District town in the government of Vitebsk, Russia. The first mention of its Jewish community occurs in 1551, when, at the Polish Diet held at Wilna, Polotsk is expressly named in a list of towns whose Jews were to be exempt from the special tax known as "Serebeshchizna" ("Akty Yuzhnoi i Zapadnoi Rossii." i. 133). There are indications, however, of the existence of Jews at Polotsk as early as 1490 ("Sbornik Imperatorskavo Istoricheskavo Obshchestva," xxxv. 41-43). In 1509 the baptized Jew Abraham Ezefovich, a non-resident of Polotsk, is spoken of as farmer of its revenues and customs ("Aktovya Knigi Metriki Litovskoi Zapisei," No. 8), similar positions being held about 1525 by his brother Michael (ib. No. 14, p. 235), and about the middle of the same century by another Jew, Felix (ib. No. 37, p. 242).
In 1563, in the war between the Russians and thePoles over Smolensk, the Muscovite grand duke Ivan the Terrible, having captured Polotsk, ordered, according to the testimony of an eye-witness, that all the Jews who refused to adopt Christianity—about 300 in number—should be thrown into the Düna (Sapunov, "Vitebskaya Starina," iv. 119, 189, 232). In 1580, however, a Jewish community is again found in the town; but the letters patent of the so-called "Magdeburg Rights" of that year contain an edict against the Jews of Polotsk, depriving them of the right to trade and to build or buy houses ("Akty Yuzhnoi i Zapadnoi Rossii," iii. 255). About seventy-five years later (1655), the Russians, with whom the Cossacks under Chmielnicki were allied, again overran Lithuania, and the Jewish community at Polotsk met the fate of its fellow communities in Poland in the bloody years of 1648 and 1649. The estates of the slaughtered Jews seem to have been distributed among the army officers and the nobility ("Vitebskaya Starina," iv., part 2, p. 77).
In the sixteenth century Polotsk was more prosperous than Wilna. It had a total population of 100,000, and presumably its Jewish community was well-to-do, although the fact that its taxes were farmed to two Jews of Wilna (see R. Solomon Luria, Responsa, No. 4) might be adduced as evidence to the contrary.Under the Russians.
Before Polotsk was finally annexed to Russia (1772) it had lost its former importance, and a majority of its inhabitants were Jews. The town was at first incorporated in the government of Pskov. In 1777 it was made a government city, and is mentioned as such in the letter against Ḥasidism which was sent out by Elijah Gaon of Wilna in 1796 (see Yaẓḳan, "Rabbenu Eliyahu me-Wilna," p. 73, Warsaw, 1900, where "Gubernia Plock" is a misprint for "Polotsk"). In 1780 the town had 360 wooden houses, of which 100 belonged to Jews; but the number of Jewish families amounted to 478, as against 437 Christian families. In the same year Russia, in the flush of exultation over the lion's share in the division of Poland which had fallen to her, gave the Jewish merchants of the government of Polotsk equal rights with other merchants ("Polnoye Sobraniye Zakonov," xx., No. 14,962). Fourteen years later, however, this policy was changed, and a double tax was imposed in Polotsk and in several other governments upon the Jews who wished to avail themselves of the privilege to become recognized burghers or merchants. In case a Jew desired to leave Russia he could do so only after having paid in advance the double tax for three years (ib. xxiii., No. 17,224). In 1796 Polotsk became part of the government of White Russia; since 1802 it has been a part of the government of Vitebsk. The policy of discriminating against the Jews was manifested again in 1839, when all the merchants of Polotsk except Jewish ones were granted immunity from gild- and poll-taxes for ten years ("Polnoye Sobraniye Zakonov II." xii., No. 10, 851).Rabbis and Scholars.
Polotsk has been one of the strongest centers of Ḥasidism in Lithuania, and has been also the seat of a ẓaddiḳ. On the whole, however, Polotsk has never been distinguished as a center of Jewish learning, and the names of but very few of its earlier rabbis or scholars have been preserved in Jewish literature. Among them were Ẓebi Hirsch b. Isaac Zack, rabbi of Polotsk and Shkud (1778), who was probably succeeded by Judah Löb b. Asher Margolioth; Israel Polotsker, one of the early Ḥasidic rabbis (at first their opponent), who went to Palestine in 1777, returned, and died in Poland; and R. Phinehas b. Judah Polotsk, "maggid" of Polotsk for eighteen years in the latter part of the eighteenth century and author of numerous works. R. Phinehas b. Judah afterward settled in Wilna; he became a pupil of Elijah Gaon, and died there Jan. 15, 1823. Among the later rabbis of Polotsk were Senior Solomon Fradkin, Jacob David Wilowsky, Judah Meshel ha-Kohen Zirkel, and Solomon Akselrod (b. Nov. 1, 1855; became rabbi of Polotsk in 1901). Senior Solomon Fradkin was known later as Reb Zalmen Lubliner (b. Liadi, government of Moghilef, 1830; d. Jerusalem April 11, 1902); he was rabbi of Polotsk from 1856 to 1868. Jacob David Wilowsky, later rabbi of Slutsk and chief rabbi of the Orthodox congregations of Chicago (1903-4), was rabbi from 1883 to 1887. Judah Meshel ha-Kohen Zirkel (b. 1838) assumed the rabbinate in 1895, and occupied it until his death, May 26, 1899.
The Ḥasidim of Polotsk usually maintain their own rabbinate; in the latter part of the nineteenth century it was held by Eliezer Birkhan (see Efrati, "Dor we-Dorshaw," p. 58, Wilna, 1889). The engraver and author Yom-Ṭob, who became well known in England under the name of Solomon Bennett, was born in Polotsk about 1757, and lived there until about 1792 (see "Ha-Meliẓ," 1868, pp. 85, 161-162).
The population of Polotsk in 1897 was over 20,000, of which more than half are Jews. It has most of the institutions usually found in a Russian Jewish community, including a government school for boys. It is an Orthodox community, and the sale, by a Jew, of anything on a Sabbath is almost an unheard-of occurrence there ("Ha-Meliẓ," 1897, No. 89). The district of Polotsk, exclusive of the city, has only 3 Jewish landowners in a total of 567.
- Grätz, Gesch. Hebrew transl., vii. 358, viii. 150;
- Entziklopedicheski Slovar, xxiv. 368;
- Regesty, i., Nos. 208, 473, 528-530, 621, 969;
- Bershadski, Litovskiye Yevreyi, p. 346;
- idem, Russko-Yevreiski Arkhiv, i., No. 97; ii., No. 100; iii., Nos. 60, 71, 84;
- B. O. Lewanda, Sbornik Zakonov, Nos. 33, 43, 359;
- Fuenn, Kiryah Ne'emanah, pp. 14, 335, Wilna, 1860;
- Gurland, Le-Ḳorot ha-Gezerot be-Yisrael, iv. 34;
- Eisenstadt-Wiener, Da'at Kedoshim, p. 16, St. Petersburg, 1897-1898;
- Eisenstadt, Rabbanaw wa-Soferaw, iii. 5-38, iv. 29;
- Walden, Shem ha-Gedolim he-Ḥadash, p. 75.