While Jews suffered greatly as societal outsiders in many of the lands in which they lived throughout history, sometimes there were beneficial perks–such as a moderate level of communal autonomy. This was specifically the case in Poland (and Lithuania) from the end of the 16th through most of the 18th century.

The Council of the Four Lands (Vaad Arba Aratzot), as the Jewish governing body came to be known, convened for the first time in 1580 at the Lublin fair (which became one of its chief meeting places, in addition to the fair at Yaroslav). Representatives from each of the major communities attended, as well as scribes, tax collectors, bailiffs, and government lobbyists (shtadlanim). In 1623, the Lithuanian Jewish community broke off and created its own council.

Council records indicate that no area of Jewish life went untouched or unexplored. In the economic realm, the Council dealt with taxes, residence and work rights, trade restrictions, promissory notes, bankruptcies, etc. It pushed larger communities to underwrite the cost of providing education for the poor, the cost of maintaining yeshivot and took a strong stand against luxurious living by issuing directives to tone-down family celebrations and ostentatious dress.

Another significant item on their agenda was the division of the financial burden created by blood libels, “Host” (special church wafer) desecration libels and the nefarious activities of false proselytes. As the libeled community was often incapable of meeting the onerous fines that were levied as penalties, the council divided the expenses among the various communities of the particular community.

The Council of the Four Lands continued to exist officially until it was dissolved by the Sejm (Parliament) and the Polish King on July 17, 1764. Unofficially, the provincial councils and even the Councils of the Lands continued to meet until the First Partition of Poland in 1772.

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