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Jewish Self-Government in Europe Was Not Just a Dream—It Was a Failure

The Council of Four Lands was the central body of Jewish autonomy in Poland for nearly two centuries. What went wrong?

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Seventeenth-century woodcut showing various members of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth society, inclduding, top left, the Jew. (Wikimedia Commons)
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The Council of Four Lands (Va’ad Arba Aratzot) was the most elaborate and highly developed institutional structure in European Jewish history—a national council or parliament that existed from the mid-16th century to the 18th and whose decisions affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews and sought to coordinate the policies and actions of hundreds of communities in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Born in the last quarter of the 16th century out of congresses of religious leaders and elders during great fairs in civic centers such as Lublin, the central institution emerged to serve local groups as supreme legislative, administrative, and—sometimes—judicial body.

In the absence of Jewish sovereignty anywhere in the world, the Council of Four Lands (usually connoting as well the Council of Lithuania with which it often worked in concert) served both as a reminder of Jewish sovereignty in the past and as a harbinger of the promised messianic Jewish state of the future. As the wine merchant and memoirist Ber of Bolechow, an 18th-century Polish Jew, noted: “This [Council] was for the Children of Israel a measure of Redemption and a bit of honor.”

Communication between the Va’ad (council) and Jewish communities outside of Poland was not standard or even commonplace, so its decisions and actions became known abroad only serendipitously. The very fact of its existence, however, aroused feelings of admiration. Rabbi Avraham Halevi, who lived in Egypt in the early 18th century asserted: “Poland is a great city of God and every pronouncement made there is spread to all the cities of Ashkenaz.” The Sephardi rabbis of Amsterdam wrote to the Va’ad, in 1671, addressing their letter to those whose “fortress [=authority] extends over the entire community of the Exile.”

It is noteworthy that these foreign observers spoke as if the Va’ad were a rabbinic body, or at least one led or dominated by rabbis. The sources make it clear, however, that the Va’ad’s members and leaders were mostly laymen and its authority did not derive from rabbinic sanction. For most of its existence, even rabbis who did sit on the Va’ad did so as representatives of their communities and not by virtue of their rabbinic office or training. Recent scholarship may have created an optical illusion that might make it easy for determined secularists, anti-Zionists, and modern-day Haredim alike to anachronistically imagine the Council of the Four Lands as a quasi-democratic body that functioned on European soil without instruments of coercion and without the bothersome trappings of a state—an alternate model for Jewish autonomy, outside the Middle East.

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What was the nature and extent of the Va’ad’s authority outside of Poland? When and how was it employed? As the central governing body of the Jewish communities of Poland, the Va’ad filled a wide number of functions: enacting administrative, economic, religious, and social legislation; tax apportionment; supervising local communities in areas such as finance, education, and charity; regulating inter-communal relations; representing Polish Jewry to the agencies of the Polish government; and allocating resources and lending aid in emergency situations, such as in the wake of the Gezeirot (persecutions) of 1648-49. But the Va’ad’s relationship to other Jewish communities was neither defined nor regularized.

Observers thought that the Va’ad’s enactments in Poland were both widely known and widely accepted as binding decisions, at least by most Ashkenazi communities. Similarly, some modern scholars have claimed that the Va’ad exercised binding authority outside of Poland, in Ashkenaz (the German states, eastern France, the Low Countries), Italy, Bohemia, and Moravia. However, the Va’ad did not exercise power over other Jewish communities; it did enjoy influence beyond the borders of Poland. There was no legal authority; but there was moral authority.

One possible way to analyze the Va’ad’s moral authority outside of Poland is to consider the features of the various cases of Va’ad intervention in the internal affairs of non-Polish communities. In the 16th and early 17th centuries the leadership of the Jewish community of Frankfurt am Main was in the hands of a small group called Havruta Kadisha (the holy fellowship) or simply Havruta or Zehender (“the 10”). This was an oligarchical body that served as the council of the community, choosing two gabbaim (wardens) who administered communal affairs. Members of the Zehender were elected for life, and when it was necessary to choose a successor the only electors were the other members of the Havruta. In the period 1616-1628 there was a struggle between the Zehender and members of other groups in the community who opposed their rule and sought to broaden the membership of the communal council.

The Jews of Frankfurt had suffered a pogrom during the 1613-14 Fettmilch Rebellion and fled the city in August 1614. They returned, their safety guaranteed by the Habsburg Emperor Matthias, in February 1616. Soon thereafter the conflict over the leadership in the newly re-established community broke out when the opposition to the Zehender appealed to Matthias to break their monopoly, and the emperor assigned the problem to the same commissioners who were investigating the Fettmilch Rebellion. The Havruta presented the commissioners with a letter of acquiescence, signed by many supporters, affirming its ruling status. The imperial privilege granted to the Jewish community of Frankfurt (composed March 1616, officially confirmed January 1617) formally and finally recognized the Zehender as the community’s ruling body.

The opposition to the Zehender did not, however, die down. In the next round the parties agreed to submit the dispute to the arbitration of three prominent Ashkenazi rabbis. On Jan. 4, 1618, these arbitrators came to a compromise solution creating a new body, the Zayin Tuvei Ha-Ir (lit.: the seven good men of the city; i.e., communal elders), whose members, unlike the Zehender, could not be related to each other, were limited to a two-year term and at least four of whom could not be serving a consecutive term. The Zayin Tuvei Ha-Ir joined with the Zehender thus effectively expanding the communal council from 10 to 17, seven of whom came from outside the elite Havruta. Unfortunately, this solution did not work. The opponents of the Zehender soon complained that the oligarchs, who still constituted the majority on the council, refused to keep proper financial records, perverted justice in judicial matters, persisted in their nepotism, and failed to invite members of the Zayin Tuvei Ha-Ir to council meetings.

The Zehender offered to limit the number of close relatives who could serve together on the council, but this proposal was rejected by their opponents as a half-measure. The herem (ban) that the Havruta placed on one Hirsch zur gelben Rose in 1621 was the opening volley in the next stage of the struggle. Hirsch, supported by several other householders, appealed the ban and protested against the generally despotic behavior of the Zehender to the Emperor Ferdinand II in Vienna. The emperor ordered the Frankfurt City Council to investigate and come up with a resolution acceptable to both sides. In February 1622, after a lengthy inquiry, the City Council decided to abolish both the Zehender and the Zayin Tuvei Ha-Ir and to establish in their place a new institution, which would include 14 members: six from the old Havruta and eight who would be appointed by the Frankfurt municipal authorities from among 16 candidates to be chosen by the Jewish community.

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Jewish Self-Government in Europe Was Not Just a Dream—It Was a Failure

The Council of Four Lands was the central body of Jewish autonomy in Poland for nearly two centuries. What went wrong?