In earlier centuries, Jewish communities existing as formal kehillos with a high degree of autonomy and independence were often represented by national councils, which dealt with more wide-ranging affairs. There was also a Council of the Four Lands (Va’ad Arba Arotzos) which functioned as a central body of Jewish authority in Eastern Europe for almost two centuries, from about 1580 until its abolishment in 1764. In this council, leading talmidei chachomim and delegates from various kehillos met to discussion issues vital to the Jewish people and guide the course of hundreds of kehillos of the Polish-Lithuania commonwealth.
LIKE THE SANHEDRIN OF THE LISHCHAS HAGOZIS
The international Council of Four Lands was preceded by smaller councils that united kehillos on a national scale. There was the union of 11 kehillos which flourished in Great Poland from 1519 onwards, a Lithuanian council which was established some time before 1659, and a joint council of Brisk, Horodna and Pinsk which began operating in 1623 and was later joined by Slutsk. A Moravian Jewish Council existed from about 1650.
The Council of the Four Lands was named for a period when it united the Jews of Greater Poland, Little Poland, Ruthenia and Volhynia. In earlier times it was called the Council of Three Lands when it included Jews of Poland, Lithuania and Polish Russia. At another time it was called the Council of Five Lands when it included the kehillos of Great Poland, Little Poland, Russia, Lithuania and Volhynia. In 1623, it reverted to being a Council of Three Lands when Lithuanian kehillos left to form the Council of the Land of Lithuania.
The Council of the Four Lands generally met during Eastern Europe’s great spring and late summer fairs when people gathered at major towns, first assembling in the Polish city of Lublin and from the beginning of the 17th century, in the Galician city of Yaroslav.
In the sefer Yaven Metzulah, which describes the Chmielnicki Massacres of 1648-49, Rav Nosson Hanover described the great power the council yielded at the time.
“The representatives of the four lands had sessions twice in the year . . . at the fair in Lublin, between Purim and Pesach, and at the fair in Yaroslav [Galicia] in the month of Av or Elul,” he wrote. “The representatives of the four lands resembled the Sanhedrin in the lishchas hagozis in the Yerushalayim Bais Hamikdash. They had jurisdiction over all the Jews of the kingdom of Poland, with power to issue injunctions and binding decisions and to impose penalties at their discretion. Every difficult case was submitted to them for trial.
“To facilitate their task, the representatives of the four lands selected special dayonim from each land who were called national dayonim and tried civil suits, while criminal cases, disputes over priority of possession [chazokah], and other difficult cases were tried by the representatives themselves.”
Rav Hanover recorded that the council included six leading rabbonim in addition to community representatives from Posen, Cracow, Lemberg, Ostrog and other towns. The first rov we know for sure was involved was Rav Mordechai Yaffe (1530-1612), called the Levush after his sefer Levush Malchus. Up to fifteen to twenty-five signatures were attached to the council’s decisions, although many documents only had the signatures of its six rabbinical members.
The council’s decisions were halachah orientated and administrative. Although little survived of the council’s original pinkosim (record books), detailed records of its pesokim and religious enactments were recorded in various seforim, and many of its political decisions and decrees were preserved in the records of various kehillos.
THE HETER ISKA
Religious issues handled by the council include its haskomah for the Shas printed in Lublin from 1559 to 1580. In 1594, the council enacted that all seforim published in Poland must be provided with a haskomah. The council issued haskomos itself, such as the one it provided for a sefer of Selichos and pizmonim whose signatories included the Maharam (Rav Meir) of Lublin (1558-1616) and the Maharsha. Councils also established rules and curriculums for chadorim and yeshivos.
One of the council’s longest lasting enactments was the formulation of a new heter iska document in 1607 together with detailed regulations regarding its use in credit and interest. This was drawn up at the request of participating member Rav Yehoshua Falk Cohen of Lublin, known as the Sma after his Sefer Meiras Einayim on Shulchan Aruch. At other meetings, the council instructed that Jewish clothing must be different than that of non-Jews as well as modest and moderate, and enacted various Shabbos regulations.
The council was heavily involved in the fight against the followers of Shabsai Tzvi in the first half the 18th century.
Its administrative activities included the instructions of a 1583 council directing that kahal leaders and rabbonim should be appointed by Jews with no interference from local non-Jews. Councils of 1587, 1590, 1635 and 1640 warned against the seizing of rabbinical positions through bribing or with the help of non-Jewish authorities. Councils of 1671, 1677 and other years forbade Jews to lease estates or raise money for non-Jews in any other way without first informing their respective kehillos.
The council was involved in communal conflicts, such as in which region to allocate towns for tax purposes, and intervened in many conflicts. A 1671 proclamation, for example, publicized a ban against the instigators of a public controversy in Chelm.
“The leaders of the lands report that after it found that a violent quarrel arose in the Chelm district which almost ruined the whole district and which cholilah might have harmed the standing of the whole of the remnant of Israel and involved the loss of thousands, the Council of the Four Lands took upon themselves the task of punishing those who initiated the quarrel or subsequently participated in it, whose names, out of respect for their position, are withheld,” the proclamation stated in Yiddish.
“And since, when similar events occur in communities, and persons intrigue and violate the ancient ordinances, and ruin the communities, reports of these things arouse the government, and communities and districts are considered guilty by the nobles and priests, and there is real danger to life, . . . the Council of the Four Lands hereby fully authorize the leaders of communities and districts to prosecute persons so intriguing and offending, and to punish them with cheirem, with fines, or with imprisonment . . . at the cost of the offenders…
“Such persons should never be nominated to any office in any community or district, nor should they have the right of chazokah [retaining such positions], …since they have no pity on themselves, on the community or district, or on the whole of Yisroel… They ignore the fact that we are already humiliated and abject in the eyes of the nations, so much so that the authorities speak contemptuously of us, and make us still more so… Let everyone, therefore, take care to avoid such evil courses and to walk in good paths.”
The council was sometimes involved in quarrels far from the lands it represented. It mediated in a disagreement which broke out in Frankfort around 1616, when community members disagreed whether the kehillah should be directed exclusively by the life members of a small ruling council of ten Jews, or whether the council should be expanded to include new members as well. The council got involved in Amsterdam’s affairs sometime after 1660 when newcomers to Amsterdam from Poland wanted to establish a new kehillah with Lithuanian minhogim, while the original kehillah wanted the newcomers to join the established Ashkenazi community.
The council was also asked to intervene in Yerushalayim at the beginning of the 18th century when a group of new immigrants gathered around a dubious character who publicly announced his belief in Shabsai Tzvi.
At the last important meeting of the council at Yaroslav in the fall of 1753, a vote was held to decide how to handle the controversy between Rav Yaakov Emden and Rav Yonasan Eibeschitz. This resulted in the latter’s acquittal with a majority of 19 versus 11.
The council also worked for the Jews’ benefit, fighting against blood libels and other false accusations and sending representatives to the Polish Sejm (parliament) to represent Jewish interests and obtain privileges or prevent the curtailment of existing ones. Special funds were earmarked for the greasing of palms involved in such procedures. During coronation diets held after the appointment of new kings, it was especially important to ensure that the king’s traditional reaffirming of Jewish rights and privileges was not adversely influenced by anti-Semitic elements. The council also appealed against local violations of Jewish rights to the diet (parliament), nobles and king.
Another of the council’s tasks was to support the observance of the government’s edicts, whether good or bad. For example, it instructed Jews to obey a 1580 government order forbidding Jews from buying the right to collect state taxes and customs duties in Poland.
A copy of the edict in the Rema‘s shul in Cracow states, “It is forbidden for a Jew to hire the tax [collection] for alcoholic drinks or any taxes from the king, and whoever transgresses this will be banned and banished from both worlds and separate and divided from all kedushah of a Jew. His bread will be the bread of a non-Jew, his wine yayin nesech, and his shechitah the shechitah of a non-Jew, etc.”
END OF THE COUNCIL
Increasing state centralization weakened the power of autonomous bodies. In 1754, Empress Maria Theresa reduced Jewish autonomy and effectively abolished the council of Moravian Jewry. The Council of the Four Lands came to an end in 1764 by order of the Polish diet and the subsequent partition of Poland among Russia, Austria and Prussia and alteration of tax laws altered the politics favorable to a central autonomous body the council had been, ensuring that it did not revive, although there is evidence that regional meetings continued until the end of the century.