In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Poland Until The Late 18th Century

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Collected Works
  • Conference Proceedings
  • Journals
  • Karaites
  • Jews and the Church
  • Khazar Hypothesis
  • Early Centuries
  • Gzeyres Takh Vetat (1648–1649)
  • Mid-17th Century to the Period of the Partitions of Poland
  • Social History
  • Demography
  • Legal Issues
  • Economic Developments
  • Communal Institutions
  • Religious and Intellectual Culture
  • Education
  • Printing and Publishing
  • Sabbatianism/Frankism
  • Hasidism
  • Art and Architecture
  • Four-Year Sejm and Kościuszko Uprising

Jewish Studies Poland Until The Late 18th Century
Gershon David Hundert
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0016


The earliest incontestable evidence of Jewish presence in Polish lands dates from the 12th century, but it is likely that Jews were there earlier. Jews continued to move to Poland from points west through the 16th century. By the beginning of the 18th century, at least, the Polish Commonwealth was home to the largest Jewish community in the world. By 1765 the 750,000 Jews of Poland-Lithuania represented more than ten times the number then living in the future German Empire. Polish Jews were Ashkenazic and Yiddish-speaking and, although regional linguistic differences developed even within the lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the great linguistic divide was between Eastern Yiddish and Western Yiddish and conformed mainly to the divide between German- and Slavic-speaking realms. Polish Jews were more secure and had more extensive legal rights than their brethren in central and western Europe. This was a consequence of their economic role and of the multiethnic, multireligious character of the population of the Polish state. The decentralization of power in early modern Poland, which saw the appearance of powerful magnate-aristocrats, also led to a situation beneficial to Jewish security because these magnates believed Jews indispensable to the prosperity of their estates, which could include a dozen towns and hundreds of villages. On the other hand, Jews faced intense commercial competition that sometimes led to violence in the larger cities. The Polish church, particularly in the 18th century, fomented anti-Jewish animus and sometimes juridical torture and murder on the basis of false accusations of desecration of the Host and ritual murder. And there were terrible massacres of Jews in the mid-17th century, particularly in Ukraine, and again in 1768, especially at Uman. The large number of Jews, their relative security, and considerable autonomy, all contributed to a concatenation of cultural creativity, particularly in the period between 1550 and 1625 and again in the second half of the 18th century. In the 16th century, great yeshivas produced original contributions to the study of rabbinic literature and law, and to the explication of the Bible, as well as works of moral instruction. In the 18th century, the transformation of Jewish culture caused by the integration of Kabbalah led to a variety of new phenomena, most notably Hasidism. In the course of the 18th century, the approach to the study of Talmud, the very core of Jewish civilization, was transformed so that the focus was on the text itself. This was a large and growing community, deeply rooted in Polish-Lithuanian-Ukrainian soil.

General Overviews

The classic work Dubnow 1920 emphasizes the ramified communal and intercommunal organization of Polish Jews and the tensions between Jews and their neighbors. Baron’s magisterial volumes firmly place Jews in their political and cultural context. Volume 16 is entirely devoted to Jews in early modern Poland-Lithuania (Baron 1976). Bartal and Gutman 1997 and Bartal and Gutman 2001 combine studies by older authorities and contemporary scholars to produce a synthetic overview of Polish Jews through the generations. Mahler 1946 treats only social and economic history and reflects a thorough understanding of the demographic history of Polish Jews. Weinryb 1973 is more comprehensive, though there is almost no attention to the autonomous institutions of Polish Jews. The outstanding experts among Israeli academics contributed to the well-illustrated Etkes, et al. 1990–1998. Polonsky 2010 reflects recent approaches that seek to integrate the study of Polish and Jewish history. Bartal 2005 emphasizes the significance of the changes introduced by the imperial states that came to govern Polish lands as a result of the Partitions of Poland in 1772, 1793, and 1795.

  • Baron, Salo Wittmayer. A Social and Religious History of the Jews. Vol. 16, Late Middle Ages and Era of European Expansion, 1200–1650; Poland-Lithuania, 1500–1650. 2d ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976.

    Baron provides a magisterial overview, firmly placing Jews in their political and cultural context. Volume 16 covers Jews in early modern Poland-Lithuania. Also see Volume 3, Heirs of Rome and Persia (New York: Columbia University Press, 1957), in Part 2, High Middle Ages; Volume 10, On the Empire’s Periphery (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965), in Part 3, Late Middle Ages and Era of European Expansion, 1200–1650.

  • Bartal, Israel. The Jews of Eastern Europe, 1772–1881. Translated by Chaya Naor. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.

    Recent survey concentrating on the impact of the imperial state on east European Jews. Originally published in Hebrew (Tel Aviv: Israeli Ministry of Defence, 2002).

  • Bartal, Israel, and Israel Gutman, eds. Kiyum veshever: Yehude Polin ledoroteihem. Vol. 1, Pirke Historyah. Jerusalem: Merkaz Zalman Shazar, 1997.

    Includes classic essays by S. W. Baron and R. Mahler and contemporary studies by A. Teller and J. Kalik. Synthetic collective history of the prepartition period in about 250 pages.

  • Bartal, Israel, and Israel Gutman, eds. Kiyum veshever: Yehude Polin ledoroteihem. Vol. 2, Hevrah, Tarbut, Leumiyu. Jerusalem: Merkaz Zalman Shazar, 2001.

    Includes studies of education and premodern Jewish politics, as well as the historiography of the region.

  • Dubnow, Simon. History of the Jews in Russia and Poland from the Earliest Times until the Present Day. 3 vols. Translated by Israel Friedlaender. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1920.

    Classic survey, lachrymose and ideologically colored, but still useful. The first volume deals with the period under consideration here.

  • Etkes, Immanuel, David Assaf, and Israel Bartal, eds. Polin: Perakim betoledot yehude mizrah-eiropah vetarbutam. 6 vols. Ramat Aviv, Israel: Ha’universitah Hapetuhah, 1990–1998.

    Ten units in six volumes. Deals with Polish Jewry from the beginnings of settlement to World War I and includes synthetic treatments by leading scholars. Intended as a course for the Open University of Israel. Units 1–2, “Geographic, Demographic and Legal Foundations”; units 3–4, “Economic Activities; Communal Institutions”; units 5–6, “World of Torah”; unit 7, “Language, Education and Knowledge”; unit 8, “Polish Jews in Different States in the 19th Century”; units 9–10: “Early Hasidism.”

  • Mahler, Raphael. Toledot hayehudim bePolin: ‘Ad hame’ah ha-19. Translated by Avigdor Hameiri. Merhaviah, Israel: Sifriyat Poalim, 1946.

    First published in Yiddish in 1946. Despite the poor Hebrew translation and the ideological (Marxist-Zionist) coloring, this is a valuable survey of the social and economic history of Polish Jewry.

  • Polonsky, Antony. The Jews in Poland and Russia. Vol. 1, 1350–1881. Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2010.

    The most up-to-date and comprehensive history available.

  • Weinryb, Bernard Dov. The Jews of Poland: A Social and Economic History of the Jewish Community in Poland from 1100 to 1800. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1973.

    Remains valuable particularly for its concentration on economic and social issues.

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