The history of the Jews of Lite is closely tied to that of all Polish Jews. Originally from the Rhineland, they fled Germany for Poland in the late Middle Ages, during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, to escape soldiers of the Crusades who were raiding European Jewish communities on their way to the Holy Land. Then, in the fourteenth century, many more Jews ran from attacks of angry peasants who blamed the People of the Book for causing the Black Plague. Most Jews who left Germany during these difficult years settled in Poland, where they came into contact with landholders and peasants who communicated in Slavic tongues. In this new linguistic and cultural environment, Yiddish underwent a radical transformation and developed into what linguists identify as Middle Yiddish. Jews spoke this version of the language from about 1500 to 1750. Finally, beginning in the middle of the eighteenth century, modern Yiddish emerged, with several minor dialectical variations, which the Jews of Poland and Lithuania were still speaking at the outbreak of World War II. Throughout all these years, Yiddish remained closely tied to German in vocabulary and grammatical structure, but it also continued to use lexical, morphological, semantic, and syntactic elements from Hebrew, Aramaic, Slavic tongues, Old French, and Old Italian.
German Jews came to Poland in the late Middle Ages because this "backward" land offered them the opportunity to enjoy political and cultural autonomy in ways they never dreamed possible in the West. In the thirteenth century the Poles concluded that German entrepreneurs could help modernize their people. Eager to develop Poland's commerce and industry, feudal princes invited Germans to settle their lands. They cared little about whether they were Gentiles or Jews. As far as they were concerned, Germans of any religion would bring civilization to their backward land. Thus, when life grew unbearable in Germany during the late Middle Ages, thousands of Jews left their homeland and moved to Poland, to a more primitive country, perhaps, but one in which they could live freely as Jews in exchange for helping the Poles develop their local economy.
In 1264, despite papal pressures to the contrary, King Boleslav of Kalish, ruler of Greater Poland, received the fleeing Jews with open arms. Offering them social and political autonomy, the king permitted this persecuted people to take charge of their community's internal affairs, with virtually no interference from him. Jews, it is true, still had to live in segregated parts of town and wear special badges, but they gained the freedom to appoint Jewish leaders to look after their people's secular and spiritual affairs. During the reign of Casimir (1346-1370), Poland became even more inviting because that monarch laid the foundations for establishing truly autonomous Jewish communities. Interested in attracting Ruthenians, Armenians, Tatars, and Germans, he promised all foreigners the right to manage their own affairs.
In 1386 Yadwiga, the future queen of Poland, married Grand Duke Yagiello of Lithuania. With this union, the people of Lithuania converted to Catholicism and the two kingdoms became administratively one. Now Jews could move into Lithuania as well, and they found conditions there even more favorable than they had been in Poland. Like Casimir, the grand duke was eager for Jews to settle down in his territories, and he promised them both autonomy and protection. The fate of Lithuania remained tied to that of Poland until the end of the eighteenth century, at which time the kingdom became part of the czarist empire.
During the fifteenth century, the Jews continued to enjoy communal and judicial autonomy, thanks to the support they received from the aristocracy. The years between 1501 and 1648 were particularly peaceful and productive. Taking advantage of their good fortune, the Jews of Poland and Lithuania expanded their economic and cultural activities and transformed the community into one of the most important centers of religious learning in the history of the Jewish people.
Free to run their communities as they wished, rabbis turned Poland into a second Babylonia, organizing the life of their people according to the laws meticulously set out in the Talmud, preserving in this way the traditions of their spiritual ancestors. But these religious leaders did not merely depend on the teachings of the past; they also produced a vast new literature, developing the field of religious scholarship and refining many points of theological debate that had remained unresolved in the medieval texts.
According to the Russian Jewish historian Simon Dubnow, between 1501 and 1648 the Jewish population of Poland grew from about 50,000 to 500,000. Here, in their eastern European home, these descendants of the Rhineland did not have to restrict their financial endeavors to money lending or petty trade as they were forced to do in Germany in the late Middle Ages. On the contrary, they engaged in a wide range of economic activities, serving as financiers, customs officers, and tax collectors. Employed by feudal lords, Jews went to the homes of Polish, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian peasants to collect rent from poor families who tilled the land and taxes from those who produced alcohol. Other Jews went into the business of distilling alcohol themselves, whereas still others worked in salt mines or entered the lumber industry.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Polish/Lithuanian government treated the Jews as a separate estate, an independent social body. As such, Jews had national (i.e., cultural) autonomy and civic freedom as well. Living together in their own parts of town, they existed as distinct Jewish cities within Christian ones, with their own religious, administrative, judicial, and charitable institutions. Every town appointed its own rabbinical council ( kehilah ) and levied taxes on all its members to support local programs. Instead of paying an individual tax to the king, each community made a single payment through this council.
Individual town councils belonged to a chief Jewish council composed of rabbis elected by representatives from each community. Within Poland there were four such bodies and in Lithuania there was one more. With this hierarchy of councils Polish/Lithuanian Jews established the necessary structures to oversee their people's cultural and political development, a remarkable achievement for a stateless people, who had no land of their own.
School was compulsory for all boys between the ages of 6 and 13 years of age. Male children learned the Torah in Hebrew and in Yiddish. They also studied the commentaries, the Talmud, Hebrew grammar, and some math. Gifted students went on to yeshivas, schools of higher learning controlled by the community's rabbis and council.
Despite all this activity, Lithuanian Jews remained on the cultural fringe of European Jewry until the seventeenth century, at which time its yeshivas began to produce a number of distinguished rabbis. It took another 150 years before Lithuania became the major center of Talmudic scholarship in the world. This occurred in the second half of the eighteenth century, under the scholarly leadership of Elijah ben Solomon, the gaon ("genius") of Vilna, whose innovations in Talmudic study continue to influence scholars to the present day. The gaon challenged the caustic method in fashion in the eighteenth century and called for students of the Talmud to work closely with the text, reading it along with the many other commentaries compiled over the centuries to help interpret the law. He also believed that in order to understand the Five Books of Moses, it was necessary to study grammar intensively, and also the sciences.
The gaon of Vilna lived during a tumultuous period in the history of eastern European Jewry, when Jewish communities in the Ukraine were rising up in rebellion against the authority of the Talmudic, or rabbinic, tradition and were following the more spontaneous and less learned teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of a movement of Jewish mystics known as Hasidism. Defending the rabbinic tradition, the gaon of Vilna and his disciples launched a vigorous campaign against Hasidism and successfully prevented the popular movement from ever gaining much of a stronghold in Lite. They accomplished this in part by establishing yeshivas to carry on the gaon's scholarly approach to religious study. From this time on, the Jews of Lithuania earned the reputation for being cool intellectuals, gifted scholars with sharp wits, who based their religious convictions on the written and oral law. Litvaks, it was said, had little patience for sentimental outbursts and personalized relationships with God. This reputation even followed those who subsequently left Jewish orthodoxy and joined cultural and political movements inspired by the western European Enlightenment.
During the mid-nineteenth century, Lithuania became one of the most important centers of the eastern European Jewish Enlightenment. For representatives of rabbinic Judaism, the Enlightenment, or Haskalah, presented a threat even more dangerous than Hasidism. To combat this new wave of modernity, the Lithuanian rabbi Israel (Salanter) Lipkin founded the Mussar movement, which called for the study of ethics.
Despite dire predictions by the rabbinic community, the Lithuanian Haskalah did not encourage assimilation the way the Enlightenment had done in western Europe, Poland, and southern Russia. It promoted cultural nationalism instead and the possibility of living as a secular Jew. In the process, the Haskalah paved the way for the development of a modern Jewish literature in Hebrew and Yiddish and Jewish nationalist movements that were profoundly influenced by the ideals of the French Enlightenment, German humanism, and western European romanticism. Enlightened Jews in Lithuania embraced the dream of participating in the common European project of creating a secular and universal culture in their own national tongues. Some even envisioned the establishment of an ethnically unified Jewish nation-state modeled on the western European ideal. As early as the 1870s, nearly thirty years before Theordor Herzl held the first international Zionist meeting in Switzerland, the Lithuanian Hibbat Zion group was publishing articles about Jewish nationalism and the need for creating settlements in Israel. Unlike Herzl, who assumed that the national tongue of Jews would be German, Lithuanian Zionists called for the revival of Hebrew and for the building of modern Hebrew schools throughout the Pale of Settlement.
Lite also became the cradle of Jewish socialist movements, the most important of which was the Bund (the General Jewish Workers Union in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia), which was founded in 1897 in Vilna and promoted cultural autonomy for European Jews in multinational states. Through the efforts of the Bund and other political and cultural movements, and the encouragement they gave to the development of a Yiddish literary tradition, by the end of World War I Yiddish had gained the League of Nations' recognition as the official language of Jewish national minorities throughout eastern Europe. This accomplishment, however, was short-lived, for Yiddish, together with other expressions of Jewish culture in Europe, was virtually wiped out with the destruction of European Jewry during World War II.