Jewish history and geography is a checkerboard of black and white. Poland, the Holocaust graveyard, was once a great place to bring up a Jewish family, and its Jews even enjoyed their own autonomy. Those were the days when the Jews in the Polish Empire were governed by the Council of Four Lands.
In 5274/1514, back in the days when Poland was still a goldene medina, King Sigismund I appointed Michel Yosefowitz of Brisk as the zaken (elder) of the Jews of Lithuania and Avraham of Bihem as the zaken of the Jews of Poland in his first attempt to have the Jews look after their own affairs. When the Jews bucked their authority, the king appointed a council of communal leaders and rabbonim known as the Doctores Judaeorum to tax their fellow Jews. Thus, a document from 5293/1533 records King Sigismund’s order to heed the ruling of the “Jewish Doctores,” who gathered in Lublin and ruled in favor of the Jew Shlomo of Bialyesk.
This prototype group developed into the Council of Four Lands (Va’ad Arba Aratzos, Congressus Judaicus), first launched in August 5311/1551 by King Sigismund II of Poland. He, too, considered this a handy way to evaluate Jews’ property and collect taxes. For the Jews, this was a wonderful and unique opportunity to organize a unified system of autonomy and self-rule and to be able to enact new decrees and universal halachic decisions.
One of the first identified gedolim in charge of the council was Rav Mordechai Yaffe (the Ba’al HaLevushim), described by the Tzemach Dovid as the head and leader of the gedolei Yisroel, roshei yeshivos, and dayanim of the Three Lands. These later widened into the Four Lands, comprised of Greater Poland, Little Poland, Volhynia, and Podolia/Galicia.
THE GREAT FAIRS
The council generally met twice a year during the great fairs so vibrantly described in Rav Nosson Nata’s sefer Yaven Metzulah:
“Afterward, the rosh yeshiva and all the members of the yeshiva, bachurim,
and boys, went to the fair, which was the market day. In summer they went to the Zaslav fair and the Yarislav fair, and in winter they went to the Levov fair and the Lublin fair. There, the bachurim and boys had permission to learn in any yeshiva they wanted. At every fair there were hundreds of roshei yeshiva, thousands of bachurim, and tens of thousands of Jewish youngsters and traders. Non-Jews, lehavdil, were like the sand of the sea, being that they came to the fair from one end of the world to the next.”
These fairs were not mere commercial ventures but an occasion for everybody to meet everybody else:
“Someone who had a son to marry off traveled to the fair and made a shidduch there, because everyone found his image and match there. Afew hundred weddings were held at every fair and sometimes thousands. The Jews, men and women, used to go to the fair in royal garb, because they were esteemed in the eyes of the kingdom and in the eyes of the non-Jews. And the Jews were numerous as the sand of the sea, but now they have been reduced because of our sins, may Hashem have mercy on them.”
Because the fairs were cosmopolitan in nature, they were the ideal venue for Jewish leaders to meet and map out the course of Jewish history.
Comparing the Council of Four Lands to the Sanhedrin, Rav Nosson Nata Hanover explains that it was the pinnacle of a hierarchal system of batei din, which sent difficult judgments increasingly higher until they reached the very top:
“In the state of Poland it was like before the Churban HaBayis in Yerushalayim,” he reports. “They had a beis din in every town, and if they did not want to have the judgment before the beis din in their town, they went to a beis din nearby, and if they did not want to have judgment before the nearby beis din, they went to the beis din hagadol, because each country had a beis din hagadol. For example, the beis din hagadol of Volhynia and Ukraine was in the capital Ostrog, and the beis din hagadol of West Russia was in the capital Levov (Lemberg). And so with many great kehillos, each one had a beis din hagadol in its country.”
Highest of all was the Council of Four Lands. Rav Nosson Nata continues:
“If the heads of two kehillos had judgment with each other, they went before theparneissim of the Four Lands, who sat twice a year in one group, the heads of the kehillos sending one parneiss [from each community], and they included with them six geonim from Poland, and they were called the [Council of] Four Lands. They sat together at every Lublin fair between Purim and Pesach and at every Yarislov fair in Av or Elul. The parneissim of the Four Lands were like the Sanhedrin of the Hewn Chamber (Lishchas Hagazis) and had authority to judge every Jew in the Polish kingdom, and to make a fence, and to enact decrees, and to punish a person according to what their eyes saw. And every difficult thing was brought to them and they judged it.”
Of course, it was impossible for the council to judge everything, and they delegated responsibility to others:
“The parnessim of the Four Lands chose judges from the countries to lighten the load that rested on them and they were called dayanei medina. All monetary cases came before the dayanei medina. Cases involving fines and chazakos and other difficult judgments came before the judges of the Four Lands.”
“No judgment of a Jew ever came before the non-Jewish judges or before a minister of the king,” Rav Nosson Nata triumphantly concludes, “and if a Jew went for judgment before a non-Jew, they would punish him with great punishments to fulfill the verse, Ve’oyveinu pelilim.”
THE COUNCIL’S FUNCTIONS
Unfortunately, the pinkas, or ledger, recording the council’s decisions and enactments was lost and what we know about them is only what was copied into the ledgers of local community councils. For example, the Cracow ledger that lay in the ancient Remah Shul recorded that it is forbidden for any Jew to buy the rights for the (collection of) taxes of alcoholic beverages or other taxes from the king, and if anyone transgresses this “he will be excommunicated from the two worlds and separated from all kedushas Yisroel, his bread will be like pas akum, his wine yayin nesech … and no rav or talmid chacham will deal with weddings of his sons or daughters, and no one will make a shidduch with him, etc. Tuesday, 15 Kislev 5341/1581.”
This particular decree was disadvantageous to the Jews and was actually the confirmation of a government edict, and to soften its bitterness, the council explains that the decree was enacted because certain Jewish revenue farmers were arousing anti-Semitism through their excessive greed. A similarly disadvantageous decree is that of 5429/1669, in which the council confirms a government edict forbidding Jews to settle in Mazovia near Warsaw.
In many council decrees, we find the greatest gedolei hador striving to preserve justice and morality in a turbulent world. For example, a 5347/1587 council decree recorded in the Posen ledger forbids, under the pain of excommunication, buying a rabbinical position with money. Its signatories include giants like Rav Mordechai Yaffe (the Levush), the Kli Yakar, the Maharsha, the Maharam of Lublin, the Shelah Hakadosh, and
others. Similarly, during a 5367/1607 council meeting, Rav Yehoshua Falk Kohen (the Pnei Yehoshua) instigated a series of detailed instructions regarding all aspects of money lending.
The council is also referred to in various sefarim. For example, the Teshuvos HaRema (63, 84) concludes a discussion of a controversy between two Cracow Jews by writing that “we, the undersigned, decree with the authority of our decree, with a cherem, that the two parties should come to the next fair, to the holy community of Lublin.”
In addition, the council sent agents to the parliament to keep a sharp eye on legislation and ensure that anti-Semitic government members didn’t tread on Jewish interests. To oil the wheels of legislation, the council set up a special fund. This was especially vital during the “Coronation Diets” held after the crowning of new kings, where the new monarch would hopefully uphold the Jews’ traditional privileges and perhaps be prodded in this direction by application of a generous gift. The council also fought blood libels and unfair taxation.
Additionally, the council kept an eye on people’s personal conduct. Thus a 5367/1607 decree rules that Jewish garb should be different from that of non-Jews and prescribes modesty and moderation in women’s clothing. Volumes of Shas printed in Lublin between the years 5319/1559-5340/1580 have the haskama of the council on their title pages. A later decree of 5354/1594 ruled that all Hebrew sefarim printed in Poland must have a haskama.
After the Chmielnicki massacres, the council instituted the 20th of Sivan as a special day of mourning, recording that “they have accepted on themselves and on their children after them to fast in the all the Four Lands on the 20th of Sivan every year … when the tragedy began in the holy community of great Nimerov. And that was a day of double tribulation because earlier, too, there was an evil decree in the year 4431/1171.” This refers to a blood libel in France where thirty-one Jews were burned at the stake.
In 5383/1623, the Jews of Lithuania split off and created their own council known as the Council of the States. Representing the communal districts or states of Brisk, Horodno Pinsk, Vilna, and Slutsk, this council declared in 5491/1631 “that it never undertook any obligation and never had any partnership or connection with the Four Lands.”
Of course, these two governing councils did not always agree with each other; for example, a disagreement involving the kehillos of Horodna and Tiktin dragged on for about a hundred years.
As the years rolled on, the powers and operations of the council decreased. During its last fifty years, the council fought the Shabsai Tzvi movement, and at one of its last important meetings, in 5513/1753, dealt with the famous controversy between Rav Yaakov Emden and Rav Yehonason Eibshutz. Finally, after almost 200 years, King Stanislav August and the Polish parliament abolished the council in 5524/1764.
This was the end of widespread Jewish autonomy in the Diaspora except for a brief period in Lithuania after World War I. But that is a story in itself.