Photo Credit:
Dovid Hamelech

 

1648 and After

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According to the Zohar, 5408 (1648) was going to be a momentous year: Mashiach would come and the dead would be resurrected.

Constantinople
Constantinople

Instead the year brought two disasters for the Jewish people. The first was the Chmielniki massacres, where hundreds of thousands of Jews were viciously murdered over a period of two years. The second was the emergence of Shabbatei Tzvi, who made his first claim that he was Mashiach in that year; that claim would be repudiated when this false messiah converted to Islam in 1666.

But during the years before that traumatic year, dozens of Torah scholars and their families arrived in Eretz Yisrael, including Rav Avraham Azulai of Morocco and Reb Yeshaya HaLevi Horowitz, the Shelah HaKodesh.

The Shelah arrived in Eretz Yisrael in 1621. After a short stay in Safed, he moved to Jerusalem, where he was pleased to see that a flourishing Jewish community existed. Yet once again the wheel turned. When Muhammed ibn Farukh became the ruler of the city, he extorted huge sums of money from the Jewish community. Those who couldn’t pay their debts were imprisoned and tortured. Some, like the Shelah, fled to Safed, and so the Jewish population of Jerusalem, which had included about 3,000 souls in 1624, dwindled to just a few hundred by the end of ibn Farukh’s rule.

Speculation about the coming of Mashiach continued during the 18th century, with kabbalists such as Rav Emmanuel Chai Ricchi estimating the Final Redemption would take place sometime during the years 5500 (1740) and 5541 (1781). And, indeed, records show an upsurge in aliyah during that time.

This time Tiberius received an influx of new immigrants, and for a good reason: in 1740, the Ottoman rulers invited Rav Chaim Abulafia of Izmir to come to Tiberius and rebuild the city, which had fallen upon hard times. That’s not to say that Jerusalem was neglected; there as well the population increased and new shuls and yeshivos were built.

Among the well-known rabbanim who arrived during this time period were the Ramchal, Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato, author of Mesilat Yesharim; Rav Chaim Attar, the Ohr HaChayim; Reb Elazer Rokeach, who had been chief rabbi of Brody and Amsterdam; Rav Shalom Sharabi, who founded Jerusalem’s Beit El Yeshiva; and Rav Gershon of Kitov, the brother-in-law of the Baal Shem Tov.

The Baal Shem Tov also tried to travel to Eretz Yisrael, but his attempts were not met with success. But between the years 1740-1781, many chassidim did successfully make the journey. Reb Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk was the leader of a group of about 300 chassidim, along with Reb Avraham Kalisker. The group eventually settled in Tiberius and in 1786 they built a shul that is still standing.

The next big wave of immigration came in the years leading up to 5600 (1840). According to Rabi Dosa (Sanhedrin 99a), the messianic era would begin during the last 400 years of the sixth millennium, or around 1840. The Zohar also suggested that Hashem would remember His people during the 600th year of the sixth millennium. The result was that tens of thousands of Jews poured into Eretz Yisrael during this time, including disciples of the Vilna Gaon.

And once again their resolve was tested. Plagues and other illness took the lives of many. An earthquake in 1837 almost completely destroyed Safed and took the lives of about 4,000 of the city’s Jews. There was also heavy damage in Tiberius. In addition to these natural disasters, the Muslim authorities and the Arab population were growing increasingly hostile and attacks against Jews became more frequent.

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