G. Urinsky




As it is known, in OLD POLAND existed during more than 200 years, from 1520 up to 1764, an autonomous Jewish organization that administered all internal matters of Jewish life, and regulated all questions related to the national power, as taxes and others. This institution was known with the name "VAAD ARBA ARTZOT" (VAA - "Four Land Council" - Poles - formed by Greater Poland, Smaller Poland, Russia and Lithuania). It was formed by representatives of biggest communities, leaders and rabbis of the country. Meetings were made periodically (during the fair in " Gromnitze ", and in Lublin before Pesach).


In  year 1623  Lithuanian communities separated from Polish General Council, and  founded an autonomous body, independent from the Poles, denominated Vaad Medinat Lita" (VML - Lithuanian State Council). The cause for which they separated from Polish Council, mainly was fiscal reasons. Lithuania (TN: Grand Duchy of Lithuania) as for  taxes was separated from Polish Crown. For that reason all taxes imposed to Jewish community in general, were different for Polish Jews and for Lithuanian Jews. 


One of the main issues of which VAA  was in charge , was the distribution of taxes - that  government imposed all Jews - among different communities. Considering that Lithuanian Kehilas should pay a different amount, these conformed VML that worked during 138 years (from 1623 up to 1761) (TN: See both Council disappeared close to first Poland partition, and the influence of national political  and taxes issues in Jewish organization).


The conformation of Lithuanian Council had changes during its existence. At the beginning there were only representatives of the three big communities of Lithuania: Brest, Grodno and Pinsk, which influenced in smaller one which were in their periphery. Afterwards Vilna adhered, and Slutzk formed part first of Brest circle (before being a State itself) which was bigger, and had near some 30 communities and settlements. Pruzhany belonged to Brest District, just as we find it in the protocol of VML in the first meeting in year 1623.  


These are the limits and surroundings of  Brest Saint Community:


Mezritsh, Varin, Yanov, Rashes (Rashi), Lomz, Bila, Beshtsh, Vladvay, Slovitz, Kadna, Visoky, Amstivavy , Kobrin, Horodetz, Pruzhany, Malech. Selcz, Tshernovitz, Kamenietz, Shereshev, Rozshinoy, Slonim, Dvrotz, Novorodek, Nieshvitsh, Slutzk, Mintzsk, Moholovny, Orsha[i].


At the beginning, meetings were made regularly once a year, or a year and a half, or every two years. But later, they took place each two or three years.  Still later took place rarely, and from one session to next, there were meetings composed by an incomplete member council, only to consider most urgent problems.


The meetings of  VML happened in their majority in smaller settlements. The cause could be, because in those places members of the Council felt sure.  Sometimes, different authorities of corresponding places, didn't see well Jewish representatives to the " Seim " (Municipal Council) (TN: this persons were a mix of secular an religious authorities) , and they invented accusations to press them and to demand more money. Although we find in  later decisions of the Council, that  meetings should be carried out according to the shift corresponding to each community that belonged to the Circuit of each of five Kehilas, it was not respected strictly. 


The first meeting of VML happened in 1623 in Brest, the biggest community in Lita.  Later meetings, one after three years, and the second after four years,  were also made in Brest. One year later in 1628, a meeting is made in Pruzhany. In this meeting they took following decision:


" The meetings of the Council, will happen two years after finishes Pruzhany's meeting , together with country authorities (TN Poland) and Rabbis of three main Kehilas"....


But closest Council meeting happened with backwardness in 1631, and again in Brest. It seemed to be that Pruzhany was not the appropriate place for the meetings, but is ignored which were the reasons.


Meetings of VML in Pruzhany, were of the most important, for the quantity and diversity of decisions taken. The protocol of this meeting, contained 93 points and it embraced different questions about the economy, rights, culture and religion, of  Jewish life in Lita. In that Assembly many of the decisions about family life were taken. We find for example, the acceptance of  weddings to a quantity of poor women to the age of 15 , with the economic help of the Kehila, pointing out the quantity of women corresponding to each district. A resolution was taken about providing poor women. two white shirts each.


An amendment was also decided: no woman should go to a gentile's house without being escorted by two men. Some decisions were made against the excess of using expensive clothes and jewels. The transgressors should pay a fine. Resolutions were also taken about economic rights on leases, trade in general, control of weight and measures, and others. Also were taken resolutions about tax payment to State by population, and resolutions as for relationships with power authorities ( with local authorities and with central power) . 


Also decisions were made about internal organization of the Kehila, relationships among Rabbis and Kehila, education, religious amendments and others. At the end a summary was made about the relations among the Council (VML) and different Kehilas, and with private people.


It is convenient to highlight one Council Resolution in connection with Kehilas which is the following: "The three main communities should direct each one for itself, not disclose secrets of the Kehila, and  inhabitants should not know Kehila's business. Those that transgress this decision will be punished severely".


The Accounts Summary presented at the end of Protocol, includes the sum given by the Pruzhany's Community to Wilna Commandant as gift during his visit to Pruzhany.


In a Council meeting  67 years later, in 1695 in Olkenik was decided again that next Cuncil Assembly was to be made in 1699 in Pruzhany or Selcz. This meeting was carried out in 1700 in Selcz.[ii]

[i] There, page 17, paragraph 88. Parenthesis explain another style in a copy written in Pinkas.

[ii] During 15 years. from 1632 until 1647,  the Council decided the place of future meetings In Selcz (Pruzhany district) took place 6 Council meetings.