Bracteate (coin) with Hebrew inscription, twelfth or thirteenth century. (Muzeum Narodowe, Kraków)

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Money played a central role in the inner life and value system of the Jewish community as well as in its relations with the non-Jewish world. This was the case in part because Jewish status in Eastern Europe was predicated on Jews’ performance of commercial, managerial, and financial services, while Jewish autonomy required an elaborate system of internal taxation.

At the institutional level, Jews in premodern times paid the crown and local authorities for the privilege of forming themselves into self-governing corporations. While this system provided considerable autonomy for Jews, it also meant that they were treated as a distinct collectivity in law and were subject to a variety of often-discriminatory taxes and levies. The complex number of taxes and tolls imposed on the collective and individual was considered a burdensome and egregious aspect of Diaspora life: “No one leaves [the Jew] in peace anyhow. [The refrain is] Jew! Give me your money, let me milk you like a cow!” (Mendele Moykher-Sforim, Yudel, cited in Rivkind, 1959, p. 266).

Beyond its regular fiscal responsibilities, the Jewish community was frequently obliged to provide one-of-a-kind payments to ward off measures that threatened its political, legal, or communal existence. These sums were at times called unterkoyf-gelt, though, not surprisingly, there are more than a few synonyms in Yiddish for bribery and “protection money.” 

The autonomous Jewish community also required an elaborate system of internal fees in order to be self-sustaining. Every facet of communal existence had its monetary counterpart, from dues payable toward the upkeep of institutions to alms given in support of the local poor. Synagogue expenses, for example, were often underwritten through the custom of selling “honors” or mitsves, related to the reading of the weekly Torah portion on the Sabbath (these were called, for example, psikhe (Heb., petiḥah), hagbe, mafter, with respect to the part of the service to which they referred) and similarly, through an additional public pledge known as shnodergelt that was part of the blessing made on being called to the Torah and after purchasing a religious honor. The requirements of Jewish dietary regulations were also considered a communal burden and in order to defray the costs, some communities minted a special coin, or shkhite-gelt, manufactured from copper, bronze, or paper, that was used to pay the shoykhet (Heb., shoḥet; ritual slaughterer) and the rabbi, among others. By no means the least of the communal institutions of Eastern European Jewry, the bathhouse, or merkhets, was also subsidized through the community chest (though entrance required an individual user fee as well).

The kahal mandated numerous welfare provisions for the needy. Among the most central were specified sums set aside as hakhnoses-orkhim-gelt for the upkeep of visitors or “wayfaring strangers” (durkhforers), which by the modern period, if not before, often meant the itinerant poor. The hekdesh, a “hospital” (hospice) for the poor, also came to serve as a lodging house for itinerants sometime during the nineteenth century. One of the most common charitable obligations entailed the provision of dowries for orphan girls (hakhnoses-kale) to enable them to fulfill the obligations of marriage and procreation. Of similar or perhaps still greater import through the Middle Ages and into modern times was the setting aside of emergency funds (oysleyzgelt, or extortion money) for ransoming captives, including community members arrested on trumped-up charges for purposes of extortion, the liberation of travelers held by pirates, or of hostages taken in war.

Welfare provisions were sometimes the special province of specific communal associations, khevres, membership in which was ostensibly voluntary but also a sign of honor and prestige. The khevre was a key institution both in Eastern Europe and in the West, especially after the period of mass migration in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when it functioned as a mutual aid society for the immigrant poor. Its dues payments were often an elaborate affair. For example, in addition to the general membership fee—khaver-gelt—the khevre might also demand a one-time admission or application fee—ayntritsgelt—as well as a one-time acceptance fee—aynkoyfsgelt.

The dispensation of charity was not just the province of institutions such as the kahal or khevre; it was also a mandated act of piety incumbent upon every individual: men and women, young and old, rich and poor. Special charity coins—tsdoke-gelt—were produced in the towns and villages of Poland and Russia for precisely this purpose, so that even those most in need could take part in the fulfillment of the commandment to help the poor. This charity “currency” was imprinted on a tin sheet with the Hebrew letters tsade and lamed—an acronym for tsedakah la-‘aniyim (charity to the poor)—and had the monetary value equal to a fraction of a kopek (an eighth) or a groshen (a quarter). The locals would buy the special coins or perutot from the kahal to give to the itinerant poor, who would cash in their tokens when they left the town.

In general, the dispensation of charity was related to an annual round of time-bound obligations. Thus, for example, bylaws from a charitable society in Luts’k from the early eighteenth century stipulated a weekly stipend, known as vokhgelt, to be given each Friday. This was in addition to the ordinary round of donations made to this society, which distributed food to the poor. Similarly, the appearance of the new moon was often marked by the dispensation of alms. In his 1888 novel Fishke der krumer, Abramovitsh describes how “beggars one and all: men and women, girls and boys, would go from door to door every new moon with their sacks, begging for money and pieces of bread.” The observance of certain festivals was also linked either by custom, religious mandate, or both to charity giving. A charitable gift was required, for example, of anyone memorializing the dead—as indicated by the prayer recited in the memorial Yizkor service (“ba-‘avur she-ani noder tsedakah ba-‘ad hazkarat nishmatam”; I am pledging charity to commemorate their souls) and by the penitential service on Yom Kippur (which is why every place of worship had a charity plate at the ready to receive the requisite shislgelt, or plate money).

The highlight of this annual round of giving came during the two festivals of Purim and Hanukkah. Though the practice of distributing alms among the poor was enjoined by a religious mandate only for the former, Hanukkah, too, became linked with the practice of begging for money door-to-door—certainly by the eighteenth century. Each of these holidays had its own distinctive gelt practices. The following rhyme is associated with Purim, in keeping with the day’s carnivalesque character:

Haynt iz Purim, morgn iz oys,

Gib mir a groshn un varf mikh aroys.

(Today is Purim, tomorrow no more,

Give me a penny, and throw me out the door.)

A special charity coin was also connected to the celebration of Purim—the shekl-gelt or makhtsis-hashekl-groshn, described as an old thick coin with a special imprint on one side that was customarily paid out on the Feast of Esther, a symbolic token of the antique shekel. Until the modern era, Hanukkah gelt was not usually given to children and did not necessarily denote money at all. Instead, it referred to an extra emolument given to communal functionaries during the holiday week. In Abramovitsh’s description, “at Hanukkah time the town slaughterer, the cantor, and beadle would go around to every household, [rich and poor], collecting sacks of potatoes, carrots and other vegetables . . . they called this Khanike-gelt . . .” (cited in Rivkind, 1959, p. 104). By the end of the nineteenth century, in wealthier households a newer tradition developed of giving Khanike-gelt to children as a holiday gift.

A special province for charity was money earmarked for the poor living in the Land of Israel. This tradition had many names and was widely practiced. Often monies were placed in a specially marked box, the Erets-Yisroel-pushke. As a nineteenth-century Lithuanian source indicates, this pious imperative was commonly fulfilled by women through the custom of khale-nemen (“challah-taking”), which involved placing aside part of the dough of the bread prepared for the Sabbath, and at the same time setting aside a coin dedicated to the Jews of the Land of Israel. At the end of the century, this custom was adapted and appropriated by the Zionist movement, whereby support for the Basel platform and annual membership was famously made by the payment of the “Zionist shekel.”

In addition to the above, and to the ordinary round of domestic expenditures, families also had to find money for notable life-cycle activities involving schooling, marriage, and death, each of which required its own set of expenses, marked by particular money traditions. Funeral and mourning customs might require, for example, the “renting” of a quorum during the week of mourning, or the hiring of a kadish-zoger—someone to recite the memorial prayer (Kaddish) on one’s behalf. But it was the burial costs themselves, or kvure-gelt, which were notorious as an object of resentment, with the burial society frequently accused of “fleecing the dead and the living” (raysn fun toyte un fun lebedike). And in spite of centuries-long efforts to regulate fees, people often endured inflated and indiscriminate charges. Hence the proverb, “Owning a home brings with it two worries—paying for it, so that you have a place to live, and paying for your burial plot, so that you have a place to die.” School tuition or kheyder-gelt was an essential part of the family budget. “There are two requirements in life: to eat and pay tuition,” says the reigning folk wisdom.

One notable custom formed part of the traditional festivities surrounding the first days in school: the practice of littering an open school primer with coins. In a reminiscence from the end of the nineteenth century, Ayzik Meyer Dik recalls how “the big teacher showed me the big aleph, and the next day the angel showered me with pennies from heaven” (Der ershter nabor [Vilna, 1872], p. 4).

A wedding was the occasion for numerous kinds of money gifts—prompted by charity, superstition, or both—that were an integral part of the festivities. Its celebration was considered incomplete without the frequent dispersal of charity: as in the widespread practice of the orem-moltsayt, a special feast and celebration for the poor that was laid out on or before the wedding day; or another, linked to the ancient custom of shlogn kapores, in which the ceremony was followed immediately by a shower of money, “the rich with gold and silver, the poor with copper; and this money would be given to the poor” (as reported in Kol mevaser, a Yiddish Russian newspaper, in 1867). A more obscure custom derives from both Lithuania and Ukraine, where newlyweds and the wedding party, as they left the bridal canopy, would be met by water-carriers and would fill their pails with coins.

Numerous money customs were meant to ward off the infamous evil eye (eyn-hore; Heb., ‘ayin ha-ra‘). One such tradition involved sewing coins into the hem of a circumcision blanket. Similarly, coins sewn into the bedding of newlyweds were meant to ensure a fruitful and prosperous future. Among certain Hasidic sects, money took on an overtly talismanic power: a coin blessed by the rebbe might be worn around the neck by a sick woman, or by a child for healing and protection, as was the case with followers of the rebbe of Ruzhin in the nineteenth century. In this worldview, it was considered prudent to always keep a small amount of loose change (kleyngelt) in one’s pocket, ready to dispense, for example, upon first hearing a cuckoo in springtime, lest one suffer a penniless year. Conversely, a dream about reclining oxen was thought to guarantee a year of prosperity.

Honors associated with Jewish ritual life were also invariably accompanied by special “gifts and fees.” In general, the greater the religious honor, the higher the cost (as folk wisdom had it, “ver shmuest a kibed iz shtark khoshev gevezn, es flegt kostn gelt di mitsve”). Indeed, there was no rigid division in Jewish life between the sacred and the monetary. Because money was at once a necessity of life, and an opportunity for piety, it at times took on religious value.

In the prosperous second half of the sixteenth century and the early decades of the seventeenth, some rabbis conflated wealth and virtue. “Were it not for their good deeds, their wealth would not have been created,” wrote Avraham Horowitz (before 1550–ca. 1615) in his ethical will, Yesh noḥalin. Indeed, in one passage, Mosheh Isserles seems to imply that the condition of the poor is testimony to a flaw in their character: “If the Lord knows that his nature is such that he will be unable to suffer great wealth and will be led to sin by it, then his merit leads to denying him wealth lest he be prideful with it” (Torat ha-‘olah, 3, ch. 53, 117a–b). Nevertheless, there were some who voiced contrasting opinions. The preacher Efrayim of Luntshits, for instance, asserted that wealth was an insurmountable obstacle to piety. “Torah and gold are mutually repellant”; moreover, “all who are prideful lust after wealth . . . all wealth causes pridefulness” (Keli yakar, 93a).

Indeed, no single attitude toward the inherent religious status of money predominated. “The key to piety is hidden in money [and] the truly pious are made of money [bashtendikt af gelt],” wrote the seventeenth-century moralist Tsevi Hirsh Koidanover. Ironists, however, noted with reference to making a living that “it is harder to be honest [erlekh] than it is to be pious [frum].” In fact, mishandling other people’s money (fremdgelt), especially that of the poor, was regarded as a grave sin, and seeking an income without resort to theft, extortion, or unscrupulous profit was considered a pious ideal.

Another strain of traditional attitudes asserts that Toyre iz di beste skhoyre (Torah is the best merchandise [or business]). Money, or good fortune, in this conception derives from God (riboyne-shel-oylem-gelt) and consequently, in an ultimate pietistic sense, all money is fremd—it belongs to no one. The pious man would therefore do well to share his prosperity with those less fortunate: who knows if tomorrow he will become the beggar and his neighbor, the man of means.

Suggested Reading

Salo W. Baron, Arcadius Kahan, et al., Economic History of the Jews, ed. Nachum Gross (New York, 1975); Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson, Hagut ve-hanhagah (Jerusalem, 1959); Bruno Kisch, “Jewish Community Tokens,” Historia Judaica 15 (1953): 169–171; Isaac Rivkind, Yidishe gelt in lebensshteyger, kultur-geshikhte un folklor (New York, 1959); Adam Teller, Kesef, koaḥ ve-hashpa‘ah (Jerusalem, 2006).