By July 21, 2008 0 Comments Read More →

Awaiting the Messiah, Returning, the Land of Israel as a Focus in Jewish History, Benjamin J. Segal, World Zionist Organization, Jerusalem 1987.

the Land of IsraelThough subject to many conquests, the Land of Israel was never bereft of all Jews. In each generation, throughout the occupations, some stayed and still others returned. Arriving not in waves but in trickles, these individuals not only fulfilled their Jewish obligation as they understood it, but they also preserved the road over which masses would eventually march in return. Their motives and their stories provide the final link in the chain connecting the Second Temple period and modern Zionism across the exilic gap of separation.

In 1211 C.E., three hundred rabbis and scholars departed France and England for Israel. The scant surviving records do not facilitate reconstruction of their motives, though theories exist among them an escape from civil unrest and oppression,l messianic expectations, and a counterpart to the religious fervor of the Crusaders. Their historical importance is twofold- first, they marked the beginning of repeated Jewish efforts to repopulate the Land after the Crusades;2 and second, their story within Israel would prove to be the pattern for many future waves of immigration.

The group of three hundred reached Israel, and set out in two directions- to Jerusalem and to Acre, on the northern Mediterranean coast. The Jerusalem group was unable to establish a permanent base. Those settling in Acre joined an already flourishing community, which subsequently grew again with the founding of a center of learning (by another immigrant) in 1260. In 1291, however, the Mameluks (an Egyptian Moslem dynasty) captured Acre, slaughtering Jewish men, women, and children in their synagogue and totally destroying the city. The center of Jewish settlement then had to move eastward to inland cities and villages.

Such was the sad end of the mass immigration of rabbis in the early thirteenth century, an ending which would typify many immigrations. A group would come, briefly leave its mark on history, and then recede, gently or violently, into the general record of Jewish settlement and wandering within the Land.

Among such groups were the large numbers who came in the wake of the late fifteenth century expulsions from Spain and Portugal, both of which gave impetus to a return to Israel. In the century following, a near renaissance took place- Jerusalem regained prominence, and there was an attempt to rebuild Tiberias as a Jewish metropolis. There would be later mass immigrations as well, such as that of the nearly two thousand Jews who arrived in 1700, in eager messianic expectations. Their leader, “Yehuda Hechasid, died immediately following arrival, and the group met with only bad luck and hard times thereafter, ending with the destruction of their synagogue by unpaid Arab creditors in 1720. Later still, the advent of Hassidism on the Jewish scene led to the establishment in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries of communities of both the Hassidim and their opponents, the students of Elijah Gaon of Vilna.

The sixteenth century, in particular, illustrates the transciency of settlement. In the hills of the Galilee, the former Crusader center of Safed grew quickly with the influx of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish refugees. The growth was spurred no doubt by the construction of the city walls by Suleiman the First, the Turkish sultan, in the middle of the century. Spiritually, Safed prospered as well, becoming the center of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. Later, however, tragedies of nature and the weakness of the central Turkish Empire had their effects. As trading became unsafe, the economic situation deteriorated. Already in 1584, one finds the following report in a letter to Italy-

Since I left Safed. . . they have become enmeshed in many difficulties unknown since the time of its founding. Never has there been such starvation and thirst, causing the emigration of over a thousand people. . .3

By 1621, the scholar Isaiah Horowitz, visiting Safed, records hearing of “tremendous thefts, since they live by fields open to every direction.”4

Below Safed, on the Sea of Galilee, Tiberias, a Jewish center since rabbinic times, also experienced a brief blossoming. In 1561, Don Joseph of Naxos (Italy), procured from the Sultan “rights” to Tiberias and some surrounding villages, and he proceeded with plans to reestablish the Jewish community there. Anticipating later Zionist efforts to rebuild Israel as a viable refuge from anti-Semitism, he established plantations, built the walls of the city (against much local opposition) and even planted trees for silkworms! For a complex of reasons, Don Joseph lost interest in the project, and his inheritor to the rights to Tiberias, Don Shlomo Abeniaish, abandoned the project when his own son took it all too seriously, emigrating to Israel. By 1591, the rabbis of Safed had to take up a collection for the starving Jews of Tiberias. Again, a group of Jewish settlers had flourished, only later to fade into the ongoing history of Jewish residence in Israel.

As the centuries passed, not all immigrants came in groups. Individuals also made the journey, at times leaving a mark on history as impressive and as important as the contributions made by those coming in larger numbers. One such man was the Ramban, the leading Biblical commentator and law authority who arrived in 1267, thus upholding the cause which he himself had championed.5 His importance was limited neither to his personal example, nor even to the valuable historical records he left, for he also managed by his great influence to begin reestablishing the Jewish population in Jerusalem. When he first arrived, he found only two Jewish permanent residents there. Since his time, the Jewish community in that city has never ceased to exist. He can properly be considered the father of renewed Jewish settlement in Zion.

Throughout the generations, individuals came. In 1260, Rabbi Yechiel of Paris came to Acre, establishing an important yeshiva (learning center) there. In 1313, Estory Haparchi, refugee of the French expulsion, arrived to become the first “scientific” student and geographer of Israel. Over two centuries later, in 1535, the greatest of the Jewish law codifiers, Rabbi Joseph Karo, settled in Israel where he authored his commentaries and classics in law. In each generation they came, the great and yet-to-be-great, contributing to the building of the Land of Israel, while they sought to be built up through it.

They came–the groups and the individuals–despite the considerations of dangers and difficulties, for their motivation was great. Above all, for them the Land remained the essence of holiness.

The perfection of the Land of Israel is fully inherent, for it is the point from which the world was created. . . . All perfection derives from this Land. . . . Therefore it is called the City of Righteousness, for righteousness flowers therefrom . . . and those who dwell therein dwell in an atmosphere of purity, day and night, surrounded by holy things.6

So wrote Shlomo Alkabetz, sixteenth century resident of Safed, and the author of the Sabbath hymn, “Come, O Beloved.” In similar tones, a later mystic wrote to his brother in the Diaspora- “Is it well for you to dwell far away, exiled from your Father? How sweet can life be in a world without the transcendent company one gains by coming close to the table of your Father, who is God Eternal?”7

Like the traveler to Israel, the immigrant believed that contact with the holy Land would change his very person. Rabbi Avraham Ben-Mordechai Azulai, Kabbalist and immigrant in the early seventeenth century, felt such a change, as he recorded-

When a man is granted the privilege of entering the Land of Israel, a totally new soul descends upon him, mixing with his own soul; in the first night that he sleeps in the Land of Israel, two souls ascend on high, but only the new one returns. Therefore all punishment due him is of no effect, for he has a new soul, which has not sinned.8

This approach to the holy entailed a combination of joy and trepidation, as the Bible had already charged.9 The privilege of being in Israel was less a reward than an opportunity, and the potential was great both for gain and for tragedy. Dwelling there was a tremendous responsibility. It was in this spirit that one immigrant wrote that,

. . . those that come to the Land of Israel inattentive to their presence in the Royal Tabernacle, rebelling, sinning, frequently imbibing in evil and revelry . . . let them not think that they will remain in the Land of Israel after their death, for on their death, they will be chased out like dogs.10

Although the people as a whole had long been exiled from their Land, still each individual who would come had to know that the privilege of presence in Israel was a conditional gift.

That which brought these immigrants to challenge physical dangers was more than the total of recalled history, the contact with holiness, and the chance to revive one’s soul. As powerful as such motives may have been, the eyes of many settlers were set not on the present or past, but toward the future. While the masses of Jews were content to wait for the Messiah some day to bring them back to the Land, the few eagerly anticipated his immediate arrival. One would have to prepare the way for him, even hasten his coming, by reestablishing the unity of people and Land.

An anonymous author of the early fourteenth century, evidently following the expulsion from France in 1306, wrote-

How many are they who are rousing themselves and voluntarily immigrating to the Land of Israel; and many are they who think that we are coming close to the arrival of the Savior. . . .

The practical implications were obvious.

Let no man think that the royal Messiah will reveal himself on an impure land, and let no one mistakenly conclude that he would arrive in the Land of Israel among non-Jews. . . . Rather to the people of Israel who hold true to the Torah, pious men of action from the four corners of the world. . . all whose hearts and minds move them in purity and love and sanctity to come to the Land of Israel, to them the royal Savior will be revealed.ll

The sixteenth century in particular witnessed a rise in the messianic fever. The economic situation had improved drastically, as a letter of 1543 records- “The good message has arrived from the Desirable Land, that the Lord has remembered His people and His Land . . . granting them wealth and honor in most trades.”l2 With the prosperity and population growth, a result of the expulsions from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1497, a spiritual exaltation began to rise as well.

No city better illustrates the messianic longing of this period than Safed. Perched on the highest hills of the northern Galilee, this former Crusader center was barely populated at the end of the fifteenth century. A hundred years later, there were no less than eighteen yeshivot (centers of study) and twenty-one synagogues. In that city, in 1538, Jacob Berab brought forward a plan to revive the long defunct rabbinical ordination, hoping to reestablish the Sanhedrin, the supreme judicial and legislative body. Though the idea fell victim to political squabbling with the Jerusalem rabbinate, it bears witness to the strong sense of rebirth permeating the Israeli air at the time.

Safed became best known as the center of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. People came from the four corners of the globe to join the community, then the epitome of a holy, pure life. The residents were attempting to lay a basis for salvation through their life style. Various special fellowships were organized, designed to lead to a more perfect life. Members of one such group, the “Society of Penitents,” would rise each midnight, study until morning, and then fast all day. Another grouping, the “Fellowship” (or “Associates”) would visit the graves of holy men, there to discuss mystical matters. A guide drawn for the latter group enjoined a strictly moral life (no anger, falsehood, cursing or speaking ill of another), daily discussions of matters of the spirit, a weekly review of one’s actions, confession of sins before each meal, and use of Hebrew whenever possible. In Safed, the Sabbath was extended, beginning earlier and ending later, to allow for additional hymns and Psalms. Every waking moment was dedicated to the effort of achieving a holy life.

In all their efforts, the residents of Safed felt directed by heaven. A letter records the visions that came to Joseph Karo,l3 one of Safed’s most famous residents, while he was traveling to Israel. Achieving a state of semi-trance through studying, he heard (and spoke aloud)-

Hear my close ones . . . O my beloved. Peace be to you . . . joy be to you . . . in that you have chosen to glorify me on this night. . . . I, the Divine Viceroy, come to speak to you. . . . Go up to the Land of Israel. . . . Have no concerns for your possessions, for you shall eat of the fruit of that exalted Land. . . . Therefore hurry and go up, for I am your Sustainer and I will sustain you.

Later, the vision repeated- “Go up to the Land of Israel, for it is in your power–you are only stuck in the mud of the desires and vanities of this world.”14

Another of those leading the sanctified life of Safed was Abraham Halevi Baruchim. At midnight, he would go from door to door, waking the residents and arousing them to prayer. How can you sleep and rest–he demanded –when the Divine Presence is in exile? He, too, felt guided from on high, as is reflected in a vision he experienced when he traveled to the Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem. While there,

. . . he lifted his eyes and saw above the Western Wall the vision of a woman from the back, in dress which I do not wish to describe . . . and on seeing her thus, he fell on his face and cried out shouting, “Mother, Mother, Mother Zion–woe to me that I have seen you thus!” He continued so to wail bitterly, hiding his face and pulling at his hair and beard until he fainted, falling on his face. It was then that he saw in his dream that she came and placed her hand on his face, dried the tears of his eyes and said to him, “Be comforted my son Abraham, for there is hope for your future, and the children will come back to their borders, for I shall effect their return and I shall have mercy upon them.”15

The arrival of Shabbtai Tsvi on the Jewish scene dealt a disabling blow both to Jewish mysticism and messianism. A false messiah who arose at a time when both external and internal Jewish conditions were ripe for his acceptance, he convinced the Jewish masses of his authenticity in an amazingly short time.16 His fall, concluding in his apostasy to Islam, sent shock waves which reverberated for centuries throughout the Jewish world. Among the victims of the affair were the messianism and mysticism which had been the groundwork over which he had marched to “glory.”

Thereafter, the messianic longing among those who went to Israel had to be more subdued, but it continued. Though it is God who will bring salvation, wrote a seventeenth-century author,17 still “we must do all that we can do . . . through contributions, that the cities be settled and the ruins be built.” Often the expectations now became expressed as a prayer.

Here we have no other occupation than to study and to pray by day and night. As a reward may the words of the prophet Isaiah be fulfilled for us all speedily in our days- “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come with singing unto Zion, and everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”18

History bears witness to yet one other motivation, less recorded in the sources than reflected in the records of immigration. Anti-Semitism and the plight of the wandering Jew in fact prompted much of the movement to Israel in the period under consideration. For example, though many had achieved both journey and settlement before, the expulsions from Spain and Portugal in the late fifteenth century directed much larger numbers to Israel, in turn raising its importance as a physical and spiritual center of the people. The daring if unsuccessful subsequent attempt to create a renewed center of Jewish population in Tiberias was evidently the earliest modern attempt to establish a safe place of refuge for persecuted Jewry.19 The flight from oppression was leaving its first imprint on the record of settlement of the Land.

From Israel, those who arrived never ceased to call on their fellow Jews throughout the world, in passionate and urgent tones, to join them in the Land. This imploring, which can be traced back to the fifth century,20 continued in every generation. In the early fifteen hundreds, a Spanish Jew would write to his relatives, “How long will you sleep, not rising from your slumber, to say ‘Arise, let us go to Zion.’ We have been shocked that you do not seem jealous of your whole family, your father’s house, in that all of them have come up to Israel. . . . Arise, shake yourself . . . do all that you can to come up to this holy place.”21 In the next century, a prayer said by the residents of Safed is noted, in which they would

. . . request mercy for the ships and people coming to the Land of Israel, by land or by sea.–Would that the Holy One, blessed be He, guide them and lead them by still waters to the place of their desire, and would that He guide them and save them from thieves and pirates, bringing them to the holy Land.22

In the eighteenth century, again a resident of Israel turns to his brother, now with strong words.

How long will you remain in the Diaspora, listening to the words of those who speak repugnantly of the holy Land? . . . One must pray extensively upon the Land to feel its holiness, and then he will understand and will come to love that he walks with God.23

In each generation, the call issued forth from Zion- “Return!”

Wrapped up in the tasks of their own day, those who stayed in Israel were scarcely aware of the groundwork they laid for the generations yet unborn, nor will one ever know if they would have been content with those developments could they have foreseen them. In time, after the emancipation of European Jewry, religious motivations would fade, and the traditional Jewish messianism would be secularized before being raised as the national call to Zion. Anti-Semitism, which had driven Jews from temporary homes, would become the background for a new philosophy of Zionism. In one way, however, much would remain the same. The call to return to the Land would continue unabated.


1. The group left following the internal crusade declared by Pope Innocent III in France, and after a period of unbearable taxation and confiscation of property in England.

2. See Chapter 14 on aspects of the Jewish presence in Israel prior to the Crusades.

3. See Solomon Schechter, “Safed,” in Studies in Judaism, II (Philadelphia- Jewish Publication Society of America, 1908), p. 283.

4. In letter cited in Aryeh Leib Frumkin, Even Shmuel (Hebrew) (Vilna, 1874), p. 117.

5. See Chapter 13. On his arrival in Jerusalem, Ramban found only two Jewish residents, two brothers who were painters. They were joined each Sabbath for prayers by a few Jews from the surrounding countryside.

6. In Brit Halevi, “Tshuvah.” Part of his hymn, “Come O Beloved,” is cited in Chapter 12.

7. Rabbi Chayim Ater, mid-eighteenth century, as cited S.A. Morodetsky, Olei Tsiyon (Heb., “Immigrants to Zion”) (Tel Aviv- Gazit, 1947), p. 118.

8. In Azulai’s work, Chesed L’Avraham (Hebrew–”Mercy on Abraham”), III-12.

9. See Chapter 3.

10. Eliezer Azikri, 1533-1600, who studied and worked in Safed, in Sefer Charedim (Hebrew–”The Book of the Pious”), (Venice, 1601), p. 64.

11. As cited, Ya’ari, Travelogues, p. 98.

12. Responsum of Rabbi Isaac de Latas. Schechter, Studies, p. 231.

13. He was the author of the Shulhan Aruch (Hebrew–”The Prepared Table”), the law compilation which would gain nearly universal acceptance.

14. The letter was written by Shlomo Alkabetz, witness to the event, and was later recorded in Shnei Luchot Habrit (Hebrew–”The Two Tablets of the Covenant”) by Isaiah Horowitz (Amsterdam, 1649).

15. The “vision” is quoting Jeremiah 31-16 as a verse of comfort. The description is found in a letter sent from Safed in 1607, cited in Avraham Ya’ari, Igrot Eretz Yisrael (Hebrew–”Letters from the Land of Israel”) (Jerusalem- Masada, 1971), p. 206.

16. Cf. Gershom Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi (Princeton- Princeton University Press, 1973).

17. Rabbi Raphael Treves, in Tsach ve’Adom (Hebrew–”Dazzling and Ruddy”) (Constantinople, 1750).

18. Gedaliah of Siemiatzeze, early eighteenth century, as translated in Kurt Wilhelm, editor, Roads to Zion- Four Centuries of Travelers’ Reports (New York- Schocken Books, 1948), p. 75. The citation is Isaiah 51-11.

19. For details on this effort, see Cecil Roth, The House of Nasi (Philadelphia- Jewish Publication Society of America, 1948), particularly pp. 97-135.

20. See Chapter 14.

21. Cited in Ya’ari, Letters, p. 14.

22. Letter by Solomon Shlomel Dreznitz, 1607, quoted in Ya’ari, Letters, p. 209.

23. Letter by Menachem Mendel of Parma, in Ya’ari, Letters, p. 308.

Post a Comment