Jewish self-government in the Crown (17th-18th century)

The publication of source materials for the study of the history of Jews in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, due to their large dispersion in Polish, Ukrainian, Lithuanian and Belarusian archives, poses a big challenge and a considerable problem for Polish and Jewish historians. The knowledge of sources, especially those concerning modern Jewish self-government, the analysis of which is undertaken by the research team led by prof. Adam Kaźmierczyk from the Institute of Jewish Studies at the Jagiellonian University is quite limited and far from sufficient. For a long time, not all historians were aware that the Jewish autonomy functioned in a three-level scheme. Therefore, the goal of most researchers was primarily the publication of Jewish sources generated by individual kahals (the so-called Pinkases, that is community records), or privileges granted to communities either by the royal authorities or by the local magnates.

Due to the lack of comprehensive research in this field, we still do not have complete certainty as to what the territorial organization of the Jews in the Crown looked like and how it changed. Historians have no doubt that after the separation of the Jews of Lithuania in 1623, the Council of Four Lands (in the sources also called Jewish Congress or Convention) was eventually formed, which was the central organ and the head of this structure. Its main task was the distribution of the tax levied on the Jewish population by the Treasury of the Commonwealth, the so-called Jewish poll tax, among the various zemstva (local government units). The middle level of Jewish self-government, and the main focus of the present project, was constituted by the above-mentioned local government units – zemstvo, which included main communities with sub-kahals (przykahałki), represented at joint meetings by their delegates. Although, from the point of view of the authorities of the Commonwealth, the Jewish self-government dealt mainly with the distribution of taxes, it actually played a far more important role. Initially, historians singled out 4 zemstva: of Małopolska (Krakow-Sandomierz), of Wielkopolska, Ruthenia, and Volhynia. From the second half of the 17th century, however, a gradual process of decentralization was taking place, as a result of which new zemstva appeared as well as independent districts – kahals – with the same rights as zemstva. Additionally, as a result of interventions by the treasurers and magnates as well as because of the existing conflicts among the Jewish elders, the legal and fiscal relationships between Jewish communities and zemstva were constantly changing.

The principal objective of this project is to conduct a comprehensive source query and to prepare a data base of documents concerning Jewish self-government in the Crown. In the future, it will enable Polish and foreign historians to do research more efficiently. The most interesting and characteristic documents illustrating various aspects of the functioning of Jewish autonomy will appear as a separate source publication in printed version. All the collected documents, also those loosely relating to the issues of Jewish self-government, will be included in a bilingual online database. This would highlight particularly those sources which show the relationship between the system of the nobility state and the development and evolution of Jewish self-government, as well as the entire Jewish community. The chronological range will cover the period between 1623 and 1764, which means it will end at the time of the liquidation of Jewish autonomy by the Diet of Convocation.

The Project financed under the Program arranged by Minister of Science and Higher Education under the name "National Program of the Development of Humanities" 2013-2019 years. Project no. 11H 12 0418 81, the total amount of funding 600.000 PLN.

All persons having information about the sources which relate, even indirectly, to the self- government in the Crown, are kindly asked to contact us.

Administrator Dr Przemysław Zarubin