Poland Until The Late 18th Century

Gershon David Hundert

in Jewish Studies

ISBN: 9780199840731
Published online August 2012 | | DOI:
Poland Until The Late 18th Century


The earliest incontestable evidence of Jewish presence in Polish lands dates from the 12th century, but it is likely that Jews were there earlier. Jews continued to move to Poland from points west through the 16th century. By the beginning of the 18th century, at least, the Polish Commonwealth was home to the largest Jewish community in the world. By 1765 the 750,000 Jews of Poland-Lithuania represented more than ten times the number then living in the future German Empire. Polish Jews were Ashkenazic and Yiddish-speaking and, although regional linguistic differences developed even within the lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the great linguistic divide was between Eastern Yiddish and Western Yiddish and conformed mainly to the divide between German- and Slavic-speaking realms. Polish Jews were more secure and had more extensive legal rights than their brethren in central and western Europe. This was a consequence of their economic role and of the multiethnic, multireligious character of the population of the Polish state. The decentralization of power in early modern Poland, which saw the appearance of powerful magnate-aristocrats, also led to a situation beneficial to Jewish security because these magnates believed Jews indispensable to the prosperity of their estates, which could include a dozen towns and hundreds of villages. On the other hand, Jews faced intense commercial competition that sometimes led to violence in the larger cities. The Polish church, particularly in the 18th century, fomented anti-Jewish animus and sometimes juridical torture and murder on the basis of false accusations of desecration of the Host and ritual murder. And there were terrible massacres of Jews in the mid-17th century, particularly in Ukraine, and again in 1768, especially at Uman. The large number of Jews, their relative security, and considerable autonomy, all contributed to a concatenation of cultural creativity, particularly in the period between 1550 and 1625 and again in the second half of the 18th century. In the 16th century, great yeshivas produced original contributions to the study of rabbinic literature and law, and to the explication of the Bible, as well as works of moral instruction. In the 18th century, the transformation of Jewish culture caused by the integration of Kabbalah led to a variety of new phenomena, most notably Hasidism. In the course of the 18th century, the approach to the study of Talmud, the very core of Jewish civilization, was transformed so that the focus was on the text itself. This was a large and growing community, deeply rooted in Polish-Lithuanian-Ukrainian soil.

Article.  15264 words. 

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies

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