In the Middle Ages Rabbi Yechiel of Paris (1257) transferred his yeshiva from Paris to Jerusalem. He was accompanied by his three hundred disciples, consisting of French and English Jews who had been maltreated in their native countries. But Yehiel and his pupils soon found themselves without means of support. Consequently he sent Rabbi Jacob of Paris as a representative meshullah (messenger) to solicit relief in Palestine and Turkey. Rabbi Jacob appears to have been the first Palestinian meshullah recorded, although the term "messenger of Zion" ("sheliah Tziyyon") was applied in the period of the Amoraim (4th cent.) to Rabbi Hama ben Ada, who traveled between Babylon and Palestine delivering decisions and messages, and probably soliciting relief.
Another early feature throwing light on the halukkah is the charity-box, the introduction of which, though attributed to Rabbi Meir Ba'al ha-Nes ("the miracle-worker"), was due to meshullahim, who toward the end of the seventeenth century used it for the collection of the halukkah fund; such boxes are placed in Orthodox Jewish dwellings and synagogues all the world over. This Rabbi Meir, contrary to the popular notion, is not Rabbi Meir the Tanna, but Rabbi Meir ha-Qatzin ("the chief"), whom Rabbi Jacob of Paris, in describing his tomb at Tiberias, called "Ba'al ha-Nes."
Under Egyptian rule the Jews of Palestine increased both in number and in prosperity. The halukkah contributions until the fifteenth century came mostly from Turkey, Egypt, and other countries in Asia and Africa.
In the famine of 1441 the Jewish community of Jerusalem, probably for the first time, sent a meshullah to European countries; the meshullah's name was 'Esrim we-Arba'ah ("twenty-four")—a surname; not, as Heinrich Graetz supposes, a title of honor indicating his knowledge of the twenty-four books of the Bible. The meshullah was directed to go first to Constantinople, to obtain there the necessary credentials from the central committee headed by Moses Capsali, who, however, had to withhold his sanction, the war between Turkey and the Egyptian Mamelukes, who ruled Palestine, making the latter a belligerent state, the exportation of money to which was prohibited.
To provide for a permanent increase of the haluḳ-ḳah, the communities of Palestine, early in the seventeenth century, adopted an ordinance ("takkanah") invalidating any will not made in the presence of the parnas; this had the effect of reminding testators of their duty toward the community of Jerusalem . Another takkanah was afterward issued which practically amounted to a confiscation, for the benefit of the halukkah, of the chattels, money, and accounts of a deceased Jew who left no resident heirs. There were many evasions, and in several instances the well-to-do, before taking up their residence in the Holy Land, stipulated a certain sum which was to be paid to the community upon their death in place of the fulfilment of the decree. This so-called "inheritance tax" was strenuously opposed by the richer classes, and it was spasmodically abolished and reenacted. The income from this tax, however, never amounted to one-third of the halukkah, and to supply the deficiency there was no alternative but to resort to the meshullahim, who as a result became so numerous, and such frequent visitors in the European congregations, that they were regarded as wandering tramps, a nuisance and a reproach.
Moses Hagiz, a typical meshullah, in his "Sefat Emet" (Amsterdam, 1697), deplores the low estimate of the meshullah entertained by the general public, and in reply to a Spanish contributor, (1) shows why the Holy Land is religiously superior to other countries, (2) urges the duty of settling there even prior to the fulfilment of the prophecies, (3) speaks of the calamities and tribulations of the Jews in Jerusalem, and (4) explains why the funds contributed in all parts of the world are insufficient. Referring to the meshullahim, he says: "They are sent abroad to acquaint our people in foreign countries of Jewish conditions in the Holy Land, and to enlist sympathy and support for the standard-bearers of the Tabernacle of God, who keep alive Jewish hopes and inspirations in the Land of Israel." He points out that the fact that "Christians will remit thousands of pounds annually for the maintenance of a Christian settlement is a challenge to the Jews who neglect to provide for the beloved sons of Zion."
Hagiz estimated the appropriation of the halukkah for 1,500 souls in Palestine, including 1,000 in Jerusalem, to be 10,000 lire. Toward this sum there was an income from communal taxes of 2,000 lire; from legacies 2,000 lire; collected by meshullahim 2,000 lire; leaving a deficiency of 4,000 lire; Jewish indebtedness already amounted to sixty thousand "shekalim" (florins?).
Hagiz was aware of the fact that the meshullahim were not liked, that they were abused no less than were the "hakamim" in Jerusalem, who were suspected and accused of "leading a luxurious life and spending the funds of the halukkah in drinking coffee and smoking tobacco." Nevertheless he was ready to state under oath that the halukkah barely supplied one-third of their actual necessaries of life. The main sources of the halukkah at that time in Europe were London, Amsterdam, Venice, and Leghorn.
To meet the drain on the halukkah, the Jerusalem community borrowed from Gentiles at an enormous rate of interest, up to 45 per cent per annum, mortgaging their communal property; and when they failed to meet the obligations at maturity, the leaders of the congregation were imprisoned and held for ransom. Rabbi David Melammed, a meshullah of Hebron, rendered a decision to the effect that inasmuch as the representative Jews of Hebronwere held under bail for taxes and other indebtedness of the community, they came under the category of "captives held for ransom," whose claims, therefore, took precedence over all other charitable matters having a special fund for disposal, and were not a perversion of charity (his responsa, in Ezekiel Silva's "Mayim Hayyim," Amsterdam, 1718).
Till the middle of the eighteenth century the management of the halukkah was entirely in the hands of the Sephardim, who were classed as (1) rich or dependent on their own relatives, (2) working men and employees, and (3) hakamim and scholars of the yeshibot. The third class took one-third of the halukkah; one-third was appropriated for poor widows, orphans, and for temporary relief to helpless men; one-third was used in defraying the communal expenses. The distribution was made semiannually, before the Passover and the New-Year festivals. The meshullahim kept up their work in the Levant, in Italy, Germany, France, Holland, and England, with occasional visits to Russia, Poland, and America. A regular legal contract was drawn up between the community and the meshullah. The community undertook to provide for the meshullah's family during his absence and to advance his initial traveling expenses. The meshullah on his part undertook to devote his attention and best endeavors to arousing the people by lectures, to urging the gabbaim to increase their remittances, and to opening up new sources of income. The commission was usually fixed at 45 per cent on all contributions coming direct from hiṃ or that were due to his influence, and 10 per cent on all income from his territory during the ten years following his return. It generally took the meshullah from three to ten years or longer to complete his mission. In an important city he sometimes accepted a rabbinate or the position of a "maggid"-preacher, and held it for sometime. Occasionally he undertook the promotion of a business enterprise. He was also useful as a news-gatherer before newspapers came into existence. In short, the services of the average old-style meshullahim were distinctly valuable, in spite of the shortcomings of some among them who thought chiefly of personal gain, and cared little for the cause they represented. Pseudo-meshullahim, who represented no community, but traveled on their own behalf, also contributed largely to bring discredit upon the office and duty they had fraudulently assumed.
Among the early meshullahim to America were Rabbi Moses Malki of Safed, who visited the Newport congregation in 1759, and Rabbi Samuel Cohen of Jerusalem (1775). An interesting meshullah was Raphael Hayyim Isaac Carregal, of Hebron, who was in Newport in 1771 and 1773, after visiting the West Indies (Curaçao, 1764). These meshullahim are mentioned by Ezra Stiles in his Diary ("Publications Am. Jew. Hist. Soc." No. 10, pp. 18-32). Carregal refers to David Melammed as his teacher.
The Ashkenazim at that time formed but a small minority of the Jewish settlers in Palestine. The efforts of Yechiel of Paris to maintain a yeshiva in Palestine in the thirteenth century, as already observed, had failed; and a second attempt, by Rabbi Judah ha-Hasid of Siedlce, Poland, who with many followers emigrated to the Holy Land in 1701, was likewise futile. Not till the middle of the eighteenth century was the presence of the Ashkenazim felt. They came from the ranks of the Hasidim in Poland and South Russia; using the same liturgy and ritual as the Sephardim, they were easily assimilated with them, and received a share of the halukkah. The share, however, they asserted, was not in proportion to their numbers. They complained to the Ashkenazic gabbaim in Europe, and finally seceded from the Sephardim. With the aid of the Council of the Four Lands, they established headquarters for their separate halukkah at Lublin, Poland. Later, Rabbi Abraham Gershon Kutawer, leader of the Hasidim in Hebron, sent meshullahhim to Metz and diverted the halukkah revenue from that source to his own section of the Holy Land. In a letter of Aryeh Judah Meisels of Apta, written in Jerusalem, the Ashkenazim accused the Sephardim of bad faith, declaring that, in spite of assurances to the contrary, the Ashkenazim were discriminated against and compelled to rely entirely upon their own resources.
While the Ashkenazim at Jerusalem and Hebron separated from the Sephardim and managed their own halukkah, the Ashkenazim at Safed were still united with the Sephardim and drew from the general halukkah, the headquarters for which were in Constantinople. A letter dated 1778, and written from Safed by Israel Perez Polotzker to the gabbaim of Vitebsk, Russia, states that their meshullahim came to the house of Baruch Ananio, the head gabbai of the central committee at Constantinople, and received 3,000 lire. Out of this sum they paid 2,000 lire to the pasha for taxes and 250 lire for expenses of the meshullahim, the balance (750 lire) going to the halukkah. In the credentials issued to Rabbi Abraham ha-Kohen of Lask, a Jerusalem meshullah sent to Poland in 1783, the Sephardic central committee writes that Ashkenazim in the Holy Land were taken care of and given a proportionate share of the halukkah.
A section of the hasidim from South Russia settled in Tiberias. Their leader was Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk, who sent a meshullah regularly to Poland and Volhynia, and in a businesslike manner rendered receipts for past donations signed by the leaders in Tiberias, with requests for further assistance. Contributions poured in, and the only difficulty experienced by the meshullah was the safe delivery of the funds at Tiberias and Jerusalem, as the roads via Constantinople were infested by bands of robbers. He had to wait sometimes for three or four months for a protected vessel sailing from Constantinople to Haifa or Acre; and thence a safe-conduct with armed soldiers to Tiberias and Jerusalem was necessary. Meanwhile, the halukkah being exhausted, the Hasidim had to borrow money in anticipation of the next remittances. The requirements of the halukkah at that time exceeded 700 ducats..
A systematic propaganda for the halukkah was introduced by Rabbi Abraham Kalisker, leader of the Hasidim in Tiberias. He secured the assistance of Rabbi Mordecai of Niesvizh, who issued a proclamation, dated "22 Adar I., 5556 ," and addressed to all Jews of Poland, imploring every male and female, adult and minor, whether living in cities or villages, to subscribe a fixed sum every week for the support of their countrymen who had settled in the Holy Land. The amount was to be paid quarterly, in addition to special donations at weddings, circumcisions, and other religious rejoicings. This proclamation was approved by other rabbis in Poland, and the result was a substantial increase in the halukkah.
The Perushim-Ashkenazim, coming from Lithuania, were then few in number and without organization in the Holy Land, and consequently were without an adequate share in the halukkah. Rabbi Menahem Mendel and Rabbi Israel, both of Shklov, together with twenty other Perushim (disciples of Rabbi Elijah of Wilna) left Russia and settled in Safed in 1801. Rabbi Israel, in order to establish a permanent income for the halukkah of the Perushim congregation, constituted himself the meshullah for Lithuania and Belarus; he succeeded in his task. The halukkah of the Perushim was increased by Rabbi Aryeh Loeb Katzenellenbogen of Brest-Litovsk and by Hayyim of Volozhin, who issued proclamations to the effect that the contributions put in the boxes bearing the name of Rabbi Meir Ba'al ha-Nes should not be used for candles in the synagogues, as was the custom in some cases, nor for any but the specific purpose of supporting the poor in the Holy Land. This movement tended to transfer all property rights in the Ba'al ha-Nes boxes to the halukkah fund. The headquarters for the halukkah of the Perushim were then removed from Shklov to Wilna. Similarly the headquarters of the rest of the Continent were removed from Metz to Amsterdam, where the central committee combined the halukkah interests of the Sephardim and Perushim (Luncz, Jerusalem, ii. 148-157).
After 1850 the Ashkenazic congregations, or kolelim, at Jerusalem began to split into various sections, beginning with the Hollandish-German kolel, followed by the Warsaw and the Hungarian kolelim, until there existed no fewer than twenty-five kolelim in Jerusalem. The motive for separation was to enlarge the halukkah portion of that particular kolel whose members are few in comparison with the contributions derived from their native land. Some kolelim gave certain of their beneficiaries an advance share over other members (ḳedimah), the privileged ones being men of learning and distinction.
The separation of the kollelim, each working for itself and managed by its own committee in Jerusalem, caused anxiety to those who had no kollel to care for them. It also gave the community much concern regarding general expenses, such as the salaries of the rabbis, the Turkish military taxes, and the usual bakshish to the Turkish officials. For these purposes the central committee, or "Va'ad ha-Klali", was organized in 1866 in Jerusalem by Rabbi Meir Auerbach, who was succeeded by Rabbi Shmuel Salant in 1878. This committee represented the general interests of all the Ashkenazim in Palestine, while the Sephardim continued the management of their affairs under the guidance of the hakam bashi of Jerusalem.
The Central Committee employed special messengers, or meshulachim, whom they sent to countries without a representative kollel in Palestine. This plan resulted in opening up many new sources for the halukkah in South Africa, Australia, England, and particularly in America. Thus the meshulachim of the Sephardim found themselves in direct competition with the meshulachim of the Ashkenazim. The friction between the two sections increased their expenses and tended to lessen the revenue. In 1871 the Sephardim and Ashkenazim compromised on the following basis of settlement regarding the American contributions: (1) Jerusalem to be the point for all remittances; (2) the Ashkenazim in Jerusalem to receive from the halukkah fund an advance of $500 per annum; (3) 15% of the remainder to be advanced for the poor of both parties in Jerusalem; (4) the remainder to be divided: 60% for both parties in Jerusalem and Hebron, and 40% to Safed and Tiberias. The distribution by the Central Committee, irrespective of the kollel afliliations, was known as the "minor halukkah", or "halukkah ketannah", and averaged about one dollar per person.
At the time of the earliest reports the contributions intended for division between the Sephardim and the Ashkenazim were usually sent to Nathan Marcus Adler, chief rabbi of England, who forwarded the proper amounts to the hakam bashi, Raphael Meir Fanijil, and Rabbi Samuel Salant, in Jerusalem. The North-American Relief Society for the indigent Jews of Jerusalem, whose members were Portuguese and German Jews, sent about $750 per annum through the chief rabbi of England, with instructions to divide the amount between the two parties. Contributions intended for Ashkenazim only were sent to Rabbi Samuel Salant.
The agreement of 1871 with the Sephardim had become obsolete by that time, and to strengthen their position in America the Sephardim, following the example of their opponents, began to issue, in 1891, similar reports, entitled "Ha-Morch li-Tzedaḳah" (The Guide for Charity). The Sephardim, tired of opposing the Ashkenazim in North America, retired, and confined their attention to Italy, the Barbary States, Turkey, Egypt, Yemen, Persia, India, Turkestan, etc. The result was that the two factions entirely separated as regards the halukkah, each working in its own sphere.
After several other attempts the Americans finally succeeded in organizing their kolel (Aug., 1895), and induced Rabbi Joshua Loeb Diskin in Jerusalem to accept their rabbinate and to receive all contributions for the American kolel. The members in New York contributing to the American kolel were incorporated Dec. 17, 1897, as "The American Congregation, the Pride of Jerusalem." The receipts were, in 1898, $943; in 1899, $1,255; in 1900, $1,762. The central committee, fearing the consequence of the separation, effected a settlement in 1901 on a basis of two-thirds for themselves and one-third for the Kolel America from all collections made in the United States and Canada. The two-thirds were to be used for general expenses, and the balance divided into three parts, one part for the Perushim, one part for the Hasidim, and the remainder for Safed and Tiberias.
All these accusations may have had some basis of fact. The rabbis, however, disclaimed any intention on their part to oppose agriculture and industry for the young and coming generation, so long as a proper religious training was not neglected. They held that the purpose of the halukkah was only to give aid to the helpless, and especially to learned men. Indeed, the editor of Ha-Lebanon defended the public support of the halukkah for the settlers in Palestine by analogy, pointing out that the Christians supported their cloisters and nunneries.