Throughout golus, many Jewish communities were autonomous bodies whose leaders often had authority to issue death sentences. More common were the formulation of local regulations known as takonos hakehillos, which are so plentiful they could fill books. Regarding them, the holy Alshich wrote in a responsa (59): “These enactments regarding worldly matters are important before Hakodosh Boruch Hu because they increase peace in the world.”
Ruling over the kehillos were functionaries known as tuvei ha’ir (good men of the town), parnossim (trustees), roshei hakahal (communal leaders) or memunim (appointees). Early and later poskim discussed the Torah source of their power to enforce rules and regulations.
THE SOURCE OF THEIR POWER
The power of communal leaders was immense. The Shulchan Aruch (C.M. 2) rules that the sheva tuvei ha’ir may issue rulings and decisions even in matters formerly reserved for dayonim semuchim. The Rema adds: “And so is the custom in every place that the tuvei hoir in their town are like the Beis Din Hagadol and they issue corporal punishment and punish people, and divest people’s ownership from their property according to the custom.”
So great was the obligation to obey communal decrees that in Rashi‘s opinion (Teshuvos 247): “If someone swore to contravene communal matters, he swore in vain… for he swore to nullify a mitzvah and to stray from the statutes of Yisroel.” So rules the Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 228:33). Other Geonim and Rishonim understood that the obligation to keep communal decrees is only rabbinical.
A much cited source for obeying communal decrees was derived from the Gemara (Bava Basra 8b) that states: “The people of a town may set conditions for measurements, prices and workers’ wages, and to move them [from the Torah’s rules and fine them] for their [new] measures.”
The Maharam of Rothenberg derived a source for the power of communal leaders from the story of the Givonim, who fooled Klal Yisroel into thinking that they were not from the seven nations of Cana’an. The posuk states of this episode, “And Bnei Yisroel did not strike them for the princes of the congregation had promised them,” indicating that the oath of the twelve princes bound every Jew to obey their behest.
The Rosh learns that the power of communal leaders is based on a Torah concept, writing in a teshuvah (6:5), “Regarding any public matter the Torah said, ‘Go after the majority…’ and the individuals must fulfill all that the majority agreed to.” In a later teshuvah (6:7) he adds, “For if you do not say so, no enactment will ever be made for the public, for when will all the public agree to one opinion?”
Must communal leaders be talmidei chachomim? Despite their huge powers, some authorities derived that they did not have to be distinguished in Torah learning, for the Tosefta (Rosh Hashanah 1:16) states: “Whoever is appointed leader of the public, even the lightest of the lightest, is equal to the greatest of the greatest.”
However, the Meiri insisted that one quality was absolutely essential for public leadership, writing in his commentary on Yuma (22b):
“The quality of honesty is praiseworthy in any man and every man needs it, but regarding a person appointed over the public who directs all its matters, he must be crowned with the quality to an extreme so that he is not tempted by opportunity.”
Communal heads could enforce their enactments with charomim against those who dared to disobey. This principle was derived from a number of sources. Yehoshua issued a cheirem against whoever took anything from the spoils of Yericho (Yehoshua 6:26), the leaders of Klal Yisroel issued a cheirem against whoever refused to fight against the tribe of Binyomin after a concubine was mistreated in its territory (Shoftim 21:18), and Shaul decreed a cheirem against anyone who ate until evening during a war against the Plishtim (Shmuel I 14:24).
The Ramban (Mishpot Hacheirem) learns the power to issue charomim from the posuk in Vayikra (27:29): “Any cheirem enacted against any person may not be redeemed, he shall certainly die.”
THE LEADERS’ DUTIES
The powers of communal leaders mentioned by the Gemara and later poskim include selling shuls for secular purposes subject to certain conditions, the transfer of charity funds collected for one purpose to another purpose, appointing dayonim, and the instatement of taxes. The communal leaders also negotiated with government authorities, ransomed captives and dealt with other Jewish communities.
Communal leaders also enacted “sumptuary rules” which limited how much people could spend on luxuries such as expensive clothing, fancy weddings and suchlike. In Moravia, local leaders issued orders to supervise the cleanliness of the streets and mikvo’os. Moravia, Tzefas and Lithuania made rules regulating the large number of people coming from other places to collect tzedokah, and Yerushalayim and many other places enacted takonos to strengthen the observance of tznius.
Decrees were issued against tax evasion, card games and malshinim. 16th century Fez enacted a rule that sofrim must have their tefillin and mezuzos checked by an expert and be clearly marked as invalid if any pesul was found.
In Verona, Italy, melamdim were ordered to never leave their talmud Torah buildings during teaching hours except for meals and no melamed was allowed to have any other occupation or study schedule during these hours, nor receive gifts from parents in order to prevent favoritism.
BREAKDOWN OF THE SYSTEM
The power of communal leaders began to wane in Eastern Europe in the late 16th and early 17th centuries when many Jews moved to Ukrainian estates annexed to Poland and lived in isolated locations with no established kehillos. At the end of the 17th century, rulers increasingly interfered with internal Jewish affairs. In Austria and Prussia, the government imposed restrictive guidelines including taxation, education and even regarding how many Jews of the community were permitted to marry. Jewish autonomy was officially abrogated in these areas with the emancipation of Prussian and Austrian Jewry in 1869 and 1871.
Another reason for the weakening of Jewish autonomy was an increasing propensity of some Jews to appeal to non-Jewish courts in contravention of halachah. In some areas, power moved from the community to wealthy Jews connected to powerful local lords. In many places the chassidish movement also transferred power from the traditional town leaders to the leaders of the new chassidish courts.
In 1844, Russia officially abolished the authority of communal leaders. But kehillos continued to exist as autonomous entities and Jewish leadership continued unofficially until the end of the Tsarist regime in 1917 marked the death knell of almost 700 years of Jewish autonomy in Eastern Europe.
The kehillah concept continued in a new form between the two world wars in East European countries including Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine, where communal leaders were authorized to impose taxes and issue ordinances dealing with religious matters, education and charity. Leaders were elected from parties such as Agudas Yisroel, the Mizrachi, non-religious Zionist parties, Marxist Bundists and Poalists, secular Folkists and many others. Jewish delegates at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 even spoke of creating National Jewish Councils for each country with representatives from the various kehillah councils.
Records of Jewish council elections found in many kehillah books published after World War 2 accurately indicate the division of power at the time. In the 1936 elections for the Jewish council of Warsaw, for example, Agudas Yisroel won 12 seats, Sokolover Chassidim 1, Zionists 11, Mizrachi 4, Bund 15, Folkspartei 1, Paole Tzion Right 2, Poalei Tzion Left 1, and the Philanthropic Organization 2. Warsaw’s executive board was composed of 7 Orthodox candidates, 6 Zionists, 1 Folkist and 1 Bundist.
Following riots in Yafo which claimed over 100 lives, the British mandate declared Tel Aviv an autonomous Jewish town in 1921 and it became a model for the future Jewish state. Photographer Abraham Soskin described the situation in the preface to his 1926 book Tel-Aviv Views.
“The special character of this town is in its being essentially Hebrew in all its details,” he wrote. “The public life, education, sign boards, advertisements, notices, newspapers, theatre and Opera in all the Hebrew language is paramount. The Town is administered by an elected Council of 41 members, representative of all the different parties of which its population is composed. In May 1921 it was empowered by the Government to manage its affairs autonomically as a Township, and as such to impose and levy civic taxes and to receive Municipal Loans in accordance with the requirements of its public life. In the same year it was also authorized to establish a special Municipal Police Force, all of whose members, officers and constables, 70 in number, are Jews. This is the first Hebrew Constabulary in the World and the first Municipal Police force in Palestine. In 1922 the Government published an Order entitling the Township to establish a Special Municipal Court as well.”
Even today, it has been humorously proposed to establish a State of Tel Aviv because of the vast political and cultural differences of its surrounding Gush Dan area to the rest of Israel.
(Sources: Yisroel Shatzipanski, Takonos Hakehillos, Mossad Harav Kook, Yerushalayim 2004. YIVO Encyclopedia. Wikipedia.)