Commentary on:
Council of Four Lands Printing and Book Trade Regulation (1594)

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Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900)

Identifier: j_1860


Commentary on Council of Four Lands Printing and Book Trade Regulation (1594)

Neil W. Netanel

School of Law, University of California at Los Angeles, USA


1. Full title

2. Abstract

3. Jewish Law and Rabbinic Courts: General Introduction

4. Background and Context

5. The Rabbinic Court’s Ruling

6. Adopting the Model of Papal and Venetian Book Privileges

7. References


1. Full title

Council of Four Lands Regulation, 1594


2. Abstract

The Council of Four Lands was the supreme legislative and judicial body of the largely self-governing Jewish communities of Poland from 1580 to 1764. In 1594 the Council issued a regulation providing that “no printer shall print any books without permission of rabbis and lay authorities.” The regulation also provided that no books could be printed in Italy that competed with a book printed in Lublin or Krakow, and if printed anyway, such a book could not be sold in Poland. The Regulation aimed to control content as well as order the book trade market. It served as the foundation for rabbinic reprinting bans – the Jewish law equivalent of book privileges.



3. The Council of Four Lands and Jewish Self-Government

In Europe, from the early medieval period until political modernization and emancipation in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries, the royal and feudal powers in the lands where Jews were permitted to live typically granted the Jewish community a considerable measure of self-governing, juridical authority. In accordance with their royal charters and feudal privileges, Jewish communities established governing councils that both represented the Jewish community before the sovereign power and enacted ordinances governing much of the community’s internal life.


Although the governing councils came to be headed by lay notables, they were heavily dependent on rabbinic leaders, who enforced and gave imprimatur to community ordinances, ruled on questions of Jewish law, issued decrees and regulations, and settled disputes. Indeed, rabbinic courts held juridical authority, backed by the secular sovereign power, to hear and rule on disputes between Jews. Rabbinic decrees were typically enforceable by some combination of censure, social ostracism, and excommunication.


The Council of Four Lands was the central, overarching body of Jewish authority in Poland from 1580 to 1764. It included representatives from the Jewish communities of Greater Poland, Little Poland, Ruthenia, Volhynia, and, until 1623, Lithuania. Among many other matters, the Council of Four Lands exerted far reaching authority over the Hebrew book trade. Indeed, given that Poland came to be the primary market for books of Jewish law, learning, and liturgy, the Council’s authority over books sold in Poland gave it considerable influence over centers of Hebrew printing in Amsterdam, Italy, and Germany as well.



In 1764 the Council of Four Lands was abolished by the Polish Sejm. The Sejm decided that henceforth taxes would be collected directly from each individual Jewish subject, without the intermeddling of a communal authority that had acted as a buffer between Jewish subjects and the state and that had applied some of the funds it had collected to the internal needs of the Jewish self-governance rather than paying the entire amount to the Polish treasury.


The three partitions of Poland, the first in 1772 and the last in 1795, dealt a further, crippling blow to Jewish self-government. Following 1795, the heartland of European Jewry was now divided among the Polish territories annexed by the Russian Empire, Austrian Empire, and Kingdom of Prussia. In the late eighteen and early nineteenth centuries, these monarchies, together with the various states of Germany and the territories conquered by Napoleon, systematically dismantled the juridical authority of Jewish community councils and rabbinic courts. They also imposed severe import restrictions on Hebrew books. Those developments, in turn, had a profound influence on Jewish copyright law.


4. The 1594 Regulation and its Context

In 1594 the Council of Four Lands issued a far-reaching regulation of the Hebrew book trade. We do not have the actual text of the Council’s regulation of 1594. That portion of the Council’s minute book has been lost. Rather, we have only a later recitation of the regulation in the minute book of the Jewish council of Krakow. Hence our knowledge of the regulation derives from that later recitation.


Based on the reference in the Krakow minute book, the Council of Four Lands’ 1594 regulation provided that “no printer shall print any books without permission of rabbis and lay authorities.” The Council further decreed that should any printer disobey that order, the rabbis and lay authorities were to close down his printing establishment and excommunicate the printer, as well as all who assisted him in the illicit printing. As such, the 1594 regulation aimed primarily to serve as a mechanism of pre-publication censorship. The Council wish both to prevent the publication of materials that could incur the wrath of non-Jewish authorities and to prevent works deemed subversive within the Jewish community. But, over time, the requirement that publishers must obtain permission to print a book also came to serve as a foundation for rabbinic reprinting bans – the Jewish law equivalent of book privileges -- that aimed to protect publishers against competing reprints.


Indeed, by its terms, the 1594 Council of Four Lands regulation also sought to order the book trade market. It further provided that no books could be printed in Italy that competed with a book printed in Lublin or Krakow, and if printed anyway, in violation of that prohibition, such a book could not be sold in Poland (at least until the Polish publisher had sold out it initial print run).  Indeed, the Council sought repeatedly to foster local publishing and avoid ruinous competition in the Jewish book trade. For example, it dictated which tractates of the Talmud would be studied in rabbinic academies each year and provided local publishers with advance notice of what tractate would be required, thus ensuring a market for their imprints. And much later, towards the end of the seventeenth century, the Council sought, through its regulatory power, to divide the market for books of Jewish learning among three Hebrew printing houses, operating, respectively, in Krakow, Lublin, and Zolkiew.


The Council of Four Lands 1594 regulation is but the most prominent example of Jewish council and rabbinic regulation of the Hebrew book trade. One of the first such book trade regulations was the edict issued by a general synod of Italian rabbis, on behalf of a congress of lay and rabbinic leaders, in 1554 in Ferrara. The synod convened in the wake of papal bulls ordering the burning of all copies of the Talmud and instituting rigorous censorship of Hebrew books, with particular attention to passages determined to be offensive to Christianity. In an apparent act of protective self-censorship, the synod decreed that printers shall not be permitted to print any hitherto unpublished book except with permission of lay leaders and three duly ordained rabbis. Then, following the Council of Four Lands regulation, Jewish communal authorities’ regulation of the Hebrew book trade spread to other printing centers as well. In 1603, a rabbinic synod in Frankfurt am Main decreed that “no Jew shall print any new or old book in Basel or in any city in Germany without approval of three rabbinic judges.” Likewise, in 1608, the lay council of the Jewish community of Venice explicitly prohibited the publication or reprinting of any book without rabbinic permission. And in 1638, the lay council of Portuguese Jewry in Amsterdam (called the Ma’amad) issued a decree that “no Jew may print in this city or elsewhere, in Ladino or in Hebrew, without the permission of the Ma’amad, so that said books shall be examined and corrected.” Like the Council of Four Lands regulation, these regulations served the dual purpose of censorship and economic regulation, including providing the foundation for rabbinic reprinting bans.







6. References

This commentary draws heavily on the much fuller discussion in Netanel, N., From Maimonides to Microsoft: The Jewish Law of Copyright Since the Birth of Print (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 120-126, 137-140, 150-152.

See also Heilprin, I., Yehudim ve-Yahadut be-Mizrach Eropa [Jews and Judaism in Eastern Europe] (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1969).

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