The Haggadah states, “In every generation, our enemies rise up to destroy us.” Every time, they have a different excuse. Lavan imagined that Yaakov was robbing him of his wealth, and then he accused his son-in-law of stealing his daughters. The Egyptians were afraid that the successful Jews would team up with their enemies and drive them out of their land. Capitalists accused the Jews of being Communists, and Communists insisted that they were Capitalists. The Nazis pinned the world’s problems on the Jews’ genetic makeup, and so on.
JEWS RUN THE ESTATES
A major factor that sparked off the Chmielnicki massacres of the early- 5400s/mid-1600s was the Arenda (stewardship) system that existed from about the 14th century until the first partition of Poland in 5532/1772, when the large-scale epoch of Jewish arendas came to an end. The word arenda remains undefined in most English dictionaries, but the Encyclopedia Polska defines it as follows: “arenda – the lease of estates, farmlands, mills, hunting or fishing rights, etc. At times, this term was used for the rights to collect taxes and dues. The arenda contracts usually lasted for three years, which corresponded to the system of tri-annual crop rotation. During the 16th to 18th centuries, the word referred primarily to the rental of whole estates or complexes of estates. In time, the term arenda became limited in common parlance to Jews renting inns.”
The Arenda system was created as a result of many factors. First, the expulsion of Jews from France, England, Portugal and Spain, between the 12th and 17th centuries, resulted in masses of Jews heading to Poland to find new homes. Even more Jews were driven from Germany and Bohemia to Poland in the 14th and 15th centuries. This is how their language, Yiddish, became dominant. At the same time, after Queen Jadwiga of Poland married Wladyslaw Jagiello, the Grand Duke of Lithuania in 5146/1386, Poland expanded so much that, by the late 5300s/1500s, it incorporated the Ukraine and parts of Russia. Poland itself, and its vast new territories, was owned by about ten to twenty families of Polish magnates, who were handed their huge holdings by the Polish king for helping him in his wars. These vast estates were known as “latifundium,” a word used to describe the estates of ancient Rome that were generally run by slave labor. In Poland, the workers were serfs who were bound to the land, and were sold or leased together with it.
The magnates had little interest in administrating their estates and the peasants were too uneducated to manage their affairs on their own. Thus the intelligent Jews, who were forbidden to own land but permitted to lease it, were the perfect middlemen. For a while, Jews even minted Polish money, imprinting it with the Polish king’s name in Hebrew lettering. By 5376/1616, over half the Polish Crown’s land in the Ukraine was leased out to Jews.
Arendas could include the responsibility for town development, grain production, distilleries, taverns, saw mills, tobacco sales and dairy production. The following is an example of a typical contract:
“I, Hryhory Sanhushko Koshersky, and Sophia of Holowchyna Sanhushkova Kosherska, announce in this, our arenda contract, that on the 10th day of April, in the year 1594, we assigned by arenda contract those of our properties that are itemized below to our illustrious Mr. Abram Shmoilovych, and his wife Rykla Yudynna, and his successors: “The town of Koshar with the villages: Koshur Stary, Kruhel, Krasnodubia, Horodelets, the Myziv estate and the village of Myziv, the Borziv Cheremshanka settlement, with monies from rent, with pubs, taverns dispensing all sorts of alcoholic beverages, with the honey tribute, and the boyars with all their servants, regardless of whether they own livestock, with their cultivated fields, their labor, their wagons, living in the above-enumerated cities and villages, together with bee colonies, with ponds, mills and their ground grains, which in those aboveenumerated cities and villages either exist today or will be built in the future, with lakes, with beaver lands, with fields, hay pastures, pine forests, woods, groves, oak groves, with farm houses, with barns, grain of all kinds sown in the fields, with all profitable activities whether itemized here or not, reserving nothing for ourselves, for five full years, until the 10th of April 1599, for five thousand Polish gold pieces…
“According to this arenda contract, he (Shmoilovych) is granted by us, under seals and with signatures of our own hands, the right to own, to use, and to take for himself all manner of profit, and also all those we have placed in his power, to judge, to deliberate over and to punish the guilty and the disobedient, according to the gravity of their transgressions, and to impose ‘karary horlom.’”
The meaning of the last words of the document, which are literally translated as “to punish by means of the throat,” is unclear.
PUSHED TO MAKE PROFITS
To prevent Jews from competing with each other and raising the lease prices sky high, kahal laws developed to prevent this, and anyone who broke the rules could be excommunicated. The Jew renting a lease would sublet it to sub-arenders, and it is estimated that the hundreds of major arenders had thousands of sub-arenders working under them. For example, on the vast lands of the Ostrorog family of magnates, there were about 4,000 Jewish arenders. So widespread was the system that it became common to use the words “Jew” and “arender” interchangeably. Jews were pushed to extract as much as they could out of the peasant populations in order to turn a profit over and above the leases they paid and have something left after paying exhorbitant taxes because, depending on circumstances, the Jewish arender could either become a wealthy man or buried in debt and barely able to make ends meet. Things were toughest when a Jew had borrowed money to buy his lease and had to slave to pay off his loan. The extravagant lifestyle of the magnates frequently plunged them into debt, forcing the Jewish arenders to squeeze even more money from the serfs.
The magnates’ estates ranged from the vast to the relatively modest. Some of them included hundreds of villages with tens-of-thousands of residents.
For example, when Maria Zofia Sieniawaski married Augustus Alexander Czartoryski in 5491/1731, their combined properties sprawled over an area of about 539 square miles. In contrast, the area of a smaller estate, owned by the couple, Sieniawa and Olezzyve Klucz, from 5476/1716 to 5484/1724, was only 162 square miles.
Jews who generally made good profits on their leases and the arenda system contributed to what is known as the Golden Age of Polish Jewry. This success led to intense anti-Semitism. The peasants did not take kindly to being exploited by the magnates and, as the magnates were normally absent, their immediate object of hate was the Jews who were doing the magnates’ work. To add insult to injury, one of the Jews’ jobs was to tax the revenues of the Greek Orthodox Church and charge a fee at christenings and funerals. On occasion, Jews even had control of the Church’s keys.
Not that all the Jews were wealthy. It is estimated that, typically, perhaps ten percent of the Jewish community was poor, seven percent extremely rich, while four-fifths were of middle-income range. All of them were ruthlessly taxed. But the peasants’ lot was usually even worse. A Jewish historian described their feudal life like a vast prison:
“The bars were the all-encompassing restrictions placed upon the daily life of the people. Inside the bars were the peasants, the so-called ‘Third Estate,’ who comprised about 95 per cent of the total population. Outside the bars but tied to them by invisible chains were the other two estates, the priests and the nobles. Neither inside the prison nor tied to the bars outside it were the Jews, the unofficial ‘Fourth Estate…’
“The priests were excluded from work, the nobles did not want to work, and the serfs were not allowed to enter the bourgeoisie or middle-class professions. There was no one left to do this work except the Jews, who therefore became indispensable. The Jews were the oil that lubricated the creaky machinery of the feudal state.”
The existence of even a few wealthy Jews was enough to infuriate the peasants. As Yaakov admonished his sons, “Lama tisra’u?” “Why make yourselves conspicuous?” (Bereishis 42:1). And the Gemara interprets this to mean: “Yaakov told his sons, ‘Do not show yourselves to be sated either before Eisav or Yishmael so that you do not arouse their envy against you.”
Similarly, Rav Hirsh Keidanover, who lived in the 17th century, complained: “I have seen Jewish women out on the street, dressed not as Jews but as nobles. They … bring Christian hatred and jealousy upon us.”
Things came to a head with the outbreak of Bogdan Chmielnicki’s civil war of 5408/1648-5414/1654, when he tried to throw the Poles out of the Ukraine. Chmielnicki had started off as a magnate himself but, in 5406/1646, he temporarily left his estate, Subotiv, and came back to find that a Polish nobleman, Daniel Czaplinski, had raided it and killed Chmielnicki’s youngest son and abducted his fiancée. After numerous fruitless appeals to court, Chmielnicki took matters into his own hands and led a Ukrainian revolt against the Polish overlords.
In an address to the Cossack rebels, Chmielnicki declared, “You must be aware of the fact that the Polish nation is gaining power daily and that it oppresses our coreligionists. But it is not the noblemen alone who lord it over us. Even the most abject nation (the Jews) hold us in subjection.”
The Yeven Metzulah describes the subsequent murderous atrocities, known as Tach v’Tat (the Hebrew years, 5408-5409): “Wherever they found the ‘slatchta’ (royal officials or Jews), they (the Cossacks) killed them all, sparing neither women nor children.
They pillaged the estates of the Jews and nobles, burned churches and killed their priests, leaving nothing whole. It was a rare individual in those days who had not soaked his hands in blood and participated in the pillage.” During this slaughter, which ranks second to the Holocaust in post-exilic history, 300 Jewish communities were eradicated and between 50,000 to hundreds of thousands of Jews were massacred or starved to death.
Rav Shlomoh Efraim Lunshitz, the Kli Yakar, who lived in Poland some time between 5310/1550-5379/1619 and headed a yeshivah in Lemberg, had foreseen the Chmielnicki massacres. He commented on the verse, “Rav lachem sov es hahar hazeh, penu lachem tzafonah,” “Enough of your circling this mountain, turn yourselves northward” (Devarim 2:3), that “har” refers to the exile and “tzafonah” means hidden. He explained that the Torah is warning us to keep a low profile when we wander in exile and not flaunt our wealth, in order to not arouse the envy of the gentiles who imagine that we have stolen it from them. The Kli Yakar concludes: “This custom (of flaunting wealth) is prevalent among most of our nation and it is the cause of all the trouble that has befallen us. And the wise will understand and take mussar.”