Kahal

Kahal or Qahal. A Hebrew term meaning ‘assembly’ or ‘community’ referring to the autonomous governments of Jewish communities in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Russian Empire. Kahals emerged on Ukrainian territories under Polish rule in the early 16th century, when they were formed to administer the collective taxation of the Jews in the Commonwealth. Each community had a single kahal, although some smaller communities were placed under the jurisdiction of larger ones. In internal affairs they enjoyed virtual political autonomy: they regulated local commerce, education, the treatment of transients, hygiene and sanitation, and relations between landlords and tenants, and administered charity. Local rabbis were under their authority, and kahal courts ruled on almost all religious and secular disputes according to Jewish law. They also had the power to expel members from the synagogue, placing them outside the law. Representatives from the kahals participated in the annual meetings of the central Jewish organ in the Polish Kingdom, the Council of the Four Lands.

Kahals had at least 8 members in the smallest and 22–35 members in medium-sized communities. The executive consisted usually of 4 elders (rashim) and 3–5 ‘honorary’ members (tuvim); they, the rabbi, and some other officials with specific responsibilities (eg, judges) were paid by the kahal. The executive was elected by the community. Initially, everyone was enfranchised, and the kahals defended the interests of all Jews, but over time the wealthy and privileged came to dominate these groups and used their powers to ensure their positions. In the 18th century many Jews began calling for abolition of kahals, especially as they were increasingly drawn into the struggles between the various religious movements and political groupings. Many kahals became indebted.

After the Polish partitions the influence of kahals within the Russian Empire progressively declined as the state assumed more direct power over Jews. In 1827, however, they were given the added responsibility of providing conscripts for the army. In 1844 they were officially abolished by the tsarist regime in Ukraine and most of the rest of the empire; they continued to exist only in the Baltic region. Afterwards, Jewish communities were given jurisdiction only over religious and charitable affairs, and occasionally over education.

Petro Kachur

[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 2 (1989).]




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