The centrality of the land of Israel finds expression in every facet of Jewish literature, practice and thought. The rabbis often encouraged Jews from the diaspora to immigrate to the holy land. For all its idealistic and patriotic advantages, however, a decision to “make aliyyah” could often be a source of friction, especially if not all members of a family were willing to take it on, or if it involved unreasonable risks or expenses.
When a husband and wife disagreed about moving to or from Israel, the law formulated in the Mishnah generally favoured the spouse who intended to dwell in the holy land.
In the thirteenth century, Rabbi Meir ben Baruch of Rothenburg was asked about a father who was trying to prevent his son from immigrating to Israel. The father argued that the commandment to honour one’s father and mother should take precedence over the religious virtue of dwelling in the holy land. Rabbi Meir replied that what we really have here is a case where the son had to choose between obeying God and obeying his parents—and in such instances, the Torah requires us to comply with the divine will.
In a similar vein, he issued a ruling that a husband can compel his unwilling wife to accompany him on aliyyah under threats of divorce and forfeiting the benefits of her marriage contract. In this he was following the tradition of the Jerusalem Talmud that differed from the prevalent view of the Babylonian Talmud. Rabbi Meir insisted that there was no negative moral or religious stigma to such coercion.
In various places in his voluminous writings he stressed the great spiritual advantages of living in the land of Israel, such as the opportunities that it provides for forgiveness of sins by virtue of the fulfilment of precepts that can only be observed on its soil. His personal practices as recorded by his disciples included a custom of kneeling toward Jerusalem every time the city was mentioned in prayers. Every night before going to bed he would recite Psalm 122 with its effusive praises of Jerusalem; and he observed several other liturgical customs derived from the ancient Israeli rite.
There were important figures at the time, especially among the German Pietist movement (Ḥasidei Ashkenaz), who saw matter differently and were were opposed to the prospect of emigration to the promised land in their generations. Their concern was fuelled by a combination of factors. They cited the talmudic passages (the same ones that are adduced today by sects like the Neturei Karta) that speak of Israel’s “oath” not to hasten the redemption by migrating en masse to the holy land; and they displayed a palpable fear that imperfect mortals could not live up to the sublime standards of purity and holiness that are demanded in the sacred precincts of Israel.
True, the ancient religious texts were quite persistent about urging Jews to live in our homeland and not to abandon it; however, for various reasons, those exhortations were understood as not applying to the Jews of medieval Europe. A similar attitude found its way into the Tosafot commentary to the Talmud, which noted how perilous the journey could be and cited Rabbi Hayyim HaKohen’s assessment: “Currently there is no requirement to dwell in the land of Israel because there are several commandments that are applicable in the land and several punishments for transgressing them.”
In keeping with the pattern set by such distinguished lovers of Zion as Rabbis Moses Nahmanides and Judah Halevi, Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg did not confine himself to verbal or theoretical praises of the holy land. In the summer of 1286 he set forth on a personal journey. The precise details of this ill-fated venture are at times vague, and it is difficult to untangle the documented facts from pious legends spun by later authors.
Similar historical questions surround the migration of “three hundred great rabbis” from France and England in 1211 according to a sixteenth-century chronicle. Although reliable documents verify that some prominent French sages did arrive in Jerusalem, the number is clearly an exaggeration and we are unsure as to their underlying religious motives or practical expectations.
Rabbi Meir assembled a group of family members, including his sons and daughters and their spouses, in hope of embarking by sea from Lombardy, which would have served as a rallying point for other groups with similar objectives. This provoked a royal edict calling for confiscation of the property of Jews from five different German communities—which suggests that there were at least a hundred participants in the project.
The plan was overturned when the clandestine travelers were recognized by an apostate who reported them to the bishop of Basel, at which point they were arrested and turned over to the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf I. Evidently, Rabbi Meir’s group was large and influential enough that its absence would have created a tangible deficit in Rudolf’s fiscal resources. The rabbi remained incarcerated for the remainder of his life at the castle of Ensisheim in Alsace. A later tradition of questionable veracity has it that he forbade the community to pay the ransom.
There is much speculation about the motivations that fueled Rabbi Meir’s decision to migrate to Israel at that particular time. Some have tried to trace his inspiration to mystical currents; however his was not a particularly mystical personality—and in any case, as we have seen, the most influential mystical pietistic movement in his environment was quite opposed to aliyyah.
There is perhaps a greater likelihood that the pilgrims were imbued with messianic fervor. The late thirteenth century was, after all, the final phase of the Crusades, and Jews understandably discerned eschatological significance in the way that the mighty empires of Ishmael and Esau were embroiled in a prolonged military conflict over the land of Israel. Rabbi Meir had actually remarked that the inability of any foreign nation to maintain a foothold in the holy land was a consoling proof of God’s providence over the land and its legitimate proprietors.
But such expressions of religion-based motives do not necessarily preclude the concrete realities of politics or economics There were some very practical considerations that made this a particularly opportune time for Jews to get out of Germany and seek a better life in the holy land. Their political freedoms had suffered a serious setback when Rudolf I declared the Jews “servi camerae” [“serfs of the treasury”]. The burning of the Talmud in 1242 (for which Rabbi Meir composed a moving elegy) was a harbinger of the intense persecutions that lay in store for the Jewish religion in Europe.
On the other hand, the impending elimination of the last Christian holdouts and the consolidation of Muslim rule in Jerusalem (Saladin had previously extended an invitation to the Jews to return to Jerusalem) would have made the holy city appear very attractive at a time when conditions in European lands were becoming increasingly inhospitable to German Jews. Thus, from a very practical perspective Rabbi Meir and his confederates might well have recognized a strategic window of opportunity to abandon Germany and set their sights for Israel. And the project might well have succeeded had it not been impeded by that unfortunate encounter with the apostate in Lombardy.
As was noted previously, Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg was scrupulous to end each day with a recitation of Psalm 122, which contains such moving passages as: “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord. Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem... Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee.”
The sentiments expressed in that text can serve as a fitting statement of how the love of Zion inspired Rabbi Meir and the like-minded Jews across the generations who undertook personal sacrifices and hardships in their resolve to take up residence on the soil of their cherished homeland.
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