When we think of aliyah to Eretz Yisrael, most of us think of a movement that began in the late 1800s and continues until today. Yet over 800 years ago a group of 300 rabbanim from England and France left their homes to settle the land of Eretz Yisrael, and during the centuries that followed other groups would try to do the same. What motivated these early “pioneers”? And what became of them and their efforts? It’s a fascinating story that deserves to be more widely known.
A World Overturned
The news must have spread like wildfire. In the year 1187, a Muslim army led by Saladin conquered Jerusalem, thereby ending Crusader rule over the holy city. The large and golden Christian cross that the Crusaders had put on top of the Dome of the Rock was pulled down, and the Christians were escorted out of the city, after paying a ransom.
The Christians looked upon their defeat with despair, but the Jews had reason to rejoice. They had been barred from settling in Jerusalem while the Crusaders were in power. The new Muslim rulers, on the other hand, encouraged the Jews to return. Is it any wonder, then, there were those who looked upon this shift of power as a precursor to the messianic era?
This belief that there were even greater things still to come was strengthened by a “prophecy” in circulation at the time that the year 4986 (1226) would bring with it the arrival of Elijah the Prophet and the start of the ingathering of the exiles. In 4993 (1233), or at least by the year 5000 (1240), Mashiach ben David would arrive.
Although the majority of Jews living in Europe merely talked about the return of the Jews to Jerusalem and Eretz Yisrael, small groups began to take action. In 1211, a group of Torah scholars from England and France made the long trek to Eretz Yisrael in what is today known as “the aliyah of the 300 rabbis.” Included in the group were Rav Shimson of Shantz, one of France’s leading scholars, and Provence’s Rav Yonatan HaKohen of Lunel.
Other groups arrived from Europe, North Africa and Egypt. We don’t know much about this early attempt at an organized aliyah, but it’s presumed that many of the newcomers settled in Jerusalem. However, they weren’t allowed to live there for long. During the Sixth Crusade, which began in 1228, the Muslims and Christians worked out an agreement whereby they shared Jerusalem between them. Under the terms of the agreement Jews were forbidden to live in the city.
Many Jews settled in Christian-held Acre, but here as well war and hardship took its toll. When the Muslims captured Acre in 1291, the Jewish community was destroyed.
Let Us Go Up To The Land
During the 1400s, world events, both real and imagined, once again made it seem as though the messianic era was just around the corner. Spain’s thousand-year-old Jewish community had been nearly destroyed by a series of violent attacks that took place in 1391, and the survivors never fully recovered their previous positions of wealth and prestige. The late 1300s and early 1400s were also a time of pogroms and expulsion for several other European communities, including kehillos in France and Austria. When the Ottomans captured Constantinople, the capital of the Christian Eastern Roman Empire, in 1453, it roused hopes among many Jews that the era of Christian dominance would come to an end—and that the triumph of Judaism as the true religion wouldn’t be far behind.
A rumor that the Ten Lost Tribes had finally been found added fuel to these messianic hopes. During this age of exploration, there were many rumors about the distant and exotic lands of China and India. When so much else was strange, it didn’t seem at all impossible that the Ten Lost Tribes would have been living in one of those faraway lands, as oblivious of the existence of their brethren in Europe as European Jews were of them.