Ideals Face Reality

Ideals Face Reality: Jewish Law and Life in Poland, 1550-1655

Volume: 21
Copyright Date: 1997
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 200
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  • Book Info
    Ideals Face Reality
    Book Description:

    Jewish life in early modern Poland was characterized by an adherence to Jewish law (halakhah) that Polish Jewry had inherited from medieval Franco-German Jewry, and almost all aspects of Jewish activity, even the most personal of matters, fell within its purview. Jewish law remained constant throughout the ages in some areas, but in others rabbis were forced to reinterpret it in light of the complexities of contemporary life. Edward Fram draws upon the ordinances of Polish Jewry’s political leadership, Polish legal records, and the responsa of some of the outstanding poseqim of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to show how Polish jurists responded to those complexities. His case studies, gleaned from a period of exceptional creativity in the annals of Polish Jewry, deal with weddings on the Sabbath, the rights of daughters to familial wealth, women in the marketplace, the personal reliability of those who dealt in the sale of kosher wine, competition among Jews for sources of livelihood obtained through leases (arendy), the transfer and payment of personal debts via bills payable to bearers (membrany), and personal insolvency. Concerned with the needs of the underprivileged as well as those of the marketplace, these rabbis struggled to maintain the integrity of Jewish communal life and to preserve the tradition they perceived to represent divine law. Particularly in commerce, failure to observe Jewish law or at least the independent direction taken by the lay leadership often became the basis for communal legislation and practice. Fram shows how the Polish community, at times consciously and at times unconsciously, transformed some of its traditional values until they may have been unrecognizable to Jews from an earlier age.

    eISBN: 978-0-87820-097-9
    Subjects: Religion, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. iii-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Abbreviations and Style
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    Jewish lite in early modern Poland was characterized by an adherence to the rabbinic law (halakhah) that Polish Jewry had inherited from medieval Franco-German Jewry. Almost all aspects of Jewish activity, even the most personal of matters, fell within its purview. Some areas, such as that prohibiting adultery and consanguineous sexual relationships, remained constant throughout the ages. Yet, as had always been the case, in other areas, particularly commerce, rabbis were constantly forced to grapple with the complexities of contemporary lire and reinterpret the law.

    This study attempts to analyze how sixteenth-and seventeenth-century Polish jurists, responding to those complexities and...

    • 1 Jews Among Poles
      (pp. 15-37)

      The beginnings of east European Jewry in general, and Polish Jewry in particular, are mired in obscurity. The first Jewish settlers, like other immigrants, must have seen in eastern Europe the prospects of a brighter future, but who they were, where they came from, and what exactly attracted them to these territories remains a matter of speculation.

      Lack of information notwithstanding, the mysteries of early Jewish history in this region have been the source of much historical conjecture since the nineteenth century for both scholarly and political reasons. The numerous views can be compressed into two basic hypotheses.¹

      The first...

    • 2 The Jewish Community
      (pp. 38-47)

      Beyond the many obligations placed on individuals by the halakhah, Polish Jews were also obliged to obey the laws of Poland, including those of the local municipalities within which they lived. As non-citizens, however, they had few civil obligations to the state beyond the compulsory payment of taxes to the Crown.¹ On the other hand, another authority imposed a broad range of duties on them: the highly developed Jewish community.²

      Long before the sixteenth century, Jewish law had accepted the notion that organizations could obligate members to observe extra-halakhic rules and regulations.³ It was assumed that each member accepted the...

    • 3 Personal Piety
      (pp. 48-64)

      Jewish society in sixteenth-and seventeenth-century Poland assumed that its members would adhere to a religious lifestyle—one based upon familiarity with the halakhah and Jewish customs (minhagim) as well as fundamental Jewish beliefs. Formal education, however, did not focus on teaching youngsters this knowledge. The education of young boys concentrated on the reading and writing of Hebrew and familiarization with the Pentateuch. It took for granted that they, like girls, would absorb the system of Jewish laws, customs, and beliefs somewhere other than in school: the home, the synagogue, and, to a great extent, “the street.”¹

      The transmission of Jewish...

    • 4 Social Issues as Halakhic Determinants
      (pp. 67-105)

      In confronting legal and communal problems, Polish rabbis had to weigh not only the demands of the halakhah but also the emotional, physical, spiritual, and economic needs of their constituents. Human needs and the spirit of the law, however, were not always in harmony.

      Needless to say, such tensions were not new to the halakhic process. Already in talmudic times rabbis had responded to such pressures by allowing seemingly non-halakhic criteria such as compassion and respect for others to shape halakhic decisions. In matters of ‘agunot(women whose husbands had disappeared without giving a bill of divorce or who refused...

    • 5 The Acquisition of Leases
      (pp. 106-128)

      From approximately 1550 until the early seventeenth century, the growth of the Polish economy was stimulated in large part by the Vistula grain trade, which was dominated by members of the nobility who had the financial wherewithal to ferry their grain surpluses along the Vistula and Bug Rivers to the international market in Gdansk. The vast majority of Polish producers, peasants and tenant farmers who were primarily subsistence growers, did not directly participate in the trade but, as a result of it, enjoyed a significant improvement in local terms of trade.¹

      Disposable income acquired by the nobility from the grain...

    • 6 Bills Payable to Bearers
      (pp. 129-143)

      Fernand Braudel has surmised that “as soon as men learnt to write and had coins to handle, they had replaced cash with written documents, notes, promises and orders.”¹ Making payments with specie when money meant coins—the first quasi-bank note is thought to have been issued by the Bank of Stockholm in 1661—was a great inconvenience if nothing else. Coins were bulky, heavy, of unreliable value, time-consuming to count, and dangerous to carry.

      Although the documents that replaced cash only represented specie and as such were inherently an extension of credit, there is little evidence that merchants were able...

    • 7 Bankruptcy and Those Who Fled Their Creditors
      (pp. 144-164)

      While membrany were both convenient and popular, they were, as discussed above, an unsecured form of credit. Pawns offered creditors greater security, but the cumbersome pledges they involved defeated the purpose of easily transferable bearer notes. Although pawnbroking did not disappear, it essentially remained a form of consumer credit that supplied the needs of small borrowers. Merchants, on the other hand, did not go to pawnbrokers to meet their ongoing credit needs.

      Those who extended loans to merchants had always assumed some risks. Without insurance, fire or theft could decimate the assets of any borrower in an instant. Further, even...

  8. Bibliography
    (pp. 165-178)
  9. General Index
    (pp. 179-182)
  10. Index of Medieval and Pre-Modern Rabbinic Sources Cited
    (pp. 183-190)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 191-192)