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
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)