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This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot Lita: Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Lithuania,
Editor: Prof. Dov Levin, Assistant Editor: Josef Rosin, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem.


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Translations by Shimon Joffe

[Page 9]

Part 2: Lithuanian Jewry from the Middle Ages
until the end of the First World War

 

G) The Jewish community in Lithuania from its beginning until the union with Poland (1569)

The first Jewish settlers, merchants from South-Eastern Europe, arrived, it is surmised, as early as the 12th century. After them, refugees came from Western Europe, escaping the slaughters and the oppression initiated by the Crusaders as they marched through Europe and from the Black Death plague. And of course, Jews were to be found amongst the merchants and artisans who were invited to Lithuania by the Grand Duke Gediminas in the first half of the 14th century. In his conquest of Wolyn and Galicia, the Duke found there a Jewish population. Some of them moved north and settled in areas close to Lithuania such as Brisk (Brisk in Lithuania) and Grodno (Horodna) in the Samogitia region.

In the days of the Grand Duke Vytautas, the number of Jews in Lithuania increased greatly and reached approx. 6,000 people. Vytautas, like his grandfather, was an enlightened and tolerant ruler. He encouraged merchants and sundry foreign experts to come and permitted them to live in accordance with their own traditions and religion. He behaved likewise with the members of the Karaite sect whom he brought as prisoners of war from the south and the Crimean peninsula at the end of the 14th century. 330 Karaite families settled in Trakai, near Vilna, and another 155 families settled in Panevezys, on the borders of the Zhamut region. These together constituted the beginning of the Karaite settlement in ethnic Lithuania. Over the coming hundreds of years they differentiated themselves more and more from the other Jews until they severed themselves completely from the rest of the Jewish community.

Vytautas” attitude to his Jewish subjects is clearly illustrated by the Writs of Privilege he granted to the Jewish and Karaite inhabitants of the cities of Brisk, Grodno and Trok in 1388-1389. The Writs of Privilege state, inter alias, that the Jews are the Duke's subjects and are subject to his personal reign. In any important conflict amongst themselves, or with a Christian, he would deal with it personally or through a Starosta, an official specially appointed, also called “Judge of Jews”. The Jews had judicial autonomy in dealing with conflicts in financial matters, accepting that one of the parties could ask for the matter to be brought before the Grand Duke.

The Writ of Privilege states further that the Jews may travel freely throughout the whole land. As to their relations with the non-Jews, it states that should a Christian neighbor ignore a cry for help from a Jew at night he would be placed on trial as if he had committed a crime, and a Christian who should take by force any Jewish property or a Jew's home without permission, will be judged as if he had taken State property. A Christian who injured a Jew or beat him, would be fined an amount equal to that payable for injuring a member of the nobility. The fine was paid in to the treasury.

In addition to defending the person and property and the free movement of the Jews, the writs also provided for the right to religious practice and everything connected with the demands of the religious practice, such as forbidding bringing a Jew to trial on a Saturday or festive day, or to demand of him to make a financial deal on such a day. Damaging a synagogue or cemetery was forbidden. A separate order was made to defend Jews against blood libels.

In economic matters, Jews were promised freedom in trade, transport and taxation, and also in everything connected with the agricultural work, as were the Christians. The possibility of money lending, the production and sale of alcohol, the slaughter of cattle and other items are specifically mentioned. In all these the Jews would have the same rights enjoyed by the Christian burghers.

These rights, which were again ratified in the 15-17 centuries, or added to by the rulers who succeeded Vytautas, were of great importance for the legal and economic standing of Lithuanian Jewry for a long time.

The Karaites too, enjoyed more or less the same tolerance. In 1441, the Grand Duke Casimir (later the King of Poland) granted the inhabitants of the Karaite suburb of Trakai Magdeburgian rights, and as a result, they had the right to be judged by a judge chosen by themselves, and confirmed by the King or the Grand Duke. In this comfortable situation, it became possible for a number of Jews, and particularly the moneyed ones, to lease taxation and other income of the Grand Duke, as was customary in those days, as the customs lessor was entitled to some of the contraband merchandise which he seized and thus was also able to trade and sell it.

Many of the Jews were active in those days, in addition to buying and selling of goods, also in money lending on interest. The Jews were given the right to lease estates or to receive them in payment for debts. The estates included the tied peasants, and the Jews had the right to judge them. As a result, some Jews leased land and estates belonging to a duke or magnate (the upper crust of the nobility) or other members of the nobility, on favorable terms. The Jews paid the estates owners handsomely for the leases and even added expensive presents. Rich Jews assisted the rulers on occasion when these found themselves in financial or other difficulties by granting loans or credits on easy terms.

After King Kazimir's demise, his son, the Grand Duke Alexander, saw to the payment of some of his debts to the Jewish financiers, but, after his coffers were emptied as a result of his wars with the Russians and the Tartars, suddenly, in April 1495, only three years after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, he expelled all the Jews resident in Lithuania, and all the land, and other real estate was declared the property of the Grand Duke. Some were handed over to the monasteries and some sold to individuals. Large amounts owing to the Jews by Christians were confiscated in favor of the Grand Duke's treasury. In spite of all these measures, his financial situation did not improve. In 1503, two years after Alexander was elected King of Poland, he permitted the exiles to return to Lithuania and even returned to them some of their properties including real estate and public property such as synagogues and cemeteries. The Jews also received the right to demand repayment of monies lent out before the expulsion. On the other hand, the Jews were obliged to keep at their expense one thousand mounted men with their armor. The Jews on their part took steps with intermediaries to cancel this edict.

King Zigmunt the First (the old) repeated and reaffirmed the Writs of Privilege granted the Jews by Vytautas and eventually also repealed the duty to keep the mounted men at their expense. In recompense for all this, he laid upon the community a global tax of one thousand Gilden in addition to the ordinary taxes they had to pay. Because of his financial difficulties and for the sake of efficiency the Duke preferred to concentrate the collection of taxes in one hand, and in 1514 he appointed the rich lessee from Brisk, the Jew Michael Yozefovitch, who was a kind of banker and treasurer to the king. He was also appointed head of the Jewish community in Lithuania. This appointment did not last long as the Lithuanian Jews objected to having it forced upon them. In 1525 Yozefovitch was given noble rank, and his sons after him. His elder brother, Avraham Yozefovitch, who also was very rich and conducted a great deal of business, converted at a young age, and for a period was the treasurer of the Lithuanian Duchy; but this was an unusual case. There were, in Lithuania a number of other honored and rich Jews, owners of estates, who had the title Pan (the equivalent of Sir) in their documents; a title carried by the magnates and the upper aristocracy, and as was customary, they too were entitled to carry a sword and a seal ring on their finger.

On the surface, it appeared that the status of the Jews was equal to that of the city Christians burghers. In many respects they even enjoyed preferential status. An injury to a Jew drew in its wake the same punishment as handed out for an injury to a noblemen. Whoever killed a Jew had to pay for it with his life and the family was forced to pay compensation to the murdered man's family (Jewish or Noble) of 100 Lithuanian Groshen. When the murdered man was a burgher the compensation stood at 12 Groshen only. This matter was enshrined in the “Lithuanian Status”, the first compendium of laws, of 1529. Simultaneously a special tax was levied on the Jews, separately from the Christians, for the upkeep of the army, the Serebschizna tax. In time, it became customary to demand of the Jews one quarter of the total amount levied for this purpose from the cities in Lithuania.

During this time and for generations to come, the status of the Jews depended on these Writs of Privilege (in Jewish sources they are called Writs of Existence) which were granted to them by kings and local rulers. The city Jews, who generally did not enjoy the civil rights customary in the Lithuanian cities (although they were a considerable part of the population) opposed every attempt to lay upon them the Magdeburg laws out of a fear that they would be deprived of their rights. They opposed any effort of the city authorities to interfere in their affairs. In cases where their autonomous rights were infringed they preferred to place the matter before the king, as laid down in the Writ of Privilege.

In 1533, King Zigmunt, “the Elder” published an edict directed to all administrative offices in Lithuania (the Starostas, city heads, and the senior Pans) to continue to honor the Writs of Privilege of the Jews. He also added authority to the rabbinical court (Beth Din), which used to convene in Lublin during the great fairs there. In 1540 King Zigmunt “the Elder” and the Sejm published a vigorous denunciation of the libel spread that the Polish Jews convert Christians and move them to Lithuania. But in the same announcement is included a prohibition on Jews hiring Christian wet nurses or to purchase peasant serfs.

Some of the Jewish tax lessors situated in the Samogitia region developed trade with eastern Prussia and cities on the Baltic coast. They sent by boats and rafts on the Neman River, logs and grains to Koenigsberg and imported from there fabrics, salt, silver and gold products. Jewish merchants from Trakai, Grodno and Brisk reached Riga and Kovno, where the stores of the German trading companies were to be found. Jewish tax lessors lived in Kovno and other places in ethnic Lithuania. Jewish merchants visited Vilna too in their trading travels. This practice resulted in jealousy on the part of the city dwellers (particularly the Germans) and the artisans' associations, the Christian Chekhs (guilds), who enjoyed the Magdeburg rights and monopolistic privileges, carried on lengthy struggles against the Jews. In 1527 the King of Poland agreed to the demands of the city dwellers and granted them a Bill of Privileges, which forbade Jews to settle in Vilna and to trade there (De non tolerandis Judaeis). As a result of this, the Jews settled in areas close to Vilna or its suburbs on estates under the hegemony of noblemen (juridikit). Over time, the prohibition lost its power and the Jews had it canceled in practice, but the struggle between them and the city Christians continued for hundreds of years. The same situation was to be found in many other places. Against this backdrop there was a blood libel in 1564, which resulted in the execution of a Jewish merchant clerk named Bernet Abramovitch. This wave of foul plots by the citizens came to an end after the king declared that anyone who informed in the future against a Jew would be executed if the information he provided proved to be untrue.

The attitude of the lower nobility and of the clergy to the Jews was not always sympathetic, and changed according to the current interests of these orders, the lower nobility, who asked to receive the leasing, and the clergy for religious reasons. Because of pressure by the clergy, it was forbidden in 1553 for Jews to employ Christian servants, either male or female. In 1559, the nobility of Samogitia condemned what they called “the perfidy“ of the Jews and demanded that the latter lose the right to lease the income from customs. They also demanded that the Jews be forced to support 2,000 men at arms. In the second version of the Lithuanian Status, enacted in the year 1566, the tendency to oppress the Jews by the nobility and the clergy is given expression. Lithuanian Jews, men and women, were forbidden to appear in public in expensive dress and golden ornaments. Men had to wear a yellow cap and women a yellow shawl. This was intended to distinguish between the Jews and the Christians. But the same document reconfirmed that the punishment for harming a Jew was the same as that for harming a nobleman. Also, the right of Jews to own estates with serf peasants was reconfirmed with the right to be judged according to the special laws affecting the nobility. Jews could only be tried by a court headed by a Starosta.

In contradistinction to the life of luxury led by a handful of rich Jews who flourished under the protection of the upper nobility, the general Jewish population of Lithuania was very poor. Almost all of them made a living out of petty trade, from lending money to the peasants and city dwellers and such like. The funds needed, they themselves borrowed from the nobility or the clerics or the men in power (not infrequently by pawning their possessions). By the middle of the sixteenth century their economic situation worsened to the point at which they became borrowers rather than lenders and suffered greatly at the hands of their Christian lenders. No wonder many Jews were remiss in their payment of the Poll tax (see later entry), which was higher than that imposed upon other sections of the population. In 1566 a tax of 6,000 Shok was imposed on the Jews instead of the above tax. In addition, a tax of 4,150 Shok was imposed on them, which was divided amongst the communities.

During this period there existed in the Great Duchy of Lithuania 15 communities, the biggest three being Brisk, Grodno and Pinsk. Each of these had a number of smaller communities attached to it (called neighborhoods by the Jews). It is estimated that the number of Jews lay between 10,000 and 25,000. On average, a Jewish family consisted of 10 or more souls. A minority of Jews lived in ethnic Lithuania, including the Samogitia region. The early settlers in these areas were tax farmers and customs collectors. An added wave of Jews settled there after the expulsion from Vilna (in 1527) and from Memel (in 1567). In addition to Vilna and Kovno (and the nearby settlement of Viliampole), Jewish communities already existed in a number of places: Utena, Birzai, Zagare, Zasliai, Jurbarkas, Palanga, Merkine, Pakroujus, Punia, Kadainian, Kelme, Sedova etc.

 

[Page 12]

H) The Jews in the Polish Republic (1569-1795)

        Changes in the economic and social situation of Lithuanian Jewry

After the Lublin Union came into effect in 1569, and brought in its wake an increase in the power of the nobility, a change also took place in the economic situation of the Jews in Greater Lithuania and they increased also in number. In contrast with the number of tax lessors, which decreased, there was an increase in the number of Jews employed by the nobility and estate owners as managers of their farms and businesses as well as lessees of inns and taverns in rural areas. The widespread movement of the Jews to distant villages was of great social and cultural importance. The Yishuvniks, as the Jews who lived in rural and backward areas became known, could not support a synagogue or public facilities and even had great difficulty in hiring a tutor for their children. The Jewish tavern keeper was also the object of hate by the village inhabitants, who often saw in him the owner's proxy and owner of the monopoly to distill and sell spirits and exploit them. That was true too of the serfs who were given by the owner to the Jewish lessee as free labor. In addition to the religious and cultural discord between them and the villagers must be added a socioeconomic shading. But the nobility shielded and protected “their Jews”. In order to lower the cost of goods and services needed by the nobility they supported free trade, and thus supported the intrusion of Jews into the cities closed to them. Specifically, the estate owners founded townships and settled Jews in them. The Jews were given the right to organize, build synagogues and public buildings. This is the reason new communities sprang up in remote places in ethnic Lithuania, including the Samogitia region. Jews from Poland and other places began to settle there.

However, the Jews now began to suffer in the cities. More so in Vilna, not only from the burghers but also from the monks of the Jesuit order, some of whom had become private tutors in the households of the nobility and members of the administration, and thus used this opportunity to preach hatred of the Jews. Students at the seminary of this order used to riot and assault Jews (this was called by the Jews Eingleif, which appears to be the joining of two words “to run”). In spite of the fact that the great majority of the inhabitants were Christians, they had not yet lost the belief in demons and evil spirits and now the Jews took their place. Thus it was not difficult for the non-Jews to believe in the blood libels, and many means were used to agitate the crowds, as for instance, they smeared dead bodies with pigeon blood and such like. The Karaites suffered a great deal from this agitation as did the Jews.

In the third edict of the Lietuvos Statutas (in 1588), the entry of a Jew into the nobility was limited and permitted only if he converted to Christianity. Conversely, some of the statutes in the previous edicts, which demeaned the Jews, were now excluded. In 1590 the individual poll tax became a permanent tax on Lithuanian Jewry, in addition to a tax called Povrotni, which was imposed only on Jewish house owners. The individual poll tax imposed on the Jews over two hundred years reached as much as three Guilders per person. The general sum Lithuanian Jewry had to pay instead of the above tax changed dozens of times and fluctuated between 3,000 and 60,000 Guilders or more. In addition to the taxes Lithuanian Jewry had to pay the authorities, they were also obligated to pay taxes and duties such as providing for a number of soldiers at their expense (zelner gelt – soldier money), keeping soldiers at their homes.

The Lublin Union did not cause any change in the legal status of Lithuanian Jewry, and they continued to enjoy the basic privileges granted them in the Writs of Privilege from the days of Vytautas and which were confirmed by the Kings who followed him. As of 1574, the privileges granted the Jews by local authorities were also included in the Lithuanian Codex of Laws. The Writ of Privileges given by king Stefan Batori in 1576 not only repeated the privileges granted them previously, but also emphasized anew that they are subject to the authority and legal procedures of the king and his representatives, the Voivoda or the Starosta. In 1581, the king informed by letter the Lithuanian court (tribunal), which had then been constituted, that the Lithuanian Jews are not under its jurisdiction, and it is forbidden to deal with their affairs. Also, the king published an order which served to guard them from blood libels and charges of defiling holy Christian bread. The right of Jews to remain under the king's jurisdiction was again repeated by the kings Zigmunt the Third (in 1588) and Wladyslaw the Fourth (in 1629). Both these kings also supported the Jewish artisans against the burghers, particularly the members of the city Chekhs (guilds) who considered themselves as enjoying a privileged monopoly in their trades, and would not allow the Jews to participate. In fact, the Jewish artisans were permitted to practice their trades without being members of the guilds. Thanks to this, the number of artisans was raised somewhat amongst the Lithuanian Jews.

Although the sources of income and the number of trades expanded, Lithuanian Jewry nevertheless depended heavily on the leasing of taxes for their income. Generally, the Jews bought the lease from the nobility who held the rights to the customs houses but who did not wish to deal themselves with the collection of tax and in such cases the Jews took on the role of partner or sub lessee for a stated period of time. Experienced in these matters, the Jews knew where to position the customs houses and how to organize the collection in an efficient manner.

Since the various leases as well as trade and financial business continued to provide income for Lithuanian Jewry, the heads of the communities and the State of Lithuania committee (see further note) decided to enact regulations to prevent unfair competition in these spheres. One of these regulations, “Khazakat Arenda” declared that a Jewish lessee, who held a lease from a nobleman or an estate or a farm branch for a period of three years, had a right to it and no other Jew was permitted to compete with him. The Jewish public and its institutions intervened to settle other matters as well such as the export of goods locally manufactured hides furs, wax, milk and honey, in which Lithuania excelled.

As a consequence of the entry of Jews into the majority of economic activities, much more employment was created in which non-Jews were employed. At the same time, the king, Jan Casimir published a ban on the employment by Jews of Christian servants, male or female, as this was considered a demeaning of the honor of the Christians.

 

        The Period of Calamities (1648-1667) and the recovery

A terrible shock was dealt to the majority of Jews in Lithuania, both directly and indirectly, by the revolt of the Ukrainian Cossacks and peasantry of Poland under the leadership of Bogdan Khmelnitzky (Called by the Jews Khmil the Terrible), which broke out in 1648. During this phase of the revolt in its ramifications, which continued for almost two years, and known in Jewish historiography as the slaughters of '48-49, thousands of Jews were put to death in more ways than one. The Tartars, allies of the Cossacks, took thousands captive, and Jewish communities in South-Eastern Poland, which had belonged to Lithuania before the Lublin Union, were destroyed. The Cossacks destroyed Brisk and other cities as well, and plundered Jewish property. The local burghers, then stole whatever was not taken by the Cossacks. Considerable numbers of Jews fled to the interior regions of Lithuania which were not reached by the oppressors. Lithuanian communities which suffered less than others, assisted the refugees and absorbed some two thousand of them. The Council of the Land of Lithuania demanded of every community holding at least ten Jews a donation of ten Guilders to the fund that was created to redeem their brethren who had fallen into Tartar captivity. The Committee also declared a day of mourning for the victims and the synagogues which had been destroyed. Jews were forbidden to wear expensive clothes and to decorate themselves with jewelry for three years.

Within a short time, Lithuanian Jewry felt the violence inflicted on them... The Russian army, under the Tzar Alexei, assisted Khmelnitzky, attacked the eastern border regions in 1655 and took the city of Vilna. The soldiers slaughtered the population and set fire to the city. The majority of the Jewish population which numbered approximately three thousand managed to leave the city in good time and escaped in a North Western direction. Some of them settled in the Vyzuonos region, which hardly had any Jewish inhabitants, and the others went to Samogitia. This resulted in the strengthening of the local communities and the founding of new ones. Amongst the Rabbis who settled into these areas were Rabbi Menakhem Mendel, who became the Rabbi of Shvekshne and the region; the Rabbi Zvi Hirsh Halevi Segal Hurwitz, who served as the head of the religious court and head of the Yeshiva of the Kedainiai, Vyzuonos and Birzai communities. Some of the refugees stayed only a short time in Samogitia and went on from there in the direction of Courland and Germany. They, like the other Jews, suffered from the outrages of the Swedish army, which had invaded Lithuania from the west and imposed heavy taxation upon them. The Jews also suffered from what was called the Black Plague, which caused many deaths amongst them. In 1662 only a few remained alive in some of the communities of Samogitia. For example: in Nemoksht only 12 remained alive; in Palanga, 10 remained; in Liduvenai 8; in Korchin 8; in Vidukle 4; in Mosedis 3; in Kretinga 2; in Alsedziai 1; and in the provincial city Raseiniai 111.

Following the retreat of the foreign armies and the peace treaty signed with the Russian Tzar in 1667 (The Andrushov Peace), the Lithuanian Jews enjoyed a period of well-being and stability. Since most of the refugees remained and settled in ethnic Lithuania, particularly in the Zhamut region, the Jewish population there grew considerably. By 1676, there were some 32,000 Jews in the Lithuanian dukedom. In addition, the number of new communities grew in central ethnic Lithuania and in the west, amongst them Alytus, Aniksciai, Vilkaviskis, Ukmerge' Telsiai, Pumpenai, Panevezys, Pasvalys, Kalvarija, Kraziai, Raseiniai, Siauliai, Skuodas, and others.

In spite of the many afflictions they suffered as a result of the war in the north, the taxes, imposts and the carnage of the various plagues, the Jews continued to move into the little hamlets and villages. Because of the growing need of the nobility and the peasantry for artisans, lessees of inns, middlemen, shopkeepers and peddlers, the Jews were warmly welcomed by them. In 1742, the Jews requested the king to grant them special rights in the Samogitia region too. The influx of the Jews into this area as well as into Vilna was most pronounced in the second half of the 18th century. It would appear that in the period, some 150 years, between the calamities of the years '48-49 and the annexation of the Lithuanian dukedom to Russia (in 1795), about one hundred new Jewish communities were established.

In parallel, attempts continued, both in Lithuania and other places, by the merchants, artisans and burghers to limit the settlement of Jews in the towns. The memorandums on this subject are saturated with hatred for the Jews.

During the reign of the last king of Poland, Stanislaw August Poniatowski, the Jews were given free right to trade and wide rights to live in the cities of Vilna and Kovno. Now, of course, the Jewish merchants increased the dispatch of agricultural produce to Riga and Mitau ports, and to import, in return, coffee, tobacco, salt etc. Alongside trade, craftwork too with its income began to play an important role in their lives, and in parallel, the importance of craft associations grew in the socio-economic life of the community. A great number of the Jews still lived in the small townships and villages and most of their income came from leasing estates, inns, the distilling of spirits, taverns and such like. A special committee of the Sejm, which decided in 1791 that the Jews have the right to engage in every branch of trade and craft, found it difficult to decide in the matter of keeping taverns in the villages. This question remained open and problematic in to come.

 

        Self Government by the Jews: The Council of the Land of Lithuania and the Kahal (community)

The need to keep an army of mercenaries, which cost a great deal of money to the royal treasury and the need for efficient collection of taxes, from the Jews amongst others, helped their representatives to receive from the king, the right to allocate the taxes amongst the Jews and to collect them themselves. Moreover, the representatives undertook to pay directly to the army commanders, in accordance with treasury documentation. For this purpose, the Jews were permitted to elect the leaders of the major communities and these met at the great fairs (especially in Lublin) in order to deal with the distribution of the tax burden and the collecting of it. In these assemblies they also dealt with solving conflicts and laying down regulations, etc. At the end of the sixteenth century the Lithuanian communities parted from the general Council and formed the Council of The Land of Lithuania which also became known as the Land Council.

The Land Council (hereafter: the Council) was now the governing and authoritative body for all the internal matters of the Jewish public, parallel to the Council of Four Lands which continued to function amongst Polish Jewry. From the very beginning, the representatives of the Brisk community (which functioned as a sort of capital of the Lithuanian Jewish population) of Grodno, Pinsk and some dozen representatives of cities large and small, including Vilna and their attached provinces, comprised the leadership of the Council. As most of the Jews lived in small villages or remote communities, they could not participate in the election to their high assemblage. At each assembly the date and place of the next one was decided. In the space of 138 years (1623-1761) in which activities of the Council were recorded in the Pinkas (register), the Council held 37 assemblies in different locations (including the town of Kraziai in ethnic Lithuania as detailed below).

In the 32 initial years of its existence the Council met 15 times (every two years). During this period basic rules and regulations were enacted which regulated the life of Lithuanian Jewry for a period of over one hundred years. In 1655-1662 there was a break in the meetings of the Council due to the invasion of the Russian army.

In the following 40 years (1664-1700) the Council met 14 times (every three years). In 1700-1720 again there was a break due to the War in the North. In the 44 final years of the Council's existence they met 8 times. The final meeting took place in 1761 in the town of Slutzk.

Although the legal status of the Council, viz–a–viz the Lithuanian authorities, was not clearly defined, it was recognized as the chief autonomous Jewish organization. In terms of authority, powers, organizational structure and the multiplicity of functions, the Lands Council of Lithuania (like its big brother the Council of the Four Lands) was one of the most consolidated organizations in Europe at that time.

In addition to its task as the central authority in matters of taxes, its steady upholding of Jewish rights, defending Jews against physical attacks and blood libels (it also acted to bring to trial anyone who killed or harmed a Jew), as well as justice and morality. The Pinkas (day book), of the Council of the Land of Lithuania, written in Hebrew, dealt with economic and social matters concerning the Jewish public, and preserved to this day, contains details of hundreds of rules and decisions in these and other matters, as well as details of deals with judgments (fines, bans etc) imposed on law breakers. One of the hundreds of rules relates to beggars coming to Lithuania and who are an unbearable strain on the land, therefore, the rule (number 378) states, that communities near the Polish borders, are warned herewith to be on their guard. Any beggar who comes to the community without a letter of recommendation is not to be sent on to the Land of Lithuania, but should be returned to Poland. The reason: at that time (in the second third of the seventeenth century) the economic situation of Lithuanian Jewry was very poor.

At the time of the founding of the Council, there were a number of communities in ethnic Lithuania, which were within the range of influence of Vilna and Brisk. Only the communities across the River Neman (including Kovno) belonged to the Grodno community. The small communities in the Samogitia region, constituted at the beginning, one district in the national Council and the connections and relations concerning this district were conducted via the Vilna community.

In the third quarter of the seventeenth century the documents of the Zhamut district begins to refer to it as the Land of Zhamut (Samogitia). It consisted of three main districts: the South-Western district, namely the Kedainiai district, which was the most important one amongst them; the North-Eastern, the Birzai district; and the Eastern, the Vyzuonos district. In addition, there were also a number of minor districts in Zhamut, such as Kraziai and its environs, Pumpenai and its environs, Anyksciai and its environs, Rietavas and its environs, Shvekshne and its environs, and others. Tiny communities were tied to them for purposes of rabbinical services, burials etc.

The Council imposed dues on Lithuanian Jewry in accordance with the size and prosperity of the population in each place, to cover its multiple expenses. Initially, dues were not imposed on the Samogitia district, but as the Jewish community stabilized itself, demand was made on it too to share in the financial burden. Out of the 10,000 Guilders that the Council was expected to raise as a tax for the national treasury in 1673, the Samogitia region was expected to contribute 400 Guilders (4%). In 1720 the Council had to raise 60,000 Guilders for the same purpose. The amount Samogitia had to contribute was 7,780 Guilders, according to the following division: Kedainiai district, 4,300; Birzai district, 1,800; Vyzuonos, 1,680. It would appear that the Kedainiai district continued to grow and establish itself economically faster than the other two districts, and a year later it was assessed at 9,000 Guilders.

The basis for assessment by the Council of each community and district was the list of taxpayers (restrim) compiled during the intermediate days of Passover. The property and belongings of the payee were the basis of the tax assessment. Assessors employed by the community board – the Kahal – compiled the detailed assessed sum. Great property owners who were assessed a very high tax were allowed to wear “luxury clothes”, which were forbidden to the rest of the community. Widows and orphans paid only half the sum normally due according to the size of their property. The very poor were excused payment. In time, the progressive character of the tax was impaired as a result of the influence and pressure exercised by sections of the rich and those close to the Kahal. Some of them were excused payment of taxes for a number of years in recompense for lending money to the Kahal to meet pressing debts. The Kahal also imposed taxes, direct and indirect, without end on the population – on Sabbath candles, on Passover wine, on flour for Matzoth, tax on Ethrogs, and tax on kosher meat. This was a special tax called the Korobka, There is no need to emphasize that these and other taxes constituted a heavy burden on the lower classes and it is no wonder that at times they expressed their dissatisfaction against the despotic Kahal. The Kahal did not hesitate to use fines and physical punishment against the recalcitrant including binding in chains and standing them at the pillory post (kune). In the same way, any organization and show of dissatisfaction by groups of craftsmen was suppressed. The latter also complained that they were not included on the board of management, of disrespect to their honor and such like. Often, it went as far as relaying information to the authorities and to other non-Jewish elements. In these struggles the Kahal received practical support from the Council, which also passed strict regulations against the rebels.

Despite the above, and regardless the fact that in this period the Council reached the peak of its power, the local ruling committees, namely the Kahals, continued to enjoy considerable independence and the friction with the Council grew. The anger at the Council grew in particular at the continuously increasing fiscal demands of the Council, which sank into ever-growing expenses, partly because of the judicial cases in which it became involved, but also because of libels and riots, and of gratuities given to officials and priests etc. In the year 1721, a number of local committees laid judicial charges against the Council to the Lithuanian Tribunal.

In view of the complaints by Jewish sources and criticism by the nobility, that the Council of Lithuania collects more money than it transfers to the Royal Treasury, the Sejm decided in 1764 to cancel the central collection of the global tax through the Council and return to the previous system of collecting an individual poll tax (2 guilders at first and later 3 guilders), by means of each local community. As for reasons of State, there was no longer any need for the Council of the Land of Lithuania (as also the Council of the Four Lands). It was disbanded and ceased to exist officially. In order to settle various problems, such as repayment of debts to non-Jews, meetings were held ad hoc for a number of years of the boards of the local Kahals within the framework of national and provincial conventions.

 

        Religious life, religious and general culture

Until the 15th century, the general cultural level of Lithuanian Jewry was very low. Until that period Lithuania is not mentioned in books of response at all, and until the 16th century it is not mentioned in rabbinic literature. Important rabbis in Lithuania, too, are not known of this period, except for perhaps R. Moshe of Sadova (born there in 1448), known by the name of the Goleh (the wanderer, the exile) because of his constant wanderings. This was most striking in the Zhamut region. In the middle of the 16th Century, learned men began to arrive in Lithuania from Poland, Bohemia (Prague) and Germany. At the beginning of the 17th Century, the city of Vilna became a center of Torah learning and amongst others, the great scholar R. Yehoshu'a (Joshua) Heshel Kharif, a student of R. Shabtai Cohen, and R. Aharon–Shmuel Keidanover (the Maharshak) resided there. During this period there took place a spiritual and literary flowering amongst the Karaites in Lithuania, who still kept in close contact with the Rabbinic Jews.

These first signs of a rise in the fortunes of rabbinical scholarship continued, and even gained a renewed prosperity, after the devastating decrees of 1648-1649 and the other disasters. Generally, the Rabbi served the community for the period of the contract (usually 3-5 years), and would then leave for another community. One of the first tasks of the Rabbi was to teach the members of his community and those of the surrounding districts what is permitted or forbidden, and to deal with fiscal matters. He was assisted by tutors and religious judges (quarrels, arguments and ordinary differences of opinion were brought before judges appointed by the Kahal board). Matters of difficult and involved questions, disputes over money, questions as to religious rules and appeals from neighboring communities, were brought before the presiding judge in a larger community. The Rabbi was also responsible for inspecting the work of the ritual slaughterers, the slaughtering and everything else connected with it. Another important duty of the Rabbi was to run the religious seminary and supervise the education of the young. Consequently, the Rabbis used to sign their letters with the title “Rabbi and Head of (Yeshiva).”

In addition to the above, the Rabbi was expected to be involved in the life of the community. The salary was paid out of the funds of the Kahal and a special tax was often imposed on the members for this purpose. Generally, the large communities maintained their rabbis on a dignified standard whereas in the smaller communities, poor and limited in their means, the rabbis often suffered poverty and want, despite the fact that they had extra income from the writing of Tna'im and Ktuba (marriage contracts), performing marriage ceremony, divorce, and Khalitza (freeing a widow from the need to marry the deceased's brother) and the writing of sales contracts. Above all, the rabbi enjoyed an honorable position even when young in years, the old and the elders rose in respect when he entered the synagogue and a seat was reserved for him in a most honored place, at the east wall, near the holy ark. Prayers did not begin in the synagogue before he arrived and at the conclusion he was the first to leave and was accompanied to his home. In many places he was honored to be the Sandak for the first-born (godfather at the circumcision ceremony). Even when the Council of the Land forbade the wearing of luxury clothes, rabbis were absolved from that rule. They were permitted to wear Sabbath clothes during weekdays (generally black silk or satin). The position of the rabbi was not only determined by his character and scholarship, but also on his authority and ability to impose his rulings on the wayward and to punish them, in the context of his tasks within the traditions and the laws of the land. Notwithstanding the above, conflicts arose now and then between the rabbi and assertive members of the community.

The various prayer meeting halls – the synagogue, the Kloiz (prayer meeting hall of particular sectors, such as the tailors), the Shtibl (meeting hall of the Hasidim), and the Beit Midrash (where the Torah was taught by highly learned scholars) – were inimitable meeting places where the leadership of the Kahal and the public were to be found and present matters relating to the community were announced from the Bimah.

In the coming years, the number of Lithuanian rabbis who achieved fame for their Torah scholarship increased greatly. Scholarship expanded and deepened. Besides the great scholars, the rabbis and compilers of books, the ordinary people, those who worked in trade or craft, they also took part in the study of the holy script. Later on, well to-do people made donations to the seminaries and supported scholars. Vilna continued to stand out as a Torah center until it reached its acme by the second half of the eighteenth century, in the days of the Gaon of Vilna, Rabbi Eliyahu (“the Gara”).

Together with the flowering of the study of holy writ, general education took root and spread to other communities in ethnic Lithuania, including the Zhamut region. In the first quarter of the 17th Century, Rabbi Shlomo Rofeh, a scientist and pupil of Galileo, of the Dalmadigo family, from Crete, visited Vilna. In his memoirs, he mentions the Karaites favorably, in that they busy themselves with general education unlike the Rabbinic Jews. He also highlights the fact that Jewish parents send their sons to study philosophy in Padua, Italy. Something of the spirit of the enlightenment penetrated Lithuania through Jews who traded with neighboring Prussia and Jews who traveled abroad to print books or to study medicine on their parents' account or that of generous noble patrons, as for example the Radziwill family, Palter and others. Some of those doctors, for instance the Gordon family, then settled in Vilna.

In the third part of the 17th Century Vilna became the leading anti Hasidic camp in the bitter struggle waged against Hasidism by Lithuanian Jewry. At the head of this struggle, which included ex-communicants (in 1772-1781) and condemnations, stood the Gaon of Vilna and his students, who were called the Mitnagdim (oppositionists). This word has become, since then, a soubriquet for Lithuanian Jewry, also called Litvaks. Yet, though the Oppositionists overcame the Hasidim in this struggle, Hasidic communities continued to exist in the vicinity of Vilna and in other parts of north-eastern ethnic Lithuania. Amongst them, were the first organized groups who emigrated to Eretz Yisrael at the end of the 18th Century, and preceded by a few years the immigration of the Oppositionists.

 

        The First census of Lithuanian Jewry, 1765

After the liquidation of the Council of Lithuania, the authorities reinstated the annual poll tax at 2 guilders and later at 3 guilders. This tax was to be paid by all Jews, men and women, aged one year or more. In order to apply this new tax system it became necessary to take a special census of the members of each community, the results of which would provide the basis for the tax. Responsibility for the collection of the tax, from the rich as well as the poor, and the transfer of the money to the treasury devolved upon each Kahal separately. In the first census, completed in the beginning of 1765, 587,658 Jews were counted in the Polish Republic (men, women and children over one year in age) and 157,649 in the Lithuanian Duchy. The majority lived in six provinces with a Russian and White Russian population (historic Lithuania) and the rest, numbering 76,474 lived in clear ethnic Lithuanian regions, divided as follows:

Table 1: Jewish Lithuanian population, by province and district (1765)*

Province/district Total of which in
Independent Lithuania
(from Nov. 1939)
All provinces 76,474 47,488
Vilna province 26,977 11,806
Vilna district 5,316 5,316
Oshmiany district 7,124  
Lida district 5,291  
Vilkomir district 6,490 6,490
Breslav district 2,756  
Trakai province 33,738 19,923
Trakai district 5,600 5,600
Kovno district 6,148 6,148
Panevezys district 8,175 8,175
Grodno district 13,815  
Samogitia region 15,759 15,759

Principal cities in which Jews lived: Vilna-3202; Kovno 969; Vilkomir-716; Birzai-1,040; Jurbarkas-2,333;
Shavli-687; Kedainiai-501; Kalvarija and surroundings -1055; Olkeniki and surroundings-535

 

Out of the 76,474 Jews counted in 1765, in ethnic Lithuania, 47,488 lived in the areas mostly included in the 1918-1920 Lithuanian state, and later, from November 1939 on, within independent Lithuania.

Wishing to avoid paying taxes, one third of the Jews apparently avoided inclusion in the 1765 census. According to calculations based on that assumption, and considering that children under one year of age were not included for various reasons in the 1765 census, it may be assumed then, that the Jewish population of ethnic Lithuania actually numbered some 120,000.

Most of the 15,759 in the Samogitia region included in the census lived in 64 urban communities and made up some 10% of the total population in this region.

If we are to add to the number of the officially counted, the children under one year of age and adults who, it would seem, avoided the census, we may estimate the number of Jews in the Samogitia region as being around 22,000. It is estimated that in 1784 the number of Jews in the Samogitia         region totaled some 24,000 souls, distributed among 99 urban communities (townships).

 

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