benjamin tudelaDescending from his jet, the contemporary Jewish visitor to Israel probably views himself as a product of the jet age, one of the million tourists arriving each year. History differentiates, however, between him and his non-Jewish counterparts. He has come because of his Jewish identity, and in doing so he is adopting the current mold of an old Jewish tradition. This “pilgrim” is in fact the latest fruit of a seed planted in the time of the Bible, nurtured through the rabbinic period, and developed into a full plant precisely when the Jews were far from Israel, in the age of the Diaspora.

. . . Three parasangs [twelve miles] to Jerusalem–a small city fortified by three “walls. . . There is a dyeing house which the Jews rent annually from the king, on the condition that no one deal with dyeing in Jerusalem other than the Jews. There are approximately two hundred Jews living under the Tower of David at one end of the city.

–Twelfth century travelogue

Benjamin of Tudela1

A curtain had descended, dividing the people from the Land. In Israel, the early Crusades ravaged the Jewish community. Abroad, the Jewish population shifted slowly but steadily towards the West, towards Europe. Distance, borders and vast cultural differences now separated Land and people. Somehow, all that had to be overcome, and a connecting link had to be discovered. So a new practice was born- the Jew would travel. The privileged individual would go to the Land, deriving the great benefit of contact with Israel and bringing back to his home at least a taste–his travel report.

To a degree, the eyes of the pilgrims were set towards the past. Many came to sense the glory that once had been, and to cry that it existed no more- “I arrived at Jerusalem, the holy city,” wrote one such traveler, “and there I tore my clothes and cried over the city now destroyed, ravaged, unbuilt.”2 Often the association was with an even more distant past. In Israel lay buried the patriarchs, the judges, the kings, the prophets, and rabbis from all generations. To these graves the Jews would come to pray.

Here is the tomb of our lord Samuel, the prophet. . . . The Jews gather there every year, and come even from Babylon, from . . . Aleppo, from Hamath and from Gaza, and from Damascus, and Misr, and other places, so that the foreigners by themselves are more than 1,000 in number who come there every year on the 28th of the month of lyar, to mourn and to pray in this cave; for on that day his [Samuel’s] soul was bound up in the bond of life, and all Jews who come there are accustomed to buy oil to light in that synagogue; and I, poor man, prayed in that place and put oil there just as is the custom . . . and this was at the end of the month of July, 1481.3

The traveler was of course not so bound up in himself as to ignore the resident Jewish community. Quite the opposite was the case, and indeed the journey was not only to bring back to the Diaspora a report of the Land, but also news of the Jews settled thereon. Rarely did the traveler come with empty pockets. As a seventeenth-century Jerusalemite recalled, “They would not come empty handed. On the contrary, they gave freely to the support of the Jewish community in Jerusalem.”4 Centuries earlier, one Ahimaaz donated one hundred gold pieces on each of his three pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the support of “those who were engaged in the study of His law, and those who mourned the ruined house of His glory.”5 In bringing their money to Jerusalem, the travelers were reviving a custom which could be traced back to earliest Biblical times, when the Jew had been commanded to bring a tithe of his yield to be spent in Jerusalem.6

The pilgrimage of the Middle Ages in some ways continued practices of earlier centuries. From the inception of the Diaspora, Jews had come to Jerusalem, usually to celebrate the pilgrimage festivals.7 Until the Crusades, however, the dominant concerns were the religious commandments (or their continuation) and, after the Temple’s destruction, a feeling of obligation to mourn.

Following the Crusades, of greater import was the gap that existed, the distance that had to be overcome. An urgent need was felt to maintain some physical contact with the dream, a contact that would be not only supportive, but regenerative. Only such a purpose can explain the risks undertaken. As one traveler described the journey-

If I tried to tell all that happened to us on sea and dry land, by the Nile and in Tunis, in drought and in sand storms, starvation and thirst, hardship and disease, frailty and weariness, dangers and sorrows, anguish and terror, theft and violence, trickery and effort, beatings and nausea–I would simply not have the room.8

Driving the pilgrim onward through such difficulties were deep personal motivations. The travelogues reveal the expectations of no less than a new soul. The arrival in Israel was to be both the high point of one’s life and the turning point as well. It is in this light that one can understand the spiritual preparations described by Binyamin ben Eliahu, a traveler from the end of the period here under consideration. He records the practices that a member of the Crimean Karaite community would undertake before making pilgrimage to Israel.

When a man goes to the holy Land, he first begs forgiveness for all his sins, whether they be matters of personal relations or of business. . ..The people grant him forgiveness. . . and bless him on his journey. He also directs his heart to God, since all the work, labor and expense would be for nought if he was not at peace with his God; in the holy Land, God would not receive his prayer, and what would happen on his return when he wished to leave his old ways and begin with the new characteristics he acquired? And what mockery would descend upon one called “The Jerusalemite” [an honorific title granted those who traveled to Jerusalem] if he did not act in the proper way?! Therefore, when a man goes to the holy Land, to Jerusalem–may it be rebuilt speedily in our days–he must prepare his heart more than ever before. . . 9

By the eighteenth century when the above words were written, travel to Israel had become a well-known and attractive option for the Jew who wished to retain at least a taste of physical contact with the Land. As early as 1650, one finds testimony to sailings of large ships from Turkey to Israel, filled with Jews wishing to celebrate the autumn holidays there. A hundred years later, an Ashkenazic (occidental) Jewish traveler leaving from Turkey describes this annual departure, incidentally heaping praise on his Sephardic (oriental) Jewish brothers-

Their annual practice is as follows, allowing every God-fearing Sephardic Jew who can so afford to go to Israel at least once in his life, there to travel and visit the graves of his forefathers… The women also go and travel about, devoting themselves to the journey with full body and soul… Once the boat is leased, they announce in all the synagogues- “Whoever wishes to travel to the Land of Israel should prepare himself for the journey, for on such a day the ship sets sail.”10

The reaction on arrival in Israel remained constant throughout the generations. From the earliest of the post-Crusades travelers to the latest, the journey represented the climax of years of longing, of extended periods of physical and spiritual preparation, and even of myriad dreams which has been dreamt. The words of the poet Yehuda al-Charizi, set down in the early twelve hundreds after his trip to Israel, accurately reflect the feelings of pilgrims across the centuries.

When I came to the place, on her palaces grazed,

Embracing the waste, comforting the razed,

I declared- How good your tents, Zion,

your places-to-dwell

How pleasant your houses, the soil they fill,

I could now die, your face having beheld.11

Since Jewish thought is cumulative, like law and prayer, the best summary of a pilgrim’s feelings about his trip is found in a late source, from the eighteenth century. The acme of Jewish travel to and from the land of Israel was reached by Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav (1771-1810), great-grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidic movement in Judaism. Rabbi Nachman would become one of the last great Hassidic leaders, those whose names would stand out above the movement itself.

Rabbi Nachman was a young man when he set out on his journey. At the age of twenty-six, he returned from a trip to his childhood home (and the former home of his great-grandfather), determined to do what his forebear had been unable to accomplish. (According to Hassidic understanding, the Ba’al Shem Tov had wanted to travel to Israel, but had been prevented from doing so “by heaven.”) On Passover, Rabbi Nachman announced to his followers, “This year I shall certainly be in the holy Land.” To his wife’s objections and pleading of poverty, he only replied- “As long as my soul is within me, as long as I breathe, I shall totally dedicate myself to travel to the Land of Israel.”–How would she and her daughters survive?– “You be a cook in someone else’s home, and let the girls be servants. But whatever is in the house, I must sell to pay for expenses on the way.”

The journey was hard and long. Nachman purposely chose the sea route via Odessa, usually avoided as dangerous. In Istanbul, he encountered problem after problem, from personal degradation to plague, all of which his faithful traveling companion, Rabbi Nathan, recorded.

His amazing persistence can be understood only in the light of his later writings, wherein the Hassidic master records his vision of Israel. For Rabbi Nachman, Israel was the reward granted only those who observe the commandments. It was the source of all blessing, the quintessence of divine pleasantness. For him, the bread of Israel encompassed the sweetness of all the foods in the entire world. To achieve victory, to see the downfall of evil, or even to make progress as a human being, the Jew had to go to the Land of Israel. It was for that reason, he explained, that the pronouncing of God’s true name, the essence of His identity, had been restricted to the holy Temple, while it stood.l2

The puzzle of Rabbi Nachman, for the modern reader, is not why he traveled to Israel, but why he returned. He chose to be a pilgrim, not an immigrant. The minute he arrived in Israel, Nachman was willing to turn back, applying literally the rabbinic dictum, “Whosoever walks four cubits (six feet) in the Land of Israel, is assured a place in the World-to-Come.”13 “I have walked my four cubits,” said the rabbi–” “let us return.” Although he was persuaded to stay and tour the Land, he did return to Europe, there to spend the rest of his days. His trip to Israel and his gain therefrom were to become a basic theme to which he would return throughout the rest of his life.

How can the mind embrace both Rabbi Nachman’s overwhelming desire to reach Israel and his willingness to leave? External difficulties are surely an inadequate explanation for such as he, who would by force of his intellect, personality, and strength of soul become the founder and sole leader of one branch of Hassidism. (Unlike other Hassidic leaders, he remained unreplaced as leader after his death.) Fortunately, conjecture is unnecessary, for in his writings,14 Rabbi Nachman dwelt repeatedly on the subject around which his Jewish world revolved–the Land of Israel and its meaning.

First, the arrival in Israel represented for Rabbi Nachman a rite of passage. Only having entered the Land could the Jew pass from the realm of the profane to the sacred, and “only thereby incorporate its nobility and become one with its holy essence.” The holiness of the Jew is dependent on the sanctity of the Land, and therefore, “whoever merits living in Israel certainly gains full satisfaction, but even he who just walks four cubits in the Land of Israel–this too is good and very positive, as the rabbis stated.” Having passed through the crucible, then, Rabbi Nachman was able to demand that none of what he had taught previously be recorded, and that everything he said thereafter — each conversation — be written down. He was not the man he had been before. Contact with Israel had effected the change.

Prayer, devotion, concentration on Israel–all this was insufficient for the Jew. “The dust of the Land of Israel is holiest,” he would say, and one therefore had to go there.15 On one occasion, he grew angry at his students’ questions. They asked for the meaning of his statement that the quintessence of all life was in Israel. Sensing that they sought some spiritualized concept, Rabbi Nachman shouted back, “I mean what it means–this Land of Israel, with these houses, and these courtyards!” He dismissed the tales of difficulties and dangers of the journey. He taught his students that one need not have much money and that the journey was less hazardous than the world thought. The basic obligation was clear- establishing contact with the real Land.

There is no understanding of Rabbi Nachman’s Israel other than the hub of the wheel around which the world revolves. For him, the Land represented the quintessence of holiness, of wisdom, and of revelation. Only there the achievement of full faith, full observance, full repentance, or even full burial could be found. Thus the whole world gained sustenance from Israel, and the Jew was able “to sanctify even places outside the Land through the holiness of the Land of Israel.”

So thought and lived the ultimate pilgrim- Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav. Dwelling on the periphery, he was able to survive only having contacted the center. Having done so, life at the end of the earth was changed, for the man returning was not the man who had left, and he carried with him new content that could never be removed.

Though not a return to settlement in Israel, pilgrimage represented yet another reestablishment of contact with the real Land, and a new passion. Indeed, it was no less than a passion. “The value and virtue of the holiness of the Land of Israel are great and awesome beyond imagination,” wrote Rabbi Nachman. And he prayed-

From the end of earth I call to You . . . have mercy and compassion upon me, and aid me and grant me the merit to depart and arrive quickly in the holy Land which is the source of our sanctity. For You know, O Lord our God, that all our holiness and purity, and all our Jewishness are contingent upon the Land of Israel. . . . Lord of the Universe, have mercy upon us in Your great compassion and arouse in our hearts, in the hearts of our children and in the hearts of all Your people Israel desires, longings and great yearnings for the Land of Israel.

The travelers of centuries past received their reward, not only in the expected (and therefore achieved) change in the fabric of their lives, and not only in the contribution with which they returned to their homes. History, too, was to recompense them for their travel. While the modern tourist may be unaware of historical antecedents, these remain the seeds of which he is the latest harvest.16


1. From the travelogue of Benjamin of Tudela, twelfth century. Although he traveled from Spain to the Persian Gulf, and as far south as Egypt, the titles of the book’s sections reflect the Land’s centrality- “The Way to Israel,” “Israel and its Environs,” and “The Way Back.”

2. Moshe Basola, traveling in 1521. Noted in Avraham Yaari, Travelogues of the Land of Israel (Hebrew) (Tel Aviv- Gazit, 1946), p. 144.

3. Meshulam ben Rabbi Menachem of Volterra, as translated in Avraham Holtz, The Holy City, p. 131.

4. Holtz, ibid., p. 137.

5. Salo W. Baron. A Social and Religious History, V, p. 376f.

6. Deuteronomy 14-22-26.

7. See Chapter 7.

8. Noted in A. Yaari, Travelogues, p. 17. The pairings are based on assonance in Hebrew.

9. Noted in ibid, p. 462. The event described took place in 1785.

10. Simcha ben Yehoshua from Zalozce, immigrating to Israel in 1764, quoted in Yaari, Travelogues, p. 391.

11. The translation attempts to capture the rhythm and rhyme. A more literal translation would read- “When I arrived at her borders and saw her castles, I kissed her rubble and had mercy on her dust. I declared, ‘How good are your tents, Mount Zion, and your dwelling places; how pleasant your lands and habitations. I could die now, having seen your face.’” The poem includes several Biblical allusions. Hebrew original reprinted in Haim Shirman, Hebrew Poetry in Spain and Provence (Hebrew), II (Jerusalem- Dvir, 1956), p. 170.

12. The quotations cited from Rabbi Nachman in this and the following paragraphs are taken from various parts of his writings. Rabbi Nachman’s statements on Israel have been anthologized in Sefer Eretz Yisrael (Hebrew, The Book of the Land of Israel) (several editions, including, Jerusalem, 1941). All statements here quoted and summarized, including those by his companion Nathan, are included in the anthology.

13. Ketubot 111a. See Chapter 10.

14. Some of Rabbi Nachman’s works were written or dictated by him, while others were later recorded by his students.

15. Recall the element of touch which was of such great importance to the patriarch’s attachment to Israel. See Chapter 2.

16. Romantically, history took special care to reward those earliest pilgrims who would come each year to Samuel’s grave on the twenty-eighth of Iyar, from there to look down on the ruins of Jerusalem. From that spot and on that date, centuries later, in 1967, one could witness the recapture of the Old City of Jerusalem by the army of Israel.