Azure • WINTER 5762 / 2002




                             Dispersion and the

                             Longing for Zion,





                              Arie Morgenstern






It has become increasingly accepted in recent years that Zionism is a

strictly modern nationalist movement, born just over a century ago, with

the revolutionary aim of restoring Jewish sovereignty in the land of

Israel. And indeed, Zionism was revolutionary in many ways: It rebelled

against a tradition that in large part accepted the exile, and it attempted

to bring to the Jewish people some of the nationalist ideas that were

animating European civilization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth

centuries. But Zionist leaders always stressed that their movement had deep

historical roots, and that it drew its vitality from forces that had shaped

the Jewish consciousness over thousands of years. One such force was the

Jewish faith in a national redemption—the belief that the Jews would

ultimately return to the homeland from which they had been uprooted.


This tension, between the modern and the traditional aspects of Zionism,

has given rise to a contentious debate among scholars in Israel and

elsewhere over the question of how the Zionist movement should be

described. Was it basically a modern phenomenon, an imitation of the other

nationalist movements of nineteenth-century Europe? If so, then its

continuous reference to the traditional roots of Jewish nationalism was in

reality a kind of facade, a bid to create an "imaginary community" by

selling a revisionist collective memory as if it had been part of the

Jewish historical consciousness all along. Or is it possible to accept the

claim of the early Zionists, that at the heart of their movement stood far

more ancient hopes—and that what ultimately drove the most remarkable

national revival of modernity was an age-old messianic dream?


For many years, it was the latter belief that prevailed among historians of

Zionism. Its leading proponent was Benzion Dinur, a central figure in what

became known as the Jerusalem school of Jewish history. Dinur, a historian

at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who was also Israel’s minister of

education from 1951 to 1955, understood the relationship between the Jewish

people and the land of Israel to be a basic element of Jewish

consciousness, and believed that messianic longing had played a decisive

role in aliyot, or waves of Jewish immigration to the land of Israel,

throughout history. For Dinur, the driving force behind the aliyot of the

medieval and early modern periods was the “messianic ferment” that cropped

up in Jewish communities from time to time, precipitating widespread

efforts to predict the exact date the messianic era would begin; the

appearance of charismatic leaders in various Jewish communities, who were

seen as heralding the end of days; and, most notably, efforts to organize

groups of Jews who would go to live in the land of Israel in order to

hasten the redemption. “These two phenomena,” wrote Dinur, “messianic

ferment and movements of immigration to the land of Israel, are among the

basic phenomena of Jewish history throughout the generations….”1


Animated by this perspective, Dinur and his colleagues succeeded in

uncovering much of the lineage of Jewish nationalism. Against the commonly

held belief that Zionist activism was a rejoinder to the “passivity” of

traditional Judaism, scholars of the Jerusalem school stressed the dynamic

and activist quality of the messianic impulse in Jewish history. In every

generation, it was shown, there were a great many Jews, including communal

and spiritual leaders, who were not content with passively hoping for

divine intervention, and who instead took action aimed at bringing it

about. Of the means at their disposal, aliya was often seen as the most

potent way to bring the redemption: For centuries, despite the danger and

hardship involved in making the trip to Palestine, Jews from all over the

diaspora continuously attempted to reestablish the presence and even

sovereignty of the Jews in the land of Israel—efforts that stemmed from a

longing for Zion that had suffused the prayers and practices of Jews around

the world. In Dinur’s view, the Zionist awakening was not motivated

primarily by modern European ideas, but by this same longing, which flowed

from the deep springs of Jewish historical consciousness.


In recent years, however, this view of Jewish history has been subjected to

relentless criticism. Dinur and his colleagues have been accused of

allowing their Zionist ideology to inflate the importance they attributed

to the land of Israel as a part of the Jewish consciousness, and as a goal

for practical action. One of the most prominent critics of Dinur’s approach

is Jacob Barnai of Haifa University. In his study on nationalism and the

land of Israel, Historiography and Nationalism (1995), Barnai argues that

Dinur’s belief in the centrality of aliya cannot be reconciled with the

fact that Jews did not succeed in establishing an uninterrupted presence in

Palestine. Moreover, those who did come were hardly the elites of the

Jewish people whom Dinur had depicted—and therefore could not be said to

reflect anything essential regarding the Jewish experience in exile. “The

definition of the yishuv as the elite of the Jewish people… was not subject

to a clear analysis and definition in [Dinur’s] thought, and contradicts

what we know about the land of Israel at different times as the place where

precisely the ‘lower’ elements of Jewish society were concentrated.”2


The historian Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin has made a wider claim in his critique

of Dinur and his colleagues, arguing that Zionist historiography erred in

offering a portrayal of Jewish attitudes towards the land of Israel as

being consistent and uniform. According to Raz-Krakotzkin, a distinction

should be drawn between positive and even fervent Jewish attitudes towards

redemption, on the one hand, and the minimal effect these attitudes had in

encouraging a return to the land of Israel, on the other.3 In building his

case, he relies on Elhanan Reiner’s study of aliyot in the Middle Ages,

which depicted Jewish immigration to Palestine as having been inspired far

more by Christian pilgrimages than by any Jewish messianic belief.4

Raz-Krakotzkin argues that the time has come to “reappropriate” the

discussion of the Jewish relationship to the land of Israel and to remove

it from its Zionist “framing narrative”; he sees Reiner’s study as setting

a new course for historians, who will no longer be constrained by what he

calls the “principle of return” that characterizes the classic Zionist

narrative.5 According to this view, the Jewish conception of redemption

related to the land of Israel only in abstract terms, as a spiritualized

goal to be reached in a far-off time, whereas the classic Zionist assertion

that Jews consistently and actively sought out the physical Palestine is

simply wishful thinking.


Of course, this debate among scholars is of far more than academic

interest. Scholars such as Raz-Krakotzkin, as well as the sociologists Uri

Ram and David Myers, have placed the criticism of the Jerusalem school at

the center of a broader critique of the Zionist movement itself.6 These

scholars take it as self-evident that Zionism rewrote Jewish historical

memory, exaggerating the importance of the land of Israel in order to give

its adherents the “false consciousness” needed to realize its colonialist

goals. This critique of the Jerusalem school has been central to a larger

effort in recent years to assail the foundations of the Zionist movement,

and it is on the basis of these criticisms that some Israelis have in

recent times come to question Zionism’s founding beliefs, including the

very justice of the enterprise. If it turns out that their criticisms are

firmly based in the historical record, the implications may be far-reaching



Today, however, the evidence exists to resolve this historical

debate—evidence that was available in only limited measure to Dinur and his

colleagues, and that has largely been ignored by recent critics of the

traditional Zionist historiography. Indeed, with the opening of archives in

the former Soviet Union, and in the wake of archival discoveries in Western

and Central Europe and in Israel, much that was a matter of speculation can

now be addressed on the basis of well-documented sources.


On the basis of this evidence, it seems that Dinur was largely correct in

his understanding of the centrality of the land of Israel and aliyot in the

centuries preceding Zionism, while his critics erred. The work of scholars

such as Joseph Hacker, Yisrael Yuval, Binyamin Ze’ev Kedar, David Tamar,

Elhanan Reiner, and Avraham David, as well as my own research, indicates

clearly that the land of Israel served as a focus not only of spiritual

longing for the Jews in the exile, but also of continual organized aliyot

from all over the diaspora. These efforts brought thousands of Jews,

including many important scholars and leaders, to settle in Palestine

throughout the six centuries that preceded the appearance of Zionism.


Indeed, from the time of the Crusades until the nineteenth century, Jewish

life was infused with a sense of messianic anticipation, which found

expression, among other things, in aliya. This messianic anticipation was

focused on specific dates, which were endowed with mystical significance.

Starting with the year 5000 on the Jewish calendar (1240 c.e.), the

beginning of each new century signaled for many the possibility of

redemption, leading large groups of Jews to make the journey to Palestine

as a necessary step in bringing it about. Some of these aliyot were unknown

to us until recently; in other cases, recent research has added substantial

detail to the historical record. The picture which emerges is one of a

clear, recurrent trend of immigration to the land of Israel, which was by

no means limited to the “lower” elements of society but took with it Jews

from all walks of life. Indeed, in many cases, some of the outstanding

Jewish figures of their day led the way. Although the number of Jews who

succeeded in making the voyage and settling in Palestine never constituted

more than a small portion of world Jewry, these messianic aliyot were of

enduring significance, partly because of the renown of those who took part,

partly because of their regular appearance over the centuries, and partly

because of the variety of diaspora communities which participated. The

messianic impulse which spawned these waves of immigration, and the belief

in the centrality of the land of Israel upon which they depended, were in

no way marginal to the Jewish tradition, but in fact became an axis of

Jewish spiritual life. Indeed, the story of aliya from the thirteenth to

the nineteenth centuries illustrates the depth and force of the Jewish

people’s connection to its ancestral homeland, a connection that was

carried into the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when modern

Zionism found a new way of giving it voice.










The key to understanding the recurrence of pre-Zionist aliyot is to be

found in the intense messianic ferment that began to grip the Jewish people

in the first half of the thirteenth century. This was expressed not only in

spiritual revivals in many communities, but also, on a deeper level, in

changes in the theological and mystical doctrines upon which Jewish

messianism was based. These were to have a decisive influence on messianic

awakenings throughout the sixth millennium of the Jewish calendar

(beginning in 1240 c.e.), charging this period with hopes of imminent

redemption, and prompting regular movements of immigration aimed at

bringing it about.


These powerful drives were largely a product of the traditional Jewish view

of human history, which is based on an analogy from the story of creation

as presented in the book of Genesis. In this view, each “day” of creation

is seen as corresponding to one thousand years of human history, a parallel

which the rabbis of the Talmud derived from a verse in Psalms: “For a

thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past.”7 Since

God created the world in six days, they concluded, human history will span

six thousand years. This period was divided into three ages, each lasting

two thousand years.8 During the first two thousand years, described in the

first eleven chapters of Genesis, man had no knowledge of God, and

corruption and licentiousness reigned. During the second period, the “age

of Tora” that is likewise described in the Bible, the Israelites received

the divine revelation and took upon themselves the belief in God and the

yoke of his laws. This period came to an end when the chosen people, who

had not been true to their faith and had not carried out God’s

commandments, suffered the destruction of their Temple and were exiled from

their land.9


Since shortly after the beginning of the exile, human history has been in

its third age, whose characteristics are discussed extensively in the

Talmud, midrash, and kabalistic literature. According to this tradition,

this is the “age of the Messiah,” during which all that was damaged during

the second age will be “repaired” in preparation for the final redemption

of the world. It is during this period that God will fulfill his promise of

ending the exile, allowing the Jewish people to return to the land of their

fathers and rebuild the independent Jewish kingdom “as in days of old.”10


However, at the time when this “third age” was actually dawning (it

formally began in the year 240 c.e.),11 it was difficult to identify the

signs of the “age of the Messiah” in the real world—a difficulty that did

not go unnoticed by the talmudic sages. They were also well aware of the

vagueness of the date when redemption was supposed to take place, as the

Bible had provided only hints. The rabbis’ difficulty with these problems

was exemplified in their effort to interpret the prophet Isaiah’s ambiguous

statement regarding the time of redemption: “I am the Eternal; in its time

I will hasten it.”12 In considering this verse, the rabbis asked whether

the redemption would come at a fixed time, or would depend on the

repentance of the Jewish people.13 “R. Alexander, son of R. Yehoshua ben

Levi, said: It is written, ‘in its time,’ but it is also written, ‘I will

hasten it.’ [How so?] If they are worthy, ‘I will hasten it.’ If not, [the

redemption will come] ‘in its time.’” According to this interpretation, the

date of the redemption is fixed and predetermined; yet if Israel repents,

God will hasten its realization.14 In other words, even in the third age,

the Messiah would not come automatically; rather, the time of his coming

would depend on the behavior of the Jewish people. The same talmudic

discussion quotes the opinion of R. Dosa, that the delay may extend well

into the sixth millennium, up to four hundred years before the end of

history (that is, until the year 1840).15 R. Eliezer’s view is even more

pessimistic, suggesting that it may last until forty years before the end



With the passage of centuries, the idea of a two-thousand-year-long “age of

the Messiah” disappeared from the Jewish sources. Instead, the medieval

rabbis tended to divide the third age into two smaller periods: A thousand

years of “exile” in the fifth millennium (240-1240) and a thousand years of

“redemption” in the sixth millennium (1240-2240).17 As the fifth millennium

drew to a close, expectations grew throughout the Jewish world, sharpened

by the difficulties of exile in the medieval period. The longing for

redemption became a powerful motivating force—overcoming, for example, the

belief in the talmudic parable stating that God had imposed “three oaths,”

of which one was a commitment not to retake the land of Israel by force.18

One of the first thinkers who rejected the strictures of the “three oaths”

was R. Judah Halevi (1075-1141), who asserted that mass immigration to the

land of Israel was the necessary first step towards redemption. This

attitude is found both in his poems of exile and redemption and in his

major philosophical treatise, the Kuzari. In the latter, for example, he

offers his interpretation of a passage from Psalms: “You will surely arise

and take pity on Zion, for it is time to be gracious to her; the appointed

time has come. Your servants take delight in its stones, and cherish its

dust.”19 According to Halevi, the first verse relates to the ultimate goal,

while the second adds a precondition: “This means that Jerusalem can only

be rebuilt when Israel yearns for it to such an extent that they embrace

her stones and dust.”20 Halevi’s words present a kind of messianic

activism, one which resurfaced in Jewish thought throughout the sixth

millennium, according to which Jews must be prepared to take action to

rebuild Zion. Passive yearning for redemption must give way to action, and

in particular aliya.


The sense that the coming sixth millennium would bring with it the

messianic era prompted many kabalists to intensify their efforts at

“calculating the end.” The mystical literature composed during this period

is filled with eschatological calculations of one sort or another, many of

which are based on astrology, the alphanumerical system of gematria, or

acrostic interpretations of apocalyptic verses in the Bible such as those

in the book of Daniel.21 Even a rationalist like Maimonides, whose approach

towards the redemption was largely naturalistic, took part in these

efforts. In his Epistle to Yemen, written in 1169, he cites approvingly

what was probably his own messianic calculation with regard to the end of

the fifth millennium, which, in his opinion, would witness the return of

prophecy to Israel: “But I have a wondrous tradition…,” he wrote, “that

prophecy will return to Israel in the year 4972 [1212]. And there is no

doubt that the restoration of prophecy in Israel is one of the signs of the

Messiah… and this is the truest of the ‘ends’ that have been told to us.”22


Such “certified” predictions seemed to legitimize abrogation of the “three

oaths,” and to give sanction to practices aimed at bringing the Messiah,

which were collectively referred to as “forcing the end.” While these

efforts became a constant feature of Jewish life, dramatic events such as

wars, revolutions, expulsions, religious persecutions, and natural

disasters intensified them. Jews tended to view such upheavals through an

eschatological lens, as manifestations of divine providence that would

bring about the cosmic “repair,” a change in the nature of the world, and

ultimately the redemption of Israel.


Most of these apocalyptic speculations had little impact on Jewish history,

and their memory is preserved only in recondite manuscripts. However, those

calculations which pointed to the turn of each century of the sixth

millennium had a more lasting effect.23 The Zohar, a book that was widely

believed to have been written with divine inspiration, mentions several of

these dates explicitly. Six dates in particular receive the most widespread

attention in the mystical and homiletic literature of the medieval

period—and it was these dates which resulted in intense messianic activity

as they approached, including waves of aliya: (i) The year 1240 (5000 on

the Hebrew calendar); (ii) the period leading up to 1440 (5200); (iii) the

period between 1540 and 1575 (5300-5335); (iv) the period leading up to

1640 (5400); (v) the period between 1740 and 1781 (5500-5541); and (vi) the

years before and after 1840 (5600), which the Zohar fixes as the final date

of the redemption. The political, social, and economic conditions in and

around Palestine had an important role in determining the scope and success

of each aliya; however, in almost every century its occurrence correlates

directly with a messianic awakening. In these movements, as we shall see in

the coming sections, the central motivation was both spiritual and

nationalistic in nature: The longing of the Jewish people to return to the

land of their fathers, and in so doing to hasten the coming of the Messiah.










The messianic aliya that preceded the year 1240 took place in the wake of

the collapse of the Crusader kingdom in Palestine and the subsequent

improvement of the situation of the Jews there. In 1187 the Muslims

reconquered Jerusalem, and the new rulers not only allowed Jews to settle

in Jerusalem, which had been forbidden during the Crusader period, but even

encouraged them to do so. In 1216, fewer than thirty years before the

beginning of the sixth millennium on the Hebrew calendar, the poet Judah

al-Harizi visited Jerusalem, and described the change in the status of the



     God is zealous for his name and has had mercy for his people.… In

     the year 4950 of the creation [1190], God awakened the spirit of

     the king of Ishmael, and he and all of his army went up from

     Egypt and laid siege to Jerusalem, and God delivered it into his

     hands…. And he bid a proclamation be made throughout the city…

     saying: Speak unto the heart of Jerusalem, that whoever from the

     seed of Ephraim wishes may go unto it….24


The Jews understood the Crusader defeat as a fulfillment of the divine

promise that the land of Israel would not tolerate foreign conquerors, and

that the struggle for the land between Christians and Muslims would

ultimately pave the way for the Jews’ “return to Zion.” The new Muslim

rulers were seen to be playing their part in the process.


Against this background we can understand a prediction dating from that

time, which appeared in a letter sent to the Jews of Egypt, which was

discovered among the findings of the Cairo Geniza in the nineteenth

century. The letter cites a new “prophecy” according to which a series of

messianic events—including the ingathering of the exiles, the coming of the

Messiah, and the establishment of the kingdom of Israel—would begin some

fourteen years before the end of the fifth millennium: “Letters have come

from France… [saying] that there has arisen among them a prophet… who has

said that in the year 4986 [1226] the great ingathering will begin, and our

master Elijah, of blessed memory, will come.… And in the year 4993 [1233]

the Messiah, son of David, will come… and kingship will return to the house

of Jerusalem.” On the basis of this prophecy, the author decided to move to

Palestine and take an active part in the ingathering.25


The belief that the redemption would begin at this time prompted Jews from

many lands to move to Palestine.26 By 1211, groups of immigrants were

already arriving, including a large number of the leading Tora scholars of

France, England, North Africa, and Egypt. This movement, which historians

refer to as the “aliya of the three hundred rabbis,” was unusual in both

size and composition. It included several key figures of the French school

of the Tosafists, such as R. Samson of Schantz, one of the leading scholars

in France, whose talmudic commentaries are studied in yeshivot to this day;

and R. Jonathan Hacohen of Lunel, one of the outstanding scholars in

Provence and a follower of Maimonides.


The messianic impulse behind this movement comes through clearly in an

anonymous pamphlet written at the time, which was uncovered by the

historian Yisrael Yuval. According to its author, the time for the coming

of the Messiah had already arrived, “for the fifth millennium will not end

until the King Messiah has come.” The author calls upon the Jews of the

diaspora to go to the land of Israel, in order to prepare the Jewish

settlement that would greet the Messiah.


     Let no one say that the King Messiah will be revealed in an

     impure land… and let no one make the mistake of saying that he

     will be revealed in the land of Israel among the gentiles.

     Rather, the matter is clear: In the land of Israel there will be

     Tora scholars and pious men of good deeds from the four corners

     of the earth, a handful from every city and every family, and

     then the King Messiah will be revealed among them.27


The author insists that the messianic era will come as the result of a

critical mass of aliya and the creation of an infrastructure of Jewish

settlements in the land of Israel. The next stage in the redemption will

involve a great awakening, including a mass immigration to the Holy Land—a

mighty host of Jews which, under the leadership of the messianic king, will

smite the resident gentiles and expel them from the land. By Yuval’s

estimate, preparations for this multi-staged messianic movement were meant

to begin about thirty years before the end of the fifth millennium, or

around 1210—at just about the time of the “aliya of the three hundred

rabbis.” As he describes it, this messianic idea was a product of growing

messianic expectations, which were amplified in the wake of the Crusades.28

The efforts of Christians to wrest the Holy Land from the Muslims appear to

have raised hopes in certain Jewish communities that they might follow in

the footsteps of the Crusaders and organize their own sort of crusade,

laying the groundwork for the establishment of the messianic kingdom.29

Over time, this led to other daring ideas: In 1256, some Jewish writers

were still meditating on radical measures, such as offering sacrifices on

the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, to help bring about the redemption. The

traveler R. Estori Hafarhi described this in the early fourteenth century,

relating that R. Yehiel of Paris, one of the central figures among the

French sages of the previous century, “said that one should go up to

Jerusalem—and this was during the seventeenth year of the sixth

millennium—and that one should offer sacrifices at this time.”30


We know little about the fate of the three hundred rabbis and the community

they established. Some settled in Jerusalem, but when the city again fell

into the hands of the Crusaders in 1229, the majority of the immigrants and

their families apparently were forced to move to the city of Acre. The

bloody battles that took place in the area, and the shifts from Muslim rule

to Crusader rule and back again, wore down the Jewish communities of

Palestine and were, apparently, a major factor in preventing them from

taking root in the country. Jerusalem’s Jewish population withered and was

not to flourish again for many years. Finally, after Acre fell into Muslim

hands in 1291, the large Jewish community of that city, where the yeshiva

of R. Yehiel of Paris had been established, was destroyed.


Evidently, the failure of the “aliya of the three hundred rabbis” and their

descendants’ return to Europe left their mark on the Jewish people, who did

not make another similar effort for some time.31 Nevertheless, this

movement stood as a model for future messianic aliyot: Unlike the

pilgrimage of isolated individuals that had preceded it, this was an

organized effort, spearheaded by a large group of communal leaders and Tora

scholars from all over the diaspora. As we will see, this activist model

marked the beginning of a new age in the history of the land of Israel,

beginning a trend that was to repeat itself with increasing intensity in

later centuries.










Though we know nothing of messianic efforts to move Jews to the land of

Israel around the date 1340 (5100 on the Jewish calendar), there is ample

evidence that in the years leading up to the start of the next century, in

1440 (5200), intense messianic ferment culminated in a mass movement of

aliya that lasted for decades, involving Jews from North Africa, Spain,

France, Italy, and the German lands. As in similar cases where radical

changes in the status of the Jews prompted messianic activity, the

awakening that took place around 1440 followed a severe crisis in

Jewish-Christian relations throughout Europe. Spain, a country in which the

Jews had hoped to prosper, became the scene of waves of violent persecution

for nearly fourteen years, beginning in 1391. A similar fate befell the

Jews of Central Europe during this period: In 1389 the Jews of Prague

suffered a pogrom; in 1391 the Jews were driven out of France; and in 1421

Austria expelled its Jews. During the years 1415-1431, a bloody war took

place between a reformist religious group, the Hussites, and the Catholic

Church in Bohemia. The Jews found themselves caught in the middle,

suffering the depredations of the Catholic armies while the latter were

pursuing their “crusade” against the Hussite heretics.


These grim events nourished hopes for redemption, and messianic

calculations of various sorts flourished in the literature of the period.32

One of the most prominent devotees of calculations of this sort was R.

Yom-Tov Lipmann Mulhausen, a leading rabbi in Central Europe and the dayan

(chief rabbinic judge) of Prague, who was not only a leading halachic

authority but also a respected theologian and mystic. His calculations

fixed the date of the redemption for the year 1410 (5170), and again, later

on, for the year 1430 (5190).33 Indications of messianic ferment at the

time can also be found in the writings of R. Hasdai Crescas, one of the

eminent Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages. He recounts a prophetic

revelation that took place in 1393, according to which the redemption would

take place in the year 1396 (5156, the numerical value of the Hebrew word

“Zion”). Crescas goes on to cite a testimony from Jerusalem, also of a

prophetic character, which tells of a divine command directing the Muslims

to transfer their rule over Jerusalem to the Jews. According to this

testimony, a voice emerged from the site of the Temple and addressed the

Muslims, calling to them, “Leave my house, and let my sons enter!” and the

Muslims were filled with fear. Another story from Jerusalem told of three

elders who appeared before one of the Muslim leaders of the city and said

to him: “We are of the children of Israel. Now, go and tell the Ishmaelites

to leave this place, for the time of their end has come.”34


Testimonies of this type, like the widespread messianic calculations of

that period, reflect a strong messianic sentiment. Alongside the reports of

miraculous events, they also contain a clear political element: While some

testimonies portrayed Muslim rule as the essential obstacle to the

redemption, others cited it as the factor that would permit the Jews to

return to their own soil, and even to rebuild the Temple under the aegis of

the Mameluke regimes. Crescas himself, for instance, raised this

possibility as early as 1406: “In the final analysis… perhaps the king of

Egypt who now rules in the land of Israel would allow the Jews in the

extremities of his kingdom to go up and build the Temple, on condition that

they dwell under his rule….”35 In light of this expectation, it is not

surprising that Jews of the time portrayed the Ottomans’ capture of

Constantinople, the capital of eastern Christianity, which took place in

1453, as heralding the redemption. This change in the world

order—Christianity’s defeat at the hands of Islam—gave the Jews reason to

hope for the victory of the true religion, Judaism, over these two leading



At about the same time, persistent rumors that the ten lost Israelite

tribes had been discovered—an event that tradition considered a clear sign

of the redemption—added fuel to the messianic fire. These rumors, which

spread in 1404 and again in 1430, were precipitated by the new geographical

discoveries that resulted from the voyages of explorers to China and India.

Various interpretations of these discoveries captured the Jews’

imagination. For example, rumors that the lost kingdom of the ten tribes

had been discovered somewhere in distant Asia, on the Indian subcontinent,

in a place where the nations of the world did not rule, made a powerful

impression, and led to speculation about the possibility of reuniting all

the world’s Jews.36


But the most explicit expression of messianic awakening during this period

was a mass movement of aliya embracing thousands of Jews from Spain, Italy,

North Africa, and Egypt. We find evidence of this movement in a

contemporary edition of an anonymous historical text that had first

appeared two centuries earlier, in 1240, and was recopied in Rome in 1429,

discussing the “aliya of the three hundred rabbis.”37 After quoting the

original text, the copyist added an aside concerning the events of his day:

“And now many people have awakened, and have decided to go to the land of

Israel, and many think that we are close to the coming of the redeemer,

seeing that the nations of the world weigh heavily upon Israel.”38


In this movement, the Jews of Spain, among whom messianic visions and

calculations were particularly widespread, played a central role.39 The

historian Binyamin Ze’ev Kedar has discovered an account of a Jewish voyage

from Spain to the port of Jaffa in the early fifteenth century: “Old and

young, women and youths and infants, they went up to Jerusalem and there

built [houses]….” Kedar goes on to quote a contemporary witness, the

learned Christian Thomas Gascoigne: “The Jews who are gathered there from

various lands believe that they shall in the future be victorious over the

Saracens, the pagans, and the Christians. And after the golden Jerusalem

and the Temple of the Lord are built, they say that their messiah, that is,

the Antichrist, will come to Jerusalem to his holy sanctuary.”40


We can also judge the scope of the Spanish movement of Jews to Palestine

from the opposition that it elicited within some Spanish Jewish

communities, whose leaders occasionally took exception to what was viewed

as a violation of the “three oaths.” Such opposition appears, for example,

in a letter that the Jews of Saragossa wrote to the community of Castile,

in which they complain about the exodus of a large number of Jews from

Spain to Palestine: “For God has created a new thing in the land: People of

little quality and large numbers have set out, their children and families

with them, infants and women, saying: Let us go to the land, unto its

length and breadth, until we come to the mountain of the house of the

Eternal, to the house of the God of Jacob.…”41 The authors call for

bringing the movement to an immediate end, out of a fear that all of Jewry

will suffer because of it: “We have come to beseech you, distinguished Tora

scholars, that you take all possible measures to turn back al l those who

are going in this way, and let each man return to his tent in peace, and

let them not hasten the end.”42 It is important to note in this regard that

the Saragossans’ denigration of the quality of the olim did not at all

correspond to the reality. Joseph Hacker, who has studied the immigration

from Spain, has demonstrated that it included not only “people of little

quality” but also serious scholars who engaged in halachic discussion about

aliya, and wrote passionate letters on the subject. Several of them went on

to become leaders of the Jewish community of Jerusalem.43


Another large diaspora community, that of Italy, also experienced a

messianic awakening at the time, as we learn from the case of R. Elijah of

Ferrara, a leading rabbi who arrived in Palestine in 1435 and left an

account of his journey. R. Elijah appears to have taken this trip in order

to verify rumors that had reached Italy in 1419 about the discovery of the

ten lost tribes.44 His journey prompted many other Jews from the Italian

communities to leave for Palestine to take part in the imminent redemption.

The movement was substantial enough that the Italian authorities took

action to stem it. In 1428, a papal order was issued prohibiting sea

captains from carrying Jews to Palestine. Soon afterward, the Venetian

government forbade the use of their city’s port for this purpose, while

Sicily issued a similar prohibition in 1455.45


The Vatican’s concern about the growing strength of the Jewish settlement

in Palestine was not without grounds. In 1427, for instance, the Jews of

Jerusalem attempted to wrest control of the Tomb of David on Mount Zion

from the members of the Franciscan order who held it, and to acquire

ownership of the site from the Muslim authorities. As a result of the

subsequent dispute, the Franciscans were removed from the holy site, but

the Jews of Jerusalem also lost their hold on it. The audacity of

Jerusalem’s Jews, which elicited the anger of the Church against them, was

certainly fueled by the messianic euphoria which had come to characterize

Jewish life at the time. The Jews were energized not only in their bid for

Mount Zion, but also in their success in expanding the area of their

residence into a new quarter of the city: The “Street of the Jews’

Synagogue,” today known as the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. Jews

purchased extensive property in this area, as a Christian traveler reports

in 1421.46 The confidence of the Jews during this period led them to build

a synagogue on the Street of the Jews—despite the strict prohibition in

Omarite law against building new synagogues under the rule of Islam. A

document from 1425, discovered recently in the archive of the Islamic court

in Jerusalem, indicates that in exchange for payment, the authorities

accepted a Jewish claim that a synagogue had already existed on the site in

ancient times, and that it could therefore be left in Jewish hands.47


The assertiveness among the Jews of Jerusalem also stemmed from a major

demographic boost they received from immigrants who had arrived in

anticipation of 1440. One source from this period depicts worshippers in

Jerusalem on the festival of Shavuot. According to the report, the

community was overwhelmed with pilgrims and local Jews; the author was

deeply moved by the display of devotion, which he describes as a miraculous

sign of the approaching redemption: “At the time there gathered there on

the festival of Shavuot more than three hundred celebrants, all of whom

came in and could be seated comfortably, for it [Jerusalem] still retains

its sanctity, and this is a sign of the third redemption.”48 Another

testimony mentions that at this time there were as many as five hundred

Jews residing permanently in Jerusalem; a later source places the number at



But the boom of the Jewish community in Jerusalem did not last long. A

heavy increase in taxation forced many members of the community to sell

their property in order to pay off debts.50 The erosion of the economic

power of the Jews played into the hands of their Muslim rivals in the city.

After the Mameluke sultan and his court in Cairo rejected the demand of the

Waqf to tear down the synagogue on the Street of the Jews, Muslim fanatics

took matters into their own hands, destroying it in 1474. If not for the

protection of the government in Egypt, they would have expelled all the

Jews from the city as well. These and other events led to a waning of the

Jews’ hopes for imminent redemption.


Nonetheless, the aliya leading up to the year 1440 played an important role

in setting the stage for future efforts to settle the land of Israel. Most

importantly, it was much larger and more diverse than the “aliya of the

three hundred rabbis” that preceded it, and included both ordinary Jews and

intellectual elites. In this respect, it laid the foundation for the great

messianic ingathering that was to take place during the first half of the

next century.








Of all the messianic aliyot of the sixth millennium, the one that took

place in the years leading up to 1540 (5300 in the Jewish calendar) is the

best known, because of its formative impact on the development of Judaism

and the Jewish world. During this period, a new wave of immigration

sustained a material and spiritual flowering such as the Jewish community

in Palestine had not enjoyed since the period of the Mishna. This

relatively brief heyday, centering on the northern town of Safed, gave rise

to some of the most important intellectual achievements of Jewish

history—of which the most enduring were the Shulhan Aruch and Beit Yosef of

R. Joseph Karo, which today remain two of the pillars of the Jewish legal

tradition; and the kabalistic teachings of R. Isaac Luria, which

revolutionized Jewish mysticism and later formed part of the doctrinal

basis of Hasidism.


Not surprisingly, this revival came in the wake of one of the most

traumatic events in Jewish history. In 1492, after a century of

persecution, the vast Jewish community of Spain was expelled. Messianic

thought of the period was strongly influenced by this catastrophe:

According to many rabbis at the time, the scope and severity of the

persecutions were indicators of a divine hand behind them, aimed at

spurring the Jewish people to realize the “return to Zion” and bring about

the redemption. One of the leaders of Spanish Jewry, the noted Bible

commentator R. Isaac Abravanel, found a proof in the book of Isaiah: “I

will say to the north, Give; and to the south, Do not withhold; bring my

sons from afar, and my daughters from the ends of the earth.”51 Abravanel

interpreted this passage to mean that the expulsion from Spain was an act

of God meant to push the Jews towards Zion:


     And in the year 5252 [1492], the Eternal roused the spirit of the

     kings of Spain to expel from their land all of the Jews, some

     three hundred thousand souls, in such a manner that all of them

     would leave… and all of them would pass before the land of

     Israel, not only the Jews but also the Conversos [i.e., Jews who

     had converted to Christianity under the Spanish persecutions]…

     and in this way they would gather upon the holy soil.52


After the trauma of expulsion at the hands of the Christian rulers of

Spain, the Jews viewed the Ottomans’ conquest of Palestine in 1517 as a

significant turn for the better. The Ottoman government’s sympathetic

attitude towards Jewish immigration raised messianic anticipations further,

as did the religious upheavals in Christendom which accompanied the advent

of Protestantism. In the words of the kabalist R. Abraham Halevi, who

headed the Sephardi yeshiva in Jerusalem, “And now, there have recently

arrived in Jerusalem faithful Jews from the lands of Ashkenaz and Bohemia…

who tell of the man… named Martin Luther… who began in the year 5284 [1524]

to reject the creed of the uncircumcised and to show them that their

fathers had inherited a lie.”53


At the same time, messianic longing found expression in the feverish

efforts of David Reuveni and Solomon Molcho in Italy and Portugal. These

two figures created a new model of Jewish leadership, characterized by a

combination of messianic and political activism. Reuveni, who claimed to be

a member of the lost tribe of Reuben and the king of a portion of the ten

lost tribes, went so far as to visit Pope Clement VII and urge that he

advise the king of Portugal to form a military alliance between the

Christians and the Jews to wage war against the Muslims and wrest the Holy

Land from Turkish rule. Reuveni’s diplomatic efforts grew, in part, out of

messianic calculations that placed redemption in the year 1540.54 Reuveni’s

colleague, Solomon Molcho, was born into a Converso family and rose to the

position of secretary of the Portuguese royal council. When Reuveni came to

the Portuguese royal court in 1525, he convinced Molcho to return to

Judaism—a decision which forced Molcho to flee to Salonika, where he met R.

Joseph Karo and became deeply involved in esoteric studies and mystical

rites aimed at bringing about the redemption. He believed that at the end

of days, “all the secrets of the Tora which have been hidden from us due to

our sins will be revealed, and then the teachings, laws, and testimonies,

whose divine secrets we do not apprehend today, will be interpreted for

us.”55 According to the scholar of mysticism Moshe Idel, Molcho saw 1540 as

the date of the restoration of the Davidic dynasty: “The year 5300 will

complete the appointed number of days, and over it will rule the house of

David.”56 Reuveni’s and Molcho’s activity came to an end in Regensburg in

the summer of 1532, when they were arrested by Carl V, emperor of the Holy

Roman Empire and king of Spain and Germany. Molcho, the former Converso,

was taken to Mantua, in Italy, where he was burned at the stake, while

Reuveni was exiled to Spain, where his story, as far as we know, comes to

an end.


As the year 5300 drew near, the messianic ferment intensified. R. Abraham

Halevi, who immigrated to Jerusalem at that time, expressed this sentiment

in describing what he considered to be clear signs of the coming

redemption. He notes the troubles that have befallen the Jewish people in

exile, and the special prayers that are recited in Jerusalem to arouse the

mercies of heaven and bring the redemption; most importantly, he writes of

the divine response to these prayers, in the form of a fire which he

describes as having come down from heaven and damaged the Church of the

Holy Sepulchre.57 Further testimony appears in a letter that students from

the yeshiva in Jerusalem sent to Italy in 1521, in which they describe

vigils held in the city on Mondays and Thursdays for the recital of special

prayers requesting divine intervention to hasten the redemption.58 The

authors of the letter also interpreted certain unusual events as a sign of

divine response to their prayers:


     And on the day that we arranged the vigil, that night the sleep

     of the King of the World was disturbed, and he showed us a sign

     of redemption, and the Eternal thundered in the heavens, and his

     voice was heard from on high, and there was a driving rain and a

     great wind that broke up mountains and smashed rocks. And this

     was on the eleventh day of the omer, when rain in Jerusalem is a

     miracle, for rain does not fall there in the summer days, but

     only during the rainy season between Succot and Passover… and

     this was nothing if not a sign of redemption.59


In the last few years leading up to 1540, the movement to bring Jews to the

land of Israel, which encompassed thousands of families, intensified. Jews

from Poland and Lithuania took part, in addition to those who came from

Western Europe in the wake of the expulsions. In 1539 the land registry of

Horodno (Grodno) records the sale of homes by Jews who intended to go to

Palestine. About the same time, Lithuanian King Zygmunt I sought to verify

rumors that the Jews were taking with them to Palestine Christian children

whom they had circumcised.60 The historian Yitzhak Shefer attributes the

messianic sentiment underlying this aliya from Central Europe to the

appearance of Solomon Molcho in Prague and his meeting with Emperor Carl

V.61 Messianic enthusiasm may also have prompted R. Jacob Pollack, the

rabbi from Prague and Krakow who is credited with having founded the world

of Eastern European yeshivot and pioneering the method of talmudic study

known as pilpul, to move to Jerusalem in 1530.62


The great majority of those who moved to Palestine at this time settled in

the Galilee, particularly in Safed. The choice of this small town in the

hills west of the Sea of Galilee had to do with a tradition that the

Messiah would first make himself known in the Galilee,63 and also with the

fact that neither Muslims nor Christians had a religious center there.

Moreover, the income that could be gained from the local textile industry

added a further incentive to settle there.64 The local authorities even

commissioned some of the newly arrived merchants and businessmen to handle

the collection of taxes and other state income, or to act as leaseholders

in different areas. Safed and the Galilee were rapidly transformed into a

flourishing economic center, which exported fruits and grain, sheep and

wool, and woven goods. Merchandise was shipped abroad via the ports of

Acre, Haifa, Beirut, Sidon, and Tripoli. A contemporary source describes

the dramatic change that occurred in Safed within just ten years of the

arrival of the first wave of Jewish immigrants: “Whoever saw Safed ten

years ago, and sees it today, will find it remarkable, because more and

more Jews are coming all the time, and the clothing industry grows daily….

Any man or woman who works in wool at any labor can earn his living



Safed’s prosperity and the growth of its Jewish community were matched by

the spiritual flowering that resulted from the arrival of a learned elite,

which included such prominent scholars and kabalists as R. Jacob Berab, R.

Joseph Karo, R. Solomon Alkabetz, and their followers. This vanguard added

to the messianic spirit of the time, and sought to take an active role in

bringing about the redemption. Within a very short time, the Safed

community had transformed the city into one of the greatest spiritual

centers of world Jewry since the redaction of the Talmud.


The period of Safed’s intellectual renaissance began in 1524, with the

arrival of R. Jacob Berab, one of the leading Spanish scholars of his

generation. Berab, a man of great boldness and energy, sought to reinstate

the ancient practice of rabbinic ordination known as semicha, and through

this to enable the reestablishment of the ancient Jewish

legislative-judicial body, the Sanhedrin. These efforts were of a plainly

messianic character. The reestablishment of the Sanhedrin was universally

accepted as a major step in the messianic process, since it represented the

most concrete expression of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel;

however, a requirement for membership in the Sanhedrin was ordination by

semicha, which had been handed down through the generations of rabbinic

leaders until around the fifth century c.e., at which time the chain of

transmission was broken, and the tradition was lost. Berab’s efforts to

reinstate semicha were thus aimed at eventually reestablishing Judaism’s

sovereign legislative house, in preparation for the messianic era.66 In

1538, in the presence of twenty-five of the greatest rabbis in Safed, Berab

was ordained—creating the first link in what was meant to be a renewed

chain of ordination. But the leading rabbi of Jerusalem, R. Levi ibn Habib,

objected that the ordination did not satisfy one of the conditions

stipulated by Maimonides without which the semicha could not be

reinstated—namely, the agreement of all the sages in the land of Israel—and

as a result had no halachic validity. The controversy between the two sides

grew increasingly heated, to the point that Berab’s opponents apparently

reported on him to the authorities for disloyalty. Fearing imprisonment,

Berab was forced to flee the country—but not before he had hurriedly

ordained four of the great scholars of the generation living in the city,

including R. Joseph Karo.


Following Berab’s departure, Karo assumed leadership of the community in

Safed. Karo was born in Portugal; because of the persecutions and expulsion

there he emigrated, together with many other refugees, to Egypt, which was

part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1536 he came to Palestine along with a group

of kabalists headed by R. Solomon Alkabetz, and settled in Safed. The

kabalists had an explicitly mystical motivation for moving to Palestine:

Alkabetz had preached a sermon on Shavuot night, the eve of the group’s

aliya, in which he described how a magid, an emissary from God, had urged

Karo to lead his disciples to the land of Israel because it was a time of

grace: “Fortunate are you, my sons,” the magid told him. “Return to your

studies and do not interrupt them for even a moment, and ascend to the land

of Israel, for not all times are equally [propitious]…. Therefore make

haste and go up… for it has already been said, ‘the time of reaping the

fruits has come,’ and not all times are the same.”67


Alkabetz, the third outstanding figure in the spiritual leadership of

Safed, introduced special prayer customs and composed works of Kabala and

many religious poems, which were suffused with a yearning for redemption

(one of his best-known poems, Lecha Dodi, “Come, My Beloved,” became part

of the Sabbath Eve service throughout the Jewish world). In one of his

prayers, Alkabetz calls upon the Almighty to redeem the Jewish people,

arguing that by going up to the land of their fathers, he and his

colleagues had proven their devotion and were worthy of divine assistance:


     And now their spirit has led them to go up to Mount Zion, the

     Mountain of the Eternal, to please its stones and to reestablish

     the dust of its ruins; they all are gathered and come unto you;

     they have put their lives in their own hands, setting their path

     upon the sea. They were lighter than eagles, stronger than lions,

     to go up and to worship before you upon this land. And they

     abandoned their property and their houses of pleasure, silver and

     gold were of no account to them, to come to the land. And the

     land is abandoned, ruined and desolate before them, and its

     inhabitants are gentiles who rule over it, and they are wicked

     and sinful. And every day your servants are beaten, and your

     servants go up to it. Shall not the Eternal remember and save us

     from these things? Have you had contempt for them, is your soul

     disgusted by such a nation?68


Another major religious figure who left his imprint on Safed was R. Isaac

Luria, also known as the “Ari.” Luria was born in Jerusalem and attended

the yeshiva of R. Betzalel Ashkenazi in Cairo, where he studied the Zohar.

By his account, the prophet Elijah appeared to him and commanded him to go

back to the land of Israel in order to attain the highest holiness, an

understanding of the divine wisdom, and a knowledge of the secrets of the

Tora. Inspired by this revelation, he returned to Palestine and settled

with his disciples in Safed, where he played an unparalleled role in the

development of Jewish mysticism. His doctrines concerning creation and

redemption, and the kabalistic school that formed around them, were crucial

not only for the development of Kabala in subsequent generations, but also

in the emergence of the Hasidic movement in the eighteenth century.


The Messiah did not materialize in 1540, but this did not discourage those

who had built their vision of the future around that date. A number of

mystics tried to resurrect messianic hopes by pushing the date back to 5335

(1575), based on their reading of a verse in the book of Daniel.69 However,

the messianic anticipations for the later date paled in comparison to those

that had preceded the year 5300. An aborted plan to rebuild the city of

Tiberias raised hopes among Italian Jews during this intermediary period

(according to several midrashic traditions, the first step in the process

of redemption is to take place there),70 but these were quickly dashed and

did not trigger any serious movement of aliya.71 Luria died three years

before the second date posited for redemption, in 1572, at the age of 38;

and Karo’s death followed in 1575—the very year that he had hoped to see

the Messiah.


As the messianic ferment subsided, Safed itself declined. One main cause

was the severe economic crisis that struck the country and damaged most of

the city’s wool industry. Government authorities also grew more hostile to

the Jews, and in 1576 even attempted to expel about one thousand Jewish

families from Palestine to Cyprus. Religious persecution of the Jews of

Safed—on the pretext that they had built synagogues without

permission—brought an end to the community. R. Moses Alsheich’s

lamentation, modeled on the book of Lamentations, which Jews read every

year on Tisha B’av, depicts the end of this crucial chapter in the history

of Jewish settlement in Palestine: “And who is the man who has seen the

city, which has been called the acme of beauty, the joy of all the world, a

great city of scholars and scribes…? How has its blossom been plundered

like a wilderness…. Many are its enemies and those who destroy it.”72










Despite these crises in the Jewish community in Palestine towards the end

of the sixteenth century, and especially in Safed, a new movement of

immigration to the land of Israel started up only a few decades later. This

time, the messianic ferment was based on a passage from the Zohar, which

concluded that in the year 5408 (1648), the dead would be resurrected, an

event which the tradition describes as one of the later stages in the

process of redemption.73 In the words of the Zohar:


     In the sixth millennium, in the 408th year, all those who dwell

     in the dust will rise…. And the verse calls them “the children of

     Heth,” because they shall arise in the year 408,74 as it is

     written, “In this jubilee year each of you shall return to his

     property.” And when “this” is completed, which is 5,408,75 each

     man will return to his property, to his soul, which is his

     property and his inheritance.76


Dozens of leading rabbinic sages and their families came to Palestine in

the years before 1648. Most of them were kabalists of the school of R.

Moses Cordovero and R. Isaac Luria, who believed that by studying and

disseminating esoteric doctrines they were fulfilling one of the important

conditions for the coming of the Messiah. These included R. Abraham Azulai

from Morocco, author of the important kabalistic treatise Hesed Le’avraham;

R. Jacob Tzemah from Portugal, who edited the writings of R. Haim Vital,

the renowned disciple of Luria; and R. Nathan Shapira of Krakow, author of

the well-known work Tuv Ha’aretz which deals with the sanctity of the Holy

Land according to the Kabala.


But perhaps the most illustrious figure who came to Palestine at this time

was R. Isaiah Horowitz, author of Shnei Luhot Habrit and known as the

“Shelah,” after the acronym of the title of this work. Around 1620,

Horowitz, who had served as chief rabbi in Dubno, Ostraha, Frankfurt am

Main, and Prague, decided to move to Palestine. Prior to that, Horowitz had

argued strenuously for the existence of a natural link between settling the

land and the coming of the redemption, and it upset him deeply that the

masses of Jews did not go to the land of Israel. “For my heart burned

continually,” he wrote, “when I saw the children of Israel building houses

like princely fortresses, making permanent homes in this world in an impure

land… which seems, heaven forbid, as if they were turning their minds away

from the redemption.”77 Horowitz saw his own aliya as a necessary step in

bringing about the redemption that was expected with the turn of the fifth

century of the millennium.78


Horowitz arrived early in 1622, staying for a short time in Safed. From

there he went to Jerusalem, where he made his home. He had several reasons

for relocating to Jerusalem, the most important of which was his belief

that Israel’s historic capital, and not Safed, would come first in the

process of redemption, and he wanted to focus his efforts on rebuilding it:

“Our rabbis also said… ‘I will not come to the Jerusalem above until I come

to the Jerusalem below.’ The simple meaning of this is that the Jerusalem

below is the Jerusalem that is here, in the land, whose rebuilding we

anticipate speedily in our days.…”79 The growth of the Jewish community in

the city during that period, driven by an influx of immigrants from various

countries, also encouraged the move. In a letter he wrote while still in

Safed, he observed: “For, thank God, it has become crowded in Jerusalem.

For the Ashkenazi community in Jerusalem is already twice that of Safed;

may it be speedily rebuilt in our days, for e very day it increases…. Also

the Sephardim in Jerusalem increase greatly, to literally hundreds [of

families].” Horowitz particularly praised the quality of the aliya, noting

that “the Ashkenazi community includes quite a few important people, great

scholars of the Tora.” This being the case, he cherished the hope that the

number of immigrants would swell further in the wake of his own arrival:

“And in a short time, God willing, we will hear that the Ashkenazi

community has become inspiring in its grandeur, for I know that, praise

God, many will come there and wish to attach themselves to me.”80


The enthusiasm Horowitz expressed over his expected move to Jerusalem did

not subside after he settled in the city. In a letter from Jerusalem, which

was recently uncovered by Avraham David, he again asserts that the city has

changed profoundly, emphasizing its sanctity no less than the great

improvement in the physical conditions that he found there.81 Whereas the

praise in his earlier letter had been based on hearsay, now he extols

Jerusalem on the basis of direct experience, and even compares its scope to

that of the major cities of Eastern Europe: “And know… that it is a large

city like Krakow, and every day large buildings are added to it and it is

filled with people, whether of the nations of the world without number or

limit, or of the children of Israel.”82 The rapid growth convinced Horowitz

that the time of the Messiah was drawing close. “We consider all this a

sign of the approaching redemption quickly in our days, amen,” he wrote.

“Every day we see the ingathering of the exiles. Day by day they come.

Wander about the courtyards of Jerusalem: All of them, praise God, are

filled with Jews, may their Rock and Redeemer protect them, and with houses

of study and schools filled with small children.”83


Horowitz’s attempts to discover the manuscripts of R. Isaac Luria also

reflected his messianic enthusiasm. He was convinced that the works

attributed to Luria that were circulating in the diaspora were not

authentic, since Luria’s disciple, R. Haim Vital, had forbidden his

master’s writings to be copied or removed from the land of Israel. In one

of his letters, Horowitz mentions that when he arrived in Damascus on his

way to Palestine, local Jews allowed him to inspect the writings of Vital.

He expressed the hope that after arriving in Jerusalem he would continue to

study the Lurianic Kabala from Palestinian manuscripts, identify and

confirm the authenticity of its mystical doctrines, and succeed in

annulling the ban on their dissemination and publication:


     For I desire and yearn for this wisdom. And there are many great

     sages here, and all of them have the treatises of his [Vital’s]

     disciples that have become widespread. And we have found and seen

     that they differ regarding many matters…. But we hope to the

     Eternal that the time may come when the holy book of that godly

     man [Luria] will be revealed, for there is a time and season to

     every purpose. And if God sees our merit as I have hoped, then

     surely the vow will be nullified, that is, the earlier ban.… And

     we are certain that with God’s mercies we shall quickly merit it,

     and the secret things will be revealed to us….84


Horowitz’s quest to uncover Luria’s original manuscripts was not motivated

by intellectual curiosity alone. Vital had taught that the discovery of

Luria’s true, original writings would be a sign of the coming of the

Messiah: “In these generations it is a commandment and a great joy before

the Holy One that this wisdom be revealed, for by its merit the Messiah

shall come.”85 The hope expressed by Horowitz—”But we hope to the Eternal

that the time may come when the holy book of that godly man will be

revealed, for there is a time and season to every purpose”—indicates his

faith that the dissemination of Luria’s true teaching would assure the



Horowitz’s impassioned letters reflect the pervasive messianic ferment in

the Jewish community of Palestine in the years before 1640 (5400). But, as

at many times in the history of the Jews in the land of Israel, this period

of success came to an end. In 1625, Jerusalem came under the control of the

Ibn Farukh family. The family, which had purchased control over the city

from the Ottoman government, saw themselves as free to oppress the city’s

inhabitants and embitter the lives of anyone too poor to pay a sufficient

levy. Most of all they targeted the city’s Jews, who were politically

powerless and could be exploited by taking the financial support they

received from the diaspora.87 Within a two-year period, from 1625 to the

end of 1627, the position of the Jewish community in Jerusalem was

completely undermined. The governor, Muhammed ibn Farukh, persecuted the

Jews of the whole country, issued various edicts against them, restricted

their numbers arbitrarily, and extorted enormous sums of money.88 When they

were unable to pay their debts, they were summarily jailed and tortured.

The new regime destroyed the Jews’ sacred objects; placed their synagogues

in lien against debts and shut them down;89 interrupted their prayer

services; desecrated their Tora scrolls, tearing and stealing them to make

clothing and bags; closed their religious courts and dispersed the judges;

and shut down Jewish schools and sent the children away. Many Jews starved.

Those with means fled far from the reach of Muhammed ibn Farukh. Among the

refugees was Horowitz, who succeeded in escaping to Safed. Of the 2,500 to

3,000 Jews who lived in Jerusalem in 1624, on the eve of Ibn Farukh’s rise

to power, only a few hundred remained by the end of his rule in 1627.90


Nevertheless, the messianic excitement that had characterized the period

prior to Ibn Farukh did not dissipate. The Christian traveler Eugene Roger,

who visited Palestine between 1629 and 1634, was witness to persistent

efforts by the Jews to greet the Messiah. Roger recounts two occasions on

which he saw more than two thousand Jews awaiting the coming of the

Messiah—on Shavuot of the year 1630, and again in 1633: “The gathering of

the Jews took place in the city of Safed in the Galilee, because they

think, as several of their rabbis have taught them, that in this city of

Safed the Messiah whom they await will come.”91 A mood of optimism also

suffuses an anonymous testimony of the time, entitled The Ruins of

Jerusalem, printed in Venice in 1631, which describes the persecution of

the Jews of Jerusalem, with all its horrors, as having been temporary in

nature. The author expresses the hope that the Jews of the land of Israel

will again prosper as in the past, as befitting the age of the “footsteps

of the Messiah.” He thus begins his survey with a description of the

settlement of the Jews in Jerusalem that preceded the arrival of the Ibn

Farukh regime: “And the city of our God was settled by members of our

people, more than it had been since the day that Israel was exiled from its

land, for from day to day more Jews came to dwell there.… And many of them

bought fields and houses and rebuilt the ruins, and old men and women

settled in the streets of Jerusalem, and the streets of the city were

filled with little boys and girls.”92 Further on, the author rejects the

complaints of the Jews who remained in Jerusalem and regretted that they

had not fled. He argues that with the passing of the danger, it is crucial

to remain strong, to act so as to realize the hopes for redemption, and to

settle the land of Israel, and especially Jerusalem:


     For from the day the Temple was destroyed, did God not take an

     oath—and he will not go back on it—that he will not enter the

     heavenly Jerusalem until he enters the earthly Jerusalem? And

     before the coming of Ibn Farukh, children from the four corners

     of the earth fluttered like birds in their eagerness to settle in

     Jerusalem. And to us, this was an evident sign of the beginning

     of the ingathering of the exiles…. All the more so, now that God

     has remembered his people and his land and expelled before our

     eyes the enemy Ibn Farukh; they hover like an eagle, and the

     children will return to their borders.93


According to the author of The Ruins of Jerusalem, the sufferings endured

by the Jews during the two years under Ibn Farukh’s rule were essentially

“birth pangs of the Messiah” that served to purge Israel of its sins before

the redemption: “Reason suggests that God is testing us like one who smelts

and purifies… [in order] to cleanse us and whiten us in the purifying fire

that has passed over us, that he may relieve us of these birth pangs of the



But instead of the long-awaited redemption, 1648 [5408], the very year

cited by the Zohar as heralding the resurrection of the dead, brought with

it one of the worst tragedies in the history of the Jewish people. In the

course of an uprising against the Polish government, Cossacks under the

leadership of Bogdan Chmielnicki killed tens of thousands of Jews. They

sowed ruin and desolation, destroying about three hundred Jewish

communities. One of the great rabbinic figures of that time, R. Shabtai

Hacohen (also known as the “Shach,” after his major halachic commentary,

Siftei Kohen), expressed the widespread bitterness among the Jews: “In the

year 5408, which I had thought would reflect the verse ‘Thus shall Aaron

come into the holy place,’ to the innermost sanctum, instead my harp was

turned to mourning and my joy to anguish.”95 The chronicler R. Joseph

Sambari similarly writes: “And in the year 5408… the Eternal’s anger flared

up against his people… for they thought that it would be a year of

redemption, in ‘this ’ year, as is written in the Zohar… ‘In the year of

“the sons of Heth”’; and now it is turned into thistles.”96 (The numerical

values for “thus,” “this,” “Heth,” and “thistles” in the foregoing all add

up to 5,408 or 408.)97


But despite the disillusionment brought about by tragedy where there had

been hope for redemption, the Jewish longing for the Messiah did not take

long to resurface. A new messianic fervor came to the fore less than twenty

years later, focused on the renowned false messiah Shabtai Tzvi. Despite

his peculiar behavior, which was later explained by some scholars as

manifestations of mental illness,98 his messianic claims fell on eager

ears. After an extended tour through various Jewish communities and a brief

stay in Palestine, his proclamation in 1665 that he was the Messiah met

with substantial support among rabbis and kabalists, which increased in

subsequent months as the messianic fever spread. His pronouncements caused

great excitement among the masses, who were instilled with a renewed belief

in imminent redemption. His followers began to take up ascetic practices

and to engage in mystical acts of repentance (tikunei teshuva); some of

them sold their property, packed their belongings, and made ready to move

to Palestine. Certain communities even attempted, with the help of their

wealthy members, to rent ships that would carry them en masse to the Holy

Land. In 1666, the new movement came to a sudden end, when Shabtai Tzvi

converted to Islam under threat from the sultan.


Unlike other messianic movements among the Jews, Sabbateanism did not see

aliya as a precondition for redemption, since the Messiah himself had

ostensibly been revealed already. Moreover, Sabbatean messianism distanced

itself from political, earthly activism, focusing instead on

spiritual-mystical activity directed heavenward.99 Nevertheless, it did not

take long before a new messianic movement arose, bringing many hundreds of

Jews to Palestine in a new mass aliya. At the center of this movement was

the itinerant preacher R. Judah Hasid and his circle, who went to Palestine

from Europe in 1700 with the aim of bringing about the redemption.100 It is

known that a number of Shabtai Tzvi’s followers, believing that their

messiah would have a second coming in the year 1706, took part in the

movement surrounding R. Judah.101 Several scholars have even attributed

Sabbatean tendencies to the movement as a whole.102 However, there is no

indication that R. Judah himself, or the majority of those who came with

him, were Sabbateans.103 Either way, at some point after 1706 passed

without Shabtai Tzvi’s having revealed himself a second time, hopes for

imminent redemption subsided.








In the aftermath of the Sabbatean apostasy, messianic expectations began to

focus on the next likely date for the redemption: The year 1740, or 5500 on

the Jewish calendar.104 Indeed, the crisis occasioned by the appearance and

downfall of a false messiah did not detract from the force of the next

awakening. Though they were approaching the five hundredth year of the

sixth millennium without the footsteps of the Messiah being heard, the

spirits of those Jews who longed for redemption remained unbroken. Now

their hopes were pinned on a theory of messianic history that had emerged

in the early eighteenth century, according to which the sixth millennium

was to be divided into halves. The first five hundred years, from 1240 to

1740, was the period of “night,” symbolizing the darkness of exile; the

second half-millennium, beginning with 1740, would be the period of “day,”

during which the redemption would occur.105


One of the most influential advocates of this view was the Italian kabalist

R. Immanuel Hai Ricchi, better known as the author of Mishnat Hasidim, who

in the eighteenth century was considered the most authoritative interpreter

of Luria’s kabalistic works. Rather than pointing to one specific year as

the time for redemption, Ricchi spread his estimate over forty years, from

1740 (5500) until the middle of 1781 (5541), a prediction which became

widely accepted among Eastern European Jewry.106 The acceptance of this

understanding of the coming of the messianic period may have had something

to do with the events in Eastern Europe during the second half of the

eighteenth century. In 1768, Jews in the Ukraine suffered persecutions; in

the years 1768-1774, Russia fought and won a war with the Ottoman Empire;

and in 1772 Poland was partitioned. In the eyes of many Jews, these events

had eschatological significance and were interpreted as signs of the

Messiah’s approach onto the stage of world history.


Recently discovered historical sources from the period indicate that the

messianic expectations that preceded the year 1740 sparked a mass

immigration to Palestine lasting many years. These immigrants, whose

numbers reached several thousand within a decade, arrived in Palestine from

all over the diaspora, and particularly from within the Ottoman Empire and

Italy. They settled mostly in Tiberias and Jerusalem, two cities that the

talmudic tradition had singled out for a central role in the redemption.


The year 1740 indeed brought good news to the Jewish settlement in

Tiberias. At that time, the Ottoman authorities invited the renowned

kabalist R. Haim Abulafia, the rabbi of Izmir, to come to Palestine and

rebuild Tiberias, which had lain desolate for some time. The Ottoman

authorities wanted the city rebuilt for economic reasons, but the Jews

considered Abulafia’s mission a sign of the approaching fulfillment of

their messianic hopes. Abulafia personally encouraged these hopes,

according to the rare testimony of an Arab of Tiberias, who reports that

Abulafia “told the Jews who lived there that the Messiah would soon



At the same time, the Jews of Jerusalem also enjoyed a resurgence. The

Jewish immigrants significantly boosted their numbers, prompting complaints

from their neighbors: “[The Muslims] stood like a wall when they saw that

[the Jews] were a great host, and that they added dwelling places in the

courtyards of Jerusalem, and they took counsel together, saying, ‘Behold

the people of the children of Israel are too numerous to count, and there

are ten thousand Jewish men.’”108 Sources indicate that the stream of

immigrants arriving in the city during this period increased the demand for

housing and drove up food prices dramatically. The impressive growth of the

community was also reflected in its spiritual and educational needs: Within

a short time, eight new yeshivot were founded; synagogues were repaired and

expanded, and new ones were built.109


Among the immigrants during this period were several spiritual leaders of

the first rank. Particularly notable were R. Moses Haim Luzzatto, renowned

author of Mesilat Yesharim; the kabalist R. Haim ben Atar, author of Or

Hahayim, one of the central mystical texts in Jewish tradition;110 R.

Elazar Rokeah, chief rabbi of Brody and Amsterdam; R. Gershon of Kutow; as

well as R. Gedaliah Hayun and R. Shalom Sharabi (known as Rashash), who

served as heads of the Kabala-oriented Beth-El Yeshiva in Jerusalem. A

Hasidic tradition, which until recently could not be documented, refers to

attempts by the founder of Hasidism, R. Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, to move to

Palestine at this time. According to this tradition, the Ba’al Shem Tov

sought to meet with R. Haim ben Atar in the land of Israel, so that

together they might bring about the redemption through a joint mystical

effort. Evidence recently uncovered by Adam Teller confirms this tradition:

It seems that during a visit he paid in 1733 to a wealthy Jewish family in

Slutsk, the Ba’al Shem Tov asked for financial support for his intended

move to the Holy Land.111


And indeed, a number of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s closest friends and disciples

in fact undertook the move between the years 1740-1781. The largest group

of these Hasidic immigrants, numbering about three hundred and led by R.

Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk (a disciple of R. Dov Baer of Mezrich, the “Magid

of Mezrich”), arrived in Palestine in 1777, four years before the end of

the messianic period outlined by R. Immanuel Hai Ricchi. Opinions are

divided regarding the motivation for the aliya of the disciples of the

Ba’al Shem Tov—which included a significant number of simple Jews who

attached themselves to the group during the course of their travels. Some

scholars have suggested that perhaps it was the hostility of the Mitnagdim

in Lithuania which compelled them to flee; others have claimed that the

Hasidim wanted to achieve sanctification and mystical elevation, or to set

up a new center for the Hasidic movement in Israel.112 However, from a

contemporary source which I recently discovered in an archive in St.

Petersburg, we may be able to conclude that this great Hasidic aliya was

endowed with a messianic purpose. This source quotes a Karaite who had

spoken with the immigrants shortly before their arrival:


     May it be remembered by the later generations what happened in

     the year 5537 [1777], how a rumor came about that the Messiah son

     of David had come. Then the rabbis living abroad began to go up

     to the city of Jerusalem, may it speedily be rebuilt…. And the

     reason they believed that the Messiah son of David had come was

     that at that time the evil nation of Moscow [Russia], that bitter

     people, a people whose language has not been heard, stretched its

     hand over the entire world, so that there was no place left that

     was not caught in war. And they thought that this was the time of

     the end of days, as promised by the prophets.113


This testimony helps to confirm Benzion Dinur’s speculation that the

movement of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s disciples was of a messianic nature; it

reveals that at the beginning of Hasidism, a significant portion of its

leadership wished to bring the redemption closer by moving to the land of



But it was not only Hasidim who undertook messianic aliyot at this time. R.

Elijah of Vilna, the “Vilna Gaon,” also set off for Palestine, but his

attempt did not succeed, and upon arriving in Holland he was forced to turn

back.114 From his son’s writings we learn that the Gaon had intended to

compose in the land of Israel a “new Shulhan Aruch”:


     Two things I heard from his holy and pure mouth, to which his

     Creator did not consent, and which he did not do. Towards his old

     age I asked him many times why he did not complete his journey to

     the Holy Land, and he did not answer me…. And he also promised me

     that he would make [a collection of] halachic rulings from the

     Arba’a Turim [upon which Karo’s Shulhan Aruch was based], using

     decisive reasoning to write the one opinion that was correct in

     his wise eyes, with strong and powerful proofs that could not be



The Gaon’s desire to compose a standard, unifying halachic code in the land

of Israel was an echo of R. Joseph Karo’s immensely influential halachic

efforts more than two hundred years earlier—efforts that had clear

messianic overtones: A grand unification of Jewish law was widely seen as a

first step in the reestablishment of the Sanhedrin, and therefore could

serve as a catalyst in the redemptive process.


For a number of reasons, Jewish messianic activity in Palestine declined

towards the end of the eighteenth century. The economic restrictions the

Ottoman authorities and the local Muslim establishment imposed upon the

Jews in Jerusalem, violent persecutions by the local Arab population, and

bitter controversies within the Jewish leadership led to a severe

deterioration of Jewish life in the land of Israel. A significant number of

Jews left Palestine; those who remained suffered harsh poverty.

Nevertheless, the Jewish community continued to hold together, enjoying a

rich spiritual life alongside its economic hardship. The Tora was studied

by some three thousand Jews who continued to live in Jerusalem; the rabbis

preached on Sabbaths and festivals and wrote halachic responsa. The presses

of Western Europe and the Ottoman Empire published the output of this

intellectual center—dozens of books of commentary, homiletics, halacha, and

Kabala. The Jewish community in Palestine maintained contact with the

communities of the diaspora, which provided them, whenever possible, with

economic and diplomatic support. As the eighteenth century drew to a close,

Jewish life in Palestine, fueled largely by a messianic devotion to the

land of Israel that was shared not only by the members of the yishuv but

also by their brethren abroad, continued despite difficult conditions,

laying the groundwork for the great influx of Jewish immigrants that was

soon to come.








In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a great many Jews

took part in the movement known as the Haskala, or Jewish Enlightenment.

Among the movement’s goals was to enable the Jews to assimilate into

European society and culture, which necessarily would mean abandoning their

traditional expectations of imminent national and political redemption in

the Holy Land. But despite the efforts of the maskilim, a large portion of

the Jewish world continued to believe in the centrality of the land of

Israel.116 In the years leading up to 1840 (5600), messianic fervor again

spread throughout traditional Jewry in the West and East and inspired a

mass movement of aliya. In strictly numerical terms, this movement was more

successful than all those which had preceded it: Over the ensuing decades,

tens of thousands of Jews arrived in Palestine, radically changing the

demography of the Jewish community there; by the time the first of the

Zionist immigrants began arriving towards the end of the nineteenth

century, the land of Israel was already host to its largest and most

vibrant Jewish community in many centuries.


The textual source behind much of the messianic ferment in the nineteenth

century was R. Dosa’s prediction in the Talmud, according to which the

messianic age would begin in the last four hundred years of the sixth

millennium—that is, starting around 1840.117 A statement in the Zohar lent

support to this belief:


     When the sixth millennium comes, in the six hundredth year of the

     sixth millennium, the gates of wisdom shall be opened above, and

     founts of wisdom below…. And the Holy One shall raise up the

     congregation of Israel from the dust of exile, and remember



A great many sources of the early nineteenth century cite the Zohar’s

prediction. Thus, R. Yaakov Tzvi Yalish of Dinov writes: “In the Zohar

there are several different times suggested for the end of days, and the

last of them is the year six hundred of the sixth millennium, and it seems

that later than this it will not tarry. Thus we find that when 5,600 years

have been completed, everything will be clarified, and our righteous

Messiah will come.”119


Until recently, historians did not attribute real importance to these

mystical texts, and saw no connection between them and the awakening of

widespread messianic activism. Sources uncovered in recent years have

revised these evaluations, demonstrating that faith in the Messiah’s coming

in 1840 was responsible for the aliya of thousands of people. Thousands of

letters in the archive of the Officers and Administrators of Amsterdam,

from officials who maintained close contact with the leadership of the

Jewish community in Palestine, provide ample evidence of the messianic

sentiment that prevailed. In one letter, dated 1831, R. Tzvi Hirsch Lehren,

head of that organization, writes:


     But the simple and imminent salvation for which we have longed is

     the coming of our Messiah, and we shall express our hope to the

     Holy One that salvation is not far off. Many pious people have

     said that it will be no later than the year 5600, may it come

     upon us for the good.120


Diaries of the Anglican missionaries who were active among the Jews in

Palestine and throughout the world during that time also mention this

sentiment. Missionary reports from Russia in 1812 state that between 1809

and 1811, hundreds of Jewish families immigrated to Palestine. When asked

the purpose of their journey, these Jews replied that they “hope that the

words of the prophets will soon be realized, that God will gather his

dispersed people from all corners of the earth…. [They] therefore wish to

see the appearance of the Messiah in the land of Israel.”121


Among the olim of this period, the disciples of the Vilna Gaon particularly

stand out. Together with their families, they numbered about five hundred

souls; but their organization, their ideological motivation, and their

standing as Tora scholars of the first rank lent them a degree of influence

far beyond their numbers. This group adopted an ideology of “natural

redemption” that translated the messianic faith into practical activity. In

this spirit, the Gaon’s disciples sought to advance the redemption by

rebuilding Jerusalem. Their involvement in rebuilding the ruins of the

“Court of the Ashkenazim,” a complex of buildings where the Ashkenazi

community lived, worked, and studied, was to them a realization of the call

to build the “earthly Jerusalem”—a condition for the redemption. In 1820,

R. Menahem Mendel of Shklov, a disciple of the Gaon, wrote from Jerusalem

to donors in Europe, describing the building of the courtyard as the

beginning of redemption:


     And you should understand fully that the lowly situation of our

     group in general, and regarding the ruin in particular, which we

     needed to… redeem from the hands of cruel foreigners…. And we

     rely upon responsive people like yourselves, who pursue

     righteousness… to greet our words with rejoicing, for, thank God,

     in our day we are witnessing the beginning of the redemption….122


The documents of the Gaon’s disciples echo this same sentiment some twenty

years later, when the group finally received the long-awaited permission to

rebuild the ruin: “And now our horn is raised up to the Eternal our God, to

honor and establish our Temple, and to build synagogues on the holy

mountain of Jerusalem…. This is a good sign of the beginning of

redemption….”123 Once they had received permission to build, the Gaon’s

disciples initiated changes in the Jerusalemite order of prayer, including

the removal of the verse “Arise, shake off the dust, arise” from the Friday

night liturgical poem Lecha Dodi—since, in their mind, the divine Presence

had already risen from the dust.124


Some members of this group sought to further the redemption by reinstating

the Sanhedrin, and the institution of semicha upon which it depended. To

this end, they were forced to contend with the halachic problems that had

led to the failure of the previous attempt, hundreds of years earlier in

Safed. In particular, they had to deal with Maimonides’ ruling that once

the chain of ordination had been broken, its renewal required the agreement

of all the sages in the land of Israel. To circumvent this objection, R.

Israel of Shklov, the leader of the Gaon’s disciples in Safed, sent an

emissary to the deserts of Yemen in order to locate the ten lost tribes;

according to tradition, the tribes still preserved the institution of

semicha, and might be enlisted to renew the ancient ordination for the

Jewish world. In a letter carried by the envoy, R. Israel wrote to the ten

tribes as follows: “It is a well-known principle… that before our righteous

Messiah may come, there needs to be a great court of ordained judges…. In

your mercy for all of the people of the Eternal, please choose several of

your ordained sages, and please come to the land of Israel, the inheritance

of our fathers, and let them ordain the great scholars so that there may be

an ordained court in the land of Israel, upon which the beginning of the

redemption depends.”125


The disciples of the Gaon also purchased agricultural lands in order to

carry out those commandments of the Tora that were applicable only in the

land of Israel. They believed that the flourishing of the harvest would

serve as proof of God’s renewed love for his people, as per a well-known

talmudic interpretation of a verse in Ezekiel: “‘But you, O mountains of

Israel, shall shoot forth your branches, and yield your fruit to my people

Israel’—there is no better sign of the End than this.”126 R. Haim ben Tuvia

Katz, who had been a leading rabbi in Vilna, gave voice to this belief in

1810, when he wrote from Safed: “Regarding the matter of the contributions

that were sent for the fulfillment of the commandments dependent upon the

land, we have already purchased lands in accordance with the view of my

dear friend, the true great and pious one, our teacher R. Haim of Volozhin…

and it seems that we shall yet buy lands that shall become available

according to the time and place….”127 The immense significance that the

Jews in Palestine attributed to agriculture also emerges from a letter sent

by the leaders of the community in Jerusalem—both Sephardim and

Ashkenazim—to the philanthropist Moses Montefiore in 1839, when they

learned of his intention to purchase lands for rural Jewish settlement:


     And his mercies were aroused and his pure heart offered to

     establish pillars and stands… by giving them a hold in the holy

     soil, the soil of Israel, to plow and sow and reap in joy…. And

     all of us take this thing upon ourselves with love…. We await and

     anticipate the divine salvation through Moses, the faithful one

     of his house, to say when he shall begin this beginning of the



In 1836, R. Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer proposed an even more far-reaching

project to Baron Anshel Rothschild: The latter would purchase the Temple

Mount from the Egyptian ruler Muhammed Ali, in order to renew the

sacrificial service. In a letter to the baron, Kalischer writes:


     And particularly at a time like this, when the province of the

     land of Israel is not under the rule of a powerful regime as it

     was in former times… he may well sell you the city of Jerusalem

     and its surroundings. From this too there will spring forth a

     horn of salvation, if we have the power and authority to seek the

     place of the altar and to offer acceptable burnt offerings to the

     God of Eternity, and from this may Judah be delivered in an

     eternal deliverance.129


Kalischer’s idea was explicitly messianic; like R. Yehiel of Paris six

centuries earlier, he planned, by the renewal of sacrifices at the Temple

Mount, to quicken the redemption and to hasten the coming of the



The messianic expectations of the Jews of Palestine were sorely tested,

however, by the tragic events that they faced in the years leading up to

1840. The plagues that raged throughout the region, the earthquake of 1837

that killed more than two thousand Jews in the Galilee, and particularly

the systematic attacks by the Muslim authorities and the local Arab

population, threatened to make Jewish existence there intolerable.

Anti-Jewish violence reached its height during the rebellion of the Arab

farm workers that broke out in 1834 against the rule of Muhammed Ali. In

the course of these riots, the rebels also attacked the Jews living in

major cities. Over a period of several weeks, they rampaged against the

Jews of Safed, looting their property, destroying their homes, desecrating

their synagogues and study houses, and raping, beating, and in many cases

killing Jews. R. Shmuel Heller of Safed reported:


     For forty days, day after day, from the Sunday following Shavuot,

     all of the people of our holy city, men, women, and children,

     have been like refuse upon the field. Hungry, thirsty, naked,

     barefoot, wandering to and fro in fear and confusion like lambs

     led to the slaughter…. They [the Arab marauders] removed all the

     Tora scrolls and thrust them contemptuously to the ground, and

     they ravished the daughters of Israel—woe to the ears that hear

     it—and the great study house they burned to its foundations…. And

     the entire city was destroyed and laid ruin, they did not leave a

     single wall whole; they dug and sought treasures, and the city

     stood ruined and desolate without a single person….131


These events took a heavy toll in lives on the Jews in Palestine, causing

many to leave. But in spite of it all, most Jews did not leave Palestine.

Those who stayed enjoyed the protection and active support of Jewish groups

and institutions throughout the world, as well as the aid of such

philanthropists as Moses Montefiore and the Rothschild family; and,

especially, the protection of the representatives of European powers,

including the consuls in the coastal cities of Syria, Egypt, and Palestine,

who protected the Jewish settlement and demanded compensation from the

authorities for the damage caused by the 1834 riots. In many ways, Jews in

the land of Israel were less vulnerable than in earlier periods.


Even the failure of the Messiah to appear in 1840 had only a minor impact

on the lot of the Jewish community in Palestine, though it was accompanied

by a period of crisis and a brief decline in the spirit of the Jews living

there. Most importantly, the flow of Jewish immigrants did not stop, as the

successes of the messianic aliya of the first half of the nineteenth

century laid the groundwork for a large wave of Jewish immigrants in the

following decades, most of whom came due to other, non-messianic motives:

Most were pious, traditional Jews who sought refuge from the influences of

the Haskala, the Emancipation, and the Reform movement, which at that time

were spreading throughout Europe. As a result of this continuing wave of

immigration, the number of Jews in Palestine increased dramatically: By the

1870s, the Jewish population in Jerusalem was already greater than that of

the Muslims and Christians combined. For the first time since the

destruction of the Temple, Jews formed a majority in the city.132


And indeed, from a broader perspective, the Jewish community in Palestine

advanced a great deal during the course of the nineteenth century. If early

in the century the number of Jews there stood at a few thousand and their

situation was anything but stable, by the second half of the century tens

of thousands of Jews lived in Jerusalem alone, and they enjoyed the

political and economic protection of representatives of the great powers,

as well as support from Jewish communities in the diaspora. These

developments allowed the continuation of settlement in distinctly

agricultural areas as well, and facilitated the immigrations of tens of

thousands of additional Jews during the 1880s—the “First Aliya,” which

opened an entirely new chapter in the history of Jewish settlement in the

land of Israel.








Until the appearance of Zionism, it is difficult to find more conclusive

evidence for a deep, abiding historical connection between the Jewish

people and the land of Israel than the messianic aliyot of the sixth

millennium. Over a period lasting more than six centuries, the traditional

longing of the Jews for their homeland found concrete expression in

repeated efforts to realize the dream of return. From the practical

viewpoint, these messianic waves of immigration, which began early in the

thirteenth century, represented a quantum leap in scope and energy above

the efforts of individuals and groups who had gone to Palestine previously.

First, they were more communal in nature, numbering hundreds and at times

even thousands. Second, the aliyot drew on Jewish communities from

different countries, rather than the more localized efforts that had

characterized earlier pilgrimages. Third, they comprised Jews of all

classes: Alongside the common folk, they included communal leaders and Tora

scholars of the first magnitude. One can only imagine the effect that the

relocation of such central figures in the Jewish world to the land of

Israel had on the diaspora communities they left behind. Even if the

majority of Jews did not dare to make the journey, there can be no doubt

that the departure of so many of their luminaries to the Holy Land, and in

a context of messianic hope, left a profound impression.


Fourth, the messianic aliyot of the sixth millennium were characterized by

a spiritual and ethical vigor the likes of which had not been seen before.

The new immigrants were called upon to repent, to develop their character,

and to act according to a strict moral code. In some of these movements,

the demand for character improvement attended the mystical activity of

kabalists or other individuals who took it upon themselves to catalyze the

messianic redemption. Among the concrete projects for hastening the

redemption, one finds attempts to find the ten lost tribes, to renew the

ancient rabbinic ordination (semicha) and the institution of the Sanhedrin,

to summarize the halacha so that a uniform code would be accepted by all of

Israel, to uncover the “secrets of Tora” and hidden kabalistic writings,

and even to renew the sacrificial service of the Temple in Jerusalem.


The activism of the messianic immigrant movements also demonstrates that

long before the advent of modern Zionism, Jews did not limit themselves to

spiritual yearning and symbolic remembrance of the land of Israel. Inspired

by messianic anticipation, many Jews regarded a return to the Promised Land

as a practical goal. True, the overwhelming majority of Jews did not go to

Palestine. Considering the numerous hardships entailed by such a journey,

the uncertainty of arriving in peace, finding a livelihood, and dwelling

securely in the land, this is hardly surprising. Nonetheless, during the

sixth millennium, the land of Israel was no longer an abstract,

inaccessible ideal; no longer only a subject of dreams, whose name was

mentioned mainly in prayers. It was a real place, absorbing waves of Jewish

immigrants from many countries, sustaining a full-fledged Jewish community

that preserved its unique identity throughout the generations.


Of course, there were major, substantive differences between the messianic

aliyot and the Zionist awakening which followed. The nationalist ideology

which revived the Jewish people in the late-nineteenth and twentieth

centuries was indeed modern in many ways, not the least of which was its

rejection of the traditionalist worldview that had characterized the

messianic movements. Nevertheless, the deep longing for their ancestral

homeland and the profound faith in the possibility of national redemption,

which ultimately drove the waves of Jewish immigration to Palestine in the

sixth millennium, were also at the heart of the Zionist return. The

widespread belief in the Jewish right to the land of Israel, the Zionist

vision of the spiritual and physical redemption of the land, and the

immense efforts of so many Jews to turn the dream into reality, could never

have taken root without these prior beliefs. In this sense at least, one

may see the period of messianic immigration to the land of Israel and the

Zionist revolution as milestones on the same historical path, different

chapters in an ongoing national story.




Arie Morgenstern is a Senior Fellow at The Shalem Center in Jerusalem.








1. Benzion Dinur, “The Messianic Fermentation and Immigration to the Land

of Israel from the Crusades until the Black Death, and Their Ideological

Roots,” in Benzion Dinur, Historical Writings (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik,

1975), vol. ii, p. 238. [Hebrew]


2. Jacob Barnai, Historiography and Nationalism: Trends in the Research of

Palestine and Its Jewish Population, 634-1881 (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1995), p.

39. [Hebrew]


3. Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, The Nationalist Portrayal of the Exile, Zionist

Historiography, and Medieval Jewry, doctoral dissertation, Tel Aviv

University, 1996, p. 331. [Hebrew]


4. Elhanan Reiner, Pilgrims and Pilgrimage to the Land of Israel,

1099-1517, doctoral dissertation, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1988.



5. Raz-Krakotzkin, Nationalist Portrayal, pp. 333-334.


6. See David N. Myers, Reinventing the Jewish Past: European Jewish

Intellectuals and the Zionist Return to History (New York: Oxford, 1995);

Uri Ram, “Zionist Historiography and the Invention of Modern Jewish

Nationhood: The Case of Benzion Dinur,” History and Memory 7:1 (1995), pp.

91-124. For a critique of Dinur that does not tend towards a critique of

Zionism as a whole, see Jacob Katz, Jewish Nationalism: Essays and Studies

(Jerusalem: Zionist Library, 1979), pp. 230-238. [Hebrew]


7. Psalms 90:4.


8. ”It was taught in the school of Eliyahu: The world will exist for six

thousand years: Two thousand years of chaos; two thousand years of Tora;

two thousand years of the age of the Messiah.” Sanhedrin 97a.


9. The destruction of the Temple took place around the year 68 c.e., which

was close to the end of the fourth millennium of Creation, in the year



10. See Joseph Dan, Apocalypse Then and Now (Tel Aviv: Yedi’ot Aharonot,

2000), pp. 49-68. [Hebrew]


11. The Jewish year begins in the fall; therefore every Jewish year

overlaps two years of the Christian calendar, and vice versa. For

simplicity’s sake, however, Christian years in this article are identified

with the Jewish year with which they overlap for nine out of twelve months,

that is, from January through September.


12. Isaiah 60:22.


13. Reference is made in the book of Daniel to three enigmatic dates for

the end of days, which are not conditional upon repentance. Even Daniel

himself, according to his own words, did not understand what they were. The

three periods are expressed in obscure language: “Time, times, and half a

time,” “1,090 days,” and “1,335 days.” Daniel 12:1-13. The assumption

throughout is that the end of days will come at a fixed time, without room

for human influence.


14. Sanhedrin 97a. We will not enter here into the details of the debate

cited in the Talmud, but it is worth noting that according to the rabbis,

when the patriarch Jacob wished to reveal to his sons the time of the end

of days, this referred to the end that would come about “in its time.”


15. Sanhedrin 97a. This approach also appears in Zohar, Bereshit 117.


16. Sanhedrin 97a.


17. Genesis Rabbati, a midrashic collection compiled at the beginning of

the sixth century, states: “The entire subjugation is during the fifth

millennium, and during its course, morning will come for Israel, when they

shall be redeemed.” Hanoch Albeck, ed., Genesis Rabbati (Jerusalem:

Mekitzei Nirdamim, 1940), p. 16. [Hebrew] R. Judah Barceloni likewise

states that “we are to be speedily redeemed at the end of the fifth

millennium; thus has it been conveyed at all times to Israel.” See his

commentary in J.Z. Halberstamm, ed., Sefer Yetzira (Berlin, 1895), p. 239.

[Hebrew] Among the earlier practitioners of messianic calculations, some

placed the time of the redemption well before the sixth millennium; they

argued that since the destruction of the land and of the Temple occurred in

the year 3828 [68 c.e.], the current era would end one thousand years

later, in 4828 [1068 c.e.], at which time the age of redemption would

commence. But generally speaking, practitioners of messianic calculation

identified the sixth millennium as the time of the redemption.


18. The source of these prohibitions is found in the Song of Songs, where

the formula “I adjure you, O maidens of Jerusalem…” is repeated with minor

variations. Cf. Ketubot 111a.


19. Psalms 102:14-15.


20. Judah Halevi, The Kuzari: An Argument for the Faith of Israel, trans.

Hartwig Hirschfeld (New York: Schocken, 1964), 5:27, p. 295.


21. The book of Daniel posits the dates for the end of days in relation to

some unidentified starting point. In every generation there were attempts

to decipher the apocalyptic dates with reference to various events in

Jewish history, such as the Exodus, the entrance into the land of Israel,

the building of the First and Second Temples, and the Babylonian exile.


22. Maimonides, Epistles of Maimonides, ed. Yitzhak Shilat (Jerusalem:

Ma’aliyot, 1987), vol. i, p. 153. [Hebrew] The Epistle to Yemen was

composed about 1172.


23. Arie Morgenstern, Mysticism and Messianism (Jerusalem: Ma’or, 1999), p.

305. [Hebrew]


24. Avraham Ya’ari, Travels in the Land of Israel (Tel Aviv: Gazit, 1946),

p. 67. [Hebrew]


25. Aaron Ze’ev Aescoly, Jewish Messianic Movements (Jerusalem: Bialik,

1988), p. 188. [Hebrew]


26. Yisrael Yuval, “Between Political Messianism and Utopian Messianism in

the Middle Ages,” in S.N. Eisenstadt and M. Lissak, eds., Zionism and the

Return to History (Jerusalem: Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, 1999), p. 84 n. 10.



27. Yuval, “Political Messianism,” pp. 85-86. A short passage from this

manuscript is quoted in another anonymous travel journal of around the same

time, Totza’ot Eretz Yisrael. See Ya’ari, Travels, p. 98.


28. Regarding the expectations of redemption, see Maimonides’ calculation

for the renewal of prophecy in 1212, mentioned above. On the reaction to

the Crusades, see Yuval, “Political Messianism,” p. 87.


29. Parallel to the messianic activism that found expression in the “aliya

of the three hundred rabbis,” the opposite tendency, a lowering of the

profile of messianic expectations, could also be found among the Jews of

Central Europe. Unlike the Jews of France, the latter were worried about

the possibility of a Christian backlash to any Jewish messianic ferment,

and tended to be resistant towards any activity aimed at bringing the

redemption closer. The spiritual leaders of this community focused their

efforts on mass repentance, and refrained from expressing their messianic

hopes. Concerns about persecution were exacerbated by the Mongol invasion

that was menacing Europe at the time. Christians identified the Mongols

with the ten tribes, and subjected the Jews to reprisals as “partners” of

the invaders. R. Moses of Coucy, author of Sefer Mitzvot Gadol, conducted a

campaign for repentance in 1236, four years before the decisive Hebrew date

of 5000. According to him, Jews were to refrain from any efforts of a

political nature to hasten the coming of the Messiah. The only activity

capable of bringing the redemption in his view was mass repentance. Yuval,

“Political Messianism,” p. 87.


30. Estori Hafarhi, Kaftor Vaferah (Berlin: Julii Sittenfeld, 1852), p. 15.

See Reiner, Pilgrims and Pilgrimage, p. 79; and cf. Yisrael Ta-Shema, “Land

of Israel Studies,” Shalem 1 (1974), pp. 82-84. [Hebrew]; Arie Morgenstern,

Redemption through Return: The Vilna Gaon’s Disciples in the Land of Israel

(Jerusalem: Ma’or, 1997), pp. 182-185. [Hebrew]


31. Avraham Grossman, “A Letter of Vision and Rebuke from

Fourteenth-Century Ashkenaz,” Katedra 4 (1977), pp. 190-195.


32. And indeed, a series of messianic calculations from around the year

1440 deals with the different stages of the anticipated redemption: The

beginning of the ingathering of exiles, the discovery of the ten lost

tribes, the return of prophecy, the restoration of the Sanhedrin, the

appearance of the Messiah, and the building of the Temple. The calculations

closest to the year 1440 are based on astrological calculations of the

“system of the stars,” and are directed towards the years 1444 (5204 in the

Hebrew calendar) and 1464 (5224), and towards the year equal to the

numerical value of the Hebrew word for “the end” (haketz), which came out

to 5190 on the Hebrew calendar, or 1430 c.e. Earlier calculations from this

period were based on similar methods of notarikon and gematria. One of

them, drawing on the verse in Habakkuk 2:3, “for still the vision awaits

its time,” was understood as referring to the year 1391 (5151). See Joseph

Hacker, “The Aliyot and Attitudes Towards the Land of Israel Among Spanish

Jews, 1391-1492,” Katedra 36 (1985), p. 22 n. 83.


33. About 1400, Mulhausen stated: “And many among the multitude agree that

the coming of the Messiah and the building of the Temple will be no later

than the year 170 of the sixth millennium [1410].” See Yom-Tov Lipmann

Mulhausen, Sefer Hanitzahon (Jerusalem: Dinur, 1984), par. 335, p. 187.


34. Aescoly, Jewish Messianic Movements, p. 223.


35. I.F. Baer, A History of the Jews in Christian Spain (Tel Aviv: Am Oved,

1965), p. 320. [Hebrew] Based upon Crescas’ Or Hashem, part iii, 8:2.


36. Avraham Gross, “The Ten Tribes and the Kingdom of Prester John: Rumors

and Investigations Before and After the Expulsion from Spain,” Pe’amim 48

(1991), pp. 5-38.


37. The primary source is the Darmstadt manuscript. See Yisrael Yuval, Two

Nations in Your Womb: Perceptions of Jews and Christians (Tel Aviv: Am

Oved, 2000), p. 276 n. 27. [Hebrew] By contrast, the manuscript copied in

1429 was the Rome manuscript, cited by Reiner, Pilgrims and Pilgrimage, p.

115 n. 232. My thanks to Yisrael Yuval, who allowed me to compare the

manuscript in his possession with the Rome manuscript and to discover that

the section beginning “And now many people have awakened…” appears only in

the latter.


38. Reiner, Pilgrims and Pilgrimage, pp. 114-115 n. 232.


39. Baer, History of the Jews, pp. 318-319.


40. Binyamin Ze’ev Kedar, “Notes on the History of the Jews of Palestine in

the Middle Ages,” Tarbitz 42 (1973), pp. 413-416. Kedar ignores the

connection between the messianic expectations expressed here and the aliyot

originating in various countries. As a result, he does not see in

messianism a motivation for aliya, and can only wonder why the latter took

place at all, just when the situation of the Jews in Spain was improving,

while the situation in Palestine had worsened.


41. Benzion Dinur, “The Emigration from Spain to the Land of Israel After

the Decree of 1391,” Tzion 32 (1967), p. 162.


42. Dinur, “Emigration,” p. 163.


43. According to one testimony of the time, “And now, of late, people have

come, great sages and elders together with their disciples… and have

continued to settle and to increase the study of Tora far more.” Quoted in

Hacker, “Aliyot and Attitudes,” p. 28 n. 107.


44. Joseph Hacker, “R. Elijah of Massa Lombarda in Jerusalem,” Tzion 50

(1985), pp. 253-256.


45. Moshe Schulwas quotes historical sources indicating that the

inhabitants of Malta captured Jews who were on their way to Palestine. See

Moshe Schulwas, “On the Immigration of German Jews to Palestine in the

Fifteenth Century,” Tzion 3 (1938), pp. 86-87.


46. Elhanan Reiner, “‘For Do Not Jerusalem and Zion Stand Apart?’: The

Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem in the Post-Crusade Period (Thirteenth to

Fifteenth Centuries),” in Yossi Ben-Artzi, Israel Bartal, and Elhanan

Reiner, eds., A View of His Homeland: Studies in Geography and History in

Honor of Yehoshua Ben-Aryeh (Jerusalem: Magnes, 2000), pp. 314-315.

[Hebrew] The discovery that the Jewish settlement in the center of the Old

City dates only from the beginning of the fifteenth century is consistent

with Reiner’s conclusion that the Nahmanides Synagogue was near Mount Zion,

where the Jewish neighborhood was located after the Crusader period, and

not as the folk tradition has it, near the Court of the Ashkenazim. See

Reiner, “The Jewish Quarter,” pp. 277-279.


47. Reiner, “The Jewish Quarter,” p. 306 n. 106. Around 1452, the Jews of

Jerusalem were compelled to give money to the rulers of the city, and the

community was forced to sell much of its land. Three hundred Tora scrolls,

ancient books, and precious ritual objects that had been brought to the

country by the immigrants around the year 1440 were also sold. These

findings suggest an aliya of wealthy people during this period. See Avraham

Ya’ari, ed., Letters from the Land of Israel (Ramat Gan: Masada, 1971), pp.

129-130. [Hebrew]


48. Hacker, “Aliyot and Attitudes,” p. 12.


49. Hacker, “Aliyot and Attitudes,” p. 32.


50. Michael Ish Shalom, In the Shadow of Foreign Rule: The History of the

Jews in the Land of Israel (Tel Aviv: Karni, 1975), p. 312. [Hebrew]


51. Isaiah 43:6.


52. Abravanel’s commentary on Isaiah 43:6.


53. Aescoly, Jewish Messianic Movements, p. 331. R. Abraham ben Eliezer

Halevi wrote several works of a messianic character and engaged in

messianic calculations concerning the Jewish year 5300. According to Moshe

Idel, there is no connection between his messianic calculations and the

expulsion from Spain, as his interest in the problem of the end of days had

already begun in his youth, that is, before the expulsion. Moshe Idel,

introduction to Aescoly, Jewish Messianic Movements, pp. 24-26. Messianic

calculations thus were not prompted by historical events alone; these

events only heightened the mystics’ faith in an imminent redemption.


54. Idel, introduction, pp. 24-34.


55. Moshe Idel, “Solomon Molcho as Magician,” Sefunot 18 (1985), p. 215.


56. Moshe Idel, introduction to Aaron Ze’ev Aescoly, The Story of David

Hareuveni (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1993), p. 33. [Hebrew]


57. According to R. Abraham Halevi, “The things said in the midrash of the

Zohar about the great troubles and destruction that will herald the time of

the Messiah are very frightening…. Only repentance annuls everything. And

in regard to the instructions about the year of visitation, which is the

year 5284 [1524], it is fitting that every man take to heart the great

wonder that was done in Jerusalem…. For when, gentlemen, the sages gathered

together and set vigils… to plead for mercy for themselves and their

brethren in the exile… when they said, ‘And a redeemer shall come to

Zion’—at that moment fire descended from heaven upon the abomination in

Jerusalem, and made it into a great ruin, and this was a sign and symbol of

the redemption.” See Aescoly, Jewish Messianic Movements, p. 329.


58. Ya’ari, Letters, p. 165.


59. Ya’ari, Letters, p. 165. To emphasize that God acts in order to hasten

the redemption, the authors open with a literary allusion to a passage in

the book of Esther that they consider an instance of divine intervention

for the sake of the Jews: “On that night the sleep of the king was

disturbed” (Esther 6:1; according to rabbinic interpretation, the “king”

referred to is God).


60. Dov Rabin, “The History of the Jews in Grodno,” in Encyclopedia of the

Jewish Diaspora (Jerusalem: Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora, 1977),

vol. ix, p. 43. [Hebrew]


61. Ignacy Schipper, Polish-Lithuanian Jews in Palestine (Wieden: Moriah,

1917), p. 10. [Polish]


62. Tuvia Preschel, “R. Jacob Pollack’s Aliya to Jerusalem,” in Shaul

Israeli, Norman Lamm, and Yitzhak Raphael, eds., Jubilee Volume in Honor of

Our Teacher Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook,

1984), vol. ii, pp. 1124-1129. [Hebrew]


63. Thus, according to the Zohar: “In 66 the King Messiah will be revealed

in the land of the Galilee.” Zohar, Vayera 478.


64. Many of the immigrants from Spain who came to Safed had been weavers

and dyers. They saw Safed, located near water sources in the Galilee, as a

suitable place to continue in their professions, as it was relatively close

to their contacts in the Salonikan clothing trade and was safer than other

places in Palestine, including Jerusalem. The Ottoman army protected the

city from attacks by the surrounding Bedouin tribes, and in 1549 the

authorities added to the city’s security by building a wall around it.


65. Ya’ari, Letters, p. 184.


66. Apart from R. Jacob Berab’s principal reasons for renewing the semicha,

restoring the Sanhedrin was meant to solve a practical halachic problem

that fell within the jurisdiction of the Sanhedrin alone. The inhabitants

of Safed included a number of forced converts from Spain and Portugal, who

wished to atone for their past as Conversos. This atonement could be

accomplished only by administering the punishment of lashes, which the

Sanhedrin alone could dispense.


67. R. Isaiah Horowitz, Shnei Luhot Habrit (Haifa: Mechon Yad Rama, 1992),

vol. 2, pp. 250-251. [Hebrew] The verse cited is Song of Songs 2:12.


68. R.J. Zwi Werblowsky, “R. Solomon Halevi Alkabetz’s Tikun Tefilot,”

Sefunot 6 (1962), pp. 152-155.


69. They based their calculations mainly on a verse in the book of Daniel

that alludes to the time of the end of days: “Fortunate is he who waits and

reaches 1,335 days” (Daniel 12:11); and on the talmudic statement

attributing messianic significance to the notarikon of Jacob’s blessing to

his sons: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff

from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, and the homage of the peoples be

his” (Genesis 49:10). According to the messianic calculations, these two

sources point towards the 335th year of the sixth millennium—the numerical

value of “Shiloh.” On messianic expectations for the year 1575 (5335), see

David Tamar, “The Messianic Expectations in Italy for the Year 1575,”

Sefunot 2 (1958), pp. 61-85.


70. According to the tradition, the order of redemption will parallel in

reverse the order of exile. Hence, since on the eve of the destruction of

the Temple the Sanhedrin was removed from its place there, and subsequently

reconvened at various locations until it reached its final seat in

Tiberias, the redemption is destined to begin in Tiberias. From there, it

will progressively expand until it reaches Jerusalem and the Temple is

rebuilt: “And we have a tradition that it shall first return in Tiberias,

and from there they shall be relocated to the Temple.” Maimonides, Mishneh

Tora, Laws of Sanhedrin 14:12.


71. Tamar, “Messianic Expectations,” pp. 63-65.


72. Mordechai Pachter, From Safed’s Hidden Treasures (Jerusalem: Zalman

Shazar, 1994), pp. 103-105. [Hebrew] Cf. Uriel Hed, “Turkish Documents from

Ottoman Archives Concerning Safed Jews in the Sixteenth Century,” Mehkerei

Eretz Yisrael 2 (1955), pp. 169, 174-175.


73. Later sources repeat this prediction. Thus, for example, the kabalist

R. Naftali Bachrach, author of Emek Hamelech, stated that in 1647 Ishmael’s

rights over the land of Israel, which he had enjoyed for observing the

commandment of circumcision, would come to an end. From this point on, the

rights of the Jewish people would be acknowledged, and would be realized by

the Messiah at the end of days: “And even today we await God, and he shall

pour his spirit upon us from above… and the land of Israel will be taken

from the Ishmaelites, as it is written, ‘I will multiply him exceedingly…

and I will make him a great nation,’ which [referring to the word asimenu,

‘I will make him’] is numerically equivalent to 407. That is, until that

time of ‘I will make him,’ he [Ishmael] will be a great nation. And he

shall be paid for the merit of the commandment of circumcision… and in the

year 5408 [1648], the Messiah will take the kingship from him…. And this is

the secret of ‘This [zot] is my resting place forever’ [Psalms 132:14].”

See Naftali Bachrach, Emek Hamelech (Amsterdam: Immanuel Benvenisti, 1648),

p. 33b; and regarding the year 5408, see ibid., pp. 68a, 79c.


74. The numerical value of the word “Heth” is 408.


75. The word for “this” is hazot, of which the numerical value is 5,408.


76. Zohar, Toldot 139. The passage is found in the earliest manuscript of

the Zohar, from the fourteenth century. See Gershom Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi:

The Mystical Messiah 1626-1676 (Princeton: Princeton, 1973), p. 88. The

verses quoted in the above passage are Genesis 23:3 and Leviticus 25:13.


77. Horowitz, Shnei Luhot Habrit, 65, vol. 2, pp. 478-479.


78. Horowitz, Shnei Luhot Habrit, 261, vol. 1, p. 86. It is surprising that

scholars of Horowitz have not at all noticed this source and do not

attribute messianic significance to his aliya.


79. Horowitz, Shnei Luhot Habrit, 291, vol. 1, p. 97. It follows from this

that Horowitz wrote these words when he was already living in Jerusalem.


80. Ya’ari, Letters, p. 216. We do not have exact figures for the Sephardi

population of Jerusalem, but in his letter Horowitz mentions that in

Jerusalem there were more than five hundred “important Sephardi

householders, and every day their number grows, thank God.” If Horowitz is

referring only to wealthy family heads, then one is speaking here of at

least 2,000 members of the Sephardi elite, apart from the numerous poor

people from this community who lived in Jerusalem. Regarding the Ashkenazi

population, no figures exist. Ya’ari, Letters, p. 220.


81. Horowitz sent this letter to his wife’s relative, R. Shmuel ben

Meshullam Feibusch, chief rabbi of the Krakow community. An important

discussion of this letter was related at a lecture by the historian Avraham

David at Bar-Ilan University on December 31, 2000; the lecture is soon to

be published. My thanks to David for allowing me to use his article prior

to publication. In this paper, David does not deal with the connection

between messianic expectations for the year 5408 and Horowitz’s aliya.


82. Avraham David, “R. Isaiah Horowitz’s Letter from Jerusalem After the

Year 5538,” unpublished. [Hebrew]


83. David, “Horowitz’s Letter.”


84. See David, “Horowitz’s Letter.” This section of the full letter was

published in its day by Joseph Solomon Delmedigo of Candia in the

introduction to his book Novlot Hochma (1631).


85. See R. Haim Vital, Etz Hayim (Jerusalem, 1973), introduction to Sha’ar



86. According to Jacob Elbaum and Elliot Wolfson, the main reason for

Horowitz’s aliya was his wish to study the teachings of Lurianic Kabala

more deeply, without the limitations that were placed on its study outside

of the land of Israel. See Jacob Elbaum, “The Land of Israel in Isaiah

Horowitz’s Shnei Luhot Habrit,” in Aviezer Ravitzky, ed., The Land of

Israel in Modern Jewish Thought (Jerusalem: Yad Yitzhak Ben-Tzvi, 1998), p.

94; cf. Elliot R. Wolfson, “The Influence of Luria on the Shelah,”

Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought 10, 1992, p. 430. However, it seems

that this activity too was directed towards a messianic purpose: The

realization of the redemption in the year 5400, which Horowitz wished to

ensure by uncovering Luria’s writings.


87. The amount of money extracted from the Jews by the local rulers during

the period of Ottoman rule was unparalleled in any other place of Jewish

settlement during that period. R. Samuel de Ozida wrote: “What we have in

our day is that of all the places under the rule of the king… there is no

country in which there are so many taxes and levies on the Jews as in the

land of Israel, and particularly Jerusalem. And if money were not being

sent from all over the diaspora to pay off the taxes and levies, the Jews

would be unable to live there because of the abundance of taxes.” R. Samuel

de Ozida, Lehem Dim’a (Venice: Daniel Zenitti, 1600), commentary on

Lamentations 1:1.


88. Presumably, the rapid growth of the Jewish population in Jerusalem

after 1620 upset the Muslims. Eventually they restricted the number of

Jewish inhabitants in the city, and to this end even ordered the expulsion

from Jerusalem of Jews who were already living there. “What the rulers

demanded of the inhabitants of Jerusalem was that whoever had come to live

there during the past three years should leave. And they again [later] said

that whoever had come during the past ten years [should leave].” Eliezer

Rivlin, ed., The Ruins of Jerusalem (Jerusalem: Salomon, 1928), p. 45.

[Hebrew] According to the author of The Ruins of Jerusalem, the Muslims’

fear of the return of the Jews to Jerusalem was one of the main reasons for

the persecution and expulsion of the Jews of the city: “When a man rose

against us who gathered together empty and impudent people… and they took

counsel together to cut off the name of Israel from the holy city…. When

they saw the ingathering of the exiles of our brethren from East and West,

from North and South, going up to Jerusalem…” Rivlin, Ruins, p. 49.


89. Among other things, they denounced the Jews for violating the

prohibition against building synagogues. In return for not razing the

synagogues, the Muslims demanded ever higher “penalties” to be paid by the

Jewish community. Rivlin, Ruins, p. 51.


90. Rivlin, Ruins, p. 14.


91. See Michael Ish Shalom, Christian Travels in the Holy Land (Tel Aviv:

Am Oved, 1979), pp. 333, 341. [Hebrew]


92. Minna Rozen, ed., The Ruins of Jerusalem (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv

University, 1981), p. 87. [Hebrew] The quotations are a combination of

verses of consolation from Jeremiah 32:15 and Zechariah 8:5.


93. Rozen, Ruins, pp. 81-82.


94. Rozen, Ruins, pp. 82-83.


95. Simon Bernfeld, The Book of Tears (Berlin: Eshkol, 1925), vol. iii, p.

140. [Hebrew] The verse cited is Leviticus 16:3.


96. Avraham Neubauer, Seder Hahachamim Vekorot Hayamim (Oxford: Clarendon,

1888), p. 149. On the expectations for the year 5400, see also Joseph

Hacker, “Despair of the Redemption and Messianic Hopes in the Writings of

R. Solomon Halevi of Salonika,” Tarbitz 39 (1970), pp. 195-213.


97. The word for “thus” is zot; for “thorns,” dardar. Both have a numerical

value of 408, as does “Heth.” The word for “this,” hazot, can be readily

understood as having a value of 5,408.


98. Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, pp. 103-198.


99. Yehuda Liebes, “Sabbatean Messianism,” Pe’amim 40 (1989), pp. 4-20.


100. Benzion Dinur attributed great importance to this aliya, because in

his opinion it marked the beginning of the period of “realistic” aliyot,

which constituted the basis for the new Jewish presence in the land of

Israel. See Dinur, Historical Writings, vol. i, pp. 19-68.


101. Meir Benayahu, “The ‘Holy Brotherhood’ of R. Judah Hasid and Their

Settlement in Jerusalem,” Sefunot 3-4 (1959-1960), pp. 131-182.


102. In the wake of Shabtai Tzvi’s conversion to Islam, some of his

followers developed the idea that his apostasy was meant to elevate the

“holy sparks” within Islam, as only the descent of the Messiah himself to

the “shells” would be able to lift up the “sparks.” After the Messiah had

fulfilled this purpose he would be revealed again, forty years after his

conversion; that is, in the year 1706.


103. The disciples of R. Elijah of Vilna, the “Vilna Gaon,” who came up to

Jerusalem a century later, refer in their writing in a very positive way to

R. Judah Hasid, using extraordinary terms of honor. The disciples of the

Gaon were aware of the fact that some of the immigrants during this period

were Sabbateans. See “The Appointments of Emissaries from the Ashkenazic

Community in Jerusalem for the Building of the Hurvah from 1837,” in Pinhas

Ben-Tzvi Grayevski, ed., From the Archives of Jerusalem (Jerusalem: Tzion,

1930), vol. 2. [Hebrew]


104. It may be that R. Judah’s circle of immigrants to Palestine had seen

5500 as the date of redemption from the outset, and not only

retrospectively. Even such a confirmed Sabbatean as Gedaliah Hayun stated

that: “You shall surely know that our rabbis said, ‘All the day he

laments’—that the Exile was the entire fifth millennium. And when we come

to the sixth millennium, the first five hundred years are called night… and

the latter five hundred years are called day… and the redemption is the

morning.” See Zalman Shazar, The Messianic Hope for the Year 5500

(Jerusalem: Magnes, 1970), p. 29 [Hebrew]; Shazar cites Nehemiah Hayun,

Divrei Nehemia 9a. I will discuss this issue at greater length elsewhere,

on the basis of new documents that I have uncovered in the archive of the

community of Livorno, in Italy.


105. R. Haim ben Atar, Or Hahayim, commentary on Leviticus 6:2.


106. Immanuel Hai Ricchi writes concerning this: “According to the words of

R. Shimon bar Yohai [the putative author of the Zohar], in 5541 and

two-thirds, the mountain of the house of the Eternal will have been

established.” See Immanuel Hai Ricchi, Yosher Levav (Amsterdam, 1742), p.

37b. The composition of the manuscript itself was completed in Aram-Zovah,

in modern Syria, in 1737.


107. Morgenstern, Mysticism and Messianism, p. 64 n. 76.


108. Morgenstern, Mysticism and Messianism, p. 39.


109. Jewish officials of Istanbul wrote in a letter early in 5501 (late

1740): “Praise to his great name, several benches have been added and

several new yeshivot established in the holy city; such a thing has not

been since the day of the exile from the land…. Everyone is ascending to

the land of Israel, and the multitude of the people has been the reason for

the doubling and redoubling of the expenses. Due to the large numbers of

homes in the holy city, whose like has not been since the day of the exile

from the land… sustenance has become expensive in the holy city….”

Morgenstern: Mysticism and Messianism, p. 40 nn. 8-9.


110. In Jerusalem in 1742, R. Haim ben Atar established Yeshivat Kneset

Yisrael, whose students engaged in, among other things, the study of

esoteric teachings and mystical practices.


111. Adam Teller, “The Tradition from Slutsk Concerning the Early Days of

the Ba’al Shem Tov,” in David Assaf, Joseph Dan, and Immanuel Etkes, eds.,

Studies in Hasidism (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1999), pp. 15-38. [Hebrew]


112. Morgenstern, Mysticism and Messianism, p. 180. On the messianic

motivations for aliya and mystical activity of R. Yehiel Michel “Magid” of

Zloczow, on Shavuot 5537 [1777], see Mor Altshuler, R. Meshullam Feibusch

Heller and His Place in Early Hasidism, doctoral dissertation, Hebrew

University of Jerusalem, 1994. [Hebrew] Cf. also Arie Morgenstern, “An

Attempt to Hasten the Redemption,” Jewish Action 58:1 (1997), pp. 38-44.


113. Morgenstern, Mysticism and Messianism, p. 182.


114. Morgenstern, Mysticism and Messianism, pp. 263-274.


115. Introduction of R. Elijah’s sons to Shulhan Aruch: Orah Hayim (Shklov,

1803); cf. Morgenstern, Mysticism and Messianism, pp. 275-306.


116. Arie Morgenstern, Messianism and the Settlement of the Land of Israel

(Jerusalem: Yad Yitzhak Ben-Tzvi, 1985). [Hebrew]


117. Sanhedrin 99a. Cf. Morgenstern, Messianism, p. 38.


118. Zohar, Vayera 445-449, and Sulam ad loc.


119. Morgenstern, Messianism, p. 55 n. 92.


120. Morgenstern, Messianism, p. 58 n. 104.


121. Morgenstern, Messianism, p. 75 n. 39, and pp. 66-83.


122. The letter is in the archive of Manfred Lehmann of New York. I am

grateful to the family for permission to publish this excerpt.


123. Morgenstern, Messianism, p. 133.


124. Morgenstern, Messianism, pp. 156-159. In kabalistic terminology, “the

rising of the divine Presence from the dust” refers to activity of

messianic preparation and is symbolic of the redemption.


125. Ya’ari, Letters, pp. 353-354. See also Arie Morgenstern, “Messianic

Concepts and Settlement in the Land of Israel,” in Marc Saperstein, ed.,

Essential Papers on Messianic Movements and Personalities in Jewish History

(New York: New York University, 1992), pp. 433-455; and Arie Morgenstern,

“Symposium: Messianic Concepts and Settlement in the Land of Israel,” in

Richard I. Cohen, ed., Vision and Conflict in the Holy Land (Jerusalem: Yad

Yitzhak Ben-Tzvi, 1985), pp. 141-189.


126. Sanhedrin 98a. The verse cited is Ezekiel 36:8.


127. Ya’ari, Letters, p. 341.


128. Morgenstern, Messianism, p. 193 n. 179.


129. Yisrael Klausner, Zionist Writings of Rabbi Kalischer (Jerusalem:

Mosad Harav Kook, 1947), p. 13. [Hebrew] Cf. Morgenstern, Redemption

through Return, pp. 182-185.


130. Jacob Katz, “The Historical Image of R. Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer,” Shivat

Tzion 2-3 (1951-1952), p. 28; cf. Morgenstern, Redemption through Return,

pp. 182-185.


131. Tzvi Karagila, “R. Samuel ben R. Israel Peretz Heller Describes the

Sack of Safed, 1834,” Katedra 27 (1983), pp. 112-114.


132. Yehoshua Ben-Aryeh, A City Reflected in Time: Jerusalem in the

Nineteenth Century (Jerusalem: Yad Yitzhak Ben-Tzvi, 1977), vol. i, p. 395.



Copyright © 2002 The Shalem Center. All rights reserved. Opinions expressed

 herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of

                        The Shalem Center or Azure.