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[Page 52]

The History of the Jewish Community of Minsk (Cont'd)

Organizations in Minsk
– the Lines of Communal Life

Translated by Jerrold Landau

The societies of the Jewish professionals, their professional goals, their value as social, religious, educational and economic organizations. The “Shiva Kruim” (Seven Invited Ones) society – as an example of an organization of wealthy householders. Its regulations, order of elections, and sources of financing of its activists. The importance of study texts. Leadership roles as a sign of social status. The “Water Drawers” society as an example of a society of the common folk. The desire for knowledge and spiritual experiences among the poor and downtrodden. Mutual assistance at times of trouble and tribulation. The relationship to the holy books. Sources of financing. The regulations of the Water Drawers Society. Rights and obligations.
Among other things, the various organizations that existed in Minsk filled roles that were similar to those of the community. Indeed, each organization was a sort of miniature community. When the Christian guilds no longer accepted Jews to their organizations, the Jewish professionals, tradesmen and workers founded their own professional organizations. With time, these organizations expanded into areas that were outside professional concerns, such as religious, cultural, educational social, economic, and mutual assistance. These organizations maintained their own synagogues, Beis Midrashes, cheders, schools, charitable and lending cassas, care for the poor, kosher butcher shops, and had trustees for charitable and assistance organizations such as visiting the sick, granting of loans, redeeming of captives, caring for poor brides, etc.

The largest and most important society in Minsk was the Shiva Kruim, which included a Chevra Kadisha (burial society) and a large synagogue. Meetings and testimonies from this society were recorded with precision in ledgers that exist until this day, and serve as an important source for our knowledge on the life of the Jews of Minsk.

In contrast to the various numerous professional organizations in Minsk, the Shiva Kruim was a society of the wealthy and most honorable householders of the city. The society was apparently founded already in the 17th century, even though the two ledgers of the society that are preserved until today[1] commence from the year 5523 (1762). At first, the society was set up as a burial society with a synagogue and Beis Midrash for the study of Torah by youth and adults. However, the society grew with the passage of time, acquired new property and filled tasks that were similar to those of the community itself in religious, social and economic spheres. The names of the members, whose numbers were 54 in the year 5523, are listed in the old ledger on page 4, folio a. Several years later, the number grew to 66[2]. The regulations of the society, in 25 paragraphs[3], specified that only honorable, learned people were permitted to be accepted to the society, with the agreement of no less than 7 veteran members. The name is taken from the seven Torah honors (aliyot), and is also reminiscent of the seven city leaders[*1]. The leadership of this society was in the hands of a selected body that was composed of four trustees, four supplementals, four governors and seven regulators including three accountants. In addition there were four trustees for the study of Torah of adults, and four for the study of Torah for children. There were also four people responsible for the erection of an edifice. The appointment of four householders for the erection of an edifice came in the wake of the great fire that afflicted Minsk in the year 1762, in which the synagogue of the Shiva Kruim on the corner of Shulgasse and Nimiga Streets was burned. The society succeeded in obtaining a plot that had several buildings of the Jesuit sect, in exchange for an annual rent of 200 zloty[4]. Members of the society donated as much as they each could afford toward the payment of the rent, the improvement of the existing buildings, and the building of a new synagogue built of stone so that it could withstand fires. The rental contract was written in Polish, but it was copied into Russian (The scholar Avraham Chaim Shabad translated the contract to Hebrew[5]). The agreement was done in accordance with the Magedburg law, that served as the basis for the proceedings of city halls throughout all of central and eastern Europe. With the agreement of the community, the members of the Shiva Kruim society also built several stores and butcher shops in that square. These existed for 40 years until the year 5562 (1802), when the butcher shops were moved by the authorities to a different location outside the city, on the banks of the river, for sanitary reasons.

{Photocopy page 53: The internal plan of the women's gallery of the Large Beis Midrash of Shiva Kruim of the city of Minsk.
Legend:

  1. Holy Ark
  2. The readers desk
  3. The Gemara table
  4. A second table
  5. Closets for books and tallises
  6. Steps to the second door
  7. Third table
  8. Vestibule
  9. First door and honorary entry
  10. Bookshelf
  11. Sink
  12. Iron pillars
}

During that fire of 1762, all of the study and religious books of the society were damaged by the fire. In order to renew the library, the community agreed to set aside 200 Polish zloty for this purpose alone from the korovka of the seven charities. At that time, the community also transferred the Large Beis Midrash[6] that stood in that place to the ownership of the Shiva Kruim society. The concern for the provision of books for all members of the society was so great that special taxes were levied for this purpose. These were connected to the meat tax. In a one-of-a-kind document[7], the concern for books is described as follows: “Our ears hear… the voice calling from the desert… to satiate the lively and hungry soul that is not hungry for bread and not thirsty for water, but rather to hear the word of G-d… to be among the frequenters of the Beis Midrash. We have seen that the holy books are worn out and torn… and when a person comes here… the satisfy his thirst and fill his soul with good – and there is no good aside from Torah – and he will not find the means to satisfy his soul, for there is no craftsman without a tool, and no ability to purchase books for ourselves... for the coffers of charity do not have the money to purchase new books or to repair the old ones, and as the outcry of the people grew… asking, is this the city that is the epitome of beauty that was in the past a city from which the flocks of holy sheep drank, and Torah never ceased from the Beis Midrash, the candle did not go out at night, and now it has lost its pride and glory. Behold the city of G-d has a pure spirit, and leaders of our community have made provisions for the Beis Midrash to give some money from each slaughter of cattle, whether it is kosher or not kosher[*2], whether performed by a butcher of by a lay person, even if performed for a celebratory feast – 4 Polish guilder for each animal to the coffers of the Beis Midrash… in this manner… We have set aside from the communal coffers to be a law that will not be transgressed… the sum of 200 Polish guilder annually… We have decreed upon the shochet (ritual slaughterer) that he should not slaughter any animal of bird unless he undertakes to discharge the aforementioned sum. Whoever transgresses this writ, it will be forbidden to eat from the meat he slaughters and it will be considered non-kosher. The Shiva Kruim Society of our community may G-d protect and preserve them[8] has the power to take forceful action anyone who refuses this…until he bows his head like a reed and discharges the aforementioned obligation… In contrast to this, the shochtim should take 10 Polish groszy from every cattle slaughtered, an addition of 4 Polish groszy to the 6 Polish groszy previously charged. We have decreed upon the shamashim of our community that they are to impose discipline upon the trustees of the Shiva Kruim society and forbid shechita unless the aforementioned sum is paid.” The date of the document: Monday, 21 Sivan 5525 (1765), here in Minsk, signed by two shamashim and the trustees of Minsk.

From this document we learn that the importance of the Shiva Kruim Society was so great that the community turned over one its fundamental privileges to its control, that is the collection of the korovka tax, or part thereof, for shechita. Furthermore, this document demonstrates how enthusiastic the Jews of Minsk were to study Torah and delve into holy books. In general, the value and status of the community declined in the middle of the 18th century, and its roles were partially transferred to the societies. The fact that the Large Beis Midrash was transferred to the Shiva Kruim Society[9] testifies to this. However the words were not equivalent to the deeds. Several years after the signing of the agreement, the members of the society complained that they did not receive the money for the acquisition of books from the korovka funds. The solution to the problem finally came by the leasing of the small-scale income of the Beis Midrash; such as for honors and charities, to several householders, who paid 240 zloty at the outset for this. This money was used to purchase new books and to repair old ones[10].

Bequests were another source for strengthening the synagogue, Talmud Torah and other activities of the group. In one of the documents in the ledger[11], we find testimony about a capital bequest that was invested in perpetuity, and the interest (“permanent funds”) of 15% would be given to the society each year. This is a phenomenon that is quite similar to the situation that exists in our day. Indeed, legacies and bequests were also an important factor in the maintenance of the monasteries and their many properties.

The original regulations of the society were not preserved, but in the year 5540 (1780), new regulations were formulated[12], that were certainly based upon the original regulations. The first four paragraphs deal with the primary privileges of the members, that is the right to an aliya to the Torah. The most severe punishment for a member of the society was the refusal of this privilege and the threat that his aliya would be given to someone else more important that he. The importance of an aliya to the Torah was so great that a new regulation was formulated that forbade a member from transferring his Torah aliya even to a relative. Professor Yaakov Katz already pointed out in his book “Between Jews and Gentiles” that religious honors filled a very important spiritual and psychological role outside of the realm of religion[13]. The participation in synagogue roles and honors granted social status to the Jew in his community. Paragraph 8 of the regulations establishes that each new member is required to study (that is, to present before the congregation) chapters of Mishna on a daily basis for 30 days before his name will be registered in the ledger as member. Indeed, the ability to teach Mishnas also granted a person status in the community, and those who were expert in Talmud and legal decisions were the “Reference Group”[14] into which the rest of the householders wished to be accepted.

Another regulation obligated each new member to provide liquor and pancakes to the entire group. The budget for liquor and pastry for Simchat Torah came from the society itself. The members of Shiva Kruim knew not only to study Torah and Talmud, but also to enjoy themselves by drinking liquor, not for drunkenness Heaven forbid, as was the custom of the surrounding gentiles.

The protection of the books of the Beis Midrash was an important and vital matter. According to regulation 11, the monthly trustee was obligated to inspect the situation well, and register the number and state of the books in the ledger. The relation to the book was one of awe and honor, not only because of the monetary value, but primarily because of the holiness and spiritual value.

The order of elections is described in ten paragraphs of the regulations, and testifies to the high level of democracy in the life of the society. The refusal of the right to vote was the maximum punishment for a member who was derelict in the fulfillment of his obligations. The electoral procedure was not straightforward. That is, the members only chose “electors” by majority of votes – and these chose the body that directed all matters, composed of 14 people, the synagogue trustee, the Talmud Torah trustee, supplementals, secretaries, and associates. Two bookkeepers were chosen from outside the aforementioned directors, so that they will not be dependent on their opinions. A person was not to be appointed to serve as a trustee unless he had previously served in a similar role, such as “supplemental”. Similarly, a person who did not worship at the synagogue regularly was not to be chosen. Regulation 19 stated that the head of the community of the trustee of the community Chevra Kadisha could not be elected for any role in the Shiva Kruim Society. The reason for this regulation is unclear, but we can surmise that the members of the society were concerned about ulterior motives from the community that might become intermixed with the internal matters of the society. Furthermore, since the Shiva Kruim Society took upon itself communal roles, such as the running of the Large (communal) Beis Midrash[15], the collection of korovka money from shechita, etc., it became a sort of competitor to the community itself.

The names of the members of the synagogue of the Shiva Kruim are scattered throughout most of the pages of the ledgers. In the list of Reb Avraham Chaim Shabad[16], more than 200 names are mentioned. Of course, not all were members at the same time[17]. There were 16 places on the eastern wall, as well as the place for the Holy Ark. The women's gallery was large enough, even though it was slightly smaller than the men's gallery.

During the 18th century, most of the Jews of Minsk did not yet have family names, even though occasionally some family names are mentioned such as: Lipman, Poliak, Ginzburg, Zusman, Lipschitz, Pochvitzer, Michabitzer, Fomonover, Jakobivtzer, and others.

On March 27, 1793, Minsk and its environs were annexed to the Russian kingdom
by Czarina Yekaterina II. As a token of grace to her new subjects, the Czarina decreed the freedom from taxes for a two-year period. The granting of loans from the treasury for the building of buildings was one of the other steps that the Czarist government took to win over the hearts of their subjects. Jews were also beneficiaries of such loans. The Shiva Kruim Society improved and expanded its Beis Midrash. Another “benefit” granted by the Russian government to its Jewish subjects was the cancellation of the secular roles of the community, and restricting it to religious roles only. In truth, the secular roles of the community had already been removed from them previously, due to the direct method of collection of government taxes.

If the Shiva Kruim Society stood at the pinnacle of the societal life of the Jews of Minsk, the Water Drawer's society stood at the bottom.

As we come to study the communal life of the Jews of Minsk in its various forms, we run into a number of phenomena that shed light upon the way of life of the Jews of the community during the 18th and 19th centuries. First, we learn that, despite the economic differences between the classes – the small group of wealthy people, large scale merchants and lessees, the class of small scale businessmen and merchants, the class of the masses of craftsmen and workers at vital services, such as wagon drivers, porters and water drawers – despite the material differences and differences in lifestyle, all of them had desires for a joint religious and cultural life. All of the classes, without exception, found salvation and spiritual exaltation after work hours in the bosom of the Beis Midrash. In addition to the religious experiences of the Mincha and Maariv services, which also took on the form of desire for attainment of a “status” of honor, they listened to Torah thoughts or studied a chapter of Mishna the Code of Jewish Law or Chayey Adam of Rabbi Avraham Danzig, a popular book that elucidated the laws of the Orach Chaim section of the Code of Jewish Law. When an itinerant preacher came to the city, even those of the poorer classes hurried to the Beis Midrash, especially on the Sabbath eve of Sabbath afternoon, to satiate their souls with words of Torah, lore, and visions of a better future.

Second, the concern for one's fellow during periods of trial and tribulation served as a common denominator among all of the social strata of Minsk. In addition to the chain of social services that was attached to the community, the various organizations occupied themselves with mutual assistance and fulfilled the commandment of “love your neighbor as yourself” to such a degree that even the most downtrodden and poor, such as the water drawers or those who lacked any steady source of livelihood, were not prone to destitution. Concern for the ill, the hungry for bread, for those who suffered from cold, for widows, orphans and needy brides – was a part of the day to day life of the Jews of Minsk. This social and human phenomenon within Jewish tradition was unique to Jews. It was lacking completely among non-Jews or performed only by the government. It is possible that within this tradition is hidden the secret of the survival of the many Jews of Eastern Europe, who were mainly poor and destitute. According to a survey conducted by the financial committee of the Minsk region in 1857, 22.4% of the Jewish community of Minsk was unemployed. However, the Russian economist Y. Zelensky[18], establishes in his book that the percentage of Jews lacking any job or source of livelihood was much higher, and perhaps reached to half the number of “breadwinners” in the community. However, for fear of army service, many Jews gave information about their business which really did not exist at all. He points out that this situation was not at all caused by a love of idleness, but rather because of the lack of opportunity for productive work. Apparently, the water drawers were included in this number of Zelensky.

Various organizations of craftsmen, including the Water Drawers Society, existed in many communities of Russia and Poland, but we know more about the Minsk Water Drawers Society than about any other society, due to the ledgers of the organization that have been preserved and are now found in the National Library of Jerusalem[19].

Whereas the various craftsmen were in need of workshops, workrooms, and various implements or machines, and the wagon drivers were in need of horses, saddles and wagons, the water drawers only required a rod and pair of buckets. They would go back and forth from the well or the river to the Jewish houses in order to earn a small coin.

The Water Drawers Society of Minsk was officially founded in the year 5590 (1829), after a period of preparation that apparently lasted for many years, for at the time of its founding, the society already owned two Torah scrolls, one purchased in completed form and the second especially commissioned from a scribe, as well as Chumashim and other holy books. In the letter of approbation granted by the communal leaders, it is stated that the water drawers collected the money through weekly donations of its members. The ledger of the society – a unique document that sheds light on the life and reality of these poor people – includes lists for a period of approximately 40 years, from the year 5590 until 5627 (1829-1867). During the first five years of the existence of the society, the water drawers gathered for prayer and study in a rented dwelling. However, after the Chayey Adam Organization (the group that was organized for the study of the Chayey Adam book of Rabbi Avraham Danzig) was organized, they got together to erect their own building. The water drawers donated not only money from their own meager income, but also many hours of work after the normal working hours. The “generous of the people”, that is other Jews of the poorer classes who helped with the work of the building with their own hands also joined the membership of this enlarged organization.

The first document from the first day of Chol Hamoed Sukkot 5590 (October 1829)[20] includes seven sections that describe the aims of the society. It is signed by 13 members. Professor Yisrael Heilperin, in his article on the water drawers societies in Eastern Europe[21] notes that 8 of the 13 founders did not know how to write, for their signatures were signed with the stroke of a pen or a mark on the document. We can surmise that the lack of knowledge of how to write did not testify at all to lack of intellect, for the style of traditional learning in the cheder placed almost no stress on writing, but rather on reading and the study of Chumash, Rashi, Mishna and Gemara by heart. The large number of Chumashim and other holy books testifies to the fact that at least a large number of the members of the Water Drawers Society in Minsk knew how to read them.

The ledger of the water drawers in Minsk was written in flowery Hebrew, spiced with verses from the prayers, the Bible and Talmud. We can surmise that the entries in the ledger were read during general or committee meetings. Even if not all of the members understood Hebrew, at least a significant number of them were able to understand the content. The labor of interpreting these manuscripts is not easy, whether because the ink has become faded with the passage of generations or because of the complexity of the fragments of verses, abbreviations and other shorthand signs. I will bring here the primary writ of association in its entirety, so that the reader can get a taste of both the language and the content. As has been stated, this document was written on the intermediate days of Sukkot 5590 (1829).

  1. Since the beginning of wisdom is the fear of G-d, we, all members of the minyan of the water drawers, are obligated to go each Sabbath and festival, etc. to a designated place to read from the holy Torah. Whoever is absent on such aforementioned days… Whomever is absent from this mitzvah is obligated to pay 1 Polish groszy each time to the coffers of the minyan. The monthly trustee is considered reliable. If they disobey the words of the trustees, they are required to pay 3 Polish groszy each time.

  2. All members of the minyan are required to give 3 Polish groszy each week to cover the expenses of the minyan. The weekly dues are to be given to the hands of a trustworthy person who is chosen from among the people of the minyan by agreement. Whoever transgresses and does not pay the weekly dues by the time of the lottery will not be entered into the lottery.

  3. If a person wishes to be accepted into our minyan, all members of the minyan must gather at a meeting at the time of acceptance – that is to say, the monthly trustee is required to summon the entire minyan for a meeting and to inform them that this meeting is to accept so and so into the minyan. Then, even if only seven people of the minyan come to the meeting who are acceptable to each other and to the person who wishes to be accepted – the agreement is that the seven people have the power to act in general for the minyan. If after the passage of time someone leaves behind a child, the child will have rights in our minyan, and will take the place of his father in every way, having the same rank as did his father.

  4. The time of the conducting of the lottery will be on the intermediate days of Passover each year. The monthly trustee is required to gather the entire minyan to one meeting at the time of the lottery. Five fitting people will be chosen from the lottery, and they will be the designated people, that is four trustees, supplementals and the accountant, who are acceptable to each other. The minyan will be run according to their words.

  5. At the time that any person is accepted to our minyan, the minyan does not have permission to grant the new person previous ranks. Rather, the new person must be accepted into the rank of a first year member. After he is accepted, he is permitted to be an accountant, in the second year a trusted person, in third year a supplemental, and in the fourth year he is permitted to be a trustee at any rank. The delegates cannot grant a person a former rank unless there is general agreement and majority approval from the delegates of the society. However, the electors cannot assign any rank to anyone who had a rank from the previous year.

  6. If one of the members of the minyan should become ill, Heaven forbid, when he informs the monthly trustee, the monthly trustee is required to summon the entire minyan to recite the prayer for the sick for him and to recite Psalms. Anyone who does not come after he is summoned is obligated to give no less than 18 Polish groszy to the coffers of the minyan – and if he adds, it will be added on to him from Heaven.

  7. For any tragedy, may it not come upon him, if a member of our minyan passes away, the group is obligated to worship in the home of the mourner for the 30 days of mourning, and to recite the Kel Maleh Rachamim prayer after study. The mourner is required to give at least 38 groszy to the coffers of the minyan. If Heaven forbid the deceased leaves no male progeny, and if no bequest is left to hire someone to recite Kaddish, then the entire minyan is obligated to hire some person to recite Kaddish for the deceased, and to pay that person from the coffers of the society. If the deceased has a relative who volunteers to recite Kaddish for him, then that relative should have rights within the minyan… without the need for any up-front payment.
Apparently, the roles of the society were solely religious. However given the realities of the beginning of the 19th century, social and cultural life also took place within the walls of the Beis Midrash, adding a level of holiness and spiritual sublimity to the gray weekdays filled with backbreaking work, poverty, and suffering.

Permission to form an association even for religious purposes was only given to the various craftsmen and poor people in Minsk after struggles with the communal leaders that lasted for more than 100 years. Echoes of this struggle can also be found in the ledgers of the water drawers. About a year and a half after the founding of the society, the community issued an official approval and writ of authorization, that is also inscribed in the ledger[22]. In this document, the heads of the community state that this permit is issued with the clear condition “that they have no rights to make any connection or union with regard to the carrying of water to a householder who opposes some other householder. If they do such, the society and its charter will be disbanded…” Apparently, the communal leaders still remembered the revolt of the craftsmen and poor people two generations earlier, and therefore they were insistent that the Water Drawers Society not diverge from its religious and social realm. The danger of demanding rights such as proper wages, preventing of competition, and even strikes, was apparently real – for if not, the communal leaders would not have made such a condition. Along with this, the writ of authorization contains words of praise for the water drawers that they “have commissioned a scribe to write a Torah scroll from scratch, purchased Chumashim and other books, and rented a premises where they can gather on festivals, the High Holy Days and Sabbaths to study Torah. They also made regulations… and we have said to be careful about the children of the poor, etc.” Indeed, the communal leaders had a primary reason for issuing the permit – the fulfillment of the commandment “beware of the poor people, for from them will come forth Torah…”[23]

When we examine some of the basic regulations, they seem very strange to us with respect to the ideas of the latter part of the 20th century. People from the lowest economic and social class agree to undertake the financial burdens of regular payments, once a week, to maintain a Beis Midrash, and agree to pay fines if they miss services, of their own goodwill and without any pressure from those above them. Indeed, the obligation to participate in services was later extended to include weekdays in addition to the obligation of public prayer on the Sabbath and festivals. In addition, if a member does not pay his fines before the time of elections, his name is not entered into the lottery – that is to say, he is not permitted to participate in the elections, and of course he is not allowed to be elected to any position of honor. How can we explain this phenomenon? Nothing other than the desire for the human condition, for social status, moved the water drawers to accept an additional financial burden upon themselves. We can surmise that the issue of fines served as a source of income for the needs of the society, which grew with the passage of time when its own building was constructed in the year 5601 (1841). A cheder and even a Yeshiva was opened, melamdim were hired to teach the children, and itinerant preachers were invited to satisfy the soul with words of lore and visions of imagination. However, the primary sanction for not supporting the basic obligation of the society, that is public prayer, was tied to the refusal of the right to vote. Regulations 4 and 5 define the order of elections, which were quite democratic with respect to the era. They defined the ladder of honors or honorary positions that each member would be able to obtain, not by force of his possessions or donations, but after proving himself as a faithful activist, he is able to advance in level from task to task, without favoritism. In order to reach the rank of trustee (gabbai), the activist must serve for at least three years at tasks of lower rank, such as an accountant, secretary, or supplemental. In the world of these impoverished Jews, the issue of elections to leadership and the possibility to be elected to an honorary role was a life-giving force in the life of the spirit and the community.

The four trustees changed each month on a rotation. In order to grant titles to the largest number of members possible, honorary positions such as the guardian of the regulations, associates, supplementals, faithful ones and others were invented.

The Water Drawers Society in Minsk was only one of the organizations of Jewish tradesmen and merchants. In the middle of the 19th century, the number of such organizations reached two dozen. However, other tradesmen had less desire to excel at their trades and to be official members of their guilds. On the other hand, the water drawers who were literally at the bottom of the barrel reached a significant rank with their charter and religious social activities. We can assume that other societies, whose ledgers have been lost and never reached our hands, conducted similar services, and their social striving was no less sublime than that of the water drawers.

The Water Drawers Society, along their synagogue, school and yeshiva, existed during the era of Soviet rule. According to various testimonies, this building served as a center for clandestine Hebrew and religious education. Even the persecutions of the Yevsektzia could not stop them.


Text Footnotes:
  1. The ledgers are found in the national library of Jerusalem, numbers 4.992 and 8.2395. Return

  2. Ibid. page 24, folio b. Return

  3. Ibid. pages 30-31. Return

  4. Ibid. page 83, folio a. Return

  5. Avraham Chaim Shabad, Annals of the Years A, Vilna 5664 – Yivo archives in New York. Return

  6. In later years, that Beis Midrash was known as Beis Midrash Hakatan (The Small Beis Midrash). Return

  7. The ledgers of the Shiva Kruim, volume 1, page 46, folio b. Return

  8. May G-d protect and preserve them (in the text, this is an abbreviation). Return

  9. The ledgers of the Shiva Kruim, section 1, page 39, folio b. Return

  10. Ibid. page 14, folio b. Return

  11. Ibid. page 49, folio a, and page 59, folio b. Return

  12. Ibid. pages 30-31. Return

  13. Yaakov Katz – Between Jews and Gentiles, pages 23-24, Jerusalem 5721 (1961). Return

  14. Reference Group {In English in the footnotes}. Return

  15. The dimension of the Beis Midrash were: 15 meters in length, 5 meters in width, 4 meters in height (Avraham Chaim Shabad, History of Life A., Vilna 5664 / 1904, page 23.) Return

  16. Ibid. pages 25-34. Return

  17. The period of the first ledger was from 5523 to 5578 (1723-1818). Apparently, two ledgers are bound together in it. According to the words of Avraham Shabad, a new ledger was started in the year 5554 (1794), immediately after the Russian conquest. Return

  18. Y. Zelensky, Minskaya Gubernya, pages 658-661, brought down in the book of Levi Ginzburg, Jews of Russia, 1965, volume 1, page 161. Return

  19. Heb. 40 974 Return

  20. For some reason, this document was included on page 61 of the ledger. Return

  21. The article was first published in the Jubilee book of Max Weinreich (Hague, 1964), and was also included in his book, Jews and Judaism of Eastern Europe, Jerusalem, 5629, 1969. Return

  22. Page 62, folio a. Return

  23. Page 26, folio b. Return


Translator's Footnotes:
    *1.    The seven aliyot are the seven Torah honors that are given out during Sabbath morning services. The “seven city leaders” is a Mishnaic concept. Return
    *2.    Not kosher here does not refer to a deliberately non-kosher animal, but rather an animal that is determined to be non-kosher after slaughter due to an otherwise undetected blemish or a failure of the slaughtering process. Return


Chapter 9

The Ledger of the Community of Minsk
and the Episode of Yaakov Brafman

Translated by Jerrold Landau

The regime of the community of Minsk through the eyes of the apostate Yaakov Brafman, sources for his hatred of the community, his relations with the Pravoslavic Priest. Brafman's defamation of the community of Minsk. “The Book of the Community” as a powerful source for anti-Semites in many countries of Europe. The trustworthiness of the Russian translation of the ledger of the community of Minsk. The organization of the community of Minsk as “proof” for the anti-Semites of a Jewish world government and the conspiracy of the Jews against the Christian world. The reaction of the Jews.
In the murky seas of anti-Semitic literature, there are few books that caused hatred of Jews to the degree that was caused by the Russian book of the apostate of Minsk, Yaakov Brafman, in his book “Keniga Kahala” (The Book of the Community). It is possible to compare this book to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, both in form, as an anthology of documents and decisions from meetings of Jewish leaders, and in influence, with its various translations in different languages. Despite the fact that Brafman inadvertently performed a great service for the historians by transcribing important sections of the communal ledger of Minsk into Russian (and through this, the ledger was preserved as an important source for understanding communal life), he gave important material over to the anti-Semites, which through his twisted, pernicious interpretation, served as important ammunition to attack Russian Jewry in general. It is no surprise that anti-Semites in Russia, Poland, Germany, Austria and France jumped upon this find, and found in it “proofs” of the apparently rotten authority of the communities, and the Jewish hatred of Christians. The roots of Brafman's hatred[1] of the community of Minsk should be investigated in the circumstances of his youth, and his snatching into the ranks of the Cantonists. Yaakov Brafman was born in 1820 in the city of Kletzk, Pinsk Gubernia. He was orphaned of his mother and father when he was young. As was done in all communities before the decrees of the communists, orphans were natural candidates to be drafted into Russian army service for their entire lives. Yaakov fled from his town in order to escape the “communal snatchers”. However, his hatred of the community and its procedures, and the feeling of injustice toward the snatching of orphans in particular remained planted in his heart throughout his life. This hatred deepened to a hatred of Judaism in general, and ultimately led to his conversion to Christianity at the age of 34. Immediately after he converted to the Pravoslavic Church, he obtained a job as a teacher of Hebrew in the government seminary for priests in Minsk[2]. The Russian authorities trusted him and appointed him as a censor of Hebrew books from Vilna and Petersburg. During that era Brafman published many hate-filled works in Russian that spread the accusation that Jews maintained secret international organizations with the aim of ruling over the entire Christian world. As examples as such, he mentioned the “All Israel are Friends” and “The Organization for the Spreading of Knowledge”, which according to him were arms of actualizing the Jewish world conspiracy. However, the pinnacle of Brafman's creativity was in 1869, when he published his “Book of the Community” about the community of Minsk. The publication of the book was funded by the government, under the supervision of the ruler of northwestern Russia. Brafman collected 285 decisions and enactments from the communal ledgers, and added his own interpretations to them. Several editions of the Book of the Community were published in Russian and in Polish, French and German translation. These included many words of introduction written by “experts” who were virulent anti-Semites who added oil to the flames of anti-Jewish hatred that grew during the era of the reaction after the years of the liberal atmosphere of Alexander II. The Book of the Community and the collection of Brafman's writings on Jewish customs that appeared in 1882 served as proof to the Jew haters of the magical-demonical powers of the Jews that enabled them to rule over the gentiles. With the assistance of this material, the writers were able to justify the Russian anti-Semites even after the pogroms of 1882.

Brafman published his first article in 1866 as a manuscript in Russian[3], in which he claimed that a Jewish movement close to Christianity exists in Minsk. It is not clear to what he was intending, but his article blew hope into the hearts of the Russian authorities and members of the clergy that the Jews of Minsk were on the verge of mass conversion. Of course, these hopes had no foundation, even though here and there individuals did convert, whether for economic reasons or on account of their love of Russian culture that came from their education in the government gymnasiums and their desire to be accepted to universities in large cities.

Brafman found the ledger of the community of Minsk in the archives of the education committee of Vilna, where he served as a censor of Hebrew books. He collected 285 documents from the ledger and organized them into four categories:

    a) communal business
    b) religious customs
    c) plunder of the Christians by virtue of law and enactments
    d) plunder of Christians in actual deed.
Jewish scholars[4] attempted to prove that at least some of these documents were forged. For example, Sharashbasky claimed that 1/3 of the documents bore dates that fell on the Sabbath of a festival, and therefore they were forged. This claim is baseless, for the writers of the ledgers generally utilized dates based on the weekly Torah portion. Y. A. Levitz[5] established that the translations of the documents from Hebrew to Russian are generally correct[6], but their interpretations are confused. After two German translations appeared with an introduction and anti-Semitic commentary by Professor Siegfried Passarge[7], Yosef Sieberling[8] wrote pamphlets against the Book of the Community. Similarly, many Jewish articles were written to refute Brafman's claims[9]. Brafman's primarily claim was that the Jews in Russia formed a state within a state, based on the strong organization of the community and the existence of other organizations and unions. Even though the community, as an autonomous organization, was already abolished by governmental decree in 1844, this fact did not prevent the distribution of the Book of the Community among government officials as a fundamental textbook on Jewish communities. As testimony to Brafman's ignorance in matters of literature and science, the Jewish librarian A. Harkavi of the National Library of Petersburg claims that Brafman once requested from him a book by the name of IBIDEM. Harkavi asked him to fill out a form and sign it.

The Book of the Community was published in Polish translation at least five times: in Lvov in 1875 (second edition), 1876, 1877, in adaptation by the anti-Semite K. Walski, and in Warsaw in 1914 with an introduction and commentaries by the anti-Semite Theodore Jeske-Choinski.

This Polish “scholar” stated in his extensive introduction that it is the duty of every Christian Pole to recognize the Jew as an enemy of Christianity, and that the recognition of the enemy, its character and means of warfare is half of the victory over it. One cannot gain information about Jews from the newspapers, for Jews rule over the newspapers just as they rule over the economy and banks. Jews rule throughout Europe, and government and kings owe them money. One cannot place trust in apostates, for their intention is to penetrate into the Christian community and conquer it from the inside. Jews stand at the helm of revolutionary movements, for at the end, the revolution will have the gentiles destroyed at the hands of the Jews. Choinski found proof to all of this in Brafman's book. He tells about the roots of the Jewish “state” in Poland based on communities and the organization of the Council of Four Lands. Today, states Choinski, the central Jewish government in Paris in the hands of the masons. After conquering business, the economy and newspapers, the Jews penetrate to conquer schools, courts, official government positions, etc. All of the tribulations of Poland have come from the Jews who bribed by noblemen in the Polish Sejm. In his book, Brafman finds proof that the Jews pillage the Christians of their property by selling “rights” without the knowledge of the Christian owners[10]. He states that there is reason to publish further editions of the Book of the Community because the Jews purchased the entire first edition in order to ensure that the books do not reach the hands of Christians. Brafman claims that the material in the book, that he collected with the help of the bishop of Minsk, portrays the nature of the Jews and their desire to influence Europe and the entire world better than any other material.

The documents that Brafman collected and translated into Russian (and they were later translated from Russian into other languages) deal with various topics that portray a clear picture of the order of life in Minsk. Were these documents to have been presented with an appropriate explanation, they certainly would have portrayed the Jewish community in a positive light, for one cannot interpret these documents without the political and economic background in which the Jews of Minsk lived their lives. However, when these documents are presented as a sensationalist discovery about an unknown sect full of machinations, conducting their affairs in secret meetings according to ancient laws, and when decisively anti-Semitic commentaries are added in, the book turns into a particularly useful and effective weapon in the hands of the Jew haters.

The accusatory material against the community of Minsk centers around two primary points: the matter of rights of possession as a means of pillaging Christians and destroying their economic status, and the matter of bribery as a means of destroying Christians from a moral standpoint. Brafman accuses the community of selling rights of possession to Christian property and of leasing businesses and services before the Christian owners realize that the Jews are plotting about the business. If he had presented the matter of rights of possession as an effective means of preventing unruly competition between various classes with respect to the purchase or leasing of property, the reader would not be misled to find any impropriety in such. However, when the issue of property rights is presented as a Jewish machination, the matter becomes iniquitous. This is also the situation with private gifts to various officials, landowners, mayors and clergy, especially on the occasion of their festivals or in order to prevent the carrying out of decrees, extortions, libels and threats. Even here, when matters are presented in the proper light, the guilt would not fall upon the Jews but rather upon the Christian extortionists, including police and army officials. Indeed, there were also cases where the communal leaders in Minsk used their authority and financial clout against craftsmen in order to prevent them from taking part in the communal leadership. However, these events were rare, and the common situation was when communal leaders used communal money in order to avert decrees and libels.

In order to describe the level of control of the communal leaders over the members of the community, Brafman brings a document (# 135) in which the community forbade one woman from going to the mikva (ritual bath) to purify herself from the nidda state (the monthly ritual impurity caused by the menstrual cycle) until her husband would accept and submit to the authority of the community. In another document (# 177) it is told that a wife of a tailor claimed in court that one of the honorary people, Reb Feivish who held the title “moreinu”, had struck her. Rev Feivish claimed at first that she started a dispute. However, when she took a religious oath that Reb Feivish started the dispute, the communal court issued a decision that sentenced Reb Feivish to three days of reciting Psalms and loss of his title – a mild punishment for a serious crime, apparently since the woman was “only” the wife of a tailor and Reb Feivish was an honorable householder with the title of moreinu. Brafman wished to prove with this that the communal court played favorites.


Text Footnotes:
  1. In the year 1874, Brafman told Yehuda Leib Gordon (YL”G) that his hatred of the community came from their persecution of him during his youth. He also added that if the Jews of Petersburg would pay him for the damage caused to him during his childhood, he would work for the improvement of the situation of the Jews of Russia. (Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906, entry on Brafman). Return

  2. This matter took place after Brafman gave a memorandum on the Jews to Czar Alexander II, who visited Minsk in 1858. As a teacher in the seminary for priests, he was required to research into the means of removal of the impediments of the conversion of Jews to Christianity. Return

  3. His article in Vilensky Vestnik, number 149 from 1866, entitled “The Opinions of a Jew who Moved to the Orthodox Church about reform in the Way of Life of European Jews”. Return

  4. The 1875 edition includes 1,055 documents from the years 1789-1869. Return

  5. Y. A. Levitz – Research into the Book of the Community by Brafman, Zion, 5698 (1938), pages 170-178. Return

  6. Several of the documents from the communal ledger were copied in the ledgers of the Shiva Kruim Society that is found in the nation library. Regarding a comparison with those in Brafman's Book of the Community, Levitz established that the Russian translation is correct. Brafman had two competent assistants for the reading of the ledgers. Return

  7. Professor Siegfried Passarge, who served as a professor of geography in the University of Hamburg, was a veteran anti-Semite. The Book of the Community was published once again in Leipzig in 1928 as an “Anthology of Documents of Research into the Customs of the Jews” in two volumes. Return

  8. Joseph Seiberling – Gegen Brafman's Buch der Kahal, Wienna, 1881. Return

  9. Hashachar D, page 621: 11, page 242. Return

  10. J. Brafman, Zydzi I Kahaly, Warszawa, 1919, page 36. Return

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