Gentiles dancing and drinking in a Jewish tavern. Lithograph by G. Pillati published by A. Chlebowski, “Swit,” and printed by B.Wierzbicki and Sons, Warsaw, n.d. (Moldovan Family Collection)

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The payment of cash for the use of property or monopoly rights, leaseholding was one of the most important Jewish occupations in Eastern and Central Europe from the Middle Ages. Its importance grew considerably in the early modern period: according to the Jewish census of 1764–1765 in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, more than one-third of employed Jews were leaseholders of various kinds. In the nineteenth century, the importance of leaseholding declined with economic modernization, but continued to be a principal source of income for Jews.

Bracteate (coin) with Hebrew inscription, twelfth or thirteenth century. (Muzeum Narodowe, Kraków)

Granting leases was one of the most central ways for nobility to extract money from land and from monopoly rights that formed the basis of their domination in agrarian feudal society. There were two main types of leases: dzierżawa, or leases of land; and arenda, or leases of monopoly rights—though the two were not always terminologically distinguished. Jews initially entered the practice of leaseholding by way of their traditional involvement in moneylending, which made them a central source of cash—always in short supply in medieval agrarian society. Since the upper nobility found it difficult to convert incomes in kind from its estates into cash, and the state apparatus for the collection of taxes and customs was also underdeveloped, borrowing money against mortgages and leases of monopoly rights became the most convenient way to obtain cash. As early as the twelfth century, Jews were prominent in leasing monopoly rights, mainly those of the crown, such as in salt mining, minting coins, and collecting customs and taxes. The existence of twelfth-century Polish bracteates (coins stamped on only one side) with Hebrew inscriptions may provide the most picturesque evidence for this practice.

In the private sector, one of the most widespread ways of obtaining cash during the Middle Ages was to borrow money from Jews against a pledge (Lat., obligatio; Pol., zastaw) of either valuable movables (such as horses) or real estate. Since Jews in that period were permitted to own land, the possibility that the mortgaged property might pass to them in case of default was not a problem. However, it was only from about the fourteenth century, with the development of more intensive agricultural techniques, that mortgaging of rural estate for cash became profitable, as the borrower could then repay a loan from estate income rather than from his own cash reserves. But the consequent rise in land values led to the gradual monopolization of landholding rights by the nobility. Jews in Poland, who were formally denied such rights by legislation in Poland in the sixteenth century, found it increasingly difficult to take mortgages because they could not assume ownership of land in case of default. As a result, raising money on real estate from Jews could only be achieved by leasing it to them, since in that case ownership could not change hands.

Leasing rural estates to Jews was increasingly widespread until the mid-seventeenth century. The leasing of entire estates was the most popular practice, and included both the land itself and the landowner’s various monopoly rights. Holding such leases gave the Jewish leaseholder the de facto status of a noble landowner—a situation that led to much tension with the peasant population and may have been one of the causes of the Khmel’nyts’kyi rebellion of 1648.

In the magnates’ latifundia, which could consist of hundreds of villages, the general leaseholder usually subleased his parts to secondary leaseholders, who most often were Jewish too. However, as this form of leasing became more profitable with the development of the folwark (manorial) system, it began to attract the lower and middle nobility. With the expansion of economic and political power of Polish–Lithuanian magnates from the mid-seventeenth century, leases of large landed estates began to serve political rather than economic ends. Magnates preferred to lease the estates to their noble clients in order to secure the latter’s loyalty in local (and national) political arenas. As a result, Jews were effectively excluded from leasing large estates, though they continued to lease the smaller estates of lower and middle nobility, especially in regions where this form of land ownership was dominant. These regions, which stretched from northern Podlasie to the Carpathian Mountains, formed a leaseholders’ belt in which hundreds of Jews leased individual villages belonging to small landowners and monastic orders.

The politicization of leaseholds on estates gave the lease of monopoly rights greater economic significance. Areas included milling, fishing, use of forest produce, and the sale of salt and tobacco. By far, the most important item was the so-called propinacja—the estate owner’s monopoly on the production and sale of alcohol. Its importance stemmed from the fact that the sale of alcohol on the local market was the easiest and least expensive way to deal with any estate’s agricultural surplus. Magnate estate owners often leased all their monopoly rights as a package to one person—most often a Jew (or a consortium of Jews)—who further sublet them piecemeal to secondary leaseholders. This form of package was often called a general leasehold. Jews may have preferred such leases since they did not put themselves in positions of direct power over the peasants—a cause of much social tension.

The leasing of inns and taverns, where alcohol was sold to the local population, became a typical Jewish occupation. In taking over this sector of the economy, Jews displaced peasants and burghers who were also interested in competing for the leaseholds. In fact, before the profitability of the propinacja leases became clear in the sixteenth century, the majority of inn- and tavernkeepers had been hereditary peasant leaseholders. The success of Jews in ousting them was a result of several factors: modest drinking habits, relatively advanced literacy and mathematical knowledge, but above all their ability to pay in advance and to bear the constant rise in the cost of leases caused by growing profits and inflation. Hereditary leaseholders survived to a certain extent on royal and ecclesiastic estates, but had practically disappeared on magnate estates by the mid-seventeenth century.

Jewish leaseholdings were so profitable that they were also used on the royal and even ecclesiastical estates, despite explicit synodal prohibitions. Clerics in churches on lands owned by nobility also enjoyed the right to produce alcohol for their own consumption, a factor that could lead to conflicts (sometimes violent) between local clerics and Jewish leaseholders. The popularity of propinacja leaseholding caused a shift of Jewish populations into rural areas: by the end of the eighteenth century, Jews in villages made up almost 40 percent of the Jewish population in certain regions of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and an even higher proportion in Bohemia and Hungary. This process had far-reaching social and even religious implications, as rural Jewish innkeepers tended to live in isolation from the Jewish communities of the market towns, far from established education systems and communal religious life. Some scholars suggest that the roots of the Hasidic movement lay in the rural shift of the Jewish population.

The rural inn or tavern was usually the center of social life in the village. It also served as a local shop, and the leaseholder would provide peasants with credit against their pledges. Leaseholding agreements often included a partial transfer of the serfs’ corvée (Pol., pańszczyzna; Cz., robot) labor obligations to the benefit of the leaseholder. This could lead to tension between peasants and Jewish leaseholders, whom they saw as the sole representative of their lord permanently present in the village. Jewish tavernkeepers thus became a recognized feature of Polish rural life, evidenced by their appearance as a popular motif in nineteenth-century Polish literature.

Jewish leaseholders of propinacja rights were also very common in towns. Conditions of urban leaseholds were very different from rural ones due to fierce competition between Jews and burghers. The town owner usually backed his Jewish leaseholders, with Jewish community privileges in private towns usually including the right of community members to lease propinacja rights on equal terms with the local burghers; special clauses sometimes even granted the Jewish community exclusive rights to sell alcohol to its own members.

In order to increase their incomes from propinacja in both towns and rural areas, landlords strictly enforced their monopolies with heavy fines for infringements; fines were imposed for issues such as not buying alcohol exclusively in the lord’s tavern, not filling obligatory minimal quotas of alcohol consumption, and producing alcohol for self-consumption. The costs of taking leaseholds, which were much higher in towns than in villages, rose constantly. Penalties for leaseholders who failed to pay could be heavy, including confiscation of property; this often forced less fortunate leaseholders to flee. Massive Jewish involvement in propinacja leaseholding created special (and sometimes close) ties between leaseholders and Polish magnates, who protected them not only from church and state, but even from Jewish communal authorities. This protection gave the leaseholders special status and not inconsiderable power inside Jewish society. This gave an added edge to the already stiff economic competition for leaseholds among Jews. In an attempt to restrain this situation and keep the cost of leases low, Jewish communal authorities tried to enforce the ḥazakah (tenure), which granted an existing leaseholder the right to renew a contract annually without competitive interference from other Jewish businessmen. These attempts usually failed, and the turnover of leaseholders was relatively high.

After the partitions of Poland, the governments of Russia and Austria (in the Prussian partition Jewish leaseholding was negligible) made serious efforts to remove Jews from propinacja leaseholding. Though legal and administrative measures were usually unsuccessful, Jews eventually left this field of employment, mainly because of new opportunities created by industrialization and other nineteenth-century innovations. Still, in the Russian partition, Jewish innkeeping continued to flourish and even grow both on private estates and state land, though attempts to expel Jews from rural areas began in the late eighteenth century and continued throughout the nineteenth. The first edict forbidding Jewish leaseholding and demanding the expulsion of the Jews from the villages was published in 1804, following the short-lived precedent set in the Habsburg Empire by Joseph II in Galicia. Its implementation began in 1807, but the losses it caused to the local nobility were so heavy that it was suspended in 1808. This pattern was repeated several times during the nineteenth century: administrative attempts to expel Jews from rural areas were suspended on account of economic interests. In the 1840s, Jews leased taverns and inns even in places where Jewish settlement was restricted, such as Kiev and Kharkov. The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 did not put an end to the nobles’ right to lease their monopolies, including propinacja, to the Jews, though leasing estates to Jews was finally forbidden. The restrictive May Laws of 1882 prohibited Jewish leases of rural inns and taverns, and serious efforts were made to implement this legislation. Despite this, Jewish leaseholding survived in rural areas until World War I.

In Congress Poland, Jews were officially prohibited from leasing taverns and inns in both villages and towns in 1814, though the implementation of this law was postponed from year to year. Jews had to pay an annual license fee (Pol., konsens) to sell alcohol, which became increasingly expensive, leading to a gradual decrease in the number of Jews willing to pay it. In 1848 there were, for the first time, more registered Christian innkeepers than Jewish ones, and by 1850 two times as many Christians leased inns and taverns than Jews. On the other hand, leases to Jews of state monopolies, such as for salt mining, the sale of tobacco, and taxation, increased during the nineteenth century.

The governments of Russia, Austria-Hungary, and the Kingdom of Poland all supported transferring Jews into agriculture. Though most projects of Jewish agricultural settlement failed, Jewish leaseholding in some regions began to change, shifting into land-tenancy. An especially interesting form of this new kind of leasehold developed in Austrian Galicia, where, in the last third of the nineteenth century, Jews would lease rural estates, which they sublet to Jewish and non-Jewish tenants for cultivation. In 1910, 4 percent of Galician Jews were leaseholders of this kind. Similar conditions prevailed in Hungary.

The most important factor, however, that led Jews to abandon their centuries-long involvement in leaseholding was not governmental intervention, but new economic opportunities that opened for Jews during the nineteenth century in such fields as industry, trade, liberal arts, services, and agriculture. By the beginning of the twentieth century, 78 percent of Jews in all territories of the former Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth were engaged in industry and trade, with the rest mostly occupied in liberal arts and services. In the Second Polish Republic, Jews were prevented from leasing rural estates after 1921. Paradoxically, one of the earliest attested forms of Jewish leaseholding—leasing state monopolies, such as salt mining, the tobacco trade, and taxation—was also the last form of the Jewish leasehold in interwar Poland. Among other taxes, Jews leased a special “Jewish” tax on kosher meat. As a result, while Polish Jewry conducted a parliamentary and public campaign for the abolition of this tax, the last remaining Jewish leaseholders were lobbying for its preservation.

Suggested Reading

Jacob Goldberg, “Żyd i karczma miejska na Podlasiu w XVIII wieku,” Studia Podlaskie 2 (1989): 27–38, issue includes English summary, also in Hebrew in his Ha-Ḥevrah ha-yehudit be-mamlekhet Polin-Lita (Jerusalem, 1999); Jacob Goldberg, “Żyd a karczma wiejska w XVIII wieku,” Wiek oświecenia 9 (1993): 205–213; Jürgen Hensel, “Polnische Adelsnation und jüdische Vermittler, 1815–1830: Über den vergeblichen Versuch einer Judenemanzipation in einer nicht emanzipierten Gesellschaft,” in Forschungen zur osteuropäischen Geschichte 32 (1983): 7–227; Judith Kalik, “Szlachta Attitudes towards Jewish Arenda in the 17th and 18th Centuries,” Gal-Ed 14 (1995): 15–25; Judith Kalik, “Jewish Leaseholders (Arendarze) in 18th Century Crown Poland,” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas 54 (2006): 229–240; Magdalena Opalski, The Jewish Tavern-Keeper and His Tavern in Nineteenth Century Polish Literature (Jerusalem, 1986); Julianna Puskás, “Jewish Leaseholders in the Course of Agricultural Development in Hungary, 1850–1930,” in Jews in the Hungarian Economy, 1760–1945, ed. Michael K. Silber, pp. 106–123 (Jerusalem, 1992); Moshe Rosman, “Ha-Yaḥas ben ha-ḥokher ha-yehudi le-ba‘al ha-aḥuzah ha-polani: Ha-Tsad ha-sheni,” in Yehudim ba-kalkalah, ed. Naḥum Gross, pp. 237–243 (Jerusalem, 1985); Moshe Rosman, The Lords’ Jews: Magnate-Jewish Relations in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during the 18th century (Cambridge, Mass., 1990), pp. 106–142; Chone Shmeruk, “Ha-Ḥasidut ve-‘iske ha-ḥakhirot, Tsiyon 35 (1970): 182–192, also in book form in Meḥkarim be-toldot Yisra’el ba-‘et ha-ḥadashah (Jerusalem, 1995); Adam Teller, “Ḥakhirah klalit ve-ḥokher klali be-aḥuzot bet Radz´ivil ba-me’ah ha-18,” in Yazamut yehudit ba-‘et ha-ḥadashah, ed. Ran Aharonson and Shaul Stampfer, pp. 48–78 (Jerusalem, 2000); Adam Teller, Kesef, koaḥ ve-hashpa‘ah: Ha-Yehudim be-aḥuzot bet Radz´ivil be-Lita ba-me’ah ha-18 (Jerusalem, 2006), pp. 77–181; Jerzy Topolski, “Uwagi o strukturze gospodarczo-społecznej Wielkopolski w XVIII wieku, czyli dlaczego na jej terenie nie było żydowskich karczmarzy,” in Żydzi w Wielkopolsce na przestrzeni dziejów, pp. 71–82 (Poznań, Pol., 1995).