Jewish Sejm

Vaad Arba Artsot [Hebrew, Council of the Four Lands], the central institution of Jewish self-government, representing interests of the Communities located within the Commonwealth. The Jewish Sejm was the highest authority in legal and court matters, and regulated all areas of Jewish Community life. Beginning in 1623, two Jewish Sejms existed: the Vaad Arba Artsot, which encompassed the Crown lands, and the Vaad Medinat Lita [Hebrew, Council of the State of Lithuania], which was the Sejm of Lithuanian Jews.

The Jewish Sejm was at first linked to the state�s attempts to centralize the Jewish communities, which was intended to facilitate tax collection, particularly since the number of Communities was constantly growing during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Evidence of this policy of the Polish kings was the establishment in 1503 of the office of chief rabbi for specific lands. In 1512, Sigismund I the Old named two general tax-collectors for the collection of Jewish taxes; a few years later, a general tax-collector was assigned for Lithuania as well. The largest Communities were against establishing the office of general tax-collector and a central system for tax collection. They withheld payment of their taxes, which led to the office being abolished.
At that time, federations of Communities from the various lands, the regional councils (ziemstwa), were created. The largest Communities were generally not included in these. The activities of the regional councils were primarily related to taxes, but the councils also conferred in other matters, such as the securing of new privileges and rights.

Evidence of the Jews' growing autonomy and the increasing significance of the regional council congresses was that Sigismund II August granted them the right to select chief rabbis. In the beginning there were four regional councils; by 1551, there were already five. Later, they split further, and their representatives met only occasionally. These meetings eventually became congresses that would convene at regular intervals.

This led to the creation of the Jewish Sejm, which represented the Communities of four lands: Wielkopolska, Malopolska, Rus and Lithuania. Its formal establishment is said to have been in 1581, wjem Jewish representatives from all the lands vowed to pay the Jewish poll tax in one lump sum to the treasury (taxes).

The lands, and large Communities that were not part of the lands, would send delegates to the Jewish Sejm. The sessions were chaired by the speaker of the House (marszalek sejmu), chosen most often from among Community elders. The two other functions related to the Sejm, the trustee and scribe general, usually entrusted to rabbis.

Lublin was made the seat of the Sejm-a town known for its famous fairs at which merchants from all over the Commonwealth gathered. Later, they also took place in other cities, such as Jaroslaw and Leczna. Communities would send their "jarmark" judges to these fairs (in Polish, jarmark), who heard trade-related disputes.
As a result, the Sejm tribunal was formed as part of the Jewish Sejm. The establishment of the Jewish Sejm marks the end of the formative period of Jewish self-government. The existence of a representative body for the entire Jewish population seriously limited the ability of the king and his officials to interfere in the Communities' internal affairs.

The Jewish Sejm functioned until 1764, and was disbanded on the basis of a decision by the Polish Sejm, which argued it was not carrying out its primary function, which was to collect Jewish taxes. (H.W./CM)

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