Jews settled in eastern Europe in the Middle Ages. During the first centuries of Jewish settlement in Poland, the legal and economic conditions resembled those of Jewish communities in western Europe, where Jews were mostly urban dwellers, engaged in trade and banking, and relied on royal power for privileges and protection. The famous privilege granted to Jews of Poland by Prince Bolesław the Pious of 1264 harks back to earlier privileges received by Jews of Austria from Duke Frederick in 1241. The Germanic character of the towns contributed to the retention of the Germanic language that Jews brought with them, a language that would eventually become Yiddish.

But much more significant migration of Jews to Poland occurred during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, again from the West. The majority of the Jews who arrived in this period established or strengthened already existing communities in western territories of the Polish Crown. It was at this time that two major centers of Jewish life emerged in Poland, Poznań and Cracow. Jews had also lived in less significant numbers in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as early as the fifteenth century. By the sixteenth century, the total number of Jewish communities in eastern Europe had reached about 60.

When Poland merged with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 1569, the expansion to the east offered new opportunities for both Polish lords and, along with them, Jews. Jews began moving eastward in larger numbers and started assuming new functions as administrators of nobles’ estates. This move to the east was discouraged by rabbis from more established communities, who feared the consequences of Jews living in rural areas at great distances from established Jewish communities.

Until 1539, Jews had been under direct royal authority. Unlike in the West, where charters granted to Jews had time limits, in Poland such charters were permanent but had to be reconfirmed by each king. The Jews’ status was that of free subjects, who had freedom of movement, the right to bear arms and to participate in defending the towns in which they lived, and the right to own real estate. They had full autonomy but were subject to royal courts in lawsuits involving both Jews and Christians. As a result of these conditions, Jews were able to become quite prominent in the royal economy of Poland, not only as bankers and merchants, as the various charters suggest, but also as tax and toll collectors, as highly positioned administrators, and even as lessees of royal salt mines, on which the crown had a monopoly.

Some Jews, such as members of the Ezofowicz family in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, became high-profile royal officials. Scattered evidence suggests that their status allowed them to sue nobles. A document in from Masovia suggests that for a brief period Jews were subject to jus nobilium, that is, to the laws of nobility. Moreover, in the early period of their presence in Poland, Jews, like nobles, were required to supply riders in the event of war. At least for a while, then, Polish monarchs accorded Jews a status similar to that of the nobility.

But in the sixteenth century, Polish nobility began to assert its position and privileges against the authority of the King. In 1538, the Polish Sejm [parliament] of Piotrków prohibited Jews from managing the taxes and tolls, and from holding any honorary offices. In 1539, the Polish Sejm granted nobles full jurisdiction over Jews living in towns and villages under their domain. But, as the 1565 constitution confirming the laws against Jews’ managing or leasing of taxes, tolls, and salt mines suggests, despite efforts to marginalize Jews from the royal economy and despite the shift to the noble estates, Jews remained fairly prominent in the royal economy.

As Poland’s political system changed, so did the Jews’ economic and political position. As Poland’s political structure shifted, a strong monarchy gave way to a decentralized republic dominated by nobles. The initial Jewish reliance on the king and the privileges he granted receded, and Jews became dependent on the direct protection of powerful nobles. The issuance of privileges illustrates this shift. While royal privileges were not entirely displaced and remained valid in royal domains (and at least symbolically throughout Poland), they were superseded by private settlement privileges granted by individual land owners to the Jews who lived in their lands and served them. As these documents suggest, Jews were no longer principally bankers and merchants, as they had been in the medieval period, but lease-holders of businesses, mills and breweries, as well as, in some cases, managers of estates and agents of nobles.

For Jews who were living in privately-owned towns, this change was not immediately beneficial. Such Jews lost recourse to royal courts, and could no longer turn to the king for protection. The law of 1539 granting nobles full jurisdiction over Jews in their domains meant that they might now enjoy all profits the Jews brought to them. But as the king’s position continued to weaken in favor of the nobility, Jews in these towns also gained, since the lords often acted to protect Jews on their lands from royal taxation. Not surprisingly, this sometimes led to conflicts between “royal” and “lords’” Jews.

Through the emerging legal arrangement, some Jews who became agents and administrators of the nobles’ feudal estates attained authority over Christians, including the right to judge and punish the lord’s subjects. Some lease-contracts even included a “capital punishment” clause, although such a clause was often mitigated by a requirement that the lord be notified in capital cases. For example, according to a contract between two Jewish lease-holders and a nobleman in the region around the city of Vitebsk signed in 1638, the Jewish leaseholders had not only the usual right to all proceeds from these lands, both monetary and in produce and animals, but also authority over all serfs, free peasants and boyars- “[The Jewish lease-holders have the right to] hold the lease in peace and to enjoy all proceeds they will achieve by their entrepreneurship, to judge, govern and punish landed proprietors [ziemianie], boyars, serfs and townspeople [living within that latifundium] with monetary penalties – and should a necessity arise, also to punish with death. [The lease-holders] have the right to pursue justice for themselves and those who need it….”

Jewish leaders also acknowledged such prominence of Jews in the nobles’ economy and their power over the lords’ subjects. Rabbi Joel Sirkes stated that “Jews rule and have dominion over them and they [the lords’ subjects] regard them [the Jews] as kings and princes.” And in 1653, Nathan Nata Hanover, writing in the aftermath of the Chmielnicki uprising of 1648-9 that had claimed thousands of both Jewish and Christian lives, noted that “even the lowliest among them [Jews] became their overlords,” and referred one of the Jews as a “ruler of the town” [moshel ha-`ir]. The prominence of Jews in nobles’ estates continued to the dismantling of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the late eighteenth century, when it was partitioned among its more powerful neighbors.