Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home


VILNA (Pol. Wilno, Lithuanian Vilnius), from 1323 capital of the grand duchy of *Lithuania; from 1940 to 1991 capital of the Lithuanian S.S.R.; from 1991 capital of Lithuania; called by East European Jewry, especially in the modern period, the "Jerusalem of Lithuania" (Yerushalayim de-Lita).

The Early Settlement

In 1527 the townsmen of Vilna obtained from the Polish king, Sigismund I, the right to debar Jewish settlement there. However, a number of individual Jewish residents are found in the middle of the 16th century, including lessees of the customs, mintmasters, moneylenders, and large-scale merchants. In 1551 royal permission was granted to two Jews and their servants to lease out houses and shops, to do business in the city as visiting traders, and to engage in pawnbroking. In the same year Jews were permitted to reside in buildings owned by members of the ducal council, which lay outside the municipal jurisdiction. The first information of an organized Jewish community in Vilna dates from 1568, when it was ordered to pay the poll tax. According to tradition, a wooden synagogue was erected in Vilna in 1573. As early as 1592 the street adjoining the synagogue was called "Jew's Street." Although in that year a mob attacked the Jews of Vilna and plundered shops and houses of the Jews as well as the synagogue, in the following year Sigismund II renewed the privileges enabling them to trade and reside in the city.

In February 1633 Vilna Jewry was granted a charter of privileges permitting Jews to engage in all branches of commerce, distilling, and any crafts not subject to the guild organizations, but restricting their place of residence in the city. They were also granted permission to erect a new synagogue, which was built of stone. At the same time new regulations limited to 12 the number of shops under Jewish ownership which might be open to the street, and they might be held for a term not exceeding ten years. The Jews were exempted from payment of the municipal tax but instead were obliged to pay 300 zlotys annually in peacetime and 500 zlotys in time of war. During 1634, and in particular in 1635, the Jews in Vilna were again attacked and their property pillaged. The following year a commission of inquiry nominated by Ladislaus IV bound the municipality to protect the Jewish residents; to compensate for the damages suffered, the Jews were licensed to sell alcoholic liquors in 20 buildings. However, students of the Jesuit academy committed acts of violence (called in Yiddish shilergeloyf) against Jewish residents in 1639 and 1641.

During the first half of the 17th century the Vilna community was augmented by arrivals from *Prague, *Frankfurt, and Polish towns, who included wealthy Jews and scholars. The number of petty traders and artisans also increased, and in this period about 3,000 Jewish residents are recorded out of a total population of some 15,000. Although the Vilna community, now an important Jewish entity, claimed the status of a principal community, or "community head of the courts" (kehillah rosh bet din), within the organizational framework of the Council of Lithuania (see *Councils of the Lands), the status was not conceded until 1652. After 1630 the Vilna community suffered from the general economic deterioration experienced by Lithuanian Jewry, as a result of which the Council of Lithuania accorded it a number of economic concessions in 1634. These subjected the conduct of trade by "residents of the Land of Lithuania visiting Vilna for the purposes of business" to detailed regulation. An additional improvement was "permission to the community of Vilna to undertake business in all the townlets, villages, boroughs, and settlements" within the jurisdiction of the other principal communities of Lithuania. A further financial burden for Vilna Jewry in 1648–49 was the aid it gave to fugitives from the *Chmielnicki massacres. Subsequently, in 1655, Vilna itself was threatened by the armies of the Muscovites and nearly all the Jewish inhabitants fled from the city. During the Russian occupation the Jewish quarter was burned down in the general conflagration that ensued. Three years later Czar Alexis endorsed the Vilna municipal charter but banished the Jews from the city precincts.

With the rehabilitation of the community in 1661, the leadership of Lithuanian Jewry passed to Vilna. The hostility between the Jews and the townsmen continued, fanned by the Jesuits and the reaction engendered by the Counter-Reformation then prevailing throughout the realm. An assault by townsmen on Jews who mustered for the census of defenders of the city in 1681 was condemned by King John Sobieski, who ordered the punishment of the guilty and freed the Jews from the obligation of the city's defense in the future. In 1687 a riot was instigated by Jesuit students, artisans, and shopkeepers, evidently in an attempt to force the distressed Jews to defray their debts. The material damage was estimated at 120,000 zlotys. The municipality was again served a stringent admonishment by the king, and students and the nobility were forbidden to distrain debts from Jews. By 1690 there were 227 Jewish families resident in the Jewish quarter of Vilna, while a similar number, perhaps more, were living outside, in areas falling within the jurisdiction of the magnates or government.

During the Northern War (1700–21) the Swedish invaders levied heavy taxes on the Vilna community, now so impoverished it was forced to place ritual objects in pawn with Christians. In addition, the famine and plague rife in the city took their toll. After the conflagration of 1737 the Vilna community turned to Jews abroad for relief, and its emissaries received a generous response from the Jews of Amsterdam. The opposition of the Christian merchants and artisans to the Jews even continued in the 18th century. In 1712 a commission recommended the promulgation of ordinances by the city council to limit the branches of trade and crafts practiced by Jews and restrict the area of Jewish residence. In 1713 the community board (kahal), the organ of Jewish self-government, was forced to bring actions against a number of discriminatory measures passed by the municipality. The charters of privileges conferred on Vilna Jewry were confirmed in 1738 by Augustus III, who extended the license to open shops to a term of 20 years and enabled Jews to deal in alcoholic liquors and other commodities. The townsmen, who lodged an appeal against the grant, managed to obtain a judgment in 1740 recognizing the 1527 prohibition on Jewish residence in Vilna, so that the Jews were again faced with the danger of expulsion. Exhausting negotiations ensued, in which the wealthy communal leader *Judah b. Eleazar took a prominent part. The community was forced to consent to a compromise agreement with stringent terms, including restrictions on the plying of trade and crafts and on place of residence. These the Jews were both unwilling and unable to implement. Litigation continued until a judgment was pronounced in 1783 which lifted the restriction on the occupations. The limitation on their place of residence was also abrogated, excepting two streets still barred to Jewish settlement. Jews were now made subject to the same tax regulations as other citizens and the annual poll tax was abolished. During the uprising against Russia in 1794 a number of Vilna Jews demonstrated their loyalty to Poland in the fighting and the kahal made contributions to the participants in the uprising. Thirty Jews were killed in one of the suburbs during the siege. After the conquest of the city by the Russians, however, the Jewish position in commerce and crafts improved. The Russian government abrogated the jurisdiction of the municipal court over Jewish citizens and rescinded the previous enactment of the Polish Sejm. The 1795 census shows 3,613 Jewish poll tax payers in Vilna and its environs.

Scholarship and Communal Affairs

Vilna had already become a preeminent center for rabbinical studies by the beginning of the 17th century. Among scholars born in Vilna were *Joshua Hoeschel ben Joseph and *Shabbetai ha-Kohen, who served as dayyan of the community. The rabbi of Vilna in the middle of the 17th century was Moses b. Isaac Judah *Lima. The existence of a talmud torah is reported in the second half of the 17th century, when a fund was also established by a philanthropist for the support of students. Among the scholars of Vilna in the second half of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th were R. Moses, called Kremer, a forefather of Elijah Gaon; his son-in-law Joseph, author of Rosh Yosef, halakhic and aggadic novellae (Berlin, 1716); R. Baruch Kahana, known as Baruch Ḥarif; the grammarian Azriel and his two sons Nisan and Elijah; and Ẓevi Hirsch *Kaidanover (Kaidany). Also living in Vilna was the Gordon family of physicians, one of whom, Jekuthiel *Gordon, studied medicine in Padua and became influenced by the poet and kabbalist Moses Ḥayyim *Luzzatto. Joshua Heshel *Ẓoref of Vilna was among the crypto-Shabbateans. From the second half of the 18th century the personality and activities of *Elijah b. Solomon Zalman, the "Vilna Gaon," who attracted numerous disciples, had a lasting impact on Vilna Jewry. The circle thus formed became the most stimulating religious and spiritual center there and had a profound influence on Judaism in the sphere of both halakhah and Kabbalah.

The 1770s and 1780s marked a period of acute social tension for the Vilna community, expressed in a serious crisis over the rabbinate. In 1740 *Samuel b. Avigdor was chosen as rabbi of Vilna – partly because of the contributions to the community made by his father-in-law Judah b. Eleazar (see above). The fierce controversy that arose around the personality, status, and aspirations of Samuel b. Avigdor continued for 30 years and threatened the basis of communal autonomy. Diverse social and ideological forces in the community became implicated in the conflict, as well as external bodies. The Jewish artisans of Vilna, now a strong numerical force which remained without representation in community affairs or the means of exerting influence, took the side of the rabbi, as did also the Ḥasidim, who afforded him surreptitious support, while a number of powerful leaders in the community opposed him. Non-Jewish elements that entered the arena included the governor of Vilna, the bishop, and the crown tribunal. The opposition accused the rabbi of accepting bribes, of unfair decisions, and other practices. In theory the controversy terminated with the removal of Samuel b. Avigdor from office. However, the representatives of the popular faction turned to the non-Jewish authorities and complained about the way the kahal was levying taxes. The Gaon of Vilna also intervened. Simeon b. Wolf, the popular representative who had been imprisoned by the governor in Nieswiez (Nesvizh), applied to the Sejm with proposals for amending the community organization; he also demanded that the communities should be deprived of their secular authority, leaving Jewish jurisdiction over religious matters only.

When the Enlightenment (*Haskalah) movement spread to Vilna it did not encounter strong opposition from the leadership, and to begin with was largely conservative in character. About 14 important members of the community subscribed to the commentary on the Torah, the Be'ur initiated by Moses *Mendelssohn. Typical of the first adherents of the movement (maskilim) were the physician and author Judah ben Mordecai ha-Levi *Hurwitz and Moses *Meisel, the shammash of the community, who was acquainted with German literature and wrote several treatises. He had access to the Gaon of Vilna and also became an adherent of *Chabad Ḥasidism.

At the end of the 18th century, under the influence of the Gaon, Vilna became the center of the way of life and system of religious study followed by the *Mitnaggedim and the focus of their struggle against Ḥasidism. In 1772 the kahal disbanded the congregation (minyan) formed in Vilna by the Ḥasidim and issued a ban or excommunication against them. Bitter opposition to Ḥasidism continued throughout the lifetime of the Gaon. Nevertheless, groups of Ḥasidim still assembled clandestinely in Vilna and formed their own minyanim, and after 1790 the movement even found support among members of the kahal. Persecution of the Ḥasidim was renewed when Vilna passed to Russia in 1795, and after the death of the Gaon two years later the conflict became more bitter. Members of the community were forbidden to buy liquor, a major source of livelihood, from Ḥasidim. The Ḥasidim now attempted to break the hegemony wielded by the kahal, and the two parties sought the intervention of the Russian authorities. In 1798 the Vilna kahal was prohibited from imposing fines or corporal punishment for religious offenses. When the ḥasidic leader *Shneur Zalman of Lyady was denounced to the authorities and imprisoned, 22 Ḥasidim from Vilna and its environs were also incarcerated, although afterward released. The kahal elders and dayyanim were dismissed from office in 1799, and the kahal accounts were examined. A new kahal was then chosen from among the Ḥasidim, which controlled the Vilna community for over a year. Subsequently the two parties became reconciled and a new kahal was elected with representatives of both parties. The Ḥasidim were permitted to maintain their own minyanim (congregations).

Between 1799 and 1802 an attempt was made by the Jewish residents of Vilna, according to the census of 1800, numbering 6,917 taxpayers, to obtain the right to take part in municipal affairs. A grant to this effect was twice obtained from the authorities, but the opposition of the Vilna citizens each time frustrated Jewish representation in practice. During the Napoleonic invasion of 1812 Vilna Jewry generally remained loyal to Russia in spite of the disabilities from which it suffered. (The provisional Lithuanian government established in Vilna by the French levied heavy taxes and war loans on the community, and the troops desecrated the Jewish cemetery, turning it into a cattle pen and destroying tombstones.) Nevertheless, under Czar *Nicholas I the right to take part in municipal government was rescinded, and the autonomy of the kahal was abolished in 1844. The directors (gabba'im) of the charitable fund (ha-ẓedakah ha-gedolah) continued to guide communal affairs unofficially. A visit was paid to Vilna by the philanthropist Moses *Montefiore in 1846.

Vilna's preeminence as the seat of Jewish learning continued in the 19th century. As an important center of Haskalah, it attracted many Hebrew writers. When the government commenced its policy of Russification of the Jews (see *Russia) it made Vilna a center of its activities. Max *Lilienthal was sent there in 1842 to encourage the establishment of modern schools, and in 1847 a government-sponsored *rabbinical seminary was established. Polish language and culture, which had influenced the maskilim and men of letters at the beginning of the 19th century, was now superseded by Russian. The maskilim of Vilna in this period included Mordecai Aaron *Guenzburg, Adam ha-Kohen *Lebensohn and his son Micah Joseph *Lebensohn (Mikhal), Isaac Meir *Dick, Kalman *Schulman, J.L. *Gordon, Joshua *Steinberg, and Eliakum *Zunser.


The restriction limiting Jewish residence to certain streets in Vilna was abrogated under *Alexander II in 1861. Untold harm was wreaked on the Jewish community when the apostate Jacob *Brafmann arrived in Vilna and conducted a vicious anti-Jewish propaganda campaign. He was vigorously opposed by R. Jacob *Barit, head of the yeshivah and communal leader. In 1860 S.J. *Fuenn began publication of a Hebrew weekly, Ha-Karmel, with Russian supplements. Among authors in Vilna who wrote in Russian was J.L. *Levanda, who occupied a government post there as an expert on Jewish matters, called "learned Jew." It was in this period that the first Jewish Socialists in Russia began to be active in the official rabbinical seminary, among them Aaron Samuel *Liebermann and his associates.

Anti-Jewish riots took place in 1881 when a band of military conscripts attacked Jewish shops. The Jewish butchers, who organized themselves to oppose the attackers, turned them over to the police. Owing to the Russian government's prohibition on Jewish settlement in the villages, many Jews in rural areas had to move to Vilna. The 1897 census shows 63,831 Jewish inhabitants, forming 41.5% of the total population. The congested conditions and increasing unemployment led to large-scale emigration. Large numbers left for the United States and South Africa, and a few went to Ereẓ Israel. Vilna became an active meeting ground for Jewish Socialists in the 1890s. A convention of Jewish Social Democrats was held in 1895, while in 1897 the *Bund labor party held its founding convention and Vilna became the center of its activities. In 1902 the shoemaker Hirsch *Lekert attempted to shoot the governor-general of Vilna, Von Wahl, after his treatment of a First of May demonstration. Lekert was condemned to death and hanged. In 1900 a wave of anti-Jewish feeling swept Vilna over the *Blondes blood libel case.

At the beginning of the 20th century Vilna became the center of the *Zionist movement in Russia, and saw the rise of a flourishing Hebrew and Yiddish literature. One of the first societies of the *Ḥovevei Zion movement was founded there; Ḥovevei Zion conventions were held in Vilna in 1889, and subsequently those of the Zionist organizations (the founding convention of the *Mizrachi party in 1902, and others). Theodor *Herzl, who visited Vilna in 1903, was given an enthusiastic popular reception. The central bureau of the Zionist Organization in Russia functioned in Vilna between 1905 and 1911, and for some time the *Po'alei Zion party made Vilna its headquarters. The well-known Zionist leader Shmaryahu *Levin was elected as deputy for Vilna to the *Duma. Orthodox circles were organized under the leadership of R. Ḥayyim Ozer *Grodzenski, and afterward amalgamated with the *Agudat Israel. Among the many Yiddish and Hebrew periodicals published in Vilna was the Hebrew daily Ha-Zeman. An excellent library of Judaica was established from the bequest of Mathias *Strashun.

Vilna became a transit center and asylum for Jewish refugees from the vicinity during World War I. Under German occupation lack of food and discriminatory levies on the Jewish population made conditions increasingly difficult. The situation was not improved after the war when the struggle between the Poles and Lithuanians for the possession of Vilna (1919–20) entailed frequent changes of government. In April 1919, 80 Jews were massacred by Polish troops.

The interwar period from 1922 to 1939 was a time of fruitful and manifold social and cultural activities for Vilna Jewry, although Vilna, now part of Poland, was affected economically by the severance of its former ties with Russia and Lithuania. According to the 1921 census, 46,559 Jews were living in Vilna (36.1% of the total population), and in 1931, 55,000 (28.2%). This period saw the establishment of a network of elementary and secondary schools in which Hebrew was either the language of instruction or the principal language, and of Hebrew and Yiddish teachers' seminaries and trade schools. Vilna was a world center for Yiddish culture, and a Yiddish daily and evening press, numerous weekly and other political, literary, educational, and scientific journals were published there. The Jewish historical and ethnographical society, founded by S. *An-Ski, established a museum and archives in 1919. The *YIVO research institute for Yiddish language and culture was founded in Vilna in 1924. The institute attracted Yiddish scholars and authors, among them Zalman *Rejzen, Max *Weinreich, Z. *Kalmanowicz, and Max *Erik. The Yiddish writer Moshe *Kulbak lived in Vilna. A circle of young Yiddish authors (Yung Vilne) included Abraham *Sutzkever, Shemariah *Kaczerginski, and Ḥayyim *Grade. Several poems of Zalman *Shneour, who stayed in Vilna for some time, express the glorious place of the city in Jewish life. Among its Hebrew scholars and writers were the linguist M.B. Shneider, S.L. *Zitron, and J.E. *Triwosch. The strong antisemitism rife in Poland in the 1930s was especially noticeable in the university, where the Jewish students often had to organize in self-defense.


I. Cohen, History of the Jews in Vilna (1943); S.J. Fuenn, Kiryah Ne'emanah (1860); H.N. Maggid-Steinschneider, Ir Vilna (1900); Vilner Zamlbukh, 2 vols. (1917–18); Pinkas far der Geshikhte fun Vilne in di Yorn fun Milkhome un Okupatsye (1922); E. Jeshurin (ed.), Vilne (1935); I. Klausner, Toledot ha-Kehillah ha-Ivrit be-Vilna (1937); idem, Vilna bi-Tekufat ha-Ga'on (1942); idem, Korot Beit ha-Almin ha-Yashan be-Vilna (1935); idem, in: Zion, 2 (1937); idem, in: Yahadut Lita, 1 (1959), 23–123; idem, in: Turei Yeshurun, 16 (1970), 26–30; I. Halpern, in: Yehudim ve-Yahadut be-Mizraḥ Eiropah (1968), 159–62. HOLOCAUST: Algemeyne Entsiklopedye, 6 (1964), index; S. Kaczerginski, Ḥurban Vilna (Yid., 1947); M. Dvorjetski, Yerushalayim de-Lita in Kamf un Umkum (1948); R. Korchak, Lehavot ba-Efer (19653) 311–22; H. Kruk, Togbukh fun Vilner Geto (1961); idem, in: YIVOA, 13 (1965), 9–18; M. Balberyszski, Shtarker fun Ayzn (1967; includes short Eng. summary); G. Reitlinger, Final Solution (19682), index; R. Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (1961, 1967), index.

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