THE PRIVILEGE OF VYTAUTAS THE GREAT

The title page of the privilege of Vytautas The Great

Jews are autochthons in Lithuania. There are records showing that they lived here before 14th century. Most probably, these were the wondering merchants. In 14th century Jews settled down here firmly. At the end of the century there were several communities in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL), around 6000 Jews. In 1388 Vytautas the Great granted the privilege to the Jews in Brest, later extended on other communities. The Jews were proclaimed to be free people, not serves, and like all noblemen were subjects to the Grand Duke. Both rights and responsibilities, in essence similar to those of other free people, testify the high social status of Jews. They were granted the protection of their lives and property, the right of unrestricted mobility, trade, financial activities etc. The exceptional tolerance was shown toward the religion. Jews were not only given the right to practice their faith and celebrate religious holidays. Synagogues and graveyards were also declared under protection. The accusations of Jews using the blood of Christians for ritual purposes were forbidden, since such accusations contradicted with Jewish religious laws. Severe punishment awaited those who violated Jewish religious rights.

The privilege was later accepted by other Grand Dukes, its main points were included in the First Statute of Lithuania (1529).

According to Jewish historians, the reign of Vytautas the Great was the golden age for Jews.

Handicrafts
Handicrafts
Later came tough ordeals. In 1495 Jews were expelled from Lithuania and allowed to return only after eight years. Nonetheless, tolerance, relatively free  way of life, ability to practice own religion, observe traditions, conduct trade prevailed over prosecutions and oppression. That is why Jews became deeply rooted in Lithuania, developed here rich culture. They engaged themselves in all sorts of activities. Handicrafts Although natural economy prevailed in the country, the role of Jews - merchants was of utmost importance. Jews were experienced financiers, therefore often they were entrusted with important duties. Michel  Juzefovitch was appointed the chief of Brest customs, his brother Abraham (baptized) in 1510-1518 managed the finances of the whole GDL. A lot  of Jews settled down in the country side and rented the land. Noblemen would let them inns, therefore Jews were often accused  of making people drink. These accusations are false. A. Shapokas'  history text-book confirms that: "All noblemen tried to get hold of a brewery, and there were hundreds of inns all around the place. They were built by noblemen and rented to Jews. Everyone drank very heavily, since noblemen often forced their peasants to consume alcohol, demanding that each year they buy a certain amount of vodka. It was a kind of a tax". Handicrafts
Handicrafts

  Handicrafts

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Jews in Lithuania, Vilnius, 1999-2000