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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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This arrangement entailed a significant loss of Jewish autonomy, for everywhere in the empire Jewish communities had the right to choose their own leadership. The effect of this forced concession was to augment unrest in the Jewish community; one (unidentified) faction decided to send an emissary to the Va’ad in Poland (at the time called the Council of Three Lands). A draft of the document that defined the purposes and conditions of this mission and indicated what the petitioners expected from the Va’ad has recently been published and is worth examining closely:

The Three Lands, may God keep them, should declare a great Herem (ban) on the elders of the Frankfurt community specifying that they not meet together or come into contact with each other … and that they on no account be called by the name “elders” (parnassim). And [the Va’ad] should immediately intercede with our exalted ruler so that elders be chosen by the community and not by the ruler in any way. They should also intercede on behalf of the Jewish court system that disputes not come up before the Gentile courts ever. All of these [measures] are to be accompanied by a strict sanction, an edict of naha”sh, that if [the elders] refuse and do not obey these [measures] then the communities of Ashkenaz, their rabbis and elders, are obligated to ban the recalcitrant elders [of Frankfurt] and all who support them … and if the communities of Ashkenaz refuse to ban the recalcitrant elders of Frankfurt, then this document does not take effect until the Three Lands ban both the communities of Ashkenaz and the elders of Frankfurt, individually, each by name. … Furthermore I [the emissary] will advocate [that the Va’ad] ban any cantor or bailiff who summons the elders of Frankfurt to convene together. They should also ban anyone who receives from [the banned elders] any appointment, whether as bailiff or judge or [warden of] the community trust or charity warden or rabbi. They should also ban anyone who marries with them as well as the rabbi who performs the ceremony. I will also advocate that the Three Lands censure the elders of Frankfurt in all of the communities if [these elders] refuse and do not obey their teachers.

At least three letters were sent to Frankfurt demanding the abolition of the council appointed by the municipality and the institution of a method of choosing the Jewish leadership acceptable to the Jews. The Va’ad understood, however, that its standing in this matter and its right to intervene were not at all clear:

For until now we kept our head inside, not venturing beyond our territory and God forbid that we or our progeny lord it over you. God forbid. This is not our way. … What will you accept from us if, God forbid, you judge us guilty and castigate our words? What would it be all about and what would we gain, [you] becoming enraged over our interfering in your dispute which is “not ours, O Lord, not ours”(Ps.115) [i.e., is none of our business] …

The Va’ad took pains to explain that it did not see the leadership of the Frankfurt community as its subordinate but rather as its equal. As peers, the two bodies were entitled to reprove each other:

There has always been an eternal covenant between us and you, between our fathers and yours. … Were your words of some exoteric reproach but esoteric love, alerting us to the truth and a perversion of justice, to reach us we would take it as praise and honor.

This approach laid the foundation for the intervention of the Va’ad in the process of choosing the Frankfurt leadership. The Va’ad did not claim the right to exercise authority over Frankfurt. It did not even flaunt its prestige as entitling it, as Rabbi Halevi had asserted, to obedience on the part of other communities. The Va’ad’s claim was more modest and generic:

But in any case, we will do our duty in line with [the command]: “Reprove [your neighbor]” (Lev. 19:17) even [if it takes] several times (Sefer Ha-Hinukh, no. 239), because “it is time to act for the Lord” (Ps. 119:126) and where God’s name is being desecrated you don’t stand on ceremony (Midrash Tanhuma, Mishpatim 6).

By offering this justification, the Va’ad was basing its right to express an opinion in the Frankfurt affair on the obligation of every Jew to protest transgression whenever he witnessed it. The Va’ad had no special standing: It was intervening as a peer group interested in defending the Torah.

Despite the request of the faction that had sent the emissary to Poland, the Va’ad did not intend to mediate between the rival factions of the Frankfurt community, nor to pacify the community that had been plagued by infighting for some 10 years. While it was the Frankfurt emissary who drew the Va’ad’s attention to the conflict in Frankfurt, the Va’ad itself gave as the reason for its intervention that the Frankfurt affair had set a dangerous precedent. It represented a deviation from the virtually universal Jewish custom of choosing their own leaders and was a blow to the foundations of Jewish existence as a minority in Europe

As the framers of the emissary’s charge wanted, the Va’ad did indeed disqualify the elders of Frankfurt, ordering the people of the community not to recognize them. In order to reinforce its ruling the Va’ad threatened to impose sanctions on the elders of Frankfurt if they did not accept the Va’ad’s decision. The sanctions included a great Herem; notification of the ban to the sages of Prague, Eretz Israel, and other communities; publication of the names of the recalcitrants throughout Poland and other places as well; punishing Frankfurt Jews who happened to be visiting Polish communities; and unspecified legal measures.

So, what was the outcome of the intervention of the Va’ad in the affairs of Frankfurt? Firstly, it seems that the Va’ad itself had doubts as to the validity of its ruling in a community that was not under its legal jurisdiction. Therefore it warned,

Let not your evil inclination seduce you to say about us: “They are far from us and we have no link to any of them. What is there between us in common?”

The Va’ad’s doubts as to the readiness of the Frankfurt community to respect its orders were well-founded. The first letter sent by the Va’ad to Frankfurt was ripped up by its recipients. As the Va’ad’s men put it in their second missive, “Our words are contemptuous and disgusting in your eyes. … You mocked our words.” The conflict in Frankfurt was finally resolved by means of compromise between the factions: Rabbi Haim bar Yitzhak Cohen of Prague, the grandson of the famous Rabbi Judah Loew, was appointed as Frankfurt’s rabbi in 1627, and the compromise agreement actually included an explicit rejection of the Polish Va’ad’s intervention.


From 1660 there were two Ashkenazi communities in Amsterdam: the “Ashkenazi,” founded in 1635; and the “Polish,” made up of refugees from the Muscovite Invasion of Poland-Lithuania in 1654-55 who followed the customs of Lithuanian Jewry. The larger and better-established Ashkenazi community seems to have acquiesced in the founding of the Polish community, but conflict soon developed and the Ashkenazi community apparently tried to force the Polish community to merge with it. In reaction, the Polish Jews evidently turned to the Va’ad for support.

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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?