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Encyclopaedia Judaica

Jews in Vilna (01): 17th-19th century

Jewish merchants - crisis and massacres in the 17th century - schooling - tensions - enlightenment - Socialists and racist Zionist movement - Hebrew printing in the 19th century

Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): Vilna, vol.16, col.
                  141-142, photo 2: the Strashun Library at the entrance
                  to the Vilna schulhoyf. Originally opened in 1892, the
                  library was transferred to this specially erected
                  building in 1901. Behind it can be seen the balconies
                  under the roof of the Great Synagogue. Courtesy YIVO,
                  New York. Photo Roman Vishniac

Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): Vilna, vol.16, col. 141-142, photo 2: the Strashun Library at the entrance to the Vilna schulhoyf.
Originally opened in 1892, the library was transferred to this specially erected building in 1901. Behind it can be seen
the balconies under the roof of the Great Synagogue. Courtesy YIVO, New York. Photo Roman Vishniac

from: Vilna; In: Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971, vol. 16

presented by Michael Palomino (2008)

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[Vilna as a "Jerusalem of Lithuania"]

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

The Early Settlement.

[Jews permitted by Sigismund I since 1527]

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.

[Jewish community in Vilna documented since 1568 - tax regulations]

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 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 (col. 138)

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 the first half of the 17th century the Vilna community was augmented by arrivals from *Prague, *Frankfort, 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.

[Economic crisis of 1630 - Jewish regulations in 1634 - Chmielnicki massacres 1648-49 - flight from the Muscovites in 1655 - Russian occupation]

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.

[Further riots against the Jews since 1661]

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 (col. 139)

[[...]]

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. (col. 140)

[[...]]

[Vilna-Amsterdam connection since 1737 - more licenses for Jews since 1738 - and "Christian" fight against Jewish rights - new restrictions against the Jews]

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. (col. 140)

[[...]]

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 [[assembly]] 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. (col. 140)

Scholarship and Communal Affairs.

Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): Vilna, vol.16, col.
                  141-142, photo 4: east wall of the Great Synagogue,
                  showing the Ark of the Law. The cantor's reading desk
                  stood at the meeting-point of the two flights of
                  steps, and in front of it was a silver repoussé,
                  gilded ammud tefillah (prayer stand) of the early 19th
                  century. Courtesy J.N.U.L. Photo Collection,
                  Jerusalem
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): Vilna, vol.16, col. 141-142, photo 4: east wall of the Great Synagogue, showing the Ark of the Law.
The cantor's reading desk stood at the meeting-point of the two flights of steps, and in front of it was a silver repoussé,
gilded ammud tefillah (prayer stand) of the early 19th century. Courtesy J.N.U.L. Photo Collection, Jerusalem

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 [[judge]] 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 Harif (Ḥarif)
-- the grammarian Azriel and his two sons Nisan and Elijah
-- and Zevi (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 Hayyim (Ḥayyim) *Luzzatto, Joshua Heshel *Zoref (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. (col. 140)

[Tensions within the Jewish community of Vilna 1770-1790]

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 Hasidim (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 [[assembly]] 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.

[Jewish Enlightenment movement in Vilna - and persecution of the Hasidim (Ḥasidim)]

Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): Vilna, vol.16, col.
                  141-142, photo 1: view from the Vilna schulhoyf
                  (synagogue courtyard) into the Zydowska ulica (Jews'
                  street), c. 1930. The schulhoyf was the focus of the
                  city's Jewish life, containing the headquarters of all
                  the community's religious and secular activities. The
                  porch at right is over the entrance to the synagogue
                  of the Vilna Gaon, built in 1800 on the site of his
                  home. Courtesy C.A.H.J.P., Jerusalem
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): Vilna, vol.16, col. 141-142, photo 1: view from the Vilna schulhoyf (synagogue courtyard) into the Zydowska ulica (Jews' street), c. 1930. The schulhoyf was the focus of the city's Jewish life, containing the headquarters of all the community's religious and secular activities. The porch at right is over the entrance to the synagogue of the Vilna Gaon, built in 1800 on the site of his home. Courtesy C.A.H.J.P., Jerusalem

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 Leib ha-Levi *Hurwitz and Moses *Meisel, the shammash [[salaried servant in a synagogue]] 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 *Habad Hasidism (Ḥabad 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 [[opponents]] and the focus of their struggle against Hasidism (Ḥasidism). In 1772 the kahal [[assembly]] disbanded the congregation (minyan) formed in Vilna by the Hasidim (Ḥasidim) and issued a ban or excommunication against them. Bitter opposition to Hasidism (Ḥasidism) continued throughout the lifetime of the Gaon. Nevertheless, groups of Hasidim (Ḥasidim) still assembled clandestinely in Vilna and formed their own minyanim [[10 or more Jews needed for a worship service]], and after 1790 the movement even found support among members of the kahal [[assembly]].

Persecution of the Hasidim (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 Hasidim (Ḥasidim). The Hasidim (Ḥasidim) now attempted to break the hegemony wielded by the kahal [[assembly]], and the two parties sought the intervention of the Russian authorities. In 1798 the Vilna kahal [[assembly]] was prohibited from imposing fines or corporal punishment for religious offenses. When the hasidic (ḥasidic) leader *Shneur Zalman of Lyady was denounced to the authorities and imprisoned, 22  Hasidim (Ḥasidim) from Vilna and its environs were also incarcerated, although afterward released. The kahal [[assembly]] elders and dayyanim [[judges]] were dismissed from office in 1799, and the kahal [[assembly]] accounts were examined.

A new kahal [[[assembly]] was chosen from among the Hasidim (Ḥasidim), which controlled the Vilna community for over a year. Subsequently (col. 143)

the two parties became reconciled and a new kahal [[assembly]] was elected with representatives of both parties. The Hasidim (Ḥasidim) were permitted to maintain their own minyanim (congregations).

[1799-1802: anti-Jewish opposition bans Jews from municipal affairs - Napoleon's troops - czarist rule with new restrictions]

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 [[assembly]] was abolished in 1844. The directors (gabba'im) of the charitable fund (ha-zedakah ha-gedolah) continued to guide communal affairs unofficially. A visit was paid to Vilna by the philanthropist Moses *Montefiore in 1846.

[Jewish cultural activities in Vilna during 19th century]

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 [[followers of the Haskalah, enlightenment Jews, secularists]] and men of letters at the beginning of the 19th century, was now superseded by Russian. The maskilim [[secularists]] 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.

1860-1939. [right of general settlement in 1861 - anti-Semitic Jacob Brafmann]

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 [[religious Torah school]] and communal leader.

[Jewish newspaper since 1860 - Jewish Socialists]

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 *Libermann and his associates.

[Anti-Jewish attacks in 1881]

Anti-Jewish riots took place in 1881 [[when the czar was murdered and the Jews generally were blamed for that]] 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.

[Villages prohibited to the Jews - Jewish migration movement to Vilna - emigration movement]

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 Erez Israel (Ereẓ Israel).

[Jewish socialists in Vilna in the 1890s - anti-Semitic wave in 1900 - Lekert's attack against Von Wahl]

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. (col. 144)

[[...]]

In 1900 a wave of anti-Jewish feeling swept Vilna over the *Blondes blood libel case.  (col. 147)

[[...]]

In 1902 the shoemaker Hirsch *Lekert attempted to shoot the (col. 144)

governor-general of Vilna, Von Wahl, after his treatment of a First of May demonstration. Lekert was condemned to death and hanged.

[Racist Zionism in Vilna]

At the beginning of the 20th century Vilna became the center of the *Zionist movement in Russia, and saw the rise of a florishing Hebrew and Yiddish literature.

[[Racist Zionism has the aim to establish a "Greater Israel" with the borderlines on the Nile in Egypt and on the Euphrates in Iraq according to 1st book Mose chapter 15 phrase 18. Add to this Herzl's booklet "The Jewish State" (1896) says that the Arabs will be the slaves of the Jews, that gold could be found in Palestine as in South Africa, and that the Arabs could be driven away as the natives in the "USA" had been driven away. Since 1896 the Arabs are agitating against this racist Zionist booklet, and also the majority of the Jews are against this racist Zionist imperialism, but the racist Jewish organizations are coming up more and more in WW I and the Arabs are never asked. But since 1915 the Arabs have weapons from the English side and the imperialist racist Zionist plan to enslave the Arabs is not real any more]].

One of the first societies of the *Hovevei Zion (Ḥovevei Zion) movement was founded there; Hovevei Zion (Ḥovevei Zion) conventions were held in Vilna in 1889, and subsequently those of the [[racist]] Zionist organizations (the founding convention of the *Mizrachi party in 1902, and others). Theodor *Herzl [[a normal racist writer of his time]] who visited Vilna in 1903, was given an enthusiastic popular reception. The central bureau of the [[racist]] 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. Hayyim (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. (col. 147)

Hebrew Printing. [Zionist press in Vilna in 19th century]

Hebrew printing in Vilna began in 1799 with three ethical books:

-- a short version of Kalonymus b. Kalonymus' Even Bohan (Even Boḥan) by Phinehas b. Judah Polotsk
-- Abraham Lichtstein's Hin Zedek (Hin Ẓedek) on Maimonides' Shemonah Perakim (1 and 2), by the press of Aryeh Loeb and Gershom Luria and Moses b. Menahem
-- and Gershon b. Benjamin's Shemirat ha-Mitzvot.

The former two were printed by the Canonicus Joseph Mirski (d. 1812) and the (col. 147)

third in the printing house Jan Jasienskie Luria's firm produced various small books and a Bible (1806). The firm still existed in 1823. The Drukarnia Djecezjalna (Miski) and Vilna University had their own Hebrew press.

Hebrew printing in Vilna, however, owes its fame mainly to the house of *Romm. Baruch b. Joseph (d. 1803), after some years in Grodno, set up in Vilna in the last years of the 18th century. Baruch's son Menahem Man Romm (d. 1842) and Simhah Zimel (Simḥah Zimel) b. Menahem Nahum of Grodno printed some liturgical items in 1815-17. Menahem Man's three sons - David (d. 1860), assisted by his second wife Deborah, née Harkavy; Hayyim (Ḥayyim) Jacob; and Menahem Man Gabriel - greatly developed the firm. Due to the censorship, by 1845 the firm practically enjoyed a monopoly in Russia and Poland.

Trouble arose when the Talmud was to be printed, which eventually led to the closing of all Jewish printing-presses in Lithuania and Volhynia except one in Vilna and another in *Zhitomir (until 1862). In 1835 Man Romm, in association with Simhah Zimel (Simḥah Zimel), began printing the Talmud against the protest of the *Slavuta printers; as a result, Slavuta's second printing (their first dates from 1815/16-1822/23) was never finished. Romm completed their edition in 1854. It was their masterpiece; in 1846 even Sir Moses Montefiore came to visit their establishment. From 1871 it was known as the firm of "the widow and the brothers Romm" (i.e., Deborah, Hayyim Jacob (Ḥayyim Jacob), and Menahem Mam). The 1866 edition was produced by 100 devoted workers and 14 correctors. Many standard texts, among them the Mishnah, the Turim, Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, the Jerusalem Talmud, and S. Buber's Midrash editions, made Vilna printing famous for its beauty and accuracy.

There were also a number of small firms. Abraham Zevi (Ẓevi) Rosenkranz and his brother Menahem Schriftsetzer, originally typesetters with the Romms, established their own press in 1863. They also took over the Samuel Joseph Fuenn press in 1893, after it had existed for 30 years.> (col. 148)

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Sources
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): Vilna,
                          vol.16, col. 138
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): Vilna, vol.16, col. 138
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): Vilna,
                          vol.16, col. 139-140
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): Vilna, vol.16, col. 139-140
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): Vilna,
                          vol.16, col. 141-142, photos
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): Vilna, vol.16, col. 141-142, photos
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): Vilna,
                          vol.16, col. 143-144
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): Vilna, vol.16, col. 143-144
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): Vilna,
                          vol.16, col. 147-148
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): Vilna, vol.16, col. 147-148



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