The larger scholarly impact was Morgenstern’s ability, by the use of innovative sources, to document an early nineteenth-century aliyah of previously unsuspected scale.
“It should be known to you that from other lands, worthy people are actually streaming to the four holy cities (Hebron, Jerusalem, Tiberias and Safed)” letter from Jerusalem, 24 December, 1834.
A particular school of pietistic reading of the Bible and Talmud established, to the satisfaction of Jews in Persia, England, Morocco, Yemen, and all the communities in between that the Messiah would arrive in the Hebrew year 5600, 1840 on the English calendar. Beginning in the early years of the nineteenth century, thousands of Jews in possession of the wealth to finance such a journey, moved with their families to the Land of Israel to await the great event. The arrival of large numbers of followers of the Vilna Gaon known collectively as the Perushim was especially notable, but sizeable groups are recorded as arriving from most of the world’s Jewish communities, including Persia, Yemen, Morocco, Algeria and Russia.
The early enthusiasm encountered grave setbacks. Notably a devastating epidemic in 1813, and an earthquake that virtually destroyed Safed and Tiberias in 1837. The greatest difficulty, however, was undoubtedly the economically underdeveloped state of the economy and the existence of a government unable to provide security of life or property, let alone sanitary drains. Death rates among the immigrants were extraordinarily high. Life was difficult for everyone in the ill-governed Ottoman province, but Jews suffered particularly under laws that forbade them to bear arms (making it impossible for Jewish travelers to defend themselves from bandits) and preventing Jews from constructing new housing, and from building or repairing synagogues. These restrictions could only be overcome by means of substantial bribes, and even that was only possible at moments when the responsible officials were corrupt and not especially ill-disposed towards Jews.
The conquest of Syria (of which the Land of Israel was then part) by Muhammad Ali of Egypt in 1832 brought major changes in the situation, as the new government treated Jews more equably, permitting, for example, the rebuilding of synagogues destroyed by the earthquake of 1837, and the building of some Jewish housing. By 1840, Jews were a majority of the population of Jerusalem, a situation that has continued ever since.
Hastening Redemption: Messianism and the Resettlement of the Land of Israel , Jerusalem, Ma’or, 1997; Published in English, 2006, Oxford University Press.
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