Dispersion and the Longing for Zion, 1240-1840

By Arie Morgenstern

Did the Jews in exile really long for the Holy Land? A response to the new historiography.

The key to understanding the recurrence of pre-Zionist aliyot is to be found in the intense messianic ferment that began to grip the Jew­ish people in the first half of the thirteenth century. This was expressed not only in spiritual revivals in many communities, but also, on a deeper level, in changes in the theological and mystical doctrines upon which Jew­ish messianism was based. These were to have a decisive influence on mes­sian­ic awakenings throughout the sixth millennium of the Jewish calendar (beginning in 1240 C.E.), charging this period with hopes of imminent redemption, and prompting regular movements of immigration aimed at bringing it about.
These powerful drives were largely a product of the traditional Jewish view of human history, which is based on an analogy from the story of creation as presented in the book of Genesis. In this view, each “day” of creation is seen as corresponding to one thousand years of human history, a parallel which the rabbis of the Talmud derived from a verse in Psalms: “For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past.”7 Since God created the world in six days, they concluded, human history will span six thousand years. This period was divided into three ages, each lasting two thousand years.8 During the first two thousand years, described in the first eleven chapters of Genesis, man had no knowledge of God, and corruption and licentiousness reigned. During the second period, the “age of Tora” that is likewise described in the Bible, the Israelites received the divine revelation and took upon themselves the belief in God and the yoke of his laws. This period came to an end when the chosen people, who had not been true to their faith and had not carried out God’s commandments, suffered the destruction of their Temple and were exiled from their land.9
Since shortly after the beginning of the exile, human history has been in its third age, whose characteristics are discussed extensively in the Talmud, midrash, and kabalistic literature. According to this tradition, this is the “age of the Messiah,” during which all that was damaged during the second age will be “repaired” in preparation for the final redemption of the world. It is during this period that God will fulfill his promise of ending the exile, allowing the Jewish people to return to the land of their fathers and rebuild the independent Jewish kingdom “as in days of old.”10
However, at the time when this “third age” was actually dawning (it formally began in the year 240 C.E.),11 it was difficult to identify the signs of the “age of the Messiah” in the real world—a difficulty that did not go unnoticed by the talmudic sages. They were also well aware of the vagueness of the date when redemption was supposed to take place, as the Bible had provided only hints. The rabbis’ difficulty with these problems was exemplified in their effort to interpret the prophet Isaiah’s ambiguous statement regarding the time of redemption: “I am the Eternal; in its time I will hasten it.”12 In considering this verse, the rabbis asked whether the redemption would come at a fixed time, or would depend on the repentance of the Jewish people.13 “R. Alexander, son of R. Yehoshua ben Levi, said: It is written, ‘in its time,’ but it is also written, ‘I will hasten it.’ [How so?] If they are worthy, ‘I will hasten it.’ If not, [the redemption will come] ‘in its time.’” According to this interpretation, the date of the redemption is fixed and predetermined; yet if Israel repents, God will hasten its realization.14 In other words, even in the third age, the Messiah would not come auto­matically; rather, the time of his coming would depend on the behavior of the Jewish people. The same talmudic discussion quotes the opinion of R. Dosa, that the delay may extend well into the sixth millennium, up to four hundred years before the end of history (that is, until the year 1840).15 R. Eliezer’s view is even more pessimistic, suggesting that it may last until forty years before the end (2200).16
With the passage of centuries, the idea of a two-thousand-year-long “age of the Messiah” disappeared from the Jewish sources. Instead, the medieval rabbis tended to divide the third age into two smaller periods: A thousand years of “exile” in the fifth millennium (240-1240) and a thousand years of “redemption” in the sixth millennium (1240-2240).17 As the fifth millennium drew to a close, expectations grew throughout the Jewish world, sharpened by the difficulties of exile in the medieval period. The longing for redemption became a powerful motivating force—overcoming, for example, the belief in the talmudic parable stating that God had imposed “three oaths,” of which one was a commitment not to retake the land of Israel by force.18 One of the first thinkers who rejected the strictures of the “three oaths” was R. Judah Halevi (1075-1141), who asserted that mass immigration to the land of Israel was the necessary first step towards redemption. This attitude is found both in his poems of exile and redemption and in his major philosophical treatise, the Kuzari. In the latter, for example, he offers his interpretation of a passage from Psalms: “You will surely arise and take pity on Zion, for it is time to be gracious to her; the appointed time has come. Your servants take delight in its stones, and cherish its dust.”19 According to Halevi, the first verse relates to the ultimate goal, while the second adds a precondition: “This means that Jerusalem can only be rebuilt when Israel yearns for it to such an extent that they embrace her stones and dust.”20 Halevi’s words present a kind of messianic activism, one which resurfaced in Jewish thought throughout the sixth millennium, according to which Jews must be prepared to take action to rebuild Zion. Passive yearning for redemption must give way to action, and in particular aliya.
The sense that the coming sixth millennium would bring with it the messianic era prompted many kabalists to intensify their efforts at “calculating the end.” The mystical literature composed during this period is filled with eschatological calculations of one sort or another, many of which are based on astrology, the alphanumerical system of gematria, or acrostic interpretations of apocalyptic verses in the Bible such as those in the book of Daniel.21 Even a rationalist like Maimonides, whose approach towards the redemption was largely naturalistic, took part in these efforts. In his Epistle to Yemen, written in 1169, he cites approvingly what was probably his own messianic calculation with regard to the end of the fifth millennium, which, in his opinion, would witness the return of prophecy to Israel: “But I have a wondrous tradition…,” he wrote, “that prophecy will return to Israel in the year 4972 [1212]. And there is no doubt that the restoration of prophecy in Israel is one of the signs of the Messiah… and this is the truest of the ‘ends’ that have been told to us.”22
Such “certified” predictions seemed to legitimize abrogation of the “three oaths,” and to give sanction to practices aimed at bringing the Messiah, which were collectively referred to as “forcing the end.” While these efforts became a constant feature of Jewish life, dramatic events such as wars, revolutions, expulsions, religious persecutions, and natural disasters intensified them. Jews tended to view such upheavals through an eschatological lens, as manifestations of divine providence that would bring about the cosmic “repair,” a change in the nature of the world, and ultimately the redemption of Israel.
Most of these apocalyptic speculations had little impact on Jewish history, and their memory is preserved only in recondite manuscripts. However, those calculations which pointed to the turn of each century of the sixth millennium had a more lasting effect.23 The Zohar, a book that was widely believed to have been written with divine inspiration, mentions several of these dates explicitly. Six dates in particular receive the most widespread attention in the mystical and homiletic literature of the medieval period—and it was these dates which resulted in intense messianic activity as they approached, including waves of aliya: (i) The year 1240 (5000 on the Hebrew calendar); (ii) the period leading up to 1440 (5200); (iii) the period between 1540 and 1575 (5300-5335); (iv) the period leading up to 1640 (5400); (v) the period between 1740 and 1781 (5500-5541); and (vi) the years before and after 1840 (5600), which the Zohar fixes as the final date of the redemption. The political, social, and economic conditions in and around Palestine had an important role in determining the scope and success of each aliya; however, in almost every century its occurrence correlates directly with a messianic awakening. In these movements, as we shall see in the coming sections, the central motivation was both spiritual and nationalistic in nature: The longing of the Jewish people to return to the land of their fathers, and in so doing to hasten the coming of the Messiah.

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