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Liudmila Khmelnitskaya. From the history of the Jewish society in XVI-XVII cc.


Liudmila Khmelnitskaya.

From the history of the Jewish society in XVI-XVII cc.



Today the history of the Jewish society is the topic that has never been studied thoroughly. More or less detailed article on the history of the society appeared only on the pages of the Jewish Encyclopedia that was published in the early XX century in Petersburg. The authors of the articles «Витебскъ»("Vitebsk") and «Белоруссiя» ("Belarus") used the sources, which are unavailable for modern researchers as the location of Vitebsk PINKOS or minutes of the Lithuanian Jewish Vaads is unknown (as well as if they are preserved till our days).

We have not made a search and processing of the topical documents that can be stored in the archives of Belarus or neighboring countries. This publication is the result of analysis of those archival documents that have been published in various archaeological digests of the late XIX and early XX cc. And definitely it presupposes more detailed study in the future using new, yet unknown sources.

The majority of researchers believe that the Jewish started to settle in Vitebsk in the middle of XVI century. However, we assume there is every reason to believe it happened much earlier. As it is well known, in XV century there was a new wave of immigration from the states near Rein to the east - to the Polish Kingdom and the Great Duchy of Lithuania, and it played an important role in the history of Ashkenazi Jewry. We have every reason to believe that then the Jewish migration reached the far-away Vitebsk in the south of the Great Duchy of Lithuania. In "Vitebsk chronicles by Mikhail Pantsyrny and Stepan Averka" written in XVIII c. we found the following: "Tsevivka, Vitebsk headman, and Gerasim, ruler, were burnt for betrayal on the Jewish stone in 1415". (1) Probably we can not speak about stable settlement of the Jewry in the town. It is more probable that there lived only separate renters of strangles and farmings, which thus played a significant role in the life of the town that was reflected in appearance of this urbanism "Jewish stone" (we would like to point out that the word "zhidy" (Jews) in the Great Duchy of Lithuania was used as a traditional name for the Jewish population and before it was attached to the Russian Empire it did not have any humiliating connotation).

Loss of the respective archival sources does not allow us to trace the further stages of formation of the permanent Jewish settlement in Vitebsk. No data was preserved in respect of proscription of Jews from the Great Duchy of Lithania and later return in the times of Aleksandr Jagelonczik. Vitebsk Jews were mentioned in the papers of 1551 in regard of exemption from the tax called "серебщизна" [serebshchizna], however there are no data on the society in the explanation of extraordinary tax on Jewish "charges" of Lithuania for the year 1563. (2) In 1597 Vitebsk received the Magdeburg right and the deed granted by Sigizmund III stated that "Jews according to the ancient custom can not settle in the town of Vitebsk". (3)

The following XVII century brought new changes. One of the earliest documents is "Vitebsk myto' (Vitebsk customs register) of the year 1605 - the register of customs levies on imported and exported goods of various kinds. In the document we found the surnames of two Vitebsk Jews Matys Gershanovich and Jakov Iljinich and information on their occupation. They both were trading vodka, exported it in barrels of 100 and 200 quarts (70 and 140 liters respectively) from Vitebsk to Velizh. (4) In "Витебское мыто" [Vitebsk myto] the activities of Matys Gershanovich were described with more details. From the document we learnt that he transported vodka from Vitebsk to Velizh by boat on the river or by wagon and on the way back he imported hare, horse and cow fells, honey, and hop. Trade in Velizh was rather successful, we suppose, as from June to December 1605 he exported from Vitebsk 600 quarts of vodka.

The next document regards the trade of vodka again, but in Vitebsk itself. It dates back to 1627 and constitutes a claim that was submitted to the Vitebsk local court by "арендаторы корчем Витебских, Александер Хаимович а Юда Якубович, жыдове, писары мыта старого и новоподвышоного у Витебску" ( translation from Old Belarusian: the renters of Vitebsk taverns Aleksander Khaimovich and Juda Jakubovich, Jews, clerks of the old and new mytos in Vitebsk). (5) They complained that "pan" (sir) Jan Petrovski violated their farmed right to sell alcoholic drinks, secretly brings vodka into the town without paying taxes and trades in it. Twice his messuage was searched "вижами врадовыми" [wizhami wradowymi] (by governmental guards/sergeants) and both times they found barrels with vodka. During the second search the renters' servants were assisting "wizhy", and after the search was finished Petrovski attacked the servants with a gun, "окрутне побил, змордовал и ранил, и мало еще штыхом до смерти не пробил" [okrutne pobil, zmordoval i ranil, i malo jeshche shtykhom do smerci ne probil] (translation from Old Belarusian: beat severely, wounded and tormented, moreover tortured nearly to death). In order to register injuries inflicted upon their Jewish servants Aleksand Khaimovich and Juda Jakubovich invited the возный [voznyj] (translation from OB: executive policeman) of the Vitebsk voevodstvo (province) Sosin Kharkovski, whose evidences were written "до книг врадовых" [do knig wradowykh] (into governmental records) and became the ground for bringing Petrovski to trial.

As regarding legal relations in the society of that time they were stipulated in the norms of the Statute of the Great Duchy of Lithuania for all social and ethnic groups. In that all-state legal code Jews were named "zhidy" as everywhere. In separate articles of the Statute of 1588 as well as in earlier editions Jews were imposed some restrictions of rights in comparison to the other groups of population. Thus, Jews in the Great Duchy of Lithuania were banned to take governmental posts and have Christians in slavery. The clause 8 of the article 12 of the Statute was named "О ношенью жидовском" (about clothing of the Jewish) and predefined what clothes Jews could wear: "Жидове з ланцухами и с клейноты золотыми ходити, так теж серебра на пасех, на кордех, на шаблях носити не мають. Вед же однак сыгнет на палцу один и перстень один кождому з них мети и жидовкам перстени, поес и уберы водлуг преложенья своего носити волно.» (translation from Old Belarusian: Jews are not allowed to wear golden chains and kleinods (military insignia) as well as silver decorations on belts, cords, and sabers. However each Jew is allowed to have one signet on finger and a seal ring on finger and each Jewish woman is free to wear finger rings, belts and decorations according to their status). (6) At the same time навязка [naviazka] (monetary penalty) for wounds and injuries was paid to Jews just like any nobleman and murder of a Jew was punished capitally. One of the Statute's articles gave incentives to Jews adopting Christianity such as each Jew having changed religion and his descendants "за шляхтича почитаны быти маюць" ( translation from Old Belarusian: were esteemed as noble people).

During XV-XVII cc. the Great Duchy and King's power were the main support for Jews to strengthen among city population, noblemen and clergymen. Monarch's privileges and letters of grant played an extraordinary role in life of the Ashkenazi Jewish societies in Belarus. The first of nowadays known privileges granted to the Vitebsk society dates back to the rule of Sigizmund III Vaza, who in contrast to his predecessors forbade building of new synagogues without a special royal permission. A reference to the privilege of Siguzmund III was made in the conformational privilege of his successor Vladislav IV ratified in 1634 in Krakow during the first year of his rule against the petition of Vilno Jews Samuil and Lazar Moiseevichs acting at the instance of Vitebsk Jewry. (7) By the privilege of Siguzmund III Vitebsk Jews were granted the right to trade in various goods as well as to have temples and land allotments "for interment of the deceased". Additionally Vladislav IV permitted Jews to acquire and freely dispose of houses and allotments with execution of obligations that are regular for such cases. Besides, the King and Grand Duke Vladislav IV declared in his deed that he was taking Vitebsk Jews under his royal defense and protection and that "with all this going on they would be saved in piece, no one would infringe their rights nor show violence towards them". The country ruler appointed the Vitebsk local court and the local voevode loyalty guarantor in respect of Jews.

"Школа жидовская вновь построенная" (Jewish school built anew) erected upon permission of Sigizmund III appeared in Vitebsk not before 1627. This is the time the letter written by the Vitebsk voevode Simon-Samuel Liubartovich Sangushko dates back to. It constitutes a permission for the Vitebsk Jews represented by the Vitebsk renter Juda Jakubovich to build a temple "in the demesnial town of Vitebsk on their own land they acquire in the territory of the Castle or in the town itself". (8) We'd like to note one interesting detail - he mentioned that in the times of the voevode Sagnushko's predecessors the Jewish had had their own schools in town. However the absence of additional sources does not allow learning the details of the topical chronology.

We found data in respect of construction of the new temple in the inventory of Vitebsk of the late 1630ieths, which is stored in the National historical archives of Belarus and has not been thoroughly studied yet. The inventory states that in those times there were two fortification castles (Lower and Higher Castles) and four posads (explanation: posad is a borough at the outskirts of a town but at the same time it is only an administrative division of such town not a separate unit) (Vzgorski, Zadunaiski, Zaruchaiski, and Zaretski). "The house of zhid (Jew) Juda and Jewish school built anew" were located in the very sacral center of the Lower Castle - between the Uniate Annunciation Church, situated opposite the Catholic Church across the street, and the Evangelic Cathedral. (9) The Jewish cemetery was located far from the castle fortifications - in the northern suburbs of Vzgorski posad on the high bank of the Zapadnaya Dvina. We encounter information about that "heathen place" in other archaeographic sources, from which we found that the Jewish society had owned the land where the cemetery was located in 1610ieths. (10) It is interesting to know that the cemetery existed in the town till the beginning of XX century (the dead were not buried there any more from the first half of XIX c.) but during the Soviet rule it was destroyed leaving no traces.

In one of the documents dated back to 1639 above-mentioned Vitebsk citizen Juda Jakubovich was named "senior Vitebsk Jew". (11) Already in XVI c. Jews of the Great Duchy of Lithuania united into religious ethnic communities - kahals headed by "старшие еврейские" [starshye evrejskie] (Jewish seniors) elected by kahals for one-year term.

In summer 1654 the war between Russia and Reczpospolita started. The Moscow Tsar had diligently prepared for the war - his army outnumbered the troops of the Great Duchy of Lithuania. Many Belarusian towns were occupied very soon. One of the first orders by the Tsar Aleksej Mikhajlovich in respect of the activities of the Russian troops on the occupied territories read as follows: "Костелам не быть, унеятам не быть, жидам не быть и жития никакого не иметь" (no more catholic churches, no more uniates, no more jews and no life for them). (12)

After the Moscow forces seized the frontier Nevel castle the Vitebsk and Polotsk fortecias were under direct threat. As it was indicated in "Certificate issued by the Vitebsk voevodstvo citizens for Iosif Khrapovichki in Moscow captivity" at the beginning of the war the Reczpospolita government was not ready at all, the Vitebsk Castle even did not have fortified walls and the townsfolk and other people who had come to seek shelter there had to build walls at their own expense. (13) The Vitebsk kahal took direct part in that building. First of all, 16 sazhens (sazhen is a Russian measure of length equal to 2 meter 13 cm) of fortified wall were built by the ramparts of the Lower Castle and a part of dragoons sotnia (military division consisting of about one hundred soldiers) captained by Grigori-Kristof Mozhejko, who Janusz Radzivil, the hetman of the Great Duchy of Lithaunia, sent to reinforce the Vitebsk garrison, was billeted at the expense of the Jewish community. In order to reinforce the Ezerishchi castle the Hetman sent a squadron of rotmistrs (officer of cavalry in tsarist Russian army, same as Rittmeister in the German language) Shevkialo and Staniszevski, but they did not cope to reach the fortecia before the siege started and they entered the fortress in the first day of Vitebsk siege and had to stay there until it ended. "Бурмистры, ратманы, заседатели и мещане" (Supervisors, city counselors, assessors and petty bourgeoisie) vested the main part of expenses on their maintenance upon the Jewish kahal. (14)

In the widely-known "Layout of the town of Vitebsk in 1664" we found evidences that in the middle of XVII century the Jewish community of Vitebsk was rather wealthy and played an important role in the economic life of the town. One of the towers of the Lower Castle - Great Thoroughfare Gate in the direction of the Dvina river - was otherwise called "Жидовские ворота" (Jewish gate), it was located not far from the Jewish school and apparently was repaired and maintained at the expense of the kahal. Strategic importance of the gate was rather high in the system of the castle fortifications as the wells in the Lower Castle (as well as in the Higher Castle) had bad water and during the siege people used to get drinking water from the Dvina and Vitba rivers through the thoroughfare gate. Naturally, those towers were to be maintained in due state and the kahal would not have been appointed responsible for that if they had had no sufficient means and possibilities.

On the 24th of August, 1654 in the St. Bartholomew Day the Moscow troops leaded by the voevode Vasili Sheremetjeev and hetman Vasili Kondorov approached and besieged Vitebsk. During the following three months and a half the citizens of Vitebsk and the surroundings who had come to search shelter in the castle withstood a severe siege. Some part of the townspeople had left Vitebsk before the Moscow troops arrived but the Jewish remained and together with the others survived all the difficulties of the wartime. Thus at the expense of the Jewish 30 sazhens of the rampart destroyed by the Moscowers by the Jewish gate were restored, they reinforced the tower itself, built a secret passage towards the Dvina river to get water, granted several dozens of big pots for water necessary for defense during assaults. The Jewish disassembled their living premises in order to supply materials for repair of the castle fortification, together with the noblemen and other townspeople took part in construction works and collected additional levies from the community members for the wartime needs. Also Jews took part in military actions, had their own armor (guns and gunpowder) and watched over the town. (15)

Shortly food reserves in beset Vitebsk were exhausted and famine started. After all the gunpowder supplies were exhausted as well. In order to have enough to defend the town from the enemies the noblemen and Rezhpospolita people united their supplies of gunpowder. Vitebsk Jews took part in this act as well. (16)

Eventually by the Moscow soldiers occupied the Vitebsk fortecia that had not got any help form the Kind and Great Duke. Some citizens were killed, some were taken prisoners, and their property was plundered. The Muscovites plundered the Jewish school, where "наличных денег, золота, серебра, драгоценностей, жемчуга, дорогой одежды, олова, меди, разных припасов, домашней утвари и школьной собственности" (cash money, gold, silver, jewelry, pearls, expensive clothes, tin, cupper, various supplies, home utensils and school property) to the amount exceeding 100 thousand zloty disappeared. Numerous legal documents of the community, privileges and debentures for belongings that the Jewish had hidden in the houses of Vitebsk petty bourgeoisie were destroyed. Several community members were taken prisoners. First the prisoners were kept in the Vitebsk castle, later they were sent to Moscovia where they were oppressed in order to make them adopt Christianity. However, none of them proselytized, either swore allegiance to the new master, the fact was mentioned in the special attestation signed by the 39 noblemen of Vitebsk voevodstvo (province) in Muscovite captivity together with the Jews. (17) The attestation was submitted for registration in Берестейские гродские книги (Berestie city registers) as all Jewish societies of Belarus in XVII were under jurisdiction of Berestie (Brest nowadays).

Under the Treaty of Andrusovo (1667) Vitebsk was returned to Rezcpospolita. In 1670 the Jews returned home from the captivity but could not get their property back as all debentures had been destroyed during the war. For that reason the Vitebsk kahal through its seniors Shaja Samuilovich and Samson Abramovich submitted for registration in the Vitebsk city register a special claim according to which the kahal reserved the right to claim for its property «у всякого, у кого бы оно не оказалось» (from any person whoever happens to have it). (18)

In 1677 Vitebsk Jews happened to defend their rights by law. The Vitebsk petty bourgeoisie living in the jurisdiction of the Uniate archbishop and metropolitan Kiprian Zhokhovski grabbed the land allotted for the Jewish cemetery. The outcome of the legal investigation conducted by Iosafat Brazhits, an official of the Polotsk and Vitebsk archbishopy, was decided in favour of Jews, who received a part of «древнего грунта, где они умерших своих хоронят» (ancient soil where they burry their deceased). Besides, on the reverse side of the letter Iosofat Brazhits authorized by the metropolitan to pass a judgment on the case made a chirographic note: «Гарантируем также (...), что если бы какой-либо мещанин с юридики вельможного его милости ксендза митрополита отважился (...) ломать ограждения, разгораживать или какие другие обиды чинить тому месту, которое ограждено и господам евреем принадлежит, или кричать, ругаться, несправедливо оскорблять и бунтовать против них, тогда он должен заплатить его милости господину и пастырю нашему сто коп и тридцать» (we guarantee as well (...), that if any bourgeois in the jurisdiction of his noble worship ksiondz (Roman Catholic priest) metropolitan dares (...) to break enclosure, fence off or cause any other offences to the place that is enclosed and belongs to the Jewish or to shout, curse, unfairly insult and rise in revolt against them, then he/she will be obliged to pay his/her merciful master and our pastor one thousand and thirty coins). (19) It is important to note that for 130 coins one could buy four horses so we consider none of Vitebsk citizens showed interest in conflicting with the kahal.

In 1674 Jan III Sobesski became the king of Rezcpospolita. During the fifth year of his rule on the 16th of March 1679 in Warsaw by his signature and the seal of the Great Duchy of Lithuania he endorsed the privileges he had granted exclusively to Vitebsk Jews. This deed read that due to the passed wars and world epidemic many towns and boroughs of Reczpospolita became sparsely populated and devastated, and the country was falling into decay. In order to reinstall the wealth of the country the King favoured people "умелых в торговле" (skilled in trading). In view of the aforesaid Jan III granted Vitebsk Jews benefits and allowed (to conduct various types of trade) in the town, to sell groceries,, fabric, fur, salt, fell, candle fat, wax, spirits (wine, mead and vodka) by pots and barrels, and to bake and sell bread of rye and wheat. (20) For their right to trade Jews had to pay customs tax to the state treasury like other merchants, having the same rights in respect of the "old customs" as petty bourgeoisie. The privilege noted that Vitebsk Jews had the right to build wooden and stone houses wherever they wanted, to have a meeting house, cemetery and Jewish bathhouse, to "practice handicrafts and to have a barber". As you can see, the town had no specific area assigned for Jews only (ghetto) and only the Vitebsk voevode was authorized to judge them, whose judgments could be appealed against only in royal and assessor courts.

In 1680iths the life of the Vitebsk Jewish society was put in regular order: synagogues had been built, the cemetery had been restored, and the Jews took part in social and private activities. Attempts of the kahal's seniors to get additional privileges for the society were successful. In 1688 the hetman of the Great Duchy of Lithuania Kazimir-Jan Sapega passed a decree under which the Vitebsk kahal was exempt from all military billet charges, food and wagons supply obligations and others, and from "giberna" - special tax for maintenance of the army winter, such tax was obligatory for all royal and religious estates. (21) In 1691 the Vitebsk voevode and wojt (same as Voigt in the German language, city headman) Kazimir Potej by a special letter also exempted Jews from payment of gibernas to the town's treasury ordering to pay only  a fixed amount for restoration of destroyed economics. (22)

Thanks to renting taverns from landowners each Jewish society usually formed new suburbs in the surroundings of cities and towns - prikahalkas which first abode kahals and little by little started to fight for their independence. By the end of the century the Jewish colonization in Vitebsk almost reached the Russian border. In the beginning of XVIII century the Vitebsk society occupied the territory bordering on Velizh. (23)



1. Spadchyna. 1997, No. 4, p. 212.

2. Jewish Encyclopedia. Volume 5, Saint Petersburg, 1910, p. 640.

3. Sapunov A.P. Vitebsk olden time. Volume 1, Vitebsk, 1883, p. 80.

4. Ibidem. Pp. 326, 330, 336.

5. Historical and legal materials. Issue 2. Vitebsk, 1871. pp. 242-244.

6. The Statute of the Great Duchy of Lithuania of 1558. Texts. References. Comments. Minsk, 1989. p. 315.

7. Historical and legal materials. Issue 22. Vitebsk, 1891. pp. 237-240.

8. Ibidem. Pp. 224-226.

9. The National Historical Archives of Belarus, fund 694, op. 2, file 1228, p. 3.

10. Historical and legal materials. Issue 18. Vitebsk, 1888. pp. 197-198.

11. Ibidem.

12. Sapunov A.P. "Lay-out" of Vitebsk in 1664 // Proceedings of the Vitebsk scientific archival committee. Register 1. Vitebsk, 1910. p. 2.

13. Sapunov A.P. Vitebsk olden time. Volume 1, Vitebsk. P. 635.

14. Ibidem. Pp. 279-280.

15. Ibidem. Pp. 280-281.

16. Ibidem. P. 281.

17. Ibidem. Pp. 278-283.

18. Ibidem. P. 284.

19. Historical and legal materials. Issue 18. pp. 201-202.

20. Sapunov A.P. Vitebsk olden time. Volume 1. P. 288.

21. Ibidem. Pp. 289-290.

22. Historical and legal materials. Issue 24. Vitebsk, 1893. Pp. 153-154.

23. Jewish encyclopedia. Volume 5. P. 168.

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