Brief History of the Va’ad Arba Aratzos, Partition of Poland, and Napoleonic Wars

The Austro-Hungarian empire which included Galicia and Hungary, was in existence from 1867–1918 תרכ”ז – תרפ”ח.

After the Cossack uprising of ת”ח ות”ט 1648 against the Polish-Lithuanian Empire, the empire never recovered and was in a constant decline. Although the revolution was against the nobility of Poland, the Jewish communities suffered the most. 

Before the uprising, the Vaad Arba Aratzos, the Council of Four Lands, governed all the Jewish communities in those lands. It was the greatest self-rule that Jews had since the times of the Reish Galusa (Exilarch) in Babylon. All the community affairs were governed according to Halacha. The leading Poskim created the policy of the council. The council also initiated and funded many social services within the local Kehillos. Every Kehilla had to provide for the needy, the sick, for travelers, etc. The council raised taxes and supported all the Kehillos. The authority to this council was given by the Polish Empire. 

As Poland declined after the uprising, the council declined too. In year תקכ”ד 1764 four years after the Baal Shem Tov’s passing, the Polish government abolished the council.

The surrounding empires- the Russian, Austrian, and Prussian Empires- took advantage of Poland’s decline and of its internal fighting and partitioned pieces of Polish and Lithuanian land between them. This happened in three phases and is known as the first, second, and third partition of Poland.

With the first phase, Galicia was taken by the Austrian Empire in תקל”ב 1772. In תקנ”ג 1793 more pieces of Poland were annexed, and in תקנ”ה 1795, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth ceased to exist.

Not long after that, the Napoleonic Wars started throughout Europe, between the years תקס”ד – תקע”ב 1804-1812. Napoleon Bonaparte, the Emperor of the French, set out to conquer Europe. He established many states that were subordinate to his rule in France, but were still independent in local affairs.

The wars made great changes in Europe. It introduced the ideas of states and citizenship to Central and Eastern Europe. Everyone was equally a citizen of the state. 

At first he didn’t give citizenship to the Jews until he convened a lookalike Sanhedrin. He put before them questions of the Jewish relationship with the state, to ascertain the Jews’ loyalty to the state. The lookalike Sanhedrin was of course very controversial, but it satisfied Napoleon and he gave citizenship to the Jews. 

With citizenship came equal rights to the Jews. They were no longer confined to the ghetto and were free to engage in any trade. At the same time the Jews were limited in their self-rule since the state was now the one responsible for governing. This greatly diminished the power of the Rabbis and gave way for movements that were against Torah to gain steam and power. 

To be continued…

(Cover Photo: Pages of the Minutes of the Council (Courtesy: Wikipedia)