2.5.1 Jacob Brafmann and his Work

Leslie Fry

Waters Flowing Eastward

About the middle of the last century, Jacob Brafmann, a Jewish rabbi in Russia, became a convert to Christianity and spent the rest of his life endeavouring to throw light on the Jewish questions in general, and on the situation in Russia in particular, both in the interest of gentiles and of the Jews themselves. His two works, The Book of the Kahal,1 and The Jewish Brotherhoods,* were first published at government expense some sixty years ago and are still the best source of information on many points. Brafmann's story, given in his own words in the preface to the Book of the Kahal, is reprinted here :*

"During his majesty's (Alexander II) stay at Minsk in 1858, I submitted to him a report on the social status and organization of the Jews in Russia. Some time after, by order of the holy synod (April 29, 1859), I was called to St. Petersburg in connection with the report, and was subsequently (May 13, 1860) appointed professor of Hebrew at the Minsk seminary. I was also charged with finding a means for overcoming the obstacles to conversion to Christianity set up by the Jews ... Thoroughly familiar with the Jewish question (as I had professed Judaism till the age of thirty-four), I knew where to draw the materials necessary for the work, and the archbishop of Minsk furnished me with the means. My task was facilitated by the co-operation of several enlightened Jews4. I thus obtained valuable material which served not only for the work in hand, but also to throw light on the Jewish question in general, as well as their social and religious organization in Russia.

This material included over a thousand acts of the Jewish Kahal (civil administration), and of the beth-dins (Talmudic law courts), showing the power and extent of their secret government. The Kahal goes so far as to decree what individuals may be invited to, and what dishes served at, a Jewish family feast.

On the important question, whether the law of the land is binding on the Jews, the comments in the Talmud are evasive, but the documents here listed (under Nos. 5, 16, 166) show that the Jews must abide by the instructions of the Kahal and the beth-din, in contradistinction to the law of the land and their own conscience.

Similarly, on the question of the real estate and appurtenances belonging to non-Jews, the Talmud is obscure; but the thirty-seven acts cited in our fifth article prove conclusively that the Kahal may sell to Jews the right (Hasaka and Meropie) to the real estate and appurtenances of any gentile. The documents also prove that the Kahal and the beth-din are not bound to judge according to Jewish law, but may hand down personal decisions as they please-Thus, by secret acts, the Jews circumvent their Christian competitors and acquire a controlling share of the capital and real estate of the country.

I submitted these documents together with my recommendations to Gov. Gen. von Kaufmann, who appointed a commission to examine them, with the result that the official Jewish Kahal was suppressed by the circular of Aug. 34, 1867.

The authenticity of all the documents is thoroughly established; the 290 documents published herewith cover the period from 1794 to 1803. To facilitate their study, they have been arranged in seventeen categories, each preceded by a short explanation on the laws and customs referred to, and indicating their real aim and influence on the Jews and on the gentiles."

As the subject of Brafmann's other work, The Jewish Brotherhoods, has been treated rather fully in chapter II, it is hardly necessary to give an analysis of the book here.

1. First edition (Vilna, 1869), excellent German translation by Siegfried Passarge, Das Such vom Kahal (Hammer Verlag, Leipzig, 1928), 2 vol. French translation by Mgr. Jouin, Les Sources de VimpM- alisme juif: Le Qahal (Paris, 1925).

2. (Vilna, 1868).

3. Our translation, somewhat abbreviated.

4. See Vilna Gazette (1866), 169: " Views of an individual Jew."

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