Councils Of The Lands were the central institutions of Jewish self-government in Poland and Lithuania from the middle of the 16th century until 1764. The bodies in question were the Council of the Four Lands (Heb. וַעַד אַרְבַּע אֲךָצוֹת) or council of the lands (Heb. וַעַד הָאֲרָצוֹת), the controlling body for the Jewish provinces (“Lands”) of Poland, while the Council of the Land of Lithuania (Heb. וַעַד מְדִינַת לִיטָא or וַעַד הַמְּדִינָה) was the similar organization for the Lithuanian grand duchy, which was associated with the Polish crown. The two bodies were similar in structure and function. They were not constituted in either case as perpetual organizations, but were theoretically to the end ad hoc assemblies representing the permanent administrative entities, the local communities associated in their respective provinces or “Lands.” The councils represent the highest form of Jewish autonomy within a regional or national framework attained by European Jewry, both in terms of territorial extent or of duration.
Before the councils were established, the Polish government had made attempts to set up a centralized Jewish leadership. This official appointment was unpopular with the Jews. The beginnings of regional council leadership were seen in Great Poland in about 1519. The Council of the Lands of the Polish Crown originated from the rabbinical court at the fairs held in Lublin. It acquired the status of a central bet din because of its activity during the meetings of merchants and heads of the communities and because famous rabbis participated in its deliberations.
After 1533 documents refer to assemblies acting in the name of all the Jews of Lithuania. From the 1560s, the tax administration of Lithuanian Jewry was centralized. In 1567 two delegates dealt with taxation matters “in the name of all Jewish communities in … the duchy of Lithuania.” Ordinances originating before 1569 issued from “the elected from all Lithuania” acting on behalf “of all the communities of Lithuania whose authority is vested in us.” They enjoined the holding of assemblies every three years and the election of “nine heads of the Lands and three rabbis.”
Even at the zenith of the activities of the councils, the autonomy of the individual community, which had its own dependent boroughs (sevivot), was undiminished. The older, firmly established communities were known in Poland as kehillot rashiyyot (“principal communities”), and in Lithuania as kehillot rashei bet din (“communities of heads of the courts”), the only constituents of this council. Later, growing communities contended for the status of “principal community.” Among those which succeeded after strenuous effort were Tykocin, in Poland, and Vilna and Slutsk in Lithuania.
The provincial council of the galil (“circuit”) closely resembled the Polish regional Sejmik. The relationship of the provincial council to the Council of the Lands was paralleled by that of the Sejmik to the Sejm or national diet. The Council of the Lands of the Polish Crown comprised two distinct bodies: the assembly of the rashei ha-medinot, elders of the provinces, and the assembly of the dayyanei ha-araẓot (“the judges of the Lands” or “bet din of the Four Lands”), composed of the rabbis representing the principal communities and provinces. The bet din was competent to adjudge disputes among the constituents of the council, or between the council and its constituents. The two bodies frequently functioned in conjunction. These two sections of the council also cooperated frequently in Lithuania.
The constituents of the council were, first, the principal communities, acting either as a recognized part of the delegation for “their province” or as an independent delegation, and, second, the provinces. The accepted designation of “Council of the Four Lands” generally denoted its principal constituents: the provinces of Great Poland (principal community: Poznan) and Little (Lesser) Poland (principal community: Cracow); “the Lvov Land”; and the province of Volhynia. Reference is occasionally made to Three Lands, Five Lands, or even more.
In 1717, the council comprised 18 entities, nine communities which acted in their own name and nine provinces. “The Council of the Land of Lithuania” had in 1623 three “communities of the heads of the courts”: *Brest-Litovsk, Grodno, and Pinsk, each heading a wide area. However, even in Lithuania representatives of smaller communities were occasionally present at sessions of the council, with the right to petition on tax matters and other questions. In the regular sessions of the Council of the Lands between 20 and 30 delegates participated, in plenary sessions between 50 and 70. For the Lithuanian council, a standing composition of 15 delegates was established in 1700 comprising the two heads and av bet din of each principal community (five at this date). The officials of the council included: (1) The “parnas of the House of Israel for the Four Lands,” head of the council in both internal and external matters, who presided at the assemblies. He was elected from among the “heads of the Lands,” not from the rabbinical delegates. (2) Second in the hierarchy was the “ne’eman (“trustee”) of the House of Israel for the Four Lands,” i.e., the treasurer and chief secretary. The position was salaried and open to rabbinical candidates. (3) The shtadlan, who received a high salary and was obliged to be on hand at court or at the place of the assembly of the royal Sejm to represent Jewish interests before the government. (4) There was also a kotev (“clerk”) to the council, later joined by other clerks. (5) The function of the shamma’im, or assessors, was also important. The leadership of the Council of the Land of Lithuania was for a long time assumed by the av bet din of Brest-Litovsk. The other offices were generally similar to those of the Council of the Lands.
Both councils maintained an official minute book, a pinkas, which invested the record of resolutions and budgets with legal authority. Of the original pinkas of the Council of the Lands only a few remnants are extant (published by I. Halpern, 1945). The first detailed ordinance recorded there dates from 1580. The pinkas of the Council of the Land of Lithuania from 1623 until its end in 1764 is extant (ed. S. Dubnow, 1925).
The Congresses of the Councils
The Council of the Four Lands met twice yearly at the fairs of Lublin and Yarosłav. During the 18th century, the meetings were less regular. The venue and time of meeting of the Lithuanian council were determined as circumstances required. Between 1623 and 1764, the Lithuanian council held 37 meetings in different places; of these 15 were held in its first 30 years of existence.
The principal communities in the Council of the Lands elected their delegates under varying systems and at different intervals. The proportion of electors among the householders in the community varied with its size and the number of its dependent boroughs. The residents of the boroughs, comprising about one-quarter, or even one-third of Polish Jewry, did not have the right of election. It has been estimated that in the latter period of the council’s existence approximately 1,000 householders in only 35 communities participated in the elections, i.e., about 1% of the total 92,000 adult Jewish householders. In Lithuania, the percentage of electors toward the end of the council’s existence for all its five principal communities was 11.3% of the total of adult householders; for Vilna 7%; for Grodno 10%; and for Pinsk 20%. In relation to the total Jewish population of Lithuania the percentage of electors was only 0.7%.
Implementation of Decisions
In 1697, responsibility for implementation of the council’s decisions rested with the “heads of the Lands, who, within their borders, will ensure that all ordinances shall be implemented.” In 1666–67, the heads of the Cracow community ceased to attend meetings of the council. The council was forced to resort to persuasion and threats in order to bring them back. The Lithuanian council in 1628 decided that “all the ordinances from the beginning of the pinkas until its end are entrusted to the care of the heads of the Lands of each community.” The means of enforcement and persuasion was excommunication (herem), which was decreed at the fairs, and by announcements in the synagogues (in Yiddish, with an admixture of Hebrew words). R. Joel Sirkes sharply condemned imposition of the ḥerem by the council and recommended a general prohibition on all such decrees to be replaced by a code of sanctions, including fines, expulsion, and handing over the accused to the non-Jewish authorities. He even suggested the establishment of a central supervisory administration under the council. The heads of the communities ignored his recommendations.
In 1596, the Council of the Lands constituted itself as the supreme court for hearing appeals and sentencing serious offenders. The Lithuanian council defined its jurisdiction and authority in 1626. Each congress would henceforward introduce ordinances on its own initiative without being bound by the proceedings of earlier congresses. Unanimous agreement to the introduction of new ordinances was demanded because of the federal nature of the council.
Relations between the Council of the Lands and the Council of the Land of Lithuania were occasionally strained. The Lithuanian council was dependent on the Council of the Lands for representation before the central government, while the Council of the Lands expected Lithuania to share in its “burdens,” including gifts to magnates and the sovereign, which the heads of the Lithuanian communities often thought excessive. The two bodies also disagreed over the jurisdiction of the border communities and their boroughs, and over rights of commerce.
The competence of the council lay principally in relations with the Crown and central governmental institutions, in the representation of general Jewish interests, and in formulating legislation for the communities.
The government of Poland-Lithuania was aware of the existence of the councils as independent administrative bodies and accorded them tacit recognition. Formally, the councils were only bodies administering the collection of the Jewish tax from the generality of the Jewry of the kingdom. The councils conducted negotiations, often complicated, with the authorities on the amount of the taxation to be levied. A noteworthy achievement of the Polish council was that after 1717 the amount of taxes paid by the Jews was not increased despite depreciation of the currency. This was one of the main causes of the abolition of the council by the government.
The councils divided the total of taxes due into “sympla,” units of payment of equal amount. It then directed a certain community or province to pay annually a certain number of “sympla.” The council based assessment and collection on tax lists and estimates. In principle, taxes were allocated according to the means of the individual. The difficulties of raising the taxes forced the councils to try different methods. The social tension entailed by tax collection increased as the debts incurred by the councils and individual communities accumulated. Especially large amounts were expended on maintaining the Jewish representation before the government, defraying the cost of bribes, and physical protection necessitating swift and unobtrusive action. Such demands gradually swallowed the greater part of the budget at the councils’ disposal. They were forced to raise loans at high interest rates to meet their obligations.
At the same time the communities themselves developed a new system of taxation, the korobka, or basket tax. This was first a commodity tax, mainly levied on sheḥitah and afterward extended to business transactions. In 1700, the Lithuanian council was forced to take over the basket tax. In the 18th century growing insolvency compelled the council to increase its demands while, on the other hand, the communities showed increasing independence. In 1721, it became known that a number of communities and provinces in Lithuania had united “to reject the assessment of the poll tax” which the previous council had imposed. The council issued a herem against them. In fact, the dissidents had gone so far as to complain to the Lithuanian fiscal tribunal about the “oppressive practices” employed by the council in levying taxes. The principal communities tended to shift the burden from themselves onto the shoulders of the smaller communities and new settlements. The revolt of the latter against the council’s “acts of oppression” and the aspersion on the fairness of its apportionment expressed the accumulated bitterness of opposition to the councils. The individual community became more determined to retain the revenues under its jurisdiction. The administration of tax collection may be seen as the criterion of the councils’ ability to fulfill their functions.
The councils considered themselves empowered to direct the manifold social, ethical, and legal aspects of Jewish life, and to frame ordinances regulating the affairs of the communities and the conduct of its leaders. They regarded themselves as the guardians of Jewish autonomy. The councils seldom attempted to meddle in affairs between the community and its members; they tended to uphold the authority of the leaders of the communities and the federal character of the council organization. In Lithuania the principal communities sometimes intervened between the individual member and his community. A plaintiff first had to lodge a deposit. The councils arbitrated in disputes between communities or Lands. The majority of such cases were laid before the dayyanim of the “Land.”
Structure of Leadership
The oligarchic character of the community leadership was reflected in the councils, especially in that of Lithuania. In 1628, the Lithuanian council instructed its three constituents to ensure that “no communal administrative board shall … divulge the deliberations and confidences of the board; and shall refrain from involving individual members of the community with matters concerning the board; and shall impose severe punishment in such cases.” Heads of the communities were warned against attempting to rally their own factions in opposition to their colleagues.
The council supported the leaders of the community in countering attempts at rebellion or the organization of internal opposition against the community boards. In 1623 they reaffirmed the former ḥerem prohibiting such actions. Severe measures were to be taken against those suspected of these attempts. Any independent organization was prohibited: a plaintiff was instructed to appear before the community board “alone, or with one other, but not more.”
The councils were vehement in their censures of the “common people,” the “rabble in the streets and markets” who “make light of the acts of the town optimates.” It was “the duty of the leaders of every community to deter these offenders with the severest sentences, reaching even to the gates of death.” This was in reaction to the continual opposition which arose because the great majority of householders in the large towns, and all Jewish residents of the boroughs, were deprived of any influence or share in the leadership. The council repeatedly issued ordinances to enforce more severe sentences for “sedition” and “scorn.” Concomitantly, the problem reflected the revolt of the ascendant against the old-established communities, and in the course of time it reflected the attitude of communities where lower social classes had attained leadership. In 1650, the ordinance against intrigues was extended to “communities, settlements, and boroughs” intriguing against the principal Lithuanian communities, members of the council. In 1687 “sedition” among the communities was also denounced. Opposition to the councils intensified and became more broadly based toward the end of their existence. Artisans apparently formed a major opposition group and, as in 1761, the council of Lithuania felt constrained to forbid expressly their participation in the main activities and institutions of the more important communities.
The councils undertook to provide guidance in the economic sphere, in particular on occupational problems originating in the 16th and 17th centuries from the leasing and management of farm estates and related branches. Consequently their legislative activity extended to both the socioeconomic aspects and the related socioreligious problems. In regard to the first, the council instituted the ḥezkat orenda (חֶזְקַת אוֹרֶנְדָא), its sanction of preemptive leaseholding; the Jewish lessee of a farm property or related enterprise from a Polish noble for a term of three years was henceforward upheld in possession against Jewish competitors for the lease, which might even devolve on his heirs. Similarly, it became possible to acquire preemption on houses rented from non-Jews and to establish a right after three years’ undisturbed possession of market shops. As long as economic and social factors encouraged Jewish development, and the councils retained their influence, such regulations generally worked efficiently and prevented Jews from undercutting one another in dealings with the Polish nobility.
The councils also tried to ensure that Jewish religious precepts were strictly observed on rented properties – that Jews observed the Sabbath, refrained from employing Christian serfs on the Sabbath, from raising pigs, or gelding animals. The councils forbade isolated families to settle in the villages. In 1607, in an endeavor to reconcile economic realities with Jewish religious precepts, the council designated the rabbinical authorities to evolve a detailed code of ordinances regulating the permissibility of charging interest (see Moneylending).
On one socioeconomic question the two councils adopted divergent approaches. The Council of the Lands prohibited Jewish contracting of customs duties, salt mining, and the like, since the Polish nobility themselves coveted such revenues and in pressing their own claims Jewish merchants could harm the whole community. This prohibition, however, was never obeyed to the letter, even within the limits of the Lands Council’s jurisdiction, while the province of Great Poland evidently felt otherwise. The Lithuanian council several times expressed its opinion that the Jewish community would benefit if the customs revenues were in Jewish hands; the council promised its support to a group of Jewish contractors and accepted money from them. Nevertheless, the Lithuanian council agreed that it could be dangerous to contract for the mint and related operations.
Both councils applied strict safeguards to Jewish credit operations to inspire faith in Jewish business integrity. Special forms of credit instruments (mamranot) were authorized for the use of Jewish merchants. Numerous regulations dealt with the problems of absconding bankrupts, minors, or irresponsible persons who frivolously embarked on trade or contracted debts.
The Lithuanian council issued numerous takkanot against newcomers to protect the rights of community residence and membership (hezkat yishuv), domicile in the towns (hezkat ironut), and business operations (see ḥazakah) within the communities. A similar trend is also discernible in ordinances introduced by the Council of the Lands. The foundations of Jewish solidarity became seriously undermined in the wake of the Chmielnicki massacres (1648), when fugitives were deprived of rights in their places of asylum.
The councils maintained an effectual system of representation before the government and self-defense to prevent the withholding of Jewish rights or to seek their renewal. They also tried to ensure that the murderer or assailant of a Jew should be brought to trial; similarly, they defrayed the cost for defense against anti-Jewish libels. On the other hand, the Lithuanian council warned, “Whosoever out of the violence of his heart shall go to provoke or assault a non-Jew … shall not be helped by a single penny, even if as a result he should be executed.” The councils actively rebutted blood libels and charges of desecration of the host. Toward the end of their existence, they sent a representative to Rome to obtain papal declarations against the blood libel and undertook their publication.
Study had a prominent place in the councils’ concerns. They attended to the supply of teachers and the fundamentals of Torah education. Similarly, by giving their approval to the publication of books, the rabbis participating in the council could exercise control over publications intended for the Jewish public. Great care was devoted to the yeshivot. In 1652, the Lithuanian council ruled that “every congregation having a rabbi shall maintain a yeshivah for adults and youths according to their capacity, as formerly laid down: all existent agreements with the rabbi to diminish the numbers of the yeshivah shall be null and void.” This instruction was endorsed in later assemblies. Scholars were exempted from paying tax. Yet the attitude toward scholars fluctuated, pointing to a certain tension; there were also changes in the definition of “scholar.”
Social problems dealt with by the councils included assisting poor girls to marry and regulating matchmaking. Communities were directed to care for the fugitives driven from the west in the Thirty Years’ War, and from the east of Poland-Lithuania after the Chmielnicki massacres. A nascent class-consciousness broke through sometimes in the ordinances relating to charitable matters: the poor bride was to be provided for – after doing service in a Jewish home. Jews were instructed to preserve modesty in dress and feasting so as to prevent dangerous excess of show. The councils arranged for the collection and dispatch of “money for Ereẓ Israel,” and notables who went there were given assistance.
The authority of the councils was also recognized to some extent in Jewish communities outside Poland and Lithuania. The councils were consulted in the Eybeschuetz-Emden controversy, while the old established community of Frankfurt sought the advice of the Council of the Four Lands.
The councils’ assemblies were brought to an end by a resolution of the Polish Sejm in 1764, which established a different system for collecting the Jewish poll tax. The resolution concluded: “Whereas the comprehensive Jewish poll tax, established by statute in 1717, is abrogated … henceforward there shall be no assemblies, apportionments or other kinds of injunctions, levies or compulsions relating to the Jews as customary hitherto … from Jan. 2, 1765 … we abolish them in perpetuity.”
The councils did not convene again. A committee authorized by the Sejm met in Warsaw for two years to wind up the commitments of the Council of the Four Lands. A similar committee was appointed for the Lithuanian council. The provincial councils continued to convene ad hoc, but no longer functioned regularly.
The Jews of Poland and Lithuania saw the councils as an expression and symbol of social majesty and political power. After the Chmielnicki massacres Nathan Nata Hannover depicted them as “the pillar of justice in the Land of Poland, as in the days before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem”; “the parnasim of the Four Lands were like the Sanhedrin of the Chamber of Hewn Stone and they had authority to dispense justice to all Israel in the kingdom of Poland, to safeguard the law, to frame ordinances, and to inflict punishment as they saw fit.” Idealization though it was, this still reflected the Jewish attitude. When the councils were terminated in 1764, a burning shame was felt that their “captains, the heads of the Lands, have been dispossessed of their mite of greatness, and even this small honor has been taken from Israel.”
In later generations the councils served as a paradigmatic ideal, and were invested with exemplary qualities, especially by the advocates of Jewish Autonomism, Simon Dubnow and his followers, at the end of the 19th and in the 20th centuries. Exponents of this ideology represented the councils as the pilot institution for national organizations of central Jewish autonomy in the Diaspora.
S. Dubnow, Pinkas ha-Medinah (1925); Halpern, Pinkas, index; idem, Tosafot u-Millu’im le-Pinkas Medinat Lita (1935); idem (ed.), Beit Yisrael be-Polin, 1 (1948), 59–65; idem, in: Ha-Kinnus ha-Olami le-Maddaei ha-Yahadut, 1 (1952), 439–45; idem, in: Zion, 21 (1956), 64–91; Mahler, in: YIVO, Historishe Shriftn, 2 (1937), 639–49; idem, Toledot ha-Yehudim be-Polin (1946), 188–215; Ben-Sasson, in: Zion, 21 (1956), 183–206; idem, Hagut ve-Hanhagah (1959); M. Schorr, Organizacja Żydów w Polsce (1899); Istoriya Yevreyskogo Naroda, 11 (1914), 157–210, 510–3; Schipper, in: MGWJ, 56 (1912), 458–77; L. Lewin, Die Landessynode der gross-polnischen Judenschaft (1926); J. Lewin, Dzieje sejmiku Żydów wielkopolskich (1935), 48–56; Frunk and Brilling, in: YIVOA, 11 (1956/57). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: S. Ettinger, Va’ad Arba Arẓot (19902), 15–24; J. Goldberg, “Va’ad Arba ha-Arẓot be-Mishtar ha-Medini ve-ha-Ḥevrati shel Mamlekhet Polin-Lita,” in: Ha-Ḥevrah ha-Yehudit be-Mamlekhet Polin ve-Lita (1999), 125–42; A. Leszczynski, Sejm Zydow Korony 1623–1764 (1994).
[Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson]
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.