Pinkasim and their Research Value

The principle that Jews in imperial states would be permitted “to live in accordance with their ancestral traditions,” extends back to the empires that succeeded the conquests of Alexander the Great. Subsequently, both Roman and Canon Law enshrined this principle in different ways, and it came to be applied in the Christian states of Europe from the medieval period to the rise of the modern nation-state. Until that time, the notion of multiple systems of law applying to different estates, corporations, or other distinct groups within a single state, was unexceptional.

The years between the 15th and the 17th centuries are widely regarded as the highpoint of Jewish communal organization in Europe. It was in the early modern period that these bodies reached their broadest extent in terms of constituency, authority, and organizational sophistication. This was due in no small measure to the rapid development of state apparatus in Europe which shaped the way Jews organized their communal life. The roles of these communities were manifold: they acted as a tax-collecting body and as an administrative arm for the state in which they existed and also administered the social, economic, legal, and religious life of the Jews who belonged to them. Their structures varied, but classically the communities were made up of an executive board, with various sub-committees charged with taxation and charitable collections, guild administration, welfare payments and institutions, economic management, burial of the dead and cemetery upkeep, care of the urban infrastructure, synagogue administration, and connections with other Jewish communities. The Rabbi oversaw the communal court system and the Talmudic academy. A “Syndicus” (Hebrew, shtadlan), acted as lobbyist before the non-Jewish authorities.

Though the specifics differed from place to place, communal structure and activity proved remarkably similar across early modern Europe, from the region of Lorraine in the West to Belarus in the East and from the Baltic littoral in the North to the shores of the Mediterranean in the South. The reason for this may be sought in the fact that these bodies drew in equal measure from a tradition of Jewish self-rule dating back for centuries and the modes of self-governance that were prevalent in early modern Europe. The upshot of this is that the Jewish communities formed a trans-national and pan-European system of administration in which each community was subordinate to the state in which it existed, thought the system as a whole could be said to have functioned alongside the states. The minute books [pinkasim] provide an unusual and unexploited venue for approaching these topics, but they include much more.

At the most basic level, minute books contain protocols, regulations and election lists from the community’s annual elections. The election system was complex and involved a kind of electoral college chosen by lot. This led, usually annually and in almost all communities, to discussions of the system itself, the results of the elections, and attempts at interference by wealthy members of the community and, sometimes, even the non-Jewish authorities. The pinkasim also contain regulations dealing with inter-communal connections, particularly the election of representatives to regional and supra-regional Jewish bodies.

Taxation was crucial to the community’s existence and is massively legislated in the pinkasim. Much of this fiscal revenue was disbursed to the state to cover the Jews’ tax bill, though additional funds were used for payments to local officials and noblemen as sweeteners or bribes. In addition, most communities administered a complex welfare system of help for the destitute and homeless that was also funded by communal taxation and was therefore also discussed in the pinkasim. As noted above, this kind of communal organization was a specific Jewish variant on a Europe-wide system of governance, giving these records significance well beyond the local.

Another series of regulations to be found in the pinkasim deals with the management of the communities’ religious institutions including the rabbi, local synagogues and prayer-houses, educational institutions such as yeshivot (academies), the cemetery, and ritual baths. The Jewish community council was essentially a lay body with the responsibility of appointing and working with the rabbi. Since the council paid the rabbi’s salary while he held the role as spiritual leader and chief judge for the community, tension and conflict inevitably arose. These tensions and the attempts to resolve them are well reflected in the regulations.

The regulations dealing with Jewish religious life in all its aspects, such as study, prayer, and ritual practice, are also numerous, giving a picture of its multi-faceted complexity.​ The pinkasim, therefore, shed new light on the history of religious practice in early modern Europe.

A third series of regulations deals with economic and social issues. One of the communal council’s major roles was the administration of the Jewish street or streets, so many of its regulations deal with social relations within the Jewish community. Sumptuary regulations, legislation on zoning, care of the urban infrastructure, the maintenance of order and the prevention of fires, and treatment of domestic servants and the poor are all important issues dealt with in the pinkasim. Sometimes the Jewish community was assigned to defend a portion of the city’s walls against marauders, and the pinkasim reflect how this was done. The regimentation of economic life is equally well covered: the purchase and sale of real estate on the Jewish streets, the acquisition of trading rights and monopolies (particularly in the sale of kosher meat and alcoholic drinks), the organization of craft guilds and their integration into the communal economy, and the treatment of peddlers. It is worth adding that these materials have much to say about Jewish daily life and material culture. Sumptuary regulations, for example, are remarkable sources of information on Jews’ clothing and food habits.

By the Academic Committee​