District town in the government of Volhynia, Russia. In the beginning of the fourteenth century it was given by Gedemin to his grandson, Theodor Sangushko, and in 1518 the Magdeburg Rights were granted to it by Sigismund I. About the beginning of the sixteenth century the Jews and Christians of Kovel were freed from military duties in return for a specified contribution for various government needs. In 1540 the Jews of Kovel together with those of other Lithuanian towns protested to King Sigismund against an accusation made by a baptized Jew that they were preparing to remove with all their possessions to Turkey, and that meanwhile they were killing or circumcising Christian children. The court appointed by the king established the innocence of the Lithuanian Jews.
In response to a petition of the Kovel Jews, Queen Bona ordered in 1547 that the Jewish house-owners be relieved from the payment of the annual taxes, and that, instead, they pay on each house a yearly tax of one gold ducat. People living in rented houses were to pay one-half gold ducat per year; but the house occupied by the rabbi was to be exempt. As to other duties, the Jews were to share them with the remaining inhabitants of the town; and they were also to share their privileges. This document was presented for entry in the city records by the Jewish citizen Hirsh Itzkovich. Some years later (1556) Queen Bona decreed, in response to the petition of a number of the burghers of Kovel, that Jews be forbidden to reside in the market-place, and that it should be the duty of the magistrate of Kovel to see that Jews owning houses in the market-place should remove to the Jewish streets, in accordance with a tradition which precluded them from being numbered at the census among the Christians. On the other hand, the queen ordered that Christians living in the Jewish streets should remove thence and, in accordance with the custom of other towns in the district, should own no houses there. This document was successively confirmed by Sigismund August and Sigismund III.Under Kurbski.
About 1565 the town was presented by King Sigismund August to the Russian prince Andrei Mikhailovich Kurbski, who had been induced to betray his country and to enter the service of the Polish king. Escaping with his followers from Yuryev (Dorpat) to Lithuania, Kurbski established himself within sixteen miles of Kovel, which he ruled through trusted agents, and often compelled the Jews to advance him large sums of money. On July 14, 1569, his agent at Kovel, Ivan Kelemet, attacked the Jews at the instigation of a baptized Jew named Lavrin, and, in defiance of their ancient rights and privileges, placed Yuska Shmoilovich, Avram Yakovovich, and Bogdana, the wife of Agron, in a dungeon in which was much water, and closed and sealed all the houses, stores, and taverns of the Jews with all their merchandise, personal property, and provisions. Some Jews of Vladimir having protested against this action, Kelemet stated that he was merely carrying out the wishes of Prince Kurbski, who was free to punish the Jews of Kovel, who were his subjects, as he pleased. He also admitted that he had placed the two Jews and the Jewess in the dungeon and had immersed them up to their necks because they, having become security for Agron Natanovich, had failed to produce him at the appointed time. The matter was carried by the Jews to the king at the Diet of Lublin, and he ordered the release of the imprisoned Jews. Kelemet, however, refused to recognize the royal decree, claiming that he was subject only to his master, Prince Kurbski; and he ordered all the Jews of Kovel to leave the town on the following day. After an imprisonment of five weeks (doubtless not in the dungeon) the prisoners were liberated by order of Kurbski, who was finally compelled to obey the royal decree. He gave directions also for the removal of the seals from the synagogue, houses, and stores belonging to the Jews; but at the same time he warned them that he would obtain satisfaction from them at a future time. Notwithstanding these threats, however, the prince continued to deal with the Jews and to borrow money from them, as is shown by his will dated June 5, 1581, wherein he admits that he owes Mordecai Shichich of Kovel 100 gold ducats. This debt and sums owing by Kurbski to other Jews remained unpaid in 1585; and the creditors were obliged to bring suit against the estate.Petitions Against Jews.
In 1616 the burghers of Kovel complained to the king that the Jews bought up taverns and houses without having the right to do so, thus crowding out the Christians, some of whom had been reduced to beggary by the unjust exactions of the Jews; that the latter farmed the taxes imposed by the Diet, as well as private taxes; that by exacting enormous profits the Jews were ruining the town, in consequence of which people were removing from it; and, finally, that the Jews took no interest in providing for the repair of the walls and in guarding the town. The king appointed a commission to investigate the complaint, and to render a decision, each side to have the right to appeal to the king within six months thereafter.
The resentment of the Christian merchants against their more successful Jewish competitors was intensified during the following thirty years, and found emphatic expression in the turbulent times of Chmielnicki. In 1648 the magistrate of Kovel reported to the authorities at Vladimir that the local burghers had helped the Cossacks to drown both the Jews and the Catholics who had remained in the town, being unable to get away on account of their extreme poverty.
In 1670 King Michael issued at Warsaw a grant of privileges, containing among other items a recapitulation of a document issued by Sigismund III. in March, 1609, in which the Jews of Kovel were ordered to share with the Christian burghers the cost of repairing the town walls and the performance of sentry duty. There is also recapitulated a document issued by Ladislaus IV. March 23, 1635, confirming the decree issued by Queen Bona in which the Jews were ordered to live and to build their houses in a separate street; also a document of Sigismund III. providing that the taxes should be paid direct to the collector and not to the Jews, who usually farmed them from the collector, thereby ruining the town and injuring the burghers. In 1661 there were only twenty Jewish house-owners in Kovel.
Of the history of the Kovel community from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, no information of importance is forthcoming.
In 1898 the Jewish community numbered 6,046 souls in a total population of 17,304. It had a Talmud Torah, a synagogue, and a number of charitable institutions. Among the more prominent Jews were: Aaron Solomon Feuerman (d. 1897); H. Geller, the Hebrew journalist; Rabbi Yehudah Idl; Dr. Perelman; and Rabbi Löb Gershonov Diament.
- Regesty, i. s.v.;
- Russko-Yevreiski Arkhiv, i. and ii., passim;
- Ha-Ẓefirah, 1898, No. 160;
- Antonovich, Monograftya po Istorii Zapadnoi i Yugo-Zapadnoi Rossii, i., Kiev, 1885.