Three brothers of the Shokhor family who studied in the Vilna rabbinical seminary and went on to become crown rabbis in various cities of the Russian Empire, 1898. (Forward Association / YIVO)

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Crown Rabbi

(Rus., kazennyi ravvin; Yid., rabiner; Ger., Staatsrabbiner; Heb., rav mi-ta‘am). The crown rabbis of late imperial Russia held the government-mandated designation of rabbi, but their functions as record keepers, Russian administrative representatives, and sometimes Jewish communal (but secular) leaders belied the religious title. Historical research into Russian Jewry is still uncovering the precise nature of their leadership, in its variegated forms.

The roots of the crown rabbinate lay in Tsar Alexander I’s decrees of the 1820s requiring rabbis to maintain Jewish population registers in Russian as well as Hebrew. An earlier ukase of the tsar had demanded that by 1812 rabbis in Russia know not only Yiddish, as they all did, but also Russian, German, or Polish. Most rabbis in the 1820s had not yet acquired proficiency in any of these languages, however, and so were not able to maintain the required records. Jewish communities thus began appointing “official” rabbis—men who were often not educated in Jewish subjects but who knew at least enough Russian to record the pertinent information in the registers of their communities.

The phenomenon of “official” rabbis was more formally institutionalized under Nicholas I. His 1835 statute effectively turned these rabbis into government officials who were to serve as religious authorities (though they lacked the right of coercion in religious matters) and enforce loyalty to the state and obedience to its laws, while still maintaining the Jewish population registers. Under this more formal arrangement, these rabbis eventually became known as “crown rabbis.”

The next few decades witnessed various policy and institutional changes within the crown rabbinate, including the opening of government-sponsored rabbinical training seminaries in Vilna and Zhitomir in 1847. Supported largely by the new candle tax imposed on Russian Jews, these schools reflected the practical ideals of the maskilim, who emphasized the need for religious leaders to have a strong secular education. The curriculum included seven years of study of secular as well as Judaic subjects at the secondary school level. The students then continued with either a yearlong pedagogical course or a three-year rabbinical course of training in Talmud, halakhic codes, and practical rabbinics. Relatively few graduates of the seven-year program opted for the rabbinical course.

The schools turned out their first graduates in the mid-1850s, and between 1857 and 1862, the Russian government passed laws requiring Jewish communities to hire these graduates. These directives proved largely ineffective, however, as the seminary graduates met with great resistance among their would-be constituent communities. They were often viewed as potentially bad influences on Jewish youth because of their poor Jewish background and apparent lack of religious sincerity. Furthermore, not many young men were enticed by the rabbinate, even a somewhat professionalized one. The number of graduates of either seminary peaked at 150; between 1862 and 1872, only 53 students graduated from the Vilna rabbinical seminary. Two years earlier, in 1860, the Vilna seminary graduated 15 students, none of whom was considered by a Jewish community to be suitable for rabbinic leadership.

Those who did succeed in finding a community in which to serve were often hired at very low salaries—and they were dependent on reelection by the community every few years. Their positions, on the whole, were neither respected nor stable. Most communities opted not to employ graduates of the Vilna and Zhitomir schools and instead hired as their official rabbis elementary school graduates who had minimal secular education. In 1873, the Russian government closed the rabbinical course at both colleges, maintaining only the pedagogical track. The official reason for shutting down the rabbinical course was that the Jewish communities generally deemed its graduates unfit to be rabbis.

Although the Imperial government granted official status and legitimacy only to crown rabbis, their acceptance among Jewish communities throughout the Pale was never widespread enough for them to displace the old-style rabbis, known informally as spiritual rabbis (Rus., dukhovnyi ravvin). Many communities had both a crown and a spiritual rabbi, the latter being entrusted with religious and pastoral matters. And although the crown rabbis did have control over population registers and other administrative matters, they lacked the power to enforce whatever decisions they might make in presiding over their communities. Indeed, the tsarist administration in this period explicitly prohibited any rabbi from using coercive measures (such as excommunication) in an attempt to influence other Jews.

Still, and amid growing controversy, the crown rabbinate outlasted the crown rabbinical schools. On the one hand, the increasingly influential maskilim and other progressive Jews promoted the notion that a rabbi should embody worldly ideas and guide his community in the social, economic, and intellectual components of the Haskalah. Orthodox Jews, on the other hand, wanted only a traditional spiritual rabbinate. By the turn of the twentieth century, the question of who should be empowered with the religious representation of, and authority over, the Jewish communities in Russia had turned into a heated debate that played itself out in the Russian Jewish press and at various meetings of rabbis and the intelligentsia. The Russian Jewish journals Ha-Melits and Voskhod served as forums for this debate, which continued until World War I and aimed, ultimately, at solving “the problem of the dual rabbinate.” All the while, crown rabbis continued to function in their official capacities, even participating in various Russian rabbinic commissions as well as the Rabbinic Congress of 1910.

A number of men who later became famous Jewish figures in other spheres had spent part of their earlier careers as crown rabbis. Among the more well-known erstwhile crown rabbis were the great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, who served in the small town of Lubny from 1880 to 1883, and the Zionist leader Shmaryeh Levin, who served in Grodno (1896–1897) and Ekaterinoslav (1898–1904). And despite the overwhelming reputation of crown rabbis as agents of the state, there were outstanding crown rabbis, including Yitsḥak Shneerson (Gorodnya and Chernigov) and Iakov Isaevich Maze (Moscow), who spent their entire rabbinic careers as champions of Jewish communal causes.

Suggested Reading

ChaeRan Y. Freeze, Jewish Marriage and Divorce in Imperial Russia (Hanover, N.H., 2002); Benjamin Nathans, Beyond the Pale: The Jewish Encounter with Late Imperial Russia (Berkeley, 2002); Isaac Schneerson, Lebn un kamf fun Yidn in tsarishn Rusland, 1905–1917: Zikhroynes (Paris, 1968); ‘Azri’el Shoḥet, Mosad “ha-rabanut mi-ta‘am” be-Rusyah: Parashah be-Ma’avak ha-tarbut ben ḥaredim le-ven maskilim (Haifa, 1975).