View of the Great Synagogue, Soroca (now in Moldova), ca. 1920s. (YIVO)

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(Rom., Moldova), region of Romania. Moldavia was a principality founded in the middle of the fourteenth century. Its princes were vassals of the Ottoman Empire from about 1456 until Moldavia’s political union with Walachia in 1859, followed by an administrative union in 1862. Moldavia included Bucovina until 1775 and Bessarabia until 1812. The capitals were Câmpulung, Baia, Siret (fourteenth century until ca. 1380), Suceava (ca. 1380–1565), and Iaşi (1565–1862).

Hebrew sources from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries designate Moldavia as Valakhyah ha-Ketanah (Small Walachia). Jewish merchants traversed the region continually from the end of the twelfth century, plying routes linking Byzantium, Russia, and Poland. A Jewish settlement, possibly Karaite, is attested in the Black Sea port Cetatea Albă (Licostomo or Akkerman, now Belgorod-Dnestrovsky in Ukraine) in the first half of the fourteenth century; Karaite settlements existed there later, until the middle of the eighteenth century. A Jewish presence is attested in Suceava, the capital, at the end of the fifteenth century.

Romania and Moldova, ca. 2000.

The number of Polish Jewish merchants settling in Moldavia increased in the sixteenth century; they exported cattle, horses, fish, and leather to Poland, and imported textiles. During his second reign (1541–1546), Prince Petru Rareş (Peter Raresh) acted against Jewish merchants accused of failing to pay customs. In 1579, Prince Petru Şchiopul (Peter the Lame) expelled Jewish merchants because they bought cattle, sold cloth, and exported cattle to Poland, in competition with Moldavian Christian merchants. Nevertheless, in the second half of the sixteenth century, the role of Jews in Moldavia’s foreign commerce—to Poland–Lithuania, the Ottoman Empire, Walachia, Transylvania, and Hungary, grew. Jewish merchants from Constantinople exported kosher wine from Crete to Poland via Moldavia; for a time, Yosef Nasi (Miquez) held this concession. Jewish merchants also exported horses from the Ottoman Empire to Poland via Moldavia. The collaboration of local Christian merchants with Jewish merchants is also documented.

Pretenders to the Moldavian throne often took loans from Ottoman Jewish moneylenders in order to finance their receiving the throne from the Turkish sultan. Sometimes Jewish bankers accompanied the new prince to Moldavia in an effort to assure that that he would repay the loan. In 1594, when Prince Aron Vodă Tiranul (Aron the Tyrant) revolted against Ottoman domination, he murdered Turkish and Jewish moneylenders who had accompanied him to Iaşi in order not to have to repay his debts. Nineteen Jewish moneylenders were killed. At the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth centuries, the number of Jewish merchants from Poland who passed through Moldavia grew. They purchased furs, wax, dried fish, cheese, and sweet drinks in Moldavia, and sold lace, ribbons, and brandy. In 1636, the book Gelilot Erets Yisra’el, a guide for Jewish pilgrims from Eastern Europe to Palestine, by Gershon ben Eli‘ezer Segal Yidls, led them through Moldavia—from Kamieniec in Podolia to Iaşi and from there, to Galați on the Danube.

The first code of laws of Moldavia, Cartea românească de învățătură (Romanian Learning Book), promulgated in 1646, mentions that a Jew could not swear an oath in a trial with a Christian defendant except in a case in which a Christian thief admitted theft, and the Jew was to state which objects were stolen and their value. A Jew convicted of a crime who chose to be baptized was exempted from punishment or received a lighter one.

Memorial wall-hanging with photograph of crowds gathered for the funeral of Yitsḥak Friedman, the Buhuser rebbe, Buhuşi (now in Romania), 1896. (Beth Hatefutsoth, Photo Archive, Tel Aviv)

The number of Jews in Moldavia was augmented in the middle of the seventeenth century by refugees from the attacks led by Bogdan Khmel’nyts’kyi (gzeyres takh vetat). In the last decades of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth, a new Jewish occupation appeared: the leaseholder. Jews held leases on tolls, taverns, inns, lakes, and later of estates. Other Jews worked in international and domestic commerce, crafts, and moneylending. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, there were Jewish communities in Iaşi, Suceava, Baia, Siret, Dorohoi, Botoşani, Ştefăneşti, Piatra Neamț, Târgu Neamț, Bârlad, Focşani, Galați, Bacău, Cernăuți, Hotin, Soroca, Chilia, Cetatea Albă, Chişinău, and other towns. The first privilege (hrisov) granted to the Jews of Iaşi was in 1622, and it was reissued in 1666. Mentioned therein are the rights and obligations of the resident Jews. Jews were settled in a special quarter, owned land for a cemetery, had the right to build a synagogue, and were obligated to pay a poll tax. Probably Jews who settled in other towns had similar rights and obligations.

The Jewish community was considered an ethnoreligious guild (Breasla Jidovilor; i.e., the Guild of the Jews), its position being analogous to that of other minority religious guilds, inspired by the isnafs in the Ottoman Empire. The leader of the guild, staroste, or rosh medinah, was elected by the members and confirmed in his position by the prince. Among his functions was the collection and payment of the poll tax.

During the period of the Turkish–Phanariote regime (1711–1821), the organization of the guild of the Jews changed: the function of the staroste became less important because the authorities of the principality transferred the function of tax collection to the rabbi, who was appointed by the vel-cămăraş (the chamberlain of the prince) and confirmed by the prince. Sometimes, through bribes, instead of Torah scholars, members of their family were appointed as rabbis, for example, the descendants of Rabbi Naftali ha-Kohen of Poznań. The administrative title of this rabbi was hahambaşa (or baş-haham; Heb., ḥakham bashi; i.e., the rabbi who is the leader of the Jewish guild). This rabbi also appointed shoḥetim (ritual slaughterers).

Members of the Torah mi-Tsiyon (Torah from Zion) Literary Circle, Târgu Neamt, 1904. Two men hold up placards with the organization’s bylaws. (YIVO)

With the exception of several accusations of ritual murder such as in 1710 (in Târgu Neamț) and in 1726 (in Onițcani), the eighteenth century was a relatively quiet period for Jews. Their numbers increased after 1774 (with the Russian–Turkish peace treaty of Kuciuk-Kainargi) and especially after 1829 (with the Russian–Turkish peace treaty of Adrianople), a time in which local merchants had relatively free access to European and Russian markets, and the new conditions attracted immigrants from Galicia and later from Russia. Many Jews became foreign subjects (sudiți). Since many of the new arrivals were Hasidim, they sought to follow their own practices of kosher slaughter. In order to get them to pay the kosher meat tax, Prince Mihail Sturdza abolished the function of the hahambaşa (1834) after discussions with Jewish notables, and allowed the new immigrants (who were the majority of the Jewish population) to elect their rabbi. Şaie (Shaye; Yesha‘yahu Naftulovici), the last hahambaşa, died in 1840. A Hasidic rabbi, Yosef Landau, was brought to Iaşi in 1837, and remained there until his death in 1853.

In this period, estate owners founded commercial small towns and accorded the right of settlement to Jews immigrating to Moldavia from Galicia and Bucovina, and later from Russia. In the territory of Moldavia between the Prut River and the Carpathian Mountains, 11 such towns were established between 1780 and 1820; 11 more between 1820 and 1831; and 44 between 1831 and 1859. Jewish inhabitants engaged chiefly in small commerce and crafts. The main occupations of Jews living in the large old towns were crafts, although many were involved in commerce. Jewish craftsmen organized themselves in professional associations or guilds, each led by a staroste, maintaining a register (pinkas), and in many cases, a synagogue. These guilds continued to exist until the 1860s.

The anti-Ottoman Greek revolt of 1821 (Eteria) caused much suffering to the Jews of Moldavia. Crossing the principality, the eterists molested Jews in order to steal their money. They also confused Jews with Turks, since in some towns the populations lived in the same quarters. Many Jews were killed.

Srul Rayes with his youngest son, Moineşti, ca. 1900. (YIVO)

After Moldavia and Walachia came under Russian protection, the Organic Regulations (Regulamentul Organic) were promulgated in 1831. Jews were exempted from military service, could own property and other possessions in the towns, and had the right to public trials in disputes among themselves. Jewish children could attend public schools if they were dressed like the Christian children. The guild of the Jews was replaced by Nația Jidovească (Jewish Nation), inspired by the Russian system of kahal.

In 1803, some 15,000 Jewish taxpayers lived in Moldavia (excluding Bessarabia). In 1824 to 1825, there were 824 foreign Jewish families living in Moldavia. In 1831, of 38,039 Jews in Moldavia, 31,839 lived in towns. In 1845, 17,089 Jewish families (85,435 persons) lived in towns (the total for all of Moldavia is not available). Discussion of Jewish emancipation by revolutionaries in 1848 was mooted by the failure of the revolution. The national assembly (Divanul ad-hoc) of 1857 did not grant emancipation to Jews, but marked the beginning of the struggle for that right.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, most Moldavian Jews were Hasidim, followers chiefly of Ruzhin-Sadagora and Lubavitch dynasties. In the 1850s and 1860s, members of the Ruzhin (Friedman) dynasty established Hasidic courts in Sculeni, Ştefăneşti, and Buhuşi. In 1847, a group of maskilim in Iaşi, led by Moshe Eisic Finkelstein, petitioned the government to force Moldavian Jews to abandon Hasidic dress. They also asked to establish a modern Jewish school, which was opened in 1853, by B. Finkelstein and Beniamin Schwarzfeld in Iaşi. In 1833, Jewish (Hebrew and Yiddish) print appeared there. In 1855, the first Yiddish journal in Moldavia, Korot ha-‘itim, was published in Iaşi; it was issued until 1871.

Relations between Jews, church, and state were good, with some exceptions: accusations of ritual murder in the towns of Piatra Neamț, Roman, Galați, Iaşi, and Bacău; and the publication of an anti-Jewish pamphlet Infruntarea jidovilor asupra legii şi a obiceiurilor lor (Confronting the Jews Concerning Their Laws and Customs), written by the monk Neofit, a converted Jew (Iaşi, 1803). Jews who converted to Orthodox Christianity were granted high positions, gifts, and exemptions from taxes. Prince Mihail Sturdza’s attempt to expel Jews without legal rights to settlement was canceled by himself, after the banker Yeḥi’el Mikhl ben Dani’el—a communal leader and Hasid—forgave the prince’s debts.

In the period of the liberal prince Alexandru Ioan Cuza (1859–1866), who unified the Danubian principalities of Moldavia and Walachia, Jewish hopes for emancipation were disappointed. In 1859, the year of the political union of the principalities, the Jewish population of Moldavia numbered 118,922.

Suggested Reading

Victor Eskenasy, Mihai Spielmann, Lya Benjamin, Sergiu Stanciu, and Ladislau Gyemant, eds., Izvoare şi mărturii referitoare la evreii din România, 3 vols. (Bucharest, 1986–1999), includes summaries in English of the documents; Eliyahu Feldman, Ba‘ale melakhah yehudim be-Moldavyah (Jerusalem, 1982); Carol Iancu, ed., Permanences et ruptures dans l’histoire des juifs de Roumanie, XIXe–XXe siècles (Montpellier, 2004), pp. 19–108; Eli‘ezer Ilan, Divre yeme yehude Romanyah, vol. 1, Mi-Yeme bayit sheni ‘ad shenat 1850 (Ḥolon, Isr., 1986); Ițic Svart Kara, Contribuții la istoria obştii evreilor din Iaşi (Bucharest, 1997); Ecaterina Negruți, “The Role of Jews in Founding Towns in Moldavia during the First Half of the 19th Century,” Studia et Acta Historiae Iudaeorum Romaniae 1 (1996): 113–124; Andrei Oişteanu, Imaginea evreului în cultura română, 2nd rev. and completed ed. (Bucharest, 2001); Gheorghe Platon, “Populația evreiască din târgurile şi oraşele Moldovei la mijlocul secolului al XIX-lea,” Studia et Acta Historiae Iudaeorum Romaniae 3 (1998): 160–176; Toldot ha-yehudim be-Romanyah, vol. 1, ed. Paul Cernovodeanu, Me-Reshit ha hityashvut ha-yehudit ‘ad ha-me’ah ha tesha‘ ‘esreh (Tel Aviv, 1996), vol. 2, ed. Liviu Rotman and Carol Iancu, Ha-Me’ah ha tesha‘ ‘esreh (Tel Aviv, 2001), also in English as The History of the Jews in Romania, 4 vols. (Tel Aviv, 2005); Mihai-Răzvan Ungureanu, “Sfârşitul unei instituții: Hahambaşia,” Studia et Acta Historiae Iudaeorum Romaniae 2 (1997): 68–107; 3 (1998): 94–111.