“The glory of the earth…the place of Torah learning—Po-Lan-Yah.”*
                                                        —Jacob ben Moses ha-Levi, Kinot Polonia—1671

*(In Hebrew, Po-Lan-Yah means Poland, as well as “Here dwells God.”)

Jews initially settled in Eastern Europe during the Middle Ages at the invitation and under the protection of the Polish kings. They flourished in the succeeding centuries, creating major centers of Jewish population and cultural significance in Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine. By the seventeenth century, with their numbers periodically reinforced by the arrival of Jews fleeing from less hospitable homelands, Eastern Europe was home to nearly half of the world Jewry. In much of this area, individual Jews earned their livelihoods by leasing the right to conduct business of all sorts from the aristocracy. In their capacity as lessees, some Jews were innkeepers, bakers, or distillers of spirits, while others administered large tracts of agricultural land, the mining of silver and salt, and collection of tolls and taxes from the estates of the nobility.

Each local Jewish community, or kahal, constituted a unit of self-government. Administrative functions, including the assessment of state and communal taxes and the supervision of charitable institutions, were within the purview of elected elders. Community rabbis, meanwhile, maintained authority in religious and judicial matters. In addition, several larger-scale bodies of Jewish authority were established. The “Council of the Four Lands” and the “Council of Lithuania” served as the central institutions of self-government for most of the Jews of Eastern Europe from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. They represented the most developed form of autonomy within a regional or national framework ever attained by European Jewry. Although they had originally been created to facilitate the collection of taxes, the councils legislated on nearly every aspect of Jewish life, maintaining official minute books called pinkasim, which served to record for posterity their various deliberations, decisions, and actions.

The most influential Jewish cultural institutions were the Yeshivot, academies devoted to the study of religious texts, especially the Talmud. These institutions trained rabbis who went on to serve in Jewish communities around the world, and who produced some of the enduring classics of rabbinic literature. As elsewhere in the Diaspora, Jews worshipped in Hebrew, but the language of day-to-day life was Yiddish, a German dialect written in Hebrew characters. Developed during the Middle Ages, its rich literary expressiveness was a result of a strong admixture of Hebrew, Romance, and Slavonic elements.

The ceiling of the wooden Chodorov Synagogue (built in 1652) in Galicia, Ukraine; painter: Israel Ben Mordechai Lisnicki, of Jaryczow. From the Permanent Exhibition at Beit Hatfutsot, The Museum of the Jewish People, Tel Aviv, Israel.

In the middle of the seventeenth century, historical events began to unfold which would radically alter the course of Jewish history. When Ukrainian peasants revolted in 1648, associating the Jews with the hated nobility, they wreaked havoc on hundreds of Jewish communities across the region and massacred more than one hundred thousand men, women, and children.

As has always been true in Jewish history, periods of extreme persecution created an atmosphere in which the ever-present but otherwise dormant impulse towards messianism could erupt. This time, the stage was set for the rise in 1666 of a false messiah named Sabbetai Tzvi. The fervor surrounding his appearance and claims had its beginnings in the Ottoman Empire, but soon spread to Jews across Europe as well. There it thrived in the pervasive atmosphere of millenarian expectations that characterized the broad religious turmoil of the seventeenth century among Jews and Christians alike. Unlike past messianic episodes, most of which were localized and short-lived, this outbreak was differentiated by the rapid spread of and unprecedented level of belief in the messiahship of Sabbetai Tzvi. Within two years, at the height of the Sabbatian movement, more than half of world Jewry could be counted among the believers.

Map of Galicia.  Galicia is the name of a historical region in Central Europe incorporating western Ukraine and the south-eastern portion of Poland. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Galicia was the heartland of the Hasidic movement.

One of the most significant factors that contributed to the readiness of so many to believe that the messiah had finally arrived was the wide diffusion of kabbalistic doctrine across the Jewish world. Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism, emanated from the teachings of a small sixteenth century community of scholars based in Safed in the Land of Israel. Over the next hundred years this esoteric new doctrine, with teachings on the nature of God, the creation of the universe, and especially messianism, spread like wildfire throughout the Diaspora. As a result, when Sabbatai Tzvi’s messiahship was adroitly presented as a fulfillment of the prevailing kabbalistic model of redemption, it engendered an unparalleled level of optimism and hope that the long night of exile was over. Widespread anticipation and exuberance, however, were soon overtaken by near-universal disillusionment and far-reaching psychological devastation when Sabbetai Tzvi suddenly converted to Islam. For the vast majority of those whose hopes he had kindled, this act revealed him to be more madman than messiah. Nevertheless, well into the next century, small pockets of “believers” remained entrenched in their unwillingness to accept that Sabbetai Tzvi’s messianic mission had been no more than a shattered dream of redemption.

The cataclysmic failure of Sabbatianism notwithstanding, the popular influence of kabbalah continued to manifest itself in Jewish life, including the widespread production of amulets to ward off evil. One such kabbalistic practitioner and amulet writer, known as the Ba'al Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name), preached a doctrine called Hasidism (piety). He maintained that one could get close to God not only through rigorous study of religious texts, but also through the ecstatic performance of one’s daily life. Internalizing spirituality during prayer became more important than the formulaic recitation of the words. After the death of the Ba'al Shem Tov, Hasidism split into numerous smaller groups, each of which followed its own spiritual leader, many of whom were believed by their followers to possess supernatural powers. Most Eastern European Jews, however, were Mithnagdim (opponents) and rejected Hasidism with its new and unfamiliar practices. Conflicts arose between Hasidim and Mithnagdim over questions of authority and practice. Vehement and divisive struggles for dominance were not infrequent and mutual recriminations and excommunications were common.

Only in the nineteenth century, would these two disparate but overwhelmingly devout traditional Jewish communities put aside their differences in the face of what they perceived as a common enemy and an existential threat, the Haskalah, or the Jewish Enlightenment.

This essay has been excerpted from the catalogue to A Treasured Legacy: The Michael and Judy Steinhardt Judaica Collection, an auction taking place at Sotheby’s New York on 29 April. To view objects from this period included in the sale go to lots 146-162.

Next essay: The Jews in the Age of Emancipation