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BREST-LITOVSK (Brisk, Heb. בריסק דליטא; until 1921 Brest-Litovsk; from 1921 until 1939 Brześć nad Bugiem; after 1939 Brest), capital of Brest district, Belarus. In the medieval grand duchy of *Lithuania, from the 14th to the 17th centuries, in particular after the union of Poland and Lithuania in 1569, it was the main center of Lithuanian Jewry. Its situation on the River Bug, at the junction of commercial routes and near the borders of the two countries, made Brest-Litovsk an important communications and commercial center. The first Jews settled there under the grand duke Kiejstut (Kestutis; 1341–82). His son Vitold (Vytautas) granted them a generous charter in 1388, which was later extended to all the Jews in the duchy. Jewish merchants from Brest-Litovsk are mentioned in 1423–33 in the municipal records of Danzig (Gdansk) where they bought textiles, furs, and other goods. The community increased toward the end of the 15th and in the first half of the 16th century, and became one of the largest in Lithuania. It also became the most important organizationally as contacts with Poland steadily expanded. The Jews of Brest-Litovsk engaged in commerce, crafts, and agriculture. Some conducted extensive financial operations, farming customs dues, taxes, and other government imposts. They also farmed and owned estates. Their business connections extended throughout and beyond the duchy. By 1483 Jews in Brest-Litovsk had established commercial ties with Venice.

In 1495 all Jews who refused to accept Christianity were expelled from Lithuania. Only one convert, of the *Jozefowicz family, remained behind in Brest-Litovsk. The Jews were permitted to return in 1503, and the community regained its former eminence. Michael Jozefowicz played a leading role in its communal affairs in the first half of the 16th century. Records of 1566 show that there were 156 Jewish-owned houses in the town out of a total of 746. Two years later, after the great fire there, the Jews were exempted by King Sigismund Augustus from paying tax for nine years, provided that they built their homes of stone only. The Jews in Brest-Litovsk took over an increasing share in the Polish export trade to Germany and the import trade from Germany and Austria in the 16th century. Their financial success and the scale and range of the activities of the great merchants, such as the three Jozefowicz brothers, the customs contractor and merchant Michael Rybczykowicz, and many others, were partly due to the combination of customs farming with the export and import business. In Brest-Litovsk the Jews could continue to engage in agriculture, and 16% of the real estate was Jewish-owned. The influential Saul *Wahl of Padua, who lived in Brest-Litovsk, established a synagogue and yeshivah in the town.

The satisfactory relationship between the Jews and the townspeople in the 16th century subsequently deteriorated. In 1636 Christian students conducted a savage raid (Schuelergelaeuf) on the Jews. The Lithuanian Council (see *Councils of the Lands) defined it as a "calamity" and treated it as a matter of concern to Lithuanian Jewry as a whole, to be dealt with at its expense. Jewish stores were looted and burned in 1637 by the townspeople, but the Polish authorities compelled the municipality to restore the stolen merchandise to its Jewish owners and punish the rioters. A mixed Jewish-Christian watch was instituted to guard the stores. Despite the increasing anti-Jewish feelings fostered by the clergy, kings Sigismund III and Ladislas IV ratified the Jewish charters. During the *Chmielnicki uprising of 1648–49 many Jews who had the means escaped from Brest-Litovsk to Great Poland and Danzig; hundreds of those who remained were massacred (according to one source, 2,000). Shortly afterward, Jews resettled in Brest-Litovsk and were granted a charter of protection in 1655 from King John Casimir. The wars with Russia, Sweden, and Turkey caused much hardship among the Jews, and many were massacred by the Russian army in 1660. In 1661, in order to relieve their economic distress, the king exempted the Jews from the obligation to billet troops and all other taxes for four years; Jewish debtors were granted a three-year moratorium. In 1669 King Michael Wisniowiecki confirmed the privileges granted in former charters and permitted the Jews to retain the land and buildings they had owned before the wars, including synagogues, courthouses, public baths, cemeteries, and stores. Jews were permitted to engage in every sphere of commerce and crafts and were required to pay only the same taxes as Christians. The municipality and non-Jewish citizens were ordered to cooperate in suppressing anti-Jewish agitation. The privileges were ratified in 1676 and in 1720. Twenty-two Jewish merchants were recorded in the city in 1662, ten of whom were innkeepers who paid a special tax. By 1676 there were 525 Jews (excluding children under 11) living in Brest-Litovsk. The number grew during the 18th century. The 1766 census recorded 3,353 Jews in the town and its environs. Toward the end of the 18th century there were fresh disturbances between the Jews and the non-Jewish citizens, in particular in 1792. A memorandum was presented by 20 Jewish representatives to the Polish Sejm (Diet) urging that the complaints of the Jews in Brest-Litovsk should receive justice.

For many generations the Brest-Litovsk community assumed the lead in communal affairs and cultural activities of Lithuania (see *Councils of Lands). It was one of the three founding communities of the Council of Lithuania (later expanded to four and then to five constituents) in which Brest obtained the widest area of jurisdiction. At first (1623–31) the Council of Lithuania convened in Brest-Litovsk, and 19 of its 42 meetings took place there. The delegates and rabbi of Brest-Litovsk were for a long time given precedence in the Council. The community represented Lithuanian Jewry before the central authorities according to the following resolution: "It has been thus decided. If His Majesty the King has occasion to visit one of the three principal communities, in the event of his arrival in *Grodno or … *Pinsk, they will inform the Brest community. Should the Brest community send their representative to approach His Majesty the King with a gift, then all the expenses incurred thereby shall be defrayed by the Council. Should the Brest community omit to send a representative, then half [only] of the expenses [incurred by the community where the king came] shall be defrayed by the Council, and half by the community concerned" (S. Dubnow, Pinkas Medinat Lita (1925). Council Session 1639, par. 398, p. 80). A resolution of 1644 further expresses the precedence accorded to the Brest-Litovsk community: "As to the order of signatures of the honorable members of the Council, it has been thus decided: they shall sign in the following order: first the Council members from Brest.…" (ibid., Council Session 1644, par. 415, p. 86). The demands of the Brest-Litovsk community that the importance of its institutions and their sacred character should be recognized throughout Lithuania are manifested in the following resolution: "… All the members of the sacred conventicle, the conventicle of the Great Synagogue, the Klaus in Brest-Litovsk … All know full well that this Great Synagogue is a holy place.… For many generations its sacredness has been established…. He who seeks the Lord, whose spirit is moved to wisdom and understanding, knowledge and fear of the Lord, will come to this Great Synagogue, will take on his shoulders this burden, will bear the yoke of Torah study in groups [of students]." The resolution persuaded the Council to undertake the management of funds for the institution and to pay annual sums to it out of the funds (ibid., Council Session 1667, par. 619, pp. 147–8). The leadership assumed by the Brest-Litovsk community in social and economic affairs is instanced by its attempts to control the contracting for vodka-distilling and milling (see *Arenda) for the good of all the members of the community: "that many should have a living" (Joel Sirkes, Responsa, 1 (1697, 1834), par. 60).

Brest-Litovsk was a stronghold of the *Mitnaggedim in opposition to *Ḥasidism. Some of the early disputations between the leaders of the two movements took place there. Distinguished rabbis officiating in Brest included Jehiel b. Aaron Luria, the grandfather of Solomon *Luria (mid-15th century); Moses Raskowitz; Menahem Mendel *Frank; Kalonymos, the father-in-law of Solomon Luria (16th century); Solomon Luria; Judah Leib b. Obadiah Eilenburg, author of Minḥat Yehudah (1609); Moses Lipschitz; Ephraim Zalman *Schor, author of Tevu'at Shor (1613); Joel b. Samuel *Sirkes; Abraham Meir *Epstein; Jacob Schor, author of Beit Ya'akov (1693); David *Oppenheim (17th century); *Aryeh Leib, author of Sha'agat Aryeh; Abraham b. David Katzenellbogen; Naḥman Halperin; and *Aaron b. Meir Brisker, author of Minḥat Aharon (18th century); Ẓevi Hirsch b. Mordecai *Orenstein; Moses Joshua Judah Leib *Diskin; Joseph Baer *Soloveichik; his son Ḥayyim; and his grandson Ze'ev (Welvelei; see *Soloveichik family).

After Brest-Litovsk's incorporation into Russia in 1793, its economic importance diminished. Many historic edifices of the Jewish quarter, including the old synagogue and cemetery, were demolished to give way to the building of a fortress in 1832. The economic position again improved after the completion of the Dnieper-Bug Canal in 1841, and the Jewish community, which handled most of the commerce and industry in the city, began to grow appreciably. A tobacco factory and two large mills were established by Jews in 1845. A hospital was erected in 1838, a new synagogue during 1851–61, and a home for widows in 1866.

The Jewish population numbered 8,135 in 1847 and 27,005 in 1889 (out of a total of 41,625). In 1886, 4,364 Jews were employed as artisans and 1,235 as merchants (out of 25,000). There were 30,608 Jewish residents in 1897 (out of 46,568), 3,506 of them artisans, who were nearly all Jews at the time, many of them shoemakers and tailors. The city was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1895 and again in 1901. In the pogroms in the wake of the 1905 revolution several Jews in Brest-Litovsk were wounded or killed. A number of Jews there were active in the underground revolutionary groups. However, as elsewhere in Russia, their activities subsided with the failure of the revolution. Although the Jews comprised 70% of the population before World War I, they had only three representatives on the municipal council, while there were 20 non-Jewish members.

The Jews were driven out of Brest-Litovsk on August 1, 1915, by order of the Russian high command. On August 26 the Austro-German army occupied the city, and many of the exiles returned. Shortly afterward, however, they were again expelled by the Germans. After the Poles occupied the region in 1919, Jewish communal life revived. Although more attention was paid to secular aspects, the traditional cultural activities continued to flourish. A communal committee was organized and other institutions were established. Half of the pupils in the general schools (which included a commercial school, a real gymnasium, and a secondary school) were Jewish. In 1921 the Jewish population numbered 15,630 (out of a total of 29,460) and in 1931, 21,440. For several years the deputy-mayor of Brest was a Jew. Prominent in Brest in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were the philologist and talmudist Jacob Nahum *Epstein; Michael *Pukhachewsky, a pioneer farmer in Ereẓ Israel; the journalists Abraham *Goldberg and Noah Finkelstein; and the author and physician Benjamin Szereszewski.


A.L. Feinstein, Ir Tehillah (1886); S. Dubnow, Pinkas Va'ad ha-Kehillot ha-Rashiyyot bi-Medinat Lita (1925); Halpern, Pinkas; EG, 2 (1954).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.