On July 17, 1764, the Sejm (the Polish parliament) abolished the Council of the Four Lands, the semi-autonomous Jewish body that administered life in the Jewish communities of Greater Poland, Lesser Poland, Ruthenia and Volhynia.
The council, called Va’ad Arba Aratzot in Hebrew, had existed in one form or another since 1580. It had not only the recognition of the Christian authorities but was also consulted by Jewish communities in other parts of Europe. As historian Moshe Rosman has described it, it had moral authority for these other communities, even if it lacked legal authority.
From the viewpoint of the Polish crown, the main function of a central Jewish body was to collect taxes. Jews had the legal standing of “slaves of the royal treasury.” But it was far simpler to tell their leaders how much was expected from the community in total, and let them worry about collecting it.
However, as historians Israel Bartal and Chaya Naor write in “The Jews of Eastern Europe: 1772-1881,” “these supra-communal councils, which had not received any legal recognition beyond their function of collecting taxes, became, from an internal standpoint, the coordinating body of Jewish communal activity.”
Hence, they dealt with legal matters that extended beyond the boundaries of individual communities – cases of bankrupt individuals who fled from one town to another, matters of copyright and permission for the printing of books, and also religious matters that spilled over from one community to another.
Shield against heresies
An example of the latter was the issue of messianic movements, which was a vital concern of rabbinical authorities in the period following the trauma of the “false messiah,” Shabbetai Zvi. In the wake of Shabbetai and later Jacob Frank, both of whom attracted thousands of followers, the Va’ad found itself turned to in the case of the two distinguished rabbis Jacob Emden and Jonathan Eybeschutz, the former of whom accused the latter of spreading Sabbetian heresies. The Va’ad was reluctant to get involved in what was a very messy conflict, but it could hardly ignore Emden’s accusations against Eybeschutz. In the end, it vindicated Eybeschutz of the charges against him, allowing him to continue in his position as rabbi of Altona.
The Va’ad also intervened on behalf of Jews vis-à-vis the government, in particular in cases where blood libels were leveled at them. The Va’ad made money available to them for their defense and, where possible, would intervene at the political level to try and calm the frenzied atmosphere that such cases could create.
The great historian Simon Dubnow (1860-1941) saw in the Va’ad a source of “strength and unity to the outcast nation [that], at the same time, gave it culture and laws and educated it in the spirit of discipline and self-rule.”
This characterization may have said more about Dubnow’s own national ideals than it did about the actual standing of the Va’ad. What is clear is that only a very small percentage of Poland’s Jews chose to take part in selecting their respective communities’ delegates to the council. The historian Israel Halpern has estimated that only 1.8 percent of Polish Jews – whose population reached some 500,000 in 1765 – participated in the elections.
On the other hand, Rosman, in a 2013 article on the Va’ad in Tablet magazine, quotes an 18th-century Polish-Jewish memoirist, Ber of Bolechow, who, writing of the significance of the Council, said that it “was for the Children of Israel a measure of Redemption and a bit of honor.”
The abolition of the Council was not necessarily meant as an anti-Jewish gesture, but can be seen as indicative of the growing centralization of the state in Poland, and as connected to end the practice of special status for different population groups. Taking the task of tax collection back from the Jewish councils also meant that all of the money gathered would end up in the royal treasury, with none being diverted for the needs of the communities.
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