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Emissaries from the Holy Land or Shlukhei D’rakhmana

August 13, 2017


I remember during my college days, I loved browsing through the well-stocked book stacks of my Hillel Rabbi’s library. My fingers ran across a row of books arranged by topical order and they fell on an English translation of the travelogue of the very colorful 18th-century Sephardic scholar and bibliophile, Hayyim Joseph David Azulai

Azulai was an unusually cosmopolitan Rabbinic scholar for his time and place. Deeply Kabbalistic and traditional, he traveled the world and marveled at its sites. Azulai was of a class of scholars from the land of Israel dubbed “shadarim”. The term is an abbreviation of the Hebrew “shelukhei D’rakhmana”, meaning the emissaries of the merciful. These emissaries were sent from the often impoverished communities of Torah scholars (in Azulai’s case the Sephardic community of Hebron) to the Jewish Diaspora in order to raise funds.

Azulai traversed an impressive number of countries in his two tours as Shadar. He recorded many of his impressions of the people he met and the places he saw in a journal which was probably not meant for publication. Be it as it may, the document was eventually published several times and more recently in an English translation. Back to my encounter with the Hillel Rabbi. I remarked how interesting and colorful a figure Azulai was. The Rabbi -who incidentally is Sephardic-retorted that he was indeed remarkable but “have you read his experiences trying to raise money from various Jewish communities? he was, in essence, basically a “schnorrer!” (a slightly derogatory Yiddish term for an itinerant beggar).

This ancient conversation came to my mind as I was reading Matthias B. Lehman’s very informative book EMISSARIES FROM THE HOLY LAND; THE SEPHARDIC DIASPORA AND THE PRACTICE OF PAN-JUDAISM IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY

The book endeavors to provide a comprehensive portrait of the often convoluted and complicated network of Jewish philanthropy and beneficence vis-a-vis the Jewish communities of the Land of Israel (referred to by later historians as “The Old Yishuv”) and the Jewish communities of the Diaspora. It is a story of divisiveness and interconnectedness; modernity and fierce traditionalism and of center and periphery.

The early modern period saw a reshuffling of large parts of the “Jewish world”. As Elisheva Carlebach put it, “pieces of a cultural mosaic that had been placed precisely and not moved for centuries were suddenly shaken up and scattered about in entirely new combinations”.

The “shaking up” was chiefly a result of wars, massacres and mass expulsions. The expulsions of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula at the end of the 15th century and the massacres of Jews in mid 17th century Poland brought many Jews from different backgrounds into contact with each other for the first time.

Jacob Katz in his Tradition and Crisis postulates that “it is doubtful there ever was a time since the decline of the Roman Empire when Jewry’s political organization was still centralized in which contacts between Jewish groups was as intense as in this period”.

One of the locations of this point of contact was the Jewish communities in Ottoman-controlled Palestine or as the Jews traditionally referred to it, Eretz Yisrael (Land of Israel).

This new somewhat new state of affairs created opportunities for cooperation, integration but also conflict.

Ottoman-ruled Palestine was something of a backwater province. Ruled by corrupt governors called pachas, the Jewish communities were not given too many incentives to flourish. Nonetheless, Israel continued to be the destination of many Jews. From pious scholars and repentant Sephardic Conversos, who wanted to dedicate their lives to living in The Holy Land, to elderly Italians or Ashkenazim who sought to spend their waning years in the shadow of the Temple ruins, the “Old Yishuv” was never stagnant.

Due to the fact that infrastructure was poor and corruption was rampant, poverty often reigned supreme. This necessitated a system whereby emissaries from various communities would undertake journeys in order to raise much-needed funds.

This state-of-affairs was not new to the early modern period; as Rabbi Azulai pointed out in his writings, the 15th century Italian Rabbi Joseph Colon already wrote in support of an emissary from the Holy Land (the earliest written evidence of this phenomenon, in fact, dates back to the second half of the 10th century). What was different this time is that the system became more centralized, somewhat organized, and entrenched.

The Jewish community who would come to play a pivotal rule in this centralized system was the Sephardic community of Istanbul. The impetus for the founding of the “Committee of Officials for the Land of Israel” was the appalling situation of the Ashkenazic community in Jerusalem in 1720 when the Muslim authorities destroyed the Synagogue and living quarters of the Ashkenazim. These particular Ashkenazim, who made up the majority of their kind in the city at that time, were disciples of a mystical Messianic Rabbi named Judah the Pious (not to be confused with his medieval namesake)

They had arrived en-masse to Jerusalem in 1700. By the second decade of the 18th century, they had so mismanaged their funds and incurred a mountain of debt that the entire enterprise was on the verge of imploding.

It was at that point that the Sephardic Jews of Istanbul swooped in to bail them out by founding the aforementioned organization (henceforth referred to by their Hebrew name, “Pekidei Kushta”. This factoid is ironic in light of the later discord between the two communities-chiefly the oft-cited accusation by Ashkenazim that the Sephardim only look out for their own).

It was only natural for the Istanbul Jews to assume responsibility-and, more importantly, to see results, as they were close in all senses to the main seat of imperial power.

Where did the bailout money come from? In large part from taxes imposed on the community (of Istanbul) members. To be sure, this was met with some resistance by certain community members, which necessitated a declaration from Istanbul’s leading Rabbis that anyone who shirks his payment duties “authority is granted to detain him and he can be taken by force…his refusal is the cause of the destruction of Jerusalem”. Fines and imprisonment were also options in a community that wielded significant autonomy.

The collections were not limited for the sake of Jerusalem alone, the other three “holy cities” of Hebron, Safed, and Tiberias, respectively, likewise hosted significant Jewish populations who desperately needed funds and they too would fall under the auspices of the Pekidei Kushta (to varying degrees).

The existence of the Pekidei Kushta sought to eliminate the potential for corruption and mismanagement that had too often characterized fund-raising missions in the past. In the new system that was devised, the Pekidei Kushta were authorized to handle all of the financial affairs of Jerusalem and they were to be given an exact accounting of funds raised and disbursed. The Pekidei Kushta would now be in charge of appointing and vetting the emissaries as well as provide them with the proper documentation and credentials.

Lehman also introduces the reader to another very important city in the context of our study, Livorno, Italy. Livorno (or Leghorn) was the busiest port in 18th century Italy, and a trading center with international connections. Settled by a prestigious community of wealthy Sephardic merchants, It served as a point of contact between Europe, the Ottoman Empire, and North Africa. Livorno was the destination of many a Shadar. The community was also a desired destination for any and all Jewish communities that found themselves in need (this was not limited to Jews, Lehman recounts a plea from the Convento Della Maddona to assist with a donation).

The arrangement between Jerusalem and Istanbul was far from smooth. In addition to the painstakingly slow pace of communication and differences in mentality, the Jerusalem community often proved uncooperative. Numbers often did not match (due to carelessness and also embezzlement) and repeated entreaties for clarification were all but ignored. Still, the Pekidei Kushta persisted.

There were also many cases of private individuals who sought to create an endowment in memory of a loved one or to perpetuate their own name. Ideally, this would be handled via the Pekidei Kushta but evidently, they too were not trusted by everyone. Lehman cites a case where a wealthy German Jew endowed 6,000 florins for the Jewish community of Hebron, half of the interest generated by this endowment was to go to the Ashkenazic community and the other half to the Sephardim. The anonymous donor gave strict instructions that the money be deposited with the community administration of either Istanbul or Livorno but not to the emissaries or the Pekidei Kushta because “he had heard what he had heard and seen what he had seen”.

What was life like for a typical emissary? Lehman explains.

An emissary would generally spend about three or four years away from his family. The hardships and dangers of journeying were plenty (at least one shadar was killed by highway robbers in Italy in the 1730s). At the same time there was a great material incentive in the job; they typically kept a third of the funds they collected.

Establishing trustworthiness was an important first step for any emissary. They needed to convince their hosts of the importance of their mission and establish a good rapport. This was not always the case; some shadarim would take the opportunity to berate their host communities for laxities in religious behavior or gruffly demand and even issue threats if communities did not meet their obligations.

This brings us back to my original anecdote. The Shadarim did not perceive themselves as “shnorrers” at all (although they were often perceived as such by their benefactors). Many of them saw themselves as the benefactors and the donors as recipients, what Lehman calls an “inversion of the relationship”. The emissaries maintained that it was in the merit of their settling the Land of Israel- with all its attendant hardships- that enabled the Jews of the Diaspora to reap material divine benefits. The very title that they granted themselves (emissaries of the merciful one, i.e emissaries from G-d) gives us an understanding of how they saw themselves.

By the mid 18th century, voices were heard calling for the abolishing of the shadar system. This would become a lightning rod for controversy and would not abate until the major aliyot of Jews from Eastern Europe. Many complained that the system resulted in a colossal waste of money, as the travel expenses and the remuneration ate up such a large portion of the funding. Yet others countered, in their defense, that the shadarim were not merely collectors of funds but fulfilled a much more important role, namely fostering and maintaining a connection and a love between the Land of Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora. Moreover, without the actual physical presence of a representative, hearts grew cold and pledged annual donations became less and less. The records do bear this out.

In addition to the roles of the shadarim enumerated above, many of them were also called upon to offer their opinions on Halakhic rulings. In some cases (as in the case of Jacob Safir), shadarim were credited with salvaging entire Jewish communities from assimilation and oblivion.

The early 20th century Zionist and historian, Nahum Slouschz, who visited North Africa, claimed “that a large part of the population of the interior of Africa owe their preservation of Judaism to the emissaries of the Holy Land and that it was the shadarim who were responsible for bringing to the inaccessible corners of the earth greetings from Zion, news of all things Jewish, memories of the past and hopes for a glorious future.”

Nonetheless, the critics of this system would include such tireless benefactors as the Portuguese Court Jew in Vienna, Baron Diego de Aguilar in Vienna and Sir Moses Montefiore in London. With the advent of Jewish newspapers, the Turkish Ladino newspaper El Tiempo would likewise express harsh criticism (among Ashkenazim, Tzvi Hersh Lehren of Amsterdam

would found the Pekidim V’amarkalim of Amsterdam and seek to inherit the role formerly played by Istanbul. More on this later).

On the other side, predictably, stood such Rabbinic luminaries as Rabbi Moses Hagiz (who mounted a passionate defense in his 1707 book Sefat Emet), Rabbi Hayyim Joseph Azulai and others. These Rabbis vociferously defended this institution in their many writings.

Hagiz in his aforementioned book devoted many passages to defending the very settlement of the Land of Israel against an imagined or real interlocutor who opined that perhaps Jews should not live in Palestine but rather await the Messiah in exile (it is often in the writings of Hagiz and others that sentiments of Proto-Religious Zionism were first articulated ans expressed).

Lehman also provides tantalizing details about the travels of some of the shadarim. Rabbi Haim Isaac Carigal

was a 18th century Hebron emissary who was one of the few if not the only one who ventured as far as the British Colonies of North America. There he met and became close friends with a Protestant theologian named Ezra Stiles. Stiles would later become president of Yale College.

The emissary system, evidently, not only served to create a sense of pan-Jewish unity as it brought members of various far-flung communities in contact with each other, it also provided opportunities for ecumenical activity. The aforementioned Carigal, for instance, attended a sermon by Stiles given in the former’s Church in Newport, Rhode Island. Stiles also mentioned that Carigal had no compunction in visiting various Churches and having friendly discussions with Christian clergy. According to Stiles “he said he wished well to others besides his own nation, he loves all Mankind”.

Lehman also devotes a considerable amount of space to the rivalry between Sephardim and Ashkenazim in the Old Yishuv, as well as the grumblings from other communities who felt they were being discriminated against in the allocation (Chalukah) system (such as the North African “Maghrebim”).

These complaints were often groundless as is illustrated by a case cited in the book. In the late 18th century a man by the name of Haim Aharon Kottover went on a fundraising mission for the Ashkenazic community of Jerusalem, seeking to raise funds for it alone on the pretext that the Ashkenazim receive no support from the Sephardi-dominated community. This accusation was not looked upon kindly by all.

The case came to the leading Ashkenazic authority of that time, Rabbi Ezekiel Landau of Prague who rejected this assertion out of hand, concluding, “do we, not all have one father, are we not the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?” (this motif and appeal for unity would be utilized by many on both sides).

The controversies endured, however. It would only become more exacerbated as the Ashkenazic community exploded in population and in fact, became the majority by 1870.

Eliezer ben Yehuda, who is credited with reviving Hebrew as a spoken language complained in his newspaper in 1890 that the division between Sephardim and Ashkenazim is caused chiefly as a result of two reasons, differences in language and differences in the financial allocation of the contributions from abroad. He joined the growing chorus of people advocating the abrogation of the current system.

By 1827, a Dutch Ashkenazic Jew by the name of Tzvi Hersh Lehren sought to negotiate with the Pekidei Kushta for the abolition of the shadar system and the establishment of a fixed philanthropic operation. The declining fortunes of Turkish Jewry and the ascendancy of the Ashkenazic communities caused a reshuffling of the Jewish geopolitical situation.

Lehren’s efforts were met with mixed results. Although his network endured, shadarim still went on their missions throughout Europe and North Africa.

What more, during the crisis of 1865, when the land was ravished by famine, Lehren had to contend with calls from various quarters to liquidate the Yishuv and move elsewhere. “Der Israelit” newspaper, which served as a mouthpiece of Lehren’s Orthodox outfit, responded with indignant outrage, “who would council our co-coreligionists to emigrate”, the editorial intoned. “The ruins of the Holy Temple are still standing; Palestine is ours and will remain ours as long as heaven extends over the earth”, it concluded.

In the last chapter of the book, Lehman examines the attitude of four different Sephardic Rabbis toward the settling of the Land of Israel. While Rabbis Bibas, Alkalai and Palache are more or less well known, such is not the case with Rabbi Moses Hai Altaras who published an intriguing text Zikhron Yerushalaim in Ladino in 1887. In this book, among other things, he heaped praise on the Ashkenazic communities for their proactive approach, “[they] go up to the land in large numbers and buy up land (while conversely criticizing “we, the ones in the Orient who are still asleep, let us awaken”). In an early echo of later “practical Zionists”, Altras maintains that many Jewish calamities would have been avoided had the Jews had a place of safety and refuge.

The epilogue includes a fascinating description of the travels of another colorful Shadar, Rabbi Jacob Safir

who represented the Ashkenazi non-Chasidic community of Jerusalem. Safir’s travels (and sense of adventure) took him as far as Egypt, Yemen, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand

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