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from The Jewish Encyclopedia

GRODNO:  Russian city; capital of the government of the same name; formerly one of the chief cities of Lithuania and, later, of Poland.  It had a Jewish community about the middle of the fourteenth century, for in the “privilege” granted to the Jew of Grodno by the Grand Duke Vitold of Lithuania, dated Lutsk, June 18, 1389 (document No. 2 in Bershadski’s “Russko-Yevreski Arkiv”), it is seen that the Jews occupied at that time a considerable area in the city, that they owned land and houses and had a synagogue and a cemetery.  This important document, which was later confirmed by Sigismund August (1547), by John Casimir (1655), and by Stanislaus August Poniatowski (1785), is, with one exception, the oldest one extent relating to the history of the Jews in Lithuania.  It confirms the Jews in all their possessions and rights; permits them to engage in all business pursuits and occupations; exempts synagogue and the cemetery from taxation;  and ends by conferring on the Jews “all rights, liberties, and privileges given to our Jews of Brest” in the preceding year.  The Jews, who were thus practically enjoying equal rights with the other inhabitants, apparently lived undisturbed, even after Casimir Jagellon in 1444 granted the city it’s independence in the form of the “Magdeberg Law”.  Jews continued to farm the taxes and to own real estate until their unexpected expulsion by Alexander Jagellon in 1495.

 Expulsion and Return

 The estates and houses owned by Jews were then given by the grand duke to his favorites, but they were soon reclaimed.  The decree issued by Alexander Jagellon when he became King of Poland, permitting the Jews to return to Lithuania, is dated March 22, 1503.  It is issued to two Jews from Grodno, Lazar Moisheyevich (styled “our Factor”) and Isaac Faishavich, and permits all Jews who had been expelled to return to Grodno and once again enter into possession of their estates (ib. No. 39).  A decree by Alexander, dated April 1503, in which the Jews are especially mentioned, again orders that everything formerly belonging to Jews which had been sequestrated for gifts must be returned to them, and that all the debts owing to them must be paid; and four years later (Nov. 3,1507;ib. No. 50) an edict again decrees that whatever belonged to the Jews of Grodno before their expulsion must be returned to them.  In 1525 the king confirmed the right of Judah Bogdonovich to land in the district of Grodno which his father Bogdan had acquired before the expulsion.  The same subject is referred to in another document (ib. Nos. 94, 100).

In a decision rendered by Queen Bona (sforza), dated May 22, 1549, the following regulations, modifying and defining the rights of the Jewish community of Grodno, are introduced:  (1) Jews are to pay 17 percent of the taxes the government assessed against the city;  (2) they are freed from some special taxes paid in kind;  (3) houses and lands formerly bought by Jews from citizens are freed from citizens’ taxes; those bought by citizens from Jews are freed from Jewish taxes.  But thenceforth no Jew may buy a house from a citizen without royal permission (ib. No. 352).

The First Rabbi

The first Rabbi and the first quarrel in the community of Grodno date from the year 1549.  It seems that the influential Judach family had forced on the community as a rabbi a relative of the name Mordecai.   Queen Bona, on Oct. 28 of that year, ordered her governor Kimbar to assemble the Jews of Grodno to elect a rabbi who was no relative of the Judichs, and decreed that in case this should not be done without opposition, the opponents of the Judichs were to elect a separate rabbi with the same rights and privileges as enjoyed by the one chosen by that family.  Another decree, dated Nov. 8 of that year, deals with the trouble caused because the Jews would not allow Rabbi Mordecai to officiate in the synagogue (ib. Nos. 353-354).  The name of Rabbi Moses B. Aaron, Mordecai’s rival, has also been preserved.

After the union of Lublin (1569), when Lithuania became part of Poland, Grodno shared the general decline of that unhappy Kingdome.  It flourished again under King Stephan Bathori (1576-86), who was the friend of the Jews who resided there; and the great synagogue which was destroyed by fire Aug. 3, 1599, was erected in that period.  The arrival of the Jesuits in 1616 marks the beginning of oppressive measures and exactions, and frequent occurrences of blood accusations.  Grodno was saved from the devastation and massacres of the first Cossack war in 1648-49, but suffered terribly in 1655, when it was taken by the Russians and held two years; and it’s lot was not improved during the four years following, when it was held by the Swedes.  The community was impoverished and sunk heavily in debt, from which it has not been freed even to this day.  From 1703-1708 Grodno was held by Charles XII of Sweden, and the Jews suffered as they always suffered in times of war and disorder.  Jews did not share in the benefit derived from the administration of the starost Anton Tiesenhaus (1762-85), who made an effort to revive the commerce and industry of the decaying city.  He was hostile to the Jews, and when he became bankrupt his indebtedness to the Jewish community, representing only a part of the money which he had extorted from it, was declared by a court to be ever 34,000 rubles.  Two of his estates in the district of Pinsk were given to the “kahal” of Grodno in lieu of the debt, but they were confiscated on a technicality by the Russian government in 1795.

Murder Accusations

The last tragedy in Grodno of which there is record occurred on the second day of Pentecost, May 20, 1790, when Eleazer  b. Solomon was quartered for the alleged murder of a Christian girl.  The King refused to sign the death warrant, being convinced of the man’s innocence, but could not prevent the execution.  A ritual murder trial is also known to have occurred there in 1820, but the details have not been preserved.  Grodno came under the dominion of Russia in 1795.  The most important event in its recent history is the disastrous conflagration of 1885, when about half the city was destroyed.

A complete list of the Jewish inhabitants of Grodno in 1560 is reproduced in the above mentioned “arkhiv”(ii).  It includes the names of about sixty Jews who lived mostly in the “Jewish street” and in the “Jewish School street.”  It also gives the location of the Jewish hospital, which was then on the “Plebanski Street.”  The total number of houses in Grodno at the time was 543; if figured at one family for each house, this would make the Jewish population about 10 percent of the inhabitants.  The “Russian Encyclopedia” (s.v.), which gives for the second half of the sixteenth century 56 houses out of a total of 712, makes the proportion still smaller.  But the Jewish population increased in the following two centuries much faster than the Christian did, and of the 4,000 inhabitants in 1793 a majority were Jews.  The increase went on under Russian rule, and in1816 the city had 8,422 Jewish and only 1,451 non-Jewish, inhabitants.  In 1890 there were 29,779 Jews in a total population of 49,952, and in 1897 about 25,000 Jews in a total population of 46,871.


The Rabbinate of Grodno was next in importance to that of Brest-Litovsk, and in the records of the council of Lithuania the rabbi of Brest-Litovsk always signed first and the rabbi of Grodno second.  Rabbis Mordecai and Moses Ben Aaron, who are known only through records of litigation, were followed by an eminent rabbinical authority, Nathan Spira Ashkenazi (d. 1577), author of “Mebo She’arim.”  He was succeeded by Mordecai Jaffe, author of the “Lebushim,” who is known to have been in Grodno during the reign of Stephan Bathori.  When he left Grodno is not known, and the date of the rabbinate of his successor, Judah, who is known only from the mention made of him in contemporary responsa, is also somewhat uncertain.  The next rabbi was Ephraim Solomon Shor, author of “tebu’ot  Shor” (d. 1614).  He was succeeded byAbraham b. Meir ha-Levi Epstein , who left Grodno in 1634 to become rabbi of Brest-Litovsk.  Isaac B. Abraham is known to have been rabbi of Grodno in 1634-44, but part of that time Joshua B. Joseph, author of “Maginne Shelomoh,” later of Lemberg and Cracow, was also in Grodno, before he went to Tikotzyn.  Jonah B. Isaiah Teomim, author of “Kikayon de-Yona,” was rabbi in 1644-55, when he left Poland, dying in Metz in 1669, aged 73.  Moses Spira, son of R. Nathan, author of “Megalleh ‘Amukot,” and great-grandson of the above named Nathan Spira, was rabbi after1655 and Judah B. Benjamin Wolf of Troppau held that position about 1664.  Haika b, Samuel Hurwitz was rabbi from1667  to 1673 and was followed by Moses Zebi, author of “Tiffret le-Mosheh,” who died in1681.  His successor, Mordecai Susskind Rothenberg, remained in Grodnountil 1691, when he went to Lublin.  Simhah b. Nahman Rapoport, formerly of Dubno, who succeeded Mordecai, held the position for nearly a quarter of a century until he too became rabbi of Lublin (about 1714).  Baruch Kahana Rappaport was called from furth to assume the rabbinate of Grodno, but he preferred the “small rabbinate” of the German town and soon returned there.  Aryeh Lob b. Nathan Nata of Slutsk (d. 1729) became rabbi of Grodno in1720, and was succeeded by his son Zecheriah Mendel (d. 1746, aged 39).  Jehiel Margaliot (d. 1751), a disciple of Israel Ba’al Shem, became rabbi.  He was followed by Moses Joshua Hurwitz.  The latter’s successor, Benjamin Braudo (Broda) (died 1818, aged 73), was the last rabbi of Grodno, the office then being abolished, as was the case in Wilna, as a result of quarrels between two factions of the community.

Scholars, etc.

Among the rabbinical scholars and other eminent Jews of Grodno were: Elhanan Berliner, who corresponded with Zebi Ashkenazi early in the eighteenth century; Elisha b. Abraham, author of “Kab we Naki,” on the Mishnah, and of “Pi Shenayim,” on Zera’I,, who died at an advanced  age in 1749; Alexander Süsskind, the author of “yesod we-Sho-resh ha-‘Abodah”; Daniel b. Jacob, who was a dayan or “moreh zedek” for forty years, and died in 1807;  Joseph Jozel Rubinovich, physician and favorite of King Poniatowaki, died 1810; Simhah b. Mordecai, who was head of yeshibah and died in 1813; his son Hillel, who was a son-in-law of R. Hayyim of Volozhin and died in 1833; Tanhum, the son of Rabbi Eliezer of Urle, who was a candidate for the rabbinate, was “rosh bet-din,”and became the rival to some extent of R. Benjamin Braudo, mentioned above; his name is signed first on the record of the convention held in Wilna in 1818 for the purpose of selecting delegates to St. Petersburg; Sundel Sonenberg, head of the delegation referred to above, died 1853; Jacob b. Moses Frumkin, died in Grodno 1872.  Eliezer Bregman and his son Shabbethai are the Epsteins, the Neches, and the Ratners.

The best known Hebrew writers in the city of Grodno were: Meir Ostrinski, Menahem Bendetson, Isreael David Miller, Abraham Shalom Friedberg, the poet Issachar Baer Hurwitz, Samuel Yevnin, Isaac Andres, Simon Friedenstein (historian of the Grodno community), and Hirsch Ratner, Hurwitz, the translator of theSiddur into Russian, was the city’s “government  rabbi” in the seventies.  He was succeeded by Moses Kotkind, who in his turn was followed by Shemariah Lewin.  Among the five “more hora’ah,” R. Eliakim Shapira, and R. Wolf, a son-in-law of R. Nahum, are the best known. 

The Jewish community of Grodno is one of the poorest in Russia. There is little industry, and a large percentage of the business establishments is conducted by women.  It has the usual number of educational and charitable institutions, two Talmud Torahs (the older one having a trade school as an adjunct), a gemilut hasadim, a “Volksküche” for the poor, and a similar institution to provide kasher food for Jewish soldiers.  There is also an older trade school founded by Samuel Lapin.  In addition to the government school there are (1903) an excellent private school, conducted by B. Shapira, and a modern heder founded by the Zionists, who have recently developed great activity in communal work.

-Typography: Baruch b. Menahem, a book-dealer, established a Hebrew printing press in Grodno, the first in Lithuania, in 1789.  Ten years later he moved to Wilna, where he died in 1803.  The establishment was inherited by his son Menahem Man Romm, who in 1835 commenced, in partnership with Simhah Zimmel of Grodno, to publish a new edition of the Talmud.  The first few volumes bear the imprint of Wilna-Grodno, but in 1837 the business was moved to Wilna, and, under management of the ROMM family, became one of the largest of its kind in the world.                                                                                     P. WI.

The following is a list of the Jewish agricultural colonies in the government of Grodno, from “Selsko—Khazaistvenny Kalendar Dlya Yevreyev Kolonistov” (ii. 231, Wilna, 1902):  

District Name of Settlement Tenure No. of Families No. of Persons Land in Deciatines
Brest-Litvosk  Abramove Rented 25 179 264
Brest-Litvosk  Sarovskaya Rented 12 64 366
Volkovysk  Galileiskaya Rented 29 214 378
Volkovysk  Izrailskaya Rented 9 61 146
Korbin Yakovievo  Rented 31 202 270
Pruzhany Sosnovka  Owned 6 60 85
Sokolka Odolsk Rented 29 221 452
Slonim Pavlovo Rented 51 332 623
Slonim Konstantinovka Rented 25 176 563
Slonim Sinaiskaya Rented 25 183 195

                                                                                                                                                                                M. R.


District Total Population Jewish Population Percentage
Grodno 207,778 41.181 20.11
Brest-Litvosk 218,366 45,902 21.02
Byelostok 207,258 59,643 28.77
Byelsk 165,238 23,444 14.19
Volkovysk 148,159 17,802 12.02
Korbin 183,515 23,080 12.58
Pruzhany 138,807 17,678 12.74
Slonim 226,154 34,776 15.38
Sokolka 110,406 13,377 12.12
totals 1,602,681 267,883 12.27  

BIBLIOGRAPHY:  Bershadski, Russko-Yevreiski Arkhiv, St. Petersburg, 1882; Entziklopedicheski Slovar; Friedenstein, ‘Ir Gibborim, Wilna, 1880, idem, in Keneset ha-Gedolah, ii. 125-127, iii. 66-69; Hurwitz, Rebohot ‘Ir (criticism of Friedenstein, based on review in Brüll’s Jahrb. Vii. 182-183), Wilna, 1890; Ha-Shahar, No. 5, pp. 268 et seq.; Ha-Meliz, 1879, No. 42; Ha-Zefirah, 1899, Nos. 166, 167; 1900, No. 143.  

                                                                                                                                                                                P. WI

typing courtesy of Miriam Margolyes