The first Jews arrived in the territory of modern Poland in 10th century. Travelling along the trade routes leading eastwards to Kiev and Bukhara, the Jewish merchants (who included the Radhanites) also crossed the areas of Silesia. One of them, a diplomat and merchant from the Moorish town of Tortosa in Al-Andalus, known under his Arabic name Ibrahim ibn Jakub was the first chronicler to mention the Polish state under the rule of prince Mieszko I. The first actual mention of Jews in Polish chronicles occurs in the 11th century. It appears that Jews were then living in Gniezno, at that time the capital of the Polish kingdom of Piast dynasty. Some of them were wealthy, owning Christian serfs in keeping with the Feudal system of the times. The first permanent Jewish community is mentioned in 1085 by a Jewish scholar Jehuda ha Kohen in the city of Przemyśl.
The first extensive Jewish emigration from Western Europe to Poland occurred at the time of the First Crusade (1098). Under Boleslaw III Krzywousty (1102–1139), the Jews, encouraged by the tolerant régime of this ruler, settled throughout Poland, including over the border into Lithuanian territory as far as Kiev. At the same time Poland saw immigration of Khazars, a Turkic tribe that had converted to Judaism. Boleslaw on his part recognized the utility of the Jews it the development of the commercial interests of his country. The Prince of Kraków, Mieczyslaw III (1173–1202), in his endeavor to establish law and order in his domains, prohibited all violence against the Jews, particularly attacks upon them by unruly students (żacy). Boys guilty of such attacks, or their parents, were made to pay fines as heavy as those imposed for sacrilegious acts.
Coins unearthed in 1872 in the Polish village of Glenbok bear Hebrew inscriptions, suggesting that Jews were in charge of the coinage in Great and Little Poland during the twelfth century. These coins bear emblems having inscriptions of various characters; in some examples only the name of the king or prince being given, as, for instance, "Prince Meshko", while in others the surname is added, as "Meshek the Blessed" or "the Just." Some of the coins, moreover, bear inscriptions having no direct reference to Poland, to the reigning princes, or even to the coin itself, but referring to incidents of a purely Jewish character, as, for instance, "Rejoice, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob"; "Abraham Duchs and Abraham Pech (some scholars, including Maximilian Gumplovicz and Avraham Firkovich, identified, probably erroneously, "Pech" with the Khazar title of Bek)." Similar coins had been discovered elsewhere several years earlier; but, owing to their peculiar inscriptions, doubts were expressed, even by such a noted numismatist as Joachim Lelewel, as to their being coins at all. Their true nature was revealed only with the discovery of the Glenbok treasure. All the inscriptions on the coins of the twelfth century are in Hebrew; and they sufficiently prove that at the time in question the Jews had already established themselves in positions of trust and prominence, and were contented with their lot.
"The Jewish coiners", says Bershadski, "might have been people who came to the country only occasionally, and for that special purpose." But there is found among the few documents dating from the second half of the thirteenth century a charter issued by Premyslaw II, successor of Boleslaw of Kalisz, confirming a previous grant of privileges whereby the Jew Rupin, son of Yoshka, is permitted to dispose of his inheritance, a hill ("montem") situated near the boundary of his estate of Podgozhe. It is difficult to assume that the acquisition of real estate, its transmission by inheritance, and its further cession to the "Jewish elders of Kalisz and their entire community" were permitted on the strength of the charter of privileges granted by Boleslaw of Kalisz to Jewish immigrants, for the charter makes no mention of a Jewish community, nor of the right of Jews to acquire landed property. "The facts", says Bershadski, "made plain by the grant of Premyslaw II. prove that the Jews were ancient inhabitants of Poland, and that the charter of Boleslaw of Kalisz, copied almost verbally from the privileges of Ottocar of Bohemia, was merely a written approval of relations that had become gradually established, and had received the sanction of the people of the country." Bershadski comes to the conclusion that as early as the thirteenth century there existed in Poland a number of Jewish communities, the most important of which was that of Kalisz.
Early in the thirteenth century Jews owned land in Polish Silesia, Greater Poland and Kuyavia, including the village of Mały Tyniec. There were also established Jewish communities in Wrocław, Świdnica, Głogów, Lwówek, Płock, Kalisz, Szczecin, Gdańsk and Gniezno. It is clear that the Jewish communities must have been well-organized by then. Also, the earliest known artifact of Jewish settlement on Polish soil is a tombstone of certain David ben Sar Shalom found in Wrocław and dated 25 av 4963, that is August 4, 1203.
From the various sources it is evident that at this time the Jews enjoyed undisturbed peace and prosperity in the many principalities into which the country was then divided. In the interests of commerce the reigning princes extended protection and special privileges to the Jewish settlers. With the descent of the Mongols on Polish territory (1241) the Jews in common with the other inhabitants suffered severely. Kraków was pillaged and burned, other towns were devastated, and hundreds of Poles, including many Jews, were carried into captivity. As the tide of invasion receded the Jews returned to their old homes and occupations. They formed the middle class in a country where the general population consisted of landlords (developing into szlachta, the unique Polish nobility) and peasants, and they were instrumental in promoting the commercial interests of the land. Money-lending and the farming of the different government revenues, such as those from the salt mines, the customs, etc., were their most important pursuits. The native population had not yet become permeated with the religious intolerance of western Europe, and lived at peace with the Jews.
There were, however, among the reigning princes some determined protectors of the Jewish inhabitants, who considered the presence of the latter most desirable in so far as the economic development of the country was concerned. Prominent among such rulers was Boleslaw Pobozny, called the Pious, of Kalisz, Prince of Great Poland. With the consent of the class representatives and higher officials, in 1264 he issued a General Charter of Jewish Liberties, the Statute of Kalisz, which clearly defined the position of his Jewish subjects. The charter dealt in detail with all sides of Jewish life, particularly the relations of the Jews to their Christian neighbors. The guiding principle in all its provisions was justice, while national, racial, and religious motives were entirely excluded. It granted all Jews the freedom of worship, trade and travel. Also, all Jews under the suzerainity of the duke were protected by the Voivode and killing a Jew was penalized with death and the confiscation of all the property of the murderer's family.
But while the secular authorities endeavored to regulate the relations of the Jews to the country at large in accordance with its economic needs, the clergy, inspired by the attempts of the Roman Catholic Church to establish its universal supremacy, used its influence toward separating the Jews from the body politic, aiming to exclude them, as people dangerous to the Church, from Christian society, and to place them in the position of a despised "sect". In 1266 an ecumenical council was held at Wrocław under the chairmanship of the papal nuncio Guido. The council introduced into the ecclesiastical statutes of Poland a number of paragraphs directed against the Jews.
The Jews were ordered to dispose as quickly as possible of real estate owned by them in the Christian quarters; they were not to appear on the streets during Church processions; they were allowed to have only a single synagogue in any one town; and they were required to wear a special cap to distinguish them from the Christians. The latter were forbidden, under penalty of excommunication, to invite Jews to feasts or other entertainments, and were forbidden also to buy meat or other provisions from Jews, for fear of being poisoned. The council furthermore confirmed the regulations under which Jews were not allowed to keep Christian servants, to lease taxes or customs duties, or to hold any public office. At the Council of Ofen held in 1279 the wearing of a red badge was prescribed for the Jews, and the foregoing provisions were reaffirmed.
In 1334, Casimir III the Great (1303–1370) amplified and expanded Boleslaw's old charter with the Wislicki Statute. Casimir was especially friendly to the Jews, and his reign is regarded as an era of great prosperity for Polish Jewry. His improved charter was even more favorable to the Jews than was Boleslaw's, insofar as it safeguarded some of their civil rights in addition to their commercial privileges. This far-sighted ruler sought to employ the town and rural populations as checks upon the growing power of the aristocracy. He regarded the Jews not simply as an association of money-lenders, but as a part of the nation, into which they were to be incorporated for the formation of a homogeneous body politic. For his attempts to uplift the masses, including the Jews, Casimir was surnamed by his contemporaries "King of the serfs and Jews."
Nevertheless, while for the greater part of Casimir's reign the Jews of Poland enjoyed tranquility, toward its close they were subjected to persecution on account of the Black Death. Massacres occurred at Kalisz, Kraków, Głogów, and other Polish cities along the German frontier, and it is estimated that 10,000 Jews were killed. Compared with the pitiless destruction of their coreligionists in Western Europe, however, the Polish Jews did not fare badly; and the Jewish masses of Germany fled to the more hospitable lands of Poland, where the interests of the laity still remained more powerful than those of the Church.
But under Casimir's successor, Louis I of Hungary (1370–1384), the complaint became general that "justice had disappeared from the land". An attempt was made to deprive the Jews of the protection of the laws. Guided mainly by religious motives, Louis I persecuted them, and threatened to expel those who refused to accept Christianity. His short reign did not suffice, however, to undo the beneficent work of his predecessor; and it was not until the long reign of the Lithuanian Grand Duke and King of Poland Wladislaus II (1386–1434), that the influence of the Church in civil and national affairs increased, and the civic condition of the Jews gradually became less favorable. Nevertheless, at the beginning of Wladislaus' reign the Jews still enjoyed extensive protection of the laws.
The same motives were responsible for the riot of Kraków, instigated by the fanatical priest Budek in 1407. The first outbreak was suppressed by the city magistrates; but it was renewed a few hours later. A vast amount of property was destroyed; many Jews were killed; and their children were baptized. In order to save their lives a number of Jews accepted Christianity. The reform movement of the Czech Hussites intensified religious fanaticism; and the resulting reactionary measures spread to Poland. The influential Polish archbishop Nicholas Tronba, after his return from the Council of Kalisz (1420), over which he had presided, induced the Polish clergy to confirm all the anti-Jewish legislation adopted at the councils of Wrocław and Ofen, and which until then had been rarely carried out. In addition to their previous disabilities, the Jews were now compelled to pay a tax for the benefit of the churches in the precincts in which they were residing, but "in which only Christians should reside."
In 1423 King Wladislaus II issued an edict forbidding the Jews to lend money on notes. In his reign, as in the reign of his successor, Vladislaus III, the ancient privileges of the Jews were almost forgotten. The Jews vainly appealed to Wladislaus II for the confirmation of their old charters. The clergy successfully opposed the renewal of these privileges on the ground that they were contrary to the canonical regulations. To achieve this, the rumor was even spread that the charter claimed to have been granted to the Jews by Casimir III was a forgery, as a Catholic ruler would never have granted full civil rights to "unbelievers."
The machinations of the clergy were checked by Casimir IV the Jagiellonian (1447–1492). He readily renewed the charter granted to the Jews by Casimir the Great, the original of which had been destroyed in the fire that devastated Poznań in 1447. To a Jewish deputation from the communities of Poznań, Kalisz, Sieradz, Łęczyca, Brest, and Wladislavov which applied to him for the renewal of the charter, he said in his new grant: "We desire that the Jews, whom we protect especially for the sake of our own interests and those of the royal treasury, shall feel contented during our prosperous reign." In confirming all previous rights and privileges of the Jews: the freedom of residence and trade; judicial and communal autonomy; the inviolability of person and property; and protection against arbitrary accusation and attacks; the charter of Casimir IV was a determined protest against the canonical laws, which had been recently renewed for Poland by the Council of Kalisz, and for the entire Catholic world by the Diet of Basel. The charter, moreover, permitted more interaction between Jews and Christians, and freed the former from the jurisdiction of the clerical courts. Strong opposition was created by the King's liberal attitude toward the Jews, and was voiced by the leaders of the clerical party.
The repeated appeals of the clergy, and the defeat of the Polish troops by the Teutonic Knights, which the clergy openly ascribed to the "wrath of God" at Casimir's neglect of the interests of the Church, and his friendly attitude toward the Jews, finally induced the King to accede to the demands which had been made. In 1454 the Statutes of Nieszawa was issued, which granted many privileges to szlachta and included the abolition of the ancient privileges of the Jews "as contrary to divine right and the law of the land." The triumph of the clerical forces was soon felt by the Jewish inhabitants. The populace was encouraged to attack them in many Polish cities; the Jews of Kraków were again the greatest sufferers. In the spring of 1464 the Jewish quarters of the city were devastated by a mob composed of monks, students, peasants, and the minor nobles, who were then organizing a new crusade against the Turks. More than thirty Jews were killed, and many houses were destroyed. Similar disorders occurred in Poznań and elsewhere, notwithstanding the fact that Casimir had fined the Kraków magistrates for having failed to take stringent measures for the suppression of the previous riots.
The Jews of Poland found themselves obliged to make increased efforts to strengthen their social and economic position, and to win the favor of the king and of the nobility. The conflicts of the different parties, of the merchants, the clergy, the lesser and the higher nobility, enabled the Jews to hold their own. The opposition of the Christian merchants and of the clergy was counterbalanced by the support of the nobility (szlachta), who derived certain economic benefits from the activities of the Jews. By the nihil novi constitution of 1505, sanctioned by Alexander the Jagiellonian, the Szlachta Diets were given a voice in all important national matters. On some occasions the Jewish merchants, when pressed by the lesser nobles, were afforded protection by the king, since they were an important source of royal revenue.
But while Sigismund himself was prompted by feelings of justice, his courtiers endeavored to turn to their personal advantage the conflicting interests of the different classes. Sigismund's second wife, Italian born Queen Bona, sold government positions for money; and her favorite, the Voivode (district governor) of Kraków, Piotr Kmita, accepted bribes from both sides, promising to further the interests of each at the Sejm (Polish parliament) and with the king. In 1530 the Jewish question was the subject of heated discussions at the Sejm. There were some delegates who insisted on the just treatment of the Jews. On the other hand, some went so far as to demand the expulsion of the Jews from the country, while still others wished to curtail their commercial rights. The Sejm of 1538 in Piotrków Trybunalski elaborated a series of repressive measures against the Jews, who were prohibited from engaging in the collection of taxes and from leasing estates or government revenues, "it being against God's law that these people should hold honored positions among the Christians." The commercial pursuits of the Jews in the cities were placed under the control of the hostile magistrates, while in the villages Jews were forbidden to trade at all. The Sejm also revived the medieval ecclesiastical law compelling the Jews to wear a distinctive badge.
Sigismund II Augustus (1548–1572) followed in the main the tolerant policy of his father. He confirmed the ancient privileges of the Polish Jews, and considerably widened and strengthened the autonomy of their communities. By a decree of August 13, 1551, the Jews of Great Poland were again granted permission to elect a chief rabbi, who was to act as judge in all matters concerning their religious life. Jews refusing to acknowledge his authority were to be subject to a fine or to excommunication; and those refusing to yield to the latter might be executed after a report of the circumstances had been made to the authorities. The property of the recalcitrants was to be confiscated and turned in to the crown treasury. The chief rabbi was exempted from the authority of the voivode and other officials, while the latter were obliged to assist him in enforcing the law among the Jews.
The favorable attitude of the King and of the enlightened nobility could not prevent the growing animosity against the Jews in certain parts of the kingdom. The Reformation movement stimulated an anti-Jewish crusade by the Catholic clergy, who preached vehemently against all "heretics": Lutherans, Calvinists, and Jews. In 1550 the papal nuncio Alois Lipomano, who had been prominent as a persecutor of the Neo-Christians in Portugal, was delegated to Kraków to strengthen the Catholic spirit among the Polish nobility. He warned the King of the evils resulting from his tolerant attitude toward the various non-believers in the country. Seeing that the Polish nobles, among whom the Reformation had already taken strong root, paid but scant courtesy to his preachings, he initiated a blood libel in the town of Sochaczew. Sigismund pointed out that papal bulls had repeatedly asserted that all such accusations were without any foundation whatsoever; and he decreed that henceforth any Jew accused of having committed a murder for ritual purposes, or of having stolen a host, should be brought before his own court during the sessions of the Sejm. Sigismund II Augustus also granted autonomy to the Jews in the matter of communal administration and laid the foundation for the power of the Kahal.
In 1569 Union of Lublin Lithuania strengthened its ties with Poland, as the previous personal union was peacefully transformed into a unique federation of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The death of Sigismund Augustus (1572) and thus the termination of the Jagiellon dynasty necessitated the election of his successor by the elective body of all the nobility (szlachta). During the interregnum szlachta has passed the Warsaw Confederation act which guarnteed unprecedented religious tolerance to all citizens of the Commonwealth. Meanwhile, the neighboring states were deeply interested in the elections, each hoping to insure the choice of its own candidate. The pope was eager to assure the election of a Catholic, lest the influences of the Reformation should become predominant in Poland. Catherine de' Medici was laboring energetically for the election of her son Henry of Anjou. But in spite of all the intrigues at the various courts, the deciding factor in the election was the influence of Solomon Ashkenazi, then in charge of the foreign affairs of Ottoman Empire. Henry of Anjou was elected, which was of deep concern to the liberal Poles and the Jews, as he was the infamous mastermind of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. Therefore Polish szlachta forced him to sign the Henrician articles and pacta conventa, guarantying the religious tolerance in Poland, as a condition of acceptance of the throne (those documents would be subsequently signed by every other elected Polish king). However, Henry soon secretly fled to France after a reign in Poland of only a few months, in order to succeed his deceased brother Charles IX on the French throne.
In the first half of the sixteenth century the seeds of Talmudic learning had been transplanted to Poland from Bohemia, particularly from the school of Jacob Pollak, the creator of Pilpul ("sharp reasoning"). Shalom Shachna (c. 1500–1558), a pupil of Pollak, is counted among the pioneers of Talmudic learning in Poland. He lived and died in Lublin, where he was the head of the yeshivah which produced the rabbinical celebrities of the following century. Shachna's son Israel became rabbi of Lublin on the death of his father, and Shachna's pupil Moses Isserles (known as the ReMA) (1520–1572) achieved an international reputation among the Jews as the co-author of the Shulkhan Arukh, (the "Code of Jewish Law"). His contemporary and correspondent Solomon Luria (1510–1573) of Lublin also enjoyed a wide reputation among his coreligionists; and the authority of both was recognized by the Jews throughout Europe. Among the famous pupils of Isserles should be mentioned David Gans and Mordecai Jaffe, the latter of whom studied also under Luria. Another distinguished rabbinical scholar of that period was Eliezer b. Elijah Ashkenazi (1512–1585) of Kraków. His Ma'ase ha-Shem (Venice, 1583) is permeated with the spirit of the moral philosophy of the Sephardic school, but is extremely mystical. At the end of the work he attempts to forecast the coming of the Jewish Messiah in 1595, basing his calculations on the Book of Daniel. Such Messianic dreams found a receptive soil in the unsettled religious conditions of the time. The new sect of Socinians or Unitarians, which denied the Trinity and which, therefore, stood near to Judaism, had among its leaders Simon Budny, the translator of the Bible into Polish, and the priest Martin Czechowic. Heated religious disputations were common, and Jewish scholars participated in them. At the same time, the Kabbalah had become entrenched under the protection of Rabbinism; and such scholars as Mordecai Jaffe and Yoel Sirkis devoted themselves to its study. The mystic speculations of the kabalists prepared the ground for Sabbatianism, and the Jewish masses were rendered even more receptive by the great disasters that over-took the Jews of Poland during the middle of the seventeenth century such as the Cossack Chmielnicki Uprising against Poland during 1648–1654.
The Catholic reaction which with the aid of the Jesuits and the Council of Trent spread throughout Europe finally reached Poland. The Jesuits and counterreformation found a powerful protector in Báthory's successor, Sigismund III Vasa (1587–1632). Under his rule the "Golden Freedom" of the Polish szlachta gradually became perverted; government by the liberum veto undermined the authority of the Sejm; and the stage was set for the degeneration of unique democracy and religious tolerance of the Commonwealth into anarchy and intolerance. However, the dying spirit of the republic (Rzeczpospolita) was still strong enough to check somewhat the destructive power of Jesuitism, which under an absolute monarchy, like those in Western Europe, have led to drastic anti-Jewish measures similar to those that had been taken in Spain. However in Poland Jesuits were limited only to propaganda. Thus while the Catholic clergy was the mainstay of the anti-Jewish forces, the king, forced by the Protestant szlachta, remained at least in semblance the defender of the Jews. Still, the false accusations of ritual murder against the Jews recurred with growing frequency, and assumed an "ominous inquisitional character." The papal bulls and the ancient charters of privilege proved generally of little avail as protection. Uneasy conditions persisted during the reign of Sigismund's son, Wladislaus IV Vasa (1632–1648).
Then the incompetent politics of the elected House of Vasa kings brought the weakened state to its knees, as it was invaded by the Swedish Empire in what became known as The Deluge. The kingdom of Poland proper, which had hitherto suffered but little either from the Chmielnicki Uprising or from the recurring invasion of the Russians and Ottomans, now became the scene of terrible disturbances (1655–1658). Charles X of Sweden, at the head of his victorious army, overran Poland; and soon the whole country, including the cities of Kraków and Warsaw, was in his hands. The Jews of Great and Little Poland found themselves torn between two sides: those of them who were spared by the Swedes were attacked by the Poles, who accused them of aiding the enemy. The Polish general Stefan Czarniecki, in his flight from the Swedes, devastated the whole country through which he passed and treated the Jews without mercy. The Polish partisan detachments treated the non-Polish inhabitants with equal severity. Moreover, the horrors of the war were aggravated by pestilence, and the Jews and townsfolk of the districts of Kalisz, Kraków, Poznań, Piotrków, and Lublin perished en masse by the sword of the sieging armies and the plague. Certain Jewish writers of the day were convinced that the home and protection which the Jews had for a long time enjoyed in Poland were lost to them forever.
Some of these apprehensions proved to be unfounded. As soon as the disturbances had ceased, the Jews began to return and to rebuild their destroyed homes; and while it is true that the Jewish population of Poland had decreased and become impoverished, it still was more numerous than that of the Jewish colonies in Western Europe. Poland remained as the spiritual center of Judaism; and the remarkable vitality of the Jews manifested itself in the fact that in a comparatively short time they managed to recuperate from their terrible trials. King Jan Kazimierz Vasa (1648–1668) endeavored to compensate the impoverished people for their sufferings and losses, as is evidenced by a decree granting the Jews of Kraków the rights of free trade (1661); and similar privileges, together with temporary exemption from taxes, were granted to many other Jewish communities, which had suffered most from the Russo-Swedish invasion. John Casimir's successor, King Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki (1669–1673), also granted some privileges to the Jews. This was partly due to the efforts of Moses Markowitz, the representative of the Jewish communities of Poland. The heroic King John III Sobieski (1674–1696) was in general very favorably inclined toward the Jews; but the clergy and Catholic nobility deprecated such friendliness toward "infidels."