The shtadlan (intercessor; pl., shtadlonim) was, ideally, a well-connected, culturally adept, linguistically capable person whose official function was to intervene on behalf of local and intercommunal Jewish communities and local and national officials on all matters that the local kahal (community board) and the intercommunal va‘ad (council) deemed appropriate. In the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, they were often retained by detailed contracts for periods of up to three years, earning handsome salaries and receiving generous indirect payments and expense accounts.
The professional shtadlan of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, Moravia, Hungary, and elsewhere was a well-paid and highly respected communal functionary whose skills made him a valuable asset and, at times, a potential threat to communal institutions and their exclusive claims to representation and power. Moreover, since his mandate and power came directly from various Jewish councils and communities and his actions took him directly into the corridors of power on various levels, the shtadlan was an integral part of the political landscape of early modern Eastern Europe, the political culture of its various Jewish communities, and the internal structure of communal institutions.
Although both local and intercommunal Jewish councils retained professional shtadlonim for long- and short-term tasks, these institutions also deputized communal leaders or elders to accompany or oversee professional shtadlonim on a variety of missions. At times, such deputies actually replaced regular shtadlonim, especially in the case of smaller, local communities that lacked the resources necessary to maintain a full-time, professional intercessor or, alternatively, when particularly long and intricate acts of intercession demanded the exclusive attention of one individual for an extended period of time.
Using language skills as well as professional and personal contacts, Jewish intercessors made their appeals directly to local nobility, government officials, and, whenever possible, directly to the king. While such direct acts of intercession were more cost effective and reliable, third parties—Jewish and non-Jewish—were also regularly enlisted to act on behalf of the shtadlan and his community. Records reflect that Jewish intercessors maintained a steady series of contacts with officials on local, regional, national, and international levels. Reports of the shtadlan approaching the Warsaw Sejm and the ruling monarch as well as the official treasury accurately reflect the balance of power in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, as well as the Jewish communities’ need to please a wide range of representatives and officials.
Shtadlonim also traveled abroad to lobby for the support of foreign powers in domestic affairs. Two particularly well-documented cases of such international acts of Jewish intercession are the separate missions to the papacy by Barukh ben David Yavan and Elyakim Zelig from Jampol, with regard to the Frankist movement and a blood libel charge, respectively.
In addition to using logical reasoning and implementing legal writs, shtadlonim were also known to employ other means of persuasion including emotional appeals, profusive begging, and the distribution of cash or gifts. While begging and pleading may have aroused the resentment of later critics of the shtadlan and his ways, the frequent distribution of regular payments of everything from fish to perfumes, from boots to silk, and cash were far more debilitating for the communities as they repeatedly strained communal resources and contributed directly toward the communal organizations’ growing financial and political crisis.
The sight of professional emissaries distributing payments, exercising influence, and arguing for a community’s well-being was not uncommon at the Warsaw Sejm, local Sejmiki, and various corridors of power. As such, Jewish practices of employing shtadlonim can be seen as part of the larger political context and culture of the early modern Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. With the successive partitions of Poland, the abolition of the intercommunal councils (1764) and local communal institutions, and a series of government reforms designed to civilize the Jews, alternative sources of communal and institutional power arose in the Jewish world.
One clear sign of this changing Jewish order of things was the veritable disappearance of the traditional communal shtadlan and his replacement by other representatives—Hasidic and maskilic, philanthropic and opportunistic—who lobbied for the advancement of a variety of social, economic, and political agendas. While these actions may have mimicked many of the ways of the shtadlan, the very fact that their mandate came from a source beyond the traditional Jewish community (which in many cases no longer existed as a legally recognized communal institution) demonstrates just how dramatic the political, structural, and organizational changes that took place in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries really were for Jews and their various communal organizations.
Israel Bartal, “Moses Montefiore: Nationalist before His Time or Belated ‘Shtadlan’?” Studies in Zionism 11.2 (1990): 111–125; Israel Bartal, “Politikah yehudit terom-modernit: ‘Va‘ade ha-aratsot’ be-Mizraḥ Eropah,” in Ha-Tsiyonut veha-ḥazarah le-historyah, ed. S. N. Eisenstadt and M. Lissak, pp. 186–194 (Jerusalem, 1999); Simon Dubnow, ed., Pinkas medinat Lita’ (Berlin, 1925); Israel Halperin and Israel Bartal, eds. Pinkas va‘ad arba‘ aratsot, 2nd ed. (Jerusalem, 1990); Scott Ury, “The Shtadlan of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth: Noble Advocate or Unbridled Opportunist?” Polin 15 (2002): 267–299.