by Borukh Kaplinsky (Tel Aviv)
Translated by Janie Respitz
On the unending plains of White Russia, between Slonim and Novogrudek, in the heart of the district marked by the Nieman and Tchare rivers, lay our town: Zhetl.
Zhetl was not an administrative centre, not a business centre, nor a communications centre and of course not an industrial centre. However, it was a small Jewish centre for three thousand Jewish people.
The three thousand Zhetl Jews earned their meagre living through handiwork and business with the agricultural Christian hinterland, for about 4 ½ centuries.
Despite the economic hardships and the geographic seclusion a lively enterprising spirit pulsated through the community. Zhetl did not miss out on the general and Jewish new political orientations that were emerging. Every new ideology found its supporters and activists. Among the population there were religious zealots, ingenious scholars, orthodox enlighteners, passionate revolutionaries, devoted Zionists, and when adversity demanded heroic partisans. This existed for 18 generations.
Jews prospered spiritually, but vegetated materially, and founded a community of three thousand Jews with many philanthropic and self help institutions.
As in all Jewish towns and cities Zhetl also had communal activities accompanied by friction and division. There was a time when the town was divided in two camps: artisans and proprietors. Later these two side were called: Zionists and Yiddishists. Sometimes the fight was about a doctor, sometimes a school and sometimes idealistic. However in the unending struggle for material existence and social matters Zhetl Jews displayed a lot of heart and love and solidarity towards fellow Jews.
Lack of Sources
Unfortunately it is not easy for us to describe 18 generations of Zhetl Jewry. Forgetfulness, destruction and the Iron Curtain prevent us from reconstructing the societal life structure which Zhetl Jewry built over the generations.
Many events of the Zhetl Jewish community are recorded in the record books of the Burial Society and the Interest Free Loan Society, but fires and wars destroyed these records. Perhaps the character of the Jews is described in the parish records of the Zhetl Catholic Church and the Zhetl Orthodox Church but the Iron Curtain separates us from both.
Many events were never even recorded. Obviously the history of the Zhetl Jewish community would be enriched if we could see the tombstones at the cemetery.
Unfortunately the majority of sources on the history of Zhetl Jews has been lost or is locked up. We will just have to get a taste through leftovers, crumbs, and small pieces which we have collected in Israel and North America over the last two years.
From these pieces we will attempt to draw a picture of the Jewish community in Zhetl on the backdrop of its general history.
The Founding of Zhetl
This was 458 years ago, the 6th of June 1498. Duke Konstantin Ostrogsky received the right from the Lithuanian Grand Duke Alexander Yogelonchik to found a city on the Zdzietyl estates. Duke Konstantin Ostrogsky, of Belorussian descent and an Orthodox Christian just returned from many years in captivity after the defeat in the war against Moscow. He received this right in recognition of his suffering in captivity.
Later privileges were granted in: 1507, 1509, and 1514 which confirmed the rights of Duke Ostrogsky on the Zdietyl estates, freed him from taxes and allowed him to deal freely on the Nieman.
This is how the history of the Zdzietyl court began and later became a (Shtetl) small town.
Unfortunately we do not have documents about the beginning of Jewish settlement in Zhetl, but one thing is clear. When Zhetl was founded there were no Jews in Lithuania. Three years earlier, in 1495, this same Duke Alexander expelled the Jews from Lithuania.
Only in 1505 did they return and until this time there were no Jews in Zhetl. From where did the Jews come to Zhetl?
Perhaps from the three large Lithuanian cities: Brisk, Grodno and Trak, perhaps from surrounding towns, or from east and west like all other Lithuanian Jews. At this opportunity here are a few words about Lithuanian Jews.
When Did Jews Arrive in Lithuania?
According to all probabilities Jews came to Lithuania in the 14th century. The tolerant Lithuanian ruler Gediminas (13161341) expanded the borders of Lithuania until the Nieman and Bug. He gladly took over foreign lands including their Jews. Gediminas' grandson Vitold (1386 1430) displayed a tolerant attitude toward the Jews. Thanks to the liberal attitude of both these Lithuanian rulers three large Jewish communities were founded in: Brisk, Grodno and Trak.
The Settlement of Jews in Lithuania
Not only the rulers, but the local population had a milder attitude toward the Jews than in other countries. There were many reasons for this. Firstly, until the second half of the 14th century the Lithuanians were pagans and had no notion of antisemitism. Secondly, later Lithuanian Catholicism was far from fanatic. The main point is: the peasant population of Lithuania needed an intermediary element. The Jews fulfilled this task.
The liberal attitude to Jews in Lithuania is noted in a series of privileges which Duke Vitold gave to the Jews of Brisk, Grodno and Trak.
What Privileges Were Granted?
The privileges granted by Duke Vitold were similar to those granted by Duke Boleslav from Kalisz to the Jews of Poland. They allowed the Jews : 1) Free movement throughout the country; 2) the right to do business; 3) protection of religion; 4) Jewish jurisdiction in conflicts between Jews, and between others: A) a Christian who does not respond to a Jew's cry for help at night will be accused of robbery, B) a Christian who forcibly enters a Jewish home will be accused of stealing from the state; C) if a Christian kills a Jew he will be accused according to the general code and his belongings will be confiscated; D) a blood libel must be witnessed by three Christians and three Jews; E) throwing stones at a Jewish House of Study or a cemetery results in confiscation of belongings; F) a Jew can be accused by the virtue of two witnesses: one Christian and one Jew; G) religious substance of an allegation is only a Jewish witness when carried out Jewishly; H) A Jewish money lender does not have to give his pledge on the Sabbath.
Lithuanian Jews Settle on Estates and in Villages
As we have seen, elementary privileges and rights were promised to Jews in the cities but many Jews gladly went to villages, estates, crossroads, and borders of the land due to the following reasons: 1) Jews did not enjoy the privileges of Duke Vitold in all cities; 2) Many cities enjoyed the right No tolerance of Jews; 3) in the cities there was competition with bourgeoisie. This is why the Jews of Vilna in the 16th century were forbidden to deal in salt, herring and flax or do a job that a Christian could have done.
However besides the material persecution, Jews in the cities, despite the relatively mild attitude in Lithuania, were physically persecuted. An attack on a Jewish quarter was not a rare occurrence.
The First Documented Information About a Jew Called Nisn
The first Jews came to Zhetl in search of bread and security. They probably came right after the expulsion from Lithuania. Here we find the first documented information of a Jew in Zhetl dated April 24th, 1580. In the acts of the Vilna archgeographic commission (Vol. 14 p. 203) we find an announcement under the following headline: Inventory of the Zdzietyl Estate which belong s to Duke Konstantin Ostrogsky. The text of this announcement reads: in the market in the town of Zdietyl the Jew Mison (a mistaken spelling of Nisn) occupies 8 rods .
From this announcement we can attain: A) This Jewish man Nisn lived in Zhetl before 1580, as assets were usually registered long after one had settled at that place; 2) from the word occupy we assume he is using these rods on a settled piece of land; 3) Zhetl was already a Jewish settlement which had
a market, and this Jew Nisn was apparently an inn keeper who built an inn and a house on his 8 rods. He was probably the only Jew in the marketplace, but it is possible that others lived nearby.
Be that as it may, Nisn the Jew is the historic father of Jewish settlement in Zhetl. We do not know where he came from. We also do not know who his descendants in town were. It is possible that someone reading this book is a great great grandchild of Reb Nisn who occupied 8 rods in the Zhetl marketplace.
Interestingly, Jewish settlement in Zhetl is not much younger than Jewish settlement in Vilna. The first information about the first two Jews in Vilna dates back to 1551, meaning 29 years earlier than the first Zhetl Jew, Nisn.
There were probably Jews in Zhetl a lot earlier but unfortunately no historical footprints have survived.
Aharon Goshkevitch Litigates
The second piece of information concerning Jews in Zhetl dates from 1598. In a publication from Vilna published in 1901 we read that a Jew from Mizyevets (a village near Zhetl), Aharon Goshkevitch, accuses the Zhetl village elder Andrei Viltchuk with Zhetl nobleman Yarosh Zhibart.
We learn a lot of interesting facts from this act. Firstly, that Aharon Goshkevitch from Mizyevetz was a lessee of the nobleman Mikolai Rey from Naglovitz and moreover he demands the state taxes for beer, honey and whisky, according to the agreement with the village elder (starosta).
The Jew, Aharon Goshkevitch accuses the nobleman Yarosh Zhibart of a few claims. Firstly, he demanded state taxes for the year 1596. Two Zhetl Jews appear in this claim: Meir Levkovitch and Aharon Goshkevitch's son in law, Merl Yuditch. Both Jews were employed by Ahaorn Goshkevitch and demand the taxes from him. From their account we know that Zhibart paid taxes for three quarters of the year and is honouring his debt of a quarter year. Aharon Goshkevitch estimated his loss at 120 Polish groschen but the court ruled only 60.
In a second claim the court ruled Ahahron Goshkevitch did not have to pay Zhibart for measures of barley and grain which he ordered to grind at his mill.
From a third claim we learn that Aharon Goshkevitch rented an apartment from Zhibart. He only lived there for half a year and instead of rent, he freed him from the honey tax.
In another claim, the Jew Aharon Goshkevitch demands from Zhibart 120 groschen for whisky and beer tax. Zhibart presented two witnesses who testified that his wife had paid the tax to the Jew. Aharon denies this and takes pains to reject the witnesses and the document ascertains that due to the Jew's stubbornness there was no judgement delivered on this claim.
From this document we learn: 1) Jews lived in Zhetl: Meir Levkovitch and Merl Yudiych, and the Jew Aharon Goshkevitch lives near Zhetl. All of them work to collect taxes for the starosta of Zhetl. In their conflict with Zhetl nobility they litigate before the starosta who displays objectivity.
We observe Jewish Christian relations. The Jew, Aharon lives at the Polish nobleman's, grinds at his mill and frees him from honey tax. There is commercial solidity lacking in this relationship and the impression is, Aharon's claims are not always grounded.
We must presume that besides these three Jews, by the end of the 16th century more Jews were living in Zhetl who served the nobleman and the surrounding area with their business and artisanal talents.
Jews in Zhetl at the end of the 16th Century
It is difficult to establish exactly how many Jews lived in Zhetl, but probably less than a few dozen families. In all of Lithuania in 1578 there were 27 thousand Jews. In Brisk, the largest Jewish community in Lithuania, there were 90 Jewish households in 1552, 60 in Grodno and understandably, the amount in Zhetl was much less.
Jews in Zhetl in the 17th Century
Slowly, in the span of a generation, we see lessees, inn keepers, artisans and shopkeepers arrive and begin to build a Jewish community. At first the community was small. In nearby Dvoretz it was much bigger. But in 1627 the Jewish community of Zhetl was recorded in the record books of Council of Lithuanian Jews with the following announcement: Dvoretz and Zhetl owe 360 groschen from the year 5387.
For 43 years Zhetl and Dvoretz paid taxes to the Council of Lithuanian Jews (from 1627 until 1670).
However in 1670 Zhetl became an independent community. Apparently during those forty odd years the Jewish community of Zhetl grew.
In comparison to the head tax paid by other communities Zhetl paid half of what Novaradek paid and 60% of Slonim.
We have more proof that the Zhetl Jewish community grew in the 17th century. This was largely thanks to the dukes of the Safyeha family who in 1646 took over the Zhetl estates. They expanded the Christian population, built a church and brought about a general vitality to Zhetl. As a result, the Jewish community also grew. Around 1670 the old synagogue was built.
Understandably, before this time there were Houses of Study (Bet Midrash) in Zhetl. However the building of a synagogue was a sign the Zhetl community was materially established.
Exactly at this time, the second half of the 17th century, the Jewish communities in Poland and Lithuania were shaken by Cossack revolts (1648) and the war with Sweden (1655 59). Both events brought about epidemics and ruin among the Jewish population. Despite all these troubles the Jewish population in Lithuania grew, including Zhetl.
Reb Khaim Hirsh Segal
In the record books of the Council of Lithuanian Jews 1673 1687, the name Reb Khaim Hirsh Segal of Zhetl is mentioned, a wealthy Jew who paid 1/5 of the taxes imposed on the Zhetl Jewish community. Besides Reb Khaim Hirsh Segal there were other wealthy Jews living in Zhetl. Rabbi Reb Yekhezkl Katzenelnboygn tell us in his book The Congregation of Yekhezkl about a wealthy Jew Reb Yisroel Bar Yeshayahu. Reb Yisroel Bar Yeshayahu dealt in leather goods and his business dealings spanned from Zhetl to Telz. He was killed there during a robbery and Reb Yekhezkl authorized his wife as an Agunnah (an abandoned woman who cannot prove the death of her husband or does not have an official divorce and therefore cannot remarry).
Spiritual Renaissance at the end of the 17th Century
As mentioned, the Zhetl Jewish community grew in numbers, importance and established itself materially. The material revival led to a spiritual one. Besides wealthy men we also find in Zhetl, at the end of the 17th century, great scholars. One of these great scholars was the rabbi Reb Arye Leyb Segal Hurvitz, the author of Nature Daisy a commentary on Maimonides' Book of Good Deeds.
In 1696 Reb Arye Leyb left Zhetl to take the post of rabbi in Minsk. He did not serve as Chief Rabbi of Zhetl because in his book he is referred to as Arye Leyb Zhetl Segal (assistant Cohen) Hurvitz and not Chief Judge of the Jewish court. In the introduction to his book we read: In my opinion he was the friend of great renowned deceased rabbi, Arye Leyb Zhetl Segal Hurvitz who was the Chief Judge of the Jewish court in Minsk. It is most probable that the rabbi Reb Arye Leyb Segal Hurvitz had a connection to the wealthy Zhetl Jew Reb Khaim Hirsh Segal who is mentioned in the records of the Council of Jews in Lithuania in the years 1673 1683.
If Reb Nisn was historically the first Jew in Zhetl, Reb Arye Leyb was the first Talmudic scholar. There were probably scholars earlier but these are the first for which we have historic documentation.
Zhetl is Taken Over by the Radziwills
For almost 40 years Zhetl was in the possession of Duke Sofyeha. At the end of the 17th century in 1685 the Zhetl estates changed over to the family of Princes Radziwill. The princes in this family, especially Prince Dominic and Mikolai Faustin made a great effort to enrich and establish the town. They rebuilt the old castle and the church and concerned themselves with the Christian and Jewish populations.
The Accusations Against 5 Leaders of the Jewish Community
Proof of the concern Prince Mikolai Radzwill had for the Jewish population can be seen in the trial he carried out in 1712 before the Lithuanian Tribunal in Vilna against 5 leaders of the Jewish community from the Council of Jews in Lithuania (Vilna, Grodno, Brisk, Pinsk and Slutsk). In his accusation Prince Radziwill wrote the Zhetl Jewish community was supposed to pay 625 Zlotys head tax, but the unbelieving 5 community leaders decided to ruin the poor Jews of Zhetl who were already punished by God, and raised the tax to 3000 Zlotys. Prince Radziwill also used the argument that this could also bring harm to the principality.
The 5 accused heads of the Jewish community did not appear in court and the tribunal judged in favour of his claim. According to the verdict the 5 heads of the Jewish community had to pay the Jews of Zhetl 3000 Zlotys compensation for the unfounded raising of the head tax, 310 Zlotys court costs and an infamy was placed on them.
As we do not have any documents to support this from the Jewish perspective, it is hard to judge this action of our ancestors in Zhetl. It is hard to believe they went to the nobleman directly against the 5 leaders of the Jewish community. Perhaps Prince Mikolai Radziwill learnt about this and on his own initiative accused the 5 leaders of the Jewish community. We have no confirmation of this trial from Jewish sources, nor of its outcome. Therefore it is difficult to draw a conclusion about this issue. However, one thing is clear: the document reeks of Polish, characteristic antisemitism. The 5 Jewish community leaders were depicted in black colours. They wanted to ruin Zhetl and united against her. They are called heretics unbelievers. This document respects the Jews of Zhetl who were lessees and merchants and had already punished them enough. The attitude was characteristic of a Polish magnate, who hated all Jews, except his own humble Jew with no status.
Rabbi Khaim HaCohen Rappaport
In the early years of the 18th century, Rabbi Khaim HaCohen Rappaport was the chief rabbi of Zhetl. This has been documented in a book about prominent men by Rabbi Aharon Vildn who wrote: The revered Rabbi Khaim HaCohen Rappaport is a true Talmudic genius, a marvel of his generation, the light of the diaspora and the head judge of the Jewish court in Lvov. In a second posting we read: The Talmudic genius Rabbi Khaim HaCohen was also the head of the Jewish court in Zhetl. We do not know exactly when Reb Khaim HaCohen was in Zhetl, but it was probably from 17201729.
The rabbi Reb Khaim HaCohen was one of the greatest rabbis of his time. He probably also has a secular education as he was one of three rabbis to debate the Frankists in Lemberg in 1759. To learn more about the rabbi Reb Khaim HaCohen see in our list of Zhetl Rabbis the article by A. Shepetnitsky.
The Rabbi Reb Zev Krantz and His Son the Preacher from Dubne
The second most important rabbi in Zhetl in the 18th century was Reb Zev Wolf Krantz. He was the son in law of the Kobrin rabbi Reb Nokhem and the father of the well known preacher from Dubne.
The preacher from Dubno, Reb Yakov Krantz, to whom we have dedicated a separate article was born in Zhetl in 1740 and lived there until 1758. When the rabbi Reb Yakov Krantz left Zhetl for Mezrich he was already 18 years old and brought enthusiasm to the scholarly world.
It was an injustice for Zhetl that one of her finest sons who grew up in her Houses of Study was called the Dubne Preacher and not the Zhetl Preacher.
Rabbis in the Second Half of the 18th Century
During the second half of the 18th century the following occupied the chair of chief rabbi of Zhetl: the rabbi Reb Boruk Bendit, author of the book The Eternal Light, the rabbi Reb Moishe, the rabbi Reb Eliezer Namyat, and the rabbi Reb Nisn. For more information about these rabbis see the list Zhetl Rabbis by A. Shepetniksky.
Zhetl in the 18th Century
The Jewish community in Zhetl was founded in the 16th century. In the 17th century it grew in numbers and importance. In the 18th century her spiritual strength was developed. Important rabbis occupied the chair of chief rabbi. We are familiar with seven names. Two of them are important authorities in the rabbinic world: the rabbi Reb Khaim HaCohen Rappaport and the Preacher of Dubne.
Unfortunately, no documents of material and spiritual life of this period have remained. We know that sometime around 1743 a great fire broke out in Zhetl which destroyed practically the entire town. The new cemetery opened in 1750s behind the city. Around 1781 Zhetl welcomed two messengers from the Land of Israel: Reb Avram HaCohen Mlask and Reb Hillel Mizrachi.
The Demands of the Russian Occupation
By the end of the 18th century the estates of Zhetl were taken over by the Saltan nobles.
Ten years later, in 1795, the united Polish Lithuanian state experienced its greatest political shock: the final partition of the land.
The provinces of Slonim and Vilna were occupied by the Russians in 1795 and were transformed into a North West region of the Russian Empire. Their fate included Zhetl.
The demands of the Russian occupation were felt immediately. The autonomy of the Jewish community decreased and Jews are now forbidden to lease taverns in the villages.
There was now a tendency to remove Jews from the villages and move them to cities. Jews had not yet adjusted to the new authority and edicts when they faced a second political shock: the Napoleonic War in 1812.
Political Changes in the 19th Century
19 years after the Napoleonic War, Poland, including Zhetl experienced the Polish Uprising of 1831. The owners of the Zhetl estates, the Saltans took part in the uprising and therefore their estates were confiscated by the state. This is when the Zhetl palace was rebuilt and transformed into barracks.
At the same time, in 1823, the Russian government renewed Jewish expulsions from the villages. In 1827 they began to kidnap Jewish children for military service. A little later in 1844 they began to liquidate Jewish communities. All these changes were brought upon by the reactionary Czar Nilolai I and had a great impact on our grandfathers in Zhetl.
Another change for the better that occurred was the abolition of serfdom after the Polish uprising in 1863. In the industrial centres the freeing of the peasants brought competition and loss of livelihood for the Jews. However in Zhetl the effect was the opposite. The new independent producers, the peasants, became good customers for the Zhetl merchants and artisans.
The wave of pogroms which befell Poland and Russia in the 1880s evaded Zhetl, yet their effect was deeply felt.
In the 19th century three social movements were born: the Jewish Enlightenment, Zionism and immigration. All three found supporters in Zhetl. It was not easy for the first enlighteners and Zionists in Zhetl but they slowly gained a place of honour in society. In our section about Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion), we describe the first steps of Zionism in Zhetl. We have scant information about the enlighteners in Zhetl, but we must assume that all the enlighteners in Zhetl later became members of Hovevi Zion and Zionists.
In the 1880s an intensive wave of immigration began to America. Individuals went to the Land of Israel but masses went to America. Unfortunately we do not have material about the immigration but according to the numbers provided by A. Pasaf, there are 600 Jewish families from Zhetl today in the United States. In Canada, Argentina and other countries in the Americas there are over 100 Zhetl families. There are 300 Zhetl families in Israel. These one thousand families left Zhetl between 18801945.
Zhetl Rabbis in the 19th Century
We have gathered information from various sources about the rabbis from this period. We offer them here chronologically: the rabbi Reb Khaim Lifshitz, the rabbi Reb Avrom, the rabbi Reb Zev Wolf Halevi, the rabbi Reb Zvi Hirsh HaCohen Dvoretsky, and the rabbi Reb Borukh Avrom Mirsky. As in the previous century, a great authority in the rabbinic world was born in Zhetl in the19th century: the rabbi Reb Yisroel Meir HaCohen, known as Khefetz Khaim (Love of Life).
The Khefetz Khaim was born in Zhetl in 1839. Later when his father Reb Arye Zev died he moved with his mother to Vilna. At 18 he married and moved to Radin and was known as the Genius of Radin, although his cradle stood in Zhetl. This is where he took his first steps as a small boy and began his learning in the Houses of Study there. He would become the greatest authority in the rabbinic world in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The Rabbi Reb Zev Wolf Halevy Writes About the Jews of Zhetl
When the Khefetz Khaim, was a young child there was a rabbi who was a great authority in the rabbinic world: the rabbi Reb Zev Wolf Halevy. Before him the chief rabbis of Zhetl were: the rabbi Reb Khaim Lifshitz, (18061813) and the rabbi Reb Moishe Avrom Eyznshtat until 1836. The rabbi Reb Zev Wolf occupied this position from 1840 1850. He was the author of the book Emek Halakha containing questions and answers dealing with the Code of Jewish Law. The book was published in 1845 in Vilna. In the introduction he wrote the following about Zhetl: (In Hebrew)
This is what the rabbi Reb Zev Wolf Halevy had to say about Zhetl Jews in 1845. He praises them as scholarly, generous honest good hearted Jews. He thanks them for contributing toward the publication of his book and he blesses their children's children.
In the book there is a list of Zhetl Jews who contributed: Reb Eliezer son of Khaim, Reb Avrom son of Moishe, Reb Aharon son of Yakov, Reb Eli Shatz, Reb Zalman Zekharia son of Binyomin, Reb Yehuda Leyb son of Tankhum, Reb Yisroel Dov, Reb Yehuda son of Yisroel Katz, Reb Yisroel son of Khaim Segal, Reb Yehuda son of Ezriel Epshteyn, Reb Yehoshua Zelik Menavin, Reb Nisn Baharav son of Yisroel, Reb Peysakh Mavotskevitch, Reb Moishe Mordkhai son of Pinkhas, Reb Moishe son of Yitzkhak Izik, Reb Moishe Yitzkhak son of Binyomin, Reb Meir Yitzkhak son of Yehuda Leyb.
This is a list of 19 well off men in Zhetl who lived 110 years ago and fortuitously their names have been written down. Perhaps Jews from Zhetl will find the names of their grandfathers or great grandfathers.
The two rabbis that held the chief rabbi position in Zhetl during the second half of the 19th century were Rabbi Zvi Hirsh HaCohen (18501892), a great scholar with a keen mind and Rabbi Borukh Avrom Mirsky (18921912) who was very active in the Hovevei Zion and about whom we speak about in detail in our chapter Rabbis of Zhetl as well as in specific articles by Rabbi Y.L Maimotn and Moishe Tsinovitch.
At the Threshold of the 20th Century
At the threshold of the 20th century Zhetl was still a very religious town, but slowly but surely winds of change were blowing through particularly influencing the youth who organized two revolutionary parties: the Bund and the S.R.(Social Revolutionaries).
We speak about the activities of both parties in the works of Yekhiel Kuznyetsky and H. Khabibi.
Both the Bundists and the Social Revolutionaries placed all the faith they inherited from their parents into their holy beliefs in the revolution. They dreamt and fought for a new, just world order.
The 20th Century
The largest portion of our book is dedicated to the Jewish community of Zhetl in the 20th century. During this century the Jewish community of Zhetl experienced two horrific world wars.
During the First World War Zhetl was covered in blood and impoverished. However this did not last long and after the war they managed to rebuild their material and spiritual lives.
The period between the two wars were the golden years of the Jewish community in Zhetl. During this period there were three camps struggling against each other: orthodox, Zionists, and Yiddishists. Each camp organized its own schools, youth groups, institutions and even theatres. Together they created a symphony of Jewish society.
During this period the Jewish community went through some changes. New elements were penetrating the religious lives of our parents: National, social and secular. In a short time these elements changed the face of the Zhetl Jewish community which was building national and secular institutions parallel to the old religious ones.
The interesting development of the Zhetl Jewish community after the First World War was torn to pieces by the cruel Second World War. In almost four years they annihilated all that was built over four hundred years. This happened in two short time periods.
The Destruction of Zhetl
In the first period from 19391941 Zhetl was sovietised. The second period, 19411942, the Jewish community of Zhetl was massacred. By the end of both these periods Zhetl was a destroyed town, without Jews. Only a few remaining fighters walked bloodied through the forest.
This period is described in our chronicle by dozens of witnesses of this cruel extermination of the Jews. We would like to however emphasize a few moments.
During the years 19391941 the Jewish community in Zhetl was declassified, writhed in pain and convulsed with a constant fear of what lay ahead.
From 19411944 the Zhetl Jewish community displayed solidarity in the ghetto and a will to fight in the forests.
This is the history of the Zhetl Jewish community. How it grew, lived and was annihilated.
Today, 14 years after this cruel extermination, let these lines serve as a monument on the grave of the Jewish community of Zhetl.
by Mordkhai V. Bernshteyn (Buenos Aires)
Translated by Janie Respitz
My work on the theme: Zhetl in the Budget of the Jewish Council of Lithuania was assembled from The Records of the State (Records of the Councils of the Leading Jewish Communities in Lithuania), which was published in Berlin in 1925 by Prof. Shimon Dubnov. The text was taken from the manuscript which was kept in Grodno and was complemented and compared with copies of the records which were found in Brisk of Lithuania and Vilna.
These Records of the State contain rules and statutes decided by the council at its sessions which took place in various cities between the years (1623 1761), approximately 150 years.
One of the most important issues dealt with at the above mentioned 33 sessions was the budget of the Lithuanian council. Every Jewish community from the biggest to the smallest was taxed an established amount for the general budget. The lists of taxes are an important source for the history of dozens of Jewish communities. Often the fact that a Jewish community appears on a list is the only proof that at that time an organized Jewish community existed there. The evolution of the Jewish community tax also tells us about the development of the contributing community: if it grows or shrunk.
We received our facts about Zhetl from protocols of individual sessions. From time to time we will offer Zhetl's position in relation to other cities.
When and Where Did These 33 Sessions Take Place?
Firstly I will tell you a bit about when and in which cities these sessions were held. This is important in order not to repeat when quoting the budget statements from various sessions.
As mentioned the Jewish Council of Lithuania held 33 sessions in the following places:
As already said money matters held an important place in these sessions. Financial difficulties, debts to high officials and the central Polish authority, special expenditures during a Blood Libel, or the building of a synagogues, help for refugees after the pogroms of 164849 (the Chmielnicki Massacres) and for the families of the Ruzhne martyrs. These prosaic money matters mirror the size of each community, its rise or decline.
Let us observe from session to session the contribution from Zhetl to the communal tax.
I am bringing the financial statements in the language and spelling of the original (often with mistakes) without any changes. All the initials and abbreviations are from the original. (Translator's note: I will provide correct spellings where possible).
The Boundaries of the Jewish Council of Lithuania
In paragraph 89 of the first session of the Council we find the boundaries of the Council. The three regions which belonged at the time were: Brisk, Grodno and Pinsk.
In order to familiarize ourselves with these regions it is worthwhile to bring forth the designation from paragraph 89. The names in parenthesis are how they appeared in the second version.
89. These are the boundaries and surroundings of the region of Brisk:
Mezrich, Varin (Vayn), Yanovi, Rashs (Rashi), Lomz (Lomoz), Bila, Beshtz, Vlaudvi (Vladvi), Slavitz, Karni, Visaki, Amstibava (Amstibavi) Kobrin, Hordetz, Prushna, Mltcha, Seltz, Chernoytzitz (Chernovitz), Kamnitz, Shershavi, Razanik (Razanay), Slonim, Dvortz, Nvarodek ( Navrodek), Neshvitz, Slutzk, Minsk, Mahlaboni (Mahlobni), Ursha, residents of Russia.
These are the boundaries of Hurodna:
Amdor, Mistetzky, Kuznitsa, Navidbor, Ustrin, Radin, Lida.
These are the boundaries of the region of Pinsk:
Kletzk, Lekhvitch, Khomsk, Brehin, Dubrovitch, Visotzk, Turava and the residents of NZ.
As we can see Zhetl does not appear on these lists of Jewish settlements. This is not evidence that there was no Jewish community there. We find, for example, in the handling of various matters at the same session, names of towns not included in the former list. We are speaking about the towns: Kapulie, Mush, Smorgon, Polonke, Ivye, Polotzk, Krashin, Kosve, Zelve, Trok and others. No mention of Zhetl is not proof that there was no Jewish community there.
Dvoretz and Vicinity
In clause 97 of the session we find the contributions each community had to pay in head taxes (which Jews in Lithuania had to pay the government). The Council of Four Lands in Poland and the Jewish Council of Lithuania were responsible for collecting this tax. It was usually between 13 Polish guldens. It was first implemented by the Polish Sejm in 1581.
We see there that Dvoretz and Vicinity had to pay 14 shok, shok standing for 60 (840).
Zhetl is not mentioned in these records, however in later sessions, Zhetl is connected to Dvoretz. We must assume, Zhetl was included in Vicinity. The following communities paid these head taxes: Novaredok 12 shok (720), Slonim 20 shok (1,200), Minsk 10 shok (600). From this we can gather, the 14 shok Dvoretz and Vicinity had to pay a large amount.
In the same clause 97 we see the Jews had to pay another tax. (This was a return tax imposed on Jews after they were permitted to return to Lithuania after the expulsion). Dvoretz had to pay 10 red guldens, the same as Minsk, more than Novaredok, which had to pay 8 red guldens.
Zhetl is Mentioned for the First Time
Zhetl is mentioned for the first time in the session of 1627. In clause 225 debts that individual communities owed are calculated. Among the debts owed we see: Dvoretz with Zhetl owed debts from 1627 6 shok. Here we also have proof of the communal connection of these two communities.
At the fifth session of the Council in 1631 Zhetl figures in two places in clause 255 of the records. We read:
From the years 1628 until 1632,
Zhetl paid its contribution together with Dvoretz: 5 shok. In the same clause 225 we see the contribution of head the tax to the government and once again we see Dvoretz and Zhetl together. Novaredok paid 12 shok and Dvoretz and Zhetl paid 9 shok.
In the same clause we find a list of debts owed to the Council. Among others we see a debt from Dvoretz for 55 goldens. We must understand this debt was also shared.
The Session of 1639
In clause 388 of the session of 1639 there is a list of debts owed to the Council. Dvoretz and Zhetl appear together: we see here that over time the earlier communal debt of 55 goldens was reduced to 12 and a half.
In this session a list was presented for the debts owed for the right to return tax. Among others we see Dvoretz and Zhetl owed seven and a half red guldens. Let us compare this amount to amounts owed by other Jewish communities. How much did they owe for the same tax?
Novaredok 11 red guldens; Slonim 12 red guldens; Niesviezh 12 red guldens; Bielitze 5 red guldens; Mush 2 red guldens; Polonke 1 red gulden.
In clause 400 from the same session we find a list from the session in Seltz from 1637. Here we learn the general budget of the Council of the Jews of Lithuania. Among others we see the debt owed by Dvoretz Zhetl totalling 186 goldens. Both towns owed this money to the Council budget.
This was what they owed, but the amount they had to pay for a Jewish community tax is not clear.
The Session of 1644
At the session of the Council in 1644 the amount both communities had to pay is mentioned. It is worthwhile to present the entire budget of this Council. In clause 422 we read:
This budget ends on the 5th day of Elul (September 1644).
Brisk and vicinity 270 shok
Huradna 40 shok
Vicinity of Huradna 26 shok
Pinsk and vicinity 70 shok
Vilna and vicinity 100 shok
The Land of Russia 60 shok
Minsk 25 shok
Minsk Region 100 (200) shok
Slutsk 62 shok
Neshviz 14 shok
Slonim 11 shok
Novardok 17 shok
Dvoretz Zhetl 7 shok, 12 Polish groschen
Mush with Reb Borukh Mistolovitch 5 shok
Polnki 36 Polish groschen
Reb Feyvl from Krashin 48 Lithuanian groschen
Poltzki 11 shok
Kapulie 4 shok
Bielitze and vicinity 3 shok Tomkovitz 33 Lithuanian groschen
Traka, Zmoyt in Vilna, Smorgon…
Total 733 shok
In short, we have a picture here of the entire budget. 733 Lithuanian shok. The position of Dvoretz and Zhetl on this list is not among the first but far from the last. We must also keep in mind that only a few communities appear on their own as independent contributors. Most of the Jewish communities are included in the vicinities of Brisk, Gordno, Pinsk, Minsk, Vilna and the Land of Russia. We have to then assume the position of the allocated communities was important, including Dvoretz and Zhetl.
The session of 1647
In clause 449 from the session of 1647 we find a new budget. Now we see 1,741 and a half. In this budget we see Dvoretz and Zhetl with 7 Lithuanian shok and 12 groschen.
In the same clause we see debts owed from various taxes.
These are the debts owed to the Council by Dvoretz and Zhetl 406 goldens. (Goldens mean groschen, there were Polish and Lithuanian groschen, the Lituanian was worth more. There were 30 groschen to one gulden. In Czarist Russia 15 Kopeks equalled one gulden, or 30 groschen.)
Also in the list of outstanding debts to the Council, Dvoretz Zhetl appear owing 240 goldens and 5 groschen in a profit fund of 15 Lithuanian shok. Separate capital and interest appear in this total. This means those who did not pay on time had to pay interest.
The Session of 1650
In the session of 1650 Dvoretz and Zhetl appear in clause 481 with the amount of 5 and a half Lithuanian shok. This budget was generally smaller. Brisk and vicinity previously paid 270 shok combined, now only 100 shok; Grodno and vicinity previously had to pay 26 shok, now 13 shok.
In clause 482 from the same session a list of debts can be found which had been paid. The first one we see is:
Dvoretz Zhetl 100 goldens and 14 goldens paid ''.
In a later list in the same clause we see Dvoretz and Zhetl must together pay debts for a special Jewish communal tax of 50 in the winter of 1648. It appears by this account Dvoretz Zhetl had to pay 900 goldens but only paid 338 and a half. According to this same clause, Dvoretz Zhetl paid 45 goldens for the right to return tax.
After the Pogroms of 164849
At the session in 1652 the budget of the Council was presented again. This time Dvoretz and Zhetl with 4 Lithuanian shok. Other communities were also assessed for less than in previous years. (Brisk 88 shok, Grodno and vicinity 11 shok and so on).
The following clause can serve as proof of the impoverishment of the Jewish communities. Brought forth is a list of long standing debts for taxes for both the Council and the government. This list shows debts amounting to tens of thousands of goldens. Dvoretz Zhetl appears on this list owing 3, 016 and a half goldens.
This session also dealt with the difficult situation of communities who suffered pogroms.
The Session of 1656
In the session in 1656 Dvoretz Zhetl appeared with 2 Lithuanian shok and 18 groschen. The amounts at this session were much smaller than in previous years with a total amount of 213 Lithuanian shok.
Therefore the list of long standing debts grew. Here we learn the communities of Dvoretz Zhetl owed 3286 goldens!
The Session of 1662
During this session in 1662 a new Jewish community tax was introduced. Dvoretz and Zhetl appear together but the amount is not known. We know the tax was small from the amounts paid by Brisk, all told, 11 shok, and Grodno and vicinity, not more than 6 shok. We can assume the communities had local expenditures and consequently the Council decreased their taxes.
The Session of 1664
The Jewish communal tax which was decided on at the session in 1664 was even smaller Dvoretz and Zhetl appear owing only 1 Lithuanian shok, Brisk and vicinity 10 shok, Vilna and vicinity 5 shok. At the same session Dvoretz and Zhetl are mentioned together having a debt of 1250 goldens.
The Session of 1667
At the beginning of the session in 1667 we see Zhetl, to a certain extent, independent. In clause 4223 of this session they talk about quittances and banknotes. (These were receipts for paid taxes. Communities would receive receipts for their taxes and then collect them from other places. The banknotes had the value of a state document. One could, with administrative force, collect the amount from the banknotes).
The Council distributed these quittances to various communities at the expense of their community taxes. These were loans which the Council gave to the communities which they had to deduct from their taxes which they owed the Council. Zhetl appears here twice. The Council owes Zhetl a quittance For Dvoretz and Zhetl for 25 goldens and a separate one For Zhetl 35 goldens which means, besides the 25 goldens which Zhetl paid together with Dvoretz, there was a separate quittance
for Zhetl alone for 35 gulden.
Zhetl Becomes Independent
In the session of 1670 we already have a clear picture about the place Zhetl held in its partnership with Dvoretz; we begin to see its emergence as an independent community. There is a clause from this session which reads:
…Dvoretz Zhetl 3 goldens, namely Dvoretz with Maytshet 47 goldens and Zhetl 31 Polish groschens…
For the first time we have information that Maytshet also entered the community. We also see the place Zhetl occupied in the common sum.
In a later clause from the session in 1670 we find the distribution of the head tax in the Jewish Council of Lithuania. We can learn from this how many in general paid head taxes in Lithuania that year. It is worthwhile to present the entire list. The clause says this:
The regions of Lithuania
Brisk and vicinity 900 goldens
Horadna and vicinity 400 goldens
Pinsk 280 goldens
Vilna 180 goldens
Krayim (an autonomous region in Lithuania) 207
Zamoyt 400 goldens
Slutzk 300 goldens
Slonim 55 goldens
Navardok 75 goldens
Dvoretz 45 goldens Zhetl 35 goldens
Mush and Polonki 27 goldens
Minsk 67 goldens
Minsk region 120 goldens
The Land of Russia 150 goldens
Smorgon and the region 40 goldens
Neshviz and Mir 45 goldens
Bilitza 20 goldens
Residents of Kashin 3 goldens
This list of head tax shows us the exact position and size of the Zhetl Jewish community. It is listed with the independent communities and not part of vicinity or region. It also shows proportionally where Zhetl stands in relation to other communities.
In the same clause we see the distribution of the return tax. Here too we see Dvoretz and Zhetl listed separately.
Dvoretz 20 goldens
Zhetl 20 goldens
Consequently, the same amount.
In a later part of the same clause old debts are calculated. Here they appear together:
The communities of Dvoretz and Zhetl owe 1,403 goldens.
The Session of 1673
In the budget of the Lithuanian Jewish Council of 1673 we find the next stage of Zhetl independence. There are three things we learn from this budget:
Zhetl was an independent community in the Council of Jews in Lithuania;
In Zhetl there was a Jew, Khaim Hirsh who paid for himself, meaning he was very wealthy;
Dvoretz was already in a community with Maytshet.
In the same session they put forth a register of debts. Here Zhetl appears with Reb Hirsh this is certainly the above mentioned Khaim Hirsh, who is also referred to as Reb Hirsh Segal.
The Session of 1676
In the subsequent sessions Zhetl appears as an independent community. In the session of 1676 the Zhetl community tax is:
Zhetl with Reb Hirsh 52 Polish groschens.
In the list of debtors:
Zhetl's debt is 1500 goldens which could be paid
in 5 installments, 300 goldens per installment. We learn when the installments have to be paid and to whom:
the first installment must be at the Stolovitch Fair in 1676, 150 gulden to the Amstibev Rabbi, Reb Mordkhai, and 150 gulden to the Brisk Rabbi, Reb Leyzer.
To whom and when the subsequent installments must be paid is not calculated in this clause. Also, the second installment is more than the decided 300 goldens.
The Session of 1679
Zhetl appears in the budget passed at this session and it seems to have surpassed many other communities. The following appear in the same budget:
Minsk 2 gulden and 8 groschen;
Slonim and vicinity 1 gulden 8 groschen;
Novaredok and vicinity 1 gulden 5 groschen
Dvoretz and Maytshet 26 groschen
Zhetl (together with Reb Hirsh) 1 gulden 12 groschen.
The Session of 1684
In the budget of the session in 1684 Zhetl appears (together with Reb Hirsh) with the sum of 27 groschen. Dvoretz with Maytshet 18 groschen; Novaredok 18 groschen;
Also at this session a list of debts was presented. We find here an important annotation about Zhetl:
We see that Zhetl's debt was not small. It reaches beyond 2300 goldens. Interestingly, the Zhetl Jewish community and Reb Hirsh Segal needed money to pay installments for a girl orphaned as a result of a martyrdom. She was the grandchild of a rabbi.
The Session of 1687
In the session of 1687 Zhetl appears in the taxes of the Council with 24 groschen and again together with Reb Hirsh Segal. We can see here that Zhetl's debt had decreased. In one entry Zhetl owed 710 goldens, 219 in another entry and Reb Hirsh Segal owed 120.
The Session of 1691
At this session it was decided to take an extraordinary action to liquidate the debts of the Council of Jews in Lithuania. It was decided to raise 1500 in community taxes and pay it in 6 installments.
We see there were yearly installments to be paid at the fairs in Nesviezh and Kapulie. Of these 1500 of community tax Zhetl was taxed with 1,000 goldens with each installment being 160 goldens and 20 groschen.
In the session of 1691 Zhetl now appears (without Reb Hirsh Segal) with 20 Polish groschen. We also see that Dvoretz is now separated from Maytshet. Dvoretz is now independent with 12 groschen and Maytshet 7 groschen.
The Session of 1695
In this session Zhetl appears in the budget of the Council with 15 groschen, Dvoretz 6 and Maytshet 7.
The Session of 1700
In the session of 1700 Zhetl appears in the budget with 20 groschen to be paid in the manner of debenture. Dvoretz had to pay 6 groschen.
The Session of 1720
At this session in 1720 Zhetl was taxed 18 Polish groschen.
The Session of 1731
At this session a list of debts was presented which had to be paid to a sequence of nobility and priests.
These debts were distributed to various communities. Among others, Zhetl had to pay 300 golden to the nobleman Borkovsky.
The Session of 1752
In the session of 1752 there was a list of communities and how much each to pay for the register of tariffs of the regions. They had to raise sixty thousand Polish goldens.
Appearing on this list was: the community of Zhetl with Vidovitz and Rahtna owing 800 Polish golden…
Rahatna was a small village and Vidovitz was apparently a place where Jews lived as well.
In comparison to the earlier towns which Zhetl was connected to, we will add here that on the same list Dvoretz owed 370 golden and Maytshet 370 as well.
The Session of 1761
In the session of 1761 Zhetl does not appear in a list of communities which owed regional fees. All the surrounding communities do appear so this must have been an omission when transcribing the records. Zhetl does appear in the same session in a list of communities owing community tax where they had to pay twenty groschen.
During the 150 years of the existence of the Council of Jews of Lithuania Zhetl was an active member in this Jewish autonomous organization and participated carrying the common burden of the community at large.
We can observe the development of Zhetl, beginning as a Supplement of Dvoretz and then becoming an independent community, growing in importance and surpassing other neighbouring communities. These dry budget entries are important milestones in the history of our holy community of Zhetl between the years 1623 1761.
by Avrom Ivenitsky of blessed memory
Translated by Janie Respitz
According to a local legend the town Zhetl received its name when the first resident saw his first bird which was a woodpecker, Dzicciol in Polish.
The Geographic Situation
of blessed memory
Zhetl is situated 12 kilometres from the train station in Novolyelne, on the highway which runs from Novoredok through Zhetl, Derechin, Zelve, Volkovisk, Bialystok, Warsaw, all the way to the German border; it is 45 kilometres north of Slonim and 55 kilometres north of Baranovich. To the east there are no larger cities close by; Novoredok is 35 kilometres north east; 50 kilometres north is Lida. There are no large centres close toward the west. Volkovisk is 12 miles west and Grodno is 16 miles North West. The closest largest river, the Nieman, flows 20 kilometres north of Zhetl. Two small rivers cut through Zhetl: the Zhetlke and the Pomerayke.
A Bit of History
From documents found in the Polish National Museum in Grodno, we know that in 1498 the Lithuanian Grand Duke Alexander Yagelonchik, by means of a privilege from June 6th, gave the Duke Konstantin Ostrogsky the right to found the city. Zhetl can calculate its existence from then on.
Later Zhetl was taken over by the Sofyehas and after, the Radziwills. From a Latin inscription on the church we learn the church was built in 1646 by the administrator in Slonim, Duke Kazimierz Leo Sofyehas. We calculate the rounded stores which stretched along the length of the church were built in this same period. They decorated the western wall of the brick surrounding enclosure.
The last owner of Zhetl was Adam Saltan. After the Polish uprising in 1831, Adam Saltan ran away and the town, as well as all the land owned by the Saltans which stretched around 10 kilometres was taken over by the state.
The only remnant of magnate ownership of Zhetl is a palace with the coat of arms of the Saltans on the cornices. Until the German occupation in 1915 there were remnants of a draw bridge which crossed the Zhetlke to the palace where Zhetl actually began.
From the town on the estate there was a tree lined path of very old, wide, beautiful poplar trees. The Germans cut them all down. All the land owned by Zhetl magnates was divided up. Before the war the palace was used as a Russian teacher's seminary. After the First World War it became a Polish trade school for orphaned girls.
Vestiges of Old Jewish Zhetl
The only vestige of old Jewish Zhetl is the old cemetery in the Synagogue court yard. There are no written recollections of that Zhetl. In the old cemetery all the inscriptions on the tombstones are wiped out. There is a record book from the new cemetery which began in 1748. There are no records from the Houses of Study.
Old people tell us that the spot where the present old House of Study stands used to be where the Rabbi's wooden house stood. The house was rebuilt one hundred years ago and is now a walled House of Study. The middle House of study was built beside the old one and a few steps away from these two a third was built by Zhetl's wealthy Jews 150 years later.
Behind these Houses of Study, on the other side of the Pomerayke, which flows very close to them, stood the walled Hasidic Prayer House. The old synagogue once stood in the Synagogue yard which burned down during the big fire 55 years ago. At that time almost the entire town burned down.
The Rabbi Reb Khaim HaKohen Rappaprt The First Rabbi
Old Zhetl was known for its Talmudic scholars and great rabbis. Approximately 200 years ago there was a rabbi, the Gaon (Genius), Reb Khaim son of Simkha HaKohen Rappaport,
who was brought to Slutsk and then to Lemberg.
In 1759 the rabbi went to Lemberg with 40 other rabbis from Poland and had to take part in a debate with the Frankists. From the 40 rabbis, he was chosen together with Rabbi Dubner, the chief judge of the Jewish court in Biazlovitz and Reb Yisroel Besht to debate which resulted in a victory for the rabbis. The debate was chaired by the bishop of Lemberg, Mikolsky who was also the organizer according to the initiative of the Frankists. Reb Khaim HaKohen Rappaport was already the rabbi of Slutsk.
After the debate the Jewish community of Lemberg kept him as their rabbi. Among his most important works were Questions and Answers (Lemberg 1861) and Life Memory (1865).
Interestingly, in the Russian Jewish Encyclopedia it says he was the rabbi in Slutsk and Lemberg. It was news for Prof. M. Balaban to learn Reb Khayim was rabbi in Zhetl for many years.
Therefore in Duber's Well Known People there is a monograph about Khaim son of Simkha HaKohen Rappaport and says his first post as rabbi was in Zhetl. (1729).
The Rabbi Reb Zev Wolf Segal
One hundred years ago there was a rabbi in Zhetl, Reb Zev Wolf Segal, and author of Emek Halakha. Reb Zev Wolf Segal was the Gaon (Genius) of the Jewish community of Zhetl, is mentioned by commentators of Yoreh Daya whose work is based on his Questions and Answers. Reb Zev Wolf Segal was invited to come to Zhetl from Germany* (Reb Zev Wolf Segal came to Zhetl from Zabludove. The author is certainly mistaken).It happened like this: German Jews, merchants, passing through came to Reb Zev Wolf Segal with a religious question for judgement. The question was very complicated. The Rabbi interpreted it so well and judged so cleverly, they returned home to Germany and made him very popular and brought him to be their rabbi.
Reb Zev Wolf was the first to sign the protocol in the record book of the Interest Free Loan Society 100 years ago as one of its first founders.
The Old and New Talmud Society
The most significant role in the old Zhetl Jewish cultural spiritual life was played by the old Talmud Society. Forty years ago the old Talmud Society had among its members such great scholars as the old Zhetl rabbi Reb Borukh Avrom Mirsky, one of the first founders of Mizrachi. Besides his great scholarship he was also an expert in Hebrew language and old Hebrew literature. Another member of the Talmud Society was the deceased rabbi from Moscow, Reb Shmuel Rabinovitch, and the son in law of a Zhetl Jew. He was known for his rabbinic pedigree, his brilliant mind and his vast knowledge of Talmud.
It was very difficult to make one's way into the old Zhetl Talmud Society. Belonging to the society was a sign you were a great scholar. Due to these difficulties a new Talmud Society was founded in Zhetl 50 years ago which did not demand as much from its members but was held up to the high esteem of the old Talmud Society.
After the Talmud Society came the old Zhetl Yeshiva which was famous for its prodigies. Boys came there to study from all corners of Poland, Lithuania and Belarus. A specific Gemara melody rang through the town.
Revolutionaries in Zhetl
In general Zhetl stood at meaningful spiritual heights. In the first years of this century new winds began to blow through old Zhetl. The former Zhetl good boys, in the years of Storm and Drive , generated heroic socialist and revolutionary fighters for the Jewish and Russian worker's movement.
Zhetl was then the centre of the Jewish Workers's Movement in our region and played an important role. Many young Jews were sent to Siberia, forced labour camps and died on Russian gallows. As a remembrance of those revolutionaries in Zhetl: Khaim Kaplinsky and Yitzkhak Rabinovitch, a worker in leather factory, an anarchist who organized and carried out the famous expropriation of Ponarny Pereulak in St. Petersburg in 1905. When he ran away he shot a few policemen. He was hanged.
Many Zhetl revolutionaries have already died. Those who survived are spread throughout the world. Perhaps they remember the past at times, stare at the world with a thoughtful smile on their lips.
by Avrom Shepetnitsky (Kfar Hasidim)
Translated by Janie Respitz
Zhetl was recognized in the Jewish world by its great Rabbis. Great scholars served as chief rabbi of Zhetl in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. It is very possible that Zhetl had a rabbi as early as the 16th century. Unfortunately no evidence about this has remained.
The Rabbi Reb Arye Leyb Segal Hurvitz
The first evidence we have of a rabbi in Zhetl was the rabbi Reb Arye Leyb Segal Hurvitz. We gathered this information from a recommendation printed on the front page of the book Marganita Ha Tova written by Reb Arye Leyb which reads: Reb Arye Leyb from Zhetl who became chief judge of the Jewish court of Minsk.
According to this Reb Arye Leyb was a resident of Zhetl and was hired as rabbi in Minsk. This essay was a commentary on Maimonides' Book of Good Deeds which was published by his son after his death in 1755.
The Rabbi Reb Khaim HaKohen Rappaport
The rabbi Reb Khaim HaKohen Rappaport was the son of Simkha HaKohen Rappaport, one of the greatest rabbis of his time, who was a rabbi in Zhetl. We find proof of this in the book The New Book of Important Men by Rabbi Aharon Voldin who wrote: the Gaon (Talmudic Genius) Reb Khaim HaKohen was the chief judge of the Jewish court in the holy community of Zhetl. A second piece of evidence is from the rabbi Reb Arye Leyb Epshteyn from Grodno who wrote in his Sefer HaPardes (Book of the Grove), that his brother, our esteemed teacher Zev Wolf of blessed memory, studied in Zhetl with the famous Gaon Reb Khaim ben Simkha, who was later the rabbi in Lemberg. A third piece of evidence: in his book Questions and Answers of our Rabbi Khaim HaKohen we find the following passage: the well known Reb Khaim Arye Leyb Segal Hurvitz, author of Marganita Tova, was in Zhetl.
By 1750 he was already rabbi in Slutsk.
[Page 50] We learn this from the book Seder Dorot (Order of generations) by the rabbi Reb Yekhiel Halprin, chief judge of the Jewish court in Minsk. In 1741 he took over the position of chief rabbi of Lemberg, where he died in 1771. According to all probabilities he was rabbi in Zhetl from 1720 1729.
In 1759 he was one of the three rabbis who participated in the debate with the Frankists, which took place in Lemberg, in the presence of priests and Polish statesmen. Thanks to his defense the Talmud was not burned.
His books remained in manuscript form and 90 years after his death one of his grandsons Reb Ruven HaKohen Rappaport from Tarnopol had them published. His most important work was Questions and Answers of Rabbi Khaim HaKohen (Lemberg 1861). The second is a book of his sermons and eulogies called Memory of Life (Lemberg 1865).
His grandsons were great rabbis. Among them was Reb Khaim Hakohen Rappaport (the second), who was the rabbi in Ostrog, who refers to his important grandfather in his book Questions and Answers. He brings forth his grandfather's will where he asks that there should be no words of praise engraved on his tombstone.
The Rabbi Reb Zev Wolf Krantz
The rabbi Reb Zev Wolf Krantz was the father of the Preacher of Dubno, Reb Yakov Krantz. In The New Book of Important Men we read the following about him: The great rabbi Reb Zev Wolf from the city of Zhetl was the son in law of the holy Gaon Reb Nokhem, chief rabbi of the Jewish court of Kobrin, and father the righteous rabbi Reb Yakov from Dubno. From this list it is hard to affirm if he was a rabbi in Zhetl, but there is no doubt he was a great scholar.
The Rabbi Reb Borukh Son of Moishe Bendit
The rabbi Reb Borukh Bendit was the rabbi in Zhetl and Zabludove. He is the author of two books: 1) Ner Elohim (Light of God) and 2) Ner Tamid (Eternal Light). Both these books were published in 1789 in Navidvor.
In the recommendation in the front of his book Ner Tamid by Rabbi Reb Eliezer son of Zvi Hirsh from Grodno, he writes: Borukh Bendit, chief judge of the Jewish court in Zhetl I knew this man and his words.
The Rabbi Reb Moishe
The rabbi Reb Moishe was the son of the Vilna preacher Reb Shloime Zalman, and according to the book Nachlat Avot (Patrimony) was the rabbi in Zhetl in the second half of the 18th century. His brother, Reb Khaim Meseraya was a representative of Gaon of Vilna in his battle against Hasidism. He died in 1795. It is probable, in those years Reb Moishe was the rabbi in Zhetl. His son, Reb Nokhem was the rabbi in Turetz, Lubsht and Karelitch.
The Rabbi Reb Eliezer Namiat
The rabbi Reb Eliezer Namiat was the rabbi in Zhetl. The inscription on his tombstone reads: Eliezer, servant of God.
The Rabbi Reb Zekharia Mendl Namiat
The rabbi Reb Zekharia Mendl was the rabbi in Zhetl fro 40 years. We learn this from the book The Words of Moshe by Dov Moishe son of Yekhiel Mikhl Namiat, born in Zhetl. We read the following in this book: Zekharia Mendl of blessed memory, son of the righteous rabbi, the famous rabbi Duber of sacred blessed memory was known by the name Reb Ber Yezharan, son of the righteous Gaon Zekharia Mendl who was the chief judge of the Jewish court in his birthplace Zhetl for 40 years.
We don't know when Reb Zekharia Mendl was rabbi in Zhetl.
The Rabbi Reb Nisn Radiner
The rabbi Reb Nisn Radiner was, according to the book Nachlat Avot (Patrimony) a rabbi in Zhetl. He was also rabbi in Radin and Bielitza. Reb Nisn wrote an almanac for the years 17891864. At the end of the book he published customs of the whole year written by his father Reb Aron, a rabbi in Lithuania and author of Even Tkumah.
When the rabbi Reb Nisn published his book in the Jewish publishing house in Grodno, he was the rabbi in Zhetl. He writes in the introduction of this book that his family descends from Reb Shaul Wohl.
The Rabbi Reb Khaim Lifshitz
According to the book Nachlat Avot (Patrimony) Reb Khaim Lifshitz was rabbi in Zhetl from 1806 1813. He left Zhetl for Srednik where he served as rabbi for 43 years. Reb Khaim was the son of Reb Eliezer, a student of the Gaon of Vilna. He received his ordination at the fair in Zelve which was signed by the greatest rabbis of the day: Reb Khaim Volazhner, Reb Avrom Ably, and Reb Shaulke Katznelboygn from Vilna.
Reb Khaim Lifshitz passed away in 1856. His position in Srednik was taken over by his son Rabbi Dov Ber who wrote many books: Bar Khaim (Son of Khaim), Shir Khaim (Song of Khaim or life), Mayan Khaim (Source of Khaim or Life) and Ruakh Khaim (Spirit of Khaim or Life). The introduction to his book Ruakh Khaim was written by his father Reb Khaim who wrote under the name Khaim son of Eliezer who was the chief judge of the Jewish court in Zhetl, as well as the branch in Lithuania which was close to Slonim.
Reb Dover Lifshitz, known as Berchik Sredniker is the father of the Lifshitz rabbinic family.
His sons were: the rabbi Reb Hillel Arye Lifshitz rabbi in Plongian, Subalk and Lublin, the rabbi Reb Yekhezkl Lifshitz rabbi in Brisk, Plotzk and Kalicz, the rabbi Reb Eliezer rabbi in Zdunska, Valya, and the rabbi Reb Yakov rabbi in Kanin.
The Rabbi Reb Moishe Avrom Eisenshtat
The rabbi Reb Moishe Eisenshtat was born in Mir in 1814. His father Reb Yosef Dovid was the local rabbi. He was the son of a Zhetl resident Reb Zvi Hirsh Eisneshtat. Reb Yosef Eisenshtat was also born in Zhetl. According to the book Garden of Flowers he received ordination in Zhetl from Rabbi Reb Khaim (probably Lifshitz).
In 1836 Reb Moishe left the rabbinate in Zhetl and moved to Mir to help his father administer the Mir Yeshiva. After his father died he became rabbi of Mir.
Reb Moishe Avrom was the son in law of the renowned teacher from Slonim, Reb Shimon author of Manche Blula.
In the book Toldot Noah by Reb Noakh Rabinovitch (born in Zhetl) we read a eulogy after the death of the rabbi Reb Moishe Avrom.
One of Reb Moishe Avrom's brothers, Reb Yisroel, is the father of the banking family Shereshevsky in Warsaw.
In the book From One Generation to Another by M. Lifson, it is told that one day butchers from Zhetl came to Reb Moishe Avrom and complained, they had borrowed money at interest and if God forbid he bans their ox they will not have money to pay their debt.
When the judge from town saw the rabbi was inclined to kosher the ox they observed he was ruling against the RAMA (Moses Isserles, eminent Rabbi in Poland). The Rabbi replied to them:
If I ban the ox, I will have to deal with these butchers in the world to come and they will never forgive me, but with the RAMA I can reach an agreement. I will ask for his forgiveness and he will forgive.
A second story was told about Reb Avrom. Once, some well off Jews from Zhetl came to him and told him a Jew in Zhetl died from hunger. The rabbi wondered. Anyone he would have asked to give him food would have given. The wealthy men replied:
The man had been rich and lost all he had. He was ashamed to ask for alms.
If so said the rabbi he did not die of hunger but from pride.
The Rabbi Reb Zev Wolf son of Yehuda Halevy
The rabbi Reb Zev Wolf Halevy was the rabbi in Zhetl from 1840 1850.
He is the author of the book Emek Halacha which was highly respected in the rabbinic world. Great rabbinic authorities subscribed to this book.
The rabbis were: Reb Shmuel Avigdor Tosfaa, Reb Yehuda Leyb Zalkind from Dvinsk, Reb Yitzkhak Avigdor from Vasilishok, Reb Borukh Mordkhai Lifshitz from Semiatchich and Reb Shmuel Mohilover from Gluboky. You can find more details about Reb Zev Wolf Halevy in the work: The History of the Jews of Zhetl.
From Zhetl, Rabbi Reb Zev Wolf moved to Zabludove and died in 1859.
The Rabbi Reb Zvi Hirsh HaKohen Dvoretzky
The rabbi Reb Zvi Hirsh was the rabbi in Zhetl from 1850 1891. He was the son of Reb Khaim Orliner, who descended from the family of Reb Khaim Zhaludker, the father of the Eliashberg family.
Reb Khaim Orliner had thirteen sons and seven daughters. One of them was Reb Zvi Hirsh the Zhetl rabbi. Zvi Hirsh was known as a great scholar and a clever man. They spoke of his wisdom in Zhetl for years. He died at the end of Yom Kippur in 1891 after he had been chief rabbi of Zhetl for 41 years.
The Rabbi Reb Borukh Avrom Mirsky
The rabbi Reb Borukh Avrom Mirsky was born in Mir in 1850. His father the rabbi Reb Moishe was
the head of Rabbinical Academy at the Mir Yeshiva. After his father remarried the family moved to Nesviezh where Reb Borukh Avrom got married.
In accordance with the recommendation of Reb Nokhemke from Grodno, in 1873 Reb Borukh Avrom was hired as rabbi in Parizov. He was hired as rabbi in Zhetl in 1892 and remained as chief rabbi for 20 years. He left us a manuscript of a great essay Shemata Deraba in two parts, which his son, Reb Tevel published. You can read about Reb Borukh Avrom Mirsky's involvement in the Hovevei Zion movement in this chronicle in the works of Rabbi Y. L Maimon and Moishe Tsinovitch.
The Rabbi Arye Mikhal Dvoretsky
The rabbi Reb Arye Mikhal Dvoretsky was rabbi in Zhetl for 30 days when in 1912 suddenly died of a heart attack. Reb Arye was the son of Reb Zvi Hirsh HaKohen Dvoretzky who was rabbi in Zhetl for over 40 years. Before Zhetl he was rabbi in Ivenitz and Stavisk.
The Rabbi Reb Zalman Saratzkin
The rabbi Reb Zalman Saratskin was chief rabbi of Zhetl from 1912 1929. He describes his activity in Zhetl in this book.
You can also read the biography of Reb Zalman Saratzkin in the article written by his son Rabbi Elkhanan Saratzkin.
The Rabbi Reb Yitzkhak Raytzer
The rabbi Reb Yitzkhak Raytzer was the last rabbi of Zhetl. He was the chief rabbi from 1930 1942. Before Zhetl he was rabbi in Sayny. He died a martyr's death during the second slaughter in August 1942.
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