Eretz Israel is our unforgettable historic homeland...The Jews who will it shall achieve their State...And whatever we attempt there for our own benefit will redound mightily and beneficially to the good of all mankind. (Theodor Herzl, DerJudenstaat, 1896)

We offer peace and amity to all the neighbouring states and their peoples, and invite them to cooperate with the independent Jewish nation for the common good of all. The State of Israel is ready to contribute its full share to the peaceful progress and development of the Middle East.
(From Proclamation of the State of Israel, 5 Iyar 5708; 14 May 1948)

With a liberal democratic political system operating under the rule of law, a flourishing market economy producing technological innovation to the benefit of the wider world, and a population as educated and cultured as anywhere in Europe or North America, Israel is a normal Western country with a right to be treated as such in the community of nations.... For the global jihad, Israel may be the first objective. But it will not be the last. (Friends of Israel Initiative)

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

“If I Forget Thee ...”: Longing and Leaving for the Land before the mid-Nineteenth Century

Roman Emperor Constantine the Great’s proclamation in 323 CE of Christianity as the official state religion, and his persecution of Jews within his dominions, heralded the decline of the Jewish population in Eretz Israel (the mosaic pictured here dates from a synagogue there of the second century CE). However, over subsequent early centuries of the Common Era there was a flow of returnees, and during the ninth century the Karaites began to obey their own dictim “Be assembled in the Holy City and gather your brethren”. Solomon ben Judah, head of the academy in Jerusalem and Ramleh (1025-51), made aliyah from Morocco; he was one of several noteworthy arrivals in the eleventh century. The Crusades were not conducive to aliyah, but did not stop Jewish travellers journeying to Eretz Israel – in 1141 Maimonides’ father, Maimon ben Joseph, went there but left after six months.

The following letter of introduction from Salonika Jewry (regarding a recent Jewish guest from Russia) to Jewish communities with whom the man would be likely to stay on the rest his journey to Eretz Israel, dates from that century, around the time of the Norman Conquest of England:
”We send greetings to you and feel it is our duty to inform you about the request of Mr N. N. He is a Jew from Russia, and stayed with us here in Salonika, where he met his relative ... who returned recently from the holy city of Jerusalem, may it be restored by the Lord for ever. When he was told about the splendour of Palestine, Mr N. N. too became very desirous of going there and prostrating himself on the sacred spot. He asked us to give him these few lines in order to use them as a means of introduction.//Please help him to reach his goal by the proper route, with the support of reliable men, from town to town, from island to island. For he knows neither Hebrew nor Greek nor Arabic but only Russian, the language of his homeland.
At all times the house of Israel, our brethren ... excelled in the strength of righteousness and the power of charity, and you know their reward.
In the late twelfth century, as a result of persecution, an aliyah from North Africa took place. When Benjamin of Tudela reached Eretz Israel for a sojourn around 1170 he found about 1000 Jewish families there. The Spanish Hebrew poet and translator Judah Al-Harizi, who visited in 1218, wrote that in 1190, after repelling the Crusaders, Saladin invited the Jews to settle in the Land. Persecution of Jews in medieval Europe contributed to Jewish immigration. In 1210-11 “300 French and English rabbis” settled in their ancestral homeland, where they reportedly established synagogues and acedemies. Jehiel ben Joseph of Paris, who established a yeshivah in Acre, was one of a number of arrivals from England and France around 1260. It is said that the arrival of Nachmanides in 1267 prompted a steady stream of settlers in Jerusalem, leading to his title Avi ha-Yishuv (“Father of the Community”).

Aliyah ceased during the late thirteenth century owing to fierce fighting between Crusaders and Muslims. Rabbi Estori ha-Parchi, the first Jew to write a geographical account of Eretz Israel, arrived there in 1322. A disciple of Nachmanides noted, early in the fourteenth century, that “At present many have arisen willingly to emigrate to Eretz Israel”. Among the Spanish Jews who made aliyah about that time was the kabbalist Rabbi Shem Tov ben Abraham Gaon, who wrote his Keter Shem Tov in the land of his forefathers.

In 1428 a shortlived papal decree forbidding Italian ships to transport Jews to Eretz Israel temporarily impeded travel by pilgrims and intending settlers – the decree was renewed towards the end of the fifteenth century, and consequently Jews travelled overland to Turkey in order to circumvent it. Among the Italian Jews who went to Eretz Israel in the fifteenth century were Elijah of Ferrara, who penned an interesting account of contemporary aliyah, and his relatives. The Ashkenazi Joseph of Montagna reached Eretz Israel via Venice, and in 1481 became dayan in Jerusalem. During the same century olim came from North Africa, Yemen, India, China, and what are now Iran and Iraq. A spurt in immigration between 1488 and 1495 meant that by the latter year it was hard to find suitable dwelling in Jerusalem. In this letter to his father, the most important of the Italian scholars who made aliyah at that time, the distinguished Talmudist Rabbi Obadiah of Bertinoro, who took up residence in Eretz Israel in 1488 after three years of wandering, describes his experiences:
“On Tuesday morning ... we left Hebron, which is a day’s journey distant from Jerusalem, and came on as far as Rachel’s Tomb, where there is a round, vaulted building in the open road. We got down from our asses and prayed at the grave, each one according to his ability. On the right hand of the traveller to Jerusalem lies the hill on which Bethlehem stands ...
From Bethlehem to Jerusalem is a journey of about three miles. The whole way is full of vineyards and orchards. The vineyards are like those in Romagna, the vines being low, but thick. About three-quarters of a mile from Jerusalem, at a place where the mountain is ascended by steps, we beheld the famous city of our delight, and here we rent our garments, as was our duty. A little farther on, the sanctuary, the desolate house of our splendour, became visible, and at the sight of it we again rent our garments.“
Following the Turkish conquest of Eretz Israel in 1516, Jews from Germany and from Mediterranean lands – including refugees from the Iberian peninsula – as well as from the Orient – arrived. The last nagid of Egypt, Rabbi Isaac Sholel ha-Kohen, made aliyah in 1517. The Jews from Spain, many of whom, like the kabbalist Abraham Eliezer ha-Levi, settled in Jerusalem, made a particular impact on the community with their characteristic mores. Most, including such notables as Joseph Caro and Moses Cordovero, settled in Safed, which also experienced a significant immigration wave from Italy. This letter, dated 14 March 1535, was written from the holy city of Safed by an Italian Jew, David dei Rossi, to his family back home.
“What shall I tell you about this country, as so many people before me have reported its character and greatness in writing and orally? .... He who saw Safed ten years ago, and observes it now, has the impression of a miracle. For more Jews are arriving here continually, and the tailoring trade grows daily. I have been told that more than 15,000 suits have been manufactured in Safed during this year, besides fancy suits. Every man and every woman who works woollen fabric owns an abundant living.
.... There is nothing new in all the Galilee. There is no particular news in Jerusalem (may it be rebuilt and established speedily and in our days, Amen), except that they have brought water from a well which is on the road to Hebron into the fortress which has been built on Mount Zion. Powder and cannon have also been brought there to strengthen it. I have not been to Jerusalem so far, myself, because of my misfortunes. For on the 5th of Adar [10 February], I entered Safed, and a month later my son Elijah’s servant came, and there occurred that which occurred [his son en voyage had been captured by pirates, and was being held for ransom]. Our sister was in Jerusalem and Hebron for more than two months. You will hear from her own lips about whatever her eyes have seen. She brings with hera list of all the tzaddikim buried in the Holy Land. It has been handwritten for her by the scribes in Jerusalem.
....The exile here is not like in [Italy]. The Turks hold respectable Jews in esteem. Here and in Alexandria, Jews are the chief officers and administrators of the customs, and of the king’s revenues. No injuries are perpetrated against them in all the empire. Only this year, in consequence of the extraordinary expenditure caused by the war against Shah Tasmasp al-Sufi, were the Jews required to make advances of loans to the princes. Part of the money came from the taxes on the Jewsih quarters and part came from town revenues which the Jews tax-farm. Scholars, however, did not have to pay a penny except for the poll tax.
All articles of commerce are available in these regions. Fibers, spun and unspun, are exported from Safed in great quantities, also gallnuts, scammony, oil, honey and silk in smaller quantities. From the adjoining regions come crimson silk, Cordovan carpets, and all kinds of spices, including pepper, cloves, ginger, and cane-spices. Many people including Jews buy these goods as merchandise.
My daughter-in-law and my grandson Moses are here with me, and tomorrow we shall walk around Safed – God willing. My wife Sarah, since she has come to Safed, has recovered with G-d’s help. For the water and the air are unusually good. For this reason illnesses are few here, and therefore the art of medicine does not flourish here, and physicians do not earn much of a livelihood. Sick people eat cucumbers, both of the large and small variety, squash, and many kinds of fruit.
Now I bless you as long as I live... Remember me to all our friends and acquaintances. And may the Lord grant that we see each other in the joy of Judea and Jerusalem together with all of Israel our brethren in our lifetime, speedily, and in our days. Amen.”
Safed’s population, 10,000 around 1550, was estimated by the Yemenite traveller Zechariah al-Dahiri as 14,000 in 1567, and Safed’s importance as a centre of Kabbalah ensured its further growth owing to immigration. In 1577 it became the first city in the Ottoman Empire to have a printing press, thanks to Rabbi Eliezer ben Elijah Ashkenazi and his son, Isaac of Prague; the press produced its first Hebrew book the following year.

Rabbi Bezalel Ashkenazi, who authored Shitah Mekubbetzet, arrived in Eretz Israel in 1588 and became head of the Jerusalem community. Rabbi Isaiah Levi Horowitz, who wrote Shenei Luchot ha-Berit, arrived in 1621 and informed his sons that the Jewish community in Jerusalem was “multiplying greatly, literally by the hundreds, and constructing great buildings”. A new aliyah of Karaites occurred around that time, and Shabbateanism stimulated further immigration. The Jewish population of Jerusalem was said in 1741 to be 10,000, and the 1740s witnessed the re-establishment of the yeshivah at Tiberias, as well as an important influx of olim from Turkey, who included Gedaliah Hayyun, founder of a bet hamedrash in Jerusalem for kabbalists. Among other newcomers was Amsterdam’s rabbi, who settled in Safed, and the Moroccan author of Or ha-Hayyim, who founded a yeshivah in Jerusalem. According to Rabbi Joseph Schwarz’s Tevu’ot ha-Aretz, the most comprehensive work on the Land of Israel since the Middle Ages,
"the Mahomedans suddenly assailed the [Jerusalem] Synagogue on Sabbath, the 8th of Marcheshvan, 5481 (about 1st of November, 1721), set it on fire, and burnt up whatever was combustible, together with all the books and the rolls of the law, of which there were forty in the buildings, which latter also would surely have fallen likewise a prey to the fearful conflagration, had they not been constructed out of large and heavy stones. They also seized the officers and the most respectable members of the congregation, and threw them into prison; they then took possession of all the buildings, driving the Ashkenazim away out of them. These unfortunate people, driven to despair, fled precipitately, in all directions, some to Hebron, some to Zafed, and others beyond the limits of Palestine. Thenceforth no Ashkenazi durst to show himself in Jerusalem. The Mahomedans, the creditors of the congregation, took possession of everything: they made use of the outer court of the Synagogue as a dung and rubbish heap, so that there arose here by degrees a natural dung and rubbish hill. All the cellars and other subterranean structures, likewise, were filled up completely with dung and rubbish. "
However, led by Rabbi Israel of Shklov, few Perushim (“Separated Ones”), disciples of the Vilna Gaon, arrived in Jerusalem as early as 1722, and a significant number, led by Menahem Mendel of Shklov, in 1808. More followed, including Talmudist Rabbi Joseph Zundel of Salant, inspirer of the Musar movement. As is well-known, the end of the eighteenth century saw the beginnings of the aliyah of followers of the Baal Shem Tov, whose disciples Menahem Mendel of Peremyshlyany and Nachman of Horodenka started things off by arriving with their Chasidic followers in 1764, and settling in Jerusalem and Tiberias respectively. Chasidim led in 1777 by Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk and Abraham of Kalisz settled first in Safed and later in Tiberias, reviving the Galilee and so preparing the way for Jewish settlement of that region, while an influx of Chasidim in the early nineteenth century augmented Hebron’s Ashkenazi community, which had been pioneered by Chabadniks from Safed and Tiberias. In the first half of the nineteenth century there was an important aliyah from Germany and Holland, which included (in 1833) Rabbi Joseph Schwarz, mentioned above, whose work is better known to English-speakers as Descriptive Geography and Brief Historical Sketch of Palestine (1850).


  1. Thanks, Juniper. As you know, I can't resist a look at history now and again.

  2. Absolutely fascinating, but a somewhat different picture from the oft-quoted Mark Twain. Did the fruitfulness of the Middle Ages suddenly decline? However, the documentation of a steady flow of Jews back to Israel yet again gives the lie to modern Arab myths. Well worth the read and not a waste of time!

  3. Ian, there were certainly "famines" in Eretz Israel from time to time, and during the nineteenth century at any rate emissaries from the Jewish communities descended upon their brethren in Europe begging relief. The London "Jewish Chronicle" carried subscription lists, which show that there were many Christians among those who contributed to funds for the Jews' aid. (Christians also subscribed generously to synagogue building funds and funds for other Jewish institutions in the UK - that's why it saddens me to hear Britain traduced as an inherently antisemitic country when it was plainly nothing of the sort - I'll blog about that at some stage!). I'll be posting travellers' tales from time to time that throw more light on the condition of of the Land and its inhabitants.