[Polish, gmina; Yiddish, kahal; Hebrew, kehila]
A form of organization in Jewish communities. The term has two
meanings: it refers to a group of Jews having their own internal
organization, including self-government and authorities; it also means
the body of authorities governing this group.
Jewish law and tradition, along with government legislation, were
the two main factors that determined the form of these Jewish
Communities. The model of Community organization developed in Western
Europe and was then transferred to Poland, where it underwent further
change. All aspects of Jewish life in these groups were regulated by
Judaic religious laws, formulated in the Torah and Talmud, and by
privileges issued by the Polish authorities. By the sixteenth century,
they were also governed by voivodship regulations and legislation passed
by the Jewish Sejm. The privileges issued by the mayor or owner of the
town determined the Jews' degree of autonomy, while the Jewish Community
statutes outlined the structure of the Community's own government and
Communities had varying degrees of freedom.
There were large differences between Communities in private cities,
where owners determined the extent of Jewish autonomy--something that
depended on how much they intervened in the Jewish Community's internal
affairs. Wealthier Communities had a separate building serving as the
Community's equivalent of "town hall". In Polish sources this was
actually called just that, the "Jewish town hall" (zydowski ratusz).
The Community government's overall structure was hierarchical,
having several levels. The highest was comprised of the seniors, who had
administrative, judicial and ceremonial functions. The "jurors"
[Hebrew, tovim - "the good [people]"] had similar functions. The rabbi,
hired by the Community's government, played an important role that was
not limited exclusively to religious matters. Members of the Community
government also headed committees dealing with particular administrative
tasks. These included supervisory, charity, tax, guild, and many other
Each Community hired many paid officials, such
as the chazan, shames, bath attendant, and cheder teacher. The doctor,
midwive, guards, representatives to [the Jewish] diets, and others were
all paid from Community funds. Only the large Communities had such
well-developed self-government institutions. Smaller communities' needs
were much more modest. Administrative and legal changes introduced by
the partitioning powers limited the Communities' functions and role
(synagogue caretaker, toleration patent), and religious Communities were
created. The institution of the religious Community persisted in
interwar Poland, which the Jews informally continued to call the kahal.