Two rivers, the Bug and the Mukhavets, formed the natural boundaries of the town.
The river Mukhavets formed a link to the forests and the marshlands. The river Bug connected the land with the west the shipping links went through the Vistula to Gdansk and the Baltic Sea, and the Dnieper to the Black sea. In the old Polish kingdom Brest was the provincial capitol. In the times of the Lithuanian Duchy it was an important center of the province. Brest Litovsk was the first city to receive rights under the Magdeburg Charter as an autonomous city. In the middle Ages it was the eastern frontier of the Polish State. It was surrounded by a lot of old forests and marshes, it's inhabitants were not very civilized the central power of the Church had difficulty in reaching them the new colonizers were not in a hurry to settle there.
Trade and commerce were not developed and the government did not place much military importance to it, the Catholic and Orthodox churches were seeking to establish their influence over this poor region.
We don't know exactly when Brest was established, but there is hearsay that Brest already existed in the 9th century because of its' importance to the western lands.
Granduke Vitold was looking for a means to interest Jews in all the aspects of Lithuanian development - Lithuania distanced itself from Poland in all aspects.
The Jews at that time were more experienced in business, trade and cultural matters this was his main reason in enticing the Jews to come from the Polish Recz Pospolita (Commonwealth).
When did the Jews come to Lithuania?
According to the official documents of the Grand-duke Vitold in 1388, the Jews were given inhabitant rights. These decrees indicate that he knew years earlier of the benefits in having Jewish communities. Everything showed that the Jews of his Duchy excelled themselves with their ability and diligence the duke saw in the Jews a serious force in the development of trade and commerce.
There is evidence that the Jewish community was settled there by the first half of the 14th century. There are no specific details of the Jewish community because of all the wars and subsequent fires; all the documentation has been lost.
It's very hard to determine where the Jews of Brest-Litovsk came from; the majority came from Poland where they had come to after being expelled from Germany.
Their various customs and the spoken Yiddish proved this.
It is also possible that some of the Brest Jews came from Russia, because it was found that some of the Jews were involved in agriculture. This proving a more eastern origin, as trade and money matters were more representative of the western Jews.
The first official mention of the Brest-Litovsk Jewish community is found in the Right to Inhabit Decree of the Grand-duke Vitold in 1388. The Grand-duke knew of the Privileges granted by the Polish king Wladislaw to the Polish Jews in 1264, the contents were very similar to those granted by Vitold., it was highly probable that the Brest- Litovsk Jews knew of the privileges granted by the Polish king to their Polish brethren, and gave this example as a precedent when negotiating with Vitold.
In the decree, Vitold granted the Jews of Brest, and all the Jews of Lithuania, equal standing in rank and jurisdiction. For example: ordinary disputes between Jews could be determined by a Jewish judge more serious cases involving the death penalty must be heard by a government judge.
A Christian who disturbed a Jewish grave would be strongly punished and his assets confiscated. It is forbidden to accuse the Jews of ritual murder, the king would determine the penalty for such a crime.
Jews were exempt from military service to the government.
A Christian who murdered a Jew would be executed and his belongings confiscated.
A Christian who beat a Jew would be punished the same as for beating a non-Jew.
It is forbidden to persecute a Jew, who goes from one place to another, for the importing of goods, he should pay the same tax as the rest of the population.
If a Christian attacks a Jew at night, the Christian neighbours are obliged to come to his aid, if they don't, they will also be punished.
This decree strengthened the community and re-enforced the leaders in their powers.
The Duke decreed that special attention be given to the Jews to enforce the verdicts given by the Jewish judges. The Duke allowed Jews to buy land and to cultivate the soil and plant seeds. From that time it proves that the Jews of Brest were involved in agriculture.
'The Right to Inhabit' decree had several important statutes which were granted to the Jews of Brest, these were much later granted to the other Lithuanians communities under the Kings Zygmund the First (1507) and Zygmund the Third (1570).
The Brest community had striven to obtain these privileges so that they could conduct honest livelihoods according to the laws of the land actually this was the aim of all the Diaspora Jews.
We have no documents about the spiritual lives of the Jews of Brest in the 16th century; it is not known who their leaders were. There is superficial evidence of the first Brest Rav, HaGaon Yechiel Luria, the grandfather of Rabbi Luria who came from Alsace Lorraine and became Marah D'Altra (Chief Rabbi) of Brest in 1470.
According to different documents, there were in Brest Jews who were landowners, some of whom owned villages that ruled the local peasants, merchants who traded their goods well beyond the borders of Lithuania.
At the time of Kasimir Jagiello (Kasimir 4th) 1447-92, the laws pertaining to Jews were observed and the king, as had the previous king, benefitted from the town and Lithuania generally. During the 100-year period between Vitold and the death of Kasimir the Forth the Jews of Brest lived in peace. They established important bases for the gold trade and finance.
2.) After the death of Kasimir Jagiello in 1492, the fortunes of the Brest Jews were to be shaken. The king had 2 sons, the first, Jan Ulbrecht, was crowned king of Poland, the second, Alexander, was crowned Grandduke of Lithuania.
The news of the expulsion of the German Jews, the expulsions of Jews from Spain, Portugal and Provence, and the confiscation of the Jew's assets, came to Lithuania.
The aristocracy and the Lithuanian Boyars under the Duke Alexander wanted to confiscate the Jewish assets they coveted the wealth of the Brest Jews.
The duke issued a proclamation stating that whoever would not convert to Catholicism by April 1495, would have to leave Lithuania. Despite the economic strength of the Brest Jews, they were forced to migrate from Lithuania for Poland. There was instability between the church and the Lithuanian ruling class, the rulers of Brest took the houses, estates and villages of the Jews and apportioned them amongst themselves.
There was a Brest Jew, a rich landowner who left his brethren and converted. This was Avraham Josefovitch, the brother of the famous Michael Josefovitch. Avraham Josefovitch reached the rank of Adelikan, in spite of the fact he had many enemies, he became the finance minister of Poland and his family assimilated into the Polish aristocracy.
In the year 1501, King Jan Ulbrecht died. His brother, Alexander inherited the throne of Poland and Lithuania. Within a short time it became clear to Alexander that the expulsion of the Jews had badly affected the Lithuania's finances. The economy of Lithuania had sunk to a very low level and the country was also suffering greatly from the Tartars attacks, which had razed Brest to the ground. In 1503 Alexander allowed the Jews to return to Lithuania, he ordered his ministers to return their fortunes to them. Alexander decreed in 1505, that all the rights of the Jews be reinstated, all their assets and goods be returned to them, and he also decreed that a hospital and public baths be built in Brest.
Many Jews petitioned the king, reporting those gentiles who refused to return their goods and property. Then king then ordered that their assets be returned, plus interest accrued during the period they were confiscated. The situation of the Jews of Brest was unchanged until 1507, when Alexander died. After Alexander, two brothers came to the throne.
The first, Zygmund 1, was an enlightened man with good intentions towards the Jews, he appreciated their value. In both 1507 and later in 1511, he reissued Vitold's edict of 1388. Under Zygmund 1, and the Jews of Brest lived peacefully.
They were engaged in business, trade and agriculture, they were also artisans, tavern -keepers, and plowed the fields. They also were suppliers to the Polish Army of munitions, clothing and goods that King Zygmund needed in large quantities due to the ongoing wars with his enemies both to the east and the west.
In 1514 the king cancelled an extraordinary tax that his brother Alexander had levied in times of war - 1000 army cavalrymen.
In those days, commerce and business flourished and Brest became a town of merchants. The Talmudic scholars studied day and night in the Yeshiva of Brest which had become world famous it's students went all over the world.
King Zygmund 1 believed that for his own aims, the cultural life of the Jews was important to the Jewish community. The first step in interfering in the internal affairs of the Jewish community of Brest was a prohibition that Zygmund issued forbidding the marriage of the daughter of Rabbi Moshe Rascovitch, who was known as the second Brest Rav, to the son of the Rabbi of Cracow, who had been expelled from Poland for a political transgression.
The second step was to establish a leader from amongst the Jews to collect the taxes and supervise all organization for the Kehilla (community). According to the king's wishes, Michael Josefovitch was elected as head of the Jews of Brest and all of Lithuania. In a letter he decreed that Michael Josefovitch had served him honestly and faithfully, and ordered that he be the intermediary between himself and the Jews. All taxes that were levied on the Lithuanian Jews were to be brought to Michael Josefovitch to transfer to the State Treasury. Thanks to his diligent efforts he was established as the king's representative. Michael Josefovitch was not a great Talmudic scholar but he was a religious man. He used the powers granted by the king and became autocratic and arrogant. At the time there was a revolt against Zygmund by the Duke Galinski.
Michael Josefovitch openly dealt with two Jews who sided with Galinski and confiscated their fortunes.
Some Jews complained to the king, Zygmund heard both sides, both of whom quoted Torah, but he upheld Josefovitch. To enforce his power, Michael Josefovitch requested that the king establish as Rabbi of Brest and of all Lithuania, Rabbi Mendel Frank, a famous Talmudic scholar, formerly Chief Rabbi of Posen, known as the Gaon of Lublin.
The Jews of Brest, who were fighting for their rights, did not want a Rabbi established by the power of the king, but an independent who was chosen by their own community. Mendel Frank complained to the king that the Jews were not obedient to him; they took their disputes to the civil authorities at the Town Council. The king threatened them with punishment, but then relented Mendel Frank left Brest and for a long time after the Rabbis of Brest had the title 'Rav Kollel'.
Michael Josefovitch and his brother Yitzhak served without interruption as chief ministers and advisors to the king. They managed his finances, they supplied him with munitions and it is worthwhile to note the activities of the brothers Josefovitch.
An example a Jew called Aaron the Blind was suspected of having poked out the eyes of a gentile in Brest, and then rubbed salt on the wound. The Jewish court demanded that Michael Josefovitch guarantee that he would put the accused in his own custody, and free him eventually. It came to light that he was a criminal and Josefovitch refused to give this guarantee and claimed that a Jewish community court had no power over the accused.
The Town Council (gentiles) tried him according to the Magdeburg law and ordered that his hands be cut off. After that, Michael Josefovitch realised that he had made a mistake in handing over a Jew to the gentile court, the case was judged on suspicions, not circumstantial evidence, and the verdict was carried out.
Michael Josefovitch was involved in many large business ventures; nevertheless, he did not stop furthering the cause of the Jews of Brest.
In March 1527, King Zygmund decreed that there be a travel tax on all coaches going through Brest. The Christians who collected the tax did not want to give the Jews their share. After the Jews of Brest through Josefovitch, petitioned the king, requesting that the powers of the Brest rulers be used, and that the Jews be given their share.
The king wrote that the Jews paid taxes like everybody else, so they should also be able to receive income from the State.
King Zygmund generously rewarded Josefovitch for his loyalty. He gave him the title of Adelikin - the ceremony was in the marketplace of Cracow in 1525. This is the only example of a Jew receiving a title despite not having renounced his religion and adhering to his religious beliefs.After the death of Josefovitch, the rank and privileges of the father went to his children. Josefovitch himself did not accomplish any special historical deeds to distinguish himself in the history of the Lithuanian Jews.
3.) In the first half of the 16th century, after the death of Zygmund 1, we find the Jews of Brest in good economic and social conditions. They were protected by the king against the church and the aristocracy, who wanted to take away from the Jews their economic privileges.
The Jews received a proportion of the city taxes and together with the other inhabitants of Brest carried out their share of city maintenance and such work as maintaining the bridges over the rivers and the city fortifications.
In 1548 Zygmund Augustus became king of Poland. He strove to bring the West and East closer together. During his reign many Jews came from the west to Poland.
There have been many documents showing the good relations the Jews had with the gentiles during the time of Zygmund Augustus. Their rights were confirmed and furthermore, the management and collction of taxes was placed in Jewish hands.
One time, it was brought to Zygmund Augustus' attention - a dispute between the gentiles in Pinsk and the Jewish tax collectors of Brest. The Jewish Finance Minister confiscated salt belonging to the gentiles, because the gentiles were stealing the salt taxes. The king supported the Jew's actions in this case. However, Zygmund Augustus burdened the Jews of Poland and Lithuania with heavy taxes.
In 1566 there were 106 Jewish house owners in Brest as against 746 gentiles in Brest.
The houses were timber, and there were about 14 inhabitants in each house. However, the economic situation of the Brest Jews was considered good.
In those days, the study of Torah flourished in Poland, which had replaced Germany as the European centre of Torah learning. The Union of Poland and Lithuania (Lublin 1569) had brought the two communities closer together.
Brest became the central community in Lithuania and became known all over the world. Even a Jewish printing press was established there, and dynasties of Rabbis were founded there. In the first half of the 16th century, Rabbi Klonimus was seated on the rabbinical chair; he was the son-in-law of the Gaon Rabbi Shlomo Luria (known as the Rashal)
His pupil, Rabbi Jakob Kitzingen, wrote in his book Hag HaPesach page 21, and this happened - whilst I was studing Torah with my great teacher, the Rashal, of blessed memory,who was then Rosh Yeshivah of the holy Kehilla of Brest, in the house of the generous Reb David Drucker that mice ate up the Afikoman.
This Rabbinate of Brest was recognised as the most prestigious and important in Lithuania, and the Brest congregation was mentioned amonst the most important in Poland at that time, the others being Lublin, Posen and Cracow. This we also learn from the words of the
Gaon Rabbi Meir of Lublin (known as the Maharam), who wrote in his Questions and Answers page 88: All the elders and great teachers, and the great Gaonim( Sages) of all Poland, Lithuania and Russia, are therefore, the great Gaon Rabbi Mordechai Joffe, head of the Holy congregation of Posen, and the Gaon, the Wonder, Rabbi Moshe, Rosh Bet Din of the Holy congregation of Cracow, and the Wonder in Torah and in Chassidut, Rabbi Leib, Rosh Bet Din of the Holy congregation of Brest.
Thus wrote Rabbi Moshe Isserlich (known as the Ramo) of the Sages of Brest in his Questions and Answers, note 1: Together, our Rabbis from Brest, that everyone is blessed and uplifted by their position, Shalom. From this source we learn that the rabbis would swap their positions in the Kehilla (community council) .
In the beginning of the 17th century, in the year 1618 the Rabbi of Brest was the Gaon Rabbi Joel Sirkis, who was known as the 'Bach', after his book, Bayit Chadash (New House), an explanation of the 4 parts of the 'Turim'. In the year 1618, Rabbi Joel Sirkis, the 'Bach', went to Cracow. According to legend, the Bach left the Rabbinate of Brest, because members of the congregation accused him, that one night the light in his house did not burn after midnight, a sign that he did not sit and study until late.
(A similar accusation was written many years later by the Gabbais of the Vilna Congregation, against their Rabbi, the Gaon Rabbi Shmuel, that sometimes he did not stay up late and studies, as there was no light in his house past midnight).
In the year 1618, Rabbi Joel Sirkis, the Bach, signed an excommunication order, which was brought about by the great rabbis of Poland and Lithuania, against a doctor from Amsterdam (Holland). This doctor was also spokesperson of the Dutch Jewish community.
The excommunication order was taken out against him because he made a mockery of the words of our Sages and only believed in the wisdom of Philosophy. The Bach formulated the words as follows: there is no doubt that this man deserves the death penalty,isolation, and to be thrown out of town, because even if this had happened in the time of our Sages, he would have been isolated, as it is quoted in the Talmud and 'Masechet Velo Megalchin'.
Even more so when it is a matter of making a mockery of Sages and speaks negatively about the wisdom of the Kabbalah, which is the source of the Torah and it's principal text- as a whole it is full of fear of heaven, and he deserves ex-communication, and in addition, he follows the philosphy of the free- thinker (Apicorus).
There is no doubt that a person, whether he be a learned person, who laughs off the words of the Sages and the wisdom of the Kabbala, deserves to be killed and ex-communicated,
because this is the free- thinker in all his power.
4.) In the year 1568, there was a great fire in Brest and the entire Jewish neighbourhood burnt down. King Zygmund Augustus relieved the Jewish community of one third of their taxes in the New Year, on the condition that they would rebuild their houses in stone or brick.
This helped the Jews build a new district; they also built a new Beth Hamidrach, according to the designs of the builder Patronka of Posen. Near the Beth Hamidrach was the Great Yeshiva; the Beth Hamidrach remained until 1842.
During the reign of Zygmund Augustus, the native inhabitants were inventing various blood libels accusations designed at expelling the Jews from the commercial life of Brest.
In 1564 there was a blood libel against a Jew from a neighbouring town he was accused of knifing a Christian girl to use her blood to make matzot. The king released him and decreed on the 10th May 1566, that only under the conditions of 3 Jewish and 3 Gentile witnesses could such an accusation be levelled, and only the king could judge such a case of ritual murder.
The same decree was confirmed by his successor, Stephan Batory on the 9th August 1576.
According to historical information we have concerning the Brest Jews in those days, they were involved in importing fabrics and raw-materials from Germany and other lands.
They would manufacture clothing and other goods and send them to Russia.
Then Ivan the Terrible, who was known as an enemy of Israel, forbade the importing of these goods into Russia.
At the same time, the Great Yeshiva in Brest was established, and talented students from all over Europe streamed towards it.
5.) In the year 1572, in the transition period before the election of Stephan Batory in 1576, Ivan the Terrible attempted to take the kingdom by force, but the Poles repelled him.
Then Batori was elected as king in 1576. The Jews rejoiced at the defeat of the Enemy of Israel the youth of Brest arranged a Purim play in 1577 in which Haman was depicted as 'Ivan of Moscow'.
In the second half of the 16th century amongst the young students who came to study at the Brest Yeshiva, there was a Saul Wahl from Padua in Italy. There in Padua his father was the Gaon Shmuel Yehuda Katzenellenbogen -Minc, the son of the famous Maharam of Padua, famed as a Posek (Rabbinic judge and authority). In Brest Saul Wahl married Devorah, the daughter of a rich merchant Reb Yehuda Krocker. Reb Krocker was the Parnas (community leader) of the Brest Kehilla.
Thanks to his great knowledge of the Torah and wisdom, Saul Wahl became very important amonst the inhabitants of Brest. He also found favor with the king Stephan Batory who made him one of the greatest Arendars in Lithuania- Poland.
According to legend, after the death of Stephan Batory in 1586, there was a meeting of the Council of Ministers in Warsaw to elect a new king, however, they could not reach agreement and followed a suggestion by Prince Radzivilll that Saul Wahl be made king for one night, until they could reach agreement. The next day they elected Zygmund the Third.
Naturally this is a legend, but the Wahl family folklore claimed that during that one night, Saul Wahl affirmed all the decrees pertaining to the welfare of Jews.
In 1578, Saul Wahl was in charge of all the salt manufacture, and was Controller of all the king's finances in Brest and vicinity. Notwithstanding his heavy business responsibilities for all of Poland, we find his name mentioned in many documents that confirm his status and endeavors for the Brest community. Saul was special envoy to the king, because of his relationship to the monarchy he was able to ceaselessly campaign for the Jew's rights.
In 1582 Saul Wahl requested one quarter of the town's taxes for the Brest Jews, and King Zygmund the Third ratified this.
In 1593, Saul Wahl brought forth an accusation against the city elders in front of the king. The elders of Brest were interfering in Jewish affairs and were oppressing and beleaguering the Jews with their demands for heavy taxes. Zgymund the Third sent a letter to the Town Council of Brest forbidding them to interfere in Jewish affairs. Also in the Christian population, Saul Wahl was respected and esteemed as the king's' representative.
In 1595, all the inhabitants of Brest approached Saul Wahl and requested that he intervene with the king on their behalf, to lower their taxes. There are no further references to Saul Wahl in that year. We don't know the date of Saul Wahl's death, but before his death he allocated part of his fortune to the poor and the Yeshivot.
Wahl's family lineage was far -reaching. His son the Gaon Rav Avrashka Wahl, became Head of the Brest Yeshiva, he was the son-in-law of the 'Tosfot Yom Tov', Rabbi Lipman Heller. In Avrashka Wahl's time there was in the Brest Yeshiva a great scholar named Rav Josef Isserlich, the brother of the Ramo, Rabbi Meir Isserlich.
In his elder years, Rav Avrashka was the Rabbi of Lwow, and until Rabbi Jacob Padua, who was a great-grandson of Saul Wahl's, who died in Brest in 1855, all the Brest rabbis were related to the Wahl dynasty.
Towards the end of the 16th century the importance of Brest to the central government and the Sjem (Polish parliament) had increased. The Sjem assembled there in 1594-96.
Brest was also a meeting place of the bishops. Brest was the most respected community in Lithuania and actively involved in the meetings of the Council of Four Lands. In a meeting of the Four Land's Council in 1607, there was a Rabbi from Brest, Rabbi Yehuda Eilenberg, representing the Jewish communities (Kehillot) of Lithuania, which belonged to Poland.
In 1623, there was a split between Lithuania and Poland because of their many differences and different systems of government. There were many reasons for the formation of the Council of Lithuania
. In 1644, the Jews of Brest complained to the Lithuanian government that students from the Theological Seminary had attacked and molested them in the streets. In the same year, there was a counter-complaint from the Seminary students that Jews had attacked and beaten them. The atmosphere of anti-Jewish sentiment and the ill will of the Church was increasingly felt, and the Jews were seeking to counteract these troubles.
6.)In the years 1648 and 1649, great suffering came with the Cossack uprising under the leadership of Bogdan Chmelnitski. In this revolt against the Polish king, Wladislaw the Fourth, much Jewish blood was split, mainly in eastern Poland. According to sources, the Jews suffered greatly, hundreds were murdered, and these hundreds were the Jews that had not fled from Brest. The Jew's homes were looted and destroyed, and their belongings stolen. From a book by Nathan Hanover in the other large communities of Lithuania there were thousaands and tens of thousands of Jews murdered. From the communities of Slutsk, Minsk and Brest, many fled into Greater Poland, by using the Vistula River, many even reached Gdansk. The poor people who remained were slaughtered. In another chapter how many souls of the remaining poor, the holy people who were the remnants of the Brest Kehilla, were murdered in the glory of God in that year (1648).
A priest called Gregory Kanakov has left a list of Brest murders from the time of the massacres. He describes how the city was ransacked, the Jew's worldly goods looted and destroyed, and most of the Jews killed. The Polish soldiers who arrived and chased the Cossacks away, killed the small number of Jews that had survived, whilst searching for their hidden treasures.
From the books of that time is a book called 'Helkat Machkok' by Rabbi Moshe Lima, son of Rabbi Yehuda Lima, who had left the Rabbinate in Lithuania and was in that year was the Rabbi of Brest. In this book we read of the Cossack atrocities. A woman eyewitness to the atrocities of the Cossacks reported that the Cossack murderers killed their victims by swinging their axes and cutting off their victim's heads. Then they wiped their axes on the victim's clothes. Another description:' Our own eyes have seen many people slaughtered and taken prisoner.' The Gaon Rabbi Moshe was the pupil of the author of the book 'Pnei Yoshua' and many rabbis corresponded with him, he died in Brest.
The decrees of the years 1648 1649 were reflected in the decisions of the Lithuanian Jewish Council that was assembled in 1649. Until our own eyes saw, because of our many sins, how many Jews were abducted and assimilated with the gentiles, and so forth .
Because of that we are now writing to all places and congregations where there are at least 10 people (a minyan), that they have the right to pay ransom for every soul under the age of 17, without hesitation, or having to ask permission.
And also in regards to the poor dispossessed people, who have became like nomads in our land and wander around. This ruling, which was to be strictly enforced on the movement of these homeless masses, we should now, after the tragedy, hasten with saving as many Jewish lives as possible.
7.) The revolt of the Cossacks and the wars that Poland waged against Moscow and the Swedes, as well as the Turkish attacks, all contributed to the deteriorating position of the Jews in Lithuania and Poland. As in other towns, the Jews of Brest became impoverished, those who were once affluent became homeless, and Jewish fortunes were lost.
In 1661 King Jan Kazimir freed the Jewish citizens of Brest from the compulsory billeting of Polish soldiers, and relief from various taxes. This is because they were impoverished and unable to pay. The king, Jan Kazimir, genuinely wanted to improve the conditions of the Brest Jews and to influence them to return to normal life. Therefore, he issued a special manifest on the 13th June 1665, in which he exhorted his ministers to protect the Jews and to look after their interests. However, the attacks on the Jews increased, especially from the nobility.
The king, who was courageous enough on the 13th May 1665, to sentence an nobleman to death. This nobleman had ridden his horse into the Bet Hamidrach in Brest, brandishing his sword, and killed the caretaker of the synagogue. The family of this nobleman was also forced to pay compensation to the family of the murdered man.
However, the overall situation of the Jews in Brest was grim. Commerce dwindled, and the Christian population in Brest became saturated with the hatred of Israel. The Church incited against the Jews, and the nobility found revenue through robbery and corruption.
In 1679 in Brest, there was the trial of a long drawn -out dispute over land ownership.
The head of the church in Brest claimed large areas of land on which Jewish houses had been built, claiming that this belonged to the Church. On the other hand, the Jews had the official documentation proving that the land indeed belonged to them before they had erected their homes. This dispute had dragged on for years, and led to violence and blows, but the Jews won their case in the end.
In 1669, Michal Wiszniewski, who was the king's representative, affirmed the rights of the Jews in Brest. He allowed the Jews to build gates that were locked on the Sabbath and Holy days, so that their Gentile neighbors could not molest them.
This statute did not appeal to the anti-Semitic nobility and at a meeting of the Brest Assembly in 1669, the nobility requested that heavy penalties be imposed on Jews who employed Christian workers and servants.
The rights of the Jews werer affirmed by the king, Jan Sobieski in 1676, who was known as a friend of the Jews. He strengthened their rights. Because of this, a charge of conspiracy was levelled against the Jews in Brest. It was alleged that the Jews had murdered a Jewess that had converted to Catholicism and then disappeared. Several members of her family were sentenced to death.
The grave situation of the Jews was illustrated by the following events:
In 1682 elected representatives of the Jewish Community (kehilla) appeared before the governor of Brest with the following petition. Many Jews had borrowed large sums of money from the nobility without consultation. The kehilla was held responsible for these large debts. The kehilla requested that it be made compulsory to first ask permission of the kehilla before borrowing money.
In 1670 the plight of the Jewish borrowers was illustrated by the reform amendment (Takanon): those who give their wives and children as sureties will suffer in both worlds.
Amongst the signatories of this amendment was the Gaon Benjamin Ginsburg, the Rabbi of Brest.
In 1676, the king Jan Sobieski agreed to heavily punish those that did not honour their debts, and gave permission to the kehilla to treat this as a criminal act and punish them.
In 1684 the government closed the Brest Beth Hamidrash (prayer house) for not paying a debt owed by a Jew to the Brest Government. Only after that debt was repaid was the Beth Hamidrach reopened. During this period, some of the assets of the Jewish community were sold to the Church as repayment of debts.
After Jan Sobieski's death in 1696, war broke out in Poland. Civil war erupted like flames between the followers of Stanislaw and the followers of Augustus 11, who was eventually elected as king. Augustus 11 reigned between 1697 and 1733. The Jews of Lithuania felt the impact of these conflicts more than the other citizens, they were oppressed from all sides, and not helped by the affirmation of their rights by the king.
The importance of Brest was diminished by the central powers. Many new towns were established in the area and grew in importance. Amongst the Jewish communities of Lithuania, Vilna became more important. The significance of Brest began to waver. An example of this diminished power was illustrated by the kehilla of Slutsk declaring that they wanted to be independent of the Brest kehilla. A member of the Four Lands Council requested that he be appointed the leader 'of the famous and beautiful Slutsk community'.
As Brest did not respond to this request in time, the Slutsk kehilla decided to grant this request by themselves.
Brest, which had served as an example to other Jewish communities by their punctuality in collecting and paying taxes, protested against soldiers accompanying the tax collectors.
The war minister requested that the Jews of Brest attend a military tribunal for attacking soldiers. When King Augustus the Third came to the throne in 1733, he promised to uphold the rights of the Jews and their protection. However, the Adelikan strengthened their persecution by reinforcing the locals who wanted to expel the Jews from the business and commercial life of Brest.
In 1759, there was a meeting of the Polish parliament in Brest, several members of this Parliament attacked the Jews in the Great Synagogue, and demanded money. The criminals were brought to justice, but their leader was lightly sentenced and the rest were exonerated.
8.) Notwithstanding its economic decline, the town of Brest retained its greatness. It was a large community, full of Talmudic sages and clever Talmudic businessmen who respected the Torah, and the names of the Brest rabbis shone in the list of Sages (Gaons) of the Polish and Lithuanian rabbis.
Amongst some of the Sages and rabbis who were recorded in the list of Brest rabbis after the decrees of 1648 -49 were:
The Gaon Yakov, son of the Gaon Ephriam Zalman Shor, the son-in-law of Rabbi Yeshayahu, the son of the Nagid, Reb Moshe Lisras.Reb Moshe Lisras left a lot of money in his will to the Council of Lithuania. These monies were supposed to help the communities, specifically to build Beth Midrashim (prayer houses and schools). After him, there was a rabbi of Brest in the year 1655, Reb Moshe Lima, who wrote 'Helkat Mechokek'.
And after Rabbi Lima, the Gaon Rabbi Aharon Shmuel Kwidenaver, author of the books Birkat Hazevach and Birkat Shmuel. Then the Gaon Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh in the year 1664.
Until the Gaon Mordechai Ginsburg was the rabbi of Brest D'Lita, the custom was not to retain the rabbinical seat for more than 3 years. With Rabbi Ginsburg, this custom changed.
Rabbi Mordechai Ginsburg was succeeded by the Gaon Rabbi Mordechai Zyzkind Rottenberg, the author of the book Questions and Answers of Rabbi Mordechai Zyskind In 1691,the rabbi of Brest was the Gaon Rabbi Saul, the son of Rabbi Heshel. Rabbi Saul, was later the Rabbi of Krakow.
In 1713 there was in Brest a rabbi, Aryeh Yehuda Leib, the grandson of the author of the Shaagat Aryeh
In 1718, the rabbi was Nachman Sirkin, who was praised by Rabbi Yaakov Emden in his books, Torat HaKanaut and Ezrat Yaakov.
At the time that Stanislaw Poniatowski became king of Poland in 1764, conditions were very difficult for the Jews because he followed the laws of the Russian Empress, Catherine the Great. At that time there was a Russian law that each community was responsible for collecting their own revenue and taxes. The Polish king followed the Russian laws in relation to the Jewish communities and ordered that the Council of Lithuania be continued.
In 1768, the Polish parliament issued an edict forbidding Jews who held no special concessions, from owning taverns. Not all the tavern owners could produce such concessions, and therefore many Jews lost their livelihoods. As many Jews were innkeepers in Lithuania and Wolyn, this main source of income was lost.
In 1761, the Council of the Lithuanian State held it's last meeting in Slutsk. The first signatory on this final proclamation was the Gaon Rabbi Abram Katzenellebogen, who was previously the Rabbi of Slutsk. From 1760, Rabbi Katzenellenbogen was famed as a Gaon, and as an opponent of the Chassidim.
During the time of Rabbi Yacob Meir Padua's term as rabbi of Brest in 1847, there was a great fire in Brest and the Great Synagogue burnt down. On the main street of Brest in the central Jewish business area, all the shops burnt down, and 12 men died, incinerated in the fire. With much difficulty, Rabbi Yakov Meir made great efforts on behalf of their widows that they should not remain as Agunot (deserted wives, unable to remarry), according to the law in Tshuvot.
The Great Synagogue that was destroyed had been built in 1759,and improved by Saul Wahl. The erection of the new synagogue lasted 10 years, 1851-1861, due to many shortages. The designs for the new synagogue were according to the sketches of the Rabbi, Yakob Meir Padua, who was the Rabbi of Brest 1840-1855.
After the death of Rabbi Yakov Meir, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Orenstein occupied the rabbinical seat in 1865. Rabbi Orenstein was a Gaon of Torah and also a very efficient organizer. Under his leadership, the communal hospital and old people's home were built. In those days there was a law that every Jewish community had to provide a certain number of recruits for the Russian army, or buy their exemption with money. Rabbi Orenstein was always seeking means to ransom these recruits and to provide money for their release.
Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh did many good deeds for his community until the Russian authorities exiled him in 1874, on the pretext that he was from Galicia, and therefore, a foreigner. In his last years, he was the Rabbi of Lwow, his book Brachot Tzvi Hirsh, was published after his death in 1888.
To the rabbinical seat came another Gaon, Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin, who previously had been the rabbi of Lomza, Kovno, and Shklov. Rabbi Diskin was a Gaon who was extremely orthodox and uncompromising in Brest he had many conflicts with the Russian authorities.
In 1877, Rabbi Diskin issued a rabbinical ruling that was in opposition to the law of the Russian government. Due to this, he was forced to leave Brest after 3 years of being the rabbi. He went to Jerusalem and whilst there was a vehement and passionate opponent of the Zionists and the enlightened (secular) Jews. He forbade the Heter Shmita, which was a law passed in 1889, by the sages and rabbis, amongst them the rabbi of Kovno, Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor.
In Jerusalem, Rabbi Diskin established a large orphanage, and the Yeshiva Ohel Moshe. He died in Jerusalem in 1898, his book Question and Answers of Rabbi Y.L. Diskin, was published after his death.
By the end of the 19th century the Jewish population of Brest had greatly increased.
The military Garrison at the Fortress, one of the symbols of the Russian Empire, brought much business to the tradesmen and artisans of Brest. From the surrounding shtetls (villages), Jews came to settle in Brest. In the 1880's Jews were 50% of the town's population.
They were engaged in trade, craftsmen, light industries and building enterprises.
In the year 1878, the Sage and Righteous, Rabbi Joseph Dov Ber Soleveitchik, (Rabbi Yoshe Ber) was elected to be Rabbi of Brest. From 1878, up to the great disaster of 1939, the rabbinical seat of Brest was occupied by Rabbi Yoshe Ber, his son Chaim and his grandson, Ze'ev Wolf Soleveitchik, until the destruction of the town. Rabbi Joseph Ber was born in Niesvitz in 1820 and studied in Volozhin. For many years he wandered through various yeshivas, he was the Rabbi of Brest until he died in 1892. He was much loved by all. Yoshe Ber was a sympathizer of the ideas of Yishuv Israel, which was founded in 1860 in Brest. He was the author of the book, 'Beth Halevi', which was four parts of questions and answers, and sermons.
In 1891 there were 30,000 Jews in Brest out of a population of 46,000. In that time, emigration from Brest and all of Russia greatly increased. Many left for America, Argentina, etc. Amongst the Zionists (Chovevei Zion) that made Aliyah to Israel in 1884, were some from Brest. The Russian authorities were very distrustful of the Jews of Brest, because of the town's strategic position; the Russian rulers doubted the Jew's loyalty in case of war.
In 1892, the rabbinical seat passed on to Rabbi Chaim Soleveitchik, Rabbi Chaim played a very large role not only as Rabbi of Brest, but also as Chief Rabbi of the general Jewish community of Russia. The Brest community was very proud of Chaim, he was known as Chaim Brisker. He was recognized by every scholar and learned Jew.
He wrote the following books: 'The Renewal of Rabbi Chaim Halevy'. 'Explanations of the book of the Ram Bam'. 'New explanations of Questions that have arisen in the Talmud'. With the death of Rabbi Chaim in 1918, the Jewish community of Brest became orphaned.
It's a wonderful thing in the history of the Jewish people that the city of Brest D'Lita, over a period of many generations, developed into the chief Jewish community of Poland and Lithuania. The Brest Rabbis and Sages extended their influence over the whole of European Jewry, and retained and continued their influence until the great tragedy and demise of this community.
|A 17th Century Purification Cup|
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