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[Page 5]

With the Book

Prof. Moshe Levinson

Translated by Jerrold Landau

The dream of many of the natives of the city of Minsk and its suburbs, including prominent people who are known in the annals of our nation, has begun to take form with skin and sinews with the appearance of the first volume of this book: “Minsk, an Important City”. The story of the difficulties of its conception and birth are briefly surveyed on the final pages of this book – a story that extended for a generation and involved the finest of people both in the United States and the Land of Israel. From here, a feeling of holy awe envelops us as we present this book to the discernment of the reader. For aside from the fact that this book is meant to serve as a memorial monument for an important Jewish city, it also is the realization of the dream of those who raised their soul toward it – and did not merit to see its completion.

I will not mention names here. However I am required to mention one name, my comrade in the work of the book, David Cohen of blessed memory of Ein Harod. Without a taint of exaggeration I can state that if it were not for his dedication and conviction to the task, my own experience in my efforts toward this book would be no different than the efforts of those who preceded me.

This volume – the first of the book of Minsk and its region – describes the community of Minsk from its inception until the revolution of October 1917. The second volume, whose material is already collected for the most part, will deal with the Soviet era from its inception, the Second World War, the Holocaust, until this day – the time of renewal of immigration from the Soviet Union. This split, necessitated by the large volume of material and the wide scope of the book, was generally preserved with great diligence throughout most of the book, with the exceptions of the memorial pages and biographical chapters of those people who first appeared on the communal stage in one period, and whose actions continued and concluded in the subsequent period.

Given the broad scope of the book, its focus had to be restricted to within the bounds of the city of Minsk itself, despite the fact that many from the Minsk region were intertwined with its efforts and reams. The communities of the Minsk region, and even of the immediate area of Minsk, influenced by many cities and towns, are not surveyed in this book. Many will certainly be dealt with in days to come, whether in separate books or in additional volumes of our book. This volume is not divided, as is customary, into sections with their own titles, but is rather constructed as a constant progression, historical and chronological, of this era. Apparently, it is possible to divide the material into segments by theme, such as: general surveys, religious institutions and clergy, society, education, Chibat Zion, Bund, Poale Zion, General Zionists, personalities, events, memoirs, chapters of folklore, etc. However, from the outset we avoided such a division, both because by their nature matters cross boundaries, and because we wished to see the book as one continuum, as the story of Minsk in a single unit whose segments follow one after the other and connect to each other. We wished that the readers of this book would read it as they read a story of life and action, multi-faceted and broad, with each chapter leaving its echo in the subsequent chapters. Even though it was clear to us that this could not be fully actualized in a book that is by its nature an anthology, the fruit of the pens of dozens – we attempted to approximate this style at least to some degree in the construction of this book. With this, we did generally collect together the material in this volume in accordance with specific topics, as they come, in a chronological order by topic. At times, to avoid separating the words of one author, or for some reason, we deviated from this.

In this book we also included, in their original or in translation, items that have already been published in books and manuscripts – with some deletions and juxtapositions that were necessitated in fitting them in to the general framework of the book. When it came to describing events or deeds in a second or third hand manner, we preferred, for the most part, the words of the experts and the earlier ones, who were not only the writers of the era, but also its own people, who made its history. Words that were written in their time for their time, imbued with the stamp of their time – teach us about the era, its background and atmosphere more than any later compilation. For this reason, we have included in the book, when relevant to a topic, chapters about people whose main purpose is not to present the private biography of the person's life, but rather to present the general description of the reality in the background of the era. The few digressions of this style were primarily caused by the long stream of material on the editing table.

It is required to add here the usual disclaimer: it is self evident that the bringing down the publicity material of the people of the various factions of the past, in its spirit and its colors, does not give any indication of the personal allegiance of the publisher with regard to any communal matter mentioned therein.

The lack of unity in the manuscript here and there, in particular with regard to names of people and places, is not due to carelessness, but rather a conscious decision of the editor, given the wide variety of the community of contributors, so as to remove any possibility of altering the style of the matters that have already been turned around by researching the sources and archival material.

This entire book is only in Hebrew, and not in a combination of Hebrew and Yiddish as is customary for books of this type that have already be published. This is not only for technical reasons. According to our reasoning, it would be preferable to present this book in two or more editions, a Hebrew edition separately and a Yiddish edition separately, rather than to present it with both languages in one volume. We can only hope that we will be able to find the means to publish a Yiddish edition of this book as well.

There are items which were originally written in Yiddish, Russian, or other languages, and have been published in Hebrew for the first time in this book after being translated. The name of the translator is noted in the bibliographic notes, for we saw the need to give it at the beginning of each article. Translations in which the name of the translator is not noted at the beginning were translated in their entirety by the editor.

We dedicated an entire section, “Personal memoirs” to an anthology of short bibliographic descriptions of people who came from Minsk and its suburbs, and are no longer alive. To our dismay, this anthology is lacking, and we would be grateful to anyone who can help us complete it in the next volume of this book.

We worked diligently to prepare the index of names that is found at the end of this book, recognizing that this would be an important aid to anyone who is researching the book.

There are a great many people, institutions, friends who donated material and spirit to the book, who helped and bore the load. In their merit, the book finally saw the light of day. To all of them, thanks and blessings are due. If we attempted to enumerate them – we would never cease. Therefore, we will not mention names here. The actuality of this book will be their reward.

The community of Minsk had great merit in the latter generations, and it takes a top level honor in the annals of our nation and its national and cultural revival. Therefore, we believe that this book, that is seemingly only one link in the chain of Yizkor books of the destroyed communities of Eastern Europe, is fundamentally exceptional and unique in its nature as a historical work of great value. It is of interest not only to natives of Minsk and it suburbs, but also to any Jew who is searching for knowledge about our nation and inquiring about its past.

Shlomo Even Shoshan

[Page 7]

The History of the
Jewish Community of Minsk

by Sinai Leichter

Translated by Jerrold Landau

The author (born in 1913, made aliya to the Land in 1936) is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the research of Jewish history, and is on the editorial board of the English language Encyclopedia Judaica.

Sinai Leichter, who wrote this survey specifically for our book, asks that at the outset of this survey thanks and appreciation be extended to all those who assisted him with guidance and advice, especially: Professor Ben-Zion Diener of blessed memory, and, may he live, Professor Chaim-Hillel Ben-Sasson of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Professor Avraham Katz the president of Dropsie College in Philadelphia, Professor Dov-Bernard Weinreb of Dropsie College, and Professor Solomon Grayzel of Philadelphia.


Problems of research, sources, recent literature. The community of Minsk as an example of freedom within slavery.

The history of the community of Lithuanian Minsk (to differentiate it from the community of Minsk in the Mazowia region of Poland), extends over a period of nearly 500 years. Special importance is attached to researching the history of this community, since Minsk is one of the few communities in the annals of our long history that entered the Soviet realm after the revolution, while its sisters, such as Vilna, Kovno, Grodno, Brisk, Pinsk and others remained outside the Soviet realm. At the end of the 19th century, the Jews of Minsk became an absolute majority in the population of the city, and their number was greater than 50,000.

On the following pages, we attempt to reveal the story of the life of this Eastern European Jewish community that succeeded in maintaining its allegiance to traditional Judaism, that developed a style of internal autonomy in all realms of life despite the fact that it was under a foreign government whose machinations were not always helpful to the maintenance of our unique character, and which at times was inimical and perpetrated persecutions. Its flexibility and its ability to adjust to changing economic and political circumstances testify to the unusual vitality that was infused in all elements of this community. Therefore, the main theme of this research deals with the way of life of the Jews of Minsk, their religious and national outlook, and their cultural and social values.

For a period of more than 150 years, the Czarist police fought with the Jewish population in order to destroy their independent character, their national-religious uniqueness and their connection to Jewish history and tradition. In this struggle, the persecutions, decrees and attempts to assimilate this stubborn community into the Russian sea were to no avail. Aside from isolated instances of apostasy, such as Yaakov Brafman, and aside from a small group of assimilationists, the Jewish community of Minsk remained faithful to its Jewish tradition even during the days of Soviet rule. We cannot understand this wonderful reality unless we delve deeply into the way of life of the Jews of Minsk, the order of their community and institutions, the various forms of their cultural life, their religious and educational institutions, their religious and moral values, their institutions of charity and mutual assistance, and their struggle for livelihood.

The difficulties of research of this topic are many and difficult. The constant search for reliable sources necessitates examining of hundreds of books, and thousands of documents and texts. The first sources include, first of all, the ledgers of the community of Minsk in its Russian translation (and other languages), and with its tortuous explanation of the apostate Yaakov Brafman (to our sorrow, the Hebrew source is lost), the ledgers of the Group of the Seven Readers, and the ledgers of the Water Drawers Group that are found in the national library of Jerusalem, the Annals of Lithuania published by Shimon Dubnow of blessed memory, as well as the four volumes of “Zeitschrift” that were published in Minsk in the first decade following the Bolshevik Revolution by the Jewish division of the Byelorussian Academy of Sciences. In addition to this, many documents exist about the community of Minsk in various collections, such as that of the Russian scholar Sergei Brashadsky, in volumes 28 and 29 of the Vilna Archiographic Society, and in various monthlies and quarterlies. Ben-Zion Eisenstat's book, “Rabbis and Scholars of Minsk”, 1898, is an important source about the history of the rabbinate of Minsk.

Regarding the style of research, I have used what is called the modern “historical method”, that is: in opposition to exact sciences that are based upon repeatable and verifiable experiments. When we come to research the way of life of a certain group from the past, we cannot devise any experiments or inquiries in order to reach objective conclusions. Similarly, we must understand from the outset that the written testimonies that have reached us are sometimes truncated and often garbled, for only the smallest bit of what had transpired in the past has even been recorded at all, and what was recorded is not always objective and appropriate for gleaning actual data. Furthermore, only a little of what has been written has been preserved and has reached our hands. Taking into account these restrictions, the historical method is based upon the following principals:

The tapestry of modern historiography has broadened greatly in the recent years, and has been added to the descriptions of political, diplomatic and military events, without which one cannot attain a reliable picture of the life of a nation or community. Historians collect material relating to cultural life, educational styles, spiritual and religious movements, beliefs and opinions, economic and social tendencies, customs and folklore, literary influence, and others. This approach is especially fitting for the research of Jewish history in general, and of specific communities in particular. Similarly, modern historiography has been freed from the harmful tendency of describing the greatness and splendor of the nation in the past. Indeed, a faithful description of the fast must reveal the positive as well of the negative, without discrimination.

If the Israeli youth who grew up after the Holocaust of the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe will learn something about the mighty spirit of our nation in exile, and if the Jewish communities in America and other areas of the Diaspora will learn something about the organization of the community in Eastern Europe – we have succeeded.

[Page 9]

Chapter 1

The City of Minsk

Translated by Jerrold Landau

The founding of the city in the year 1067. Its geographical location, communication, residents of the region, the wars between the Slavic tribes, the Swedes and the Tatars. Influence of the Lithuanians and the Poles. The wars of the Cossacks. The rise in importance of the Jews. State taxes. The annexation of Minsk to Russia in 1793. The Jews form the majority of the residents of the city. Industry, economy, education, composition of the residents of the region.

According to the historical and archeological research of the Byelorussian Academy of Science, the city of Minsk was founded in the year 1067 [1]. The city is located upon rows of beautiful valleys on both sides of the Svisloch River. The potential for economic development of this city was dependent not only on the fact of its proximity to the river that served as a conduit for barges that brought merchandise from afar and exported the agricultural and civic produce [2], but also on the fact that it was situated on the crossroads of Vilna-Bobruisk from north to south, and of Novogrodok-Borislav from east to west. Its economic importance grew further at the end of the 19th century, when the Moscow-Brisk railway line that was build in 1871 cut through the city and connected it to the principal communication network of Eastern Europe.

The founders of the city were princes of the Krivichan tribe, whose capital was the city of Plotzk, located to the north of Minsk. In the 11th century, the entire region suffered from the attacks of the Scandinavians, but the attacks were repelled with the help of the Polish King Boleslaw, called the “Brave”. Minsk was destroyed by Prince Vladimir of Kiev about 20 years after it had been founded, however it was rebuilt anew, and in a proper fashion. With the soldiers of the Principality of Kiev lay siege to it in the year 1104, the city stood up to the siege and was not subdued, despite the fact that at the end, Prince Gleb of Minsk agreed to pay a tax to the Prince of Kiev.

With the independence and the spreading out of the Principality of Lithuania during the 12th and 13th centuries, Minsk and its environs became a part of this state [3]. After the official union of Poland and Lithuania in the year 1569, the political and cultural influence of Poland penetrated to the entire region.

In 1496, the Lithuanian King Alexander of the Jagelow dynasty granted civic rights to Minsk in accordance with the Magdeberg Charter. The city was granted its own limited autonomy, which would attract German and other residents to it, craftsmen and merchants – the middle class without whom the entire state would be destined to a primitive economic life and rely solely on internal barter. The situation of Minsk was strong from an economic perspective, except that, like all of the cities that were situated on the main routes and that played important strategic positions, it was liable to conquests, attacks and sieges at various times. The attacks of the Tatars during the 14th and 15th centuries, which turned many cities in Poland and Lithuania into heaps of ruins, did not pass over Minsk, which was conquered and burned by them in the year 1506 [4]. The residents of the city were not able to rebuild it, and after only about thirteen years, the city was conquered again by the Russians who were on the route to conquer Vilna. Despite everything, the business and wealth of Minsk grew to such a degree that the King's tax grew to a sum of 50 Shak [5] of Polish Groszy. The Polish King Zygmunt August (1548-1572) esteemed Minsk to the degree that he visited it several times. During a visit in the year 1552, he granted special privileges to Minsk [6], and established markets in it to expand trade. After several years, Minsk became the capital city of the region, and sent its delegates to the Polish Senate. Representatives of Minsk were numbered among the signers of the contract of unity between Poland and Lithuania in the year 1569. In those years, the royal courthouse established itself in Minsk, in addition to Vilna and Novogrodok.

During the time of the Cossack Revolution that began in the year 1648, the Russian Czar Alexei conquered Minsk. It only returned to Polish rule in the year 1662. During the years of this occupation, a plague broke out that lasted until the year 1658. Negotiations had begun between delegates of Russia and Poland regarding the conditions of the surrender of Poland in 1660, when suddenly the dramatic news reached the city of the defeat of the Russians by the Polish armies headed by Stefan Czarniecki and Prince Sapeha near the town of Polonka. Wars and epidemics during the 17th century impoverished the population to the degree that King Jan-Kazimir came to Minsk accompanied by the minister Jan Sowiecki immediately after the departure of the Russians, and granted a wide degree of rights to the Jews so that they could develop business, which by then had transferred almost fully to their hands. Apparently, the Jews of Minsk did not suffer from the degrees of Tach and Tat [*1] to the same measure that other communities suffered, since they left the city and returned only after the end of the disturbances. Thus, they were also saved from the plague. During those years, the Catholic element grew in the city, and the Jesuit monks receive large inheritances [7] from the Polish noblemen who perished in the wars. They became lenders for interest through the intermediation of the Jews. Minsk also became the seat of residence of the Catholic bishop, who lived in the city until 1869. However, the city was not quiet for a long time, for a Swedish invasion followed the wars of the Cossacks and the Russians. Fires, epidemics and the imposition of contributions were once again renewed, and continued until the year 1708. Piotr the Great remained in Minsk for several weeks in the year 1706, until the Russians were expelled from the city by the Swedes.

The city of Minsk recovered very quickly. As proof to this we see a decision of the Polish Sejm from 1717 that required the Jews of the city to give 2,000 Polish Guilder to the state treasury each year as a head tax, and additional 602 Guilder as a special tax. The taxes from the Christians totaled only 1,460 Polish Guilder. The taxes that Jews paid to the city hall totaled 12,000 guilder during those year, however the tax lessees paid only 9.000 guilder.

At the time of the second partition of Poland, the armies of Yekaterina II entered Minsk on June 22, 1793. Napoleon's armies entered Minsk in the spring of 1812 and left in the winter of that year, after the defeat of the French army.

The population of the city, which reached 30,000 people in the year 1865, doubled after the building of the Moscow-Brisk railway and reached 60,000 people in 1885. According to the Large Polish Geographical Dictionary of 1885, 2/3 of the population were Jews [8], however this is an exaggerated estimate, and we can assume that in those years Jews were only half the population. In the middle of the 18th century, most of the houses that had been built of wood were converted to stone houses. At that time, there were 8 Praboslavic churches in the city, 3 Catholic churches, and one Protestant church (the princes of the Radziwil family were Calvinist Protestants). There was also a Muslim Mosque for the Tatar residents of the city. The Jewish synagogues will be described in detail in the following chapters.

{Photo page 11; A view of the city from the vantage point of the ancient palace.}

In 1883, there were 45 factories in Minsk, the vast majority being owned by Jews. These included: 3 soap factories, 5 tanneries, one candle making factory, 1 liquor distillery, 5 beer breweries, 2 mead breweries, a sawmill, 14 brick kilns, 2 tobacco factories, 1 iron foundry, 1 pottery factory, and 6 match factories. The annual value of all of the products reached the sum of 265,000 rubles. The vast majority of the craftsmen were Jews, and business was almost all in the hands of the Jews.

In the year 1805, a Russian government gymnasium was established in the city. 552 students were accepted, including 142 Jews. The private Real School had 59 students, including 22 Jews. A water plant was set up in 1875, which greatly improved the health condition of the population. Until then the residents drew water from the polluted river, and the numerous epidemics that broke out in the city from time to time were caused primarily by the polluted water.

In the upper part of the city, next to the field of the “Tall Market”, was the palace of the ruler (Gubernator), a symbol of the political rulership and the source of the high authority.

Minsk was declared the capital of the Minsk region immediately after the capture of the region by the Russians in the year 1793. According to the census of 1883, there were more than 1,500,000 people in the cities and villages of the region (excluding Minsk itself), including 60% Byelorussians, 20% Poles, 18% Jews, and 2% others. 2/3 of the population were farmers. According to the religious distribution there were 1,109,000 Praboslavs, 162,000 Catholics, and 301,000 Jews.

This was the geopolitical environment into which was interwoven the Jewish community that was foreign to the climatic conditions and to the makeup of the general population. However its spirit was strong to keep its own cultural and religious tradition, and even to develop its own unique religious character.

Text Footnotes:
1.See the comprehensive book that was published in Minsk in 1967 by the Historical Department of the Byelorussian Academy of Science, called “Historia Minska”, page 10. Return
2.An opinion exists that Minsk, or as it is written in old writings, Miensk, was founded as a center for the trading of merchandise. Return
3.Minsk became subservient to the Lithuanians in 1195, and paid taxes to Prince Mandog. Return
4.The Tatars did not succeed in conquering the wooden fortress. Return
5.Shak equals sixty, that is, the tax reached a sum of 3,000 Polish Groszy. Return
6.Minsk received municipal rights at first in the year 141 from King Kazimir the Jagellonian. Return
7.See the Great Polish Geographical Dictionary from 1885, section on Minsk. Return
8.The entry on Minsk in the Geographical Dictionary is filled with an anti-Semitic spirit, and the author curses the fact that Jews are dominant in this important city. Return

Translator's Footnotes:
*1.This refers to the Chmielnitzki uprising of the Jewish years 5408-5409 (1648-1649), which resulted in massive death and destruction in the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. Return

[Page 12]

Chapter 2

The Origins of the Jews of Minsk
and their First Settlement

Translated by Jerrold Landau

The eastern theory and the western theory. The Jews help in the restoration of the cities after the Tatar invasion. The Jews comprise the middle class. The expulsion of the Jews of Lithuania in 1495 and their return approximately 8 years later. The reasons for the expulsion, the return tax, Jewish craftsmen and their efforts. Jews as state tax collectors, Jews as a source of income for the royal coffers, the division of the head tax according to the communities. The chimney tax, the internal taxes for the army and the officials. The legal situation at the beginning of the 17th century. The charter of rights of 1633. The livelihood of the Jews of Minsk. The Arndars and the nobility. The rights for the Jews from King Jan Sowiecki in 1679. The northern war and the restoration of the economy of Minsk.
There are two theories regarding the origin of the Jews of Lithuania, including as well the Jews of Minsk. One opinion assumes that they came from the land of the Khazars around the Black Sea, from where they came directly from the Land of Israel after the destruction of the First Temple, or after wandering in Babylonia [1], Persia, and the Caucasus Mountains. The second theory claims that the Jews of Lithuania came from the west during the time of the crusades, as a result of the persecutions and disturbances in France, Germany, Italy, Bohemia and Moravia [2]. At first, Graetz subscribed to the eastern thesis, but later he supported the western thesis based on research on the roots of the Yiddish language. The first historian of Polish-Lithuanian Jewry, Tadeusz Czaczki [3], claims that the Jews of those countries spoke Polish and Ukrainian during the Middle Ages and even worshipped n those languages. Reb Yitzchak Ber Levinson (Rib”l), one of the first of the Maskilim of Eastern Europe, supported this theory. A. A. Harkavi, in his research “The Jews and the Slavic Language” found support for this in the responsa from the 16th and 17th centuries.

Reb Avraham Chaim Shabad of Minsk, in his introduction to his book “Annals of the Times” that appeared in Minsk in 1904, claims that “The Jewish community in the city of Minsk is one of the most ancient communities in the country of Russia. Without doubt, Jews were among the settlers in that city from its first founding in the year 4826, which is 1066 according to their count…” What can be stated with certainty is that, after the destruction that was perpetrated in Poland-Lithuania by the Tatar invasions of the 13th century, the Jews were invited by the kings and noblemen to rehabilitate the economy of the state and to conduct a primitive form of barter within the monetary economy. Coins with Hebrew inscriptions can be found in the museums of Poland and Lithuania, for the Jews, the lessees of the minting, did not know Polish or Latin. The rulers, in their efforts to rehabilitate the destruction of the cities that were devastated by the Tatars, preferred the Jews over the Germans, for the latter demanded rights for themselves in accordance with the Magdeberg Charter; whereas the Jews who had been persecuted in the west demanded no political rights aside from protection of life and property and the right to observe the precepts of their faith. In the primitive agrarian government, which was based on the labor of tenants, the Jews became a sort of middle class of merchants and craftsmen, which was completely missing in Poland and Lithuania [4]. We can surmise that the first Jewish settlers in Minsk were merchants and lessees who received rights of leasing (Arenda) from the Polish kings or Lithuanian noblemen in return for a payment of a head tax to the state treasury. According to this opinion, these were wealthy Jews who at first came in few numbers, and later increased both by natural increase and by additional immigration from the west.

{Photocopy page 13}

The Book
Annals of the Times
Of the Chevra Kadisha “Shiva Keruim”
And the Large Beis Midrash of the city of Minsk
From the year 5523 until the year 5664
Or 1763-1904 according to the Christian numbering

By Avraham Chaim the son of Reb Shmuel Tzvi of blessed memory Shabad

Volume I, 5523-5554

A memorial gift
For the twenty-five years from 5639 in which he was honored to be inscribed as a member of the Chevra Kadisha “Shiva Kruim”, and to the trustees of the Large Beis Midrash of Minsk

Printed by Reb A. Tz Rozenkrantz of blessed memory, and Reb M. M. Shriftzetzer

{followed by several lines of Cyrillic writing.}

The first document of Lithuanian Jewry, from the year 1288, is tied to the death of Prince Vladimir the Lithuanian. It is stated therein that “The Jews mourned the late prince as they did the destruction of Jerusalem” [5]. The first document that mentions the Jews of Minsk is from 1488, however we cannot prove from this that there were no Jews living in Minsk prior to this date. On the contrary, the fact that this document was preserved is coincidental, for only very few documents were written in those years, and only a small part of what was written remains for future generations [6].

The Jews were expelled from Lithuania in the year 1495, the Jews of Minsk among them, to Poland by the Lithuanian Prince Alexander. What precipitated this expulsion? The Jews lived in Lithuania on the basis of the charter of rights that was granted by Prince Wytold in the year 1388. According to it, the status of the Jews of Lithuania was the same as was in Western Europe, that is, as “Servants of the treasury” (Servi Camerae). This does not mean that the Jews were servants. It was the opposite, they benefited from the protection of the state treasury that granted them protection of life and property, protection against physical harm, the rights of living in any place, the rights of establishing synagogue, religious freedom, legal protection against blood libels, and freedom of business and trades. In short, anyone who harms a Jew is as if he harmed the state treasury. Prince Wytold, who places great hopes in the economic capabilities of the Jews and their great wealth, was apparently disappointed. The wealth of the Jews was not great, and they did not succeed during his era of changing the economy of the state in a fundamental manner and in bringing large sums to the royal treasury. Therefore his heir, Prince Alexander, expelled the Jews in the year 1495 [7].

The period of expulsion did not last long. That same Lithuanian prince, Alexander, was chosen as king of Poland in 1501, and there he found the expelled Jews. He allowed them to return to their former places of residence in return for guaranteed annual sums. These sums became a yearly tax in addition to the head tax, and were called Powrotne, which means residence tax. This additional tax was a constant topic in the deliberations of the Lithuanian committees during their years of existence, that is until 1761. Indeed, 8 years after the expulsion, in the year 1503, the Lithuanian Jews returned to their homes. Their short exile in Poland strengthened the Jews from a religious and national perspective as well, and when they returned, they were better organized. They slowly developed the communal autonomous organizations, and conducted internal hearings regarding the collection of taxes. A document from 1511 once again testifies about the existence of Jews in Minsk. King Zygmunt I commanded Shimshon the tax collector to refrain from collecting taxes from the Woznysanski Convent in Minsk. This document provides evidence about the preferred status of the convents and monasteries, and about the employment of the first Jews as tax lessees. One can surmise that the tradesmen followed, for the Jews required shochtim (ritual slaughterers) and butchers for reasons of kashruth, as well as tailors in order to observe the laws of shaatnez [*1]. A different document [8] from the time of the rule of Zygmunt-August, gives evidence that the Jews were permitted to purchase and lease agricultural land. We can surmise that the Jews brought with them agricultural methodologies that were more advanced than those in practice in primitive Lithuania. Regarding the craftsmen, we find testimony [9] that the Jews not only worked in response to orders, but also produced clothing and furs for broad sale and export. In this document, regarding a dispute between a Jew of Slutsk and a Christian guild of tradesmen, King Zygmunt I decides that Jews are permitted to produce merchandise for export in return for a payment to the latter. We can infer from this that most of the Jews were tradesmen in the 16th century, and most of the businessmen in Lithuania were Christians.

The merchandise of the Jewish tradesmen that was widely marketed, in contrast to the work of other tradesmen who worked only in response to orders of their customers, indicates a more advanced economic phase that proves their strong economic initiative and their preparedness for hazards.

The issue of collecting taxes from the Jews of Lithuania is an important matter in the relationship between the kings and the Jews. In the year 1514, that is six years after the return of the Jews to Lithuania, King Zygmunt I appointed the Jews Michel Josefowicz as the elder of all the Jews of Lithuania. He granted him the title “Senior” and made him responsible for the collection of taxes from all of the Jews of the state [10].

It is possible to surmise with a great deal of certainty that the main axis of relations between the heads of government – that is kings and governors – and the Jews was the taxes that were paid by the Jews. The direct and indirect taxes of the Jews were an important component of the income to the treasury. Dubnow gives a clear expression to these relationships when he states that the settling of the Jews in the cities of Lithuania during the Middle Ages can be compared to the relationships between an innkeeper and his guests. The innkeeper is interested in collecting as much rent as possible. Only in exceptional circumstances was an enlightened ruler interested in developing the economy of his state or estate through the means of the economic efforts and experience of the Jews. Nevertheless, generally, the Jews received the rights of residency in the land and to conduct business provided that they were able to pay the taxes to the state treasury. The principal tax was the Jewish head tax, which was one guilder per person. (In the 18th century, the head tax was raised to three guilder.) There was also the residency tax for the Jews of Lithuania (Powrotne), taxes and tariffs upon most types of merchandise, and various taxes at times of need, such as for hosting members of royal families in the cities, and the army tax. Most of the taxes were leased to various individuals as a right. The community assisted the lessees and tax collectors to collect the taxes in return for a contribution of a specified percentage of the profits to the communal coffers, and the Council of Lithuanian Communities. The apportioning of the head tax to a specific community by the Council of Lithuanian Communities was not based solely on population, but also on the economic ability and independence of the specific community [11]. The total sum of head tax for a specific community was known as the “sum”.

The taxes to the city council included the chimney tax (Podymne), which was at first apportioned as a general sum to each community, and later divided by the city council in accordance to the sizes of houses and the abilities of their residents. The internal tax of the community, based on the need for kosher meat, and other necessities was called “korovka”. At times, this tax was required to fund the state taxes or to pay communal debts [12]. Aside from these official taxes, fines were imposed from time to time upon the community by the priesthood, especially during times of danger, such as during blood libels. There was also the extortion of money by the army, the city council, the guilds, the Christian clergy and the noblemen.

At the beginning of the 17th century, there were ups and downs in the legal status of the Jews of Minsk. King Zygmunt III at first continued with the rights that the Jews had obtained from the earlier kings (in 1606 and again in 1616), but two years later, that king acceded to the citizens of Minsk, and forbade the Jews to occupy themselves in business [13]. The struggle between the Jewish community of Minsk and the burghers did not conclude with this, and in 1625, King Zygmunt III authorized the Jews to purchase land for a cemetery and a synagogue [14], and fourteen years later, he freed all of the Jews of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania from the need to turn to the state courts of Minsk and Grodno. In disputes with the Christians, the Jews were dependent upon the castle (grod), that is to say, the prince, for the right to appeal to the king. However, in disputes between two Jews, they could conduct themselves in accordance to their own law [15].

The most broad and important charter of rights was given to the Jews of Minsk by King Wladyslaw IV in the year 1633. Not only did he confirm the rights that had been granted previously, but he also defined them anew and broadened them. From that time, the Jews of Minsk were permitted to conduct business without restriction, both wholesale and retail. The old cemetery was far from the city, and Jews suffered insult and injury during funerals. Therefore, they were permitted to purchase a new field close to the city. Similarly, the Jews of the Minsk were permitted to purchase fields in the center of the city to build shops and houses, despite the fact that the number of houses was restricted [16]. Officials of the city council and the starosta (regional ruler) were asked to prevent any injury or affront against the Jews of Minsk. A few years later, the king issued an edict stating that if a Jew owed money to a Christian, the latter is not permitted to expropriate the house of the former, but must rather turn to a court. Furthermore, the house was only permitted to be sold to another Jew, and if a purchaser could not be found, the community would acquire the house as a lease [17]. The meaning of this edict was that the domain of livelihood of the community of Minsk was restricted, like the rest of the communities of Lithuania, and therefore required protection that it not be further constricted by the transfer of houses of Jews to Christians. The complete separation of populations increased further during the 17th century, and just as it was forbidden for Jews to live in the areas of other religious communities, it was also forbidden for a Christian to take ownership of a home in the Jewish area, even if not in exchange for an unpaid loan. We learn one other important fact from this document – that Christians lent money to Jews in Minsk and other cities. Thus the classical image of the Jew who lends money to Christians for interest is not always correct.

In the struggle between the citizens of Minsk and the Jewish community, the noblemen sided with the Jews on account of their own economic interests; the Jewish lessees brought in significant sums to the noblemen for the leasing of their lands and selling their produce. Similarly, the Jews sold them imported merchandise at low prices, and paid them rent for houses, fields and stores that were owned by them [18]. The Jewish privileges in Minsk were once again specifically restricted by King Jan Sobiecki in the year 1679 [19]. Their legal, economic, religious and social status was defined through charters, in which the types of business and the specific trades that were permitted to organize into professional unions and display their signs in public were specified. Similarly, the Jews of Minsk were permitted to purchase houses and to build new houses, in addition to the 21 houses (!) that were in their hands at the time. Communal institutions such as the synagogue, the mikva (ritual bath), the cemetery, and the buildings in the vicinity of the synagogue were freed from taxes. From that time, the taxes of the Jews were equivalent to the taxes of the Christians, and the Jews were no longer responsible for paying for the visits of the heads of state and their families. The status of the community council was reaffirmed, both with regard to external affairs as the authority responsible for the payment of taxes, and with regard to internal matters as the authority whose jurisdiction falls upon all of the members of the community.

Here is the aforementioned charter of rights of the Jews of Minsk translated by the Minsk scholar Reb Avraham Chaim Shabad, who found the document in the ledgers of the “Shiva Keruim” chevra kadisha in Polish translation. The rights, based on the rights that were granted by the kings that preceded Jan Sobiecki, also served as a basis for the renewal of rights of the kings that followed. These rights remained in force almost until the time of the partition of Poland.

In the grace of G-d, Johanan the Third (Johann Sobiecki III) the King of Poland and the Grand Duke of Lithuania, lets it be known via this charter of privileges that those who predeceased us, the holy memory of King Sigismund III, via the privileges that he granted to the Jews of Minsk on July 21, 1660 in Warsaw, freed them from all taxes and special payments, and also granted them special rights. Now, after a request that was submitted in the spirit of modesty and subservience by the Jews that live in Minsk, and after negotiations with several of the advisers from their side, and by comparison with the chief privileges that were granted by his holy memory King Wladyslaw IV on December 31, 1646 in Warsaw to all the Jews that live in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and which his holy memory King Johanan Kazimir issued in his great mercy on February 7, 1649 before the committee in Krakow – we as well agree to allow our Jews of Minsk, as a community in general and to each individual in particular, to have authority over the property that they own, that is the well built homes and the ten stores from which they can conduct business in textiles, silk, and other merchandise, as well as in foodstuffs and other such merchandise, to maintain a butcher shop and to sell meat. They also have the right to purchase lands (properties), of which they already have 21. They also have a Beis Midrash, a cemetery, and a bathhouse for their own needs, and in particular, they have rights over the three houses that belong to the synagogue (synagoga). Furthermore, we exempt them from all taxes, special payments, and army service, whether outside the country or local. We also uphold their rights over the wooden and strong houses, and we allow them to build taverns. However, to protect from fires, we require them to build stone chimneystacks. We allow them to sell in the aforementioned stores, to local or guest customers, types of grains and produce, and to occupy themselves with trades and manufacturing, to produce garments of hides and hair, pharmaceutical products, works of stone, engraving and glass, to weave threads, to refine gold, and conduct other trades. They should have no obstacle for this from any group or guild, and that no guild tax shall be collected from them, for we exempt them from this. Similarly, we permit them to place tablets, copper sheets or other signs on their homes or stores informing the public of their trade, or to place these on a sign above the door of the store.

When it is necessary to provide wagons to transport officials outside the country or to local places, the citizens of the city are required to find a compromise with the Jews, to participate with them, and not to impose upon them too heavy of a burden, but rather to satisfy themselves with the Jews will collect along with the delegates of the city (deputists).

We hereby specify as well that the Jews not be judged in accordance with the laws and rights of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, or in any court of the princes and leaders, except for the royal court (Schloss-Gericht), which is the only authority to which the Jews who live in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania are subordinate. They also have the right of appeal of the verdicts. Furthermore, Jews cannot be summoned to court on Sabbaths or Jewish holidays. If an oath is imposed upon a Jewish plaintiff, it must be conducted before the podium (Holy Ark), or in smaller places by placing their hands over the mezuzah on the doorpost.

If one of the people of the city or anyone who has any claim or complaint against the aforementioned Jews, whether they are on the routes, or any areas next to the paved routes, or with regard to the fairs or annual markets – in such cases, the Jews can only be brought to the royal court in Minsk.

All taxes that are to be collected from the Jews living in areas around the city are to be collected by the communal coffers in Minsk without the involvement of any other officials. Members of the communal council are required to transmit the sum of the tax to the treasury of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

We grant permission to the shochtim to purchase animals in the markets, as well as the houses and streets of the villages, and to conduct the meat business in their butcher shops without any impediment.

At a time of need during a war, when a tax of bread, produce of the field, or other valuations are demanded, the people of the city shall requisition these from the Jews in accordance with a common valuation for all people of the city, and should not make a special imposition on them with force, whether from high school youths or through other empty and unstable people. With regard to this matter, the city officials are required to protect the Jews with respect to what I request and command, and there will be a fine of the sum of 10,000 Polish guilders. The responsibility for all the aforementioned matters falls upon the senators, high ministers, the men of the tribunal, the chief courts, the elders of the town and their deputies, and the officials of the cities and towns – that there should be no impediment to the actualization of the rights and freedoms given to the Jews of Minsk, and that there should be no reduction of previously existing rights. As proof, we have signed with our own handwriting, and placed the seal of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Horodno, March 24, 1679.

King Johanan (Johann), signing for the Duchy, and signed by the chief of the authorities of Vilna.

After this, the privileges were renewed through the intercession of the Jews of Minsk from all kings, and for the final time in the year 1722 from King August II, and later also from August III, but we do not know in what year exactly. We assume that the rights were in force until the year 1763 [20].

The time was a time of trial and tribulation not only for the Jews but for the entire country which had not yet recovered from the Cossack uprising and the economic depression and epidemics that broke out in their wake. Therefore, there was a need to support the population in general and the Jews in particular, in order to support business, agriculture and trade. This tendency also continued after the northern war that lasted for about 20 years, until the year 1721, which severely afflicted the city of Minsk and its Jews. Immediately after the conclusion of this war, King August II, established that the Jews of Minsk are not required to pay the head tax, whose amount had been increased, like the rest of the Jews of Lithuania. The full amount would be set at 2,000 guilder [21]. However, the Committee of the Communities of Lithuania, in its final meeting in the year 1761, established the head tax for the Jews of Minsk at a sum of only 1,000 guilder. This testifies to the decline of the community. However, the hidden strengths and strong desire to continue with life and preserve the values of he religion and tradition stood for the Jews of Minsk during these difficult times, through times of ascendancy and decline, tribulation and strengthening. The Jews of Minsk would eventually reach a higher plane, in terms of percentage of the population, cultural and spiritual achievements, and their efforts in the national renewal movement and the general social movements.

Text Footnotes:
1.Shmuel David Luzzatto was of the opinion that the Jews of Eastern Europe came from Babylonia. Return
2.See Meir Balaban: From where and when did the Jews of Poland come (the Jewish monthly, volume 1, Warsaw, 1930), in Polish. Return
3.His book “On the Jews and the Karaites” appeared n the year 1806 (in Polish). Return
4.Compare: Berl Marek, the chapter on the economic understanding of the Jews of Lithuania in his book, “The History of the Jews of Poland”, published by “Yiddish Buch” Warsaw, 1957, pages 357-364. Return
5.Regesty i Nadpisy, volume 1, number 178. Return
6.See the research of Professor Louis Gotshalk, “Understanding History”, New York, 1969, in English. Return
7.I found this explanation regarding the expulsion of the Jews in the year 1495 in the research of Dr. Herzl Berger of blessed memory, in his doctoral thesis at the University of Jenna in Germany. A German manuscript remains with his family. Return
8.The collection of Vilna documents of the Archiographic Society, volume 17, number 83. Return
9.A document from 1539 in the first anthology of Russko-Yevreskei Arkhiv, number 179. Return
10.Russko-Yevreskei Arkhiv, I, number 60. Return
11.Pinkas Lita, document number 561 from the year 1664. Return
12.Ibid., document number 908 from the year 1700. Return
13.A collection of documents from the region of Minsk, published in Russian in Minsk in 1848, part 2, number 63. Return
14.Ibid., number 159. Return
15.Regesty i Nadpisy I, 908. Return
16.Regestry i Nadpisy I, 795. Return
17.ibid. 908. Return
18.The representative of Poland in Moscow Bernard Tanner, writes in his accounting in the year 1678, that many Jews are found in Minsk who meticulously pay their taxes to the noblemen and enjoy various rights due to their many services (Regestry i Nadpisy II, 1184). Return
19.The Russian source Sobraiye number 158. Translated into Hebrew in the first volume of the “Annals of the Times”, by Shabad, Vilna 1904. Return
20.Asher Chaim Shabad, “Annals of the Times”, Vilna, 5664 (1904), pages 3-5. Return
21.Collection of Documents from the Region of Minsk, Minsk, 1848, page 158. Return

Translator's Footnotes:
*1.Shaatnez refers to the Biblical law (Leviticus 19, 19) prohibiting the wearing of garments made of mixtures of wool and linen. Return

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