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The Jewish Community

Parameters of Communal Autonomy

Elka Klein

Two factors gave shape to the individual Jewish community.

  1. The will of the ruler: The autonomy of Jewish communities was a convenient arrangement for all parties, the non-Jewish lords as much as the Jews. Grants of autonomy were of course not restricted to Jews; all sorts of groups at one time or another received the right to at least partial self-determination, either explicitly as a privilege, or by simple neglect. The degree of autonomy granted to Jewish communities varied both formally and informally. Formally, certain areas of law were generally reserved by the ruler, for example, homicide. Different regulations applied to cases involving non-Jews. Informally, some rulers interfered more than others in the internal affairs of the communities; the implications of this sort of interference has been discussed most carefully for the Crown of Aragon (Assis, Golden Age, 19-48).



  3. Jewish law: To whatever degree it existed, autonomy created a skeleton which could be fleshed out at the will of those who dwelt within it. Most other groups would have had to fill it out by creating institutions or laws, but Jewish communities had a fully developed legal tradition behind them, complete with its own concepts of community and authority. The precedents for the authority of Jewish communities derive from the classic sources of halakhah (Jewish law). Precedents focused primarily on the obligation of the individual to contribute to public needs, or to submit to communal decisions. One of the most often cited of these precedents is: "[A resident of a city] may be compelled to contribute to the building of a wall, folding doors and a cross bar" (Mishnah, Baba Batra 1:5). This principle was generalized to mean that by living in a community one was obligated to contribute to measures designed to protect everyone in the community. Talmudic commentary on this passage expanded on the question of what constituted protection, and who needed it.
The context of this passage is important. It is found in a chapter dealing with the nature of partnerships. The right to coerce citizens to build or repair fortifications is equivalent to the right of one partner to coerce another to build or repair the gate of a common courtyard. The weakness of this model was that one partner could coerce another only in such cases.

Communal needs beyond protection are addressed by a parallel text, which states that "the citizens can force each other to build a synagogue and to buy a Torah scroll, or books of the Prophets; the citizens are permitted to regulate prices, measures and wages; they are permitted to compel [observance of] their rulings" (Tosefta Baba Metzia 11:23; cited in Talmud, Baba Batra 8b, 9b). The passage does not address how this agreement was to be reached: unanimously or by majority decision; this issue was the subject of much debate in the middle ages (see below).

Even more ambiguity was introduced by a Talmudic dictum which vested greater authority in a decision made by the "seven good men of the city (tovei ha'ir) in an assembly of the men of the city" (Talmud Megillah 26ab). The passage is not clear whether the alternative was a decision made by the leaders without the assembly, or by the assembly without the leaders; it is equally unclear about the nature of the authority of the good men. Another talmudic passage limits the authority of the community to punish the violation of communal decrees to situations in which there was no "distinguished man" in the town (Talmud, Baba Batra 9a). The ambiguity of these texts left considerable room for debate and improvisation in the Jewish communities of medieval Europe (Albeck, 85-121).

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Copyright (C) 1998, Elka Klein. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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