Privileges for Jews
Privileges were documents that until the late
eighteenth century defined Jews' legal status and established norms in
all spheres of life and activities for Jews living in the Polish lands.
The oldest privilege for Jews is the Kalisz privilege, issued in
1264 by Boleslaw the Pious, prince of Wielkopolska. Later, general
(Poland-wide) privileges were modeled on it, and for Jews living in
specific lands. In the second half of the thirteenth century, Silesian
princes issued several privileges for Jews, such as Bolko of Swidnik
(1295) and Henryk of Glogow (1299). In 1287, the Jews of Kalisz were
granted permission to establish a cemetery. The privileges granted by
Kazimierz III the Great in 1334, 1364, and 1367 were particularly
significant. (Some historians consider the last of these to be a
forgery.) Later Polish kings confirmed these general privileges for
From the mid-sixteenth century, however, the
privileges gradually lost their importance. In 1539, Sigismund I (the
Old) granted property owners jurisdiction over the Jews living on their
holdings, except in some matters-such as ritual murder accusations. From
that time, Communities lying within private holdings strove to secure
their own privileges. Very often, these documents were copies of general
royal privileges, though in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
those granted to specific Communities varied.
The increasing number of Community privileges meant that Jewish
groups in royal cities also wanted confirmations of their own rights.
These documents were issued by the king, or by proxy via the starosta
[local administrator]. In the seventeenth century, each new Jewish
Community would receive a separate privilege, which was then inscribed
into the official records [ksiegi grodzkie]. The privileges granted to
Jews, can be divided into two groups, depending on who granted them: 1)
ksiazece ["princely"] and krolewskie ["royal"] - those issued by rulers,
princes and later by kings, or by royal officials on their behalf; 2)
private - for entire Communities or individuals. These were granted by
the nobles beginning in 1539, and occasionally also by the clergy who
owned estates where Jews were living.
Some of the documents issued to Polish Jews
were papal bulls that were intended to prevent unfounded ritual murder
accusations. The oldest of these was issued in 1540 by Pope Paul III.
Privileges for Jews could also be categorized into three groups.
General privileges were those affecting all Jews living in the Kingdom
of Poland or in some of its lands, such as Wielkopolska or Malopolska
(privileges issued by kings or princes). Community privileges were
granted to specific Communities. These regulated the basic principles of
a specific Community's existence, or regarded a specific matter, such
as the foundation of a cemetery or exemption from fees (granted by king
or a town's owner - the nobility or clergy). There were also individual
privileges - for specific merchants and brokers (royal, noble). Even the
greatest magnates did not issue general privileges for all Jews living
on their lands-only for specific Communities.
Privileges for Jews issued by Polish rulers were later annulled by the partitioning powers.