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Words new to me: кагал

July 4, 2013

First there is the Hebrew word qahal, קהל according to English Wikipedia. It’s used in the Torah / Old Testament:

The Hebrew word qahal, which is a close etymological relation of the word qoheleth, comes from a root meaning of convoked [group];[3] its Arabic cognate, qala, means to speak.[1]

Where the masoretic text uses the term qahal, the Septuagint usually uses the Greek term Ekklesia,[1] which means summoned group (and literally means they who are called out).[4][5] However, in one particular part of the Priestly Code the Septuagint instead uses the term synagogen,[6] literally meaning gathering,[7] where the masoretic text uses qahal.[8]

So a qahal was, still quoting from English Wikipedia, “a theocratic organisational structure in ancient Israelite society.” Later, however, this word came to be used for a “form of administration in Jewish autonomous government in Poland and other Eastern European countries from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, and in the Russian Empire from 1772-1893.

In Russian the word кагал takes on a figurative meaning of “loud, unruly crowd; loud gathering”; Ushakov gives the usage examples “Целым кагалом явились на суд” (They appeared in court as a whole kagal) and “Чего вы здесь кагал устроили?” (What have you got such a kagal going on in here for?).

Leskov’s “Episcopal Justice” (Владычный суд, 1877), set in Kiev, uses the word in its concrete administrative Russian Empire sense, but with an evident negative connotation:

This [the fact that sometimes twelve witnesses attested that a Jewish boy was over 12 and could be drafted into the Russian army, while twelve possibly overlapping witnesses swore the opposite about the same boy] could be explained by the appearance, under the circumstances I am describing, of a special profession of “swearers”: from the absolute dregs of the rabble of Jewish kagals, which were described so well by the rabbi Brafman, who converted to Christianity, were formed bands of unscrupulous and crudely amoral people, who just wandered around in gangs of twelve looking for work, that is, asking everywhere “czy nie ma czego to swear to?” (chapter 2)

This sort of “broad understanding” also brought him into disgrace with the kagal, which, against all the rules, attacked the “introligator’s” cottage at night and took his ten-year-old son out of his bed and brought him to the processing center as a recruit. It really was not the “introligator’s” turn in the draft list, and he presented a witnesses’ statement saying that the son taken by the kagal was only seven; but the official order was not observed in those last days of the draft, and the kagal presented a different witnesses’ statement saying the boy had already turned twelve. (chapter 3)

The princess’s zeal in this respect was abused most of all by those people of few scruples who appeared with a feigned yearning for baptism out of that low class of Jewish [еврейские] societies that suffers most and has the most to tolerate from the terrible kagal-ish injustice of Jewish [жидовские] societies. Finding protection nowhere against the amorality that reigns here, these people themselves become so amoral that, to use the local expression, they “change their faith like a Gypsy changes his cognac.”  (chapter 7)

A creepy anti-Semitic site that the Russian Wikipedia entry for кагал links to shows that the word is used to this day in conspiracy theorists’ warnings against Jews:

After the change in government of 1985-1991, Zionist organizations became active in the territory of the USSR, calling themselves various kinds of “foundations,” “human rights organizations,” “public opinion research institutes,” and so on. These parasites all have the same goal: the rebirth and entrenchment of Jewish communes (kagals) […]

Which isn’t the nicest note to end on, but it shows what the word means to some contemporary Russian speakers.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 5, 2013 7:10 am

    I’m not sure why Leskov calls Brafman a “rabbi.” I rather doubt he had much of a religious education, and eventually he converted to Greek Christianity. Brafman had valid personal reasons to hate the qahal but his writings on the subject were perceived as strongly antisemitic in the 19th century. He was the maternal grandfather of the poet Vladislav Khodasevich. (More on Brafman and his great grandson.)

    • July 7, 2013 12:00 am

      Thank you very much for that link! It’s an excellent article on its own merits and brings a lot together for me: I not only didn’t know that Brafman was Khodasevich’s grandfather, I didn’t even notice that the author of Книга кагалов, described on the anti-Semitic website I quoted, was the same “rabbi” Brafman that Leskov mentions.

      I’m not sure why Leskov calls Brafman a “rabbi.” I rather doubt he had much of a religious education, and eventually he converted to Greek Christianity.

      I gather Leskov is wildly inaccurate, quoting sources from memory and probably changing them at will. Maybe the inaccurate “rabbi” makes a more effective “man bites dog” story – it’s like writing “the decision striking down affirmative action was written by former Black Panther Clarence Thomas.”

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