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Wolfowicz, Szymon

(1755–1830), businessman and public figure. Szymon (Shiml) Wolfowicz was a leading figure among Vilna’s Jews during the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Though born into the wealthy elite (into which he also married), Wolfowicz criticized the ways in which organizational leaders and their subordinates operated, and he demanded changes in the administrative system. When a struggle erupted over the appointment of the young Rabbi Shemu’el ben Avigdor, Wolfowicz stood at the head of those who supported the rabbi, against the members of the city’s kahal.

During this dispute Wolfowicz was arrested and even placed under a ḥerem (ban) by Vilna’s rabbinical court. He was imprisoned by the powerful wojewoda (provincial governor) of Vilna Karol Radziwiłł in 1786 and again from 1788 to 1790 in Nieśwież. After his release in 1790 he returned to Vilna and again took a central leadership position, becoming prominent in the struggle against Hasidism.

While in prison, Wolfowicz, who was apparently proficient in Polish, signed a memorandum that was later submitted to the Four-Year Sejm (parliament), where, having been released, he appeared as a plenipotentiary. His recommendations offered details for a comprehensive reform of Jewish organizational life. Believing that Jews should be given full freedom of religion and be integrated into Polish society, Wolfowicz wanted to abolish the system that granted autonomy of the kahal. He felt that there was no need for a separate Jewish apparatus, except for courts dealing with strictly religious matters.

Wolfowicz claimed that the way the Jewish community was run was defective and even, at times, corrupt. He held that the absolute authority of the kahal created a situation in which “anyone is allowed to wrong another and plunder and confiscate his property without being punished; there is no justice for him, and lying, slander, and false testimonies and oaths are permitted against him” (Klausner, 1972, p. 69). He argued that for Jews to become loyal citizens who would be beneficial to the state, it was necessary to abolish the intermediate bodies intruding between them and the regime. To grant Jews a greater degree of civil rights, Wolfowicz proposed that the special Jewish poll tax be abolished. He also recommended that Jews be admitted to general institutions of learning, including universities.

Suggested Reading

Artur Eisenbach, The Emancipation of the Jews in Poland, 1780–1870, trans. Janina Dorosz (Oxford and Cambridge, Mass., 1991); Artur Eisenbach et al., Materiały do dziejów Sejmu Czteroletniego, vol. 6, pp. 141–153 (Wrocław, 1969); Israel Klausner (Yisra’el Kloizner), Vilna bi-tekufat ha-Ga’on (Jerusalem, 1942); Israel Klausner, “Ha-Ma’avak ha-penimi ba-kehilot Rusyah ve-Lita’ ve-hatsa‘at R’ Shim‘on ben Volf le-tikunim,” He-‘Avar 19 (1972): 54–73; Israel Klausner, Vilna, Yerushalayim de-Lita: Dorot ri’shonim, 1495–1881 (Loḥame ha-Geta’ot, Isr., 1988), pp. 93–111.



Translated from Hebrew by I. Michael Aronson