Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century: A Genealogy of Modernity

By Weeks, Theodore R. | Shofar, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century: A Genealogy of Modernity


Weeks, Theodore R., Shofar


Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century: A Genealogy of Modernity, by Gershon David Hundert. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. 286 pp. $50.00.

In the 18th century the largest Jewish community in the world lived within the bounds of the Poland-Lithuanian Commonwealth. As is well known, it was precisely in this state and at this time (to be more precise, towards the end of the century) that hasidism developed and the feud between the misnogdim and hasidim arose (a feud which unfortunately continues to this day, as observers of very recent events in Vilnius will know). Spiritually the community had been shaken by the Sabbatai Zvi episode and its aftermath in the later 17th century; in the following century the Jewish community and the Commonwealth as a whole have traditionally been portrayed as "in decline." And of course the entire state was destroyed with the Partitions of Poland between the 1770s and 1795. Despite-or perhaps because of-this unsettled political and economic climate, within the Jewish community trends appeared which would transform it in subsequent decades. Gershon David Hundert's marvelous new book on this community and this century bears a telling subtitle: "A Genealogy of Modernity." Hundert's primary argument here is that the transformations of the 19th century were prefigured by developments in the pre-1795 period. In one sense, then, this book is a "first chapter" to David E. Fishman's very different (but similarly stimulating) study Russia's First Modern Jews: The Jews of Shklov.

This book is valuable on many levels. To start with, it is a well-written and compelling overview of an extremely important Jewish community during an understudied period. Communal organizations, relations with the "outside" (secular and religious institutions in the Commonwealth), and the internal, everyday functioning of the community are all considered in detail. Hundert discusses both the obvious (the function of the Rabbi) and the not-so-obvious ("Sumptuary and Alimentary Regulation") in his description of how Jews lived in this place and time. An entire chapter examines the issue of the almost univerally assumed "communal crisis" of the 18th century. Hundert admits (and details) the many squabbles and even rebellions within various kahals, but he argues that these frictions did not in fact stop the kahals from functioning and cannot properly be termed a "crisis."

Having analyzed, as it were, the "external," worldly side of Jewish life in Poland-Lithuania, Hundert turns to changes in the internal life of the spirit. Following Jacob Katz he remarks on the growth or Kabbalah study and "kabbalistic practice" (p. …

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