A Russian proverb knowingly reminds us that “the law is like a wagon-tongue —whichever way you point it, there it goes.” It is useful to remember this observation when examining the position of the Jews in the nineteenth-century Russian Empire. The legal basis for that position, which was characterized by exclusion and discrimination, has commonly been traced to the period from 1772 to 1796, when Russia's Jews first entered the empire in large numbers. This study will describe the creation of the legal “wagon-tongue” during the late eighteenth century, and will suggest that the legal precedents cannot be understood by only considering the directions in which the law was later to be pointed. Emphasis will be placed on the initial evolution of an ad hoc body of law, confused, contradictory, and ambiguous, capable of subsequent interpretation and elaboration with either sympathy or hostility.
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