Farming and sheep-herding were the two main
occupations of the ancient Israelites. All the major Jewish holidays
were originally related to agriculture, connected to the harvests of
various crops (yearly rituals). In medieval Europe, the Jews who were
directly subject to the monarch and belonged to his treasury (servi
camerae), settled primarily in the towns that were centers of the
monarch's power. This is why they were involved in occupations typical
of cities (trade, crafts), or those that related to the court
(purveyors, creditors, brokers).
The oldest information about Jews in the Polish lands indicates they
also owned land, though it is not known whether they farmed it, or
whether those lands were taken as collateral. A Silesian magnate, Piotr
Wlast, bought the village of Tyniec from Jews before the year 1153.
Before 1203, Josef and Chaskiel owned the prince's "service" village of
Sokolniki. A document of 1226 stated that the Jews in the castellany of
Bytom were to give a tithe of hay to the Church. The Church probably
believed it had a right to taxes from land belonging to Jews, but it
cannot be ruled out that the Jews were farming it themselves.
In the fifteenth century, Woloczko Czolner was involved in the
establishment of new villages under Magdeburg Law, and was also a wojt
[title given by the king to a town's founder - translator's note]. Jews
had gardens and fields outside town where they raised animals and
farmed, as did other burghers. They sold the food they produced (such as
milk or vegetables) at the local market. Around the year 1500, the
fields beyond the San, near Przemysl, were owned by Anna and Mojsze.
Jakub Ickowy owned two village houses in Gora Solna, near Bochnia.
In the second half of the sixteenth century,
after the annexation to the Crown of the voivodships of Volhynia, Kijow
[Kiev] and Braclaw, those territories quickly began to be put to use.
Jews leased entire estates there. From the early sixteenth century, the
number of Jews living in the countryside gradually grew; these were
primarily inn-keepers. Most of them farmed a small piece of land for
their own use, and also raised chickens and cattle. Jews who leased the
right to produce and sell alcoholic beverages, i.e., beer and spirits,
also owned land on which they grew barley and hops. According to the
poll tax of 1765, approximately 25% of the Jewish population
(200,000-250,000 people) lived in the countryside, most of whom were
inn-keepers with their families.
Although by a law passed by the Sejm in 1775 Jews were allowed to
settle on and cultivate fallow land, not many were interested in doing
so. They were probably concerned that their rights would be restricted
and that they would be forced to pay dues to the nobles. In sources
dating back to the late eighteenth century, there is limited information
about Jewish farms in Wielkopolska and Volhynia. The well-known
merchant and banker Szmul Zbytkower leased pastures and other
agricultural lands near Warsaw.
After the decree of Alexander I in 1804 regulating legal relations
in the Russian partition, about 600 families settled in the countryside.
Nicholas I, in an attempt to encourage Jews to become farmers, gave
them financial incentives in 1835. There were requirements for future
settlers, such as that there be family-based settlements, at least three
men be involved in farming the land, an imposed plan of land usage, and
no subsidies. These all meant that results fell short of expectations.
Conditions for Jewish farmers improved markedly after the
enfranchisement of the peasantry in the 1860's. Jews living in the
countryside were treated as peasants, and thus became landowners. They
did not gain the right to inherit land, however, which meant their
holdings quickly diminished.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, interest in
farming increased, largely due to the growing Zionist movement and plans
for the future settlement of Palestine. The first agricultural schools
and settlements were established (in Czestochowa, for example) to
prepare future farmers.
The situation of Jewish farmers in the Austrian
partition was somewhat different. Joseph II's decree of March 1805
allowed Jews to acquire land under the condition that they would farm it
themselves and treat it as their only source of livelihood. As a
result, by the 1920's, about 800 Jewish families had settled on farms,
though their numbers steadily decreased over the coming years because of
worsening economic conditions. Attempts to strengthen Jewish farming in
Galicia during the 1850's and 1860's also failed to have any
The number of Jews who were landowners grew quickly, however: in the
early twentieth century, they constituted as much as 20% of all the
owners of large landed estates. The number of Jewish lease-holders grew
even faster, particularly in eastern Galicia: in 1902, there were about
16,000. Approximately 4,000 Jews served as managers of private estates.
During the interwar period, few Jews made agriculture their
livelihood, despite the fact restrictions had been lifted. In 1931, only
4% of Jews were farmers. These were primarily farm owners from what had
been Galicia, and peasants living in some of the eastern
voivodships-descendants of settlers from the first half of the
For ideological reasons, however, young people were becoming
increasingly interested in agriculture under the influence of Zionism.
Teaching farms were established. In Warsaw, such settlements existed in
the Grochow and Czerniakow districts. Baron M. De Hirsch's foundation
and ORT helped establish farms and vocational schools for the training
of farmers, both for those who intended to emigrate to Israel and those
who wanted to work in Poland.
After 1944, family farms were established, as well as agricultural
cooperatives and kibbutzim associated with the Zionist movement. Joint
and ORT provided future farmers with livestock and equipment, and
financed the purchase of land. Agricultural settlements were
concentrated around Dzierzoniow (95 families) and Szczecin. After the
Zionist organizations were liquidated, some of the farmers quit and left
the countryside, while others were collectivized. A few Jews in the
Western Territories kept running their own farms.