A Hebrew word meaning "assembly" or "community," and applied formerly to the local governments of the Jewish communities in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia. Its organization had, however, been established, in part at least, in western Europe before the Crusades (see Community). The foundations of the ḳahal organization were laid in the collective responsibility of the community to the government in all matters of taxation. The government preferred to deal with the ḳahal as a body and not with its individual members, granting it autonomy in matters concerning the component parts of the community. In its early history (15th cent.) the ḳahal organization of Poland was a popular institution. It watched over the interests of the Jewish masses, and it was comparatively free from administrative abuse. The Jewish communities had not had at that time a widespread recourse to the Ḥazaḳah, or the "ḥezḳat yishshub" (priority of holding property); they were still comparatively free from debt; and they were firmly bound to one another by a solidarity of interest. The purely administrative and the religious functions of the ḳahal were maintained distinct from each other, and when they did clash the differences were adjusted within its own organization and without recourse to the general government. Disputes between one ḳahal and another and disputes within the ḳahal itself between the administrative and religious officials were referred for adjustment to the Jewish synods or to the Council of Four Lands. In extreme cases, however, the ḳahal invoked the aid of the civil authorities.


Originally the administrative bodies of the communities ("zbory zhidovskiye"), and later the ḳahals themselves, were regarded as the government's agents; and toward the end of the sixteenth century they developed into uniform organizations throughout the country. The more important communities each served as the center for a certain territory through which were scattered the smaller communities and isolated Jewish families. The administrative body of the central community was called "ḳahal," while those of the smaller dependent communities were designated "prikahalki." The ḳahal consisted of a certain number of persons, usually proportionate to the Jewish population. In Cracow it was composed of 40 members; in Wilna of 35; in the medium-sized communities there were from 22 to 35, and in the small communities not less than 8. Every ḳahal annually selected by lot from among its members five "electors," who in their turn elected the succeeding ḳahal, also by lot or by vote. These annual elections usually resulted in the mere rearrangement of the administrative functions among the officers of the preceding ḳahal, and the organization therefore assumed the character of an oligarchy. The administrative officers were divided into four classes. At the head were four elders ("rashim"), who were followed by from three to five "honorary" members ("tuvim," i.e., "ṭobim"). These two classes formed the nucleus of the ḳahal and adjudged all communal affairs. To the number of at least seven they formed the official council of the ḳahal. The elders served by turns for a period of one month as treasurers ("parnasim") and, in general, as executive officers. In Lithuania there existed in the eighteenth century a third class of ḳahal officials, the active members ("'iḳḳarim"), who in White Russia were generally designated as headmen ("allufim"), their number varying from four to ten. From among their number were chosen the candidates who took the places of deceased or retired members of the first two classes. There were also officials assigned to specific duties, such as supervisors and judges ("dayyanim"). To these should be added the female members mentioned in the "pinḳeses" of the seventeenth century, who took part in the charitable affairs of the community and assisted illiterates in their synagogal devotions. There were also minor executive officers ("shammashim").

The Cracow ḳahal statutes of 1595 recognized three classes of ḳahal judges: the lower, middle, and higher, each composed of three persons. The first tried all suits wherein the amount involved did not exceed 10 gold ducats; the second, suits for amounts from 10 to 100 gold ducats. Both classes held daily sessions. The highest class of judges held at least two sessions every week, and tried suits for sums exceeding 100 gold ducats. Apart from the collection of taxes and the administration of communal institutions, the ḳahal also regulated affairs of commerce, the accuracy of weights and measures, the treatment of transient Jewish visitors, the cleaning of the Jewish streets, and the occupations of butchers, school-teachers,servants, wine-dealers, printers, and marriage-factors, as well as the office of the rabbi. It regulated also the relations of landlord and tenant.

Mode of Election.

The annual election of the ḳahal officers took place in the Passover week. The parnas called together the members of the ḳahal, who were required to declare before the casting of the ballot that they would choose according to their consciences without previous agreement among themselves. The minor executive officers of the ḳahal then placed in an urn slips of paper bearing the names of all persons subject to the burden of taxation and of the communal wants, and drew out the names of nine persons not related to one another by marriage ties. These nine persons were required under oath to select according to the dictates of their consciences five electors from the ḳahal administration; and these electors in turn chose the ḳahal elders.

The ḳahal organization was, as stated above, already established in Poland before the beginning of the sixteenth century. The Lithuanian ḳahal was organized, on the Polish model, in the middle of that century. In a short time it succeeded in developing along lines of its own a splendid administrative system. During the period of prosperity before the Cossack uprisings there were few complaints made by the poor against the rich, and the ḳahal machinery was still working rather smoothly. Toward the end of the seventeenth century there came into prominence the ḳahal debts, which strengthened still further the power of the ḳahal over the individual. Ruined by the Cossack wars, the Jews were in great financial distress, and were obliged to seek loans from the abbots, the only capitalists of that time. These were willing to make loans only on the responsibility of the entire ḳahal. The increasing debts of the communities led, among other things, to the abuse of the ḳahal prerogatives, and created much dissatisfaction. This resulted in a bitter struggle throughout the seventeenth century between the ḳahal and the prikahalki, and between the ḳahal elders and the Jewish masses. The Jews living in the villages, for the most part well-to-do, accused the ḳahal of placing the entire burden of the ḳahal taxes on their shoulders. During that time the ḳahal frequently found itself impotent to protect the property and even the persons of the Jews; its moral authority declined because of the cupidity of the ḳahal administrations.

Insolvency of the Ḳahal.

In the middle of the eighteenth century the ḳahals of Lithuania became insolvent. When in 1766 the commission appointed by the diet began the liquidation of the Jewish debts, it found the financial affairs of the communities in a very unsatisfactory condition. The ḳahal of Wilna, which community numbered 5,316 Jews, had a debt of 722,800 florins; that of Brest-Litovsk, with a Jewish population of 3,175, a debt of 222,720 florins; that of Grodno, with 2,418 persons, a debt of 386,571 florins; and that of Pinsk, with a population of 1,277, a debt of 309,140 florins. The resources of the ḳahals for the payment of these debts were but meager; the annual income of that of Wilna, for instance, was 34,000 florins, of Brest-Litovsk 31,200, of Grodno 21,000, and of Pinsk 37,500 florins. This income was derived mainly from indirect taxation, as, for instance, the duty on salt, tobacco, herrings, tar, and other merchandise; the graduated tax on dowries; the tax on Jewish artisans, on mill products (one out of three measures) of mills rented from the ḳahal, and on taverns and breweries; the meat monopoly, etc. From these sources the ḳahal had to cover all the government taxes, as the "giberna" (tax for maintaining the army), the poll-tax for the poor, etc. Then came the salaries for local Christian officials in charge of Jewish affairs. These received a fixed salary (780 florins in Wilna), and natural products, such as meat, fish, vegetables, etc. When soldiers were stationed in the neighborhood, the local ḳahal had to supply them with candles, paper, sealing-wax, meat, fish, etc. The ḳahal had to provide also for the salaries of the rabbis, dayyanim, and other members of the ḳahal administration. Unforeseen expenses were likewise devolved on the ḳahal. When a papal nuncio visited the city the ḳahal usually presented him with a loaf of sugar; a Catholic priest, with lemons and a pound of sugar; a constable, with a bottle of liquor. When troops entered a city the ḳahal had to supply them the items mentioned above, and also to furnish them with firemen, chimney-sweeps, etc., and even to provide money for the capture of deserters.

When the magistrates presented to the diet any project aiming to limit the rights of the Jews the ḳahal had to send delegates to watch the proceedings and to take the necessary steps to oppose the threatened legislation. Frequently the rabbi and the entire ḳahal administration had to journey to the capital or to the district center on matters concerning the community. For instance, in 1767 the whole ḳahal organization of Wilna had to go to Warsaw to protest against the intolerable burden of taxation and other impositions.

Various Payments.

The ḳahal had to pay for the maintenance of Jewish prisoners in the town prisons, and to defray the expenses of trial in case of acquittal. The ḳahal had to spend large sums of money for charitable purposes also, such as the release of insolvent debtors from jail, aid to local and wandering poor, etc. In order to meet all its expenditures the officers of the ḳahal were obliged to seek new sources of income, and to farm out various items of taxation. In this manner they made the constantly increasing burden of the poor almost unbearable. The sale of all objects of immediate necessity, particularly meat, was farmed out to monopolists. The sale of merchandise which brought the greatest profits was also in the hands of monopolists, who paid large sums for the privilege. The right of movement from place to place was greatly limited. Every newcomer had to pay a certain sum for the right of "ḥezḳat yishshub." These conditions made it practically impossible for the poor to change their residence.

The various taxes payable by the members of the community to the ḳahal included the poll-tax, the ten-per-cent property-tax, the taxes called "be-torat zakah," "buṭim," etc., besides compulsory loans to the ḳahal. There was no escape for the poor. The well-to-do, however, managed to secure from theḳahal or from the civil government freedom from excessive taxation on payment of a certain consideration; they were thus invested with extraterritorial rights, and were not even responsible for the debts of the ḳahal. The administration of the ḳahal was also monopolized by the rich, who managed to remain in authority through ties of relationship and common interest. At times (e.g., in the eighteenth century) the administrative authority was retained in the hands of a few powerful families.

In the Eighteenth Century.

Throughout the eighteenth century the Jewish masses persistently clamored for the abolition of the ḳahal as mediator between them and the general government, for the removal of the communal guaranty, for the abolition of the ḳahal control in the relation of landlord and tenants, and for the establishment of individual responsibility on the part of every Jew for the payment of taxes and the liquidation of ḳahal debts. These agitations of the Jewish masses resulted in the constitution of 1764, which prescribed a census of the entire Jewish population in Poland and Lithuania; the levy on the Jews of a poll-tax to be paid directly into the government treasury; and the appointment of a commission for the examination, consolidation, and liquidation of the ḳahal debts. It was found necessary, however, for the proper liquidation of these debts, to retain the ḳahal system of taxation for at least twenty years; and in 1775 the right was again given to the ḳahal to make loans under the guaranty of its entire body. From the constitution of the same year it appears that, notwithstanding the abolition of the collective ḳahal responsibility, the arrears of taxes were claimed from the ḳahal.

In the region which was transferred to Russia after the first partition of Poland the Jewish populace still continued to fight against the ḳahal. In the reign of Catherine II. it was ordered that the names of the Jewish residents be entered in the town records, the power of the ḳahal with reference to freedom of removal being thereby abolished. Questions on the validity of Jewish debts were referred to the courts; and the newly established county and state ḳahals were not allowed judicial functions except as regarded cases that concerned the rites of the Jewish law. On the other hand, the law of 1776 decreed that the poll-tax be paid by the ḳahal, and the latter was required to furnish passports to the members of the community. In this way the county and state ḳahals became, as it were, a continuation of the former ḳahal organization. The "Regulations" of 1804, while they took from the ḳahal its religious and judicial functions, assigning them to the rabbis, placed in its hands the supervision of the proper payment of the government taxes and the management of the funds entrusted to it by the community. Every town or village was to have one ḳahal only, even though its Jewish population was divided into several sects or denominations. The number of ḳahal representatives—elected with the sanction of the government for a period of three years—was not defined by the Russian law. The ḳahals were prohibited from levying new taxes without the knowledge of the government; and in 1818 they were supplied from the administrative offices with books in which to enter, among other things, the collection and expenditure of the Basket-Tax moneys, originally intended for the liquidation of the ḳahal indebtedness. To the ḳahal were also assigned the care of homeless Jews, the aid of Jewish emigrants, etc.

The regulations of 1835 reestablished in its complete form, within the Pale of Jewish Settlement, the Polish ḳahal organization. In virtue of these regulations every Jew, except those employed in agriculture, was compelled to register in the Jewish community of his township, even though his residence were in a village or hamlet. In the cities the Jews elected, with the sanction of the state administration, for a period of three years, three to five representatives who composed the ḳahal. The duties of the ḳahal included the supervision of the collection of government, city, and district taxes, as well as of the specifically Jewish taxes (basket-tax); the custody and expenditure of the ḳahal funds; the care of old, crippled, and poor Jews; and the discouragement of vagrancy. The conscript statute of 1827 decreed that the Jewish communities should supply their quota of conscripts apart from the Christian population, imposed on the Jewish communities the supervision of the supply of conscripts, and gave them the power to draft as a conscript any Jew in arrear with his taxes or guilty of vagrancy or any other offense. In this manner the ḳahal was given a power scarcely less extensive than that enjoyed by it under Polish rule.

In 1844 the ḳahals were abolished and their affairs transferred to the city administrations, except in Riga and the towns in the government of Courland, where the ḳahals continued to exist "for the administration of taxes and duties" until 1893.

Brafmann on the Ḳahal.

In 1869 a converted Jew, Jacob Brafmann, seeking notoriety, published "Kniga Kagala" (= "The Book of the Ḳahal"), in which he made many false statements with regard to the secret continuance of the ḳahal in Russia, and to its harmful influences on the native population. Although his falsehoods were exposed by Shereshevski in "O Knigye Kahala" (St. Petersburg, 1872), by I. Rabinovich, M. Morgulis, I. Orshanski, and by others, the anti-Semitic press of Russia made extensive use, for the purposes of its propaganda, of Brafmann's sensational inventions.

  • Complete Russian Code, x., No. 8054; xix., Nos. 13,865, 18,546; xx., No. 14,522; xxi., No. 15,436; xxii., No. 16,391; xxviii., No. 21,547;
  • Bershadski, Litovskie Yevrei, passim, St. Petersburg, 1883;
  • Orshanski, Yevrei v Rossii, passim;
  • bibliography on Ḳahal in Sistematicheski Ukazatel Statei, etc., Nos. 2267-2309, ib. 1893;
  • Mysh, Rukovodstvo k Russkim Zakonam, 2d ed., p. 54, ib. 1898.
H. R.
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