Book of the Kahal: Materials for the Study of the Jewish Life

Jacob Brafman


Note I

An agent of the kahal who is charged with monitoring Jewish cases in the police and in giving gifts to officials is a Jewish middleman.

Jews utilize the art of the middleman not only in trade, but also in all aspects of life. That is why, in Jewish cities, the middleman is always alert: not only in the store, or the shop, or the inn, or other business and trade establishments, but also in administrative, juridical, and police institutions, and frequently even in the apartments of the persons belonging to these institutions.

These legions of middlemen—who are able to catch, so to speak, every movement in life and to extract from it substantial benefit for themselves, while also turning it into a communal Jewish goal—are divided into several classes. Each class has its own specialists: there are middlemen for trade, middlemen for contracts, middlemen who are engaged in procurement, and middlemen for issues that are legal, administrative, etc. [ . . . ]

Note III

There is no Jewish community, within or outside the empire, in which there aren’t a few Jewish fraternal associations, and there is almost no single Jew who doesn’t belong to some kind of fraternity.

The influence of these associations on the social and private life of Jews, both morally and materially, and on the social life of the country with a significant Jewish population, is very significant. Jewish fraternities are, so to speak, the arteries of Jewish society, and their heart is the kahal. Those who haven’t first familiarized themselves with this powerful institution are unlikely to have a completely clear understanding of Jews as a whole and, in particular, of the organization of their communities and the internally engineered ties that link all Jews, scattered all over the entire world, into one powerful and unconquerable whole. But the most cursory investigation we dedicated to this subject amounted to a fairly bulky volume. It could not be contained here among the notes and we had to publish it separately.1 [ . . . ]

Note V

The maxim “Jews form a state within a state,” with which Schiller concludes and summarizes his description of Jewish life in Egypt 3,600 years ago, is quite justifiably applied by many to the life of the Jewish people in our time; but since a state without a territory is unthinkable, the above maxim was considered up to this point to be more of a poetic expression than a historical truth. In this book, which reveals for the first time the territory over which the Jewish kahal has always spread and currently spreads its laws, and which it actually subjected and continues to subject to its rule, the maxim gains the significance of irrefutable truth, and in this way it transforms from a question into an axiom. The territory of the Jewish kingdom is introduced to us in the law of the kahal regarding ḥezkat yishuv, that is, regarding the kahal’s control over the territory and population of its region. [ . . . ]

Note VII

In every Jewish society there are secure spaces that are constructed and supported by the kahal with community funds. These buildings are everywhere sizable, and located close to a synagogue or, more accurately, in the courtyard of a synagogue. To explain why such a community building is necessary right next to a synagogue, we must take a quick look at the general organization of the school or synagogue yard.

In cities and shtetls of the Jewish Pale, under the designation of the synagogue or school yard, we must understand a fairly small space, usually in the so-called Jewish quarter of the city, on which the following Jewish community buildings are constructed: 1) bet ha-keneset (the main synagogue), 2) bet ha-midrash (prayer house and school), 3) bet ha-merḥats with a mikveh (a public bath house with a ritual bath), 4) ḥeder ha-kahal (the chamber of the kahal), 5) bet din (Talmudic court), 6) hekdesh (infirmary and shelter for the poor), and others. The main synagogue’s internal and external appearance is most impressive among the Jewish prayer houses. Nevertheless, since it is a cold building, it serves as the center for communal prayer only on the festivals of the new year and Yom Kippur, and on special occasions such as, for example, the appearance of a famous cantor in the city, or of a renowned preacher, or the case of some official’s desire to visit a Jewish prayer house. At other times of the year, the main center for communal prayer is right next to the synagogue on the school yard, the bet ha-midrash. The bet ha-midrash has other names as well. It serves as the main center for the development of Talmud scholarship. In the morning and in the evening after prayer, different fraternities gather to listen to the wisdom of the Talmud from the lips of their teachers, and for many homeless people who dedicate themselves to the Talmud, the bet ha-midrash serves as a shelter which is never abandoned, day or night. Aside from this, the bet ha-midrash serves as a place for the discussion of the most important communal questions; in it are located the public and fraternity libraries. In the same place, next to the synagogue and the bet ha- midrash, there are always kahal baths with a mikveh.

Around this core center, placed closely together, are many private prayer houses—kloyzes, yeshivas, talmudei torah—which, similarly to the bet ha-midrash, serve as spaces for different learning establishments at which many Jews of different ages and social standing sacrifice their time and their moral and physical energies for the study of spiritual and civic Talmudic laws, and where every homeless wanderer and drifter can find a safe and unrestricted shelter. Aside from this, on the school yard there is always the kahal’s house, the character and dealings of which are introduced to us by all the kahal’s laws set out in this collection. Right next to this building, there necessarily must be the remainder of an ancient Sanhedrin, living to this day under the protection of the republic of the kahal and making up its legal department; this is the bet din (which will be discussed later), with its own rabbi, or rosh bet din, at the head, who has space for himself and his family here as well.

Translated by


This book was published under the title Jewish Local and Global Fraternities. By Y. Brafman. Vilnius, 1869.


I︠A︡kov Aleksandrovich Brafman, Kniga Kagala: materialy dli︠a︡ izuchenīi︠a︡ evreĭskago byta (Vilʹna: Pechatni︠a︡ Vilenskago Gub. pravlenīi︠a︡, 1869), XX, XXI, XXIV, XXVIII - XL,

Published in: The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, vol. 6.

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