A beautiful handwritten document I acquired this week gives a glimpse of the state of the Jewish community of Safed in 1831, when the talmidim of the Vilna Gaon rejuvenated the ancient community. While the Vilna Gaon’s attempt to reach Eretz Yisrael was not successful, and he was forced to return home in the middle of his journey, many of his disciples, taking his cue, had succeeded. He encouraged his students to travel and settle the land, and several groups totaling several hundred families traveled and settled the land. The first large group of disciples was led by R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov, who arrived in Elul 1808, in Haifa, and after a brief stint in Tiberias, settled in Safed. In 1809 a group led by R. Yisrael of Shklov joined the former group in Safed. R. Yisrael became a leader of the community and its spokesman.
This document was written on behalf of a shada”r, (i.e. shelucha d’rabanan – rabbinical agent), an emissary sent by the Safed community to procure funds for the Jewish community. The letters were to be taken by the emissary Tzvi Hirsch ben Yehudah on his travels overseas to collect funds. The document was signed by the leaders of the community R. Chaim of Pinsk, R. Israel of Shklov, R. Aryeh Leib ben Yoseph Leon, R. Shlomo Zalman ben Zev Wolf Hakohen, R. Nathan Nota ben R. Menachem Mendel, R. Nathan Nota ben R. Sa’adiya and R. Aryeh ben Yerachmiel Ne’eman.
The rabbis describe the yishuv, “which was founded by the disciples of Tana Dvei Eliyahu, our genius rabbi … Rabbi Eliyahu Ha’chassid … in both communities” (Jerusalem and Safed). Among much else, the rabbis write about the greatness of the mitzvah, which is threefold. That is, the rich man’s donation will observe three mitzvot simultaneously: Talmud Torah of the many, saving a life, and the settlement of the holy land. They promise the rich man a special promise: “We shall pray for you and all the members of your family … for the souls of our holy forefathers, the nevi’im, amoraim and all Divinely holy people.”