The period of history we are looking at is known as the Renaissance which historians generally date from about 1350 to about 1650. Renaissance means “rebirth.” Rebirth of what? Of knowledge.
We have now left the Dark Ages dominated by the repressive policies of the Church in Rome and are beginning a time period associated with individual expression, self-consciousness, and worldly experience, and accomplishments in scholarship, literature, science, and the arts.
In the Renaissance, we see some powerful kings emerging in England and in France, while the power of the Church begins to wane. The famous personalities of this period of time are Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, Machiavelli, Petrarch, Rabelais, Descartes, Copernicus, just to name a few.
This is also a time when Jews made their way into Poland. Today we tend to think of Jewish life in Poland as being confined to the shtetl, but that did not happen until the 18th century. We also tend to think of Poland as synonymous with anti-Semitism, pogroms, etc. But during the time of the Renaissance the picture was quite different.
Before we begin the fascinating story of the Jews of Poland, we have to keep in mind the historical pattern that we see constantly in Jewish history. The places where the Jews will do the best are almost always the places where the Jews will suffer the worst in the end. You’d expect there’d be places that would be good for the Jews and other places where Jews would have a rough time. But that’s not what happens.
The best of times and the worst of times tend to happen in the same place. We just saw it in Spain, we’re going to see it now in Poland, we’ll see it later in Germany. It’s one of the great patterns in Jewish history ever since the Jews were invited into Egypt and then enslaved there.
So how did the Jews come to Poland?
A POLISH INVITATION
Poland became Christian very late, only at the turn of the 11th century, and only then did it join the European community of nations (so to speak). After that, it took a couple of hundred years before Poland started to emerge as a nation-state with strong development potential.
If you want to develop your country economically and culturally, who do you need?
You need Jews.
Why were the Jews so necessary? First, they could read and write. Jews were always highly educated as they had to be literate to read and obey the Torah, and general education came along as part of the parcel. Second, Jews were excellent bankers, accountants, and administrators who knew how to keep the economy healthy.
So in 1264, King Boleslav of Poland granted a charter inviting the Jews there. The charter was an amazing document, granting Jews unprecedented rights and privileges. For example, it stated that:
- “The testimony of the Christian alone may not be admitted in a matter which concerns the money or property of a Jew. In every such incidence there must be the testimony of both a Christian and a Jew. If a Christian injures a Jew in any which way, the accused shall pay a fine to the royal treasury.”
- “If a Christian desecrates or defiles a Jewish cemetery in any which way, it is our wish that he be punished severely as demanded by law.”
- “If a Christian should attack a Jew, the Christian shall be punished as required by the laws of this land. We absolutely forbid anyone to accuse the Jews in our domain of using the blood of human beings.”
- “We affirm that if any Jew cry out in the night as a result of violence done to him, and if his Christian neighbors fail to respond to his cries and do not bring the necessary help, they shall be fined.”
- “We also affirm that Jews are free to buy and sell all manner of things just as Christians, and if anyone hampers them, he shall pay a fine.”(1)
We are about to begin discussing an excruciating period of Jewish history that is marked by constant and unrelenting Christian persecution.
During this period we will see:
- the Jews expelled from England (1290)
- the Jews expelled from France (1306 and 1394)
- the Jews expelled from Hungary (1349 and 1360)
- the Jews expelled from German states (1348 and 1498)
- the Jews expelled from Austria (1421)
- the Jews expelled from Lithuania (1445 and 1495)
- the Jews expelled from Spain (1492)
- the Jews expelled from Portugal (1497)
And that’s only a partial list.
(As often as not, the Jews were expelled and then, when a significant economic decline was noted in their absence, they were re-admitted only to be expelled again. It was the classic “can’t live with them, can’t live without them” philosophy.)
The story of these persecutions really begins around the year 1000the first millennium. It seems that people get nervous about big dates, especially Christians whose Book of Revelations predicts that at the end of a thousand years Satan will be released from prison and then he’s going to wreak havoc on the world.
The approaching millennium led to a religious revival in the Christian world which historians call the “New Piety.” The New Piety focused especially on the historicity of Jesus. Focusing on the life of Jesus meant focusing on his death. And, even though the Christian “New Testament” says that the Romans killed Jesus, the Jews were blamed for wanting him to die.
And so at this time, we see the notion of Jews as “Christ-killers”which first surfaced in the 4th century really growing in popularity.
But that alone does not explain the vehemence of Christian persecutions. To fully understand the issue, we have to look at other, more complex reasons.
To start off, the very existence of the Jews was an irritant to many Christians. And this is why:
Christian theology accepts the Hebrew Bible. It does not quarrel with the statements therein that the Jews were a special people chosen by God to receive the Torah and bring holiness into the world. But Christian theology says that the Jews failed in their mission. This is why God sent His “son” (Jesus) to straighten things out, but the Jews refused to recognize him as “god.”
As a result, God abandoned the Jews and replaced them with the “new chosen people”the Christians. (Hence, the Christian segment of the Bible is called the “New Testament” which is Greek for “scripture.”)
By this line of reasoning however, there would no longer be any purpose for Jews in the world. They should disappear, like did so many mightier peoples. But by the first millennium already 1,000 years after the death of Jesus the Jews were still all over the place.
Christian theology had to come up with some sort of answer to this problem and it did. The Jews must have been doomed to wander the earth by God as a “witness people”teste veritatis in Latin. The purpose of a witness people is to survive throughout history to bear witness at the end of days that Jesus is the Messiah, when he appears again for the so-called “Second Coming.”
But the explanations of Christian theology could not remove the sore spot that the presence at times, strong and prosperous presence of the Jews represented. At the heart of the matter was the Christian view of Judaism as a direct competitor for the soul of humanity.
The hostility that the Christians felt toward the Jews can be seen readily from the writings of the early fathers of the Christian Church. (See What Did They Think of the Jews? by Allan Gould, pp. 24-25.)
From John Chrysostom, the Patriarch of Constantinople, we get this:
Jews are the most worthless of men ― they are lecherous, greedy, rapacious ― they are perfidious murderers of Christians, they worship the devil, their religion is a sickness… The Jews are the odious assassins of Christ and for killing god there is no expiation, no indulgence, no pardon. Christians may never cease vengeance. The Jews must live in servitude forever. It is incumbent on all Christians to hate the Jews.
From Gregory of Nyssa, we get more of the same:
Slayers of the lord, murderers of the prophets, adversaries of god, haters of god, men who show contempt for the law, foes of grace, enemies of the father’s faith, advocates of the devil, brood of vipers, slanderers, scoffers, men whose minds are in darkness, leaven of the Pharisees, assembly of demons, sinners, wicked men, stoners and haters of righteousness.
In some places, such calumny incited people to violence.
(We saw in Part 45, for example, how the Crusader mobs devastated the Jewish population of Europe, slaughtering 30%-50% of the Jews living there. Some 10,000 Jews of an estimated population of about 20,000-30,000 were murdered in 1095 as the first Crusade got under way.)
In other places, such calumny bred other forms of persecution.
If one were a reasonable Christian listening to one’s Church fathers speak of the Jews, one might quite naturally conclude that such a people had no place in a decent society.
And this is a conclusion that was drawn over time.
Around the first millennium, we see the rise of the Christian trade guilds from which Jews were pointedly excluded. No more Jewish goldsmiths and silversmiths and glass-blowers. Jews were also excluded from owning land, holding office, and from being doctors and lawyers.
Jews were forced to wear a “distinguishing garment”either a badge or a sign or a silly-looking hat which set them apart. This was not only to make them look different but also to humiliate them.
Then, beginning in 1123, when the bishops of the Church undertook a series of meetings called Lateran Councils to decide Church policy, the Jews were assigned a new function in Christian society.
Along with a decree that priests must be celibate, the bishops decided that Christians were not allowed to lend each other money. (This came from a misunderstanding of Biblical commandment that forbids one from charging one’s brother interest when making a loan.)
As for the Jews, the bishops promulgated a doctrine decreeing them servants of Christians, and then assigning to them the degrading task of lending money called usury with which the Christians were forbidden to sully their hands.
The bishops were not stupid. They knew that you have to charge interest to have banking, and you had to have banking to have economic development, otherwise there is no growth and your economy stagnates. Someone had to lend money. And that someone, the bishops decided, would be the Jews.
What happened next is that Jews were not allowed to live in various cities in Europe, unless they supplied a certain number of money-lenders.
However, lending money was a very precarious job. For one, it engendered a lot of animosity. After all, who likes to pay back loans?
And what happened if the local nobleman or bishop decided not to pay you back? He’d accused the Jew of doing something terrible like killing a Christian baby. That way he could renege on his loans, confiscate all Jewish property, and then expel or even kill the Jews.
This happened over and over again.
Some have claimed that it was Jewish money-lending practices that engendered such actions and, indeed, were responsible for a great deal of anti-Semitism. This is a total myth. At that time Jews charged an average interest rate of between 33% and 43% on loans. And while this may seem high by today’s standards, consider that the Lombards, the Christian Italian bankers living under the nose of the Vatican, charged rates as high as 250%. So we see that the Lombard money-lending practices were many times worse and yet no one went around persecuting Lombard bankers.(1)
Persecutions of the Jews, on the other hand, knew no bounds.
It is next to impossible to explain the accusations that were hurled at the Jews during this time. Jews were persecuted not only for being “Christ-killers” but as “baby-killers.”
The first such accusation better known as a “blood libel”was leveled in 1144 in Norwich, England. There, Jews were charged with kidnapping a Christian baby and draining the baby of blood. The charge became so popular it would sweep, in various forms, through Europe and then spread to other parts of the world.
The most famous of all blood libel legends is that of the ritual murder of the child Hugh of Lincoln, England in 1255. The story was immortalized in a ballad so well-known in England and Scotland that is number 155 in the standard cannon of English and Scottish ballads compiled by Francis James Child in the 19th century. The best-know tale of ritual murder is the Prioress’s Tale, found in Chaucer’s 14th century classic work or early English fiction, Canterbury Tales. One verse of the tale goes like this: (2)
From that time forward these Jews conspired to chase this innocent child from the earth’s face. Down a dark alley-way they found and hired a murderer who owned that secret place; and as the boy passed at his happy pace this cursed Jew grabbed him and held him, slit his little throat and cast him in a pit.
Now why did Jews need blood in Christian opinion? This is a multiple-choice question:
- Jews suffered from hemorrhoids as a punishment for killing Jesus and drinking blood was the best cure for hemorrhoids at the time.
- All Jewish men menstruate and need a monthly blood transfusion.
- Jewish men, when they’re circumcised, lose so much blood because of that surgical procedure that they need to drink Christian babies’ blood.
- It’s the chief ingredient in matzah, and therefore prior to every Passover Jews would be requiring a large supply.
- All of the above.
What do you think the correct answer is? Shockingly, it’s (e)all of the above.
This is a very important lesson in anti-Semitism. You can say anything about the Jews and people will believe it.
It’s ironic that Jews, who are prohibited by Jewish law of consuming any blood whatsoever (kosher meat is carefully washed and salted to remove all traces of blood) were precisely the people accused of drinking blood.
The blood libel makes even less sense when you consider that in the 13th century the Church adopted the doctrine of transubstantiation. This is a mystical idea which maintains that when the priest says mass over the wafer and wine, these objects mystically change into the body and blood of Jesus. Christians who consume the wafer and drink the wine are said to be mystically eating the flesh of Jesus and drinking his blood.(3)
It’s ironic that the Christian world, while engaged in the ritual of “drinking the blood of Jesus” would accuse the Jews who are forbidden to drink blood of this totally fabricated hideous crime.
But then the accusations got even more wild.
Starting in Switzerland and Germany in the 13th century, Jews were accused of kidnapping communion wafers from churches. Why would the Jews do this in Christian view?
To torture it.
Medieval documents tell stories describing how a Jew (usually called always called Abraham) steals a wafer from a church, sticks a knife in it, and blood starts pouring out. And then he cuts it up into pieces and sends it to different Jews who all torture it.
This would be funny, if not for a fact that thousands of Jews were slaughtered as a result of such stories. For example, the entire Jewish community of Berlitz, near Berlin in Germany, was all burned alive based on the accusation of torturing a wafer!
(To read more about this subject see The Devil and the Jew by Joshua Trachtenburg or “Why the Jews?” by Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin.)
Throughout this time, the Jews were physically marginalized, beaten, burned, raped. And they were economically marginalized, pillaged, robbed, taxed nearly to death. Indeed, their money was one of the reasons they were tolerated at all. Jews were a good source of income to the crown. They were specially taxed with special punitive “Jew taxes.”
We will see later in Germany that 38 special taxes were imposed on the Jews. There was a tax to be born, a tax to die, a tax to wear a kippah, a tax to be married, a tax to be circumcised, a tax to buy Shabbat candles, a tax to exempt you from the German army in which you were not allowed to serve anyway because you were a Jew.
And what would happen eventually, once Jews were drained of their money they would be expelled. In 1182 King Philip II of France, out of the need to acquire some “quick and easy” money, expelled the Jews of France and confiscated all their property. The lure of future Jewish tax revenue caused him to rethink his policy and invite the Jews back to France in 1198.
This is also what happened in England where heavy taxation of the Jewish population of about 5,000 people supplied the crown with almost 20% of all of its income.
In 1290, on the 9th day of Av, which is the same day that the Temple in Jerusalem was twice destroyed, and which is therefore the worst day in Jewish history – drained of their wealth by a crushing taxation ― the Jews were expelled from England and not permitted to return for almost four centuries. King Edward I declared all debts owed to the Jews canceled and that the principal (but not the interest) be paid directly to him. As the Edict of Expulsion stated:
… therefore, we in, in requital of their crimes and for the honor of the Crucified, have banished them from our realm as traitors. We… do hereby make totally null and void all penalties and usuries and whatsoever else… may be claimed on account of Jewry… pay the amount to us at such convenient times as may be determined by you. (4)
Other countries would soon follow suit, but first would come another twist in the persecution of the Jews.
We saw previously that Jews
would be brought in as money-lenders (being excluded from other professions), then when a bishop or nobleman wanted his debt annulled, he brought a “blood libel” against the Jews and had them expelled or killed. King Boleslav boldly promised the Jews that this would not happen in Poland.
Jews did not immediately flock into Poland, though some did settle there to test the waters. But when other countries started expelling Jews — England being the first in 13th century, Germany in the 14th and Italy and Portugal being the more recent in the 15th century (as we saw in Parts 46 and 48) — Poland became an attractive destination point.
Then in 1569, Poland unified with Lithuania, and as a result expanded its borders to the east. What we know as the Ukraine today and some of Belorussia became vassal lands of Poland which was still a semi-feudal country. These lands needed to be managed and job openings in administration (at which Jews excelled) sprung up everywhere. Quite often Jews would lease tracts of land from the Polish nobility thus making them the middle men in the feudal economic structure of Eastern Europe.
Another Polish king, Sigismund II Augustus, issued another invitation. Here is an excerpt from his edict, granting the Jews permission to open a yeshiva at Lublin, dated August 23, 1567:
“As a result of the efforts of our advisors and in keeping with the request of the Jews of Lublin we do hereby grant permission to erect a yeshiva and to outfit said yeshiva with all that is required to advance learning. All the learned men and rabbis of Lublin shall come together for among their number they shall choose one to serve as the head of the yeshiva. Let their choice be a man who will magnify Torah and bring it glory.”(2)
GOLDEN AGE OF POLISH JEWRY
In Poland, in the early 16th century, the Jews were allowed to have their own governing body called the Va’ad Arba Artzot-The Council of the Four Lands, which was composed of various rabbis from the four major Polish provinces (Great Poland, Little Poland, Volhynia and Polodia) who oversaw the affairs of the Jews in Eastern Europe. The Poles did not interfere with Jewish life and scholarship flourished.
Some important personalities of this period, which a student of Jewish history should remember, were:
- Rabbi Moshe Isserles (1525-1572), from Krakow, also known as the Rema. After the Sephardi rabbi Joseph Karo wrote the Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish Law, Rabbi Isserles annotated it to fill in the rabbinic decisions from Eastern Europe. His commentary was, and continues to be, critically important in daily Jewish life.
- Rabbi Ya’akov Pollack (1455-1530), from Krakow. He opened the first yeshivah in Poland and was later named the chief rabbi of Poland. He developed a method of learning Talmud called pilpul, meaning “fine distinctions.” This was a type of dialectical reasoning that became very popular, whereby contradictory facts or ideas were systematically weighed with a view to the resolution of their real or apparent contradictions.
- Rabbi Yehudah Loewe, (1526-1609), not from Poland but important to Eastern European Jewry. He was known as the Maharal of Prague and was one of the great mystical scholars of his time. His name has also been associated with the famous Golem of Prague legend (The Golem was a Frankenstein-like being created by the Maharal to protect the Jews of Prague) although the legend has been shown to be a later fabrication.
Along with the growth in Torah scholarship there was growth in population. In 1500 there were about 50,000 Jews living in Poland. By 1650 there were 500,000 Jews. This means that by the mid 17th at least 30% or more of the Jewish population of the world was living in Poland!
Where did these Jews settle within Poland?
Jews of the Diaspora were generally urban people as they were historically not allowed to own land in most of the places they lived. However, they also created their own farm communities called shtetls (Yiddish for “small town). Although we tend to think of the shtetl today as a poor farming village (like in Fiddler on the Roof), during the Golden Age of Polish Jewry, many of these communities were actually quite prosperous. And there were thousands of them.
The Jews in these independent communities spoke their own language called Yiddish. Original Yiddish was written in Hebrew letters and was a mixture of Hebrew, Slavic, and German. (Note that Yiddish underwent constant development and “modern” Yiddish is not like the “old” Yiddish which first appeared in the 13th century, nor “middle” Yiddish of this period of time.)
Overall, the Jews did well, but working alongside Polish and Ukrainian Christians (who thought Jews killed Jesus) had its downside.
There were several instances of Christian rioting against Jews. For example, in 1399 in Poznan, a rabbi and 13 elders were accused of stealing Church property and they were tortured and burnt at the stake. (The Poles must have forgot the king’s edict.)
Another problem was that Jews worked as administrators and tax collectors for Polish feudal lords. This did not make them popular among the local folk, who needed little encouragement to unleash their anti-Semitic rage.
This was especially true in places like the Ukraine, where the Catholic Poles were viewed as an occupying power in an Eastern Orthodox land, and the Jews — being representatives of the occupation forces — were the easiest to resent.
And while the Polish nobility might have needed the Jews, the common Poles didn’t. There were instances when the Polish soldiers would purposely leave town, abandoning the Jews to the mercy (or lack thereof) of the Ukrainians. This happened, for example, in 1648 in the city of Tulchin. The Polish soldiers made a deal with the Cossacks and left town. The Jews defended the city by themselves until it fell and they were all slaughtered.
When the Ukrainians decided to throw the Poles out of their land, a full-scale massacres of Jews began.
The year 1635 saw the first big explosion of violence in Ukraine against Poles and Jews. But this attempt at the revolution was crushed. It returned with new vigor thirteen years later.
This second rebellion, in 1648, which succeeded in freeing a large part of the Ukraine from Polish rule, was led by a Ukrainian Cossack named Bogdan Chmielnicki. In large measure it was directed at the Jews.
Chmielnicki was one of the biggest anti-Semites in human history, on par with Hitler. His aim was genocide and his forces murdered an estimated 100,000 Jews in the most horrendous ways:
Here is one description (from Yeven Mezulah, pp. 31-32):
“Some of them [the Jews] had their skins flayed off them and their flesh was flung to the dogs. The hands and feet of others were cut off and they [their bodies] were flung onto the roadway where carts ran over them and they were trodden underfoot by horse … And many were buried alive. Children were slaughtered at their mother’s bosoms and many children were torn apart like fish. They ripped up the bellies of pregnant women, took out the unborn children, and flung them in their faces. They tore open the bellies of some of them and placed a living cat within the belly and they left them alive thus, first cutting off their hands so that they should not be able to take the living cat out of the belly … and there was never an unnatural death in the world that they did not inflict upon them.”
Here is another account from a Luthuanian Rabbi Shabbetai ben Meir HaCohen (1621-1662) also known as the Shach, who survived this time:
“On the same day 1,500 people were killed in the city of Human in Russia on the Sabbath. The nobles [Cossacks] with whom the wicked mob had again made an alliance chased all the Jews from the city into the fields and vineyards where the villains surrounded them in a circle, stripped them to their skin and ordered them to lie on the ground. The villains spoke to the Jews with friendly and consoling words: ‘Why do you want to be killed, strangled and slaughtered like an offering to your God Who poured out His anger upon you without mercy? Would it not be safer for you to worship our gods, our images and crosses and we would form one people which would unite together.’ “But the holy and faithful people who so often allowed themselves to be murdered for the sake of the Lord, raised their voices together in almighty in Heaven and cried: ‘Hear of Israel the Lord our God, the Holy One and the King of the Universe, we have been murdered for Thy sake so often already. O Lord God of Israel let us remain faithful to Thee.’ Afterward they recited the confession of sins and said: ‘We are guilty and thus recognize the Divine judgment.’ Now the villains turned upon them and there was not one of them who did not fall victim.”
It’s no wonder when Jews hear the word Cossack they break out in a sweat. These people killed 100,000 Jews and destroyed 300 Jewish communities in the most brutal way one could imagine.
Yet to this day Chmielnicki is considered a nationalist hero in the Ukraine, where they regard him as a kind of “George Washington.” In Kiev there is a big statue in the square erected in his honor.
So this is how, in 1648-1649, the Golden Age of Polish Jewry came crashing down.
These pogroms took place in Eastern Poland, and the Jews in other parts remained there. Poland continued for many years to be the center of the Ashkenazi Jewish world as we shall see in future installments.
However, before we cover that period of time, we will backtrack a bit to talk about the Protestant Reformation which also took place during the Renaissance.
1)Alexis P. Rubin ed., Scattered Among the Nations-Documents Affecting Jewish History 49 to 1975. (Jason Aronson, 1993), pp 87-8.
2) Alexis P. Rubin ed., Scattered Among the Nations-Documents Affecting Jewish History 49 to 1975. (Jason Aronson, 1993), pp 89-90.
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