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Also kehilla. Literally, community. During the Middle Ages, Jewish localities were organized into communities which had considerable power to govern themselves. The makeup of the Jewish community had developed over the ages in Palestine and in Babylonia and continued with some changes in the West. The community derived its power to manage all Jewish affairs and institutions of the Jewish community from several sources. First was the personal obligation and need for Jews to live according to Talmudic religious and civil law. Therefore, every member of the community had definite rights and duties that could not be taken away. Second, the Jewish community was granted power by the non-Jewish world to conduct its own affairs and enforce its rules.

The feudal barons, kings, and princes of the Church who “owned” the Jews living in their various domains held the kahal responsible for a tax placed on the entire Jewish community. Christian governments throughout the Middle Ages followed the same practice. Community officials, consequently, had the authority to decide how much individuals were to be taxed.

The term kahal came to be applied to the local governments of the Jewish communities in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia during the 16th century. The head of the kahal was called the rosh ha-kahal, or the parnas, and had considerable authority and prestige. He was assisted by gabbaim, or overseers, usually seven. The kahal had its own courts of law to which Jews reported all disputes. The community had the right to enforce its decision by means of imprisonment, flogging (no more than 39 lashes), or temporary or permanent excommunication, or herem, which was the most dreaded punishment because it meant being barred completely from contact with any other Jew, including members of one’s immediate family.

Life within the kahal proceeded according to age-old tradition. Public life revolved around the synagogue, since not only religious worship, but also meetings and weddings took place there. The community school, or Talmud Torah, open to the destitute, was housed in some part of the synagogue. Often, the hostel, or hekdesh, provided by the community for strangers, was located in a synagogue annex, as was the public bathhouse, or mikveh. Public charities in the community were well organized, and no Jew was ever left without help. Learning was highly valued, and illiteracy was rare. Most of the officials, usually chosen for their learning, served without salary. For a time, the rabbi also served without salary, and was the religious authority, the teacher, and the guide of the community. Between 1580 and 1764, the kahal reached a high form of development in the Council of the Four Lands. Delegates of the communities from Great Poland, Little Poland, Podolia, and Galicia met, at first once and later twice a year, to regulate the affairs of the people.

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