« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »

[Page 19]

The History of the Jewish Community of Minsk (Cont'd)

Chapter 3

The Community of Minsk as Part of the
Council of Communities of Lithuania [*1]

Translated by Jerrold Landau

The concept of the community as an autonomous corporation. The struggle for internal independence despite external servitude. The Council of Main Communities of Lithuanian as a logical idea. The division of taxes by community. The supreme court of the Lithuanian Jewry. Emergency decrees on the settlement. Minsk as a prime community sends a delegate to the Sejm in Warsaw. The economic initiative of the community of Minsk. Judgement against slanderers in Minsk. Blood libels in the region of Minsk. The setting of the Council of Lithuanian Communities. Turning to the values of the gentiles.
The community of readers in the Land of Israel and the Diaspora who grew up after the Second World War and after the destruction of the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, will not understand the unique implications of the term “community” (“kehilla”), that contributed more than any other phenomenon to the continued existence of the Jewish communities that spread out in all corners of the world. In today's era of centralized government that casts its net over all of the population of a country without differentiation based on religion, culture, or ethnic origin – the full meaning of a community cannot be understood unless we describe the political, economic, cultural and religious background of those days.

During the middle ages, various classes, such as the nobility, the clergy, the various tradesmen and merchants, as well as national minorities whose origins were elsewhere, benefited from the right of internal autonomy, including in the judicial realm. Within this background, the Jews without a homeland found a replacement for independent national life. Even though it was not in all realms of life, it was at least in those areas that were important in Jewish tradition, including cultural and religious freedom, the right to educate their children and inculcate in the tradition that was appropriate for them, and matrimonial and judicial life in accordance with Torah law.

The struggle for communal autonomy necessitated a super-communal organization that drew its authority from the communities, and also served as the source of authority for communal leaders, religious and secular alike. The manner of collecting government taxes in an organized fashion, through the means of the Council of Lithuanian Communities and also through the individual communities themselves, instilled more power and authority to the communal leadership.

King Zygmunt I of Poland (1506-1548), granted judicial rights in matrimonial law and as well as in religious law and also capital crimes [2] tortes to the community of Brisk, to which the community of Minsk was subordinate [1] until it became a main community.

The Council of Lithuanian Communities was founded in Elul 5383 (1623) by the three main communities: Brisk, Grodno and Pinsk. The large councils of the cities convened once every few years, with the participation of religious and secular leaders. The smaller regional councils convened more often, primarily to discuss matters of taxes and internal finances, without the participation of the rabbis. The regional councils did not enact any decrees and did not serve as courts of law. During the period of existence of the Council of Lithuanian Communities (1623-1761), thirty meetings of the large national council took place [3]. The reasons for the separation of the Council of Lithuanian Communities from the Council of the Four Lands, the umbrella organization of the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, was based on reasons relating to the return of the Jews after the expulsion of 1503, the imposition of the head tax (Powrotne), and the fact that in physical matters, Lithuania remained separate from Poland. The distribution of tax burden through the joint councils lasted another 120 years after the expulsion. However, during the course of the following 138 years until the year 1761 the Lithuanian Council acted separately as the authority for the collection and distribution of state taxes and also as the supreme court of all Lithuanian Jewry.

One can get an idea of the size of the Jewish community of Lithuania and Poland from decisions of the Polish Sejm during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries regarding the collection of the head tax from the Jews, to the sum of one Polish guilder per person [4].

YearTax on the
Jews of Poland
Tax on the
Jews of Lithuania

At first, the Lithuanian communities convened in Brisk or Selets, however from the time of the decrees of Tach and Tat (the Chmielnitzky pogroms), and the time of the Northern War (1700-1715) they generally convened in the small town of Meshichi in order not to attract the attention of the various tax collectors [5]. The activities of the council were far reaching and directed to the protection of the internal independence of all Jewish communities of Lithuania to the extent that was possible, despite the external servitude. Relations with the government were debated there, primarily regarding the setting of the annual head tax, and the organization of its division and collection from the primary and secondary communities. For this purpose, intercessors were appointed who conducted the negotiations with the government, valuators who evaluated the abilities of the communities and their members, as well as arbitrators in the event of differences of opinion and disputes. They also dealt with the setting and collection of the residency tax. Aside from this, the committees also dealt with internal economic difficulties, primarily with matters of force – that is the protection of the individual against illegal competition. They also issued decrees on matters of religion, morality, modesty, education and the study of Torah, as well as on social matters, such as health and the various charities.

However, the central problem, aside from the problems of payment of taxes, was the question of the right of residency in the community. Already in the first meeting of the Council of Lithuania that took place in Brisk in the year 1623, there were deliberations about the complaint of the community of Minsk [6] toward Polish Jews who attempted to settle in Minsk without first receiving permission from the communal leaders. The decree of expulsion against these Jews, issued by the Council of Lithuania, was apparently notable in its harshness, however such decrees also occurred in communities of Poland [7]. Their source was the difficult economic situation and the struggle for existence, as well as the physical crowding that was caused by the restriction of areas of residence and the numbers of houses of the veteran members of the community. Therefore, the Committee of Lithuania issued the following regarding this matter:

“A foreign person coming from the State of Poland, and who sets up residence in the community of Minsk shall be pursued to the end and expelled from this country in accordance with the aforementioned enactment”.
This refers to enactment number 47, which further states:
“No person from a foreign country can set up his residence and live in the country of Lithuania without informing the head of state, may he be protected and preserved [8]. Of course, he cannot rent any premises in the country of Lithuania. Even if he does rent, he has no rights of residency, and anyone is permitted to go to him, encroach on his territory, and remove it from his hand.”
These enactments to strengthen the community were not only obligatory on the Jews from foreign countries, but also on Lithuanian Jews from other communities. It was forbidden for any Jew to settle in a community without receiving permission from the heads of the community. Furthermore, it was also forbidden to leave the community without receiving printed permission from the heads of the community. The reason for this was tied to the obligation of payment of taxes, the collection of which was not at all straightforward. The freedom of movement and of moving from city to city was restricted for any person in those days, and of course this applied analogously to the Jews, due to their autonomic organization into communities. In another document, from 1961 [*2], when the Council of Lithuania was located in Brisk, two additional communities attained the special status of regional communities. These are Vilna and Minsk [9]:
“Vilna along with the other communities that are not reckoned with the enumeration of Brisk have the status of a special region… As well, Minsk, the land of Rus and its flanks also have the status of a unique region.”
The explanation of this decision is that the communities in the region of Minsk would be subordinate to the community of Minsk with regard to the division of taxes, and to a certain degree with regard to matters of religion and education, monetary law, matrimonial law, the law of establishment of rights, and others. As a result of this decision, a delegate from the community of Minsk was invited to participate in the delegation of the main communities that was sent to the opening of the Sejm in Warsaw in the year 1632. This testifies to the ascendancy of the community of Minsk and its importance among the other main communities of Lithuania.
“Every community of the three main communities should sent to Warsaw, during the convening of the ministers of state that is known as an election, one man of distinction to sit in the court of the king and ministers during the setting of the expenditures of the state. The community of Minsk should also send one person from their community. The expenses of the Minsk delegation will be paid by the state [10]…”
There is no specific document explaining why specifically the delegate of Minsk, unlike the other delegates, should travel on the accounts of the council. Apparently, the council held Minsk in esteem, as did the government, as a city of great economic ability due to its geographical situation and important communication routes.

Approximately two years later, in a meeting of the council in Selets, the heads of the community of Minsk demanded the repeal of the rights of the government tax lessees. They wanted that this task would be given to the community itself. This request was pushed off temporarily, but was brought again after about 6 years, in the year 1650. It was once again pushed off. Here are the words of the enactment from the year 1634:

“Regarding the matter that notables from the community of Minsk approached us and placed before us their request that the ancient tax be taken away from so-and-so in Minsk and given to the community of Minsk… It is impossible to fulfil their request at this time. After the end of the terms of the tax collectors of the country of Lithuania, held by the captains who possess the tax, when the heads of state may they protected gather together and issue their decision regarding the rights to the tax for any specific person, the leaders of the community of Minsk should once again come before us and present their words. Then the heads of state will understand well that the community of Minsk can be shown no favoritism over any other community and area with regard to taxes, on account of their request [11]…”
This document illustrates the brazen efforts of the heads of the community of Minsk, for the tax lessees had great influence both in the royal court and the state council, and they had the ability to pay the estimated amounts from the outset. Apparently, the communal heads saw the leasing of the tax as a source of income for the community itself, and they were able to raise the needed amounts to pay the tax from the outset. Against this, it proves the refutation by the Council of Lithuania of the supremacy of the law of established claims, which was generally transferred by inheritance. At that same meeting in Selets, the two representatives of Minsk, Reb Gershon and Reb David Kac, proposed that any guest from the country of Lithuania who would come to Minsk to do business, whether as a purchaser or a seller, would be required to pay some form of sales tax of the sum of one tafel (groszy) for each shok of Lithuanian groszy (that is to say 1/60). On the accounts of this expected income, the delegates of the community of Minsk received a loan of 1,000 guilder from the Council of Lithuania for a term for a term of three years without interest. The importance of the city of Minsk as a business center grew during the 17th century, and the authority of the communal heads reached such a level that they were able to impose a tax on merchants from other Lithuanian cities who came to the city. The enactment states:
“On the advice of the words of Messrs. Reb Gershon and Reb David Kac of Minsk… We are able to grant to the community of Minsk from the state a free loan without interest of the sum of 1,000 guilder for three consecutive years… This and furthermore: it has been agreed upon… Every guest from the State of Lithuania who will come to Minsk to conduct business in the city during the aforementioned timeframe will give to the community of Minsk 1 Tafel of every Lithuanian shok [12] in accordance with the value of the merchandise that he brought to Minsk in Lithuanian shok. If he does not bring any merchandise, but rather purchased merchandise in Minsk, he will also give 1 Tafel of every Lithuanian shok [13]…”
The weapon of religions and social excommunication was perhaps the most important tool, both for the community and the national organization of the communities of Lithuania. We see a description of this excommunication in the ledger of the Council of the State of Lithuania [14], with regard to the accusation of slander regarding several leaders of the community of Minsk. The imposition of excommunication caused complete isolation of the excommunicated. It was forbidden to count excommunicated people in a minyan (prayer quorum), to marry into their families, and to circumcise their children. Their sources of livelihood became unprotected, as communal protection was removed. The reasons why excommunication was imposed on several communal leaders of Minsk are not clear. It was in the year 1700, during a meeting of the Council of the Communities of Lithuania in Selets [15], when the following notables of Minsk: Reb Avraham the son of Reb Binyamin, Reb David the son of Reb Moshe, Reb Leib the son of Rabbi Tanchum, Rabbi Yosef the son of the Gaon Reb Simcha Kac, Reb Gershom the son of Reb Shmuel and others appeared and accused the chiefs of the community of Minsk of slander “that was unheard of throughout the entire Diaspora of Israel, that everyone knows definitely through proper witnesses, and they still persist in their rebellion and misdeeds by showing a stubborn shoulder. They arose and decided to do away with Jewish souls… eventually those who act brazenly will fall, and then the entire matter will be adjudicated before all [16]…”

This demonstrates nothing other than great internal tension between communal leaders, even though it is difficult to ascertain the meaning of the slander conducted by several communal leaders who intended to “do away with Jewish souls”. These were times of tribulations that had begun approximately 50 years earlier, during the time of the decrees of Tach and Tat and the Cossack Revolution headed by the inimical Bogdan Chmielnitzky, and that continued sporadically until the Northern War of the Swedes, Russians and Poles that began in that year and lasted until the year 1715. It is possible that this slander was political, and that the accused leaders supported one side, and were thereby liable to provoke the revenge of the other side. As was stated previously, all sides, the Russians, Swedes, and the two Polish armies, extorted large sums from the Jewish communities of Lithuania, and the communities were in need of large sums of money in order to meet their special payments of the times as well as their usual taxes, primarily the head tax and the residency tax. Echoes of this situation, and the threat of imposition of bans on entire communities that refuse to pay their part of the state taxes and try to circumvent the korovka [17] fund and the Rachash fund [18], can be found in that same vague document sealed of the year 1700.

During the final meeting of the Council of the State of Lithuania that took place in the city of Slutsk in the year 1761, the leaders of Lithuanian Jewry once again dealt with matters that related to Minsk and the communities of the area that were subordinate to it. The first issue [19] dealt with the division of the head tax of 60,000 Polish guilder that was imposed upon Lithuanian Jewry. The sum of 10,000 guilder was imposed upon Minsk, and 4,260 upon the communities of the region. The portion of Grodno and Brisk was 4,000 guilder each. The second issue related to a blood libel in a small community in the area of Minsk. The accused was Rabbi Refael the son of Yekutiel Ziskind, the head of the rabbinical court of the region of Minsk, who claimed that a few years earlier, several communities in the region of Minsk granted loans of significant sums during a time of danger in order to blunt the sting of the blood libel. In the opinion of Reb Refael, this money was not to be returned, for the danger was impending on the Jews in general. The decision of the council was to devote 400 taller of the head tax that was coming from the region of Minsk as a loan to those communities for the period of 8 years. This document [20] demonstrates that there were blood libels in Lithuania during the 18th century, and that during times of danger, the neighboring communities in the area girded themselves and granted the afflicted community the sums that were needed in order to deal with the situation. When the fury abated, the lenders brought the matter before the Council of the State, that served as a sort of gathering for all of the communities of Lithuania, and found ways of satisfying them, despite the fact that their activity was in the realm of protection in solidarity of one community in the face of tribulations that threatened all of the Jews. This was one of the final acts of the Council of the State of Lithuania during the time of its official existence. The authority of the council spread over a wide area of national, religious, economic and cultural life, not only in the State of Lithuania, but also outside of the State of Lithuania. When the community of Minsk pushed off, without sufficient cause, the payment of a debt to the community of Vilna [21] and sufficed itself with the giving of three documents with the addition of interest upon interest, the council decided that it was permitted to confiscate the merchandise of the merchants of Minsk in the fairs of Danzig, Koenigsberg, Breslau, etc. Indeed, not only merchants of Minsk reached these centers, but also the long arm of the Council of Communities.

However the independence, authority and influence of the Council of Lithuania, as a national organization that unified all of the communities, large and small, primary and secondary, began to decline at the beginning of the 18th century. There were various reasons for this, both external and internal. The Council of Lithuania, that served as a legislative institution, an executive institution and a judicial body, drew its authority from the royal privileges that were granted by the kings of Poland-Lithuania and renewed from time to time, as it presented itself as the official representative body of the Jewish community of all Lithuania. This general order existed and functioned until the Cossack revolution headed by Bogdan Chmielnitzky in 1648. The decrees, disturbances, wars, pillage, murder, epidemics and famine that came in the wake of the wars, and continued for more than a half century, caused not only the destruction of Jewish communities, but also the breakup of the country of Poland. Practically, Poland did not recover after the wars in the latter half of the 17th century and the Northern War at the beginning of the 18th century. In addition to the wars that came from the Cossacks, Russians and Swedes; internal police, based almost exclusively on the power of the nobility (Szlachta) and the strict bounds of the king, became silenced, and this caused the weakening of the entire country to the point that it broke up. Thereby, the base of authority of the Council of the Communities of Lithuania was removed, and it lost its authority over the communities, including Minsk. The power of the council as the protector of the rights of the communities and individuals declined, and transferred in degrees to the landowners and the owners of the cities and villages. As the Council of Communities weakened, so did the individual communities, and they ceased their domination over every individual. In this atmosphere of decline and struggle between individuals or groups of individuals against the community, the Jews did not desist from turning tot he landowner. Therefore, breaches in the autonomous structure of the community began to appear.

As a result of the wars of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century, a change also took place in the economic structure of the Jewish communities. One important result was the general decline in importance of the cities. Many of the Jews were forced to seek their livelihood in villages, despite the fact that thereby they would place themselves under the domination of the landowner and depend on his goodwill. The larger communities, that ruled with a strong hand over the smaller communities until the 18th century, lost their influence, and the smaller communities were freed from their dependence on them.

An additional factor in the loss of authority of the larger communities over the smaller communities and the individuals therein was the rule of small groups of strongmen who took over authority to the chagrin of the masses. This struggle between the ruling group and the masses of common folk was particularly prominent in Minsk, where the craftsmen and workers in the service fields, such as the water-drawers began to organize despite the opposition of the ruling group.

The casting off of domination of the smaller communities was a double edged sword that finally affected the autonomy of Lithuanian Jewry in its entirety and the honor of the representatives, most of whom were without doubt dedicated to communal needs. In the year 1712, one of the small communities turned to Prince Nicholas Radziwil with the complaint that the level of head tax imposed on it by the Council of Communities was too high. The prince jumped on the opportunity to extort money, and fined the heads of the large communities of Lithuania the sum of 3,310 guilder, and also punished them with the loss of their honor (Infamia) [22]. Incidents of turning to gentile authorities also took place prior to that, but during the time that the king had greater power, the results were not nearly as destructive. Regarding this, the dispute that broke out between the community of Minsk and the community of Brisk, and continued from 1681 to 1685 [23] is well known. The heads of the community of Brisk confiscated the merchandise of the merchants of Minsk in the fairs in the city of Mir. The people of Minsk turned to the Starosta of Mir, and the matters reached the point where King Jan Sobieski III wrote several letters to the community of Brisk demanding that they return the merchandise to the merchants of Minsk. The people of Minsk paid no heed to the letters of the king, until the time that an investigation was set in the Polish court in the city of Zabludow. The people of Brisk did not show up for the investigation. Even though the end of the debate is not known, it can be assumed that the people of Minsk received what was theirs. Events such as this caused a weakening of the authorities and of their umbrella organization – the Council of Lithuania.

A different document from the year 1711 [24] tells that several Jews of Minsk who lived in the estate of the landowner Mackowicz complained to the authorities that the community of Minsk forced them to provide bricks and stones for the building of the Jesuit Church. The heads of the community were sentenced to a loss of honor. This incident demonstrates incidentally that the Jews of Minsk were compelled to assist in the building of the monastery, either because they wished to form good relations between themselves and the local priesthood, or because they were forced to do so. The main point is that the members of the community, individuals or groups, did not desist from turning to the authorities and the landowners, and the result was the undermining of the power of the community.

During the 18th century another source of power and authority of the community was closed off – the matter of rights of possession. An individual Jew who was formerly under the exclusive rule of the landowner no longer had any use for the traditional guardianship and practical protection of the community over his source of livelihood. Whereas in previous centuries, the community filled a decisive role both with regard to the lessee (Arndauer) and the lessor, this role lost its value during the 18th century. State taxes became direct taxes, without intermediation by the community or the lessee. The authorities understood that the community maintained an office that swallowed up a portion of the taxes, and that they would receive more by direct collection. The churches and monasteries of Minsk, which lent money to the community and benefited from steady income from this source were particularly interested in the continuation of the organization and governance of the community. In contrast to the popular notion that Jews lent money with interest, in Minsk and other areas of Lithuania it was Christians who lent to the Jews with interest [25]. Due to the impoverishment of the Jews after the decrees of Tach and Tat and the wars that followed, the income of the communities shrunk whereas their debts grew from year to year, until the year 1765 when the debts of Brisk, Grodno, Pinsk and Vilna reached the sum of more than a half a million guilder [26], and the income had shriveled and reached only 4% of the debts. Even though there is no clear information about the debts of the community of Minsk to the monasteries, churches and individual Christians, we can surmise that the situation was not all that different from its neighboring cities. In the wake of the non-payment of debts, both principal and interest, there were dozens of court cases against the communities. The verdicts included imprisonment, loss of honor, expulsion and even death, even though in general the most stringent punishments were not carried out [27]. Three years after the final official meeting of the Council of the Communities of Lithuania in the year 1761, the institution was definitively disbanded by a decision of the Polish Sejm. Several years later, the communities were prohibited from granting rights of possession for businesses and services. This was the final end of the organized representation of Lithuanian Jewry both externally and internally.

For the approximately 140 years that the Council of Principal Communities of the State of Lithuania existed it served as type of Jewish parliament, Jewish government and supreme court – three governing arms in one corpus. In the situation of exile and loss of political rights, the communities of Lithuania, including the community of Minsk, drew great strength from the fact that they were connected to this organization, of which there was no equal in authority from the time of Jewish autonomy during the Talmudic era. The community of Minsk grew and developed during this era until it became one of the principal communities of the country. The decline of the council, and the accompanying decline of the individual communities, was tied to the social and political situation in all of Poland. The metamorphosis of the state into a monolithic unit impeded the existence of such partially independent corporations. One of the victims of this metamorphosis was the Jewish community, whose basis was weakened after the ending of the national council.

Text Footnotes:
1See Simon Dubnow, Pinkas Lita, document 89, page 17. Return
2Rashadsky, page 376. Return
3Simon Dubnow, the Ledgers of the Council of the Principal Communities of Lithuania, Berlin 5685-1925. This ledger was supposed to be published in the 1880s, but the appearance of the book, “Book of the Community” by the apostate Yaakov Brafman, caused the Ledger of Lithuania to be hidden, in order to avoid giving credence to the blasphemy of Brafman. Return
4Dubnow, in his introduction to the Ledger of Lithuania, claimed that the kings of Poland treated the Jews as innkeepers treat their guests: payment of high rent in the form of taxes and fees. Return
5In these wars, the armies of Russia, Sweden, and two kings of Poland who fought one against the other, August II and Stanislaw Leszynski all participated. The common factor among them was that they all extorted money from the Jewish communities of Lithuania. Return
6Dubnow, Ledger of Lithuania, Document number 47, page 10. Return
7See the research of Dr. Bernard Weinrib: Texts and Studies in the Communal History of Polish Jewry, N.Y. 1956. Return
8The head of state, may he be protected and preserved. (Translator's note: this footnote appears because the Hebrew contains an abbreviation for this phrase.) Return
9Dubnow, Ledger of Lithuania, Document number 248, page 51. Return
10Ibid. enactment number 269, page 55. “State” refers to the Council of Lithuania. Return
11Ibid. enactment number 279, page 58. Return
12A Lithuanian shuk – 60 Lithuanian groszy. Return
13The Ledger of Lithuania, enactment number 294, page 62. Return
14Ibid. Number 241. Return
15According to a different copy of the ledger, the meeting was in Grodno. Return
16The Ledger of Lithuania, document number 908, page 239. Return
17The tax on kosher meat that was paid to the communal coffers. Return
18Rabbis, Cantors, and Shamashim (beadles). Return
19The Ledger of Lithuania, document number 949, page 260. Return
20The Ledger of Lithuania, document number 953, page 263. Return
21Ibid, appendix, page 304. Return
22The anthology of documents of the Archiographic Society of Vilna, volume 29, number 195 (in Polish and Russian). Return
23Ibid., volume 29, documents 72, 80, 87, 89, 93, 102-108. Return
24Ibid., volume 29, number 192. Return
25Jews of Pinsk, for example, had to pay large sums to the Jesuit seminary, the Franciscans, the Dominicans, the Carmelites, and the Praboslavs, as well as to individual Christians and high officials (Barshadski, The Lithuanian Jews, page 43, from 1883 – in Russian). Return
26See Yitzchak Shipper, the History of the Jews of Russia, 1914 (Russian), page 315. Return
27Anthology of documents of the Archiographic Society of Vilna, volume 29, (Russian and Polish). Return

Translator's Footnotes:
*1In the ensuing text, this council is referred to by a variety of names – all seemingly referring to the same entity. Return
*2The year in the text is 1961,which is an obvious mistake. I am surmising from the context that the intention was 1761 – but this is not entirely clear. Return

[Page 26]

Chapter 4

The Internal Organization
of the Community of Minsk

Translated by Jerrold Landau

The social and national values of the community of Minsk. The interdependence between the individual and the general. Rights of residency. Mutual guarantees in business. Internal and external taxes. The order of elections for communal institutions. The seven charities. The development of the ruling oligarchy. The tension between the rich and the poor. The decline of the importance of the community. The internal and external reasons for the decline of the community.
In the previous chapter, we dealt with the relationship of the community of Minsk with the supreme organizational corpus of the Jews of Lithuania, the Council of Principal Communities of the country. Now we will look inward to the community itself, and attempt to investigate its way of life as a sort of miniature independent or autonomous state, which not only succeeded in maintaining its own unique tradition which was foreign to the environment, but also succeeded in transmitting it from generation to generation, and nurturing its own distinct culture which was able to stand its own against the strong and mighty Christian culture of the surroundings. Its values included primarily: the fulfillment of the commandments of the Torah, the way of life in accordance to Jewish law, educating the children to Torah and commandments, pure family life in accordance with the laws of the Code of Jewish Law, the maintenance of courts of law based upon Talmudic law, mutual assistance of the seven charities, and faith in the renewal of national life with the coming of the Messiah.

Membership in the community was not only dependent on the will of the individual Jew, but was granted automatically by the protocols of the authorities. Right of residency in the community was granted to any Jew who was born there, or was granted by the communal leadership to an individual from outside in return for a specified payment, or by virtue of marriage when the parents of the bride purchased rights of residency for the groom as part of the dowry. Just as it was impossible for a Jew from outside to come to Minsk and live there, it was impossible to leave the city for an extended period without receiving a permit from the community. The right of residency was tied to the payment of taxes, just as the right to leave the community was granted only after the payment of all debts and the various taxes. A person was liable to have his right of residency revoked on account of dishonorable behavior, such as cheating in business, non-fulfillment of religious laws, slander, etc. Jews from other cities were only able to come to Minsk and conduct business there during the days of the fairs, in exchange for a specific payment. Only after the decrees of Tach and Tat, the Polish-Russian War of 1655, and the Northern War at the beginning of the 18th century were Jewish refugees permitted to conduct business in Minsk and even settle there, since Minsk did not suffer from these tribulations to the extent of other communities in Russia and Ukraine [1]. The strongest and most effective weapon in the hands of the community was excommunication in its various forms. Indeed, the revoking of the right of residency in the community was the strongest means of imposing discipline.

Minsk became an independent community starting from 1628, and the smaller communities in the region of Minsk were dependent upon it. The rights of leasing the taxes or the rights to manufacture and sell liquor were granted to the residents of smaller communities by the community of Minsk in return for a payment. In addition, the rights of residency in the smaller communities were dependent upon the agreement of the main community. Similarly, the regional communities were dependent upon Minsk from a religious perspective, and from the perspective of national rights. Even though Minsk was not considered to be one of the principal communities in reference to the Council of the State of Lithuania as its larger neighbors – Brisk, Grodno, Pinsk, and from 1691 also Vilna and Slutsk – its delegates participated in the deliberations of the Council of Lithuania. Minsk was considered a principal community with regard to the rule over the communities of Eastern Reisin [*1] [2]. The task of a principal community was expressed primarily after the decrees of Tach and Tat, when there was need for concern about the small regional communities, and to assist them in caring for widows and orphans, redemption of captives, and caring for refugees, the wounded, the ill and the poor.

The fate of every Jew was dependent to a large degree upon the rights that the community attained from the state authorities and the heads of the city. The heads of the community diligently guarded the realization of these rights, both internal and external. These rights cost money, which had to be collected from the members of the community without mercy, and without showing favoritism. This was the main responsibility of the community. At times, these taxes were leased to one of the wealthy people in return for the payment of a preset sum, and at times the community itself paid this amount. Sometimes it was necessary to turn to the courts of the gentiles for the collection of taxes from those who were derelict. Until the 19th century, the state did not involve itself with the internal protocols of the community, which were conducted in accordance to the laws of the Talmud. It behaved similarly toward the other corporations of the city, which conducted themselves according to their own regulations. The heads of the community made efforts to ensure that nobody would turn to the gentile courts, so that there would be no precedent enabling people to escape from the authority of the community to any degree [3]. From a legal perspective, the Jews of Minsk were dependent on the king or the prince of Lithuania, and not the civic government. The guarding of these rights – the protection of life, soul and property – could not be in the hands of an individual, but only in the hands of a community, and even an organization of communities [4]. This matter was especially important in cases of blood libels or desecration of the host [*2]. The community employed intercessors not only to renew the writ of privilege after the election of every new king, but also in order to avert decrees. A permanent intercessor from the community of Minsk sat in the national tribunal that sat in Minsk.

Even though there were annual elections conducted in reasonably democratic fashions relevant to the times; for all intents and purposes, the leadership of the community was in the hands of a small group of honorable wealthy people who preserved their rights to various tasks for generations. The ruling oligarchy included the heads (4 or 5) who were elected each year, not by direct election but by “arbitrators”. The supervision and inspection of these heads was in the hands of the seven “honorable people”. The various trustees were included among the communal activists, including the trustees of the seven charities: support of the poor, visiting the sick, granting of loans, redemption of captives, providing for brides, the Talmud Torah, and Maos Chittin (providing for Passover needs). The various assessors busied themselves with the division of the government taxes (the head tax and residency tax), the civic taxes, and the internal taxes to maintain the community and its budget.

Just as the community protected the rights of every Jew who was a member, each Jew was similarly required to protect the community. It was not only that an individual was subordinate to the community in a legal fashion on account of his right of residency therein, but the individual was also responsible to fulfil the agreements between the heads of the community and the civic and royal authorities. This responsibility primarily expressed itself in the realm of taxation. The community had the power to force individuals of means to grant a pledge or a loan to the community so that taxes can be prepaid. During times of trouble, when large sums were imposed upon an individual community or an organization of communities, as well as in events of blood libels or disturbances, the community had the power to force the individual to give or lend of his money for needs of the entire community. The pledge of a wealthy Jew was given in the form of contracts. When the time of payment arrived, if the community had not paid the sum to the government or the city, if the guarantor would not pay the contract, his property would be confiscated.

The level of mutual dependence between the community and the individual and between the individual and the community created a situation where the private property of each Jew who was a member of the community was in lien to the entire community as joint property. A document from the community of Grodno from the year 1727 [5] relates that the communal council took a loan for interest from the Dominican Monastery of the sum of 10,283 guilder, on clear condition that if the loan is not paid on time, the lenders of the monastery have the right to confiscate the private property of the Jews of Grodno, including household objects, jewelry, land, houses, the synagogue, merchandise in the markets, horses, cows, etc. In Minsk as well, the community took a loan for interest from wealthy monks who had received large inheritances. We can assume that the conditions were similar, even though the document of agreement is not preserved for us today.

The communal protection was in the hands of several bodies who were elected annually by indirect election proceedings. Practically, the same people kept the various offices permanently. The highest body was the “five parnassim of the month” who were called “heads”. These served as chairman of the communal council in a monthly rotation. The second highest body, albeit more important from a social and traditional perspective, was the seven city notables (“the notables”) who served solely as an auditing committee. The trustees of the seven charities also enjoyed honor and influence, particularly the trustee who concerned himself with orphans (“the father of the orphans”). All of these serve in their offices without expectation of payment. The following people depended on the community for their livelihood: first and foremost the rabbi of the city, the judges and teachers, the assessors, the intercessors, and the beadles whose role also included overseeing the observance of the Sabbath, kashruth, modesty, and the protocols of business in the marketplace.

The elections generally took place in the synagogue of the community (shulhoif) on the intermediate days of Passover. The election protocol was as follows: the seven notables and the judges each wrote five names on a secret ballot. The overseer of the communal coffers, a man acceptable by the entire congregation because of his honesty and expertise, determined which names appear on the ballots more often. Of these, three were chosen, and the two others were chosen by lot. The five formed the electoral committee [6] who chose the heads, notables, and judges. In general, specific experience in communal work was required in order to be chosen for any task, with the ladder including several rungs: service as a trustee for a few years, later – as one of the seven notables, and finally – as the head or the parnas. Of course, it is possible to claim that this protocol was not democratic. However, it must be noted that the realities of the 19th and 20th century are not the same as those of previous generations, when society was broken up into nobility, tenant farmers, wealthy burghers with influence in the cities, and simple masses who had no influence. The customary practice of Jewish communities was no less democratic from that of other civic corporations. On the one hand, the protocol of the elections gave a feeling of continuity, faith and trust in the experienced leaders. However, on the other hand, with the passage of time, factions arose that held onto positions of authority constantly, and even as an inheritance, a matter which gave the entire leadership the character of “self perpetuation”.

Minsk was noted, perhaps more so than any other community in Lithuania or Poland, with its constant ferment between the masses of people [7]. The tradesmen, the water-drawers and the small scale merchants struggled with the wealthy people who had seized authority, and attempted to thereby attain some form of authority. When they did not succeed in their struggle, they organized into professional groups, despite the opposition of the official leaders. The struggle of the masses for independent organizations reached the point of a discussion in the Council of the Communities of Lithuania, which decided in 1670 [8] that two of the four trustees of each organization should be appointed by the community rather than solely by members of the organization.

The community of Minsk employed a perpetual representative in the court of the civic police, in order to defend every Jew who was imprisoned. In the event that bail had to be posted to free a prisoner until the judicial proceedings, the community provided the guarantee. The community issued travel documents to its members who traveled outside of the city. If a person owed taxes or there was a suspicion that he would defect from the community, a travel document was not issued unless the community received sufficient guarantees from a separate person.

Starting from the 18th century, the income of the community for internal purposes (as opposed to income for the payment of various taxes) came primarily from the kosher meat tax (korovka) and the business tax. At the end of the 18th century, the deficit of the community reached 1,200 rubles on account of debts. With the annexation of Minsk to Russia on June 22, 1793, a new tax was imposed upon the community in lieu of providing recruits for the army. The sum was 500 rubles in lieu of each soldier. In order to raise these sums, the community imposed a property tax of 1½% on wealth and merchandise, and ½% on unmovable objects [9]. However, this was not sufficient, and the community sunk into large continuous debts, to the point where it was forced to lease the korovka to a private individual in return for an up-front payment of 2,500 rubles. Aside from the korovka, the community received specific income for the granting of the title of “Moreinu” (“Our teacher”), and from permitting rights of possession and other business affairs. However, all of this was insufficient for the expenditures and salaries for rabbis, judges, assessors, kashruth supervisors, trustees, beadles, cantors, shochtim, preachers, upkeep of the city synagogue, heating the poorhouse, maintaining a cheder and teachers, the mikva and the hospitals. All of this caused a decline in the community and an upsurge in the various organizations of tradesmen and businessmen.

On account of the decisive importance of religion in the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, the organizational molds of the tradesmen, such as the butchers, tailors, water drawers and merchants also took on a strong religious character. The Jewish guilds not only took care of professional matters, but also social and religious matters. Therefore, each one was a miniature community. Each one of the unions maintained a synagogue and house of study, in which the members found a means of expression for their social, religious and cultural needs. The societal relationships between the Jews and gentiles also took place within the framework of the various Jewish strata. This added to the importance of the unions as religious, assistance and educational institutions. Within these houses of prayer, family events, meetings, convocations, study of Torah, lectures by preachers and even social events took place. Whoever was prevented from taking part in the life of the unions was as if he was excommunicated from the community [10].

Text Footnotes:
1See the Ledger of Lithuania, document number 460. Return
2The Ledger of Lithuania, document number 227. Return
3Ibid. document number 390 from 1673. Return
4The Ledger of Lithuania, document number 61. Return
5See the anthology of documents of the Vilna Society of Antiquities, volume 29, number 217. Return
6The Ledger of Lithuania, enactment 63 from the year 623, and enactment 160 and 161 from the year 1628. Return
7Compare Rafael Mahler, History of the Jews of Poland, Merchavia 1946, pages 403-406. Return
8The Ledger of Lithuania, enactment number 641 from the year 1670. Return
9Yaakov Brafman – the Book of the Community number 76. Return
10See the research of Yaakov Katz, “Between Jews and Gentiles”, page 23, Jerusalem 5621 (1961). Return

Translator's Footnotes:
*1Reisin refers to the area of White Russia. Return
*2The desecration of the host is a false accusation against Jewish communities, common in pre-modern Europe, that they would secretly stab or pierce the communion wafers. See the following Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Host_desecration. Return

« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »

This material is made available by JewishGen, Inc. and the Yizkor Book Project for the purpose of
fulfilling our mission of disseminating information about the Holocaust and destroyed Jewish communities.
This material may not be copied, sold or bartered without JewishGen, Inc.'s permission. Rights may be reserved by the copyright holder.

JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material for verification.
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.

  Minsk Memorial Anthology     Yizkor Book Project     JewishGen Home Page

Yizkor Book Project Manager, Lance Ackerfeld
This web page created by Max Heffler

Copyright © 1999-2017 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 13 Oct 2008 by LA