A halakhic (legal) term, ḥazakah has multiple connotations, though common to them all is the idea of preserving an existing condition, real or presumed. Its origin is in the laws of trespass and encroachment on another’s livelihood found in the Talmud. In the context of Eastern Europe, it often applied to a situation in which a monopoly was granted with the intent of preventing uncontrolled economic competition among Jews, and between Jews and others.
As it developed in Poland and Lithuania, ḥazakah was also supported by ordinances promulgated in Ashkenaz in the eleventh century, according to which once a Jew maintained business contacts with a gentile, it was forbidden for another Jew to enter into a business transaction with that same gentile, a practice called ma‘arufiya. In Poland–Lithuania, similar regulations also forbade competition in the leasing of immovable property from non-Jews. The law concerning ḥazakah encompassed the majority of the Jewish spheres of livelihood—shops, real estate, and arenda (leasing).
The issue of ḥazakah had particular significance in the field of arenda, because it was contrary to the interests of the noblemen who provided the arendas, and because a very wide stratum of Jews earned their livelihood in this way. In effect ḥazakah constituted a type of business license that the communal administration sold to people who had already held an arenda for three consecutive years, or to those who had signed a contract for this period and were capable of paying the community its fee.
Ḥazakah involved issues connected with the authority of the community and its relations with other groups or centers of power—the Polish landowning nobility, individual Jewish tenants, and rabbinic leadership. The application of ḥazakah regulations generated particular conflicts with the nobility, who wanted to lease their property to the highest bidder, whereas ḥazakah aimed to prevent competition. Thus, noblemen tended to forbid the application of ḥazakah on their estates by means of sanctions on communal administrations. The relative weakness of the Jewish communal administration before the nobility also meant that even when there was an attempt to impose ḥazakah regulations, Jewish tenants evaded them with the backing of the town owners.
These conflicts were exacerbated as competition for livelihood intensified in the eighteenth century. Communities prevented rabbinic leadership from controlling ḥazakah, determining that the communal administration and not the rabbinical courts would have jurisdiction in this area. In halakhic terms, the issues related to the application of ḥazakah were far from simple: since the majority of medieval Ashkenazic rulings permitted competition, the leading rabbinic authorities of sixteenth-century Poland–Lithuania supported the application of a broad interpretation of ḥazakah, in varying degrees—a stance far less definitive than the communities required.
The communal administration for its part did everything possible to control the distribution of ḥazakah: they controlled concessions of tenancy and generally awarded them to those who offered the greater price to the community treasury. In theory, the application of ḥazakah to a range of occupations meant that virtually every economic venture required a ḥazakah fee to the community. Thus, it would seem that ḥazakah actually became a significant source of income for the communal administration. However, problems in the implementation of ḥazakah significantly limited the communities’ income from this source.
In the eighteenth century, competition over ḥazakah increased and was sometimes accompanied by violence. Communal authorities could not cope with the phenomenon because of the close ties between the Jewish arendarzy (leaseholders) and the nobility; the geographical dispersion of these leaseholders; and the need to hide the communities’ attempts to organize ḥazakah on such leases from the nobility. The vacuum that resulted was often filled by the authority of Hasidic tsadikim. Backed by their moral authority—and not due to the takanot (communal ordinances)—a certain measure of enforcement of the prohibition of encroachment on one’s property, in this case the lease, was preserved.
Another application of the general concept of ḥazakah is related to the so-called ban on settlement or ḥerem ha-yishuv. Also known first in medieval Western Europe, it authorized the existing community to regulate the settlement of newcomers. It could choose whether or not to grant a ḥazakah on settlement—ḥezkat ha-yishuv—to someone who wished to reside in the town. The removal of ḥezkat ha-yishuv was also used as a sanction, amounting to expulsion, against people repeatedly convicted of offences by the communal courts.
Edward Fram, Ideals Face Reality: Jewish Law and Life in Poland, 1550–1655 (Cincinnati, 1997); Murray J. Rosman, The Lord’s Jews: Magnate-Jewish Relations in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge, Mass,. 1990); Chone Shmeruk, “Ha-Ḥasidut ve-‘iske ha-ḥakhirot,” Tsiyon 35 (1970): 182–192.
Translated from Hebrew by Carrie Friedman-Cohen