Jewish communal buildings near the railroad tracks, including (from right) the kloyz, synagogue, “old” bet midrash, “new” bet midrash, and Talmud Torah, Iwie, Poland (now Iwye, Bel.), ca. 1920s. (YIVO)

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The Yiddish term kloyz (pl., kloyzn) is apparently derived from the Latin claustrum or clausum, which refers to a building or closed complex of structures connected to a monastery. The term first appeared in Ashkenazic culture in the sixteenth century and referred to a house where scholars assembled—a place of study intended for mature, adult male scholars. By the second half of the seventeenth century, there were kloyzn in many centers of both Western and Eastern Europe. The term had by then gradually come to refer to a private house of study, existing separately from the institutions of the community and financed by a patron or a wealthy family.

A kloyz of this kind was generally headed by a prominent scholar appointed by the founder, and was frequented by selected scholars. The emergence of the kloyz in this later sense is connected to the appearance of a stratum of very wealthy men within the urban Jewish community and the consolidation of the status of balebatim (householders) during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Around the beginning of the nineteenth century, the kloyz as described here disappeared, and the term subsequently came to refer to a small, secondary synagogue or place of prayer.

The basic principles of the kloyz had deep roots in the educational utopias of the Middle Ages. For example, Ḥuke ha-Torah, composed in France or Provence no later than the thirteenth century, proposes a curriculum intended for “the great house of study,” which is “in the synagogue” and is intended for “ascetics who accept the yoke of Torah.” The curriculum outlined in the educational utopia Ketsad seder ha-mishnah, by Mosheh ben Aharon Morawczyk (Lublin, 1635), is similar but was also influenced by the writings of Yehudah Leib ben Betsal’el (Maharal) of Prague. Morawczyk wrote his work at a point when kloyzn of the type under discussion were already functioning in Poland–Lithuania.

An institution known as hesger (pl., hesgerim), whose meaning is identical to kloyz, appeared in the sixteenth century in Jewish communities in the Land of Israel, elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire, and in Italy. The hesger of Yitsḥak Luria in Safed consisted of a selected group that formed a fellowship of married adult male scholars and was apparently financed by Luria himself. The other hesgerim in Safed and apparently also in Jerusalem more resembled an East European bet midrash (house of study) than a kloyz. Although the hesger of the Land of Israel cannot be regarded as an exact archetype of the Ashkenazic kloyz, associations of pietists in the Land of Israel, including the disciples of Luria, did serve as models for groups who were active in the kloyzn of Eastern and Central Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The development of the kloyz is connected to the history of the institution from which it grew: the bet midrash. The rise of the communal house of study in Eastern and Central Europe took place following the decline in status of the yeshiva in the course of the eighteenth century, and changes in the social status of the class of “scholars.” The kloyz was a bet midrash in every sense but one: it was a private institution. There was no direct connection between it and the institutions of the community. It was not managed or financed by the community, and, most importantly, was not intended for the entire local population of mature scholars but only for select individuals.

Kloyzn were elitist institutions, and their memberships were restricted. Participants defined themselves not only by their expertise in halakhic literature, “the revealed Torah,” but also by their mastery of esoteric knowledge in philosophy and, mainly, Kabbalah. They enjoyed communal recognition of their right to deal with areas of sacred literature that were not part of the ordinary curriculum, and to observe distinctive religious practices, usually those with some kabbalistic basis.

The characteristics of kloyzn nonetheless varied according to economic, social, and cultural conditions. The earliest mention of the existence of a kloyz in Eastern Europe is found in the chronicle Tsemaḥ David by David Gans, who recounted that Maharal “came here to the Holy City of Prague in the year 5333 [1573] . . . and established a meeting house for scholars, which is the well-known great house of study, called kloyz.” The Polish–Lithuanian kloyz was an integral part of local scholarly life in the communities where it was active, whereas the German kloyz was usually established by a court Jew and intended mainly for scholars dislocated by circumstances including gzeyres takh vetat, the Swedish invasion of Poland, or the Thirty Years’ War.

The organized scholarly life that prevailed in communities of PolandLithuania did not exist at that time in German lands. Ya‘akov Emden tells about the kloyz that his father established in Altona in about 1690. He writes: “[T]here in Altona he built for Him, may He be praised, a faithful house and established in it a great house of study, a kloyz . . . and scholars and distinguished rabbis gathered there from the land of Poland and Lithuania, who would study Torah there with great diligence. Day and night they did not cease” (Megilat Sefer, ed. Avraham Bik [Jerusalem, 1979], p. 29).

Kloyzn are known to have existed in Brisk (1667), Grodno (1691), Vilna (second half of the seventeenth century), and Minsk (end of the eighteenth century) in Lithuania; in Kremenets (around 1648) and Ostróg (before 1687) in Volhynia; in Lwów (mentioned before 1760), Brody (mid-eighteenth century), Lesko (Liska, Linsk; end of the eighteenth century), and Medzhibizh (early nineteenth century) in Ruthenia; in Opatów in Lesser Poland (before 1716); and in Poznań in western Poland (mid-seventeenth century). They were also established in Prague (1573), Vienna (ca. 1645), Frankfurt and Hannover (second half of the 1600s), Altona (ca. 1690); Amsterdam (1700); Berlin (1701); Halberstadt (1704); and Mannheim (1706).

To found a kloyz meant using a private source to endow a fund and provide annual income to meet its members’ needs. The founder of the kloyz was often the wealthiest man in the area, usually from a family that had long since assumed a place in the aristocracy of wealth of local Jewish society (parallel to the class of urban patricians in general European society). Among such families were the Wahls of Brisk, the Babads of Brody, the Landaus in Opatów, and the Tsevi family in Grodno.

The founder would stipulate the conditions for acceptance into the kloyz, the conditions of behavior within it, and the economic circumstances to be enjoyed by its members. He would also appoint the head of the kloyz, a central figure in the life of the institution who was also called head of the “court” of the kloyz. The kloyz was often named after its founder: Reb Shmelke’s kloyz in Ostróg, Blumke’s kloyz in Minsk, Reb Maila’s kloyz in Vilna, and the like. Founders’ families took on the obligation, years and even generations after the death of the organizer, to maintain the value of the fund on which the kloyz was based, and generally also strictly preserved their special rights to office-holding and decision-making.

The head of the kloyz was always an eminent scholar, and almost without exception was related to the founder: a son or, more commonly, a son-in-law. Although not appointed by the community, he often held communal posts similar to the role of rabbi. As an eminent and famous scholar and as a member of an aristocratic and wealthy family, he contributed significantly to the image of the kloyz in its surrounding community.

The members of the kloyz were of no less importance, and sometimes of greater importance, than its head: they were famous as scholars or else endowed with a rare degree of religious charisma. The kloyz of Brody, for example, gained exceptional communal status: Mosheh ben Hillel Oster of Zamość, who was also the preacher of Brody, and Ḥayim Tsanz, both charismatic kabbalists, were active in it almost from its inception; they gave the kloyz its standing as a center for the study of Lurianic Kabbalah and gave their fellow members the reputation of being both knowledgeable in esoteric lore and famous for their piety. These two kabbalists taught Kabbalah, urged the printing of kabbalistic books, and supported the printing of the writings of Luria—which were first published at that time, in the nearby Korets printing house, with their approbation.

Kloyzn were active 24 hours a day, from Sunday morning until Friday at noon. Their daily schedules imposed strenuous demands upon its members, who barely slept as they engaged in continuous study. Since members of the kloyz generally had families to whom they returned on Fridays, the Sabbath played no role in its schedule. During the week, members resided at the kloyz and were even forbidden to leave. An account of the daily schedule of the kloyz in Lesko at the end of the eighteenth century states that each scholar was permitted to sleep for three hours a day, but if he had not slept “from time to time”—that is to say, for 24 consecutive hours—he was permitted to sleep for six hours the following day.

The number of members of each kloyz was relatively small, ranging from 10 to 20. The kloyz of the Vilna Gaon at the end of the eighteenth century had 20 members; in Opatów, there were 16. Numbers were low because of the high cost of maintenance. There was a relatively larger circle of students in the kloyz: gifted young men who were not yet burdened by the need to support a family and who were preparing themselves for positions in the rabbinate and as teachers. A complicated study program that in some ways reflected the life of the inner circle of the kloyz was prepared for them.

The duration of study in the prestigious kloyzn was between six and eight years, at the end of which a scholar was given the title morenu (our teacher). It is likely that by the end of the 1600s and the early 1700s, many of those occupying senior religious posts in the community had been educated in kloyzn.

The kloyz reached the peak of its influence in the second half of the eighteenth century, shortly before it entirely disappeared from public and religious life. From the 1750s on, various public documents began to appear, signed by all or some members of kloyzn; the source of the authority upon which they drew was not the personal status of the members but rather the power of the institution. The simplest and most common document signed by members of kloyzn was the haskamah—a letter of approbation awarding copyright privileges to the author of a book.

The intervention of kloyzn with respect to major issues in contemporary Jewish society was noteworthy. The most significant instance of intervention occurred when the kloyz of Brody joined in the excommunication of Hasidim that was proclaimed in their city in 1772. The authority of the kloyz at the end of the eighteenth century was connected with the decline of regional and national councils in Eastern Europe—such as the Council of Four Lands—and the ascent of local authorities.

At the end of the eighteenth century, the fabric of urban Jewish life, which had given rise to the kloyz, changed, and accelerating processes of secularization created a rift that could not be mended between the propertied class and the religious elite in the Jewish community. New ways of life on the part of the propertied class brought about a change in philanthropic aims, and institutions such as kloyzn were no longer of central concern. The decline in the prestige of traditional religious learning in contrast to what was taught in institutions of higher education, on the one hand, and the spread of the Hasidic movement, on the other, also contributed to the decline of the kloyz.

The kloyz therefore concluded its role in the sociocultural history of Ashkenazic Jewish society no later than the beginning of the nineteenth century. From then on, while sometimes the houses of study associated with the Musar movement in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were also termed kloyzn, the word kloyz referred mainly to a synagogue—in most cases a Hasidic synagogue—and although these houses of prayer may have been located in the buildings of former kloyzn, aside from that they had nothing in common with the institution.

Suggested Reading

Herman Pollack, Jewish Folkways in Germanic Lands, 1648–1806 (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), pp. 72–73; Elchanan Reiner, “Hon, ma‘amad ḥevrati ve-talmud torah: Ha-Kloiz ba-ḥevrah ha-yehudit be-mizraḥ Eropah ba-me’ot ha-17–ha-18,” Tsiyon 58 (1993): 287–328.



Translated from Hebrew by Jeffrey Green