Jews settled in eastern Europe in the Middle Ages. During the first centuries of Jewish settlement in Poland, the legal and economic conditions resembled those of Jewish communities in western Europe, where Jews were mostly urban dwellers, engaged in trade and banking, and relied on royal power for privileges and protection. The famous privilege granted to Jews of Poland by Prince Bolesław the Pious of 1264 harks back to earlier privileges received by Jews of Austria from Duke Frederick in 1241. The Germanic character of the towns contributed to the retention of the Germanic language that Jews brought with them, a language that would eventually become Yiddish.
But much more significant migration of Jews to Poland occurred during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, again from the West. The majority of the Jews who arrived in this period established or strengthened already existing communities in western territories of the Polish Crown. It was at this time that two major centers of Jewish life emerged in Poland, Poznań and Cracow. Jews had also lived in less significant numbers in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as early as the fifteenth century. By the sixteenth century, the total number of Jewish communities in eastern Europe had reached about 60.
When Poland merged with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 1569, the expansion to the east offered new opportunities for both Polish lords and, along with them, Jews. Jews began moving eastward in larger numbers and started assuming new functions as administrators of nobles’ estates. This move to the east was discouraged by rabbis from more established communities, who feared the consequences of Jews living in rural areas at great distances from established Jewish communities.
Until 1539, Jews had been under direct royal authority. Unlike in the West, where charters granted to Jews had time limits, in Poland such charters were permanent but had to be reconfirmed by each king. The Jews’ status was that of free subjects, who had freedom of movement, the right to bear arms and to participate in defending the towns in which they lived, and the right to own real estate. They had full autonomy but were subject to royal courts in lawsuits involving both Jews and Christians. As a result of these conditions, Jews were able to become quite prominent in the royal economy of Poland, not only as bankers and merchants, as the various charters suggest, but also as tax and toll collectors, as highly positioned administrators, and even as lessees of royal salt mines, on which the crown had a monopoly.
Some Jews, such as members of the Ezofowicz family in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, became high-profile royal officials. Scattered evidence suggests that their status allowed them to sue nobles. A document in from Masovia suggests that for a brief period Jews were subject to jus nobilium, that is, to the laws of nobility. Moreover, in the early period of their presence in Poland, Jews, like nobles, were required to supply riders in the event of war. At least for a while, then, Polish monarchs accorded Jews a status similar to that of the nobility.
But in the sixteenth century, Polish nobility began to assert its position and privileges against the authority of the King. In 1538, the Polish Sejm [parliament] of Piotrków prohibited Jews from managing the taxes and tolls, and from holding any honorary offices. In 1539, the Polish Sejm granted nobles full jurisdiction over Jews living in towns and villages under their domain. But, as the 1565 constitution confirming the laws against Jews’ managing or leasing of taxes, tolls, and salt mines suggests, despite efforts to marginalize Jews from the royal economy and despite the shift to the noble estates, Jews remained fairly prominent in the royal economy.
As Poland’s political system changed, so did the Jews’ economic and political position. As Poland’s political structure shifted, a strong monarchy gave way to a decentralized republic dominated by nobles. The initial Jewish reliance on the king and the privileges he granted receded, and Jews became dependent on the direct protection of powerful nobles. The issuance of privileges illustrates this shift. While royal privileges were not entirely displaced and remained valid in royal domains (and at least symbolically throughout Poland), they were superseded by private settlement privileges granted by individual land owners to the Jews who lived in their lands and served them. As these documents suggest, Jews were no longer principally bankers and merchants, as they had been in the medieval period, but lease-holders of businesses, mills and breweries, as well as, in some cases, managers of estates and agents of nobles.
For Jews who were living in privately-owned towns, this change was not immediately beneficial. Such Jews lost recourse to royal courts, and could no longer turn to the king for protection. The law of 1539 granting nobles full jurisdiction over Jews in their domains meant that they might now enjoy all profits the Jews brought to them. But as the king’s position continued to weaken in favor of the nobility, Jews in these towns also gained, since the lords often acted to protect Jews on their lands from royal taxation. Not surprisingly, this sometimes led to conflicts between “royal” and “lords'” Jews.
Through the emerging legal arrangement, some Jews who became agents and administrators of the nobles’ feudal estates attained authority over Christians, including the right to judge and punish the lord’s subjects. Some lease-contracts even included a “capital punishment” clause, although such a clause was often mitigated by a requirement that the lord be notified in capital cases. For example, according to a contract between two Jewish lease-holders and a nobleman in the region around the city of Vitebsk signed in 1638, the Jewish leaseholders had not only the usual right to all proceeds from these lands, both monetary and in produce and animals, but also authority over all serfs, free peasants and boyars: “[The Jewish lease-holders have the right to] hold the lease in peace and to enjoy all proceeds they will achieve by their entrepreneurship, to judge, govern and punish landed proprietors [ziemianie], boyars, serfs and townspeople [living within that latifundium] with monetary penalties – and should a necessity arise, also to punish with death. [The lease-holders] have the right to pursue justice for themselves and those who need it….”
Jewish leaders also acknowledged such prominence of Jews in the nobles’ economy and their power over the lords’ subjects. Rabbi Joel Sirkes stated that “Jews rule and have dominion over them and they [the lords’ subjects] regard them [the Jews] as kings and princes.” And in 1653, Nathan Nata Hanover, writing in the aftermath of the Chmielnicki uprising of 1648-9 that had claimed thousands of both Jewish and Christian lives, noted that “even the lowliest among them [Jews] became their overlords,” and referred one of the Jews as a “ruler of the town” [moshel ha-`ir]. The prominence of Jews in nobles’ estates continued to the dismantling of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the late eighteenth century, when it was partitioned among its more powerful neighbors.
Bogucka, Maria. “Jewish Merchants in Gdansk in the 16th-17th Centuries: A Policy of Toleration or Discrimination?” Acta Poloniae Historica, no. 65 (1992): 47-57:
Abstract: Immigration of Polish and “Portuguese” Jews to Gdansk in the 16th century ended the medieval policy of exclusion from the city. The city elite favored toleration, seeing economic benefits from their activities, but the merchants saw them as competitors and favored discrimination.
Research Notes: Page 8: Excerpt from a document by the Wilno Magistracy alleging that Jews have taken over commerce and business in the city and beyond and that they keep “Christian servants” working for them on Sundays (1669).
Page 18: Excerpt from a complaint to the Wilno Magistracy filed by Aaron Lewkowicz and Moizesz Jakubowicz, “two seniors,” on behalf of the Jews of Wilno against Italians who rode by Jewish communities and whipped Jews, mocking them, on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday (February 13th, 1673)
Page 21: Excerpt from a regulation by the Vaad of the Lithuanian Chief Communities forbidding Jews from taking residence (either temporary or permanent) in non-Jewish homes and dwellings (except for those of the nobles) that was passed in response to a specific happening that occurred earlier in Grodno (1679)
Page 26: Excerpt from a document by the Vaad of the Lithuanian Chief Communities forbidding Jews from employing more than “one non-Jewish servant girl” in one household (Pruzany, 1628)
Page 28: Excerpt from a regulation passed by the Cracow kahal stipulating the few circumstances and conditions under which Jews could go to “Gentile bathhouses” (date unknown)
Pages 30,31: Excerpts from a complaint lodged by Heliasz Jewcyzc of Nowogrodek with the “local Castle Court” and the Wilno Magistracy alleging that his wife, Katarzyna/”Catherine,” a Jewish convert to Christianity, was murdered by her three Jewish brothers because of her leaving the Jewish faith (July 1st, 1670)
Fram, Edward. “Creating a Tale of Martyrdom in Tulczyn, 1648.” In Jewish History and Jewish Memory: Essays in Honor of Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, edited by Elisheva Carlebach, John M. Efron and David N. Myers, xv, 462. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1998.
Goldberg, Jacob. “‘De Non Tolerandis Iudaeis: On the Introduction of the Anti-Jewish Laws into Polish Towns and the Struggle against Them’.” In Studies in Jewish History Presented to Raphael Mahler on His Seventy-Fifth Birthday, edited by Shmuel Yeivin, 39-52. Merhaviyah: Sifiriat Po`alim, 1974.
—. “Poles and Jews in the 17th and 18th Centuries: Rejection or Acceptance.” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas 22, no. 2 (1974): 248-282.
—. “Friends and Strangers: An Outline of the history of Polish Jewish Relations.” Dialectics and Humanism 16 no. 1 (1989): 13-31.
Heyde, Jürgen. “”Ghetto” And the Construction of Jewish History: The Case of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Considerations About a Research Project.” Kwartalnik Historii Zydów, no. 4 (2004): 511-518.
Abstract: The term “ghetto” originated in 1516 in Venice, in reference to the closed Jewish quarter on the outskirts of the city. Eventually, the term came to mean any place in Europe where a non-Jewish government assigned a place within or adjacent to an urban area for Jews to live. In early modern Poland and Lithuania, while segregation of Jewish communities was a goal of the Catholic Church, Jews in medieval Poland did not generally live separated from the Christian parts of towns or cities. Ironically, by the time ghetto became a common term in cities throughout Europe, enclosed Jewish districts had disappeared from Italy. It was a far step to move from predominantly Jewish districts within cities to restrictive ghettos, and it was not until the Nazi era that ghettos aimed at the complete marginalization of the Jews, as a prelude to more drastic measures, came to exist in Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe.
Horn, Maurycy. “Jewish Jurisdiction’s Dependence on Royal Power in Poland and Lithuania up to 1548.” Acta Poloniae Historica, no. 76 (1997): 5-17
Abstract: Discusses the evolution of Jewish jurisdiction under the Polish monarchy. Beginning at least as early as 1264, the kingdom’s Jews were treated both as a distinct religious group and as a community governed by its own laws, mostly without royal interference in internal disputes. By the 16th century the situation changed, a 1541 decision illustrates the king’s aspiration to subordinate the rabbis to his own will.
—. “Implications of Jewish Economic Activities for Chrsitian-Jewish Relations in the Polish Commonwealth.” In The Jews in Poland, edited by Chimen Abramsky and Maciej Jachimczyk, 245-275. London: Blackwell, 1986.
—. “Poland: Paradisus Judaeorum.” Journal of Jewish Studies 48, no. 2 (1997): 335-348.
—. “The Kehilla and the Municipality in Private Towns at the End of the Early Modern Period.” In The Jews in Old Poland, 1000-1795, edited by Antony Polonsky, Jakub Basista and Andrzej Link-Lenczowski, 172-185. London, New York, Oxford: I.B. Tauris; Institute for Polish-Jewish Studies, 1993.
—. “On the Jewish Community of Poland During the Seventeenth Century: Some Comparative Perspectives.” Revue des Etudes Juives 142, no. 3 (1983): 349-372.
Kalik, Judith. “Church’s Involvement in the Contacts between Jews and Burghers in the 17th-18th Centuries Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.” Kwartalnik Historii Zydów, no. 3 (2003): 342-348.
Kalik, Yehudit. “Patterns of Contact between the Catholic Church and the Jews in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth: Jewish Debts.” In Studies in the History of the Jews in Old Poland in Honor of Jacob Goldberg, edited by Adam Teller, 102-122. Jerusalem: Magnes Press: Hebrew University, 1998.
Kazmierczyk, Adam. “The Problem of Christian Servants as Reflected in the Legal Codes of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth During the Second Half of the Seventeenth Century and in the Saxon Period’.” Gal-Ed 15-16 (1997): 23-40.
Maczak, Antoni. “The Jews in Poland and Western Europe in the 16th-18th Centuries: Problems in Comparative Research.” Proceedings of the…World Congress of Jewish Studies 10, no. B2 (1990): 281-288:
Research Notes: Pages 284-285: Excerpt from the writing of an anonymous writer (in English) comparing and contrasting the situations of Armenians and Jews in Poland-Lithuania and Russia (1598)
Research Notes: Page 519: Excerpt from Menasseh ben Israel’s The Humble Addresses commenting on the status of the Jews in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (in the words of Rosman, their “ramified legal autonomy; outstanding institutions of Torah learning; commercial importance and consequent economic strength; and [their] large numbers”) in an attempt to convince Oliver Cromwell and others to readmit the Jews to England after their expulsion in 1290 (1655)
Page 522: Excerpt from the writing of the burghers of Jaroslaw commenting on how large numbers of Jews living amongst Christians brings the latter “much damage and loss” and poses a threat to their livelihood (1571)
Pages 532-533: Excerpt from David ben Menashe Darshan’s Shir Ha Ma’alot Le-David and Ktav Hitnazzelut L’Darshanim on how he was barred from the “academies of Torah,” becoming a “pariah” who was turned away by many learned scholars
Page 534: Excerpt from Turei Zahav by the Rabbi David ben Samuel Halevi (the Taz) commenting on how “the holy community of Ostrog” built him a bet midrash in which he could teach Torah (Published in Lublin, 1646)
Page 534: Excerpt from Sefer Me’irat Einaim by Rabbi Yehoshua Falk commenting on how his late father-in-law, the Rabbi Yisrael bar Yosef of Lvov, supplied him with students and his own stone house in which he could teach them Torah (Published in Prague, 1614)
Pages 536-537: Long excerpt from David ben Menashe Darshan’s Shir Ha Ma’alot Le-David describing how his bet midrash will be open to all those who “desire knowledge and understanding of God,” allowing them to use his collection of more than four hundred books and pledging himself to the education of all regardless of their “deficienc[ies]” (Published in Cracow, 1571) [great source]
Page 542: Excerpt from a letter by Rabbi Solomon Luria to Rabbi Moses Isserles reacting unfavorably to the latter’s alleged use of Aristotelian concepts in his teachings (“sometime in the third quarter of the sixteenth century”)
Page 542: Excerpt from the writing of Abraham Horowitz commenting quite unfavorably on how the Rabbi Aaron Land of Poznan delivered a speech on Shabbat Ha-Gadol warning Jews to read nothing but the Talmud (1559)
Rosman, Moshe (Murray) J. “A Minority Views the Majority: Jewish Attitudes Towards the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth and Interaction with Poles.” Polin 4 (1989): 31-41.
—. “The Indebtedness of the Lublin Kahal in the Eighteenth Century.” In Studies in the History of the Jews in Old Poland, edited by Adam Teller, 166-183. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1998.
Teller, Adam. “The Laicization of Early Modern Jewish Society: The Development of Polish Communal Rabbinate in the Sixteenth Century.” In Schöpferische Momente Des Europäischen Judentums: In Der Frühen Neuzeit, edited by Michael Graetz, 333-349. Heidelberg: Winter, 2000.
—. “The Magnates’ Attitude to Jewish Regional Autonomy in the Eighteenth Century.” In Studies in the History of the Jews in Old Poland, edited by Adam Teller, 246-269. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1998.
Wyrozumska, Bozena. “Did King Olbracht Banish the Jews from Cracow?” In The Jews in Poland, edited by Andrzej Paluch, 27-37. Cracow: Jagiellonian University, 1992.
Texts and Presentations:
Bolechow, Ber of. The Memoirs of Ber of Bolechow (1723-1805). Translated by Mark Wischnitzer. London, New York etc.: H. Milford Oxford University Press, 1922.
Images from JTS:
Anshil of Cracow
Helicz, Cracow, 1534
Fol. 3v – quadruple coat of arms (St. George, seal of Cracow, seals of the King and Queen of Poland, Sigismund I and Bona Sforza)
Nathan Nata Hannover