LITHUANIAN COUNCIL (Hebr. Wa'ad Medinot Lita, or Wa'ad ha-Medinot ha-Rashiyyot de-Lita):
By: Herman Rosenthal
Long before the Union of Lublin, probably with the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Jews of Poland and Lithuania were taxed as a single body, the pro rata assessment being made by the Jews themselves. In 1613 Sigismund III. decreed separate assessments for the Jews of Lithuania and Poland. The former were obliged to pay 9,000 gulden and the latter 7,000 gulden, the per capita payment being the same in each case. In order to assure an equitable distribution of the taxes among the several communities, and because of the desire to secure uniform legislation in religious matters and to protect their communal interests, the Jews of Lithuania organized, in 1623, a separate council of their own, this council being known as the "Wa'ad ha-Medinot ha-Rashiyyot de-Lita." Previously, from the Union of Lublin in 1569 until 1623, the Jews of Lithuania, not being, perhaps, in urgent need of a council of their own, had their representatives in the Council of Three Countries (Poland,Russia, Lithuania), or in the Council of Five Lands (see Council of Four Lands).Relation to Council of Four Lands.
It was customary for the Lithuanian delegates to hold preliminary meetings at Brest-Litovsk before taking part in the deliberation of the general councils. It has not yet been determined, however, to what extent the Lithuanian Jews were governed by the decisions of these councils; only this much is certain, that while they were well represented at the councils' sessions they occasionally refused to obey their rulings. The Lithuanian councils were originally composed of delegates from the three most important communities—Pinsk, Brest, and Grodno. Wilna was added in 1652, and Slutsk in 1691. The councils were designated in accordance with the number of communities represented, as "Wa'ad Shalosh [Arba', or Ḥamesh] Medinot Rashiyyot de-Lita" (= "Council of Three [Four, or Five] Main Districts of Lithuania"). The Lithuanian Council in time became an authoritative body in all local Jewish affairs; but, while practically an independent body, it assumed a subordinate position to the Council of Four Lands. At times the two councils worked in unison in matters of common interest during the sessions of the Council of Four Lands, but where differences occurred, the authority of the latter prevailed. Thus, in the dispute in regard to Tykotzin, in the government of Lomza, a boundary town between Poland and Lithuania, it was decided to place the town under the jurisdiction of the Council of Four Lands, although formerly it had been regarded as Lithuanian territory. Similarly, in the dispute between Tykotzin and Grodno concerning the less important neighboring communities of Zabludov, Horodok, and Khvoroshcha, the latter were assigned by the Council of Four Lands to Tykotzin. In this case, however, the decision was not accepted as final ("Sefer ha-Yobel," pp. 257-259).
The Lithuanian Council, like that of the Four Lands, had no fixed meeting-place; it assembled biennially or triennially at Zabludov, Seltzy, or elsewhere. Like that of the Four Lands, also, it served to cement the interests of the Lithuanian and other Russo-Polish Jews at a time when dissolution and demoralization reigned in the Polish kingdom, and it acted as a bulwark against the rancor of the Christian clergy, especially the Jesuits, who made continuous attacks on the Jews. The records of the Lithuanian Council are better preserved than those of the Council of Four Lands. There is extant a complete list of the meetings held by the Lithuanian Council from 1623 to 1762, when it was abolished, after over 1,000 regulations ("taḳḳanot") had been adopted. These taḳḳanot were made with the following ends in view:
- (1) To encourage and endear to the people the study of the Talmud by establishing yeshibot, and to supervise the conduct of students.
- (2) To protect the interests of the Jewish people as a whole and as individuals against the malice of non-Jews, by pleading the cause of the Jews in the Polish Diets.
- (3) To supervise the conduct of the communities as well as of individuals, in order to prevent them from rousing the antagonism of their neighbors by indulging in improper and illegal trades.
- (4) To determine and properly distribute the government taxes imposed upon Jews.
- (5) To determine the boundaries of each ḳahal district.
- (6) To determine the duties of each community and its share in the common efforts and expenditures in cases where blood accusations were to be contested.
- (7) To determine the right of membership to be granted to new settlers in the communities ("ḥeskat yishshub"): as each Jewish community stood responsible for the conduct of its individuals, restrictions were necessary to regulate the granting of membership to newcomers.
- (8) To aid poverty-stricken communities and individuals.
- (9) To maintain and aid poor settlers in Palestine.
Of the regulations enacted at the meetings of the Lithuanian Council the following deserve mention, since they afford an insight into the state of culture of the Lithuanian Jews and into the character of the council itself: "Every community shall carefully guard against card- and dice-playing, and offenders shall be fined and subjected to corporal punishment" (1623; No. 51). "Beggars invading Lithuania and Russia [meaning White Russia], especially those who disguise themselves as scholars and pious persons while committing secretly various wicked acts, shall not be allowed to remain in any one community more than twenty-four hours" (1623; No. 87). "It shall be the duty of the communal leaders to expose any attempts at fraud which may be discovered on the part of Jews borrowing money or goods from a 'shlakhtitz' [peasant], or leasing from lords estates, taxes, and other sources of revenue. On the refusal of the parties likely to be defrauded to heed the warning of the communal leaders, the latter shall declare the transaction void, using force if necessary, in order that the Christians concerned may not suffer loss" (No. 26). "It is incumbent upon the three chief communities of Lithuania to arrange annually for the marriage of thirty poor girls, giving each a dowry of thirty gulden."
Among the taḳḳanot there are also regulations regarding competition in business, against luxury, and against expensive and gaudy dresses.
In 1654-56, when the Russians invaded Lithuania, the activities of the Lithuanian Council relaxed. It convened less frequently, and the regulations adopted between 1656 and 1670 deal in the main with financial accounts. After 1670, however, it resumed its former energy.
The Lithuanian Council was abolished about 1762, at the same time and for the same reason as the Council of Four Lands. Thenceforward taxes were no longer imposed on Lithuania as a whole, but on each community separately, the prime motive for the union of the communities being thus abolished.