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Rescue the Surviving SoulsThe Great Jewish Refugee Crisis of the Seventeenth Century$

Adam Teller

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9780691161747

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: September 2020

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691161747.001.0001

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(p.293) Conclusion
Rescue the Surviving Souls

Adam Teller

Princeton University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This concluding chapter assesses whether the fate of the Polish Jewish refugees in each of the three major arenas in which they found themselves was really a single, interconnected refugee crisis or whether there were, in fact, three different crises sparked by a common cause: the mid-seventeenth-century wars of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Underlying all of the differences in the conditions in each of the three regions were numerous commonalities. Perhaps most important was the sense of solidarity that induced Jews to come to the aid of other Jews in distress. The term most commonly used at the time to describe this connection was “brotherhood.” The phenomena examined in this book are indeed, therefore, aspects of a single refugee crisis. The chapter then considers how large the problem was and how well Jewish society dealt with its challenges. It also highlights the effects of the refugee crisis on Jewish society, both while it was happening and in the longer term, and the importance of the crisis for the course of early modern and modern Jewish history in general.

Keywords:   Polish Jewish refugees, refugee crisis, Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, Jewish solidarity, brotherhood, Jewish society, Jewish history


Having examined the fate of the Polish Jewish refugees in each of the three major arenas in which they found themselves, the first question to be asked is whether this was really a single, interconnected crisis or whether there were, in fact, three different crises sparked by a common cause: the mid-seventeenth-century wars of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Clearly, conditions in each of the three regions were of crucial significance in determining both the experiences of the refugees and the ways in which they were treated there. In addition, the mass flights of the internally displaced were of a different nature from the more organized movement of the refugees who fled to the Holy Roman Empire, and both of those were totally dissimilar to the fate of those trafficked as slaves to the Ottoman Empire. Equally, the transregional ransoming effort focused on Istanbul had little in common with the broad communal and regional arrangements put in place by Polish Jewry to deal with the refugees at home, and these were different from the sporadic and individual help given to the refugees in the empire.

And yet underlying all of these were numerous commonalities. Perhaps most important was the sense of solidarity that induced Jews from Amsterdam to Istanbul, from Kraków to Cairo, to come to the aid of other Jews in distress. The term most commonly used at the time to describe this connection was “brotherhood.” Jews across the world had a sense of kinship with each other. This feeling was clearly attenuated by the cultural differences between Ashkenazim and Sephardim and even between Polish and German Jews, but, during the crisis at least, it proved stronger than all divisions.

(p.294) The precise basis of this sense of kinship is not easy to tease out, particularly since contemporaries rarely discussed it. Previous generations of scholars, particularly those in Israel, have argued that it was an expression of the Jews’ innate nationhood, which they saw as the defining characteristic of Jewish existence over millennia.1 However, on its own, this is an unsatisfactory explanation because the far distant communities did not have in common many of the major factors necessary for the development of a sense of nationhood: they were separated by different historical experiences, cultural formations, rituals, and even vernaculars.2

On closer inspection, the Jews’ feeling of connection would seem to have been based less on any form of innate nationality than on a common religious tradition as expressed in a series of key texts. Most important among them were the Torah, the Jewish liturgy, and the Jews’ legal literature, especially the Mishnah, the Talmud, and the Shulḥan ʾarukh. The Torah and the liturgy provided Jews everywhere with the sense of belonging to God’s chosen people as well as a common biblical and early rabbinic history that transcended their local experience. The legal literature created a behavioral framework, both personal and communal, that, because it was felt to be divinely given, also transcended the boundaries of space and time and thus created a sense of kinship.

This dual mechanism was at work during the refugee crisis. Jewish communities across the world felt a bond of religious kinship with the Polish-Lithuanian Jews in their hour of need and followed Jewish law in acting to help them. The halakhah determined that doing charity was among the most important of the commandments given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, which meant that helping the refugees—even at some personal cost—was the right thing to do.3 In this sense, all of the relief efforts undertaken in all of the different settings were in fact part of a single socioreligious system accepted by Jewish communities everywhere. That, rather than any intrinsic sense of nationhood, was the key unifying factor.

This system did, of course, have its limits. Tension between the sense of religious kinship and the feeling of alienation caused by the cultural differences between the various Jewish groups was one. In the case of the refugee crisis, it seems to have been the cruel persecutions of Polish Jewry and their subsequent sufferings that allowed the former to overcome the latter. In another instance—sending money to support the poor Jews in the Holy Land—the sufferings of the Ashkenazi Jews in Jerusalem were not enough to persuade the Sephardi communities to donate money to (p.295) them en masse. Though some Sephardi communities did help the Jerusalem Ashkenazim, the principle that each group (i.e., Sephardim and Ashkenazim) supported only their own in the Holy Land persisted throughout the seventeenth century.4

There were other, more practical limitations to the expressions of solidarity toward the Polish-Lithuanian refugees. One was the amount of money given toward relief efforts. Though Jews in many communities were moved to donate to their suffering “brethren,” that did not mean that they gave very generously—and, of course, some refused to give at all. Then, a number of communities, concerned with possible reprisals from local authorities, refused to take in refugees when they arrived on their doorsteps. Though they did not always turn them away completely empty-handed, their refusal to take them left their indigent coreligionists still homeless and exposed to danger.

Finally, there were those who saw in the wave of philanthropic activity the possibility for personal enrichment. Various scams were perpetrated, usually exploiting the difficulties in identifying individuals among the mass of refugees and emissaries of various kinds. Quite a common phenomenon seems to have been an unscrupulous Jew impersonating either one of the refugees or someone acting on their behalf in order to collect money under false pretenses. The state of the sources does not allow us to determine just how widespread these behaviors were, though their appearance in a whole range of different settings is suggestive.

Feelings of solidarity, however attenuated, were not the only thing that connected distant Jewish communities during the mid-seventeenth-century refugee crisis. There were also all kinds of more tangible ties, which meant that no Jewish center was ever acting in isolation and that events in each place affected what happened in the others.

The most important of these was the movement of people. Many of the refugees from eastern Europe moved from one setting to another. There were a number of recognizable routes: those trafficked from Ukraine to Istanbul would often return home via Moldavia and Wallachia; others might cross the Mediterranean to Italy, usually Venice, particularly if they had left behind family members whom they wanted to ransom, while others found their way to Jerusalem and even Cairo; refugees from the Commonwealth might take the Baltic route (via Königsberg or Gdańsk) to Amsterdam, and from there to Italy or the empire; Polish Jewish emissaries, collecting money for ransom, would travel overland to Venice and from there to the Ottoman Empire, usually Istanbul, though they also (p.296) collected in North Africa, as far west as Fez; and finally, the routes from western Poland to Silesia and Moravia seem to have been very active in both directions.

It was not only people that took these routes; letters and money traveled them too. The connections created this way were important not only for communities but for individuals. For communities this form of communication was key in identifying the kind of help and where it was needed, organizing it—sometimes over long distances—and making sure that it reached its goal. For individuals, letters transmitted information from one refugee center to another as family members did their best to help each other and reunite after the tragedy that had befallen them. They were also an essential means of helping women separated from their husbands since they enabled not only information about the fate of lost husbands but copies of relevant depositions and rulings of rabbinical courts to be sent to far distant places. Without these, many more women would have found themselves not only stranded far from home but also agunot unable to remarry.5

The existence of these multiple forms of connection between Jewish centers did not mean that the ties between them were, in modern terms, close. The distances to be traveled were extremely great and the social and cultural gaps to be bridged very wide. In addition, the Jewish communities had many other issues to deal with, which meant that in real terms the refugee-related contacts were far from continuous. Nonetheless, the forging and strengthening of the ties that took place in the wake of the refugee crisis do seem to have represented a drawing together of the Jewish world to a degree not known before.

The place of this Jewish world within the broader non-Jewish world cannot easily be characterized. In some respects, it was deeply embedded: it was the wars in the Commonwealth that sparked the wave of refugees, while the Jews trafficked to Istanbul formed part of a much more extensive Black Sea slave trade. In other ways, however, the Jews seem to have acted in parallel with, or even unconnected from, the surrounding non-Jewish society: people and money seem to have crossed multiple political borders unhindered, and various communities, such as Kraków, Slutzk and Vienna, helped the refugees even in the face of open hostility from their non-Jewish neighbors.

Jewish society was clearly well aware of the wider setting in which it lived and was certainly willing to petition the authorities when they thought it would help. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to assume that the non-Jewish context was a significant factor in determining Jewish relief (p.297) efforts. The communities treated the refugee problem as something internal to their own society and found solutions that had little or nothing to do with their non-Jewish surroundings. Being part of a non-Jewish world while retaining the ability to act with little or no reference to it was not specific to the mid-seventeenth-century crisis but was, in fact, characteristic of premodern Jewish life in general.

The interconnectedness of the different centers demonstrated another key feature of premodern Jewish life: it had no geographical focal point. In fact, the world of the refugees seems to have had four centers, none significantly more important than the others. The first was obviously the Commonwealth from which they came and to which many returned; the second was the Ottoman Empire, particularly Istanbul, which was the center of ransoming; the third was Italy, which seems to have been the major arena for fundraising; and the last was Amsterdam, which was a key staging post for those traveling by sea and a goal in itself for many. Refugees, emissaries, money, and information moved between the four without having to pass through a central hub. The image of seventeenth-century Jewish life that emerges, therefore, is not one of center and periphery—that is, the kind of world recognizable from more modern times—but rather one of circulation. Centers of equivalent importance interacted with each other on a more or less equal basis. In the seventeenth-century refugee crisis, then, the west did not dominate the east, nor the south the north.


The phenomena we have examined are indeed, therefore, aspects of a single refugee crisis. But how large was the problem and how well did Jewish society deal with its challenges?

The number of refugees is very difficult to determine with any degree of precision. First, there is no way even to estimate the number of the internally displaced who fled from their homes but remained within the Commonwealth. The best that can be said is that it must have amounted to considerably more than 10,000. Slightly more can be said about the other two groups: the number of refugees fleeing westward to the empire has been calculated as 10,000–15,000, and the number of the trafficked to the Ottoman Empire for ransom was probably 4,000–6,000.6 At a conservative estimate, then, we are looking at a total of about 30,000 refugees of various sorts, though the real number might have been double that or even more.

(p.298) Assessing the success of the relief efforts is no less difficult, because there is no agreed-upon standard in dealing with refugees against which to measure the achievements of seventeenth-century Jewish society.

One way to look at the issue is suggested in the work of Richard Mollica, founder and head of Harvard University’s Program in Refugee Trauma. His approach, focused on contemporary problems, holds that the difficulties faced by refugees in reconstructing their lives after the traumas they have undergone are best solved not by some outside body but rather by the mobilization of forces within each individual in a process he calls “self-healing.”7 Seventeenth-century Jewish communities, as we have seen, had no overarching way of dealing with refugees, so all they could really do was provide short-term relief and then help its recipients to rehabilitate themselves into society—a process remarkably akin to Mollica’s concept. Consequently, Mollica’s insights on how the self-healing process works and can be encouraged provide us with an important means of analysis.

The idea of using a tool developed for late twentieth- and twenty-first-century conditions to study events in the seventeenth is not as strange as it might seem. Mollica insists throughout his study that there is no single way of dealing with refugees but that each case is specific to itself and is determined by the cultural-religious character of the group being helped.8 Since we are here examining one specific group, Polish-Lithuanian Jews, and are doing so within the contexts of their social and religious experience, the problems of anachronistic thinking are mitigated, if not completely overcome.

Mollica identified four major realms in which the process of self-healing should be encouraged—the social, the behavioral, the spiritual, and the psychological—arguing that doing that is the best way to help refugees rebuild their lives. Here, then, is an analytic framework that will allow us to understand more deeply how the Jews coped with the challenges of the seventeenth-century crisis.

In social terms, Mollica emphasized the role that community can play in helping refugees overcome their suffering. Here the seventeenth century provides a clear parallel. Perhaps the most prominent aspect of the way the refugee issue was treated was the Jews’ sense of community and communal institutions. As far as the refugees themselves were concerned, it meant that once the immediate shock over losing their homes and previous lives had subsided, they could reasonably expect to be taken in and helped by other Jews. Even the captives being transported to Istanbul for sale could entertain the hope that the Jewish community there would come to their aid. In other cases, the refugees created their (p.299) own kind of organizations: some communities, such as those of Olkusz, Pinsk, and Grodzisk, fled as a group, retaining their internal cohesion; in another case, the refugees who had come to Silesia organized themselves into a council in order to negotiate better conditions from the local authorities.

The communal aspect of providing relief was also quite prominent. It could take the form not just of donations from communal funds, which was very common, but also of community-wide fundraising drives, such as those held in Venice and Hamburg. In addition, local communal institutions, in places such as Kraków, Slutzk, and Vienna, would support refugee relief by relaxing its members’ strict monopoly on settling and working in town, a policy the local Jews themselves would back up by opening their homes to refugees.

This policy also plays into the next of Mollica’s realms of self-healing, the behavioral, characterized, among other things, by the refugees’ altruistic activity and their strong desire to work. Here Mollica emphasizes the importance of refugees retaining their own agency rather than becoming passive “victims.” Thus for him the idea of altruism does not refer to that of those providing relief but to altruistic acts by the refugees themselves.9 In the same way, he views finding work and supporting themselves as much more important for the refugees’ recovery than receiving aid. In this sense, the Jewish communities’ policy of allowing the refugees who came to town to work, though undoubtedly motivated by a lack of communal funds rather than an attempt at social engineering, seems to have proved effective.

The refugees’ drive to work can be seen in other ways too: in the empire where many Jews took on the roles of religious functionaries, others began to publish various types of handbooks to give them the specialized knowledge they needed; and back in the Commonwealth, the strong drive to get back to work underlay the relatively rapid reconstruction of its communities.

It is much harder to identify a significant element of altruistic behavior among the refugees, though this may be a function of the fragmentary source base. What is at least suggestive is that one of the few full refugee narratives we have, the fictional Yiddish Mayseh ha-godl, has as its hero the young orphan girl Rachel, whose selfless behavior saved no less than five children in the flight from Nemyriv. Since the text presents her as an exemplar of piety, altruism does seem at least to have been recognized as a positive value in Jewish society in general and among Jewish refugees in particular.10

(p.300) The final two realms of self-healing, the spiritual and the psychological, are difficult to separate. Mollica argues that a spiritual approach, especially within the framework of the refugee community, enhances individuals’ ability to come to terms with, and control, the overwhelming emotions associated with undergoing a traumatic experience: “the emotions are contained by concrete rituals and practices, which give survivors a specific time and place where feelings can be expressed and understood.”11 This same process of emotional control is also the goal of one of the main therapeutic practices recommended by Mollica: having refugees tell their traumatic stories in order to construct a narrative that will allow them to integrate their terrible experiences into their life stories.12

Jewish society proved very adept at providing this kind of spiritual and psychological support to the refugees. The traditional Jewish calendar provides set times for prayer, fasting, and ritual dealing with cataclysmic disasters. The Jews of the Commonwealth actually went one step further and instigated a special day devoted just to the suffering during the wars. These were moments for the refugees to revisit their horrific memories and talk about them, and to do so in the supportive social environment of their communities. The set times of these memorial days were also an important way of integrating the difficult memories of traumatic personal experience into normal life. The liturgy recited presented the disasters that had befallen Polish-Lithuanian Jewry not as a one-off event but as just another link in the chain of Jewish suffering stretching back to antiquity. This allowed the traumatized to assimilate their suffering into the accepted religious worldview and to feel not that it marked some kind of break in their relationship with the Divine but, quite the opposite, that it was an expression of a key aspect of the Jewish people’s covenant with God.13

Overall, then, seventeenth-century Jewish society seems, quite intuitively, to have developed a range of ways to help the refugees resume their lives that very much matched Mollica’s prescription. This, of course, raises the question of the results. How well did the refugees succeed in rebuilding their lives and moving on from their traumatic experiences?

Once again there are no sources to help us provide an authoritative answer, but a certain amount of circumstantial evidence can be marshalled. There is no sign that the refugees continued to form a problematic group in Jewish society once events had quieted down, indicating that they had mostly succeeded in developing new lives for themselves. Moreover, in the two major settings where the refugees ended up, the Commonwealth and the empire, the period following the crisis was one of rapid (p.301) growth and development. That too suggests that those hit hardest by the experience of violence and flight had managed to put it behind them and moved on to better things.


What, then, were the effects of the refugee crisis on Jewish society, both while it was happening and in the longer term, and what was the importance of the crisis for the course of early modern and modern Jewish history in general?

The long-term demographic impact of the mass movement of tens of thousands of Polish-Jewish refugees was determined by the fact that return home soon became not just possible but desirable for the majority of the refugees. As the displaced from across the Commonwealth trickled back during the 1650s and 1660s, the Jewish communities of Ukraine were able to rebuild themselves relatively quickly. The vast majority of those ransomed in the Ottoman Empire seem to have returned home, too, while those who remained there (largely, it would seem, women, intimidated by the dangers of travel) were mostly assimilated into local society.

The appearance of thousands of Jews from Poland-Lithuania also had a significant impact on the depleted Jewish population in the Holy Roman Empire, though it is difficult to isolate the proportion of refugees in the wave of migration that soon followed their flight.

Another way in which the mass movement of refugees had an important effect was in the realm of intercommunal communication. Though communities in far distant places had always been in contact in one form or another, the pressures of organizing relief for Polish-Lithuanian Jewry in general and the refugees in particular intensified those connections and made them much more purposeful. The effects of this process would be seen even while the crisis was drawing to a close. The spread of the Sabbathean movement into Europe in the mid-1660s was facilitated to no small degree by the improved channels of communication that had developed during the crisis. In fact, by the time the excitement aroused by Sabbatheanism had itself died down, the ties connecting the Jewish world were probably stronger than they had ever been.

The economic impact of the crisis was, not unsurprisingly, highly significant. Not only did the refugees need relief, the communities they had fled needed it too, and Jewish society outside the Commonwealth felt responsible for both. Beyond even that, the devastation of Polish-Lithuanian Jewry led to the pauperization of the Ashkenazi Jews in the (p.302) Holy Land, who had, until then, been supported by donations from eastern Europe. This further added to the burden borne by the communities outside the Commonwealth. The idea of donating money to suffering Jews outside the local community was nothing new: support for poor Jews in the Holy Land was already a venerable tradition; a transregional fundraising network for ransoming Jews captured by pirates in the Mediterranean had developed in the early seventeenth century and sending money to other communities in distress was also not unheard of. Still, following 1648, the demands on the philanthropic budget grew enormously.

This in itself must have had an effect, particularly for the Jews of Istanbul who found themselves responsible for ransoming thousands of Jews. They boosted their budget with help from Jews across Europe, but the lion’s share of the ransom money seems to have come from them alone. Though such a drain on their income must have been felt in every aspect of their life, there are unfortunately no sources from which to learn the long-term consequences.

In other ways, the refugee crisis acted as something of a stimulus. For example, the refugees in the empire seem to have found their economic niche in regional trade, also encouraging local Jews to break into that field—a development that not only stimulated the German Jewish economy but also contributed to the success of the Court Jews. In the Commonwealth, Jewish society’s communal and dynamic approach to postwar rebuilding played a key role in its later economic success by strengthening the Jews’ place in the urban economy. As a result, the Jews were increasingly well positioned to grasp the economic opportunities that came their way from the magnate estate owners.

In cultural terms, the interaction between the Polish-Lithuanian refugees and the Jews from other centers was also very significant. An important arena in which it was felt was the world of publishing. Many refugees had high levels of education, which meant their skills were in demand in the printshops of Hebrew publishers. One outcome of this, in the Ottoman Empire at least, was the appearance of one or two books by and about Polish-Lithuanian Jews for a Sephardi audience whose curiosity seems to have been piqued by their sudden and massive appearance in their world. On a broader scale, the publishing business seems to have offered indigent refugees the possibilities of making some much-needed money. This they could do as editors, proofreaders, and typesetters but also as authors. Self-publishing, backed either with the author’s own money or by a local patron, allowed refugee authors to turn their hand to intellectual entrepreneurship as a means of survival. In cultural terms, this not (p.303) only boosted the number of titles published but also widened the ranks of authors beyond the rabbinic elite, a process that had begun in the previous century.14

Nonetheless it was the encounter of Jews from different backgrounds, particularly the Polish-Lithuanian and German Jews, that had the greatest impact. Though they shared a religious and cultural heritage, their very different experiences in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries had established them as two separate groups. That process had caused a degree of tension between them that had remained largely unstated while the German Jewish communities had been forced to rely on their flourishing coreligionists to the east. This seems to have changed following 1648. The tensions, not to say hostility, were brought to the surface by the enormous relief effort demanded of the German Jews, still recovering from the Thirty Years’ War, and the consequently often less than open-handed treatment they gave the refugees. Mutual negative stereotypes developed, which found expression in the popular literature of the day.

These would probably have disappeared (or at least lessened in intensity) as the refugees either returned home or began to assimilate into local culture. However, the flood of Jews fleeing the Commonwealth did not end but soon turned into a stream of economic migrants looking for a better life in the empire. As a result, the hostile stereotype of the east European Jew took root and, with the passage of time, became a key element in modern German Jewish identity.

The spiritual impact of the crisis was no less significant and long-lasting. As we have seen, the generation of 1648 itself was deeply engaged with trying to understand the meaning of the tragedy that had struck them, often caught between the need to see it as just another link in the continuum of suffering that was the lot of God’s Chosen People and a desire to emphasize its very personal meaning for them as Polish-Lithuanian Jews.15 Religious thinkers of all kinds put their minds to the question of why such a disaster had befallen the Jews of eastern Europe, and though their answers were far from uniform, they do seem to have had one thing in common: they sought responsibility among the Jews themselves rather than pouring out their bitterness on God. Terrible though the events may have been, they were not understood as rupturing the basic framework of the Jewish people’s relationship with the Divine.

The long-term spiritual impact of the crisis was thus rather more indirect. We have already seen how the strengthening of intercommunal communications encouraged the spread of Sabbatheanism from the Ottoman Empire to Europe. Beyond that, the need for higher levels of (p.304) philanthropic income stimulated religious contacts between Jews and Christians, particularly millenarian Protestants. The problems of raising money for the Jews of Jerusalem, whose income had been hit both by the impoverishment of Polish-Lithuanian Jewry, which had previously bankrolled them, and by the diversion of funds to refugee relief, led rabbinic figures such as Menasheh ben Yisra’el and Nathan Shapira to seek money from sympathetic Christian circles. Protestant groups in both the Netherlands and England, seeing in the plight of the Jews signs of the Messiah’s impending return, were moved to collect money to support Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel. This was the first time that millenarian Christians had given such concrete help to the Jews of the Holy Land, and it formed a precedent whose effects continue to be felt today.

Within the Jewish world, the movement to the empire of Polish-Lithuanian Jews, many of whom made their living as religious functionaries of various kinds, formed another stage in the homogenization of Ashkenazi ritual life according to Polish custom, which had begun three-quarters of a century before.16 In turn, this seems to have caused a growing degree of alienation toward Jewish practice among German Jews, a process that may perhaps have culminated in the nineteenth century with the creation of new, specifically German forms of Judaism.17

Not all of the effects of the refugee crisis had such long-lasting influence. The struggle to survive the experience of flight and to rebuild a life in its wake, as well as the actual treatment of refugees once they had arrived in any community, were realms in which women played crucial roles. In all of these cases, however, Jewish women were continuing to act as they had done before—in early modern Ashkenazi society, women commonly worked to contribute to the family budget, ran the household, and looked after guests—it was just that the pressures of the crisis forced them to do so more extensively.

On the other hand, Jewish women caught up in the violence and flight faced much greater challenges in rebuilding their lives than men did. The patriarchal nature of Jewish society made it significantly harder for single Jewish women (whether unmarried, divorced, widowed, or just separated from their husbands by events) to receive philanthropic assistance. In addition, married women returning from captivity had to face a great deal of suspicion. The often almost impossible burden of proving their innocence to the satisfaction of their husbands and the rabbinic courts meant that they faced the very real danger of having to live out the rest of their lives alone in a society whose treatment of them could be nothing short of callous.

(p.305) There are signs that some women began to deal actively with these challenges. Those separated from their husbands made extensive use of the information network not only to discover their fate but also to find potential witnesses to provide depositions before rabbinical courts. Should their husbands have remained alive in a distant country, some women traveled to them, while others hired agents to receive the necessary divorce papers. The Jewish widows of Jerusalem, whose exclusion from philanthropic funds actually led to hundreds dying of starvation, went further, not only hiring an agent to raise money for them in Europe but trying to establish a separate female fundraising system there.

Nonetheless, though these efforts were in some cases successful, they did not lead to significant societal change. Gender relations within Jewish society emerged from the crisis looking very similar to prior to it.

In fact, considering the Jewish world as a whole, the changes that occurred as a result of the crisis were not radical but rather an amplification and reshaping of what was already there—an intensification of preexisting trends rather than the appearance of new ones. Only the wave of migration to the empire was new after 1648, but after the initial influx of refugees it soon slowed, becoming a process whose effects would take decades to be properly felt. In other cases, there are clear lines of continuity with the past: the return of refugees to Ukraine in many ways continued the process of colonization from before 1648, as did the Jews’ renewed relationship with the magnates. In much the same way, the transregional philanthropic network, especially that focused on redeeming captives, was not created ex nihilo with the arrival of the Jews from eastern Europe but was rather a more intensive exploitation of a preexisting system. Even the support shown by Protestants for the Jews of Jerusalem did not appear out of thin air but was a consequence of a long period of theological development.

All of this suggests that the common way of explaining change beloved by many historians—the concept of the “turning point”—is not applicable here. Though the massacres and captures of Jews and the floods of refugees that followed them were indeed a cataclysmic series of events, unparalleled in the eyes of contemporaries since the destruction of the Second Temple, the changes they engendered were not, strictly speaking, transformative. Rather than putting Jewish society on an entirely new track, the pressures unleashed by so many communities having to relieve so much suffering in such a short time acted to reinforce and reorient a whole series of preexisting trends. This did not so much transform as reshape the Jewish world, a process that unfolded slowly and gradually.

(p.306) It would seem, therefore, that the crisis was instead a defining moment, a concatenation of circumstances that brought to fruition changes that had already begun to take place. And in giving those changes their final shape it also laid the path for their future development. Thus the Polish Jewish refugee crisis of the seventeenth century, clearly one of the most significant events in early modern Jewish history, was also a key moment in the shaping of the interconnected Jewish world we recognize today.


(2.) Anthony D. Smith, The Antiquity of Nations (Cambridge: Polity, 2004), 127–53.

(3.) Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Zeraʾim, Hilkhot matnat ʾaniyim 10:1.

(5.) Noa Shashar’s argument that, for the most part, the rabbinic establishment was hostile to the needs of agunot suggests that this sending of legal documents may not have been as helpful as all that: Shashar, “ʾAgunot,” 286–325.

(6.) See the appendix.

(8.) Ibid., 41–42.

(9.) Ibid., 165–75.

(10.) Mayseh ha-godl.

(p.355) (12.) Ibid., 133.

(14.) The long-term effects of these phenomena on the development of Jewish culture are extremely difficult to isolate. I hope to deal with them in a future study.

(17.) Such as Reform, Positive-Historical Judaism, and Neo-Orthodoxy. See chapter 26, n. 9.