The Lithuanian Vaad, the Supreme Institution of Self-Government of Jews in the GDL

First historical sources of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania referring to Jews mention their organised communities that represent interests of their members. There are no indications prior to the 16th century of Jews trying to unite or coordinate their activity as far as contacts with the state authority or the centralisation of administration of their own communities is concerned. Jewish communities would only speak in one voice when applying for privileges or asking to lower taxes. As Jews showed virtually no effort of unification in order to arrange more reliable administrative and fiscal ties with the grand duke, Sigismund I the Old emerged as the first ruler who made an attempt to centralise Jews of the GDL. It was he who established in 1514 the office of the “elder of Jews” who was entitled to settle fiscal and legal matters between Jews and the state. Michał Jozefowicz, the thriving businessman who rented the state’s customs posts and would extend credits to the grand duke himself, became the first and only person to occupy the position. The idea proved to be unsuccessful. Jewish communities tended to ignore the new order and tried arranging their activity on their own.

The institution that evolved out of daily requirements

Each Jewish community performed several functions related to their members and the state, including administrative, fiscal, legal, religious and educational. To administer the community (Hebrew: kehila), an elected institution, or kahal, has been established. In turn, the communities that had such institutions became known as kahals. New Jewish communities, or subkahals, began emerging in the vicinity of larger cities due to migration or business needs. In terms of subordination, they were under the nearest community because they could not act as independent taxpayers and were not able to build a fully-fledged infrastructure for religious life, including a synagogue, a cemetery, a rabbi and his court. Even if a subkahal would prove potent enough in obtaining privileges, building a synagogue, setting up a cemetery and hiring a rabbi, it would always retain strong fiscal ties with its kahal.

For an ordinary Jew, kahal was the key institution able to satisfy his or her requirements in a number of spheres of Jewish life, including spiritual aspirations, education, legal and economic support, supply of kosher food etc.

Whenever kahal was required to settle issues between Jews and citizens, city owners or the state, it would act as a unified institution responsible for all its members. 

Two institutions of Jewish self-governance in the PLC

The idea of setting up the system of self-governance encompassing all Jews first emerged in Poland as the country faced the need to coordinate the activity of three main institutions of Jewish self-governance, namely the kahal, the Jewish court and the Rabbinate. The Vaad of Four Lands (Hebrew: Vaad or arazot), the institution uniting all Jewish communities of Poland that was still in the shaping in 1587, also attracted Jewish communities of the GDL. It remains unclear, though, whether they wished to become full-time members of the new structure or just wanted to be in it temporarily. There are several versions as to why the supreme institution of Jewish self-governance in the GDL, the Lithuanian Vaad(Hebrew: Vaad medinat Lita), was established in August 1623. According to one tradition, Jewish communities of the GDL parted with the Vaad of Four Lands almost spontaneously, during the meeting of Jewish communities of Brest, Grodno and Pinsk while discussing joint communal and cultural activities and a common strategy for the future. Another version holds it that the partition of Jewish structures of self-governance was encouraged by different taxes introduced in 1613 by King Sigismund III Vasa. Most likely, a number of other social, economical and legal reasons were behind the decision. Yet even after formal partition Polish and Lithuanian Vaads would coordinate their actions, while their representatives would gather to joint Vaads in Tykocin. The acts passed in Tykocin were mandatory for all Jews living un the Polish and Lithuanian Commonwealth.

From tax collection to relations within a family

Jewish communities of Vilnius and Slutsk were recognised as Grand (or Holy) in 1652 and 1691 respectively and enjoyed the right of sending their representatives directly to the Lithuanian Vaad. Other communities were required to set electoral districts in order to elect their representatives in the Vaad.

The Lithuanian Vaad, consisting of elected representatives of kahal districts, chief rabbis and plenipotentiary representatives, possessed the power of passing mandatory decisions and eventually became the highest institution of communal and religious court, or the Tribunal.

It used to articulate the position of the Jewish community within the society, was involved in dealing with financial and other important issues, while in the eyes of the state it was responsible for collecting taxes. (In particular, Vaad was in charge of “pillow tax” collection from Karaims.) Pinkas were the special books for recording the resolutions of the Lithuanian Vaad. Each of the five Great Communities was responsible for keeping its own copy of the book, one of which became part of exhibition at the library run by Mattityahu Strashun in Vilnius between the two world wars. As the supreme institution of the Jewish self-governance, the Lithuanian Vaad used to cover all aspects of communal life, including legal, fiscal, social, economical, cultural, religious and educational issues. Jewish courts, independent from the state judicial system and based on the principles of halach, represented an important feature of the Jewish self-governance. The communal courts, however, would only deal with cases between Jews.

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The Lithuanian Vaad was responsible for settling down disagreements within families and took care about preventing religious and cultural assimilation. In addition to that, it had its say regarding the number of jewellery Jews were allowed to wear. It was the Vaad’s prerogative to put a lid on rabbis’ salaries and interest rates. The Vaad could even establish the most appropriate level of bribes.

While regulating the life of the community, the Vaad would usually take into account prevailing moods of the society and general state legislation, especially that limiting all kinds of opportunities for Jews. For instance, the Vaad passed a resolution restricting the hire of Christian servants and workers by Jewish families (very rich families were the only exception) reacting to the ban on hiring Jews by Christian families, the amendment demanded by the nobility and passed by regional sejms.

During the years of its existence, from 1623 to 1761, thirty three sessions of the Lithuanian Vaad were held. In the 17th century, eleven sessions were held in Seltsy and one in Valkininkai, in 1694. The Lithuanian Vaad gathered in Vilnius just once, in 1704. The institution was most active in the 17th century, while the 18th century saw the intervals between sessions widening to more than ten years. The debt-ridden Lithuanian Vaad was abolished by the Sejm of the PLC in 1764.

Jurgita Šiaučiūnaitė-Verbickienė