Photo Credit:
Dovid Hamelech

For all these reasons, organized groups of Jews, including scholars and ordinary people, began to move to Eretz Yisrael, in expectation of the imminent arrival of Mashiach. This time, though, the majority of the European Jewish immigrants came from Spain and Italy. While we don’t know how many Jews left their homes, apparently there were enough of them to attract notice.

Acre Harbor
Acre Harbor

In Spain, there were many members of the community who did not agree with settling Eretz Yisrael before Mashiach had come. For instance, in a letter from the kehillah in Saragossa to the kehillah in Castile, the writer, fearing the aliyah movement would bring suffering on all Jews, complains about the large number of families who were saying, “Let us go up to the land”—and doing it!

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In Italy, opposition came from the Christian rulers. The Pope issued an order forbidding sea captains from transporting Jews to Eretz Yisrael in 1428. From both Venice and Sicily came similar decrees.

While we know little about the aliyah of the 300 rabbanim, we do know quite a bit about the Jews who made aliyah during the 1400s. Not only did they build a new synagogue in Jerusalem on Rechov HaYehudim – they got around the Muslim prohibition by claiming they were only rebuilding on an ancient Jewish site—but they even tried to purchase the site of King David’s Tomb on Har Tzion. Since at that time the site was owned by Franciscan monks, the religious authorities back in Italy were alarmed by this display of Jewish chutzpah.

Contemporary reports state that there were at least 500 Jews living in Jerusalem and perhaps as many as 1,200 by the mid-1400s. But once again people’s hopes were dashed. By the year 1474 the new shul on Rechov HaYehudim had been destroyed, and the community had become impoverished by heavy taxation, which had made most of the Jews sell their property to pay off their debts. While the Mameluke rulers didn’t go so far as to expel the Jews from Jerusalem, the harsh taxation decrees put a damper on aliyah for the next few decades.

 

The Safed Century

After the Ottomans conquered Eretz Yisrael in 1516, they extended a welcoming hand to the Jews who had been exiled from Spain. Jews from both Western and Eastern Europe also immigrated, with some motivated by new rumors of the imminent arrival of Mashiach and others by the religious intolerance that continued to plague Europe.

While some settled in Jerusalem, many were attracted to a bustling city located in the Galil, Safed. Safed was popular for two reasons. According to the Zohar, Mashiach would make an appearance in this town before traveling on to Jerusalem. A more prosaic reason was that Safed was undergoing an economic boom and its flourishing textile industry provided jobs for just about anyone who wanted to work.

The spiritual and the material would soon become intertwined when Safed became an important center of Jewish learning. Scholars such as Rav Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch, Rav Shlomo Alkabetz, the kabbalist and poet who penned Lecha Dodi, and Rav Moshe Cordova, author of Tomer Devorah, were among the early settlers. According to tradition, the Arizal, Rav Yitzchak Luria, arrived in Safed in 1570, on the same day as Rabbi Cordova’s funeral. Although the Arizal would pass away just two years later, his impact on the development of Kabbalah would make Safed forever known as the City of Kabbalah.

During the 1500s, Safed grew from a city of about 300 Jewish families to more than 20,000. But the city’s prosperity began to decline toward the end of the century, when cheap woolen goods from European lands flooded the market. Thus, during the next century new immigrants once again began to flock to Jerusalem.

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