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Genocide: Ch 2 The Jews of Europe, Part 2

Impressions of Religious Life of the Shtetl Before World War II

The following essay provides a succinct description of several aspects of religious life in eastern Europe, in the vanished world before the Second World War. I have limited the geographical areas to the shtetlakh (small towns) in Lithuania, Poland, and the ethnic White Russian provinces of northeastern Poland, which are representative of all eastern European Jews. The Jewish population of these provinces was approximately four million.

The Family
Jewish family life eastern Europe followed a traditional patriarchal structure. The home was seen as the woman's castle, and she was called akeret habayit (the lady of the house). The training of the young-boys and girls-was entrusted to the mother. Wives were respected and appreciated. Husbands followed traditional injunctions to "love their wives as themselves, honor them more than themselves, guide their sons and daughters in the ways of the upright, and marry off their daughters at an early age."1 Halakhah (Jewish religious law), enforcing principles of modesty and sexual purity, restricted the role of women in the synagogue and in education, and denied them positions of religious and communal leadership.

The value of education was highly emphasized, even in lullabies. A popular Yiddish lullaby proclaimed: "Toyre iz di beste skhoyre" ("Torah [the Law] is the best commodity"). Daily observances of such mitzvot (religious commandments) as prayer and blessings were practiced at a young age. Some parents taught Hebrew reading to pre schoolers so that they could pray from the siddur (prayer book). Children were also taught politeness, respect for elders, and responsibility. Learning and piety were highly valued.

Children were not pampered. They had to perform such daily chores as pumping and carrying water from the well, assisting with shopping, and supervising younger siblings. Toys were scarce; recreation and games were few. Children learned self-sufficiency and responsibility early in life.

For the family, the Sabbath (day of rest) was a blessed day. The father worked hard six days a week. He put in long hours whether he was a wagon-driver, shoemaker, tailor, blacksmith, watchmaker, or a small businessman. Unions, already active in the cities, were barely known in smaller shtetlakh. An eight-hour workday was not the norm. It was, therefore, natural that every member of the family looked forward to their only day of rest-Shabes (Yiddish for Sabbath). They longed for the physical rest, the special meals, the singing of zemirot (Sabbath songs) during each meal, and, of course, the sanctity of the Seventh Day.

Preparing for Shabes required planning and hard work. There were no canned, frozen, packaged, or convenience foods; every housewife had to bake the hallah (the traditionally braided white bread loaves) and cook the gefilte fish and the rest of the Shabes menu.

Boys helped by shopping. Equipped with homemade shopping bags, they were dispatched to the general store to pick up flour, salt, sugar and spices, candles, and other required items. While one of the sons went to the grocery, another took a live chicken or two (depending on the family's income) to the shohet (ritual slaughterer). After plucking the feathers by hand, the mother would open the fowl and soak it in water and then salt it to draw out the blood (Jews are prohibited from consuming blood). Occasionally, a question would develop about whether the chicken was really kosher (ritually fit). If something about the fowl looked abnormal or unusual (a broken leg, a missing organ, or a needle inside of the chicken), one of the children would be summoned to take the chicken to the rabbi. The rabbi would examine the bird carefully and render his decision. When the rabbi pronounced "kosher," the child would run home bringing the good news. If the verdict was unfavorable, the child would walk into tire house with a sad face. The otherwise perfectly edible bird then had to be sold to a non-Jew for a fraction of its cost.

Preparing for Shabes-cleaning the house, getting washed (in the public bath house), and putting on one's best clothes -involved everyone. Some of the poorest families had dirt floors in their home. They prepared for the Shabes by sprinkling yellow sand on the floor to beautify the house. Older boys would help their father chop firewood. Often, especially in winter, the wood was wet and their mother had a hard time lighting a fire in the big Russian oven in which she cooked and baked. Girls would help cook, wash dishes, and do the laundry.

Just before lighting the Sabbath candles on Friday night, the mother would drop a few coins in the pushke (Yiddish for charity box) as she ushered in the Sabbath Queen (tradition has compared the Sabbath to a Queen). There was an expression of peace on her face. The children watched her with reverence. Standing by the table with her hands covering her eyes, she pronounced the blessing over the candles and whispered her private prayer. Mother wished her family "gut Shabes" (Yiddish for "good Sabbath"), and everybody joyously responded, "gut Shabes!" Often the older children thought that their mother was a tsadeykes (Yiddish for righteous woman); when she lit the Shabes candles, it would seem that the Divine Presence entered their home.

The father, dressed in his Shabes clothes, would go to shul (Yiddish for synagogue). The shul had also taken on a special appearance. The davenen (Yiddish for prayer) recited with the special Shabes chants was pleasant and relaxed. Almost every Friday night there were a number of itinerant beggars in the shu 1. T he shammash (beadle) would assign them to families for the three Shabes meals. No matter how much food the family had prepared, no fellow Jew would be deprived of a Shabes meal.

During the Sabbath meals, the father often discussed with the children their studies during the week. The weekly chapter to be read in the shul was another regular topic for discussion.

During the Shabes day there was time for a shpatsir (Yiddish for a stroll) through the shtetl and the fields. Families visited relatives and friends and children played games. But, there was also some serious business. Schoolchildren faced the weekly farher (Yiddish for examination) by fathers and grandfathers in the presence of the child's rebbe (teacher). The boy who knew his subjects well would receive an approving knip (Yiddish for pinch) of the check, as well as candy and compliments.

After everyone had rested, the grandmother would read the Tsenerene (a Yiddish language anthology on the Torah) as the young gathered around her, enjoying the fascinating stories. This would add to the Oneg Shabbat (enjoyment of the Sabbath) of the reader and her predominantly female audience.

As the Sabbath drew to a close the following evening, when the stars were visible, grandmothers and mothers would recite the Yiddish folk prayer Got fun Avrom... (God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). Their subdued voices added to the sadness which descended on the house darkened by approaching night. The father returned from shul and recited the Havdalah (farewell to the Sabbath). Many people, particularly the Hasidim, wishing to delay the Sabbath Queen's departure, would gather for a melavveh malka (a Saturday night festive meal) to accompany her with songs storytelling, and cheerful comradeship. Life in the shtetl on weekdays was often drab and monotonous. Religious parents did not allow their children to join secular youth groups. Religious youth organizations had not reached every shtetl and there was little opportunity for diversion and entertainment for either the young or adults. Children were busy. Long school days, homework, and household chores left little time for boredom. Besides the Shabes, family events (weddings, etc.) and holidays provided occasional excitement. Major holidays required weeks of preparation and generated anticipation and enthusiasm.

Even a minor holiday as Tu Bi-Shevat (Jewish Arbor Day) would stimulate the children. On a cold winter night, with snow blanketing everything, a knock at the door interrupted everyone's activity. Two boys, representing a Zionist youth group, brought a present from the Holy Land, a small bag filled with dry fruit. The father gave the boys a coin and thanked them. Once a year the family had a chance to eat fruit from Erez Israel (Land of Israel) and pronounce the special blessing of She- Heheyanu (traditionally recited when partaking of a new crop of fruit). Most intriguing were the carobs, hard fruits fit only for young teeth. Eating fruit from the Holy Land evoked nostalgia and yearning. It was a bittersweet experience. The family enjoyed the tangible evidence of the remote and inaccessible Promised Land, where they were unable to go.

Families produced law-abiding citizens. juvenile deliquency was almost nonexistent. Drunkenness, murder, and rape were unheard of. The incidence of divorce, although legally permitted, was low. There were thieves, cheats, and quarrelsome people, but those individuals were a small minority.

Yihus (lineage) played a major role in community life. If a family was headed by a noted scholar, or had a grandfather who was a distinguished talmudist, it was a source of pride for the entire family. Such a family was respected and would receive lucrative marriage proposals. On the other hand, the people of the shtetl looked down on "ordinary" families (the tailors, shoemakers, wagon-drivers, etc.). The only way a son of a humble family could marry into a distinguished or wealthy family was if he enjoyed a reputation as a brilliant talmudic student. A daughter of a working class family could marry into a family with yihus or wealth if her father became rich and she had a good reputation. This class system must have imitated the caste and class structure of their Christian milieu, since in talmudic times, no shame was attached to menial work. Many sages of the Talmud were woodcutters, shoemakers, blacksmiths, and farm hands.

Families stayed together-even if husband and wife did not get along- because of the influence of the extended family. Most families lived in the same shtetl for generations with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and other relatives close by. A couple would receive solicited and unsolicited advice on many topics involving their marriage. The opinions of the extended family could not be easily ignored, for that might mean a loss of moral and financial support.

The mutual help available within the extended family was often substantial. For example, the extended family of a bride prepared weddings, including all cooking and baking. In times of illness or bereavement, the larger mishpokhe (Yiddish for family) provided counsel, comfort, and assistance.

Historically, education has had a high priority in Jewish life. In keeping with the commandment "and you shall teach them [the words of Torah] diligently to your children,"2 fathers were obligated to provide their sons instruction in Torah and Talmud. Mothers trained their daughters informally at home. Until recent times the schools were male-oriented. Girls did not attend religious schools. Many received a formal Jewish education from their parents or private teachers. Throughout history there were some notable women prophetesses, scholars, and leaders, but they were few in number.

This situation underwent a major change in the early twentieth century. Modernization, industrialization, and acculturation led to the loss of religious and family influence. The proliferation of newspapers, magazines, paperbacks, and radios contributed to the family's loss of influence. Although religious schools predominated in the provinces of Poland, Lithuania, and White Russia (excluding territory controlled by the Soviet Union after 1917), secular and antireligious movements and schools began challenging the traditional family. Formal religious education offered some protection against secular or demoralizing influences on boys, but the girls were not prepared to cope with new conditions. At the same time, the state required compulsory education, which exposed sheltered young girls to the alien environment of a non-Jewish public school. Thus, when an enterprising and inspiring educator, Sara Schenirer, organized in 1917 the first Beth Jacob school for girls in Cracow, the leading rabbis of that time approved and encouraged the establishment of such gender-segregated schools.3 The Beth Jacob schools were an answer to this new situation. Jewish girls from observant homes were now provided with an intensely traditional and religious environment where they could study Jewish and secular Subjects.

The changes wrought by increasing urbanization and subsequent modernization also affected boys' schools. Prior to World War 1, when the provinces of Poland, Lithuania, and White Russia were ruled by the czarist empire, the old-style heder prevailed. In this elementary school, no formal secular studies were offered. Competing modern schools were organized by maskilim (secular, "enlightened" Jews) with the encouragement of the authorities, but they were not accepted by the majority of the rural Jewish populace. Compulsory public school attendance after World Way I and the growth of Socialist and Zionist secular Jewish schools, providing a general secular education, led to the decline of the heder. The Orthodox community responded by establishing modern day schools, where intensive Torah studies were pursued alongside general studies.4 These new elementary day schools, named Horev, became the largest Jewish school system. The language of instruction was Yiddish and the emphasis was on Talmud. Teachers were trained at newly opened pedagogical institutions in Grodno and Warsaw. Simultaneously, yeshivot (talmudic academies) on a high-school and college level continued with Torah studies without a secular curriculum.5

The elementary schools were under the auspices of the World Agudath Israel Organization (non-Zionist Orthodox). The Mizrachi (the religious Zionist organization) opened a network of elementary and secondary day schools called Yavneh. In some cities, the lower grades, one through four, were coeducational, but were segregated after the fifth grade. In many schools, the language of instruction was Hebrew, even for arithmetic and science. These schools stressed the importance of living in Erez Israel. Bible and Talmud were studied, although Talmud study was generally less intensive than in the Horev schools. The Yavneh network included a teacher- training seminar and developed into a large educational system.6

These developments occurred in the ethnic Polish-White Russian-LI thuan Ian areas. In Lithuania, which became a sovereign nation after World War 1, the battle between Jewish secularists and religious Orthodox was similar to that in Poland, albeit with less ideological strife. The Yavneh schools were sponsored by all the Orthodox movements, although some independent Agudath Israel type schools were established in Telz and Kelm (Kelme). For a short period, the Jews of Lithuania had a large measure of autonomy and operated their own educational system. Only 10 percent of Jewish children attended public schools; the remaining 90 percent remained in elementary and secondary Jewish schools. The quality of education was very high.

The Yeshivah
Technically, a yeshivah is a talmudic academy, a school of higher learning. A yeshivah is not, however, a professional school for the training of rabbis or other religious functionaries (although anyone who wishes to be a rabbi must study in a yeshivah). A yeshivah does not have graduation ceremonies, for one never completes studying Torah. There are no written examinations, although informal and indirect oral questions are used. There are no required courses, term papers, or dissertations. The Lithuanian and Polish yeshivot had neither formal registration nor tuition fees. Most students were poor, and the yeshivah provided them with study stipends.7

The scope, intricacy, and complicated language rendered the study of Talmud a formidable undertaking, requiring a master and the dialectics of associates. Without a yeshivah, headed by a venerable rosh yeshivah (dean), it would have been impossible to transmit the essence of Judaism's teachings from generation to generation.

Yeshivot existed in the communities of the Diaspora for many centuries. Whether in Babylonia, North Africa, Spain, France, Germany, Lithuania, Russia, Poland, Hungary, or America, all studied the same subject-Talmud. No matter what language the students spoke, and regardless of local customs and mores, the text remained the same.

In Europe, prior to the nineteenth century, each Jewish community had many students of the Talmud in local synagogues, where the rabbi or other local scholars could be consulted. Many famous rabbis would secure pledges from the community to set up and support yeshivot. The rabbi would serve in the dual capacity of spiritual leader and rosh yeshivah.

Around 1800, the local yeshivah was gradually replaced by larger, universal types of yeshivot. In the years from 1803 to 1807, two famous yeshivot were created. One academy in Volozhin, White Russia, was founded by Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, the chief disciple of the Vilna Gaon. The second school was established in Pressburg, Hungary (Slovakia) and was headed by Rabbi Moshe Sofer, the illustrious "Hatam Sofer."8

In each yeshivah, the rosh yeshivah established its philosophy and curriculum priorities. Each yeshivah had its own style of instruction. Some stressed the analytical approach, with the student concentrating on the text; others emphasized the dialectic method, in which the student explored wide-ranging topics, seeking analogies, distinctions, contradictions, and underlying general principles. The rosh yeshivah's regularly scheduled lectures sparked student eflections and further research. Students were expected to adhere to a rigorous schedule of study lasting from early morning to late night. Moreover, they were expected to discuss with the rosh yeshivah their ideas, insights, and questions.

In the Lithuanian yeshivot, which came under the influence of Rabbi Yisroel Lipkin-Salanter (1810-1833) and his disciples, the curriculum also included the study of musar. Musar, the Hebrew word for ethics, is a comprehensive term with a complex etymological structure. It is related to several roots and has a number of meanings and connotations. Musar refers to chastisement, reproof, admonition, exhortation, instruction, prohibition, transmission, discipline, politeness, and proper conduct.9

The religious ethic espoused by musar, especially as developed by Rabbi Yisroel Lipkin -Salanter,10 was an all-embracing morality which recognized no distinction between moral law and statutory law. Morality and law were one.

Salanter developed the theory that the inconsistency between knowledge and belief, on the one hand, and conduct on the other, was caused, in part at least, by the formal study of ethics as if it were mere subject matter. To make ethics a decisive factor in human affairs, Salanter introduced a system of studying musar with ecstasy and employing unique methods of self-analysis and group analysis.

Salanter believed that his system of studying ethics, designed to involve the learner's emotion and hence evoke his commitment, would lead men to acquire actual beliefs. He maintained that the study of ethics as if it were cognitive knowledge at best resulted in professed beliefs. According to Salanter, only actual beliefs have a direct bearing on behavior.

The behavioral standards which musar maintained were indeed high. The numerous laws of the Torah governing human relations were apparently deemed insufficient, for there was an overriding moral requirement to go beyond the point of the Law.11 The Musar Movement understood that the purpose of this injunction was to prevent people from following the letter of the Law while violating its spirit. Ethical behavior, then, was the constant and active striving to do more than was required; to seek to avoid any harm to others (especially that which may, through a loophole, be permitted); and to be willing to forego that which was rightfully one's own for the sake of helping others who are in need or distress. Ethical behavior meant also politeness of speech, proper manners, and the peaceful settlement of differences. But all of these had to be more than conventional mannerism; they had to flow from a sincere and abiding inner commitment to the worth of the individual and the equality of men. This sort of meaningful ethical behavior was expected of all students of the musar yeshivot.

The Musar Movement saw an element of vagueness permeating moral laws and moral situations, leaving many people confused as to the proper course of action in a given situation. Each human trait or inclination applied to an infinite number of situations, and each situation could be assessed and approached in many ways. In deciding what was moral and what was not in particular situations, each man had to be his own judge. Salanter was convinced that without full knowledge of and commitment to musar, one was incapable of rendering fair ethical decisions.

Underlying Salanter's theory of musar was an optimistic assertion that human nature can be improved. But, due to the complexity of human nature and the various environmental pressures and temptations, man must make musar a lifelong pursuit.

The study of musar was "bitter in the beginning but sweet in the end." The student of ethics sought first to relinquish frivolity and light- headedness and acquire sobriety and reverence. Only after a prolonged period of "bitterness" did he contemplate reaching the advanced "sweet" state of contentment and serenity epitomized by self-fulfillment.

In the yeshivot which espoused musar, students were expected to be critical of themselves. Disciples often kept a daily record of their achievements and failures, so that both the positive and negative elements in their behavior could be noticed and scrutinized. Recognizing that one's subjective judgment may weaken or impair self-analysis, the Musar Movement devised new methods of group analysis. Small groups of like- minded students would meet and evaluate the conduct of each member. No one escaped the group's evaluation, and each individual was under obligation to accept its recommendations for improvement.

The Musar Movement maintained that the group would be more objective than the individual could ever be regarding himself. Students were advised to exercise patience and to disregard pride when their behavior was discussed by the group. Members were also urged to take sufficient time for deliberation; not to mock anyone; and to consider the whole individual, his failures as well as his achievements.

The musar master,who, serving as mashgi'ah (musar mentor), would deliver lectures on ethics and theology and act as a mentor to the students, absented himself from the meetings, so that freedom of expression might be assured and the individual's rights and dignity safeguarded. There were no secret sessions, and the individual whose conduct was under discussion was on hand to clarify his position. Quite often the individual himself would present his "case" for discussion.

Musar was studied with ecstasy, "stirring the soul to seek selfimprovement."12 Ecstasy was engendered by reading aloud, and by projecting in one's mind the actual extent of the moral obligation he was studying as it pertained to his life. Asserting that the constancy of an emotionally charged study of musar would result in consistency of ethical conduct, regular periods for learning ethics were set aside daily.

The rosh yeshivah's relationship with his students, in both musar and non-musar yeshivot, was also that of a mentor and guide.

Students respected and revered him, and would also consult him on personal matters. The general community also respected the rosh yeshivah. It was not enough that he was a man of great intellect, or a gaon (genius); he also had to be a zaddik (righteous one).

The yeshivah was the medium for the transmission of the rabbinic tradition from generation to generation. To this end, the curriculum consisted of Talmud and cognate studies; not history, language, literature, or other secular subjects. The yeshivah asserted that the transmission of this sacred heritage could only be accomplished through total commitment to Torah study and the interaction between masters and disciples, who sought no personal or material gain, but rather the perfection of their minds and personalities. The yeshivah refused to integrate sacred and secular studies for two reasons. First, the study of the complex talmudic subjects must command the student's full attention. Success in Talmud study could only be achieved through total immersion. Second, secular culture was unacceptable to the talmudists, who predicted the moral decay of Western civilization and the bankruptcy of secularism. The roshei yeshivah (deans) were not opposed to natural sciences,13 but to the humanities.

The shul was the community center, study hall, house of worship, and a place to gather; it was home. Davenen (prayer) in eastern European synagogues would often elicit a krekhts (Yiddish for sigh), tears, ecstasy, and kavvanah (concentration) and would be accompanied by shoklen (Yiddish for swaying to and fro). Two characteristics resulted in an emotional style of prayer.

First, life in the shtetl had many difficulties. The standard of living was low and the environment was hostile. When people came to shul they sought relief and reassurance and found them in the siddur (prayer book). Davenen was thus an intensive emotional and therapeutic experience.

Second, an important factor which influenced eastern European worship and made prayer a regular daily activity was the homogeneous and organic Jewish lifestyle. Yidishkayt (Yiddish for Judaism) was a total experience. In larger cities, limited acculturation and assimilation existed, but the shtetl Jews were generally unassimilated. Although they spoke the vernacular, the rich and colorful Yiddish language constituted a mehizah (a separation) between the Jew and the Gentile; except for economic and governmental interaction, there was little or no social contact between them. It was, therefore, natural for people who lived a total religious life to consider the synagogue as their spiritual center.

The close ties between the shtetl Jews and their acute sensitivity to the problems of the Jewish people as a whole created a sense of community. Thus, they would come to shul to say tehillim (psalms) and shed a tear for any Jewish community, near or far, which had suffered from a pogrom or other calamity.

Besides prayer, the shul was used for other purposes. Funerals would originate in the courtyard of the shul, where the hesped (eulogy) was delivered by the rabbi. If the deceased was a talmid hakham (a scholar), the coffin would be taken into the shul. Customarily, the hesped did not concentrate on the virtues of the deceased. Most of the remarks were directed to evoking teshuvah (repentance) and the strengthening of the faith, the vanity of life, and the meaning of death.

The shul was also a place for regular and emergency communal meetings. Holiday celebrations, weddings, circumcisions, and the like, were also arranged in the shul. Individuals who faced personal crises would also turn to the shul. A mother whose child was critically ill would run into the shul shrieking that her baby was dying. She would open the Aron Kodesh (the Holy Ark), embrace the Sifrai Torah (scrolls of the Law), and beg for a ness (miracle).

A person who felt that he was denied justice would "stop the reading of the Torah" on the Sabbath. The man or woman would embrace the Sefer Torah (scroll of Law) as it was taken out of the ark, crying out for Justice. No one would dare to use force against a fellow Jew holding a Sefer Torah in shul and demanding justice. Calling the police was unthinkable. Only after the leaders of the local kehilla (the official organized Jewish community) would promise to take action could peace be restored.

Occasionally, a well-known hazzan (cantor) was invited to a shtetl. He would conduct part of the Shabes morning service, in addition to giving a concert in the shul on a weekday. The concert featured religious selections from the siddur and other sacred texts.

When the hazzan led popular prayer songs, such as "Sheyl'boneh Beit Hamzkdosh" ("May the Temple Be Rebuilt"), the audience joined in with gusto, as in community folk "songs".

Another diversion was the appearance of the maggid (itinerant preacher), who came to the shtetl once a year to preach in the shul. There were many maggidim. Some spoke on Saturday afternoons or on weekday evenings. Most maggidim were popular. Their stories and exhortations served a double purpose-instruction and entertainment. The more accomplished maggid spoke eloquently.

The maggid not only preached and entertained, but he also informed. Because he traveled from place to place, the maggid often disseminated news about outside events in the Jewish world. Whereas the hazzan was engaged in advance by the community for an agreed sum of money and, therefore, admission to his concert was by ticket only, the maggid arrived uninvited and admission was free. He passed a collection plate after his talk.

The shul was also used for Torah study. Seated at long tables, lit by candlelight (electricity had not yet reached most shtetlakh), informal groups of men of various ages would spend an hour or two learning. In shul, there was a Hevra Shas (a group studying Talmud), studying a Gemara, or talmudic text of their choice; a Hevra Mishnayot (a group learning Mishnah, or talmudic text); a Hevra Humash (a group engaged in the study of the Pentateuch); a Hevra Hayei Odom (a group studying Jewish laws); and a Hevra Tehillim (a group reciting psalms). When a siyyum (conclusion of study) of a text was celebrated by a group, they organized joyous festivities, much like Simhat Torah (the holiday marking the end of the annual cycle of synagogal reading of the Torah).

The Rabbinate
The eastern European rabbinate was divided into a number of different categories. The local rabbinate consisted of three distinct groups. First, there was the elected spiritual leader of the town. In some instances, his jurisdictional area included several smaller neighboring villages that could not afford to support their own rabbi. The elections of the rav (rabbi), ordinarily conducted by the kehilla, were free and democratic. In larger shtetlakh, the rabbi had two or more associates known as dayyanim (judges), who served on the bet din (rabbinical court). A dayyan would rule on shayles (Yiddish for queries), questions regarding kashrut (dietary laws), and other religious matters. The rabbi of the community was the av bet din (presiding judge) and official spiritual head of the shtetl. In Hasidic communities, especially in Poland, there was the rebbe. He was neither an official rabbi nor a dayyan. He was selected, rather than elected. Whether he was a scion of a distinguished dynasty of rebbeyim or a charismatic leader, the rebbe was the spiritual leader of his Hasidim. As a rule, the rebbe did not share in the official functions of the local rabbinate. However, as a prominent spiritual guide of many Jews, he would be invited to regional or national rabbinical conferences. A few of the well-known Polish Hasidic leaders were the rebbey1m of Ger, Belz, Sanz, Novominsk, and Tchortkov. The Lubavitch group was especially prominent in White Russia.

In addition, there was a less formal rabbinate. In some Lithuanian and White Russian communities, there were saintly individuals known either as a zaddik (a righteous one) or a "guter yid" (a good Jew). The local populace revered their zaddik and told wonder tales about him, considering him a miracle maker.14 People would travel to see this zaddik for a brokhe (a blessing) in times of distress. In some instances the official rabbi himself would send people to the zaddik for his blessings and prayers. Some of these zaddikim had shunned publicity and spent most of their lives in private Torah study, davenen, fasting, and in ascetic practices. Others involved themselves in the affairs of the community. The hallmark of their communal service was gemilut hasadim (acts of kindness). A good example of such a zaddik is the legendary nineteenth-century sage Reb Nochurnke of Grodno. Reb Nochumke was reportedly referred to by Rabbi Yisroel Lipkin-Salanter as "the pillar of hesed" (kindness) of his generation. It is known that the Hafez Hayyim (a leading sage) traveled to Grodno to learn hesed and piety from Reb Nochumke.

Eastern European Jews looked towards a series of a manhigai hador (leaders of the generation) for inspiration and direction. They were often communal rabbis, such as the late Rabbi Yitzchok Elchonon Spektor of Kovno (1817-1896), Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzenski of Vilna (1863-1940), or Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin (1888-1934), who founded the well-known yeshivah in Lublin, served in the Polish Sejm (parliament), and conceived the idea of the Daf Yoml (daily page of the Talmud), studied to this day the world over. Quite often these men were neither communal rabbis nor dayyanim. Representative of such types were Rabbi Elija of Vilna (1720- 1797), known as the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Yisroel Lipkin-Salanter (1810-1883), and Rabbi Yisroel Meir Ha-Cohen (1839-1933), universally known as the Hafez Hayyim, the title of his first book. These saintly "uncrowned" leaders served the Jewish people by convening regular and emergency meetings, 15 lecturing to large audiences, and guiding scholars. They were viewed as a court of last resort and were besieged by people in distress seeking advice and blessings.

Leadership of the Jewish community was not the sole province of the rabbi. He was engaged by the kehilla. Between the two world wars, the governments of Poland and Lithuania recognized the kehilla as a legal entity. The kehilla was empowered to levy taxes on the Jewish community. The kehilla tax was a head tax, collected from every Jewish resident, and also an income tax, where the rich paid more than the poor. An additional tax was added to the price of kosher meat. The kehilla leadership was elected democratically. It is noteworthy that representatives of Socialist and Zionist movements, who had a considerable following in the cities, served on the kehilla together with Mizrachi and Agudath-Israel councilmen. The kehilla council members elected the president of the community. The kehilla had jurisdiction over the religious institutions and activities. Thus, the shul, school, mikveh (ritual bath), slaughterhouse, the home for the aged, the orphanage, the guest house for poor transients, and philanthropic drives were controlled by the kehilla.16

The cemetery was also under the auspices of the kehilla. Funerals were arranged by a volunteer group called Hevra Kaddisha (burial society) without charge. Cemetery plots were provided to the poor without cost. Wealthy families were taxed so that there would be sufficient funds for the upkeep of the cemetery.

The kehilla was also charged with the responsibility of engaging a rabbi and paying his salary and those of other religious functionaries. Some shtetlakh had two rabbis, each accepted by his followers only. Disputes over rabbis, which often lasted for a long time, developed because of ideological differences, personal likes and dislikes, or the recurring question of hazakah (tenure).

The principle of hazakah was often a perennial source of dissension. It was generally accepted that a rabbinical position was held for life. When the rabbi died, his son, if qualified, traditionally had priority, or hazakah, over other candidates. At times there were those who wanted a new rabbi and a controversy would ensue.

The rabbi in a large kehilla was paid a relatively comfortable salary. This was not true of the rabbi of the small town, who received an inadequate salary. To supplement his income, the shtetl kehilla granted the rabbi some exclusive business concessions, which, usually, were managed by the rabbi's wife, the rebetsn. That monopoly generally included the sale of candles, yeast, or wine. To be sure, sales did not generate much money and the rabbi rarely was rich. It was assumed that a rabbi did not need material wealth.

The rabbi's functions were varied. Since the kehilla had to register births, weddings, divorces, and deaths, it was the rabbi who kept the official records. The rabbi supervised the shehitah (kosher slaughtering), the religious schools,17 the mikveh, the synagogues, and all other aspects of religious life. The adjudication of litigation in civil or marital matters, in conjunction with the dayyanim, was another important responsibility. The rabbi would also have to paskenen shayles (Yiddish-to rule on halakhic questions) with regard to kashrut, the synagogue, or other areas of religious life.

As spiritual leader of the community, the rabbi was expected to be both student and teacher. He had to be humble so that even widows, orphans, and the poor saw him as their protector and as the embodiment of Jewish justice and morality. The rabbi often made rounds on behalf of needy families. And, finally, the rabbi was the spokesman for the Jewish community to local government officials and visiting state dignitaries.

The communal rabbi's relationship with other rabbis was guided by traditional etiquette. Even a great rabbi, when visiting the shtetl, would pay a courtesy call on the local rabbi, as he was the mara de-atra (the local master). The communal rabbi, in turn, would afterwards visit the famous guest at his hotel to show his respect. The local rosh yeshivah, even if he was of greater stature, would acknowledge the authority of the communal rabbi. Thus, when a religious question would occur in his home, the rosh yeshivah would submit it to the rabbi for a decision. Similarly, the local rabbi maintained tactful relations with the rebbe and the zaddik.

The rabbi was not required to give weekly sermons on Shabes. He delivered two major addresses a year, one on Shabes Hagadol, before Passover, and the other on Shabes Teshuvah, before Yom Kippur. If the rabbis were not overly involved in public speaking, many of them spent considerable time writing Responsa (rulings on questions of religious law) and Hiddushei Torah (new insights in Torah interpretation). Over the centuries there developed a massive Responsa literature, known as she'elot u'teshuvot, which may be classified as applied halakhah. In their Responsa, rabbis applied old principles to new situations created by scientific or medical advances and changing social conditions. The Responsa literature addresses practical new problems generated by changing circumstances of life. Whereas the rosh yeshivah was the academician and theoretician, the local rabbi was the practitioner. On the other hand, the theoretical issues, the Hiddushel Torah, were written mostly by roshei yeshivah.

The rabbi, himself a product of a yeshivah, brought the richness of his knowledge to bear upon the life of the entire community. The yeshivah transmitted the Torah from generation to generation, and the practicing rabbi, by applying halakhah to actual life, brought the word of Sinai to the people.

Concluding Note
Nurtured by the warm and inspiring traditions of the family, and guided by the shul, school, yeshivah, and the rabbinate, the religious eastern European Jew developed an iron faith in Judaism and an intense pride and identity in being Jewish. Thoroughly pragmatic, he directed his life to the affairs of this world. At the same time, he yearned with all his being for the coming of the Messiah. The ultimate value of Judaism and its covenant were well understood and gladly accepted. These characteristics of the religious eastern European Jews were powerful weapons against assimilation and secularism and provided him with the inner strength to endure. To understand, therefore, the survival of the Jew, one must comprehend his religion.

New Jewish centers emerging in our time, although they seek to recapture the legacy of the vanished shtetlakh, will not be able to rebuild on the ruins of the Holocaust. Contemporary conditions and attitudes are generally antithetical to those of the shtetlakh so that a similar, rich Jewish life most likely will not be duplicated. The shtetlakh had warmth, beauty, a wholesome and sanctified life, the grandeur of eastern European scholarship, and much more. That which took a thousand years to build cannot be restored in a short time. Some aspects of shtetlakh yidishkayt will be reproduced, but not the great totality of eastern European Jewish life. The losses have not been replaced and the wounds have not yet healed. We pray to the One who heals the sick of Israel that He should soon in our days bring comfort to His people and eternal joy.


1. Yevamoth, p. 62 (Babylonian Talmud).

2. Deut. 6: 7.

3. Aaron Suraski, Toldot Ha-Hinukh Ha-Torati [Hebrew] (Bnai-Brak, Israel: Or Hahayim Publishers, 1967), pp. 427-431.

4. Miriam Eisenstein, Jewish Schools in Poland, 1919-1939 (New York: King's Crown Press, 1950), pp. 71-82.

5. Suraski, Toldot, pp. 54-76.

6. Tz'vi Scharfstein,Toldot Ha-Hlnukh B'Yisrael Badorot HoAharonim [Hebrew], vol. II (Jerusalem: Ruben Mass Publishers, 1960), pp. 131-160.

7. In the nineteenth century, poor yeshivah students had to rely on esn teg (literally, "eating days"), whereby the student would dine each day of the week with a different family for the duration of one semester. This was discontinued for the college-age men, but until World War 11, the younger boys of the Yeshivah Ketanah (preparatory school) continued to have "eating days."

8. Suraski, Toldot, p. 281.

9. Eliezer Ben-Yehudah, Milon Ha-Lashon Ha-Ivrit [Hebrew], vol. VI (Tel Aviv: La-Am Publishing House, 1948), pp. 2849-2853, 3137.

10. Isaac Blazer, Or Ysrael (Tel Aviv: Israel-American Offset, 1959); Zalman F. Ury, The Musar Movement (New York: Yeshiva University Press, 1970).

11. Deut. 6:18; Prov. 2:20; Babylonian Talmud, Tractates Bava M'tzia, 30b; Bava Batra, 12b, 88a,b.

12, Blazer, Or Yisrael, p. 32.

13. Some great rabbis in our history were physicians, astronomers, etc. They had acquired scientific knowledge outside of the yeshivah, after having mastered the Talmud.

14. In the Hasidic community, such reverence would be accorded to the rebbe. The famous rebbeyim would attract adherents from far and wide.

15. The Gaon of Vilna appeared less frequently in public than the other two rabbis.

16. Harry M. Rabinowitz, The Legacy of Polish Jewry (New York and London: Thomas Yoseloff, 1965), pp. 108-125.

17. There were some children who attended public schools. The rabbi, or his representative, would be invited once a week to give religious instruction to Jewish students.

For Further Reading

Eisenstein, Miriam. Jewish Schools in Poland, 1919-1939. New York: King's Crown Press, 1950.

Garfunkel, Leib, et al. Yahadut Lita. [Hebrew] Tel Aviv: Am Hasefer Publishers, 1960.

Kariv, Avraham. Lithuania Land of My Birth. New York: Herzl Press, 1967

Mirski, Samuel K. Mosdot Torah Be-Europa Be-Vinyanarn UVechurbanarn. [Hebrew] New York: Ogen Publishing House, 1956.

Rabinowitz, Harry M. The Legacy of Polish Jewry 1919-1939. New York & London: Thomas Yoseloff, 1965.

Sachs, A.S. Worlds That Passed. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1943.

Scharfstein, Tz'vi. Toldot Ha-Hinukh B'Yisrael Badorot HoAharonim. [Hebrew] Jerusalem: Reuben Mass Publishers, 1960.

Segal, Simon. The New Poland and the Jews. New York: Lee Furman, Inc., 1938.

Suraski, Aaron. Toldot Ha-Hinukh Ha-Torati. [Hebrew] Bnai_ Brak: Or Hahayim Publishers, 1967.


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