Jewish Sejm (Pol., Sejm Żydowski), which represented Jews in each region of the Polish Kingdom. Jews referred to this latter formation as the Council of the Four Lands (i.e., the four regions of which it was originally composed). Jewish councils did not develop in other regions of Eastern Europe in this period. Attempts to establish Jewish councils and congresses in later centuries resulted only in the creation of short-lived bodies that lacked the influence and prestige of their predecessors.
Characterization and Background
The councils, which existed from the sixteenth to the end of the eighteenth centuries, differed from their medieval predecessors in Central Europe in two significant ways. First, they were not rabbinic councils, but were primarily made up of elected lay officials (though in some cases rabbis did participate). Second, they existed continuously for an extremely long period—more than 250 years in some cases. The basis for their existence lay in the role they played in the administration of the early modern states in which they existed, primarily as a means of collecting taxes from the Jewish population. Thus, they began to function as the state took on a new form during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and disappeared as the state itself changed at the end of the eighteenth century.
The early-modern councils acted as parliamentary bodies for Jewish society, taking on many of the forms and functions of early modern parliaments such as the Polish–Lithuanian Sejm and Sejmiki. Likewise, there are signs that Christian minority groups, such as the Scots in Poland–Lithuania, had similar though much less highly developed institutions in this period.
Details about the foundation and early development of regional councils (Heb., va‘ade galil) remain impossible to trace due to a lack of sources. The first known record dates from 1519 and describes the initiative of 11 Jewish communities in Great Poland to band together to collect taxes from Jews in Poznań, the leading community of the region. The formation of the councils thus seems to have been closely connected both to the Jews’ desire to collect their own taxes (in place of non-Jewish tax collectors) and to smaller communities’ aspirations for independence from the leading communities.
Jews adapted a medieval tradition of holding ad hoc meetings of leaders at regional fairs in order to create a stable framework for regular meetings, whose timetables were largely determined by regional economic life. Following the development of the Great Poland Jewish Council, there is evidence for the existence of a Lithuanian Jewish council before 1569, though regular documentation in the council’s record book (Heb., pinkas) begins only in 1623. Similar documentation for the Moravian Jewish Council begins in 1650, though the organization may have existed for some years prior to that date. By the end of the sixteenth century, there seem to have been four Jewish regional councils active in the Polish kingdom: Great Poland, whose leading community was Poznań; Little Poland, with the community of Kraków; Subcarpathian Rus’, with Lwów; and Volhynia, with Ostróg. With the growth and spread of the Jewish population of Poland–Lithuania, particularly in the country’s eastern regions, new councils continued to be formed even in the eighteenth century.
None of the councils received a foundation privilege, which meant that they had no de jure legal standing. They were, however, recognized and regularly dealt with by the state administrative machinery on a de facto basis. This factor affected their authority over the communities in their purview: since the communities did receive privileges, their legal standing was stronger and the council was sometimes unable to enforce its will. Thus, in order for any council ruling to have force, it had to be adopted by each individual community. This greatly hampered the councils’ effectiveness.
As the initial impetus for the development of the councils seems to have been to gather taxes for state authorities, their geographic structure seems at the outset to have mirrored the administrative structure of the state or region in which they existed, including the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Margravate of Moravia, and the województwo
(voivodship) of Great Poland. However, within the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, border disputes arose among various councils in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, indicating that the country’s administrative borders were no longer the same as those of the Jewish councils. By the mid-eighteenth century, the differences between the councils’ geographical structure and Poland’s administrative borders could be quite marked.
The geographical structure of the individual councils was based on the leading Jewish communities in each region. Some regions (e.g., Great Poland, Little Poland, Subcarpathian Rus’) consisted of a major community and various minor ones. In these cases, there was often tension between the two, with the major community sometimes acting as a separate administrative unit. Other regions, such as Lithuania, were composed of a number of leading communities of largely equal status (i.e., Pinsk, Brześć [Brisk; mod. Brest], and Grodno [Hrodna]). The communities that made up the council assumed responsibility for all the other Jewish settlements in the region, particularly with regard to the division of taxes. For this reason, an increasing number of settlements sought the status of leading community and wished to have a say in the tax division process. In Lithuania, Vilna received the status of leading community in 1652 and Slutsk (Słuck) in 1691. The geographical makeup of the Moravian Council was slightly different: the country was divided into three regions—upper, middle, and lower Moravia—with the communities of each region sending joint representatives to the national council.
Though there were broad similarities between the different councils, there was no uniformity of structure. Representatives seem usually to have been elected from within the leading communities, though Moravia developed a national electoral college whose members were elected by its three regions. In Poland
and Moravia, special places on the councils were not generally reserved for rabbis, though rabbis often participated in discussions in an advisory or honorary capacity. In Lithuania, each of the leading communities sent two lay leaders and a rabbi to participate in the council.
In addition to the elders (Heb., rashe medinah), the councils included a number of other elected officials, most prominently judges (dayanim) and financial trustees (ne’emanim). Their numbers varied from council to council. Beadles (shamashim) and a scribe (sofer) were salaried officials. The council would also employ a lobbyist (shtadlan), whose task was to mediate between Jews and state authorities, such as the wojewoda and the starosta, high-church officials, and the noble parliamentary bodies, the Sejmiki and the Sejm, in an attempt to ensure that no measures harmful to Jews were adopted.
The regional chief rabbi (Heb., rav ha-medinah) was president of the regional rabbinic court and was responsible for ensuring that those fulfilling ritual roles, such as slaughterers and preachers, were qualified for their task. The post also brought significant income to the holder and was usually held by the rabbi of the region’s major community, though often the other leading communities would dispute its right to appoint him. Conflicts over the chief rabbinate in various regions were common from the early seventeenth century to the end of the eighteenth, with non-Jewish authorities sometimes intervening to ensure that a favorite candidate was chosen.
Though the councils initially actually collected taxes from Jews to pay to the state, within a short time the Polish and Lithuanian councils ceded this function to the state authorities themselves, and collected taxes just for their own needs. Their role within the state thus became primarily one of dividing the tax burden among communities in their jurisdiction, with Polish bodies sending their decision to the Council of Four Lands
for inclusion in the overall tax division. In addition, the councils would represent Jews of the region before the authorities and coordinate lobbying activities, particularly when individuals or communities came under attack, as in cases of blood libel. The councils also held their own courts that tried cases between various communities and between individuals and their communities. These courts could also hear appeals from the community rabbinic courts. In Poland, their decisions could be appealed to the Council of Four Lands.
Council legislation covered a range of issues above and beyond their own administrative affairs: these could include problems of economic life (e.g., security for Jews traveling to and staying at fairs; questions related to business practices and to limiting excessive competition with non-Jews; and the economic practices of individual communities) and social regimentation (e.g., sumptuary laws, welfare, and community administration), as well as questions of religious life (e.g., the running of yeshivas; the provision of upkeep for students; synagogue administration; and the role of the rabbi). Council members would also sometimes give approbations for the publication of books.
The Council of Four Lands
The Council of Four Lands (Heb., va‘ad arba‘ aratsot) apparently came into being as a result of the Sejm’s decision to reimpose a Jewish poll tax in order to help finance the war against Muscovy in 1580. Jewish leaders from various Polish provinces decided to farm the tax (valued at 15,000 zlotys) and used their new status to create a nationwide body to represent the whole of Polish Jewry. This was a natural development: the earlier part of the sixteenth century had seen the advance of various Jewish regional councils, as well as ad hoc meetings of lay and rabbinic leaders from all over Poland at the great Lublin fair. In addition, the same period had seen the development of the Polish parliamentary bodies, the Sejm and the Sejmiki, and in 1578 the high court of appeal run by the nobility, the Trybunal Koronny, had been established in Lublin. The Council of Four Lands, too, held regular annual meetings at Lublin, during the early Spring Candlemas Fair (Pol., Gromnicze) and also during the late summer fair at Jarosław. Like the other Jewish councils, the Council of Four Lands never received a foundation privilege, but enjoyed only de facto recognition from various Polish authorities, most prominently the crown treasurer (Pol., podskarbi koronny). This meant that despite its prestige, the council’s rulings had to be accepted by individual communities in order to be in force.
Geography and Structure.
Initially formed of representatives from the four Jewish Regional Councils in Poland
(Great Poland, Little Poland, Subcarpathian Rus’, and Volhynia), the makeup of the council was not always stable. In its early years, representatives from Volhynia were not always present, while sometimes representatives from Lithuania would attend, leading to the council being called Three or Five Lands respectively. Eventually the title Four Lands
became generic. As the number of regional councils grew, so did the council’s structure became more complex. By the eighteenth century, 16 bodies were permanently represented within the council: six full regional councils (Poznań
, Rus’-Bracław, Podolia, Volhynia, and Lublin
), three lesser regional councils (Przemyśl
-Belz, Ordynacja Zamojska), and the representatives of seven individual communities (Poznań, Kraków, Lublin, Przemyśl, Rzeszów
, and Węgrów). Thus, the geographical makeup of the council differed quite significantly from Poland’s administrative structure.
Each body represented on the council elected its own representatives, though there was no uniformity of system. In its last years, 25 elders sat on the council, headed by an executive officer (Heb., ha-parnas de-arba‘ aratsot) and a financial trustee (ha-ne’eman de-arba‘ aratsot). A number of tax assessors (shama’im) were appointed by the different bodies. Before each session, seven judges (dayane ha-aratsot) were elected using a rotation system between communities. According to one calculation, less than 1 percent of adult Polish Jews were entitled to vote in the election of representatives to the council; this percentage was not unusual for early modern parliamentary bodies.
As well as a scribe, the council employed its own shtadlan (Pol., syndyk), who not only represented the council before the various non-Jewish authorities, but also spearheaded its negotiations with the crown treasurer concerning the division of the Jewish poll tax. There was no chief rabbi, and initially rabbis did not take part in council deliberations unless specifically invited. From the mid-seventeenth century, a separate rabbinic board seems to have functioned alongside the lay board as an integral part of the structure. In the eighteenth century, these two boards seem to have merged, with rabbis taking over some of the lay leaders’ roles. This led to tension between lay and rabbinic leaders.
Though the council initially collected the Jewish poll tax, within a short time it ceded this function to the state apparatus and instead negotiated with the podskarbi koronny
to determine the size of the tax and its distribution between the various communities. This system seems to have worked according to a written table drawn up in consultation with the regional councils. The determination of the regional boundaries and division of expenses led the council to disputes, most prominently with the Lithuanian council. In the eighteenth century, individual military units collected the poll tax itself, which was earmarked for financing the army. Each unit was given a payment order to the value of the tax owed by a specific community or communities and collected the money
itself. The council collected taxes only for its own needs.
From 1717 to 1764, the poll tax paid by Polish Jewry stayed constant at 220,000 zlotys, while the council’s other expenses (e.g., payments and bribes to non-Jewish authorities, salaries and expenses for council members) seem to have varied from 20–80,000 zlotys annually in the early 1740s. The council represented Polish Jewry before the king, the Sejm, and the senate; helped organize responses to attacks on Jews; and, by means of the shtadlan, tried to ensure that the Sejm would not pass unfavorable legislation. In addition, the council held its own form of high court, run by dayanim rather than rabbis, which seems to have acted as a court of appeal from the community and regional courts. The council’s prestige led various Jewish communities outside Poland–Lithuania to turn to it for arbitration in times of major disputes. Its rulings had no binding force, however.
In its legislation, the council issued important rulings limiting Jewish economic competition with the nobility (1581) and set forth regulations concerning the treatment of Jewish bankrupts (1624). In 1607, the council requested Poland’s leading rabbis, including Yehoshu‘a Falk ha-Kohen, to compose regulations dealing with problems of Jews extending mercantile credit to other Jews. This led to the invention of the heter ‘iska credit arrangement. Together with these, the council also adopted Rabbi Meshulam Fayvush’s 1590 regulations concerning Sabbath rest in Poland’s eastern provinces. The sale of rabbinic posts was forbidden in a series of regulations (1587, 1590, 1597, 1640). In 1672, the council banned Sabbatian activity, apparently trying also in the 1680s to prevent the publication of Sabbatian homiletic literature. The council would regularly issue regulations and approbations for the publication of books, in order both to preserve publishing rights and to exert some control over the nature and quality of Jewish books published in Poland.
The Decline and Disappearance of the Councils
As was true for the Polish–Lithuanian state administrative apparatus, the eighteenth century was largely a period of stagnation for the Jewish councils. Though the councils continued to function as tax administrators and representatives of the Jewish community (particularly prominent were the efforts of the Council of Four Lands during the Frankist crisis of 1756–1760), their parliamentary role declined sharply and the number of meetings and amount of legislation that was passed dropped markedly. Contemporary reports of the Council of Four Lands tell of stormy debates rendered unwieldy by endless discussions of procedural matters regarding the relative standing of different participants. Complaints also began to be heard of corruption; some council leaders were accused of misappropriating funds.
The eighteenth century also saw the Polish–Lithuanian councils taking on ever increasing amounts of debt to non-Jewish bodies. This was largely in the form of long-term, low-interest loans (Pol., widerkaf) taken mostly from church institutions but also from magnates. The reasons for this phenomenon are not absolutely clear: it may have been a means of balancing accounts in difficult times or could have been an attempt by the councils to act as banks that sold annuities to those in need. On their abolition in 1764, the Polish–Lithuanian councils owed 2,305,111 zlotys, with annual interest of 196,478 zlotys (see Table 1: Debts of the Council of Four Lands and its Constituent Bodies, 1764).
Despite the fact that authorized office holders enjoyed significant income from the councils, the Polish–Lithuanian authorities in general had a largely negative opinion of them. Individual noblemen put pressure on the councils to reduce the assessment of the Jewish communities in the towns they owned. The Sejm and Sejmiki, which viewed the councils just as a means of assessing the Jewish poll tax, treated with hostility the fact that Jewish organizations collected money for their own purposes, arguing that all income from Jews should go directly to the state. This was meant to allow a significant rise in income from the Jewish poll tax. The Sejm established commissions to deal with the functioning of the Council of Four Lands in 1739 and 1753, but they were largely ineffectual.
The increasing popularity of state centralization in the eighteenth century meant that bodies representing different groups within the state were considered unnecessary. The first of the councils to be thus affected was that of Moravian Jewry in 1754. In that year, Empress Maria Theresa established a committee on Jewish affairs, which published regulations titled Die General-Polizei-Prozess- und Kommerzialordnung.
It served to reduce Jewish autonomy and effectively abolished the council. In 1764, with the accession of Poland’s last king, Stanisław August Poniatowski, a decision was taken to reorganize the Jewish poll tax: the state held a Jewish census in 1764–1765 and on its basis determined the size and distribution of the payments. The councils, rendered redundant by the new policy, were officially abolished.
The consequent demand for the immediate repayment of the large sums of capital taken as loans by the councils led to a major debt crisis and the establishment by the Sejm of a commission to liquidate Jewish debts. The issue was not finally resolved for decades. Though the Council of Four Lands never met after 1764, there is some evidence that regional representatives did meet in councils sporadically during the last third of the eighteenth century. By the turn of the nineteenth century, however, the councils were a thing of the past.
In later centuries, there were various attempts to set up Jewish Councils and Congresses to deal with various aspects of Jewish communal and cultural autonomy in Eastern Europe. Prominent among these were the Jewish Congress in nineteenth-century Hungary, which was established to redefine the status of the Hungarian Jewish communities, and the Jewish Councils of interwar Lithuania and the short-lived Ukrainian Republic, whose goal was to act as the representative bodies of the Jewish minorities in those states. These were short-lived bodies in comparison with their early modern predecessors and had only limited influence, their most important achievement being the tripartite division of Jewish communities by the Hungarian Congress in the late 1860s.
In the early twentieth century, those East European Jews who supported Jewish national rights, particularly Diaspora nationalists such as Simon Dubnow, pointed to the councils as models of Jewish national autonomy in premodern times. This anachronistic view colored historical treatments of the councils during most of the twentieth century.
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