the Land of IsraelWhile literature and ideology were undertaking the painful task of adjustment to the Diaspora, small numbers of Jews clung desperately to the Land itself. In fact, never during the nearly two thousand years of non-Jewish rule was Israel empty of Jews. The attachment was too strong to admit total abandonment. The earliest records, though fragmentary, trace a continuous Jewish presence from the end of the Talmudic period to the savage destruction of the Crusades. These early documents shed light on the motivations of those Jews who opted for difficulties, uncertainty, and possible oppression in Israel, as opposed to the relative security of the well-established Babylonian, Jewish community.

The Jews multiply, wrote the Church Father Jerome in the early fifth century, “like worms.”1 At the same period, in an even less friendly tone, John Chrysostomus, the anti-Semitic Patriarch of Constantinople, was telling his flock that the Jews were numerous “in Israel, in Phoenicia–and everywhere!”2 Such accounts, though subjective and general, reflect an historical truth- through the end of the Talmudic period, the Jews stubbornly maintained their communal structure and presence throughout Israel.

During that period, the hand of the Byzantine Roman emperors who ruled Israel was often oppressive. Religious restrictions and heavy taxation had long since been the order of the day. By degrees, the final vestiges of Jewish independence and rights were removed. In 425 C.E., one of the last echoes of self-rule was finally silenced, as the office of the “Nasi” (Hebrew, “Patriarch”), the recognized head of the Jewish community, was cancelled for all time.

Still the Jews remained. The population shifted from area to area, according to political and economic dictates. Though a lack of definitive records prevents exact estimations of population, the numbers were clearly considerable. By the early seventh century, while battles raged between the Persians and the Byzantines over the Land of Israel, one Benjamin from Tiberius was able to raise an army of twenty thousand Jewish men from northern Israel to support the Persian cause against the oppressors.

The Byzantines defeated the Persians, but were unable to withstand the Arab military throngs which swept across the area from 636 to 640 C.E. Following the conquest, there ensued four complex centuries of Jewish residence, movement, and basically good relations with the Arab rulers. This respite allowed for the final flickering of a dying flame, that fire that once represented the immediate centrality of Israel to the Jewish people as a whole.

The height of Israel’s new prominence was achieved in the tenth century. Then, in Tiberius, a symbol system for Hebrew vowels was created which eventually gained universal acceptance, overpowering its contemporary Babylonian rival. In the early part of that century, some Jews took Jerusalem’s new found prosperity and expansion as a sign of renewed divine beneficence. The community’s leader, the Gaon (scholar) Ben-Meir, dared to hope for the renewal of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish High Court. Further, he sought to reinstitute Jerusalem’s authority in setting the Jewish calendar. (The Jews of the Diaspora resisted his efforts, and as a result, in 921 C.E., the Passover holiday was celebrated on different days in Israel and abroad.)

Expansion and good fortune, however, proved both fleeting and of little effect on the turn that history had taken. The Jewish world continued to look primarily toward the Babylonian community for guidance and enlightenment.

These attempts to reestablish the centrality of the Land took place against a new backdrop. As the generations passed and the people became further and further removed from the glories of the Temple and Jewish independence, it became increasingly clear that if a return were to be effected, it would be by divine, not human, hand. This age bears witness, then, to the birth of a new relationship to Israel. Among the residents of the Land there was a fresh and intense attitude of expectation, wherein men of the present submerged themselves in the past, in anticipation of a golden future. Hope for divine intervention was the order of the day. The bright tomorrow was thought to be near.

Even at the end of the Talmudic period, in the mid-fifth century C.E„ this new expectation of external salvation made itself evident. In an excited letter, the leaders of the settled Jewry of northern Israel wrote to their brothers abroad-

Greetings! We write to inform you that the period of our nation’s exile is gone and finished, and the day of the gathering of the tribes has arrived; for behold the Roman king has promised that our city Jerusalem will be returned to us! Hurry then, come to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of Tabernacles, for our kingdom will rise in Jerusalem.3

Evidently occasioned by a temporary permit to pray on the Temple mount,4 this letter bears witness to the messianic expectations of the Jewish community in Israel. They were to continue in that vein for centuries.

No better example of such longing is available than the association known as the “Mourners of Zion.” This group, anchored in Jerusalem but international in membership, was well described by its name. Undertaking accepted patterns of mourning, they structured their entire lives around the glory that had been Jerusalem’s. A traveler would note that they “eat no meat, drink no wine, wear black clothes and dwell in caves or in poor houses, practicing self-denial all the days of their lives.”5

These external signs reflected of a deep, internal hurt. In words of poetry, one of the Mourners of Zion expressed the pain they shared-

We sat to cry before her–

She who always cries alone.

How can I hearten our mother in her depression,

How can I comfort Zion in her desolation?6

Outstanding among the generations of these Mourners of Zion was Daniel el-Kumisi, an early tenth-century leader of the Karaite sect.7 A great student of Bible, he immigrated to Jerusalem where he taught and wrote his scholarly works. In letters to the Diaspora, el-Kumisi not only pled his cause but also revealed the thinking of those who chose to dwell in Zion.

Know that the fools among our people Israel say that we are not bound to come to Jerusalem until He gathers us in, just as He sent us out. These are the words of rogues and fools, for even were it not God’s command that we come grieving and mourning to Jerusalem from all lands, surely our common sense would tell us that those who angered God must come before Him to beg mercy.8

El-Kumisi directed his angry words particularly at those who remained in the Diaspora, there to hope for God’s salvation. Surely there was no logic in simply waiting for the wrath to pass. Minimally, one must come to the spot chosen by God as His name’s dwelling place to beg His forgiveness. Without that meager step, what help could be expected?

” . . . but God even commanded the Jews of the Diaspora to come to Jerusalem and stand before Him in mourning, fasting, crying, wailing, sack-cloth, and bitter lament day and night. So it is written in Isaiah- “Upon your walls, O Jerusalem, I have set watchmen; all day and all night they shall never be silent. You who have put the Lord in remembrance, take no rest, and give Him no rest, until He establishes Jerusalem and makes of it a praise on earth.”9

To el-Kumisi’s understanding, the “watchmen” were the Jews, and the Biblical verse represented not a description, but a commandment. It was incumbent on the Jews to come to the walls of Jerusalem, there to keep watch, there “to give Him no rest” until the glory of Zion was reestablished. The Holy One Himself, then, both indicated and commanded the solution to the destruction. The Jew must come, and cry . . . and wait.

The messianic longing reflected in these passages is obvious. The ringing call to action is in reality a plea for undertaking a passive act- residence in Israel. The commitment to be present in the Land, there to beg forgiveness for the people, was understood to be the divinely ordained pathway to national salvation. Once the human decision was made and carried out, final results were expected from on high.

While this approach depended in the final analysis on an act of God, its proponents had to encounter the cold reality of human failure. The Jews were not rushing to Israel. In an unhappy spirit of compromise, then, el-Kumisi put forward a more practicable plan.

But if you do not come, because you are engrossed in, and running after, your trades, then send five men from each city and provide them with a livelihood. In this manner, we shall become a united people, dedicated to constant prayer to our Lord on the mountains of Jerusalem.10

EI-Kumisi’s pleas went unheeded. The Jews did not come en masse, nor did they send small delegations. In one of the letters cited above,11 el-Kumisi could not hold himself back from pricking at the balloon of Jewish pride. If Israel was indeed the Jewish Land, then,

Behold–non-Jews come from the four corners of the earth to Jerusalem by the months and by the years in fear of God. How is it then that you, our brothers Israel, do not come like the non-Jews do?

Tragically, not too long after eI-Kumisi’s time, the Jews would have good reason not to come. The Crusades descended on Israel, bringing devastation to a degree unknown since the destruction of the Temple. On July 15, 1099, the Crusaders completed a successful siege of Jerusalem, breaking in through the northeast corner. Those Jews who were not slaughtered were exiled from the city. In fact, in the first decade of the Crusaders’ battles in Israel, all the large Jewish communities were destroyed, leaving only smaller settlements, principally scattered across the north. It mattered little then whether the Jews had been waiting for a divinely sent Messiah or for a gradual reestablishment of the centrality of the Land. For the meantime, neither goal was to be realized. The first age of intense expectation ended unfulfilled.

With the advent of the Crusades in Israel, the Jewish population reached it lowest point. Renewal could no longer be thought of as reemergence, but only as rebirth. Developing external factors would cut the Land off from the Jews of the Diaspora more severely than ever before. As the Jewish population moved westward into Europe, they would find themselves separated from Israel by language and multiple political barriers. After the eleventh century, the Jew traveling from Europe would have to overcome the real dangers of crossing lands at war with one another, or of capture by the likes of either the pirates of North Africa or the Crusaders based in Cyprus. The journey would also then be from one cultural world to another, a difficult transition indeed.

Those who would undertake the journey came to Israel motivated in different ways than the early pre-Crusade residents. That they came at all, however, remains a tribute to the earliest efforts to keep Israel Jewishly populated, while awaiting the ultimate redemption. In addition, those early appeals, from the fifth century call to celebrate a festival in Jerusalem to el-Kumisi’s compromise request for representatives from each community, were to find echoes across the centuries, until and including today.


1. Jerome (also known as Hieronymns), In Isai. III, 2. Jerome knew the Jews of Israel well. He studied there under several Jewish teachers, and he had to defend himself before his peers for his many contacts with the Jews.

2. John Chrysostomus, Contra Judaeos et Gentiles, XVI.

3. As cited, Aaron Ze’ev Aescoly, Jewish Messianic Movements, I (Hebrew) (Jerusalem- Bialik Institute, 1956), p. 90.

4. Ibid., p. 82.

5. Benjamin of Tudela, recording his travels, c. 1175. Although a later description, this is taken to reflect accepted patterns of the earlier Mourners of Zion. Morris Adler, ed., The Travels of Rabbi Benjamin (Heb.) (London- 1907), p. 47.

6. As recorded, H. H. Ben Sasson, On Jewish History in the Middle Ages (Hebrew) (Tel Aviv- Am Oved, 1962), p. 267.

7. The Karaites were a Jewish sect who theoretically followed only Biblical, as opposed to rabbinic law. Small groups of Karaites have survived to this day. The Jerusalem “Mourners of Zion” grouping consisted mostly of Karaites, but included some Rabbinites.

8. Letter, published (in Hebrew) in Jewish Quarterly Review XII (1921/2), p. 283.

9. Ibid, citing Isaiah 62-6f.

10. Salo Baron, Social and Religious History, V, p. 186.

11. See note 8 (p. 285).