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Translation of Pinsk chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Polin
Translation of Pinsk chapter from
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Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Poland, Volume V, pages 276-299, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem
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Pinsk [Rus, Yid], Pińsk [Pol]
(District capital in the Polesie Region)
At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Pinsk was the capital of a semi-autonomous Russian princedom. At that time its population numbered about 4000. Prince Fyodor Jaroslawicz, who desired to develop the central city of his princedom, gave permission in 1506 for a group of twelve to fifteen Jewish families which had been exiled from Lithuania (apparently from Brisk/Brest), a bill of rights similar to that which the Great Prince Alexander had issued for families from Brisk d'Lita upon their return from exile. These articles of rights were in turn based upon the basic bill of rights issued by Prince Vitold in 1388. This bill of rights was given to three leaders of the settlers' group: Yosko Meierowicz, Najum Pesachowicz, and Avraham Rizkiewicz. The Jews of Pinsk were promised rights as free people, similar to those of estate owners and peasants: full protection for their person and property; freedom to engage in moneylending, trade and crafts; the right to organize their community life according to the dictates of their religion in an autonomous community, maintaining their own synagogue and cemetery. They were also granted the right to establish their own judicial courts.
In 1521 the separate princedom was annulled, and was annexed to Lithuania. For a few decades the city belonged to Queen Buna. In 1533 the Queen affirmed the Bill of Rights from 1506.
The Jews settled in Pinsk along one street, which was called the Jews' Street. It was near the Prince's castle and the market, which ensured them protection for their persons and also proximity to the center of commercial activity, as well as the possibility to organize their communal lives as they wished. Over the years the Jews began residing in neighboring streets, but the tendency to live in a centralized quarter did not change. The censuses which were taken in the years 1552-5 and 1566-61 give a strong basis for estimating the size and the growth of the community during the first 50 years of its existence. By the middle of the 16th century, the community had grown in number from the original fifteen families (75 souls) to thirty-five (175 souls). During the following decade the community grew dramatically by an additional twenty families. Gradually Pinsk grew to the status of an important community in Lithuania, along with Brisk [Brest], Horodna, Ostroh and Ludmir [Volodymyr Volyns'kiyy], and participated in resolving problems of all the Jews of Lithuania. During the period of the independent development of the Lithuanian community, in the 1560s, leaders of the leading communities in the country, among them the leader and Rabbi of Pinsk, participated in the enactment of the articles for all the Jews of Lithuania.
At that time a head tax on Lithuanian Jewry was imposed for the first time, and the Pinsk community stands out for the amount of taxes imposed upon it. The large amounts emphasize either the strength of the community economically, or the size of the Jewish population in Pinsk and the vicinity. The need to divide the taxes among the communities apparently predated the establishment of the common council of the communities of Lithuania. At the same time there was apparently an awakening of Torah study in Pinsk, and Torah law controlled all aspects of life. Pinsk's Rabbi in the 1560s, Rabbi Shimshon, who was one of the greatest rabbis of Lithuania, participated in the rabbinical courts which convened at the Lublin fairs.
Economic activity of the Pinsk Jewish community was concentrated in three areas: landholding in a manner similar to that of the nobility, moneylending, and commerce. The wealthier among them, and especially the founding families and their sons, invested most of their capital in estates, and in extending credit, and simultaneously engaged in commerce. In the 1550s and 1560s the Jews of Pinsk began hiring tax collectors, but in comparison to the Jews of Brisk, this activity was rather modest. At that time, the businesses of salt sales and alcoholic beverage distilling and sales were government monopolies, and were entrusted by lease to the highest bidder. Jews from Pinsk took advantage of this new opportunity and began to deal in leasing, especially in leasing of alcoholic beverages to be sold in Pinsk and the vicinity.
In the 1560s Jewish land ownership disappeared and was replaced by leasing (cynsz). The Jews had gardens and fields outside of town, but it is clear that the Jews did not work the land on their own, as almost all of the landholders are known to have been wealthy or middle class, who also dealt in commerce or moneylending and certainly employed indentured peasants or hired help.
Central figures in the economic sphere of Pinsk in the first and second generations were the brothers Nahum and Israel Pesachowicz, the sons of Pesach Yosopowicz (son of Yosko Meirowicz), one of the three Jews named in the 1506 Bill of Rights.
In the mid-16th century, changes occurred in the economic structure of Poland, which encouraged the production of grains and of wooden products and their export. Exploitation of the forests was especially profitable, and the Jews of Pinsk played a considerable role in this. At the same time there began export of logs and of processed materials, such as potassium, coal and lumber. These products were shipped overland to the Mukhavets [Muchawiec] River (a tributary of the Bug), and from there by water to Danzig. The relatively sound economic conditions contributed to the demographic growth of the community.
In the 1640s the Pinsk Jewish community numbered about 200 families, that is to say about 1000 people, or approximately four times the number in 1566. During this time the community expanded to the autonomous areas of the noblemen and of the Church, as in the Magdeburg letter of rights given by King Stephan Bathory to the townspeople in 1581, it was forbidden for the Jews to purchase new houses in the city. At the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th, Jews settled in towns and villages around Pinsk. From the first half of the 17th century, we have evidence of Jewish communities under the jurisdiction of Pinsk in the towns of Homsk [Khomsk, 52°20'/25°14'], Yanov [Ivanava, 52°08'/25°33'], Turov [52°04'/27°44'], Vysotsk [Ukraine, 51°44'/26°39'], Dombrovitsa [Dubrovitsa, Ukraine, 51°34'/26°34'], Kozhanhorodok [Kozhan-Gorodek, 52°13'/27°01'], Lubishov (Libeshei) [51°46'/25°31'] near Pinsk, Olevsk [Ukraine, 51°13'/27°39'], Ovruch [Ukraine, 51°19'/28°48'], Barach [Barashi, Ukraine, 50°43'/28°01'] and Ushomir [Ukraine, 50°51'/28°28'] in northern Volhyn. Most of these towns were established on private land as a by-product of the leasing business of Jews from Pinsk.
The union of Lithuania and Poland in 1569 did not bring about great changes in the legal status of the Lithuanian Jews. The rulers reaffirmed the rights and privileges bestowed by their predecessors. The Magdeburg rights given to the townspeople by Stephan Bathory in 1581, which were affirmed and broadened by Wladislaw IV in 1633, included articles limiting economic activity and the geographic dispersion of the Jews of Pinsk. The Jews on their part endeavored to receive and achieved additional privileges. In 1632 they attained from Zygmund III [Sigismund III Wasa] a decree which defined their rights and in 1633 they received an additional decree from King Wladislaw IV. The Jews of Pinsk were once again promised freedom to engage in commerce and to work as skilled craftsmen, and the freedom to live according to their religion; they were permitted to build homes and shops on land belonging to them, and they were allowed to lease one quarter of the beverage business in the city. Thus they succeeded in circumventing some of the limitations which the other townspeople attempted to impose upon them. The privileges of the Jews in the years 1632-3 supported their speedy economic development, their growth in number and their geographic dispersion. There remained in effect limitations on their purchasing new homes from the burghers and also partial limitations on their leasing municipal property, but these were bypassed by their settling in municipal areas belonging to the nobility or to the church (juridikas), which were not subject to the municipal authorities and to the Magdeburg jurisdiction.
The contradictions between the Jews and the surrounding population, which was primarily Orthodox Christian, were modified because of the religious differences between the populace and the authorities, who were Catholic. During the reign of Zygmund III (1589-1632), the Orthodox Church was repressed by the Catholic rulers. As a result the power of the local population to conspire against economic activity and numerical growth of the Jews was weakened. Moreover, in that period the Jews enjoyed protection of their welfare and their security both from the authorities and the clergy of the Uniate [Eastern Rite Catholic] Church, in the service of which they carried out economic and managerial functions.
Pinsk, which is located along major transportation routes, successfully participated in the processes of economic development which took place during the 16th-17th centuries. The process of colonization and development of the estates in the region were accelerated in the first half of the 17th century. During this period the Jews penetrated the field of estate leasing, and over time, the involvement of the Jews of Pinsk in this business grew remarkably. Large and very large leases were in Olevsk (in northeast Volhyn), Lubishov (Libeshei), and Pnyevno [Pnevno, 51°40'/25°16'], Pohost [Pogost-Zagorodskiy, 52°19'/26°21'] and Lulin, Oharinich [Ugrinichi, Ukraine, 51°41'/25°24'] and Berezich [Berezichi, 51°42'/25°27'], Rechitsa [52°34'/25°08'], Koshevich [Koshevichi, 52°10'/25°59'], Krotovo [52°14'/25°46'], Polkotich [northeast of Ivanova/Yanov], and Kozliakovich [today part of Pinsk]. The estates were usually leased for a period of three years in exchange for large sums of money (11,000 and even 16,000 gold pieces, an enormous sum for those days). The leases included the estates and also their natural resources, the serfs and their obligations to work, and the right to try them in court and to punish them in accordance with the law. Agricultural products were the main source of income, and profitability was dependant upon the output of the work of the serfs. The lessee also had the right to manufacture and market alcoholic beverages; the right to collect a tax for right of passage; and the monopoly of flour milling, in exchange for a portion of the flour. Incidentally to running the estates, the lessees developed diverse commercial activity; buying excess produce from the serfs; growing beef cattle for export, exploiting the forests for logs and partially processed logs for export. Efficient management of the large estates required that the lessees hire sublessees and others and they were also assisted by militia which acted in the service of the estate owner. The large lessees lived in a manner resembling that of the noblemen. Of one of them, Yaakov Shimshitz, lessee of Pohost, it is said that he even went on a hunting trip.
Alongside the leasing of the large and medium-sized estates, at that time there were also Jews who leased inns on the estates, in the villages and in Pinsk itself. Indeed the Magdeburg letter of rights from 1581 forbade this, but the Jews engaged in this on municipal lands which were under the control of the church. In 1632 this prohibition was cancelled and the Jews had the right to hold one third of the licenses for beverages in the city in exchange for an annual payment to the municipality.
Commerce in Pinsk continued to develop and Christian and Jewish merchants together established business connections with the large commercial centers of Poland, Lithuania and Volhyn. In Pinsk at that time there were some twenty businessmen, of whom ten were important merchants. Among these major merchants were a few sons of the wealthy founding families; others were self-made men. Jewish merchants exported leather and furs, wax and grease overland, and took part in the trade of forest products along the rivers. From the fairs which were held in Poland (Lublin, Gnizen, and Turon), they imported metal items and textiles, wine, fruit, spices and oriental delicacies.
From the 1730s we have evidence of trade between Pinsk and the commercial centers of Lithuania, Vilna, Slutsk, and apparently also Minsk. In Lithuania the Jewish merchants succeeded in penetrating the level of the large wholesale merchants, who played a central role in the distribution of commodities imported from Poland in Lithuania, and together with the merchants of Horodna, succeeded in somewhat reducing the monopoly held by the merchants of Brisk in the wholesale trade with Lithuania.
In Pinsk itself there was a sizeable level of middle-sized and smaller businessmen who managed their businesses in Pinsk and in the near vicinity. Jews owned stores in the market, but also in their homes and other venues outside the market.
We have seen evidence to the fact, that in the years 1605 and 1646 there was a drinks tax, which was in the hands of the Jews of Pinsk. From what is recorded in the legal records of the State of Lithuania, we learn that this tax was in the leasehold of the Jews for a lengthy period of time. Barukh Nahmanovich, among the most wealthy, and among the leaders, of the community, in the 1730s and 1740s leased collection of various taxes and because of this, enormous sums of money passed through his hands. In the region of Pinsk and the vicinity, and along the roads leading to Pinsk, were customs houses leased by Jews. Leasing of estates usually included the right to collect road tolls. On the other hand, the customs houses did not play a central role in economy of the Pinsk Jewish community, because only a few people were engaged in this field of endeavor.
An additional source of income which held a high place in the economic life of the Pinsk Jews was moneylending. There was much capital in the hands of a few of the lenders and they were able to loan out large sums of money. These wealthy people were also accustomed to dealing with leasing. Their customers were primarily noblemen with large estates, and royal representatives, but also city dwellers. In the case of failure to repay a loan, the houses of the Christians would be transferred to Jewish ownership. When the regular collateral was not enough to cover the debt, Jewish lenders did not eschew taking the law into their own hands, and at times required the use of force to collect what was owed to them.
During this period the part of skilled labor increased in the economic life of the Jews of Pinsk. At the beginning of the 17th century, the Jews of Lithuania, among them the Jews of Pinsk (in 1623), were allowed to work as skilled laborers without having to join a guild (cechy). Among the skilled laborers mentioned in the sources were tailors, barbers, metalsmiths and butchers. Some of the Jews of Pinsk were hired workers.
Our main source of information about the Jewish community of Pinsk is the records of the Lithuanian National Committee. Pinsk was a major city, and its community and Chief Justice controlled the communities of the vicinity. The heads of State and the Chief Justice [Av Beit-Din] chosen in Pinsk represented the city in the Council of Lithuania. Judges from the major cities also participated in the central fairs which took place in Lithuania and in Lublin, but their status was secondary to that of Brisk [Brest].
The Pinsk Jewry, as part of the Lithuanian Jewry, paid royal and municipal taxes, as well as taxes for the Jewish community's needs. The principal royal tax was the head tax, which was paid by the community, through the auspices of the country council. At the beginning of the 17th century, the Pinsk Jewish community paid about 10% of the total imposed upon the Lithuanian Jewish community.
We learn about the relations between the Pinsk community and the other towns of the vicinity from the records of the country of Lithuania from 5383 (1623) onward. There were bylaws arranging the character of the relations between the head communities and those under their jurisdiction. The bylaws of 1623 reflect a current and stabilized reality. The degree of control of a head community such as Pinsk over the towns in the vicinity is expressed in the manner of distribution of tax levies and in the efficiency of collecting them. In order to prevent collapse, in 1627 the Council decided to take a kind of poll of all the communities and towns, to closely assess the material condition of these communities, with the object of reaching a fair proportion of taxes between the wealthy and the poor. In the bylaws from the 1640s one no longer finds complaints from the outlying communities of discrimination, and it appears that over time the council succeeded in overcoming previous difficulties. The head community had the authority to cooperate with the towns of the vicinity in collecting levies in special cases, such as cases of blood libels, special expenses for lobbying, large charity needs, etc. The residents of the head communities enjoyed special rights in the towns of the vicinity in matters of trade, customs and estate leasing. Also the Rabbi and Av Beit-Din had special rights in the towns of the region. Among other matters it was forbidden to a community which did not have a rabbi to receive a rabbi and teacher without permission of the Rabbi of the head community. The possibilities which were open to towns of the vicinity to defend themselves from discrimination from the head communities were at first limited. The consultations and the struggle which the towns carried out against the acts of discrimination and injustice brought improvement in the situation.
With the growth in the importance of Pinsk's Jewish community, it also became an important center for torah study. In the 1580s a yeshiva established a short time previously gained renown; at its head was Rabbi Yissas'har son of Shimshon Shapira from Horodna, who was later appointed as Av Beit-Din and Yeshiva Head at Wormaiza (Worms). In the 1620s Rabbi Moshe (Moshe Jaffe or Moshe Bonmasz) served as Rabbi of Pinsk; he was a student of the Maharal of Lublin. Also Rabbi Yaakov Kopel son of Asher Katz served as Rabbi of Pinsk.
In the records of the Lithuanian Council of the gatherings from the year 5388 (1628) and later years, the following signed the bylaws: Rabbi Yosef son of Benjamin Hacohen (in the years 1628 and 1631); Rabbi Yitzhak Issac son of Avraham Katz (in the years 1632 and 1634); Rabbi Naftali son of Yitzhak Katz (in the years 1639 and 1644), who afterwards became the Rabbi of Lublin. In his time the yeshiva of Pinsk was a great yeshiva and Naftali taught torah there. In Pinsk Rabbi Yaakov son of Efraim Zalman Shor also served (5404-5408); he had previously been the Rabbi of Lutsk and after 5408  was the Rabbi of Brisk (Brest).
From the start of the Cossack uprising in 1648, and until the Andruszow peace agreement (1667), Pinsk also knew war, murder, robbery and chaos. On October 26, 1648, the city was conquered by the uprising Cossacks under Nibaba and with the cooperation of the local Orthodox (the Provoslavs); in 1655 and 1660 (the Moscow-Polish Wars), the city was conquered by a coalition of Russians and Cossacks. In each of these conquests, the city was dealt a heavy blow: large parts of it went up in flames, and goods, jewelry and money were stolen; torture, murder and imprisonment were the lot of many of the residents.
In the het v'tet [of 1648 and 1649] slaughter, the Pinsk community was harmed relatively lightly. Only a few tens among the thousand Jewish residents were murdered. Some of the Jews who remained in the city were converted by force and survived. But for the most part, the Jews escaped from the city. Other Jews who left the city at the last minute were murdered during their attempt to escape. Two weeks later, on November 9, 1648, the Polish Army returned and recaptured Pinsk from the Cossacks and the townspeople. In the process of conquering the city, the army slaughtered the defending townspeople and set the town afire. Seventy-eight Jewish homes remained standing. After a few weeks, the Jews of Pinsk began returning to their city and rebuilding their lives as individuals and as a community. In 1650 the forced converts were allowed to return to their previous faith.
In 1655, before the arrival of the occupiers, all of the Jews of Pinsk left their city and found shelter on the estates of the noblemen in the region of Drahichyn and Khomsk. The armies of Moscow and the Cossacks captured a city empty of its Jews and vented their wrath upon the Christian inhabitants. In these exiles many of the Jews, especially the wealthy among them, took with them a large part of their goods and their property.
In 1660 the community of Pinsk was harmed in one of the two invasions of that year. Some were murdered or taken prisoner, and a great deal of their property was stolen. Later on in the 1660s, the Jews suffered lawlessness, duress and robbery by the Polish Army and Tartar and Cossack Divisions fighting with the Polish Army.
Of what happened in 1648 and 1655 and in the 1660s one may learn, that the Pinsk Jewish community survived in spite of the upheavals. The orders of the organization of the Pinsk Jewish community and that of all Lithuania well withstood the test. The leadership level fulfilled its role with talent and responsibility, succeeded in accumulating intelligence about possible developments connected to war activities in the region and demonstrated resourcefulness in complicated situations. Also regular Jews from Pinsk demonstrated resourcefulness and flexibility, and were thereby spared great troubles; and they also preserved the large part of their property. They knew how to escape and how to handle their property, so that not all of it was lost. Upon the arrival of calm, they knew how to quickly reorganize their livelihood and their businesses, or to seek new sources of income in times of dire need. The community's leadership succeeded in speedily handling severe problems which arose, in quickly renewing the community life, and in vigorously acting on restoring the community. The council cooperated with the Council of Lithuania in solving urgent problems of the Jewish public of Lithuania, such as helping the great number of refugees, redemption of prisoners, and education of the sons.
However, despite the calm, the businesses of leasing of estates and wholesale trade were in crisis. Many people became penniless, and many were forced to seek a new way of making an income, to which they were not accustomed. A large percentage of the Jews of Pinsk and the vicinity found their income in serving and manufacturing alcoholic beverages in the city and villages of the region; most were petty tradesmen. Commerce adjusted to conditions of economic distress. Small businesses went broke, whereas businesses which once had been large strived to hold on as middle-sized businesses, with the help of loans from the nobility. Economically speaking, those businesses belonging to Jews who had succeeded in retaining part of their property, and had succeeded in rehabilitating their businesses, were better off than those of the Christian inhabitants.
At the end of the 1660s and in the 1670s the Jewish population grew by large numbers. In 1678 there were three synagogues in Pinsk, instead of the one which had existed in 1660. In the 1680s many Christian townspeople who had not succeeded in rebuilding their livelihood left Pinsk, and settled in the surrounding villages to work in agriculture. About 200 homes of these residents transferred to Jewish ownership. The Jewish population then numbered about 1500. By the end of the 17th century, Pinsk was already mostly Jewish.
Between the years 1650 and 1679, additional communities were established in the Pinsk region in the private towns of Drohichin [Drahiczyn], Motele [Motol], David Gorodok, Lakhva and Stolin. Also in Lubishov (Libeshei) and in Kozhanhorodok, which had been agricultural villages in the 1640s, and where there were small groups of Jewish settlers, communities were established. Beginning with the 1660s and until the end of the century, the number of Jews in the villages in the Pinsk region grew, where Jews made their living from middle- or small-level leasing, especially of alcoholic beverages and their sale. In the 1690s Jews first settled in Karlin, adjacent to Pinsk, which was originally established as a private city.
At the end of the 17th century, Pinsk continued to be a center for trade in wax and for wholesale and retail trade in skins, furs and grains. Merchants from faraway places were drawn to Pinsk, where they sold finished goods, and purchased goods which were abundant in the city. Members of the well-to-do families were involved in large business transactions, and they were the most successful merchants in Pinsk; they participated in the fairs of Mir, Nesvizh [Nyasvizh, 53°13'/26°40'], Stolovich [Stolovichi, 53°13'/26°02'], and Kapolia [Kapyl', 53°09'/27°05'], where the leaders of the main Jewish communities used to meet to settle matters of the entire Lithuanian State. But then the positive development of trade in Pinsk was weakened, and formerly wealthy merchants then managed medium- or small-sized businesses. Petty trade grew among Pinsk Jewry. The general economic conditions continued to be bad. The shortage of cash was severe and the economic activity met with difficulties which were typical of periods of economic recession. Individuals clung to any possibility of economic activity and worked hard in order to support their families. A few of them even did not refrain from dealing in stolen goods.
According to the law, leasing of customs rights was solely the privilege of the nobility, and Jews were prohibited from leasing customs collection. However many noblemen engaged Jews in their customs collection activities as partners, as sublessees, or as customs agents and clerks in the collection offices. In 1693 the Lithuanian Treasury leased the customs station of Pinsk and its branches to Jews, so that the collection would be managed in the best possible manner. In the 1680s and 1690s the customs stations of Pinsk and its branches were leased to noblemen, but they were actually managed by Jews. Gershon Beniaszewicz, one of the Pinsk community leaders, earned his living for rather a long time from customs management and succeeded in holding onto his position even when the lease itself changed hands, without doubt because he and his partner and assistants were experienced in customs collection arrangements. The competition over customs business was strong even among Jews, and only with support from the community could the leaseholder survive.
In this period, leasing of large estates was rare. On the one hand, there was a large number of small leaseholders and on the other hand, there was a group of people who remained in the service of noblemen and wealthy people and as faktors (administrators), who managed the business of their masters. Central businesses of the small lessees were alcoholic beverages and the milling of flour, which were then monopolized by the nobility.
Also in this period changes occurred in the money lending business. There is no evidence of loans from Jews to Christians after 1669. In contrast, there is evidence of the need of the Jewish community and of individual Jews of loans from Christians, mainly from church institutions and from the nobility, most likely because this was inexpensive credit at from eight to ten percent per annum.
In 1664 Pinsk was numbered among the communities to which the Council of Lithuania owed money. But in 1667 there was a weakening of its economic condition (probably because of the need for expensive lobbying in the matter of a baseless libel against the Jews of the region), and in the records for that year, Pinsk is not mentioned among those communities to which the Council owes money. Beginning in 1673 and through the 1690s Pinsk owed large sums of money to the national council, and its financial condition became much worse than that of other major cities. In order to finance its debts, the community was in need of loans. In 1678 the community twice borrowed from the Jesuits of Pinsk 1500 zlotys, at ten percent interest. In 1680 the community borrowed from them the sum of 7000 zlotys at eight percent. That same year the community also borrowed from one of the townspeople 5620 zlotys. From the accounts of the council of that and the following year, we learn that the financial condition of the community continued to be bleak, and that again it was unable to repay the national sum, and that the National Council took the difficult situation into consideration and gave the community discounts on payment of taxes.
In the 1690s the community owed the national council 6962 zlotys, while Brisk, Horodna and Vilna had balanced accounts. In 1695 Pinsk borrowed 8000 zlotys from one noblewomanapparently in order to repay its debts to the Council. According to the conditions of the loan, all of the Jews of Pinsk and the surrounding communities were mutual guarantors through all of their property, including their persons and their synagogues, for repayment of the loan and its interest. In 1698 the community borrowed 32,000 gold currency from the same noblewoman (an enormous sum!) at ten percent interest. As collateral the community mortgaged interest and income from the korovka (tax on meat). Taking on this last loan was the result of the 1697 decision to repay all of the community's debts to the Council at once, because of the heavy pressures of the creditors to repay all debts immediately. To this purpose, the Council required the head communities to mortgage the income from the meat tax, and Pinsk abided by this decision. After the latest loans Pinsk refrained from late payment of its taxes and its standing in the National Council was restored.
Knowledge about the internal life of the Pinsk Jewry and their everyday life in the 17th century is meager. A bit of light may be found in the discourse [Drosh] books of Rabbi Yehuda Leib Pohovitzer, who served as divine messenger (maggid misharim) in Pinsk over a few decades. In the time of Yehuda Leib children of six to seven years of age studied Talmud, which means that children of four to five studied the alphabet and reading in the prayer book and the Pentateuch. The school fees of the poor children were almost certainly covered by the community, because it was the practice in the communities of Israel that school-aged children are not exempt from torah studies. Rabbi Yehuda Leib Pohovitzer criticized the accepted mode of education, which was based upon the meaning of the words. Instead he suggested a system of working from the easy to the difficult: first the Pentateuch with understanding of the content, later mishnayot and finally Talmud for the more talented, and for the others the Prophets and the Writings (Ctuvim) and matters of morality (mussar).
The Rabbi and Av Beit-Din of Pinsk maintained a yeshiva where boys from Pinsk and the vicinity studied. Reb Yehuda Leib complained about the decline in the standing of the yeshiva and the level of studies, which had taken place in the second half of the 17th century, in comparison to the situation before the het v'tet  slaughters, when the Rabbi and Av Beit-Din had ensured that the yeshiva was full of students, rich and poor as one, and his only goal was to teach torah. In the words of Rabbi Yehuda Leib, in the 1670s and 1680s mostly wealthy boys were accepted to the yeshiva, whereas most of the poor boys were discriminated against and were obliged to quit their studies. Reb Yehuda Leib also expressed strong criticism of the system of dialectics (pilpul) and differences (hilukim) which was practiced at the yeshiva.
In this same period Pinsk was a seat of torah study, and there was a group of excellent scholars (talmidim hakhamim) in Pinsk. Study of Kabbalah, which was already popular at this time, was commonly accepted among the yeshiva students of Pinsk. The influence of Reb Yehuda Leib on this group was great. He demanded establishment of permanent batei midrash in every place, to support long-term torah students and to require each Jew to fix regular times for study of the Law (likboa itim l'torah). And indeed, then torah study became widespread and also reached the lower classes.
The Seat of the Rabbinate of Pinsk was at that time one of the most respected in Poland-Lithuania, and the greatest of rabbis served in it: Rabbi Naftali Hertz son of Yitzhak Isaac Ginzburg (in the years 1664-1670); Rabbi Israel son of Shmuel from Ternopol [Ternopil] (1667); Rabbi Moshe son of Israel Yaakov Isserles (1673-1689); Rabbi Yoel son of Yitzhak Yaakov Heilprin (1691); Rabbi Yitzhak Meir son of Yona Teumim Frankel (1693-1703); Rabbi Shaul son of Naftali Hertz Ginzburg (1703-1712). As mentioned above, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Pohovitzer was in Pinsk; he was among the greatest sermonizers of his generation. He was born in Pinsk; he lived from approximately 1630-1700. He served as Rabbi in several communities, returning to Pinsk about 1670, where he served as teacher and sermonizer (darshan u'mokhiah) for almost thirty more years.
|The grand synagogue of Pinsk
(Pinsk Yizkor book A/1)
In the first decade of the 18th century, Pinsk was markedly a Jewish city. In 1706, the year in which the Swedes invaded in the Northern War, and in its aftermath, the Christian population of Pinsk again declined, possibly having been hurt worse than the Jews. Many of the residents and estate owners escaped from the city and settled in nearby Karlin, which had been established in 1790 [sic (1690)] as a private municipal settlement.
In 1717 there were approximately 250-275 Jewish homes, in which about 300 families resided, which adds up to close to 1500 souls. Over the 18th century, until 1793, the Jewish population of Pinsk grew as follows:
The Jewish settlement in Karlin grew steadily throughout the first half of the 18th century at the expense of the mother community of Pinsk. In the 1740s the Jews of Karlin had their own synagogue, rabbi, judges, sextons and teachers. In 1751 the Jews of Karlin received a permit to build a separate cemetery and were actually separated from the mother community. The background to the departure was collection of the royal taxes and participation in repayment of the debts of the Pinsk community.
The community of Pinsk reacted strenuously over the separate organization of the Karlin Jews and in revenge began to attack the businessmen of Karlin on the roads. In response the Karlin community began an open revolt, and stopped paying taxes to the community of Pinsk. This quarrel reached legal arbitration, first of all before the community of Horodna which reached a severe verdict against the Karlin community. Only after the intervention of the starosta [royal representative] of Pinsk and the owner of Karlin, the nobleman Michael Brzostowski, did the communities of Pinsk and Karlin reach a compromise, which fixed the character of the relations between them. The Karlin community succeeded in achieving a large measure of autonomy and in greatly reducing its dependence on Pinsk. Karlin did promise to take part in repaying the debts of Pinsk and to pay through the Pinsk community the head tax and other levies as was accepted. Nonetheless, in judicial matters Karlin was granted almost full independence, in spite of Karlin's formal recognition of the supremacy of Pinsk's Rabbi and Av Beit-Din. In all other aspects, Karlin won its independence. It was granted a new letter of rights which confirmed its legal status by agreement. Soon afterward, Pinsk regretted this agreement with Karlin and claimed that the agreement was signed without the presence of the starosta, and under the duress of the nobleman-owner of Karlin, but unsuccessfully.
After the Lithuanian Council was terminated in 1794, Karlin stopped paying the head tax to the community of Pinsk, according to the new law. Pinsk regarded this as breach of contract and began restricting the Jews of Karlin in Pinsk in the realm of business, sales of homes, etc. The battle between the communities escalated and in the end, reached arbitration before the committee for the liquidation of the debts of the Jews. This committee was bewildered, and decided to transfer the conflict to the financial committee. Apparently, the conflict was not resolved to the satisfaction of Pinsk, and mutual feuds between the two communities persisted until the end of the 18th century.
From the outset of the 18th century, the subject of repayment of debts was a pressing problem in the lives of the Jews of Lithuania and in particular of Pinsk. Many claims were made against the main towns (Brisk, Horodna, Pinsk, Vilna and Slutsk) regarding failure to repay debts and taxes, and severe verdicts were reached in the tribunal of Lithuania. Many communities were unable to bear the heavy burden of taxes and fines, and their connection to their main cities loosened. Pinsk had already been in need of loans in the 1680s, and continued to require them in the 18th century. In the 1760s the community of Pinsk suffered from a heavy burden of debts, which added up to 309,140 zlotys.
Communities in the cities and private towns began to require the sponsorship of their masters the noblemen against the claims of the main cities. Concurrently, the trend of settlement on the private estates grew. To the fourteen settlements in the Pinsk region known to us by name until 1679, between 1679 and 1764 at least twelve new ones were established: Vynova; Lahishyn [52°20'/25°59']; Horodno [Gorodna, 51°52'/26°30']; Petrikov [Pyetrykaw, 52°08'/28°30']; Narovel [Narowlya, 51°48'/29°30']; Turovetz [Turovichi, 52°16'/29°17']; Slovechno [51°38'/29°84']; Ozorich [Ozarichi, 52°28'/29°16']; Lalachitz [Lyel'chytsy, 51°47'/28°20']; Kopitkevich [Kopatkevichi, 52°19'/28°49']; Mozir [Mazyr, 52°03'/29°16'], Rechytsa [51°51'/26°48']. Concurrently, the numbers of Jews residing in the villages of the region grew.
In 1817 the communities of northern Volhynia, which were under the auspices of Pinsk, organized and tried to relieve themselves of their dependence on the Pinsk community; however, this attempt was blocked by the Polish authorities. In 1725 the community of Ovruch tried to break free from the burden of Pinsk, but did not succeed. As 1750 approached, a feud broke out between the community of Pinsk and the Committee for Northern Volhyn over control of a number of communities in northern Volhyn (Ovruch, Barach, Olevsk, Ushomir and others). The community of Pinsk which was unable and unwilling to bear on its own the burden of repayment of the debts and to relinquish collection of the head tax from all the inhabitants of the region, opened a legal campaign and apparently succeeded, in legal proceedings, in receiving a verdict affirming its continued dominance of the communities of northern Volhynia. During the years 1763-5 there was an uprising in the region of all the communities against the dominance of the community of Pinsk. But the authorities continued to recognize the regional and national Jewish autonomy of the region, which had actually been revoked, because of the need to collect the debts, whose repayment was demanded by creditors, both ecclesiastical entities and private members of the nobility.
Of the economic life of the Jews of Pinsk one may learn from complaints lodged by the townspeople. Already at the beginning of the 18th century the part of the Christian townspeople in business and the trades declined. At the end of the 18th century there were 115 Christian skilled laborers, but the number of Jewish skilled laborers was much larger. Among them were metalsmiths, metalworkers, millers, bakers, lacemakers, tailors, furriers, and others.
In 1764 Pinsk businessmen and tradesmen paid the royal representative leases for 88 shops. Among them 75 were in the hands of Jews and only 13 in Christian hands. In 1788 60 Jews paid the leasing fees, while only 15 Christians did so.
During the 18th century Pinsk continued to play an important role in export and import. The improved means of transportation during the reign of the last Polish king, Stanislaw August Poniatowsky, and the digging of the canals which connected the Dneiper with the Neman River (the Auginsky Canal), and the Dneiper with the Bug and the Visla (the Royal Canal), placed Pinsk at the crossroads of two modern transportation networks. Beginning in the 1780s commerce of Pinsk developed rapidly. Merchants attended the fairs of Danzig (Gdansk), Koenigsberg [Kaliningrad], and Breslau.
Pinsk Jews also traded in cattle, which had been forbidden by law of the Sejm [Polish Parliament] from 1746. They succeeded in bypassing this prohibition by managing the trade under the sponsorship or in the name of monasteries or noblemen. There is no doubt that they were obliged to pay some of their income to their sponsors. In the 1760s and 1770s leasing of beverages and of commercial leasing of scales and manufacture of wax were in Jewish hands.
A close look at the amount of taxes paid by the communities of Lithuania as laid out in the records of the state demonstrates that the amounts of head tax paid in the Pinsk region declined in the first half of the 18th century (1713-1740) from 6650 zlotys to 2860, whereas the amounts paid in the regions of Brisk and Horodna remained more or less stable, apparently because of a decline in the total population [in the Pinsk region], or because of the worsening of economic conditions or both. In 1761 once again the amount of head tax paid by the Pinsk region increased and reached 3031 zlotys. In 1731 the relative part of the head tax of Pinsk, of the total paid by the Jews of Lithuania, was 6.6 percent.
In 1767 the annual income of the Pinsk Jewish community reached 37,500 zlotys which came from the following items: customs on salt, tobacco, salts, asphalt, tar and other commodities; a fee for tradesmen; a percentage of dowries; one third of the income of municipal flour mills, which were leased by the community; a tax on public houses, on kosher meat and on other commodities. From the list of the income of the starosta from 1778 one finds that the income came primarily from indirect taxes: krupky (korovkatax on meat) from merchants, krupky from purchase of meat, from the weekly sum (unit of customs), from etrogs, and other taxes.
Pinsk remained an important center of torah learning in the 18th century. The great rabbis of their generation continued to sit on the Rabbinate seat of the city. Until the appearance of Hassidism, the following served as Rabbi and Av Beit-Din [president of Rabbinical Court] in Pinsk: Rabbi Asher son of Shaul Ginzburg (in the years 1713-1737); Rabbi Yehuda Leib son of Asher Anzil from Pinczow (1737-1740), who previously sat in the rabbinates of Ostroh and Slutsk; Rabbi Israel Isserl son of Avraham, who came to serve as the Rabbi of Pinsk from the Rabbinate of Brisk before 1747 and who remained in Pinsk until 1762 or 1763. In 1753 Rabbi Israel Isserl joined in the boycott led by Rabbi Yaakov Emden against Rabbi Yehonatan Eybeschuetz. Rabbi Rafael son of Yekutiel Ziskind Hacohen (later known as Hamburger) served in the years 1763-1772. After he left Pinsk, Rabbi Rafael son of Yekutiel was accepted as Rabbi of Pozno [Poznan] and in 1776 he was called to become the Rabbi of three communities of AHW (Altona, Hamburg, and Wandsbek). In the period of his rabbinate, Hassidism began spreading in both Karlin and Pinsk.
Alongside the rabbis in Pinsk and Karlin was a large group of scholars of the Law, some of whom had compiled books on halakha [Jewish religious law] and discourses. The growth of the level of the scholars goes to show that torah studies were broadened and deepened according to the lines drawn at the end of the 17th century by Rabbi Yehuda Leib Pohovitzer and his circle. Apparently, in these circles Hassidism quickly and easily took root in Karlin and Pinsk, and some of its adherents became its propagandists and disseminators.
Hassidism became fortified in Karlin beginning with the 1760s and from there was dispersed all over Lithuania and Reisen. Rabbi Aharon from Karlin (1736-1772), the outstanding student of Rabbi Dov Ber the Maggid of Mezrich [Miedzyrzec], played a central role in the Hassidic revolution in Lithuania and in organizing the movement. Thanks to him Karlin was already important in the 1760s (during the Rabbinate of Rafael Hacohen), as one of the two leading centers of the Hassidic movement. When Rabbi Aharon died at the age of 36, his student and friend, Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin (1738-1791) inherited his position. He too was a disciple of the Maggid of Mezrich. When Rabbi Rafael Hacohen left Pinsk (in 1772), it is possible that the seat of the Rabbinate remained vacant for three years. In 1775 Rabbi Levi Yitzhak son of Meir was called to serve as Rabbi and Av Beit-Din of Pinsk. He was later known as Rabbi Levi Yitzhak from Berdichev [Berdychiv], student of the Maggid of Mezrich, and among the great leaders of Hassidism in the first generation. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak served as Rabbi of Pinsk until 1785.
A reexamination of the sources of knowledge about the part of Pinsk in the war declared by the Lithuanian communities against Hassidism led by Rabbi Eliahu son of Shlomo Zalmanthe Gaon from Vilnaleads to the following conclusions: (a) Rabbi Rafael Hacohen, Pinsk's Rabbi in the years 1763-72, in the period of rapid expansion of Hassidism, kept a neutral position with regard to Hassidism, and refrained from ostracizing it; (b) rereading of the letter from the Maggid of Mezrich to Rabbi Haim and Rabbi Eliezer Halevi, and information about Rabbi Eliezer Halevi in the book Shema Shlomo, reveal that Rabbi Eliezer was not only not an active Mitnaged, but he himself was a Hassid or close to Hassidism, at least until the early 1780s. From the letter one may not conclude that there was actual persecution of the Hassidim in Pinsk, in 1772, or before then; (c) Pinsk did not join the ostracism that Vilna [Vilnius] and other Lithuanian communities decreed against Hassidism in 1772; (d) from the fact that Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev was accepted as Av Beit-Din in Pinsk in 1775 or 1776, one may learn that there was a strong Hassidic influence among the leadership of the community and among the scholars. Indeed, at the Zelva fair in 1781, the leaders of the Pinsk community joined the ostracism of the Vilna community against Hassidism; however, the boycott of the Pinsk leadership is phrased in mild language and at that time, the standing of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak was not harmed. The attitude towards Rabbi Levi Yitzhak began to change only in 1784, as a result of heavy pressure from the Gaon of Vilna and the community of Vilna, who demanded that he be expelled from Pinsk, and that Rabbi Shlomo be expelled from Karlin. But even then Rabbi Levi Yitzhak was not immediately expelled, rather was allowed, in practice at least, to serve for another year and therefore to complete a term of ten years. Then Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin also left Karlin. The conclusion from this is that until the 1780s Pinsk like Karlin was a center of Hassidism in Lithuania. This explains why Pinsk did not join in the ostracism of 5532  against Hassidism, and also the acceptance of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak as Rabbi and Av Beit-Din of Pinsk.
The election of Avigdor son of Haim as Rabbi and Av Beit-Din in 1785, following the expulsion of Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev [Berdychiv], was enabled against the background of a temporary change in the balance of power between the Hassidim and the moderate Mitnagdim [the traditionalist Jews, who opposed the mysticism of the Hassidim], which removed the spiritual leadership from the Hassidim. The activity and pressure from the Committee to Liquidate the Debts of the Pinsk Community apparently determined the election of Rabbi Avigdor, who was willing to pay a large sum for the esteemed role of Rabbi of Pinsk (about 54,000 zlotys), a sum which was likely to bring relief to the financial condition of the community. The factors of personal greatness and learnedness were apparently of secondary importance in his selection. The years of his Rabbinate were years of great internal stress in the Pinsk community and in the villages of the region. His activity toward eradicating Hassidism in coordination with Vilna aroused the public against his leadership and brought about an awakening of the Hassidic camp, which was mostly in Pinsk and the towns of the region.
The annexation of Pinsk to Russia and the second partition of Poland in 1793 neutralized the support by the Polish authorities of Rabbi Avigdor and his Mitnaged [opponent of Hassidism] leadership, and enabled the Hassidim to take over the leadership of the community and to remove Rabbi Avigdor from his position. Rabbi Avigdor decided to fight back and in 1793, he appealed to the municipality to help him, and later, in the days of Catherine the Great [Catherine II of Russia], he began a campaign of lobbying the governor of Minsk, Nieplojew and also the General the Governor Tutolamin, in the years 1793-6; the height was in 1800. Then Rabbi Avigdor presented to Tsar Pavel 1st a letter of general slander against the community of Pinsk and against the entire camp of Hassidism. The head of the Hassidic community of Pinsk and the Hassids themselves also frequently appealed to the new Russian institutions.
The despotic regime of Tsar Pavel 1st and the last attempt of the Mitnagdim in Lithuania to thwart the Hassidic movement with the help of the Russian regime, brought about close cooperation between the Mitnagdim and Rabbi Avigdor. After the slander of the Mitnagdim against Rabbi Schneor Zalman from Lyady, and other Hassidic leaders, was rejected, the only means open to them was presenting a personal complaint by a private person fighting for reparation of a personal injustice. Rabbi Avigdor took this task upon himself, and he began the final and most extreme stage of his war against the community of Pinsk and the entire Hassidic camp. In his slanderous letter against the leadership of the Pinsk community, and in particular against Rabbi Shneor Zalman and Hassidism in general, Rabbi Avigdor mixed financial matters with matters pertaining to religion and faith, while making claims and slanders against the Hassidim. These were intended to present the Hassidim as opposing the existing order and authority and as potential rebels. The investigation which was opened as a result of this letter did not fulfill the expectations of Rabbi Avigdor and the Mitnagdim, and ended without real results, although the Russian authorities used his claims against the Hassidim when they began planning new policy toward the Jews and after the assassination of Tsar Pavel [Tsar Pavel I Petrovich Romanov, assassinated March 24, 1801], which policy aimed to reduce their rights and to narrow their abilities to exist and to develop.
After Rabbi Avigdor was deposed from the Rabbinate and the Hassidim took over the leadership, Rabbi Shaul, who already in his youth was a central figure in Karlin and a confirmed Mitnaged, brought about the renewed separation of Karlin from Pinsk. In Karlin there began to be concentrated Mitnagdim from the among the well-to-do, and talmidim hakhamim [religious scholars]; and gradually Karlin acquired the character of a Mitnaged community. This development may explain why the return of the head of Hassidism in Karlin, Rabbi Asher son of Aharon the Great, was delayed. He returned from Stolin to Karlin only after 1810, following the pacification and the end of the struggle between the Hassidim and the Mitnagdim, following enactment of the law of 1804, which enforced a common communal leadership on both camps.
In the travel journal kept by Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz of his visit in the region of Pinsk, the demographical and economic situation is described as depressing and miserable. The Polish writer did not find signs of anything in the city to highlight, of industry or trades, of commerce or wealth. The city only maintained its hold on the trade of salt. According to his estimation, Pinsk then had about 3220 souls, of them about 3000 Jews.
Between the years 1819-1829 massive development took place in the economic life of Pinsk's Jews. One may learn this from the descriptions in the travel journal of Kazimierz Kontrym, who traveled through the region of Polesie in 1829 as an emissary of the Bank of Poland. From his description comes an encouraging picture of commercial activity, especially in transport of logs for export. However, in his words, most of the tradesmen were poor and without capital, and the number of well-to-do among them was small. The central figure in the economic life of the Jews of Pinsk-Karlin was Rabbi Shaul Levin, who managed estates, dealt in commerce and with salt and lumber, and was even involved in industry. He had amassed much property and was considered very wealthy. Also his daughter, Haia Lurie, in the first two decades of the 19th century, achieved economic stability and wealth.
His talents, his connections, his studiousness and his wealth raised Rabbi Shaul Levin to roles of leadership in Karlin and in Pinsk, and, after the tensions between the Hassidim and Mitnagdim abated following 1804among the Jewish public in all of Russia. He built batei midrash and charitable institutions and contributed to charities in Karlin and in Pinsk. Rabbi Shaul served as advisor to Jewish communities and towns in the vicinity of Pinsk. His connections among the authorities, men of authority, and the nobility enabled him to represent the business of Pinsk and Karlin before the authorities and at internal consultations of the communities of Russia during the first and second decades of the 19th century. In the 1820s Rabbi Shaul Levin played a major role in helping the young perushi-mitnagdi settlement in the Land of Israel, and to his credit Pinsk was second only to Vilna in raising contributions and sending them to the Land of Israel. In his final years Rabbi Shaul took under his sponsorship Rabbi Yitzhak Ber Levinzon ([whose acronym is] Rival), among the first standard bearers of the Enlightenment in Russia.
During the 19th century the Jewish population of Pinsk grew considerably. Under Russian domination the general population of Pinsk grew five- or six-fold. The rate of growth was especially great in the second half of the 19th century, but Pinsk maintained its distinction as a Jewish city, and the percentage of Jews residing there remained between seventy-five and eighty-three percent.
The Russian government as a matter of fact equalized the status of the Jews with the status of the other city residents, and governmental and judicial authority over them was transferred to the municipalities. As a result of the new administrative division at the initiative of the Russian authorities, Minsk rose in importance and Pinsk lost its status as a main town, but as a regional capital it maintained its status as the authority over the communities in its region: Lubishov, Stolin, Lahyshin, Pohost [Pogost-Zagorodskiy], Livchin, Pohost Zazechni (beyond the river), and Horodna.
Following the law of 1844 the government cancelled the community leadership (kahal). The leadership of the community continued to exist while adjusting to the new legal reality. In the position of tax collector was concentrated much of the authority of the kahal, and the holder of this position, in addition to collecting taxes, collected the tax on kosher meat and candles, the korovka; recruited new soldiers; and dealt in public matters. Some of the traditional functions of the community leadership were transferred to charitable institutions. The wealthy of Pinsk-Karlin used to contribute to the common needs; therefore there was no lapse in payment of taxes by the poor. In the 1860s there was somewhat of an awakening of the activities of the kahal. The learned writer Tzvi Hacohen Sharshevski was then named the writer of the kahal, and acted in the name of the Pinsk Jewish community in matters of public interest.
In the 1820s and the early 1830s systematic repair of the means of transportation was carried out by the Russians, in order to promote development of industry and trade. Repair of the Dneiper-Pripyet canal turned Pinsk into a central transit port for export of surplus products of southwestern Russia to the ports of the Baltic Sea, and for import of goods in the opposite direction. In the hands of a few merchants of Pinsk-Karlin (especially the Levin and Lurie families) there was the necessary capital, the initiative and the talent to properly organize the purchase of the surplus goods in southwest Russia, their transport and their marketing. The monetary value of the export from Ukraine and the import from the West passing through Pinsk in the years 1855-1857 reached approximately fifteen million rubles. The merchants of Pinsk played a central role in this commerce. In addition to the major merchants, medium-sized and small businessmen were also involved in this trade. Growing rich was a common phenomenon, and the upper class grew. At that time the Levin and Lurie families became extremely wealthy. The merchants utilized agents (commissioners), most of them from Pinsk, who were attached to the markets all over Ukraine where the products were purchased. At the same time the internal trade in Pinsk also consolidated and the number of shop owners also grew steadily; in 1860 the number of shops owned by Jews was 244, whereas the number of shops owned by non-Jews was only six.
|The Landlady Chaja Lurie
(Pinsk Yizkor book A/1)
The economic prosperity of Pinsk reached its highest point in the 1850s. In the 1860s there began to be signs of crisis as a result of the railway, which bypassed Pinsk. At that time many of the Jews of Pinsk began migrating to Ukraine, which had developed quickly. In the 1870s a crisis hit Pinsk, which declined from its greatness, as the train began to replace boats in transport of goods for export from Ukraine. Throughout the 19th century trade in lumber and occupations related to dealing with forests remained an important part of the income of Pinsk's Jews. Trade in lumber was hurt less from the economic crisis. A limited awakening of industry in Pinsk was felt only in the 1860s and 1870s. The pioneer of modern industry in Pinsk was Moshe Lurie, who in 1860 established an oil factory and a flour mill, both run by steam power. In 1872 the stearin candle factory built by the Botta family from Germany transferred to Jewish hands.
In this period most of the branches of skilled labor were also concentrated in the hands of Jews. The commerce and products of the craftsmen of Pinsk well withstood the competition in the markets of the region of Minsk. There was specialization in some trades (for instance, clock making). In Pinsk in the 1860s and 70s, under the leadership of Gad Asher Levin, there was activity to encourage learning of skills by teenage boys. In Pinsk were excellent master craftsmen who fostered good artisans. In 1855 fifteen families settled in the village of Ivaniki near Pinsk, with the active assistance of Zeev Wolf son of Shaul Levin. The settlers were exempt from taxes and from serving in the army. Supposedly they dealt with agriculture, but in fact they engaged primarily in urban occupations.
During the years of the economic crisis of the 1870s, there was a broad spectrum of unemployed and people without means. Many were in need of economic assistance, and the community leaders began promoting productivity through skilled labor and industry.
Between the end of the 1820s and the beginning of the 1830s, the Enlightenment (haskalah) began to rise as a public force. Already in the 1830s Pinsk-Karlin of the homeowners and the serious scholars was tolerant and open to new ideas of the moderate Enlightenment, as preached to them by Yitzhak Ber Levinzon (Rival) [his acronym]. In Pinsk there were brilliant students who studiously read Mendelsohn and the books of Rabbinical discourse (dikduk) and research of learned men from Berlin. In the 1830s Reuven Holdhor wrote his apologetic book Words of Peace and Truth in Hebrew and Russian. The ideas of the Enlightenment were discussed in the Rabbis' studies and in the batei midrash and the students of the batei midrash acquired knowledge either on their own or with the help of other learned men. The turning point of the status of the Enlightenment took place in the mid-nineteenth century. In the 1860s there was already a large group who openly identified with the ideas of the Enlightenment. This identification was expressed in the willingness to learn Hebrew, Russian and other languages in an orderly manner, and in attempts to reform the methods of education in the schools and reformed religious schools (talmudei torah metukanim). There were residents of the city who through their work were fluent in Russian: licensed lawyers, agents and lobbyists who had contacts with the authorities, clerks who worked for the local and district police, writers of requests to the authorities, and others. Their manners, their dress, their lifestyle and the education they gave their children all strengthened the enlightened educated people in Pinsk.
A larger group of self-taught enlightened men from among the ranks of the talmidim hakhamim preached a moderate Hebrew Enlightenment. Among this group belong some of the writers of the Enlightenment period (Shmuel Aharon Shatzkes, Avraham Dov Dubzevich, Zvi Hirsh Hacohen Sharshevski, Avraham Haim Rozenberg, Nahum Meir Shaikevich-Shamar and others). In this period many articles were sent from Pinsk to the Hebrew press. In these articles the trend towards moderate Hebrew Enlightenment dominated. Only a few adopted the trend towards Russification.
The wealthy people of Pinsk hired excellent private teachers and tutors who taught their sons secular studies alongside the religious ones. Among these sons came pioneers of modernization of economic life in Pinsk: in management styles, in introduction of steam ships and in establishment of the first industrial plants, where machinery was run by steam power.
A state school for Jewish children was established in 1853, in the framework of the Russian policy of reforming the status of the Jews of Russia. Although establishment of the school was received with hostility, there was no preventing its opening. Until end of the 1850s, there were between 28 and 33 pupils, mostly orphans and poor children. The principal was a Russian Christian. In the 1860s changes were made in the educational policy of the authorities, along with cessation of the coercion to maintain schools. The Russian Society for the Promotion of the Enlightenment, which had several members in Pinsk, began to support the institution with the help of educated people of the city. The school continued to exist at least until 1891. In 1873 the official Rabbi Avraham Haim Rozenberg founded a private school in which pupils studied secular studies in Russian, but its general tendency was religious-traditional and therefore it won the approval of the general public. Beginning at the end of the 1850s, Jews began studying at the Russian gymnasium. In the 1860s Jewish pupils began going there of their own volition. By the end of the 1870s approximately 70 Jewish pupils studied there (about 35% of the student body).
In 1862 in Pinsk and Karlin two talmudei torah schools were established, with the active assistance of the Rabbis of Pinsk and Karlin. Alongside the traditional system of education, they taught Russian and mathematics, composition and grammar. In the Pinsk talmud torah there were difficulties in implementing the curriculum because of the opposition of some of the ultra-orthodox, who controlled the management of the school and ran it until 1876. At that time its condition was poor. In the Karlin talmud torah, from the beginning there was proper order, and the planned educational program was achieved. Even the supporters of the Enlightenment saw in it a model for the education of the children of Israel. The budget was primarily funded by contributions, and the remainder by tuition. After 1876 action was taken to improve the conditions at the Pinsk talmud torah, in accordance with the model of Karlin. These institutions included traditional teachers among their staff. The traditional heder as a place of learning was on the wane from the 1860s, but the lower classes continued to entrust the education of their sons to traditional teachers [melamedim]. In the second half of the 19th century, Lithuanian melamedim and teachers were drawn to Pinsk. In the haderim the students also caught some of the spirit of the times, and changes were made in the framework of the haderim as well.
During the 19th century the number of traditional societies grew. The good, stable economic conditions and the generosity of many of the residents created a material basis for the activity of the societies and many of them built beautiful institutions and buildings. In Pinsk the following societies were active: the old Hevra Kadisha [burial society] and next to it a small society of charity for burial expenses; Bikur Holim [aid to the sick]; and Linat Tzedek [a roof for the homeless--at the end of the 19th century]. As to torah studies, in Pinsk was the Society for the Talmud Torah, which was founded a the beginning of the 19th century. At the end of the century the following could be found in Pinsk: a Shas society, a society for mishnayot [Mishna - collection of Oral Laws], Ein Yaakov, a psalms society and a society of morning watchmen. Likewise there were two charities [gamahim] which gave interest-free loans at the end of the century.
In Karlin there were the following: the burial society (Hevra Kadisha) which had been formed in the 1780s and next to it a small charity for burial expenses; and a Shas [Mishna or Talmud] society, which had existed between 1832-1842. In 1874 a new Shas society was established at the great synagogue; two loan charities [gamahim]; the somekh noflim to support people whose source of income was destroyed (founded in 1875); and bikur holim. A small hospital had existed in Pinsk before 1862. In 1868 a new and roomy hospital was built from the behest of Betzalel son of Tzemah Flores. This hospital excelled in its hygiene, order, and in the high level of its medical care. Nearby was established an old-age home and a visitors' (hakhnassat orhim Welcoming Guests) building. In Karlin in 1857 a modern hospital was built with the generosity of wealthy contributors.
According to statistics, in Pinsk in 1854 there were officially two synagogues and twelve batei-midrash. Actually the numbers were higher. In 1857 in Karlin itself there were twelve synagogues for Mitnagdim and two for Hassidim. Towards the end of the 19th century the number of Mitnagdim houses of prayer in Pinsk grew (including the Great Synagogue) to fifteen; the Hassidim had two houses of prayer. In Karlin the Mitnagdim had thirteen houses of prayer and the Hassidim also had two. Altogether in Pinsk and Karlin there were thirty-two houses of prayer. The number of Hassidic synagogues bears witness to the decline in the relative strength of Hassidism.
In 1807 Rabbi Haim ben Peretz Hacohen became the Chief Rabbi of Pinsk. Rabbi Haim held this position until his aliya to Israel in 1826. Apparently he was accepted by both the Mitnagdim and the Hassidim. After his aliya, the sermonizer (maggid) Rabbi Yosef ben Benjamin took his place. In approximately 1840 the Rabbi and Av Beit-Din from Kretinga, Rabbi Aharon was chosen as Av Beit-Din and Chief Rabbi. He was the author of the book Tosefet Aharon. He died suddenly in 1841. Following his death the seat of the Chief Rabbi remained empty for three years. In 1844 Rabbi Mordekhai Zakheim of Rozhnoy [Ruzhany] was named Av Beit-Din and Rabbi of Pinsk, a position he held until his death in 1858. In 1860 Rabbi Elazar Moshe Horowitz was elected, the Rabbi from Monastyrshchina [in Russia], and he held the position of Av Beit-Din and Chief Rabbi until his death in 1890. In the manner of his leadership and in the way he dealt with problems of the time, he was beloved of his people and much honored. The first part of his book Ohel Moshe, which includes interpretations of the torah, was published at the end of his life. The second part, which includes questions and answers, was published by his descendants in Jerusalem in 1968.
From the 1820s the greatest torah scholars of Russia sat on the seat of the Karlin Rabbinate, which surpassed the Pinsk Rabbinate in importance. In the first and second decades of the 19th century Rabbi Shmuel ben Arieh Leib from Pinsk served as the Av Beit-Din of Karlin and Antopol. Between 1824 and 1844 Rabbi Yaakov ben Aharon Brukhin served as Rabbi and Av Beit-Din of Karlin. He was a native of Minsk who had previously served as Rabbi and Av Beit-Din of David Gorodok. Rabbi Yaakov Brukhin was the author of the books Mishkenot Yaakov and Kehilat Yaakov. After his death his brother Rabbi Yitzhak ben Aharon Minkovski was chosen as Rabbi of Karlin. He was the author of the book Keren Orah. Rabbi Yitzhak served in Pinsk until his death in 1851. Between the years 1855-1866 the Chief Rabbi of Karlin was Shmuel Avigdor Tosafist. His most important work was the interpretation of the tosefist Tanna Tosafist, which had already been published before his arrival in Karlin. After his death Rabbi David Friedman was chosen as the Chief Rabbi of Karlin, and he served in this capacity until 1915.
In the first quarter of the 19th century the Hassidim maintained their relative strength, but actually matters developed against the Hassidic camp, which apparently lost its attraction and remained stable in an era of great demographic growth. The many talmidim hakhamim [scholars of the Law] in Pinsk and Karlin no longer found interest in Hassidism. The economic prosperity of the city and the Enlightenment distanced the hearts of the people from Hassidism. Pinsk and Karlin became communities of Mitnagdim. However against the background of the ascent of the Enlightenment, the victory of the Mitnagdim had limited influence on the cultural and social character of Pinsk and Karlin.
Because of the congenial geographic situation of the city, in the period between the end of the 19th century and World War I, the city became not only a commercial center, but also an industrial center, and as a result also a city of laborers, many of whom were Jewish. Many of these blue-collar workers were employed in the industries owned by Jews.
In spite of the fact that in the 1897 census the Jews comprised 74.2% of the population, and that in 1914 their relative proportion was 72.5%, the local government was not in the hands of the Jews. The Jewish representation in the city council declined until there remained only two Jewish councilmen, and these both resigned in 1905. From 1905 until the First World War there were no Jewish representatives in the city council. A Jewish communal organization (kahal) did not exist, as this was prohibited by law. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th there were charitable institutions which received official recognition and which were allowed to own public property.
A special function in the community life was filled by the appointed official Rabbi, who intervened between the authorities and the public, and maintained the metrika lists (of births in the community). The indirect tax on kosher meat (the korovka) was conveyed on lease, and the income from this tax financed a large part of the charitable and educational institutions of the Jews of Pinsk. In 1887 a quota was introduced which limited the Jewish students at the State Reali Gymnasium [high school for math and sciences] to ten percent, in contrast to thirty-five percent previously. A temporary law of 1882, which forbade Jewish residence in villages, also brought hardship for the Jews; it was especially difficult during the years 1910-2, when all of the Jews were banished from the villages.
An economic crisis in Pinsk, which began in the 1870s, worsened in the 1880s and continued during the 1890s. The slow recovery from the crisis came about because of the initiative of Jews toward industrialization. In the 1880s Moshe Lurie and his sons established a plant for production of wooden nails and a large sawmill whose output was for export. In the mid-1890s they established the lumber factory, whose products also were intended for export. In 1897 Yosef Heilpern purchased a small factory for matches and enlarged it significantly. By the end of the 19th century, additional industrial plants were established, most of them small in size. The raw material for these industries was wood, which was abundant in Polesie. In 1898 there were twenty-seven industrial plants in Pinsk, employing 1375 workers. In 1902 there were twenty-seven industries, employing approximately 4000 workers, half of them Jewish. A Jewish proletariat was created in Pinsk.
An important part of the economy of Pinsk was based upon forests and lumber. Mostly wealthy merchants dealt in this business, hiring Jewish workers to oversee the cutting down of trees in the forests, to measure them and to expedite them to their destinations, primarily on rafts which traveled along the rivers. Pinsk was a center for this trade.
Gradually modern banks, which numbered six in 1914, replaced the private money lenders. In the city there were approximately 2000 skilled workers, who engaged in a wide spectrum of occupations. The carpenters of furniture and tailors of women's clothing were renowned for their excellent products.
There were also Jewish wagoners and porters. In this period there were added printers, typesetters, bookbinders and wallpaper hangers. There were also Jews who made their living from fruit and vegetable gardens.
The connection of Pinsk in 1887 to the railway lines eventually was beneficial to the local economy. Pinsk became a wholesale commercial center, serving the towns and villages of the district. At this time transport of goods by a combination of rail and water was introduced. Thus new opportunities arose which renewed the trade which had bypassed Pinsk. Marketing of the agricultural and industrial produce of Pinsk provided income to many residents of the city.
Beginning in the 1880s there began to be political organizations. Hovevei Zion [Lovers of Zion] was founded in Pinsk in 1882, with the establishment of Hibat Zion [Love of Zion] in Russia. Members of the intelligentsia, people who tended toward the Enlightenment and also religious people belonged to this organization. The Rabbi of Karlin, Rabbi David Friedman, also joined Hovevei Zion, and he participated in the convention which took place in Katowice in 1884, but soon afterwards he left the organization because of arguments over religious matters. A native of Pinsk, Yaakov Shertok, father of Moshe Sharet, joined the Biluim and immigrated with them to Israel. Among the immigrants from Pinsk was also Aharon Eisenberg, a founder of Rehovot [Israel]. With the founding of Bnei Moshe [Sons of Moshe] led by Ehad Ha'am, a branch of this organization was founded in Pinsk under the name Zrubavel. In 1890 with the establishment in Odessa of The Society for Support to Farmers in Syria and in Eretz-Israel, many members of Hovevei Zion in Pinsk joined the Society. Two representatives from Pinsk, Yehuda Leib Berger and Grigory Lurie, attended the First Zionist Congress which was held in Basel [Switzerland] in 1897. Among the lower classes, too, there was identification with the Zionist idea, and often they contributed for the purchase of land and the support of the renewed Jewish community in Eretz Israel, and for the Keren Kayemet [Jewish National Fund] after its establishment. The Zionists of Pinsk were very active purchasers of shares in the Colonial Bank (Otzar Hityashvut Hayehudim), which had been initiated by [Theodore] Herzl. The city was a center for the distribution of the bank's shares in Russia. In 1903 the following were founded: Bnei Zion, Bnot Zion and Shoresh Zion. Also there were new branches of Mizrahi and Poalei Zion. The strenuous stand of Chaim Weizmann against the Uganda plan, influenced the Jews of Pinsk and the region, most of whom joined in opposing the plan. The Socialist Zionists, who were territorialists, became a serious public force only after the Revolution of 1905.
To the credit of the Hovevei Zion in Pinsk is the establishment of the heder metukan [reformed religious school] in 1895, and soon thereafter, the system of teaching Hebrew in Hebrew in these haderim. These haderim served as an example for other cities, in which the system of haderim metukanim had also been introduced.
A small group of revolutionary young people had already existed in Pinsk in the early 1880s. The industrialization of the city, as we have already mentioned, brought about the creation of the proletariat. At first young Jews joined the Social Democrats (SD) or the Social Revolutionary (SR) Party. After the founding of the Bund Party in 1897, young people and blue-collar workers joined it, and by 1899 there was an active branch in the town which introduced propaganda activities and organizing among youth and workers. That same year the first strike of Jewish workers broke out in the tobacco factory and in 1901 there was a strike in the match factory. The justification for the strike was the demand to shorten the work day from twelve to eleven hours. The numbers of those joining the Bund in 1901 and 1902 were especially large. The Bund disseminated vigorous propaganda against the religious and the Zionists, and there was a rift among the radical Zionist youth, some of whom transferred to Poalei Zion. In 1903 there was a public debate (illegal) between the radical Chaim Weizmann and Rubenchik from Poalei Zion, on the one hand, and the talented propagandist Kolia Tepper, emissary from the Bund center to Pinsk. The police followed the activities of the Bund, and they planted the agent provocateur Arnatzki who was brought from outside Pinsk. This led to the imprisonment of many members. When his provocations were discovered, a death sentence was set on his head, and he was murdered in October 1903. As a result of this murder, many Bund members were arrested, and three of them were sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Others were put under police supervision. In 1904 a person who had been suspected of betrayal, but without real evidence, Bund member Aharon David Pruhodnik, was also murdered. Because of the persecutions and the provocations the power of the organization was diminished, but at the end of 1904, with the growth of the revolutionary activity in all of Russia, there was renewed activity of the Bund, and the youth movement Yunger Bund was formed. In 1903 a Poalei Zion branch was founded, and it grew very much in the year of the decline of the Bund. When in Russia in 1905 the Zionist Socialist Party was founded, (which had a territorialist ideology), the Poalei Zion group joined it.
At the time of the 1905 revolution, the Bund and Poalei Zion agitated the city with economic and political demonstrations, and there were some clashes with the police. In order to make order in the town, Cossack units were brought in. Those suspected of revolutionary activity were arrested and brutally tortured. At the same time an anti-Semitic Russian monarchist group preached attacking the Jews. The Bund and Poalei Zion decided to organize self-defense groups. Apparently this became known, and the peasants of the vicinity of Pinsk were not enthusiastic about being drawn into the incitement; it is possible that they feared the reaction of the Jewish self-defense activities, and the city was spared pogroms. In contrast, the strikes which broke out that year were accompanied by violencebetween Jewish revolutionaries and the police and the armyand on July 24th, in one of the clashes, Hershl Stern was killed and others were wounded. On August 2nd, Socialist Revolutionary Party member Melekh Dolinko died from a bomb he had planned to throw at the Chief of Police. In the second half of September, two policemen were killed; one in revenge for the cruelty to the prisoners, and the other, in revenge for Hershl Stern. The Chief of Police demanded that the leaders of the Jewish community rein in the young peopleor else he will put an end to the Jews.
In spite of the tensions, the Zionist organizations in Pinsk continued their activity. Before the seventh Zionist Congress, there was lively propaganda in the city for and against the Uganda plan. Zionei Zion [Zionists of Zion] sold 600 shekels [sic] and Poalei Zion the territorialists sold 400 shekels. A new youth group named Hat'hia [the Renewal] was founded (and did not last long).
Following the failure of the 1905 revolution, police oppression grew. There began a manhunt for revolutionary activists, which was accompanied by raids and many arrests. A curfew was imposed at night, and all meetings, lectures, and shows were forbidden. The incitement to attack the Jews was renewed, and in response, once again, self-defense units were established. The economic conditions of the city worsened and the number of poor grew. The Zionist movement was outlawed, yet its activity, which was carried out in secret, could be felt. At the initiative of the Zionists a modern school for girls was established, in the spirit of national Zionism. In 1911 active Zionists were liable to be sent to lengthy exile in Arkhangel'sk; they were redeemed only thanks to the lobbying of Jewish leaders in Peterburg. In about 1910 a branch of the Borochov Poalei Zion party was founded. The Zionist Socialists also continued their activity. The Bund shrunk and lost almost all of its influence. Only just before the outbreak of World War One did the conditions of the workers improve. The work day was set at nine hours, and the workers were given medical insurance in medical funds for workers.
In the 1880s there were three schools for girls. Only one of themthe school managed by E. Valerwas a school for Jewish girls (it closed in 1912). In 1891 another school was founded by the Luvzovski sisters. This school developed and became a gymnasia for girls. These two girls' schools received annual support from the korovka tax. In 1912, at the initiative of the Jewish Women's Charity, a school was established for disadvantaged girls, who were unable to pay the high tuition required at the other schools. This school, which was known as Leah Feigele's schula, taught in the spirit of nationalist-Zionism, and many weekly hours were dedicated to Hebrew lessons. In 1911, 250 pupils studied there.
Jewish girls and boys both were educated at the State Gymnasia Realit. In 1882 there were 201 pupils, among them seventy-five Jews (34.8%). In 1887 a quota was initiated for Jewish students, and their number was reduced to 10%. In 1896 only twenty-five Jews studied at this school.
In the talmud torah school, founded in 1862, there were approximately 200 pupils in 1895. It had seven classes, and in addition to religious studies, there were also classes in Hebrew and Hebrew grammar, Russian, letter writing and mathematics. Later two more classes were added to the talmud torah, and the general studies were broadened. The institution received official recognition from the government, and enjoyed the trust of the Jewish public. The students were mostly poor children and orphans. Most of its expenses were funded by the korovka tax and by contributions from philanthropists. In the beginning Rabbi Elazar Moshe Horwitz (who died in 1890) and his son-in-law Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein supervised the studies. After World War I the supervisors were Rabbis David Rabinski and Shmuel Rosenzweig.
In the Karlin talmud torah, which was founded in 1862 and was open for many years, there were about 200 pupils in 1887. There were eight classes, and from the time of its foundation, secular as well as religious studies were taught there. This institution also gained official recognition, beginning in 1881. The Rabbi of Karlin, Rabbi David Friedman, supervised the curriculum and took part in testing the students. The financial condition of this school was good, thanks to a regular portion of the korovka and philanthropists' support. Next to the talmud torah of Karlin, in 1885 a school for technical studies was established, supported by the korovka and ORT.
In the more traditional haderim in 1903, there were 1001 pupils (approximately 40% of the boys), studying with some sixty melamdim. A few of these melamdim were excellent pedagogues The most famous of these was Hirsh Zilberman from Slutsk, who accepted only eight pupils in his heder, among them the very best, in order to teach them talmud.
At the initiative of the Zrubavel office, Bnei Moshe and Chaim Weizman, in 1895 the first heder metukan was founded. This heder of Pinsk had a favorable reputation in other Jewish centers in Russia. In 1897 there were already three classes. Each year a new class was added, at the next grade. Studies took place in the homes of the teachers. In this school there was a staff of teachers who worked in close cooperation. In 1900 the system of learning Hebrew in Hebrew was initiated in the heder metukan, and this system spread to other haderim metukanim, and thus Hebrew became the language of study. The heder metukan provoked resistance by the melamdim; however, its methods and its curriculum influenced other, more traditional haderim.
At the turning point of the 1880s and 1890s, as a result of the revival of Hebrew as the language spoken in Israel, the establishment of societies for spoken Hebrew, and lectures given in Hebrew in other cities, in Pinsk too there was an awakening among the nationalist groups to renew Hebrew as a spoken language. In 1890 a society named Safa Brura [Clear Language] was founded, with sixty-five members. The members of the group met regularly every Saturday, listened to lectures in Hebrew, and spoke Hebrew among themselves. From the notebook of this society, which survived, we learn that this society existed in an organized manner for three years.
Also in this time period there was varied activity in the field of charitable contributions, gmilut hassadim [interest-free loans], and also mutual help through traditional societies and modern charities. In the years 1882 and 1887 two charitable funds (gamahim) were founded to give interest-free loans to the poor. In the same period three societies were formed which dealt in anonymous giving: Tomekh Ani'im [support for poor people], Agudat Ahim [Society of Brothers], and Maskil el Dal [free education for the poor]. In 1885 near the hospital was established Hakhnasat Orhim [Welcoming Guests]. In 1891 a soup kitchen was founded, which provided inexpensive meals for the poor. In 1900 The Jewish Charitable Society was established, which sought to unite all of the local charities, and the Jewish Women's Charitable Society, which helped women giving birth and poor sick women. The society founded the girls' technical school.
Also at this time the following were established: the Firefighters' Association; the skilled workers' society; the shoemakers' society, Shoe Seamers, which assisted old and weak shoemakers and other leather workers; and other professional associations. The principal task of these associations was to offer help to their members. These associations received budgets from the korovka. From these associations, after the 1905 revolution, came professional associations.
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