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The Rabbinate before 1800

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The defining task of the communal rabbinate, from at least the sixteenth century on, was to provide leadership for the local religious court, as is evident from the communal rabbi’s conventional title: av bet [ha-]din. Often, a rabbi’s duties included serving as head of the local yeshiva (resh metivta or rosh yeshivah). The use of a formal writ of ordination and the professionalization of the rabbinate had developed in the late Middle Ages in Europe; formal ordination recognized a high level of learning and good character. Not every rabbi, however, performed what came to be regarded as a rabbinic function.

The development of the “career” rabbi who served as a religious and spiritual leader, a halakhic decisor, and a teacher occurred along with the institutionalization of forms of communal government that included lay leaders as well. Tensions sometimes arose between rabbinic and lay leadership, particularly in Ashkenazic Jewish life, almost from the earliest days of Jewish communal development in Europe. The growth of lay leadership in the medieval community was based on halakhic innovations adopted by leading Ashkenazic scholars to underpin communal administration—including, especially, granting the communal leadership the status of a court. At the same time, the halakhic foundations of Jewish communal life also posited the presence in the community of an “important individual” or scholar, whose assent, based on halakhic expertise, would be necessary in order to validate the lay leaders’ decisions. Though ideally lay leaders and the rabbi were meant to cooperate, in practice the two were often in competition, with one or the other usurping de facto control of the communal leadership. Moreover, even though family ties often linked the lay and rabbinic elites, these did not always alleviate the tensions caused by the differing interests of the two groups.

The Medieval Period

Whereas both the rabbinate and communal institutions flourished in the Ashkenazic society of medieval Central Europe, the small size of the Jewish population in Eastern Europe did not allow for such a development. In the thirteenth century, few Jewish settlements seem to have been in a position to employ their own rabbi; instead, cantors or teachers fulfilled the rabbi’s functions. A few East European rabbinic figures from this period, several of whom may have had connections with the pietist group known as Ḥaside Ashkenaz, have been identified as having come from Kraków, Lublin, Włodzimierz (Ludmir), Wrocław, and Kiev, though this is not evidence for the existence of the rabbinate as a communal institution. The general privileges granted to Jews in Poland in the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries make no direct mention of rabbis or the rabbinate.

Perhaps the first significant stimulus for rabbinical development in the region came with the expulsions of Jews from German cities in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and their migration to the east—for with the refugees came their rabbis. Among other rabbis to settle in Poland in these years, the famous Yom Tov Lipmann Mülhausen came to Kraków from Prague, and Mosheh Mintz moved from Mainz to Poznań. However, even for this period evidence on the rabbinate remains fragmentary, and does not allow a reconstruction of its social and religious role in the life of Jews in Eastern Europe.

The Sixteenth Century

The figure generally considered the founding father of the Polish rabbinate was Ya‘akov Pollak, the first rosh yeshivah known to have held that position in Poland. He seems to have come with his family from Regensburg to Kraków in the early 1490s. Pollak received a royal privilege appointing him rabbi of all the Jews in Poland in 1503. This seems to have set a precedent for the Polish rabbinate’s relying significantly on privileges from non-Jewish authorities to buttress its authority over the Jewish community. Although the crown did not directly appoint rabbis, it often confirmed their appointment and on occasion ordered rabbis to reinforce rulings made by government officials with the threat of ḥerem (ban). The crown would also sometimes be called upon to settle jurisdictional disputes between rabbis—which gave the impression that rabbis were at times acting as a form of royal official themselves.

The gradual decentralization of power in Polish society as a whole in the sixteenth century affected the rabbinate, too. In an important ruling in 1551, the community of Poznań was granted the freedom to choose its own rabbi without any outside interference, and at the same time those refusing to obey their rabbi’s rulings were threatened with the death penalty. This last clause was soon abandoned, presumably as a result of the fractious nature of Polish Jewry. The 1551 ruling is significant in that it laid the legal foundations for rabbinic—and communal—autonomy in Poland. It did not, however, end the rabbinate’s reliance on non-Jewish authorities to shore up its authority within Jewish society. Rabbinic authority was further eroded in the course of the century by the change from life appointments of rabbis to fixed-term contractual appointments made by community councils run by lay leaders, who effectively became the rabbis’ employers, able to hire and fire at will.

The advent of Hebrew printing in Poland in the 1530s presented the rabbinate with an additional challenge. As books—and particularly halakhic literature—became more accessible, the rabbi’s role as sole religious authority in the community declined. Initially, leading figures turned their back on the printing press: Shalom Shakhnah, Pollak’s most prominent student and Poland’s leading rabbi from the 1520s to the 1540s, refused to allow his rulings to be printed, arguing (with some prescience) that their publication would lead to the ossification of the . The two major rabbinic leaders of the next generation, on the other hand—Mosheh Isserles and Shelomoh Luria—embraced the possibilities of printing, each preparing his own halakhic codification for Polish Jewry. The appearance of the halakhic code in 1565 led both to rethink their plans. Luria eventually tried to complete his Yam shel Shelomoh, in which he presented the sources of the halakhic rulings derived from the Talmud. Isserles adopted the medieval methodology of adding glosses to the text, adapting the Shulḥan ‘arukh to the Polish Ashkenazic environment.

Though controversial in its day, Isserles’ work, which allowed any educated Jew to decide basic halakhic issues without consulting a rabbi, proved very popular, making the Shulḥan ‘arukh with his glosses the fundamental halakhic text for the entire Jewish world. Later authors continued in Isserles’ footsteps, issuing a range of books aimed at giving nonspecialists a grounding in Jewish law and custom. As a result, halakhic texts and expositions of Jewish custom, as well as Yiddish texts explaining to women their religious duties, all began to be published in Eastern Europe. Many of their authors were not community rabbis—another sign that printing was creating a broader Jewish intelligentsia, of which the rabbinate constituted only one part.

Nevertheless, the rabbinate continued to play highly significant roles in Polish Jewish society throughout the sixteenth century. A major network of yeshivas—some financed by communal budgets, others private—developed, soon making Poland–Lithuania a major center of Torah study in the Jewish world. Leading these yeshivas was an important source of authority and prestige for Polish rabbis. In addition, community rabbis played an important role in drawing up and ratifying Jewish communal legislation.

Beyond this, as Jewish society faced new social and economic conditions of life in Poland–Lithuania, the rabbinic responsum played a significant role in helping Jews come to terms with unfamiliar situations while remaining within a halakhic framework. There is also evidence that, for decades before the Council of Four Lands was founded around 1580, leading Polish rabbis would occasionally meet at the great annual fair of Lublin as a kind of rabbinic high court for Polish Jewry.

The Community Rabbinate in the Seventeenth–Eighteenth Century

By the latter years of the sixteenth century, the community rabbinate in Poland–Lithuania seems to have stabilized in the form by which it would be known for at least the next two centuries. The rabbi’s two major functions were to serve as chief judge and as head of the local yeshiva, if there was one. Most communities aspired to have their own advanced school for Torah study and expected the rabbi to teach the young men studying there. There is some evidence that, at least in the larger communities, learned community members would make an effort to attend the rabbi’s main weekly lecture on the Talmud. It was the rabbi’s purview to grant titles to those who had completed long periods of study at his yeshiva: ḥaver (colleague or “Bachelor”) and morenu (our teacher or “Master”); the latter enabled its recipient to take a rabbinic post of his own. Younger children, who studied in heders, would also be brought before the rabbi on a regular basis for him to supervise their education.

The rabbi chaired the community court—or its upper bench, if there was more than one. This court tried civil cases heard between Jews (cases involving non-Jews were heard outside the Jewish community). The rabbi also played a crucial role as halakhic decisor, ruling on questions requiring a detailed knowledge of Jewish law, such as issues of ritual purity and kashrut. In the latter regard, the rabbi not only decided whether questionable meat was kosher, but also licensed and supervised the community’s kosher slaughterers, ensuring that they were both expert in the relevant branches of Jewish law and of good character. Overseeing marriages and divorces for all community members was another rabbinic prerogative.

The rabbi enjoyed great prestige as the community’s spiritual figurehead. He acted as supervisor of the annual elections to the (community council), and his signature was often necessary to lend its decisions binding authority within Jewish society. The rabbi would generally give public sermons just twice a year: on the Sabbath before Passover and on the Sabbath before the Day of Atonement. These were not popular addresses but highly learned discourses aimed at demonstrating his mastery of Jewish law. If a rabbi served in one of the larger cities, he would sometimes assume the responsibilities not only of community rabbi, but also of chief rabbi for the surrounding region as well. This could cause tensions with rabbis in the individual communities under his jurisdiction, who resented their loss of authority, prestige, and income.

The shift of the center of Jewish life to Poland–Lithuania meant that changes in the functions of the rabbinate that took place there had a significant effect on the development of the rabbinate in other centers, particularly Moravia. The records of the Council of the Moravian Land from 1650 to 1748 reveal a picture of the communal rabbinate not significantly different from that in Poland–Lithuania. The small size and geographical dispersion of the communities in Moravia, however, meant that many Jewish settlements did not employ their own rabbi, a phenomenon that lent to the post of regional chief rabbi (Heb., rav ha-medinah) in Moravia greater power and authority within Jewish society there than in Poland–Lithuania.

Rabbinic income came in many forms. The rabbi’s contract, which was granted to a new rabbi by the lay leadership, generally specified a fixed salary, though this constituted only part of his earnings. He often received rent-free accommodation from the community as well as an exemption from taxation for himself and sometimes his immediate family. An important source of income came from overseeing marriages, with the rabbi’s payment fixed according to the size of the dowry. This was an effective monopoly, so that even if the rabbi delegated the task of presiding to a colleague, payment was still owed to him. Court rulings and the granting of titles also brought the rabbi various payments. Another significant source of income came from various gifts and honors that the community and its members gave their rabbi; these could take the form of either money or goods. Finally, many rabbis also engaged in business alongside their rabbinic functions, which enabled them to further supplement what they earned—particularly if they were able to apply their tax exemption to their mercantile activity.

The rabbi’s status within Jewish society was highly complex. On the one hand, the post brought its holder a great deal of prestige, establishing him as a major force in community life and allowing him to enjoy the deference of much of society. The position of rabbi, particularly of a leading community, was much sought after, with many wealthy families investing time and effort to acquire posts for their sons and sons-in-law. Yet though the rabbi’s direct source of power within the community was his ability to impose a ḥerem on recalcitrant members, community members found ways of circumventing such rulings, and the lay leadership imposed severe limits on the rabbi’s use of that sanction without their prior approval. In addition, the development of a broad stratum of educated Jewish men with the ability to understand and criticize the halakhic basis of their rabbi’s decisions led to a further erosion of his status. Thus, it was the lay leadership that generally ran communal life on all levels.

The appointment system also led to the rabbinate sometimes being viewed as a venal and corrupt institution, easily manipulated by both the lay leadership and non-Jewish authorities. The increasing gap between the prestige attaching to the rabbinate and the devaluation of the rabbi as a social figure was characteristic of the Polish–Lithuanian rabbinate in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The Question of Rabbinic Appointments

The appointment of a rabbi was a two-tiered process involving both the community’s lay leadership and non-Jewish authorities. In order to fill a vacant rabbinic position, the kahal would summon a large-scale committee, often made up of all those who had sat on the council in previous years. To prevent corruption, it was often stipulated that candidates should have no family connections with members of the community. Once a name was chosen, the relevant non-Jewish authorities would be approached, and upon payment of a suitable fee, would grant the candidate a license—in Polish, a konsens—to take up the post. At this point, the community would issue a formal letter of invitation together with a contract (usually for three years) specifying the rabbi’s duties and income.

In practice, this system led to a great deal of corruption and a decline in rabbinical status. A particular problem involved the system of payments made to non-Jewish authorities. Communities often demanded that the chosen candidate pay the license fee himself and sometimes required that he make a personal contribution to the community coffers as well. If the committee choosing the rabbi was divided, each faction would use its connections with the non-Jewish authorities to ensure that their candidate received the konsens—sometimes even offering to increase the fee paid. Finally, the non-Jewish authorities themselves would sometimes intervene to choose a candidate whom they felt would act as a direct conduit enabling them to intervene in the running of Jewish communal life.

Acquiring a rabbinical post, then, was often more a function of a candidate’s personal (or familial) wealth than of his level of knowledge or character (though the two did not necessarily exclude each other). Complaints about trade in rabbinic posts are known from as early as 1587. By the eighteenth century, it seems to have become quite common for wealthy families to acquire rabbinic posts for offspring regardless of age, experience, or learning. Eventually a small number of rabbinic families (among others, Landau, Gintsburg [Günzberg], Te’omim, Horowitz, and Halperin) divided many of the major posts among themselves. The incomes that these positions brought were often increased to offset the heavy investment made in purchasing them, which led to discontent, especially among the poorer elements in society. Disputes over the choice of rabbi and division of incomes became ever more heated and led to a series of bitter legal cases in the eighteenth century, especially in Przemyśl, Lwów, Wilno, and Pinsk.

The appointment of unsuitable candidates to rabbinical posts also influenced the rabbi’s ability to function as an independent force in Jewish life. On the one hand, the rabbi was often considered to be dependent on—and so biased toward—the faction within the community that had secured his appointment. At the same time, he could also be regarded as the agent within Jewish society of the non-Jewish authorities who had, ultimately, appointed him. This impression was strengthened by the fact that, particularly in the eighteenth century, the authorities did sometimes make use of rabbis as means of administering Jewish society by issuing them direct orders that were expected to be fulfilled.

Finally, the honorific nature of rabbinic appointments meant that the chosen candidate often did not even move to the community he was supposed to be serving. Perhaps to put an end to this practice, in the later eighteenth century some communities abandoned fixed-term contracts in favor of life appointments. In addition, the title of rabbi of a certain community, once held for a term, could be retained for life, even if the individual in question had long since ceased to act as a rabbi and was now a businessman.

Eighteenth-Century Attempts at Change

The decline of the rabbinate seems to have become an issue for public debate in the eighteenth century, and the homiletic literature of the period is replete with critiques of it as venal, corrupt, and immoral. In fact, many of Poland–Lithuania’s leading rabbis chose to leave the country to settle in the major communities of Central Europe. Yeḥezkel Landau (known as Noda‘ bi-Yehudah) moved from Jampol to Prague, Aryeh Leib Gintsburg (author of the Sha’agat Aryeh) moved from Minsk to Metz, and Ya‘akov Yehoshu‘a Falk (1680–1756; author of Pene Yehoshu‘a) moved from Lwów to Berlin, Metz, and Frankfurt am Main.

Various groups within Jewish society proposed different ways of dealing with the problem. Some communities and wealthy individuals opened a new kind of academic institution called a kloyz, which gave a salary to talented Torah scholars to sit and learn, thus freeing them from the need to hold any rabbinic post to make a living. The nascent Hasidic movement, particularly embodied in Ya‘akov Yosef of Polnoye, was highly critical of the rabbinate, and developed a new form of spiritual leader—the —to replace the rabbi as the source of authority in Jewish life. The tsadik’s popularity derived from his spiritual prowess as a charismatic leader, rather than from money and family connections.

Finally, the small group of Enlightened Jews in Poland suggested changes in the rabbinate in their proposals to the Four-Year Sejm: the rabbi was to be elected by the entire community, with no money exchanges, and the non-Jewish authorities were not to interfere in the elections in any way. Some maskilim wanted rabbis to receive broad training from the state and advocated limiting the rabbi’s powers to questions strictly connected to religious law. All these efforts, however, brought no significant change to the status of the rabbi and to the development of the rabbinate until after the period of the partitions.

Suggested Reading

Simha Assaf, Le-Korot ha-rabanut (Be-Ashkenaz, Polanyah ve-Lita’) (Jerusalem, 1927); Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson, Hagut ve-hanhagah (Jerusalem, 1959); Artur Eisenbach, “Sejm Czteroletni a Żydzi,” in Żydzi w dawnej Rzeczypospolitej, ed. Andrzej Link-Lenczowski, pp. 180–191 (Wrocław, 1991), also in English as “Four Years’ Sejm and the Jews,” in The Jews in Old Poland, 1000–1795 (London and Oxford, 1993); Edward Fram, Ideals Face Reality: Jewish Law and Life in Poland, 1550–1655 (Cincinnati, 1997); Gershon David Hundert, Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century: A Genealogy of Modernity (Berkeley, 2004), pp. 99–118; Elchanan Reiner, “Hon, ma‘amad ḥevrati ve-talmud torah,” Tsiyon 58.3 (1993): 287–328; Elchanan Reiner, “The Ashkenazi Élite at the Beginning of the Modern Era: Manuscript versus Printed Book,” Polin 10 (1997): 85–98; Simon Schwarzfuchs, A Concise History of the Rabbinate (Oxford, 1993); Chone Shmeruk, “Ha-Ḥasidut ve-‘iske ha-ḥakhirot,” Tsiyon 35 (1970): 182–192; Israel Ta-Shma, “On the History of the Jews in Twelfth- and Thirteenth-Century Poland,” Polin 10 (1997): 287–317; Adam Teller, “The Legal Status of the Jews on the Magnate Estates of Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century,” Gal-Ed 15–16 (1997): 41–63; Adam Teller, “The Laicization of Early Modern Jewish Society: The Development of the Polish Communal Rabbinate in the 16th Century,” in Schöpferische Momente des europäischen Judentums in der frühen Neuzeit, ed. Michael Graetz, pp. 333–349 (Heidelberg, 2000).