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zieds1mazs.gif (257 bytes) Rules for Jews in Russia Empire. Pales



The life of Jews in the Russia Empire was regulated by special Laws and by numerous special paragraphs in other Laws. The rules were very diverse and changed in time like all other rules of the Empire or of any other developing country. Unfortunately, I am not always capable of showing the dynamics of the regulations, but I am doing my best. I think it is very important to cover the changes of the regulations for the reference period, because if somebody is researching the life of an ancestor, it could be of importance what legislation was in force at that time. A lot of publications are misleading because they inform about a single fact and then overgeneralize it to all the period of the existence of the Empire. On the other hand, there are also many special investigations of the Empire legislation concerning Jews, but I could not find the best ones. My texts on this Site are mainly based on the original Laws, as they were published in their time. You should be warned, however, that the Laws of the Empire were not implemented always and were not obeyed in all cases and in all places.

Jews were considered by the laws of the Empire as the individuals following Judaism religion - Jewish converts to any Christian confession terminated to be the subjects of the specific Jewish laws. The most important of all of the laws was the Law on Inorodci that was part of the Law on estates /Svod, vol.9/. See more on the estates and Inorodci in another page. Another law I used for this Site was the Law about the Amendment of the life of Jews 1804, but I have got this text only recently and could not review it in all details. I hope to comment on this Law later, but now I have included its German translation in this Site. It may be added that not all facilitation the Law spoke about met the reality and some of them later in the 1880s were abandoned. On the other hand, some restrictions were not put in life for long time. One should always bear in mind that the Empire was not the place where all laws were always strictly followed.


Estates of Jews

The Law 1804 obliged each Jew to be registered in one of the estate communities like any other subject of the Empire did, and, according to this Law, the possible estates for Jews were the estates of merchants, petty-bourgeois, artisans and peasants.

For the general information about the system of estates you are recommended to visit the special Page of this Site. The first thing you may know about the separation by estates is that in general it should be considered more primary than the division by religion or ethnicity. Some of regulations concerning Jews were issued with the aim to bring the organization of Jewish life to conformity with the estate system, but this goal was never reached in the Empire.

The statistics of ethnicities in the region of Latvia by estates for 1897 are also available on this Site. I copied part of this statistics concerning Jews in the following table:

Number of Jews
Hereditary nobility
Personal nobility
Honorary citizens
Petty bourgeois


The above statistics show that there were 5 hereditary and 62 personal nobles among Jews in 1897 in the region of Latvia. Not so many, of course. As all family members of a hereditary nobleman hold hereditary nobility, I guess that only one hereditary noble Jewish family lived in the region of Latvia. Unfortunately, I do not know which this family was.

Jews, if they had acquired higher education, or were, for example, sons of merchants of the 1st guild, were allowed to join the state service, to work most probably in a remote place of the Empire and to reach the rank that implied the personal nobility award. For instance, a person, who graduated from a university with the master grade, could reach at once the 9th rank when hired in the state service. But the 9th rank was already the first rank that brought personal nobility since 1856. In much more rare cases Jews could achieve the hereditary nobility that the persons of the 4th rank were personally awarded by the Tzar. It is also known that at the end of the 19th century the hiring of Jews in the state service was practically canceled, though the theoretical possibility still existed, and the Jews, who were hired previously, still continued to serve, especially in remote places of the Empire. Michail Eisenstein (1867-1921), who is well-known as an architect of Rīga modern style buildings and even better known as the father of a cinema director Sergej Eisenstein (1898-1948), worked in Vidzeme's [Livland] province government as a senior engineer with responsibility for Rīga street building and to 1915 reached the 5th rank of state councilor. Presumably he was converted, however.

A new nobleman had the right and the duty to be registered in a list of nobility. These lists were kept at the province level and nobody could object against the registration of a particular applicant. An exception existed for the nobility of the Baltic provinces - they could decide if a newcomer should be put on their lists or not. May be this was the main reason why so few Jewish noblemen were registered in the region of Latvia.

A review of legal news in 1900 /Raksti/ informed that the nobility of other provinces protested that they should obligatory register all new noblemen including Jews, and therefore in 1900 a new rule was adopted that the Jews awarded nobility were not registered in the lists of a province nobility at all. For them a special list of the Empire level was introduced. It follows that Jews still happened to be awarded nobility estate, and that the appropriate lists of noble Jews may exist somewhere. But these cases were really rare as the above statistics demonstrated, though I think in the Russia proper there were more of Jewish nobility.

It is worth to mention that in Poland of the 18th century and may be also later it might happen that a Polish nobleman married a daughter of a rich Jew. The wife and children of this marriage were nobles according to the general laws, but, of course, they were christened. Some nobility families got Jewish ancestors in this way.

The 1 Jewish clergyman in the table above was definitely registered by the Census by mistake, because the Rabbis were not considered as clergymen by the Empire laws. Principally it does not contradict to the Judaism, because according to its rules the Rabbis possess no more religious grace compared with other male Jews, and they are not a kind of Priest. Since 1855 so called state Rabbis existed who were elected by a Jewish community and were accepted by the governor of the local province. They had to be graduated from the special Rabbi schools (in Vilnius and Zhitomir) or could be graduates of higher or secondary educational institutions.

The state Rabbis conducted circumcisions, marriages, divorces, burials and perhaps other religious rites, and only they could keep the civil records of the Jewish population, because their educational level gave them possibility of doing it in Hebrew and Russian, the both languages were obligatory according to the Law. There should have been existing also non-state Rabbis, because according to Jewish traditions the perfect knowledge of Jewish religion (acquired in a yeshiva school) and high moral allowed a Jew to become a Rabbi, and no acceptance of gentile officials was needed, of course. To my knowledge, they really existed, and their importance grew after 1871, when Rabbi schools were converted to Teacher seminaries without sufficient teaching of Jewish laws and traditions.

The state Rabbis had the rights of the merchants of the 1st guild. It follows they lost their privileges as soon as were fired.

Honorary citizens
The rules for the acquisition of the estate of honorary citizens are explained in the Page on estates. In that Page there are mentioned also special ways for Jews to become honorary citizens.

About 2% of Jews of the region of Latvia were registered as merchants. Catherine II in 1780 allowed Jews to become merchants - to register in the estate of merchants. Please, be warned that here it goes about the estate of merchant, not the occupation. A traveling salesman was yet very far from being a merchant. Consult the Page about Urban residents.

Petty bourgeois
In practice most of the Jews in the Empire could be registered as petty bourgeois, as in 1780 Catherine II also included the Jews in the estate of petty bourgeois

Without doubt there were no real Jewish peasants in the region of Latvia in 1897 or earlier, or later by the end of the Empire. Who then were those 1380 Jewish peasants mentioned in the Census results? I think I have a reasonable explanation. During the first half of the 19th century with maximum in the 1840s-1850s some social experiments were carried out to create Jewish agricultural settlements, and the settlers acquired the estate of peasants. In general these experiments failed, but the people who left these settlements retained the estate of peasant, and it may happen they moved to the region of Latvia. The registration in the estate of petty bourgeois was connected there with pretty many formal difficulties and was charged with good money. Therefore I think that the Census counted the descendants of former Jewish settlers, who migrated to the region of Latvia from the places where these settlements were created, but according to the general rules of the Empire, they were still registered in their communities outside the region of Latvia. I am sure no Jewish peasant communities existed in the region of Latvia.



As it was said, it could be of importance to know the regulations and restrictions of the Jewish life in the Empire. As far as the region of Latvia is considered, it is important that the rules were different for the Baltic provinces Kurzeme [Kurzeme] and Vidzeme [Livland] which in some cases had special legislation and for Latgale part of Vitebskas province where the general rules of the Empire were in force. The specific regulations for the Baltic province are discussed in another Page, this Page deals with the general rules.

I think that the legislation concerning Jews is practically the restrictions tailored for them. The best known of restrictions is the Pale of Settlement which was not the only one and may be not the most important restriction. I have adjusted the word Pale for other groups of restrictions too and have proposed the following grouping of all of the restrictions:

Geographical Pale (Pale of Settlement)  (it is discussed in a separate Page)
Educational Pale (it is discussed in a separate Page)
Legal Pale (it is discussed in a separate Page)

Other Pales are discussed in this Page below:
Economical Pale
Language Pale
Fashion Pale

The Page concerning military matters contains a review of special rules for Jews in the Army.

Economical Pale

It seems that at the beginning of the 19th century the migration restrictions of Jews in the Russia Empire set by the geographical Pale could not create great problems for the Jewish population. After all, the region, where they lived prior the introduction of the Pale, was included in it, and they were also not allowed to go to Moscow or St. Petersburg etc. when they lived in the independent Poland. Rather numerous restrictions of the economical activities that could be called the economical Pale were much more important to Jews. Strictly speaking, the geographical Pale was also caused by economical interests of other groups of business people, because a lot of letters which insisted on restrictions of Jewish commercials were written by their competitors and, to be honest, sometimes also by fellow Jews, who had already gained some rights for business in a locality.

Jews, who wanted to be registered as merchants or petty bourgeois, were charged since 1794 by doubled amount of both taxes and registration payments compared with the Christians of the same estate. This rule concerning the estate of merchants was abandoned quite soon in 1807. The publication 1908 of the Law on estates /Svod vol.9/ informs about the requisite financial conditions for the registrations of merchants introduced in 1863 and says nothing they should be different for Jews. (Details in another Page).

They continued to pay some taxes, for example, the personal tax in doubled amount also after 1807. The Law 1804 promised that the Jews would pay all taxes in the same amount like the other subjects of the Empire when they would prove their assiduity in obedience of the Law. I do not know if they ever managed to prove this, but the doubled amount of their personal taxes was changed to the normal amount in 1817.

The Jews were charged by an additional tax - Korobka tax, or as it was called meat tax, or slaughter tax, or in Aramaic gabela and it was paid only by Jews for each animal slaughtered in accordance with the Kashrut rules, for each pound of this meat sold and in other cases too. More about the system of taxing in the Empire will be published later, but now I can only add that the Korobka tax have already been existing in Poland before its territory was incorporated in the Russia Empire, and at least theoretically the tax income was allocated for needs of the local Jewish community.

The Jews were allowed to organize factories or enterprises or trade institutions. They could own land or other real estate for this purpose in the places where they were allowed to settle inside the Pale, but they were permitted to acquire real estate, except manors with inhabitants (serfs), only in those rural areas where Jewish agricultural settlements were organized, however they continued to possess the properties they had got previously in Poland. As far as I understood the Law on Inorodci /Svod vol.9/, the heirs of such a real estate were obliged to sell it in 6 months.

Very variable rules were those concerning permission of Jews to run pubs in rural areas. In the Empire until the end of the 19th century only the nobility was allowed to possess the kinds of pubs where strong drinks were offered, but quite frequently the right to run a pub was sold to a Jew. Sometimes it was not permitted, then the noblemen applied to the Tzar for permission or found ways to circumvent these rules or simply did not obey this Law. There were several periods of permission and bans during the 19th century inside the Pale.

The Jews were allowed to settle in Rīga beginning of 1842, but they had no rights to have real estate there until 1858. The results of the application for permission to buy land for building of a synagogue in Rīga seem quite interesting from the legal point of view. Rīga municipality did not give permission, but the Jews applied to the Minister of the Interior of the Empire and he decided that - though the Law really did not permit a particular Jew to have a real estate in Rīga, but no similar restrictions exist for the Jewish community as a legal entity, so this community could acquire the land for its needs. And, really, the Jewish community bought the land for the first Synagogue in Riga,. though it happened after 1858.

It was allowed, however, to create Jewish agricultural settlements in the Empire. The Law 1804 has already permitted Jews to settle on free lands inside the Pale. The inhabitants of these settlements became peasants by estate and were obliged to organize peasant communities separated from Christian peasant communities i.e. the settlement was to be sufficiently large. Easy to understand that such settlements could not be created in developed regions, because there were not so much free land, and therefore the Jewish agricultural settlements were created in relatively remote places where the State (Crown) possessed free land and offered it for settlers. In some periods, especially in the 1840s-1850s, Jews were encouraged to organize these settlements and the settlers were granted additional facilitation in taxing and recruitment. In general this politics of Jewish agricultural settlements failed.

Jews had no practical possibility of getting an agricultural job in a manor, because the serfs and later the farmhands were employed there; and Jews were not allowed to settle in the rural areas, with an exception of Jewish agricultural settlements, so Jews were practically excluded out of agriculture. Ordinary Jews had very limited possibilities of engagement in state bureaucracy and civil service. So the only branches of business left for them were crafts, trade, services etc. This is the best explanation why so relatively many Jews were, say, in banking business and nobody, say, in cow breading.

The permitted activities could not guarantee sufficient number of working places for the growing Jewish population, so the migration plans at least for younger people was the problem of the day. I do not know when the Jews began migrate to the USA, but in the 1850s it happened not so rarely.

By the way, in some cases the geographical Pale was direct hinder of Jewish business. For example, in that time one of very important business for Jews was the passenger and freight transportation (by horses, of course). Quite clear that the additional border of the Pale hindered this business seriously. (See the example about Polock militaries in the Page about geographical Pale).


Language Pale

According to the Law of 1804 and to the Law on Inorodci /Svod, vol. 9/, the Jews in no case were allowed to use Jewish language in any kinds of official documents. May be Hebrew is meant in these Laws, because at that time Yiddish was not considered as a language, but, of course, it was not allowed to use Yiddish as well. On the other hand, it is not very likely that Jews could keep their business books in Hebrew.

Jews had to write in Russian or in another language, that was used for this purpose in their locality, so in the Baltic provinces they could write in German (prior 1885 when it was forbidden too). This was also obligatory for their business books. Those Jews who did not know writing in Russian were allowed to sign documents in Hebrew, but in this case the signature was to be translated in the language of the document and certified.

From other sources I know that illiterate Jews, who could not write in any language, draw three circles (zeroes) instead of the signature, unlike illiterate Christians who draw three crosses, you know. It does not seem to be any great restriction in rights, it is just caused by religious considerations.

The Law 1804 insisted that Jews could be elected in local municipalities only in case if they could read and write in the official language of the locality (Russian, German or Polish). Later, when the election was not possible at all, this problem could not arise, of course. The Jews could be elected as Kahal members or Rabbis with the same demands on their education level. I am not sure that these demands were always followed.

Fashion Pale

The Law on Inorodci published in 1910 /Svod, vol. 9/ declared that Jews were prohibited from wearing their traditional clothing throughout (in Russian povsemestno) of the Empire. In the same book as an Appendix to the same Law on Inorodci the regulations of the Korobka tax for Jews in Kurzeme [Kurland] and Rīga are also published. It is stated that the making of Jewish clothes for a woman or a man worth more than 3 Roubles should be charged by Korobka tax. (I think, that 3 Roubles for a piece of really good clothing was not a very great price at that time.) It can be concluded that in these regions it was allowed to wear Jewish clothing, which came into contradiction with the main text of the Law on Inorodci.

The Law of 1804 about the facilitation of the life of Jews allowed Jewish children to be enrolled at the schools of the Empire, but they were allowed to wear Jewish style clothing only in elementary schools; in gymnasia and higher education institutions they were obliged to have the appropriate uniform or the German or Polish style clothing that was set for the particular school.

The Law 1842 about the Jews, who were allowed to enter Riga, contained a following regulation for them - they were obliged to wear German style clothing. An information leaflet for Lutheran Pastors of the same time, part of which I have in my document collection, informs that Jews in Vidzeme [Livland] should wear German style clothing corresponding to their estate. The clothing of different estates should have been and was different, you know. It follows that in that time in some places outside Vidzeme Jews wore their clothing legally.

As you see, it is not possible to reconstruct the real regime for Jewish clothing. Evidently, the Empire officials issued restrictive orders so regularly, because in the real life Jews wore their clothing in spite of all the orders. If you had a look on the Jews in the Page about a Scene in Ghetto, you might discover that some of the Jews continued to wear Jewish type clothes until the WW2. I do not know definitely where the photograph was made, but in any case it was in the former Russia Empire.

The Law on Inorodci /Svod, vol.9/ prohibited Jewish women from shaving their hair off. As far as I understand, this prohibition was adopted in 1851. See, the special Page on the shaving of heads by Jewish women for more details. In that Page some technical details are also discussed how the Law could work, but I think that in reality nobody of the officials cared much about the hair of Jewish women, and this Law was one that nobody knew about, though it is of interest for the understanding how far the Empire regime wished to intervene into the life of the subjects.
I have not heard of similar fashion legislation in the Empire concerning other ethnicities, but I can imagine they existed.



© Bruno Martuzāns. 1995-2002