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Chapter 15

This webpage reproduces a chapter of

Abyss of Despair

by
Rabbi Nathan Hanover


Bloch Publishing Company
New York, 5710‑1950

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please
let me know!

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 p110  XVI

The inner life of the Jews in the Kingdom of Poland

And now I will begin to describe the practices of the Jews in the Kingdom of Poland, which were founded on principles of righteousness and steadfastness.

It is said in Tractate Aboth: Simon the Just was one of the last survivors of the Great Synagogue. He used to say: "Upon three things the world is based: Upon the Torah, upon divine service, and upon the practice of charity."1 Rabban Simeon, the son of Gamaliel said: "By three things is the world preserved: by truth, by judgment and by peace."2 All the six pillars upon which the world rests were in existence in the Kingdom of Poland.

The Pillar of the Torah: Matters that are well known need no proof, for throughout the dispersions of Israel there was nowhere so much learning as in the Kingdom of Poland. Each community maintained academies, and the head of each academy was given an ample salary so that he could maintain his school without worry, and that the study of the Torah might be his sole occupation. The head of the academy did not leave his house the whole year except to go from  p111 the house of study to the synagogue. Thus he was engaged in the study of the Torah day and night. Each community maintained young men and provided for them a weekly allowance of money that they might study with the head of the academy. And for each young man they also maintained two boys to study under his guidance, so that he would orally discuss the Gemara (Talmud), the commentaries of Rashi, and the Tosafoth, which he had learned, and thus he would gain experience in the subtlety of Talmudic argumentation. The boys were provided with food from the community benevolent fund or from the public kitchen. If the community consisted of fifty householders it supported not less than thirty young men and boys. One young man and two boys would be assigned to one householder. And the young man ate at his table as one of his sons. Although the young man received a stipend from the community, the householder provided him with all the food and drink that he needed. Some of the more charitable householders also allowed the boys to eat at their table, thus three persons would be provided with food and drink by one householder the entire year.

There was scarcely a house in all the Kingdom of Poland where its members did not occupy themselves with the study of the Torah. Either the head of the family was himself a scholar, or else his son, or his son-in‑law studied, or one of the young men eating at his table. At times, all of these were to be found in one house. Thus they realized all the three things of which Raba spoke in Tractate Sabbath, chapter I: Raba said:  p112 "He who loves the Rabbis will have sons who are Rabbis; he who honors the Rabbis will have Rabbis for sons-in‑law; he who stands in awe of the Rabbis will himself be a Rabbinical scholar."3 Thus there were many scholars in every community. A community of fifty householders had twenty scholars who achieved the title Morenu or Haver.4 The head of the academy was above all these, and the scholars were submissive to him and they would go to his academy to attend his discourses.

The program of study in the Kingdom of Poland was as follows: The term of study consisted of the period which required the young men and the boys to study with the head of the academy in the academy. In the summer it extended from the first day of the month of Iyar till the fifteenth day of the month Ab, and in the winter, from the first day of the month of Cheshvan, till the fifteenth day of the month of Shevat. After the fifteenth of Shevat or the fifteenth of Ab, the young men and the boys were free to study wherever they preferred. From the first day of Iyar till the Feast of Weeks, and in the winter from the first day of Cheshvan till Chanukkah, all the students of the academy studied Gemara, the commentaries of Rashi and Tosafoth, with great diligence. Each day they studied a halachah — one page of Gemara with the commentaries of Rashi and Tosafoth is called a halachah.

All the scholars and the young students of the community as well as those who showed inclination to study the Torah assembled in the academy. The head of the academy alone occupied a chair and the scholars  p113 and the other students stood about him. Before the head of the academy appeared they would engage in a discussion of the Law, and when he arrived each one would ask him that which he found difficult in the Law and he would offer his explanation to each of them.

They were all silent, as the head of the academy delivered his lecture and presented the new results of his study. After discussing his new interpretations the head of the academy would discuss a chilluk (a difference in the point of view of two authorities), which proceeded in the following manner: He would cite a contradiction from the Gemara, or Rashi, or Tosafoth, he would question deletions and pose contradictory statements and provide solutions which would also prove perplexing; and then he would propose solutions until the Law was completely clarified.

In the summer they would not leave the academy before noon. From the Feast of Weeks till the New Year, and from Chanukkah till Passover, the head of the academy would not engage in so many discussions. He would study with the scholars the Codes such as the Arbaah Turim5 (the Four Rows) and their commentaries. With young men he would study Rav Alfas6 and other works. In any case, they also studied Gemara, Rashi, and Tosafoth, till the first day of Ab or the fifteenth day of Shevat. From then on until Passover or the New Year they studied the codes and similar works only. Some weeks prior to the fifteenth day of Ab or the fifteenth day of Shevat, the head of the academy would honor each student to lead in the discussions in his stead. The honor was given both to the  p114 scholars and the students. They would present the discussion, and the head of the academy would listen and then join in the disputation. This was done to exercise their intellect. The same tractate was studied throughout the Kingdom of Poland in the proper sequence of the Six Orders.7

Each head of an academy had one inspector who daily went from school to school to look after the boys, both rich and poor, that they should study. He would warn them every day in the week that they should study and not loiter in the streets. On Thursdays all the boys had to be examined by the superintendent on what they had learned during the week, and he who knew nothing of what he had studied or erred in one thing was flogged by the inspector at the command of the director, and was otherwise also chastised before the boys so that he should remember to study more diligently the following week. Likewise on Sabbath Eve all the boys went in a group to the head of the academy to be questioned on what they had learned during the week, as in the aforementioned procedure. In this manner there was fear upon the boys and they studied with regularity. Also during the Shelosheth Yemei Hagbalah (the three days preceding the Feast of Weeks) and during Chanukkah, the young men and the boys were obliged to review what they had studied during the term, and for this the community leaders gave specified gifts of money. Such was the practice till the fifteenth of Ab or the fifteenth of Shevat. After that the head of the academy, together with all his students, the young men and the boys, journeyed to the fair. In  p115 the summer they travelled to the fair of Zaslaw and to the fair of Jaroslaw; in the winter to the fairs of Lwow and Lublin. There the young men and boys were free to study in any academy they preferred. Thus at each of the fairs hundreds of academy heads, thousands of young men, and tens of thousands of boys, and Jewish merchants, and Gentiles like the sand on the shore of the sea, would gather. For people would come to the fair from one end of the world to the other. Whoever had a son or daughter of marriageable age went to the fair and there arranged a match. For there was ample opportunity for everyone to find his like and his mate. Thus hundreds and sometimes thousands of such matches would be arranged at each fair. And Jews, both men and women, walked about the fair, dressed in royal garments. For they were held in esteem in the eyes of the rulers and in the eyes of the Gentiles, and the children of Israel were many like the sand of the sea, but now, because of our sins, they have become few. May the Lord have mercy upon them.

In each community great honor was accorded to the head of the academy. His words were heard by rich and poor alike. None questioned his authority. Without him no one raised his hand or foot, and as he commanded so it came to be. In his hand he carried a stick, and a lash, to smite and to flog, to punish and to chastise transgressors, to institute ordinances, to establish safeguards, and to declare the forbidden. Nevertheless everyone loved the head of the academy, and he that had a good portion such as fatted fowl, or capons or good fish, would honor the head of the academy,  p116 with half or all, and with other gifts of silver and gold without measure. In the synagogue, too, most of those who bought honors would accord them to the head of the academy. It was obligatory to call him to the Torah reading third, on the Sabbath and the first days of the Festivals. And if the head of the academy happened to be a Cohen or a Levite, he would be given preference despite the fact that there may have been others entitled to the honor of Cohen or Levi, or the concluding portion. No one left the synagogue on the Sabbath or the Festival until the head of the academy walked out first and his pupils after him, and then the whole congregation accompanied him to his home. On the Festivals the entire congregation followed him to his house to greet him. For this reason all the scholars were envious and studied with diligence, so that they too, might advance to this state, and become an academy head in some community, and out of doing good with an ulterior motive, there comes the doing good for its own sake, and the land was filled with knowledge.

The Pillar of Divine Service: At this time prayer has replaced (sacrificial) service, as it is written: "So we will render for bullocks, the offering of our lips." 8 Prayers were "set upon sockets of fine gold." At the head was the fellow­ship of those who rose before dawn, called "Shomrim La Boker," "they that watch for the morning,"9 to pray and to mourn over the destruction of the Temple. With the coming of dawn the members of the Chevra Tehillim would rise to recite Psalms for about an hour before prayers. Each week they would complete the recitation of the entire Book of Psalms.  p117 And far be it, that any man should oversleep the time of prayer in the morning and not go to the synagogue, except for unusual circumstances. When a man went to the synagogue, he would not depart thence to his business until he had heard some words of the Law expounded by a scholar or a passage from the commentary of Rashi on the Torah, the Prophets, the Hagiographa, the Mishnah or some laws of ritual, whatever his heart desired to learn; for in all synagogues there were many groups of scholars who taught others in the synagogue immediately after evening and morning prayers. They would observe: "They shall go from strength to strength, every one of them appeareth before God in Zion." 10

The Pillar of Charity: There was no measure for the dispensation of charity in the Kingdom of Poland, especially as regards hospitality. If a scholar or a preacher visited a community, even one which had a system of issuing communal tickets11 to be offered hospitality by a household, he did not have to humiliate himself to obtain a ticket, but went to some community leader and stayed wherever he pleased. The community beadle then came and took his credentials to collect funds to show it to the synagogue official or the community leader for the month, and they gave an appropriate gift which was delivered by the beadle in a dignified manner. He was then the guest of the householder for as many days as he desired. Similarly all other transients who received tickets, would be the guests of a householder, whose turn it was by lot, for as many days as he wished. A ticket was good for at least  p118 three days. The guest was given food and drink, morning, noon and evening. If they wished to depart there would be provisions for the road, and they would be conveyed by horse and carriage from one community to another. If young men or boys or older men or unmarried girls, came from distant places, they would be forthwith furnished with garments. Those who wanted to work at a trade would be apprenticed to a tradesman, and those who wanted to be servants in a house would be assigned to serve in a house. Those who wanted to study would be provided with a teacher, and afterwards, when he became an important young man, a rich man would take him to his house and give him his daughter in marriage as well as several thousand gold pieces for a dowry, and he would clothe him in royal garments — for who is royalty? The scholars. 12 After the wedding he would send him away from his home to study in great academies. When he returned home after two or three years, his father-in‑law would maintain an academy for him in his home and he would spend much money among the householders who were prominent scholars that they should attend his academy for a number of years, until he also will become a head of an academy in some community. Even if the lad was not yet an important student at that time but had a desire to study, enabling him to become a scholar after he had studied, there would at times come a rich man who had a young daughter, and give him food and drink and clothes, and all his needs, as he would to his own son, and he would hire a teacher for him until he was ready with his studies, then he would  p119 give him his daughter in marriage. There is no greater benevolence than this. Similarly there were very praiseworthy regulations for poor unmarried girls in every province. No poor girl reached the age of eighteen without being married, and many pious women devoted themselves to this worthy deed. May the Lord recompense them and have compassion upon the remnant of Israel.

[image ALT: An engraving in three vignettes. From left to right: two old men wearing a heavy coat over a caftan, with a round fur hat; two women in elaborate robes and petticoats reaching to the ground, wearing unusually-shaped headdresses and ruff collars, with only their faces and hands bare; and a woman wearing an ankle-length skirt with a jacket or vest fronted by an embroidered placket: she also wears an elaborate embroidered cap. These are samples of clothing worn by Polish Jews in the seventeenth century.]

Typical Clothing of Polish Jews

Sabbath Attire
for Women

The Pillar of Justice was in the Kingdom of Poland as it was in Jerusalem before the destruction of the Temple, when courts were set up in every city, and if one refused to be judged by the court of his city he went to the nearest court, and if he refused to be judged by the nearest court, he went before the great court. For in every province there was a great court. Thus in the capital city of Ostrog there was the great court for Volhynia and the Ukraine, and in the capital city of Lwow there was the great court for [Little] Russia. There were thus many communities each of which had a great court for its own province.

If two important communities had a dispute between them, they would let themselves be judged by the heads of the council of Four Lands13 (may their Rock and Redeemer preserve them) who would be in session twice a year. One leader would be chosen from each important community, added to these, were six great scholars from the land of Poland, and these were known as the Council of Four Lands. They would be in session during every fair in Lublin between Purim and Passover, and during every fair at Jaroslaw in the month of Ab or Elul. The leaders of the Four Lands  p120 were like the Sanhedrin in the Chamber of Hewn Stones.14 They had the authority to judge all Israel in the Kingdom of Poland, to establish safeguards, to institute ordinances, and to punish each man as they saw fit. Each difficult matter was brought before them and they judged it. And the leaders of the Four Lands selected judges from the provinces to relieve their burden, and these were called judges of the provinces. They attended to cases involving money matters. Fines, titles, and other difficult laws were brought before the leaders of the Four Lands, may their Rock and Redeemer preserve them. Never was a dispute among Jews brought before a Gentile judge or before a nobleman, or before the King, may his glory increase, and if a Jew took his case before a Gentile court he was punished and chastised severely, to observe: "Even our enemies themselves being judges." 15

The Pillar of Truth: Every community appeared men in charge of weights and measures, and of other business dealings, so that everything would be conducted according to truth and trustworthiness.

The Pillar of Peace: For it is said: "The Lord will give strength unto His people; the Lord will bless His people with peace." There was in Poland so much interest in learning that no three people sat down to a meal without discussing the words of Torah, for throughout the repast everyone indulged in debating matters of the Law and puzzling passages in the Midrashim, in order to observe: "Thy law is in my inmost parts." 16 And the Holy One blessed be He, recompensed them so that even when they were in the  p121 land of their enemies.º He did not despise them and did not break his covenant with them. And wherever their feet trod the ground among our brothers of the House of Israel they were treated with great generosity, above all, our brethren of the House of Israel who were in distress and in captivity among the Tartars. For the Tartars led them to Constantinople, a city that was a mother in Israel, and to the famed city of Salonica, and to other communities in Turkey and Egypt, and in Barbary and other provinces of Jewish dispersion where they were ransomed for much money, as mentioned above. To this day they have not ceased to ransom prisoners that are brought to them each day. The Lord recompense them.

Those who escaped the sword of the enemy in every land where their feet trod, such as Moravia, Austria, Bohemia, Germany, Italy, were treated with kindness and were given food and drink and lodging and garments and many gifts, each according to his importance, and they also favored them with other things. Especially in Germany did they do more than they could. May their justice appear before God to shield them and all Israel wherever they are congregated, so that Israel may dwell in peace and tranquility in their habitations. May their merit be counted for us and for our children, that the Lord should hearken to our cries and gather our dispersed from the four corners of the earth, and send us our righteous Messiah, speedily in our day. Amen, Selah.


The Editor's Notes:

 (p127)  1 Aboth 1:2.

2 Aboth 1:18.

3 T. B. Sabbath 23b.

4 Our teacher. Haver is Associate. These were titles of distinction conferred upon Talmudic scholars.

5 The author is Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, died in Toledo, Spain in 1340.

6 Rabbi Isaac Alfasi, renowned Talmudist of Fez, North Africa, 1013‑1103.

7 The six orders of the Mishna: Zeraim (Seeds), Moed (Seasons), Nashim (Women), Nezikin (Damages), Kodashim (Sanctities), and Tohoroth (Purities).

 (p128)  8 Hosea 14:3.

9 Ps. 130:6.

10 Ps. 84:8.

11 Food tickets (Pletten) which entitled the bearer to have his meals with a householder.

12 T. B. Gittin 62a.

13 See Chap. 15, note 12.

14 One of the chambers in the Holy Temple where the Sanhedrin convened.

15 Deut. 32:31.

16 Ps. 40:9.


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Page updated: 25 Dec 22