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HISTORY OF THE JEWISH COMMUNITY OF GRODNO (cont.)


2. The Community


Controversy in the Rabbinical Election Process

Documents from the middle of the 16th century bring us the first proof of communal life in the Grodno community, in connection with a controversy that took place between two factions with respect to the choosing of a Rabbi. One of the faction was headed by the "Yehuditzes", that is the children of the previously mentioned Yehuda Bogdanovitz – they were quite well to do, since they inherited a vast inheritance from their father (and prior to that from their grandfather), and they built upon this inheritance themselves as well. Their father Yehuda was not only influential in money and property, but he also bore the title "the merchant of Queen Bona", and served once in a while as an assistant to the judge's representative in the regional courthouse in the area of the choosing of judges. He also appeared once along with other Jews of Grodno in court in suing for 100 gold coins from Moshe Mordashevitz, who had promised this sum for the synagogue, did not fulfill his obligation, and moved to Mazovia.

In 1549, the Yehuditzes, the sons of Yehuda, along with their associates, chose a Rabbi who was a brother-in-law of the Yehuditzes – his name was Reb Mordechai, the first rabbi mentioned in the chain of those who served in Grodno. The choice was not acceptable to the other faction of the community, who preferred a different candidate for the rabbinate of Grodno, Moshe the son of Aharon. Representatives of this faction brought their complaint about the rabbi to Queen Bona, and accused the rabbi of causing various injustices to their faction. The queen interceded in this controversy, and commanded her representative in Grodno to gather together the communal leaders, and instruct them to choose a rabbi who was not a relative of the Yehuditzes; and if they would not agree to this – the heads of the community who were not related to the Yehuditzes would be permitted to choose their own rabbi. The queen also ordered that if the Jews could not agree in the matter of a communal administrator (Parnas), each side would choose their own Parnas, and both together should adjudicate communal matters.

As the conflict and mutual incriminations continued, the queen gave instructions that both side should appear before her or before a rabbinical court which would be convened from rabbis chosen by both sides who were not involved in the dispute. Since the Yehuditzes did not agree to choose from among the candidates that the other side suggested, and the other side did not want to recognize Reb Mordechai – eight months after her original decision, the queen issued permission that the side that was against the Yehuditzes would be able to choose their own rabbi who would enjoy the same rights and privileges that were enjoyed by the rabbi chosen by the Yehuditzes.

This did not end the controversy, for at the beginning of 1553 Queen Bona issued another proclamation that established for the community the electoral process and the limits of privileges for the parnassim and the rabbi, with regard to both secular and religions matters.

There are many theories as to the reasons behind this internal conflict within the Grodno community. One theory ties the Grodno controversy to the ongoing dispute among the Jews of Lithuania at that time against the appointed rabbis, and with regard to autonomous rights in the area of electing heads of communities and rabbis. From studying the facts found in the documents of the representatives of the side who were against the Yehuditzes, it is possible to surmise that the controversy was a form of rebellion by the lower classes of the community against the authority exerted by the wealthier and stronger elements in the community with regard to religious matters. According to the list of property owners in Grodno, as registered in the aforementioned Lustracja of 1560, two of the Yehuditzes who appeared as representatives before the queen owned significant amounts of land: Yisrael Yehuditz had 6 parnats of land (a parnat is a measure of area, about 220 square meters), and Aharon Yehuditz had 6 ½ parnats. Among the representatives of the other side, the only one noted is Nissan Chatzkovitz, who only had 2 parnats of land. The other representative, Yechezkel the son of Shmuel is not mentioned at all among the landowners of Grodno. In the annals of the regional courthouse of Grodno from 1540, he appears as a resident of Nowy Dwor which is nearby Grodno, which was part of the queen's land at that time, and only after a year he settled, or perhaps returned to Grodno.


The First Rabbis of Grodno

With the growth of the city of Grodno in general and of its Jewish community at the latter third of the 17th century, Grodno became one of the important centers of Torah. At that time, Rabbi Nathan the son of Shimshon Shapira Ashkenazi served as the Rabbi in the city. He had vast knowledge of the Hebrew language and grammar, and wrote the book "Mavo Shearim" (an explanation of the composition "Shaarei Dora" of Rabbi Yitzchak of Dora), "Imre Sheer", and several other works. According to Rabbi David Zemach, the author of "Zemach David", he passed away in 5337 (1577).

After Rabbi Nathan Shapira, the famous rabbi, possek[4], and mekubal [5] Rabbi Mordechai the son of Rabbi Avraham Yaffa "Baal Halevushim" [6] was invited and came to Grodno from Venice in Italy. He was born in Prague around 1530, and sent to Poland, then the center of the Ashkenazic Jewish world, to learn from Rabbi Shlomo Luria (the Maharshal) and Rabbi Moshe Isserlis (the Rema) the pilpulic [7] method of study. He studied with the Rabbis of Italy for about ten years thereafter, from whom he gained an influence against the pilpulic method. There he also acquired knowledge in the sciences and philosophy.

While still in his youth, Reb Mordechai had the idea to compile a book on Jewish law, which would be used for enabling the making of halachic[8] decisions. When the "Beit Yosef" and afterward "Shulchan Aruch" (Code of Jewish Law) were published by Rabbi Yosef Caro (along with the "Mapa", which are the glosses and addenda of the Rema)[9] – Reb Mordechai found them to be missing in several areas, particular in that the did not include the customs which were accepted among the Jews of the Ashkenazic (i.e. Germanic) lands and Eastern Europe. He compiled a work on practical halacha, with the additions of reasons behind various halachic decisions according to reasoning and earlier sources. This work was called "Levush Malchut" (literally "royal vestments"), which was divided into ten sections known as "levushim" (literally vestments), This work gave him his pseudonym[10].

Half of this work dealt with halacha, and was compiled in a methodical and orderly fashion, which was unusual at that time among the rabbis of Poland, and it was written in clear and flowing Hebrew. The other part of the book dealt with issues on the commentary of Rashi on the Torah[11], the "Moreh Nevuchim" (i.e. Guide of the Perplexed), of Maimonides, sciences and kabbalah. The "Levushim" attained fame amongst the people as they were published, even among their opponents, and after some time, they took their place in the Yeshiva curriculum along with the "Tur"[12], and the "Shulchan Aruch", and to some degree even took precedence. Reb Mordechai also paid great attention to the development of Jewish civil law. He was very strong willed, and he did not play halachic favoritism even to the greatest men of the generation, and he lashed out very strongly against those who were lenient in the law of benefiting from interest via a "heter iska"[13]. The shunning of financial gain (literally: hatred of money) was one of the seven characteristics which he wished to see in any Jewish judge, alongside wisdom, humility, fear of heaven, love of truth, love of fellowmen, and the acceptability of the judge to his fellowmen (according to the "Levush Ir Shushan").

We do not know exactly when the Levush was appointed to the rabbinical seat of Grodno, which was the first city who appointed him as head of the rabbinical court. According to the first historian of the Jews of Grodno, Shimon Eliezer Friedenstein, in his work "Ir Giborim"[14] (Vilna 5640 – 1870, page 39), we have reason to believe that he arrived in that city prior to 5337 (1577). We also do not know for exactly how many years he served in his position in Grodno, but it is related that "he could not dwell there alongside his rival the Gaon Reb Moshe[15] , the head of the Yeshiva, the brother of Reb Shlomo Efraim of Luntshitz", and he moved his place of residence to Lublin.

This city, in which one of the greatest business fairs of Poland took place at that time, served as a center for Torah judgement among thousands of Jews from all corners of the kingdom, who came there for business purposes. The Levush was the head of the rabbinical court of Lublin, , and he was active in all manner of communal affairs. He was one of the heads of the "Council of Three Lands" (the precursor to the "Council of Four Lands" – the central, high, independent umbrella organization of the Jews of all Poland). Reb Mordechai Yaffa passed away in 5372 (1612) in Posen, where he served as rabbi toward the end of his days.

A variety of legends spread among the Jews of Grodno about their great rabbi, whom they revered greatly. According to tradition, he laid the foundation for the great synagogue in the city, which was later known by the name "Levush"., and he established its regulations and customs ("The Customs of the Levush"), which were kept until the final generation. Sh. E. Friedenstein relates that "under the illustration of hanoten teshua"[16] the inscription states: "This sanctuary was founded and established by the Gaon The Levush, according to the Jewish date". The word Levush is singled out with apostrophes, meaning the year 5338 (1578)[17] .

Following Reb Mordechai Yaffa, the rabbinate was inherited by Reb Yuda, who is mentioned in the book "Gvurat Anashim"[18] (the responsa book of Reb Meir Katz, the father of the Shach[19]), as the head of the rabbinical court and head of the Yeshiva in the holy community of Grodno.

After Reb Yuda, the rabbinate of Grodno was inherited by Reb Efraim Zalman the son of Reb Naftali Hirsch Shore, who wrote the book "Tevuat Shor"[20] on the Four Turim (Lublin 5376 -1616) . This rabbi was later chosen to be the rabbi of Brisk, and we find note of him in the annals of the "Gemilut Chassadim Shel Emet", i.e. Chevra Kadisha[21] of Grodno in the year 5374 (1614). He signed a proclamation of the Council of the Four Lands in the year 5378 (1618), and died in the year 5394 (1634).







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gro035s.jpg [3 KB] -- Click here to extend the picture
The Great Synagogue
named for the Levush

  1. Grodno – The Main "Vaad Lita" Community

" Vaad Medinat Lita" (The Council of the State of Lithuania) and its Authority

The community of Grodno attained its highest status with respect to its sister communities in Lithuania during the time of the pinnacle of their internal autonomy, that is during the 17thand 18th centuries, during the existence of the "Council of Chief Communities in the State of Lithuania", or for short "The Council of the State of Lithuania". The trend toward internal autonomy had deep and ancient roots among the Jews of this country and of Poland, as it was the desire of the nation to shape its life amongst the gentiles according to its own traditions and spirit, and to gain protection by banding together in the face of evil decrees and tribulations. On the other hand, the interests of the Kingdom of Poland also helped establish this organization, since it would aid in the collection of taxes from the Jews.

The seeds of self government for the Jews of Lithuania existed from the beginnings of Jewish settlement, for in the first Permits of Residence, which were received in 1388 from Archduke Witold, the right was established for the Jews to adjudicate civil matters amongst themselves in their own courts of law, according to Jewish law. They were also permitted to exclude from their community anyone who was a transgressor in their eyes.

At a later period, as the number of Jews in Poland and Lithuania grew, and, as we already pointed out, thousands of them attended the great fairs, primarily in Lublin, in pursuit of their businesses – a rabbinical court made up of rabbis from various communities convened there and adjudicated in matters of controversy between individuals and between communities. At these gatherings, the rabbinical court would also adjudicate in matters affecting general Jewish life at that period.

When the Jews of Bielsk refused to obey the decision of the rabbinical court of Lublin in the matter of the controversy between themselves and Yehuda Bogdanovitz of Grodno, the "Merchant" of Queen Bona, the wife of Zygmunt the First –King Zygmunt in 1533 enhanced the authority of that rabbinical court by affirming its decision. This was not an isolated incident in the behavior of King Zygmunt and his wife. The support by the kingdom for a more comprehensive Jewish autonomy, and for its expansion and branching out, came when the government required its assistance in fiscal matters.

In 1549, he Polish Sejm, acting on the demands of the noblemen, imposed an annual head tax upon the Jews – this was the most important tax which they were required to pay at that time. The rate was at first one gold coin per individual, but that rate was increased from time to time.

In order to improve the efficiency of its own offices, the government made the Jewish communities themselves responsible for collecting this tax, each one in its own jurisdiction.

At first, King Zygmunt attempted to make the heads of the communities responsible for collecting this tax, who were chosen from those who had relations with the royal court. The king also gave these leaders the authority to lead and judge their co-religionists according to Jewish law with the assistance of rabbis who were appointed to serve alongside them. However, since the Jews were opposed to leaders and rabbis who were imposed upon them, these people did not succeed in collecting the tax money.

The kingdom was not overly successful in collecting the tax money through the agency of the community, in particular with regard to the censuses that took place on occasion in order to determine their number – since the Jews did not accept this. In 1579, the head tax was imposed upon the sum total of the entire community, and it was up to the leaders of the individual communities to apportion out the responsibility to each individual community, and to collect the tax. It was for this purpose that the central Jewish autonomous organization, known as the "Council of the Four Lands" was established (lands here refers to provinces).

It is not known exactly when the Council was established for the Jews of Lithuania. Its enactments and decisions are recorded in the "Ledger of the Council of the Chief Communities of the State of Lithuania" are recorded from the year 4383 (1623), however reference is made in the proceedings of that year to an "old ledger", i.e. from an earlier period, and of enactments "from days of old", and old debts from the years 5379 (1619), and 5381 (1621). Remnants of the enactments of the Council of Communal Heads of Lithuania exist from the middle of the 17th century. One of these decisions states that "in each and every fair in Lublin three communal leaders together with one rabbi [from Lithuania (what is enclosed in square brackets from hereon in is my own additions – the author)] in order to see to the wellbeing of the children of Israel, and in particular to intervene quickly with G-d's help with brave men if there should G-d forbid be a disturbance", that is a blood libel or any other false accusation; and also that in every fair there should be "three judges [from Lithuania] who should be prepared to sit in judgement between their brethren – and according to whose word every matter should stand – and whomsoever acts treacherously and does not listen to them should be chastised and excommunicated and afflicted with all sorts of punishments – ".

It is known that in the year 5328 (1568) the heads of the Karaites[22] in Trakai turned to "the honorable leaders of the exile, the leaders of the Israelites and their wise men who were found at that time", that is at the time that His Majesty the King held court in Grodno (in that year – 1567 – the Polish Sejm convened in that city) – and they requested authorization of their enactments that had been formulated during their convention in the year 5313 (1553). It is quite possible that the people they turned to were members of the organized Jewish leadership, which had already been established by that time.

The reason for the separate existence of the "Lithuanian" council and the "Polish" council was based on the definite differences between these two branches of Jews – in character, way of life, customs, in social matters and in matters of the spirit, and also – perhaps even more significantly – in the tax quota which was imposed separately upon the Jews of Lithuania, who maintained a separate treasury from the Polish Jews.

"The Committee of Chief Communities in the State of Lithuania", of which Grodno was one of the three chief communities, served as an elected council for the Jewish community in that land, according to the customs of that era, and would convene to assist the community solve its problems, and to issue its decisions in various matters. Among these meetings there were two that were organized as "small gatherings", that is of the executive department alone. These two meetings took place in Grodno in the years 5487 (1727), and 5491 (1731).

Aside from its responsibility to divide up the tax load among the communities of Lithuania, and to collect the taxes – the council would also deal with, as has previously been noted, other general problems of the Jewish community of this land, and would issue decrees that were to be treated as actual halacha. These decrees would be regarded as laws which must not be transgressed among the populace. The extent of the activities of the council, aside from its main area of business for which it had been founded – the dividing up of the government taxes and the levies it imposed for its own internal functioning (these latter were known as "sums") – was far wider and included also the following areas:

a) Representing the nation externally and intervening to prevent new decrees that might come from time to time; concerning themselves with the practical implementation of the bills of rights which were given at that time to the Jews; protecting against false accusations of various kinds; negotiations in an effort to reduce the tax burden of the Jews; activities to prevent apostasy; legal protection for individuals "to save the lives" of Israelites; serving as representatives to the Council of the Four Lands, with whom the council worked together in matters that affected the Jews of both countries, such as decrees and libels, aid in the case of fires, etc., and also serving as representatives to other Jewish organizations.
 
b) Protecting the livelihood of the Jews, by preventing quarrels among them (for example by establishing "rights", etc) – with regard to business, various forms of tenancy, general monetary matters, and craftsmanship.
 
c) Organizing the internal justice system of the Jews; overseeing matters of personal relationships, education, and the teaching and spreading of Torah; also, looking after charity for the poor and assistance for those in need. In addition to all of these – gathering and sending "money" for "use by our brethren in times of distress – in the holy land which G-d has chosen" – that is for the residents of the Land of Israel.


The Boundaries of the "Province of the Holy Community of Grodno"

As has been stated, the community of Grodno was one of the three main communities which composed the Council of the State of Lithuania. It was second only to Brisk in population and influence. "The heads of the Province of the Holy Community of Grodno" signed on the decrees of the Council immediately after the representatives of Brisk. This order also determined the rotation of the participation of the judges from these three communities in the court that was set up at the fairs of Lublin. The venue of the meetings of the Council was set up as follows: first in "the region of the holy community of Brisk" (two times in succession: this region was the largest in the State of Lithuania, next in "the region of the holy community of Grodno" (one time), and finally in the region of Pinsk (after Grodno, one time).

The radu of Grodno within the boundaries of the State of Lithuania was quite large, and at first encompassed the entire Wojewoda of Trakai (Wojewodztwo is a region), part of the Wojewoda of Vilna, part of Zamot and Podlaszia.

Shortly thereafter, Podlaszia severed its relation with the Lithuanian Council and joined the Council of the Four Lands. In 1652, Vilna separated from Grodno, and became a chief community in the Council of Lithuania, and had control over a small area which included, after the settling of the "complaints and claims" between the leaders of the two communities with regard to the limits of their jurisdiction – also Olkieniki. In the 1740s, a controversy broke out between the communities of Grodno and Keidan of Zamot with regard to the territorial boundaries of their jurisdiction, and it was decided that the boundary between the two regions would be set at the upper line of the Nieman river.

The main controversy Grodno engaged in was a long drawn out dispute with Tiktin, which was located in Poland immediately adjacent to its border with Lithuania, and extended along the banks of the Narowa River, which traversed the two countries. This community, which was originally founded by Jews from Grodno, was included along with other towns of Podlaszia within the area of influence of that major city. These localities moved over to the Polish Council at the time of the unification of the Lublin Province in 1569. The Council of the State of Lithuania disputed the inclusion of Tiktin in the Polish Council. Primarily the dispute was between Grodno and Tiktin. This dispute, which was brought before the Chief Rabbis of the Council of the Four Lands in 1614, was about the affiliation of three smaller communities – Zabludow, Gorodok, and Chorostasz, and later also Vasilkow – with respect to which region these towns would pay their taxes.

As is evident, the chief community of the region not only made decisions for its neighboring, smaller Jewish communities regarding the amounts of taxes owed, but also adjudicated in matters of religious life. The chief community would choose the rabbis for the smaller communities, serve as a court of appeal for their local courts, and supply other religious services. Therefore, the chief community had no small amount of influence over the dependent community.

Tiktin was independent, and was supported directly by the Council of the Four Lands. However the Lithuanian Grodno maintained its own position, and also persuaded the four above mentioned communities to be part of its sphere of influence. In 1654, during the fair in Lublin, the adjudicators divided up the jurisdiction of these four communities between Grodno and Tiktin. In matters of taxes they would be affiliated with Grodno, however in judicial matters they would be affiliated with Tiktin. Nevertheless, this did not end the dispute, which continued on for several more decades.

The communities which were included in the region of Grodno included Lida, Radin, Ostryna, Nowy Dwor, Olita, Miasteczka, Kalvaria, Krinik, Amdur, Kuznica, and also Trakai (Trok), which was the main city of the Karaites in Lithuania, who also paid their taxes to the Council of the State of Lithuania.



The Uniqueness of the Community of Grodno in the Council of Lithuania

According to the enactments of the Council in the year 5393 (1633), paragraph 83, the community of Grodno and surrounding region had the obligation "to place their eyes and hearts toward ten poor maidens" – from among the thirty which the communities of Lithuania took the responsibility to marry off annually using funds from the communal coffers. These were young girls from among the poorest of the people, who were hired out as maids. The council passed enactments dealing with how they should be treated during their period of employment, and also concerned itself with marrying them off once they reached the age of fifteen.

When a stream of youths reached Lithuania during the Thirty Year War in western Europe (1618-1648) "Jewish people – naked without clothing and walking barefoot – who were exiled from the table of their fathers and cast away into the open, and nobody would take them into their homes" – the Council decided in the year 5399 (1639) (paragraph 341) to afford the protection of the "State of Lithuania", that is of the Jewish communities in the entire Lithuania, for 75 youths "to feed them, clothe them, and provide them with shoes"; and also to send those who were able "to learn Torah in schools", and to send the rest "into service or to learn a trade. Grodno and the surrounding region were responsible for ten of these youths. Brisk and the surrounding region (this was the largest region in the State of Lithuania) was responsible for 35, and Pinsk and its region was responsible for twelve.

Under pressure from the Council, the heads of the community of Lithuania were asked to investigate the events which were previously described, wherein some Jews from that city sent their children or their wives into the service of gentile landlords in return for a loan. This type of behavior was foreign and decidedly distasteful in the eyes of the Jewish people, who were not familiar with mortgaging practices from the vantage point of the mortgagee: nevertheless, it seemed that their inability to pay loans for which they became indebted by circumstances beyond their control caused these types of events. In 5383 (1623) the Council decreed that the severest form of ban and excommunication be imposed upon those involved in such occurrences (paragraph 44). Nevertheless, the leaders of Grodno saw fit to request the concurrence of the Council in permitting several Jews from their community to mortgage their wives in return for a loan from a gentile. The Council did not agree to tolerate this "to take responsibility for the future, to Heaven forbid transact with the end of days"[23]. They placed all responsibility on the community of Grodno itself. After some time (paragraph 45), the heads of the community of Grodno agreed to an enactment "and removed themselves from the situation, agreeing not to take the above mentioned responsibility".

The community of Grodno exerted its influence, and took upon itself to act in defense in judgements and matters concerning the wellbeing of the Jews of Lithuania and Poland in general – in the area of libels against their fellow Jews and the prevention and annulment of evil decrees against them. This was because Grodno served on occasion as the seat of the Lithuanian Tribunal (the highest court of appeal, which had the power to decide in many matters with the concurrence of the Sejm).

Among the first enactments of the Council in 5383 (1623) (paragraph 90) as registered in "The Ledger of the State of Lithuania" which we have access to today, a sum was imposed on the community of Grodno which was to be paid to the accounts of the "State in general", according to the old ledger, and "given to the son of the king" – that is as a tax for strengthening the court of the king.

In 1639 an official was appointed by the Council whose responsibility was to be present in Grodno during the times of the sittings of the tribunal, and to stand on guard in matters of judgements between Jews and Christians, as well as in other matters regarding the Jews.

The expenditure of the community of Grodno for the general well-being of Jewry greatly increased when "false libels and confusion" became more prevalent in the country, and when from 1678, every third sitting of the Polish Sejm took place in that city. As well, various national conventions and "sejmik" gatherings took place there (these were regional meetings of the noblemen of Poland and Lithuania, in which they would choose representatives to the Sejm, and determine the course of their actions, make decrees and impose regional taxes, etc.)

When an intercessor was appointed by the Council of the Four Lands in 1730, he was told to be the representative at "the great conventions of Warsaw and Grodno" – that is to say that those two cities were the center of his activities.

The expenditure of the community of Grodno to be paid via "The Horodno Council" to placate the authorities in order to prevent various kinds of "evil" against various Jewish communities and in order to prevent blood libels was a cause for discussion between the representatives of the Council of the Four Lands and the Lithuanian Council. The Council of the Four Lands also spent money for the same purpose via the Warsaw Council. In the proceedings of those discussions, the amount of the poll tax that the community of Tiktin paid to the community of Grodno in the year 5408 (1688), when the Sejm convened in Grodno, is noted.

The final sitting of the Council of the State took place in 5521 (1761) in Slutzk, and dealt with the request of the "leaders of the holy community of Horodno" to return to them a part of the remainder which had already been spent by the general accounts of the "State". It was decided that the community of Grodno was owed 35,192 gold coins, which was a sum more than nine times greater than the sum of the head tax which was imposed by that gathering of the Council on the "holy community of Horodno and the region" (3,912 gold coins), or on the "holy community of Brisk and its surrounding area" (3,920 gold coins) – from among the 60,000 gold coins of head tax which was owed by the entire Jewish community of Lithuania.

The administrators of the community of Grodno maintained the ledger of "the State of Lithuania" with great care. Later, they made a copy of the ledger with extreme care, in Grodno in the year 5566 (1806) "letter for letter, so that not one error should be made from beginning to end – in our own actual handwriting, so that it will be available as a testimony and keepsake for future generations". "The section of Horodno" in this copy of the ledger is the most complete and ancient of the three manuscripts which we now have in our hands. It was upon this copy that the historian Sh. Dubnow based his evaluation and publication of this ledger. It was the Rabbi of Grodno, Rabbi Eliakim Shlomo Shapiro, who in the year 1900 turned over the "manuscript of Horodno" to Dubnow's custody.

This scroll of "enactments" is one of the most important collections of documents available to us today, from which we can research the chronicles of the Jews of Lithuania, and Eastern Europe in general, in terms of their relationships to their surroundings, their struggles, and their way of life in the 17th and 18th century.



4. The Chain of Rabbinical Succession

The succession of Rabbis who served in Grodno in the first half of the 16th century includes many well known names. They were all involved in the deliberations of the "Council of the State of Lithuania", and all are signatories to its enactments.

Rabbi Avraham the son of Rabbi Meir Halevi Epstein inherited the seat of the rabbinate of Grodno from Rabbi Efraim Zalman Shore, and served the community as the head of the rabbinical court and head of the Yeshiva in the years 5376-5384 (1616-1624). Afterward, he was invited to serve in the rabbinate of Brisk, and later in Lublin. He maintained a correspondence with the Maharsha, the famous rabbi of Austria, and his halachic responsa were collected in the latest edition of "Beit Chadash", and also in the "Pnei Yehoshua", and in the "Responsa of the latter day Rabbis". He passed away in the year 5403 (1643).

Later Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel the son of Rabbi Yosef Charif, and Rabbi Yitzchak Eizik the son of Rabbi Avraham Katz served as rabbis in Grodno. Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel Charif (born in Vilna around 1580 and died in 5408-1648 in Krakow) was one of the students of the Maharam of Lublin and of Rabbi Yehoshua Falk. He served in Grodno from Elul 5394 (1634) until 5396 (1636), and later on in Premisla, Lvov, and Krakow, where he lead the great Yeshiva with Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heller, the author of "Tosafot Yom Tov". He had many students, and was known for his book "Meginei Shlomo" which included novellae on many tractates of the Talmud. Aside from this, he is known for his book of responsa "Pnei Yehoshua".

Rabbi Yitzchak Eizik the son of Rabbi Avraham Katz is mentioned in the book "Gevurat Anashim" by Rabbi Meir Katz, the father of the Shach, as the "Head of the Yeshiva and the Province" of Grodno. His signature appears second (according the rotation of Grodno) on the enactments of the Council of the State of Lithuania from Elul 5394 (1634) (paragraph 300). Until 5399 (1639) (paragraph 388). Rabbi Yitzchak Eizik Katz and Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel Charif served in Grodno simultaneously for a period of time (5394-5396 1634-1636). According to the author of "Rechovot Ir" one served as the head of the rabbinical court and the other served as the chief head of the rabbinical court, with somewhat higher authority. When the author of "Meginei Shlomo" left that city, Rabbi Yitzchak Eizik Katz served there alone. He passed away in the year 5403 (1643).



5. The Beginnings of Aliya to the Land of Israel

The annals of the regional courthouse in Grodno from 1540 describe, among other things, a Jew from that city, Yosef the son of Mordechai (Yosko Morchaievitz) and his wife Bryna "who traveled to Jerusalem according to their own wishes". They were petitioned by someone to pay the dues which they owed, and to redeem a fur which the above mentioned Bryna had left as a pledge with one of the Christians. In one of the annals it is described how they sold their house to Yisrael Yehuditz, and how Yosef the son of Mordechai gave a deed of sale written on parchment and signed "with his Jewish signature". It is also related that the sold house was found in "the Jewish Street – near the Jewish synagogue". The notice about the departure of the couple to Jerusalem is described in these annals without extra notation or any variance from the usual format, as if such an occurrence was not at all out of the ordinary.

It is known that in 1539 there was a movement for Aliya to the Land of Israel among the Jews of Lithuania. In that year rumors spread in Poland that Jews from Lithuania migrated with their property to Turkey, and took with them Christian children who were converted and circumcised by their hands. These rumors, along with other libels that Christian children were murdered by Jews, caused King Zygmunt the First to send a delegation of his men to Lithuania in order to verify the truth of the allegation. They were commanded to search the homes of the Jews, and even imprisoned some of them. The communities of Lithuania, including Grodno, were quite frightened. They sent a delegation to the king in order to dispel the rumors, and to ask him for protection. The delegation informed him that these rumors about the Jews were nothing more than false libels; and those who emigrated were only "a number of Jews who left for Jerusalem in order to fulfil the vows that they vowed", and that they left with the permission of the king.

The Jewish historian Yitzchak Shipper attributes this movement of Aliya that took root in Lithuania and Poland to echoes of the era of Shlomo Molcho [24] (who was at that time no longer alive), who had awakened the Messianic spirit among the Jews.

The matter of collecting money in Grodno for the settlement in the Land of Israel is mentioned in an enactment of the Council of the State of Lithuania already in its first year, (5383 – 1623, paragraph 53) in the annals of the ledger of the Council. At a later time, in 1645 (1646), a representative from the Land of Israel, Reb Yitzchak the son of Reb Shmuel Binga, an Ashkenazi from Jerusalem, visited Grodno during his travels through the cities of Poland.


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TRANSLATOR'S FOOTNOTES

[4] A possek means an adjudicator of Jewish law, which is a term often given for a rabbi whose authority and decisions are widely respected. Return

[5] A mekubal is an expert in Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism). Return

[6] Literally "master of the clothes", which is most likely a work written by him. Return

[7] Pilpul is a method of Talmudic study, which stresses very detailed debate upon minutiae in order to arrive at a precise understanding of the text. Pilpul is stressed much more in Ashkenazic Torah learning than in Sephardic Torah learning. The rabbis of Italy would have been far less influenced by pilpul than the rabbis of Poland. Return

[8] Halacha is the term for the corpus of Jewish law. Return

[9] The Shulchan Aruch is the Code of Jewish Law which was compiled in the latter part of the 16th century by Rabbi Yosef Caro of Sefad in the Land of Israel. Rabbi Caro's work had a Sephardic bent to it, and Rabbi Moshe Isserles (known by the acronym Rema) of Krakow added a series of glosses and notes pointing out areas where the Ashkenazic practice and custom differs from that which is written in the Shulchan Aruch. These glosses are known as the Mapa. The Shulchan Aruch literally means "set table", and Mapa means "tablecloth". The Shulchan Aruch, together with the Mapa, is still considered today by traditional Jews of both Ashkenazic and Sephardic orientation, to be the authoritative guide to Jewish law. Return

[10] Most great Rabbis throughout the generations were known by a pseudonym, which was often taken from the name of their most influential writings. Reb Mordechai is known as "the Levush". Return

[11] Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki of 12th century France) was the primary and most significant commentator on the Torah. Reb Mordechai's work contains his own commentary on Rashi's commentary. Return

[12] The Tur (short for Turei Zahav – i.e. Rows of Gold), is a precursor work to the Shulchan Aruch. This work is also known as the Four Turim. Return

[13] According to Jewish law, it is forbidden for a Jew to charge interest to another Jew. Due to the prevalence of interest situations in general commercial relations, a halachic loophole has been developed, known as a "heter iska" (literally: permission to engage in business). I cannot describe the technique in its full form here, as it is quite complex, however, simply put, it renders both parties to a loan as business partners, who both have a share in the risk, and thus enables one to take a payment from the other in return for the risk assumed. Obviously Reb Mordechai was not in favor of the indiscriminate use of this loophole. Nowadays, the "heter iska" is commonly used, and it is even in effect in all the main Israeli banks, thus enabling them to charge and grant interest (or the equivalent of interest) to their clients. Return

[14] Literally, "The City of Mighty Ones". Return

[15] "Gaon" is a title for a great rabbinical leader. Return

[16] "Hanoten Teshua" literally means "The one who gives salvation", and refers to a prayer which is recited for the welfare of the government during Sabbath and Festival synagogue services. That prayer starts with those two words. This synagogue likely had an illustrated version of that prayer hanging on one of its walls. Return

[17] This is an interesting play on letters, known as gematria, which is common in Jewish tradition. Each Hebrew letter is associated with a numeric value. The letters of the word "Halevush" (i.e. He, Lamed, Beit, Vav Shin), add up numerically to the letters that form the Jewish date 5338 (that is He, Shin, Lamed, Chet). Chet (8), is the sum of Beit (2) and Vav (6). Return

[18] Literally "The Might of Men". Return

[19] The Shach (Siftei Cohen) was a famous commentator on the Shulchan Aruch. Return

[20] Literally "Fodder of the Ox", a play of words on his name Shore, which is the Hebrew word for ox. This type of naming technique for books is common. Return

[21] Chevra Kadisha, literally Holy Society, is the name given to the Jewish burial society. Return

[22] The Karaites were a heretical sect of Judaism, who accepted the validity of the written Law (the Torah), but not the oral Law (the Talmud). As has previously been noted, Karaite communities existed until the beginning of the 19thcentury, but are just about extinct at this time. Return

[23] An obscure phrase, which seemingly refers to the severity of the situation at hand, and implies that condoning it would risk the future of the Jewish people, and the share of those who condone such acts in the World to Come (ultimate reward in the hereafter). This phrase denotes a severe censure of the situation. Return

[24] Shlomo Molcho, 1500-1532, was a Maranno from Lisbon, who openly embraced Judaism, fled Portugal, and began preaching about the Messianic era all over Europe. He was burned at the stake by Emperor Charles V due to the crime of Judaizing. Return


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