by Shimon Kanc
Translated by Tina Lunson
In pre-Christian times the area of Tarnogrod was covered with thick forests, surrounded with valleys, rivers and swamps. In later times wanderers from Mazowsze (Mazovia), Kujawa and Pomorze (Pomerania) settled in those same areas. The Slavs drew upon the abundance of animal life and the fruitful earth. Over time, Jews from Silesia and Poland also settled there.
Jews in Tarnogrod are mentioned for the first time in a document from the year 1455. The reports from that era are vague. We learn from the Lublin and Krakow pinkus [Jewish community record of important events] books that there were periods when Tarnogrod Jews went off to Lublin. In the year 1555 the borders of the Jewish quarter of Lublin were enlarged significantly. King Zygmunt August confirmed the gift-decree of the Krakow voivode [local ruler or govenor] and Lublin starosta [royal official], Stanisław Tęczyński, for about three places that were given to the Lublin Jewish community. Two years later the same starosta gave as a gift to the well-known Lublin doctor, Yitzhak Maj, a place with a lake and the right to construct a building there. The gift decree was approved by the king in 1566 and on that place was built the MaHaRaSHaL [Solomon Luria (1510 1574)] Synagogue, the yeshiva and other structures. Among those who prayed in that shul was a Tarnogrod Jew by the name of Azriel.
Thanks to the rights that Jews had received in those years, the Jewish quarter in Lublin was enlarged at a rapid pace. Individual families arrived from settlements near and far, and among them were Jews from Tarnogrod.
Lublin occupied an important place in Polish trade even in the 15th century, when the city was a central point in the intersection of the trade routes that led from the west to the north and southeast. In hindsight, its importance was no less than that of Lvov and it is no wonder that the famous fairs in the era of their blossoming (in the 16th century until the middle of the 17th century) were a meeting place for the Jewish merchants of all the towns and trade centers in the Poland of that time, among whom could be found Tarnogrod Jews who bought imported goods at the Lublin fairs and brought to them woven fabric of their own production and also furs.
In the second half of the 15th century, the Poles in the city began a war against Jewish trade. Krakow which had in 1485, through extortion, already forced the head of the Jewish community to sign an agreement that restricted Jewish trade to a selected list of families and certain Jewish workshops in tailoring and hat-making gave the signal. The Krakow merchant's slogan was soon picked up by their Polish comrades in Posen, Kuzmir, Plotsk, Lublin, and by 1521 there was effectively a tight bond among the larger Polish cities in a war against Jewish trade. On the 30th of December 1521 the King issued a decree in the parliament in Pietrokov (Piotrków Trybunalski) that forbade Jewish shopkeepers from buying the grain that the peasants brought into town. That prohibition also brought a series of limitations for the Tarnogrod Jews, limitations whose goal was to liquidate Jewish retail trade. The unraveling economic situation of the community stopped the further influx of Jews.
In the stormy period from 1648 to 1660, Tarnogrod was turned over from one government to another. Merchants and craftsmen were impoverished, the trade routes were erased. In 1672 the misfortune of the Tatar invasion was visited upon Tarnogrod and the town was completely destroyed.
Over a short period of time it was built up anew, and then, it seems, the war against the Jews was quieted. Besides trade, the Tarnogrod Jews occupied themselves with artisanry. Old historical sources mention Jewish tailors, a baker, a butcher, a shoemaker, a leather strap maker, a barber-surgeon, and a blacksmith. In those times, artisanry was tied to trade and the Jewish artisans were thus also occupied in selling the products of their labor. The population then did not hate the Jews and in a certain sense the atmosphere was comfortable for the Jews. The Jews also lived in the nearby villages. The main livelihood of the village Jews was inn keeping, estate managing and brokering for those who owned farmlands. There were also shop-keepers, from whom the village population bought the products that they could not make themselves, such as salt, fuel oil, an axe, a plow blade and so on. No doubt that the Jewish livelihoods in the towns were not much different from the livelihoods in the villages.
We have no systematic material regarding the Jewish population and occupations in Tarnogrod and their economic role in relation to the Christians. But there are clear indications that the Tarnogrod Jews dealt with Krakow and Lublin, and in several villages some Jewish families were engaged in agriculture.
The geographic situation gave the town some economic advantages that strengthened the competitive capability with Bilgoraj, which in those days was independent from Tarnogrod. But the development of the town did not go on for long because of the heavy taxation.
From the documents of the Vaad Arba Aratzot [Council of the Four Lands], the central governing institution of Polish Jewry, from the end of first century one can draw the conclusion that the Tarnogrod Jews helped in the fight that the leaders of Polish Jewry conducted against their persecutors.
These documents also deal with the running payments to the Vaad Arba Aratzot that concentrated in their hands the payments from all the Jewish communities. Their significance does not consist of their showing the exact calculation of the sum, because not even the yearly norm that the Tarnogrod community had to pay to the Vaad can be determined from the documents something that would help to determine the relative size of the community. Their importance consists in that they present a clear indication that Tarnogrod paid the taxes directly to the Vaad Arba Aratzot and not through the intermediary of a larger community. From that one can make the inference that Tarnogord was an erstwhile town at the time, with its own competence that could even take smaller Jewish communities, like Bilgoraj and others, under its protection.
Disregarding the fact that we do not have any details about the process that Tarnogrod went through until it arrived at that position, one could learn much from it about the development of the Jewish communities in Poland a development that in that time was almost unique in the land.
Among the documents from the Vaad Arba Aratzot there is a document from the year 1665 in which Avraham ben Yitzhak from Tarnogrod is among the participants in the meeting and of those who signed the obligatory note: We acknowledge in this obligatory deed that we have received from our advocate Kazimierz Kawalkowski, Secretary to His Royal Majesty and Signer for the King's Treasury, who has aided us in our most difficult situation, in our need and under pressure from the military, which has in its hands promissory notes to the King's Treasury from us and from the entire Jewish congregation in the Polish kingdom, and who have accepted on account our debt of not only our possessions but also our bodies and our soul. The representative Mr. Kawalkowski, the Secretary to His Royal Majesty, has rescued us, our soul and our possessions, from our most difficult need, having paid for us Jews, who live in the Polish kingdom, from the King's Treasury the sum of 26,000 gilden. Having received such great help we obligate ourselves in our names, in the names of all the leaders and in the names of the entire Jewish society in the Polish Kingdom that we will pay the above-mentioned sum of 26,000 gilden to the representative Mr. Kawalkowski or to him who brings this obligatory deed installments, namely the 12th of May 1667 (18 Iyer 5427) 3,250 gilden. The 12th of May 1668 (2 Sivan 5428) 3,350 gilden, the 12th of May 1669 (11 Oder 5429) 3250 gilden, the 12th of May 1670 (22 5430) 1,250 gilden . If we are not able to meet our commitment to the end and in the stated place the representative Mr. Kawalkowski or he who brings this deed is permitted to rob us, arrest us, capture us and put us in jail, both in public and in private, us and all Jews who are located in the Polish Kingdom. This applies to fairs, markets, on the roads and in our houses. In addition (it would be permissible) to confiscate all of our merchandise in any place, close our shuls [synagogues], take the houses and install Christians or whoever else in them and hold them (the houses) until the debt is paid . This is agreed upon in Yaroslav, the 3rd of January 1666.
Following are the signatures of those who signed, written in the language of Yisrael.
This is the language of the document, and it is worth turning our attention to the announcement from the 16th of November 1663 (16 Cheshvan 5424), in which the Polish king Jan Kazimierz warns the Jews, men and women, that they must pay the head tax that has been assessed on them by the last parliaments. If not, he was permitted to confiscate all their merchandise that is found in the customs houses, on the roads, in the towns and villages and also to arrest Jews themselves, rich and poor, and hold them in jail until the tax is paid (according to the archive in Lvov).
From this document can be drawn a picture of social life against the background of the circumstances of that time, and from that we can see that the Tarnogrod Jews were interested in the protection of their rights exactly as were the residents of the big towns. Those rights ensured the Jews the proper conditions for their existence.
One of the key factors that made possible the enclosure of the Jewish settlement in Tarnogrod in that era was their comfortable position regarding their rights, as expressed also in the comfortable living conditions, more so than in many of the Polish towns. The main document that teachers us about the rights position is the decision from the Vaad Arba Aratzot which requires that the institutional leaders of the Krakow province come to judgment before the Tarnogrod Vaad, which would deal with the unjust conduct of the Krakow leaders, who had to take upon themselves the sentence that the Vaad decreed.
The decision was given in the year 5427 at the Gromnitzer fair, a Christian holiday during which the fair in Lublin also occurred and when the Vaad Arba Aratzot also convened. The fair began on the 2nd of February and lasted for seven days. Jews also called it the Oder fair.
In 1685 during the reign of King Jan Sobieski, the Vaad met in Yaroslav and among the decisions made was the agreement of the rabbonim [rabbi, plural] to publish the book Nakhlat Azriel [Azriel's Legacy] by Rav [Rabbi] Azriel Halevi, who was the head of the beit-din [Rabbinical court] in Tarnogrod. It says:
We are presented with remarkable things from the great and preeminent Rav, our teacher and rabbi, Azriel Halevi, may his holy memory be for a blessing, who was head of the beit-din and leader of the holy congregation of Tarnogrod, may his rock and redeemer protect him, and who wrote new commentaries on the Torah, the Poskim [Rabbinic authorities and literature on questions of Jewish law], Gemara [300 years of rabbis' legal and ethical commentaries on the Mishnah], Perush Rashi [Rashi Commentaries], Tosafot [Supplements and additions 12th to 14th century commentaries on Talmud] which were sweeter than honey; knowing and understanding him as a great Talmud scholar, large in Torah and in good works, spreading Torah among the Jews of several communities; and as soon as the news reached our ears that it was the will of the community leaders to bring his marvels to print to the merit of the community, to the use of his soul and for his good remembrance, and so as the Sages have said: 'What are the achievements of a person Torah and good deeds', those are the generations of that Talmud scholar, for he left no children behind him, and therefore even though there is a statute against the printing of any new treatises we have abolished the statute for the above-mentioned book for the honor of the Rav and for the spiritual pleasure of his pure soul.
Among the rabbonim who gathered at the conference of the Vaad Arba Aratzot and gave his approval for the book was the name of Rav Natan-Nata bar Yakov, the current rav of Tarnogrod, who signed Natan-Nata of Lublin, leader of the holy congregation of Tarnogrod. We assume from this that the Tarnogrod rav took part in the gathering of the Vaad Arba Aratzot.
The document from the year 1717 (2nd of Heshven [October-November] 5478), leaves no doubt that Tarnogrod was already outstanding, that its representatives came from an independent province in the Vaad. The document from the Vaad Arba Aratzot deals with (p. 275) the conflict between the Jewish community in Pshemishl and the local rav, who was afraid of being taken by his debtors and the Vaad ruled: there shall no kind of harm and no kind of persecution befall him from any debtor or from any person in the world and the Jewish institutional leaders shall also swear a firm oath here in the presence of the Vaad Arba Aratzot, that they will implement this and all the previous writings and the court ruling having to do with these debtors
Among the participants in that meeting and those who signed the court ruling was Shlomo, son of Rabbi Shimshon from Tarnogrod and Aizik from the holy congregation of Tarnogrod, whose names are also among the participants in other meetings of the Vaad Arba Aratzot.
It can also be seen that those rabbonim who were great minds of Torah study attended the meetings on the merit of their importance, but this also gives witness to the importance and esteem of the town that was able to invite such Torah greats as these rabbonim.
An even clearer indication, although from a later time, is in a Polish source, in the lists dealing with the Vaad Arba Aratzot and its composition, from which it is clear that the Tarnogrod rabbonim in certain time periods belonged to the Vaad.
Tarnogrod is also proud of one of the pillars of Hasidism, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, The Berditchever Rov, who on his mother Sosha-Dvora's side, was from the R. Samuel Eliezer ben Judah Levi Edels' family and of the Gaon [honorific title for eminent scholar] Rav Moshe Margoliot, head of the beit din in Tarnogrod
Although the town was never a big Hasidic center, the spiritual situation there was like that of a large city that had a big Hasidic center, with the same enthusiasm for doing mitzvot, for dance and for nigunim [wordless melody; tune. Often used when referring to prayer melody], that occupied an important place in Hasidism. Tarnogrod Jews stayed true to the core principles of Hasidism in the various eras until the horrible destruction of Polish Jewry.
So the Tarnogrod Jews understood the honor and importance of having Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, The Apter Rov, whose name was associated with the Tarnogrod rav, Rav Shimshon, in whom the greatest rabbonim of the time took pride, a son-in-law of Rav Feivish, son of the great Gaon Rav Moshe, head of the beit din and head of the yeshiva of the community of Tarnogrod.
During the 200 years of its existence the influence of the Vaad Arba Aratzot was huge in the whole Diaspora and so the honorable relations that the Vaad had to the Tarnogrod rabbonim, placed the town among the most esteemed communities in Poland.
The unusual times that were to befall Poland in the coming eras left their deep mark on the position of the Tarnogrod community as well and in particular on its future development. The disrupted political situation whose alarm was the partition of Poland and the loss of its political independence, the wars and rebellions that came as a result of the national awakening, all caused the instability and undermining of the previous blossoming, and laid a new yoke on the Jewish community and disallowed its further development. And its position as a trade center for the area was destroyed. In time the surrounding towns developed and began to compete with Tarnogrod and after a while, it seems, pushed Tarnogrod into a corner and Bilgoraj began to take its place.
These changes are the reason that Tarnogrod remained stalled in place, both the town in general and the Jewish community. Yet it must be emphasized that this was not a uniform process, and that the activity of the Tarnogrod Jews showed that the community had not settled for its situation and continued to struggle with new aspirations.
We have assembled a small part of the history of Tarnogrod. There remain many chapters of other eras, for which not so much material has been preserved. But even the modest material gives witness to the important role that Tarnogrod played among the Jewish communities in Poland; but new times came, new events, new circumstances, that did not allow the Jewish community in Tarnogrod to plant its glorious traditions.
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