Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Governance of Cities According to Jewish Tradition

Here's something for those out there interested in the Jewish political tradition.  This is something I read today about how Jewish cities were governed (from the Spirit of Jewish Law by George Horowitz):

pg. 81  "The Community, Kahal
     Full citizens, 'sons of the city' were persons who had been living in the community more than twelve months.  A shorter period but not less than 30 days qualified one as a 'resident' (yoshev ha-'ir).  Greater rights to participate in the government and greater obligations as regards taxes, contributions, etc.  attached to 'sons' than to 'residents' of the community.
    The governing board, 'Selectmen of the City' should consist according to the Talmud of seven persons (shive'ah tove ha-'ir), but in actual practice it varied from three to as many as twelve.  They were usually elected for one year.  At first rather democratically organized, the administration of the kahal soon passed into the hands of those who paid the most taxes and there was generally a property or tax qualification for voting and holding office.  Indeed, membership on the board and other communal offices were sometimes hereditary.  Abuse of power by the oligarchy which governed the affairs of the community was checked by three basic principles:
    (1) The governing board even where it had complete administrative authority was required to respect the wishes of the community;
    (2) The board's major decisions under the local ordinances were usually subject to referendum or recall by the membership and;
    (3)  The acts of communal boards were generally reviewable by the bet-din (court), the dayan (judge), or the rabbi of the community (Hayim Or Zarua, Resp., p. 65; Mordecai, Nezikin 482).
    The board conducted all the affairs of the kahal:  the distribution of funds for alms; the apportionment of taxes to the government, and of communal dues and contributions; and the acquisition, sale, and management of communal property.  It supervised the social and economic life of the kahal, fixed weights and measures, the price of food and the rate of wages (cf. Bava Batra 8b).  It issued police regulations and could even interfere in the private affairs of the individual.  In the interest of the community it could annul rules long sanctioned by usage and precedent.  It was responsible for the safety of the community and its intellectual, educational and spiritual advancement.  It declared feast and fast days and within limitations had the power of excommunication."

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