Key Events in the Jewish Life of
Lyakhovich before the 19th Century
by Deborah G. Glassman, copyright 2004

It is hard to separate the events that would have impacted Jewish life from other occurrences that would have influenced everyone living in the region. It is harder to restrict the issues that would have influenced Jewish life in Lyakhovichi to those that are specific to the region. This is not a history of the Jews of Lithuania nor of the Jews of Poland. This restricts the reporting on other settlements to those specifically relevant to our city. We chose those that were in shared Jewish jurisdictions -i.e. the Brest-Litovsk region before 1623; those in Pinsk’s jurisdiction from 1623 to the 1700s; those who were in the "Lithuanian" regions after the Minsk and Vitebsk area were cut off by the First Partition of Poland; and those that found themselves under Russian constraint in Minsk gubernyia in the 1790s. We also note events in cities listed with Lyakhovichi in the tax registers of the 16th century, in towns that were controlled by a shared owner in any time period, and in communities tied together by shared yeshivot, rabbis and tzaddikim (Hasidic leaders).

14th Century

1387: City of Vilna granted Magdeburg rights by Ladislas Jagielo, King of Poland, and contesting claimant to Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Vilna is his Lithuanian capital. Vilna is allowed to use Magdeburg law to keep out Jews . This is thought to be, in part, a response to growing Jewish settlement throughout the area, with old established communities in Grodno and Brest-Litovsk and many smaller ones of undetermined age.

1388: Vytaut the Great, Duke of Novogorodek and Grodno, gives Jews that have previously settled in Brest-Litovsk community and jurisdictional rights. He does so also in his role as Grand Duke of Lithuania, which is not formally recognized until 1401. He specifically allows settlement of Jews in his capital city of Troki. The Brest-Litovsk community’s size suggests they have been long present. They are already making decisions about smaller Jewish communities that consider themselves under Brest-Litovsk’s authority. The Jewish community in Troki is thought to have gained new settlers in Vytaut’s time but to have originated in 1320. The Jews of Lyakhovichi will be tied to the city of Troki in secular records and to Brest-Litovsk in religious jurisdictions for another two hundred years each.

Vytaut’s rights included 37 key elements among them: Jews do not have to rely on the impartiality of the city judges. Criminal cases involving two Jews are to be heard by the Deputy Vovoide, and can be appealed to the Vovoide, or directly to the Grand Duke. Jews may travel freely in the nation and may not be charged additional customs and duties to Christians. Jews were to be protected in their person and property by the same laws protecting Christians.

1389: Jewish community in Grodno receive rights from Vytaut. They are already well established, have cemetery and synagogue, and their primary business is agricultural in nature.

1390s: The Kalte Shul in Lyakhovichi was said to have been built in the 1390s. No archeological studies have been done to date. Brest-Litovsk had a number of Jewish communities under its jurisdiction throughout the Polessie region (where Lyakhovichi is) but most are not named. Vytaut, Grand Duke of Lithuania, is known to have settled Jews and Moslems on his properties in Troki, Novogorodok, and Osmena in this time period and allowed the building of mosques including the mosques at Novogrodek, Osmena, (and possibly that of Lyakhovichi which was built in this time period). Some of Vytaut’s property including Gernainys, Osmena, and Troki, was later the property of the Gostautas family which in the 1430s owned Lyakhovichi.

1399: Grand Duke Vytaut settles Crimean/Tatar Moslems and Karaite Jews from the same region in his family’s holdings. The Crimean Jewish community is settled in Troki, Vytaut’s capital. An older community of other Jews is already present in Troki at the time of the Karaite settlement. The Tatars are settled as soldiers in fortified areas including Troki, Novogrodek , Osmena. ( Lyakhovichi’s Moslem settlement is thought to date to this time) We do not know if Karaite Jews settled in the other Tatar communities too, like Lyakhovichi. Vytaut also allowed Jews who were not Karaites to settle in Troki. No cities are recorded as built on his properties in his ownership period, he is largely thought to have expanded communities inherited from his father Kestutis or acquired by his military actions.

15th Century

1400-1430: During this time period the established Jewish communities were headed by an “elder” who was selected by the community to represent them to the Duke, his Vovoide, and the Deputy Vovoide in tax and legal matters. The community was separately headed by a rabbi for internal matters. Some communities like Brest-Litovsk and Grodno had Bet Dins from this early time, but mostly the daily life of Jewish communities is unknown in this time period.

1436: Polish law was dominant in this period after Vytaut’s death, which allowed more opportunities to discriminate against the Jews contrary to their earlier privileges. More cities received Magdeburg charters allowing them to exclude Jews.

1447: King Kazimir of Poland (Casimir Jagellon) grants rights to Jews in all his Polish and Lithuanian territories specifically naming important towns such as Brest-Litovsk on August 14, 1447 and specifying that the right is to extend to the many territories that Brest-Litovsk and the others control.

1450s/60s: The Jewish community of Lyakhovichi was said in a history of Brest-Litovsk, to have been established in 1563. This is not possible because that year they were taxed as an established community and Jews from Lyakhovichi appeared in records dating back to the 1520s. In the list of cities taxed in 1563, Kletsk appears newer and less established but Kletsk purportedly had its Jewish community’s beginnings in the 1520s. The synagogue in Lyakhovichi was said to be five hundred years old before 1900, putting it into the fourteenth century. The date in 1563 might refer to a date at which the Jews of “Lachevitz” received a charter of rights, an event that often long followed settlement. In the period of 1400-1520s over two thousand new towns were created in Poland and Lithuania, and Jews were active in the process, though many of the towns have only been identified in research in the 20th century. Jan Gostautas was instrumental in creating many new towns on the lands he acquired in the 1430s, his documented interactions with Jews were positive, and he is known to have invited Jews to settle on his possessions.

1460s: King Kazimir of Poland, Casimir Jagellon, in 1463 conveyed property to individual Jews including several estates and leased to him their associated villages - in the district of Brest-Litovsk, one conveyance by deed and lease, was made to a man named Lewin Shlomovich. (“Russko-Yevreiski Archiv,” i., No. 5).

1490s: Jews that are settled in Brest-Litovsk are wealthy and stable enough to attract leading rabbis including Rabbi Yehiel Luria, at this early date.

1495: Grand Duke Alexander orders expulsion of Jews from Lithuanian cities. Many noblemen refuse to expel Jews from their estates. Most Jews are thought to have gone to Poland, the rest to the estates of other Lithuanian nobles, and to Bohemia. Alexander gives away Jewish property after the expulsion which he will allow them to pay to recover in eight years when he readmits them to the country.

16th Century

1503: Jews invited to return to all of Duchy of Lithuania because of their support of war against Moscow. Jews return to Brest-Litovsk, Grodno, and Troki, cities of the Lithuanian Grand Duke and they are found in the same time period in the private towns of Lithuanian nobles. Many lawsuits are recorded as individual Jews and communities try to get back assets ranging from houses to cemeteries.

1506: Jews establish community in Pinsk.

1507: King Sigismund I of Poland, Grand Duke of Lithuania renews Vytaut’s charter of rights to the Jews of Brest-Litovsk to all the Jews of Lithuania.

1514: King Sigismund I tries to create the post of Chief Rabbi and selects one each for Poland and Lithuania. But by 1516 Sigismund agreed to allow the election by the Jews of provincial chief rabbis and also lay leaders for each province who would represent Jewish interests to the crown.

1519: The Jews of Poland set up a Council of Four Lands (Great Poland –centered in Poznan; Little Poland – centered in Krakow; and areas centered in Lvov (Galicia) and Ostrog (the Volhynnian province later a Russian guberniya in the Ukraine) to adjudicate between different Jewish communities. They meet initially at the two annual fairs of Lublin and Yaroslav. The Lithuanian communities are not recorded with a central assembly before 1533.

1521: An anti-Jewish Lithuanian historian Justus Ludwig Decius, wrote in 1521 that “many Lithuanian magnates, including the greatest of the Commonwealth leaders” had turned over estate management to Jews. The greatest Commonwealth leaders in this time period were indisputably the Gostautas family who still owned Lyakhovichi.

1522: The Jewish settlements in Tiktin and Novodvor receive rights.

1523: Jews from Brest-Litovsk trade at the fairs in Lublin Poland.

1529: Jewish communities in Brest-Litovsk listed in government document of a special military taxation of Lithuanian Jewish communities- Brest, Grodno, Klodzk, Kobryn, Ludmir, Lyakhovichi, Machislav, Novodvor, Novogrodek, Pinsk, Slonim, Slutsk, Tiktin, Troki, Vladimir. According to Russko-Yevreiski Arkhiv, quoted in Jewish Encyclopedia, this was a three-part document- imposing requirements of militia service, requiring a full census, and imposing a tax based on that census.

1533: Documents refer to an assembly that speaks for all Lithuanian Jews.

1534: Sigismund I declares the Jews free in his realm from the Jew badge and other clothing marks required by The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215.

1539: During King Sigismund I’s reign (1507-1548) many areas in Poland and Lithuania were removed from direct king-ducal control and handed over to noble and church jurisdictions. He published a decision adopted by the Diet in 1539 that the king was only to be appealed to on Jewish matters related to Jews on his own territories or from whom he received a direct financial benefit.

1546: Printing house for Jewish books established in Brest-Litovsk.

1550: The number of Jews estimated to be in all of Lithuania is c.10,000. with the largest community in Brest-Litovsk. But in the Commonwealth created under the terms of the Union of Lublin (Poland-Lithuania), the Lithuanian Jewish community is so much smaller, it pays only one quarter of the assessed taxes and the Polish communities pay three quarters.

1550: Brest-Litovsk becomes a center of Jewish rabbinical learning when it opens earliest Yeshiva in Lithuania in 1550.

1550s: Jewish communities in Josly, Koval, Slonim, Mastevov, and Kremenitz. Jews are still being actively excluded from Vilna and Kovno. The number of Jewish communities in the Polish Crown lands are estimated at 173 and the number in Lithuanian lands are 30+. Each of those communities had small adjoining Jewish settlements of a few families each, totally under the jurisdiction of the larger. This is in a time period in which only eight cities in Poland-Lithuania had total combined Christian and Jewish populations of over 10,000 people, so a Jewish community of several hundred was considered large.

1559: A Jew, Moses Yakim of Lyakhovichi, is mentioned with another Jew, David of Kovno the Apothecary, in a lawsuit Oct 20, 1559 "Aktovyya Knigi Metriki Litovskoi Sudnykh Dyel," No. 39, fol. 24b.

1560: Specific streets are reserved to Jewish settlement and ownership despite previous town wide settlements - in Grodno just 3 streets were provided for Jewish residence and business despite a large community presence; Novogrodek Jews were given just 1 but they refused to relinquish their residences in the now disallowed neighborhoods;. the Jews of Kletsk continue to own property across the breadth of the city as they had in the censuses of the mid 1550s. (At that time Kletsk was on the same side of the river as Lyakhovichi, on the road to Lyakhovichi)

1563: A special tax was levied on the Commonwealth’s Jews - 12,000 grushim. Here is the way the taxes were divided among the Jews of Lithuania: On Minsk - 600 grushim; Stroja - 600; Lotzk - 550; Ludmir - 500; Troki - 376; Brisk - 264; Grodno - 200; Kremenitz - 140; Tiktin - 100; Dvoretz - 60; Novogrodok - 30; Lyakhovichi- 30; Kletzk - 15.

1563: All communities responsible for the 1563 taxes were required to maintain community registers, pinkasim, so regardless of the date of founding of Lyakhovichi, a register had to have been in existence from this date. Chevra Kadisha records and pinkasim of other organizations were not mandated and so might have started at any time, those of the Slutsk Chevra Kadisha began in 1679. This is the same year that the Council of Trent ordered Catholic parishes to begin keeping registers of baptisms, marriages, confirmations, and later required burials as well.

1563: Is the date said to be the “founding of Jewish communities in Ostroja, Dvoretz, Lachevitz and Toratz, but two of the towns are recorded with Jews in earlier tax lists. It may refer to the date charters or privileges were received or renewed.

1564: A Jew from Lyakhovichi, Samuel ben Israel, is named by the King’s Agent as one of 2 de facto rulers of Brest-Litovsk region during a time of epidemic.

1564: King Sigmund Augustus responded to a horrific charge of ritual murder in nearby Brest-Litovsk in 1564 by banning the charge in the Commonwealth, saying all such charges were groundless. (At his death in 1572 Jews all over Poland-Lithuania noted the death of the “righteous king” in their community registers).

1566: Taxes were levied on the Jews of Lithuania in the amount of 6,000 shuk grushim. The following communities were told to pay 3,760: Brisk - 1300; Lutzk - 500; Ostroja - 500; Ludmir - 300, Troki - 300; Grodno - 200; Tiktin - 170; Kremenitz - 150; the Jews of Novogrodok, Slonim, Lyakhovichi, Kletzk, Toretz, Chochri, Makas, Vilna and Kovno - altogether - 250.

1569: The Union of Lublin ends the right of Jews in Lithuania to dress as nobles and to travel armed with swords.

1572: New settlers including Jewish craftsmen and merchants welcomed into settlements owned by Chodkiewisz such as Skuodas Lithuania (possibly including Lyakhovichi). Chodkiewisz allows Jews to rebuild their older structures in stone on his properties.

1572: For the first time, Jewish communities in Poland and Lithuania noted the death of a King/Grand Duke in their minute books with the title “melech tzedek” righteous king when Sigismund Augustus died 26 Tammuz 5332, July 8, 1572.

17th Century

1623: The communities of Kletsk and Lyakhovichi and neighboring towns on the same side of the river as Lyakhovichi (Kletsk was on that side until 1705) were transferred from Brest-Litovsk region to Pinsk region.

1623: The Lithuanian Council of Provinces (Jewish governing organization) recognizes three regions – Brest-Litovsk, Pinsk, and Grodno and joins with the Polish Council of Four Lands. Both have been in existence for around a century.

1648-1654: There was no interest among the town’s owners, the family of the military commander of the the Polish-Lithuanian Republic, in surrendering the city, its fort or its Jews, to the Cossacks, so the Jews of Lyakhovichi were not murdered in the Khmelnitsky Massacres. During Russian-Polish War 1654-1667, Lyakhovichi was the only city not invested by Russians and so again the cossacks were kept out.

1652: The Lithuanian Council of Provinces (Jewish governing organization) requires each town with a rabbi to maintain a Bet Midrash for adults and a Yeshiva for younger students and to maintain the students at the Jewish community’s expense.

1680s: Grand Duchy of Lithuania takes a series of military censuses of fortified towns – we do not know if Lyakhovichi was among them, Slutsk was included in 1683 and 1689. Jews are part of the militias of most fortified towns in Lithuania.

18th Century

1740s: The Governor of Novogrodek Vovoidship commissions a detailed mapping of the vovoidship and its individual powiats. Leaseholders, owners, fords, roads, ferries, are marked on many of the charts.

1748: The head of the Yeshivah in Brest-Litovsk encouraged the founding of a Yeshivah in Lyakhovichi headed by Rabbi Azriel Gavza and by Rabbi Libla Magid. They began a thirty-year effort to create an environment for Torah study in Lyakhovichi. Their efforts resounded and for years after their deaths in 1773, Lyakhovichi was called "a city of scholars and Torah." At this time, Lyakhovichi is the first known Yeshiva outside of Brest-Litovsk to be founded in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania after the sixteenth century.

1764: The jurisdiction of the Council of Four Lands and the Lithuanian Council is ended and they are no longer allowed to represent the Jews of Poland and Lithuania to the Crown.

1765: Grand Duchy of Lithuania Census includes over 700 Jews in Lyakhovichi.

1784: Grand Duchy of Lithuania Census includes over 700 Jews in Lyakhovichi. We have examined this census and it is a list of all members of a household, men, women, and children. it lists first names, patronymics, ages, relation to head of household, and in some cases, occupation. It gives the total for 1784 and for 1764 and compares the difference. This material gives us every reason to believe that the 1764 census is just as comprehensive.

1793: The Lechovicher Hasidic Dynasty is established when Rebbe Mordechai of Lechowitz returns to the town after thirty years of active fieldwork for the new Hasidic movement. Lyakhavichi ranks with Karlin and Stolin in the preeminent Lithuanian Hasidic communities.

1795: The Russian government creates a new Revision List, a census of the new territories taken in the last Polish partition. It follows the traditions of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania Censuses. It is in Polish. It lists every member of the household down to small children over one year. It lists where the person had been resident prior to the Revision List being taken. It has a place for knowledgeable and authorized members of the Jewish community to sign it, attesting to its accuracy. We have not yet found the enumeration for Lyakhovichi. In an 1805 registry of those who want to keep Taverns in the Lyakhovichi area and register as townsmen in Lyakhovichi, many were former Lyakhovichi residents who had been enumerated in 1795 in Stvolovichi Kahal, 15 miles north of Lyakhovichi. We do not yet know the connection between the two towns, and we have not yet seen a Revision List for Stvolovichi, either.

1798: The leaders who have been preaching Hasidism to Lithuanian Jewish communities are arrested at the instigation of traditionalists and imprisoned. Released December 1798.