393 years ago, at the beginning of Kislev (November 1621), Rabbi Isaiah Horovitz entered the gates of Jerusalem. He commemorated this uplifting event by naming the prayerbook he wrote "The Gate of Heaven".
The Parsha, the portion of the Torah read that week, was Vayetze, which tells us of Jacob's dream. When Jacob wakes up, he looks around and says 'How full of awe is this place! this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven' (Genesis 28, 17).
The gate of heaven is Jerusalem.
Rabbi Isaiah Horovitz is more well-known as the Shelah Hakodosh (The Holy Shelah). As is common among Jews, the Shelah is named after his book "Shnei Luchot Ha-Brit" (Two Tablets of the Covenant). The book was printed only after he passed away.
The Shelah was a great Torah scholar. He served as a Rabbi and Dayan (Judge) in various cities in Europe: in Ostroh and Dubno in Ukraine, Frankfurt in Germany and Prague in the Czech Republic. When he was about 45-50, after his first wife passed away, he decided to move to Israel so he could better study Kabbalah (Jewish mystic thought).
He traveled to Israel via Syria. The two main Jewish communities in Israel in those days were in Safed and Jerusalem. Both communities sent emissaries to convince the Rabbi to accept a position as their leader. The emissaries from Safed made it first and met the Shelah in Damascus, where he told them that he intended to stay in Safed anyway for a few days and that they could talk further there.
The Jerusalemite emissary met the Rabbi on his way out of Damascus. The people of Jerusalem were generous in their offer as they were concerned that Safed would bait the Rabbi before they even got there. And so they offered the Shelah to be head of both the Rabbinical court (Av Beit Din) and the Yeshiva in the Holy City. They were willing to pay him any salary he wished.
But the Shelah didn't need convincing: he was simply overjoyed that he could realize his dream and live in Jerusalem. He even refused to accept a salary, because he knew that the Jerusalem community was sunk in debt, and instead he asked for a furnished apartment and for the community to cover his tax bill.
An apartment, because "there is not much room in Jerusalem, because the Ashkenazi community in Jerusalem is twice as large as that of Safed, and it's growing daily."
Of all the letters he sent to his family and friends in Europe, two survived - one from his stay in Safed and one from Jerusalem. From those letters we learn both of the general situation in Israel in those days, and of his great love for the Land and especially Jerusalem. He writes that in Jerusalem "Jews have lived continuously for hundreds of years". Throughout history, the only times when Jews were absent from Jerusalem were those times when they were banished from the city - under Byzantine and Crusader occupation. But Jews always returned to their most cherished city as soon as it was possible again.
In the Shelah's days, at the beginning of the 17th century, the Golden Age of Safed was at an end, while Jerusalem was flourishing.
The Shelah writes that in Safed he found abandoned, ruined synagogues with Torah scrolls inside. "The Muslims don't touch them, in fact - they treat them with respect." In Safed the Jews suffered from marauders as the city was unwalled, while in Jerusalem the Ashkenazi Jews were living in a closed compound.
When the Shelah got to Safed, his first stop in Israel, he writes: "I fell on the ground and kissed the stones and earth."
In Safed he was honored with copying the book "Magid Meisharim", one of Rabbi Joseph Karo's mystical works. He also visited saintly tombs in Safed and the surrounding area. From Safed he traveled to Jerusalem, journeying via Meiron, Tiberias and Nablus (Shechem). At every stop, he visited the local holy sites.
From Jerusalem he reported that the city is as big as Krakow. "And every day more and more grand buildings are built... we see the Ingathering of Exiles every day. Every day they come. Walk the streets of Jerusalem - it's filled with Jews, Yeshivas and children studying."
The Shelah was asked by his acquaintances back in Europe whether Jews are allowed to live in Jerusalem, since there's a concern they'll accidentally step into sacred areas and by so transgress. But the Shelah, despite being very strict about such matters, wrote that there's no problem at all, since the area of the Temple Mount is well-defined and obvious to anybody who comes to Jerusalem. The opposite is true, he wrote, not only are Jews allowed to live in Jerusalem, they should live there. Jerusalem is especially the place for the more observant Jews.
More Jews followed in the Shelah's footsteps, and the Ashkenazi community grew, as did the Sephardi one.
Life was not easy in Jerusalem. In the Shelah's first year there, a famine hit the city and the rabbi fell into debt. But despite that, he did not request a salary, since he knew the community itself had no money. In fact, he warned Jews who thought of coming that they should not expect to rely on charity as the local community was very poor.
In 1625 the despot Muhammad Ibn Faruch took power in Jerusalem. We learn about his reign from a pamphlet titled: "The Suffering of the Jews of Jerusalem in the Days of the Pasha (Governor) Muhammad Ben Faruch". It was written by an unidentified Jew who wrote under the pseudonym - "Man of Jerusalem".
With sharp Jewish wit, "Man of Jerusalem" tells us how Ibn Faruch terrorized the residents of the city - Muslims, Christians and Jews - so much so that he had to lock the gates to prevent them from fleeing. But his main victims were the Jews.
In the summer of 1625, Ibn Faruch was sent to accompany the pilgrims to Mecca, and in his stead he appointed his brother-in-law, Othman. At first, the Jews were afraid of the acting governor, but when Othman told them that instead of the 'holiday gift' that the community was obligated to give him, he'd accept a new suit, they were ecstatic.
"I think Othman's almost becoming Jewish," one of the community leaders said. "He spoke to me today with such great love."
But this love did not last for long. The next day, on the Sabbath, Othman sent his soldiers to both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi synagogues and arrested 15 rabbis, including the Shelah.
Othman demanded a very large ransom for his prisoners. After two weeks of begging by the Jews, he agreed to lower his demands just a bit, and the Jews managed to collect enough money to release nine of the rabbis. The six others remained in jail for a few more days and were released on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.
The Ashkenazi rabbis fled Jerusalem to Safed. The Shelah lived in Safed for a few years and then moved to Tiberias. The synagogue where he prayed on the shores of the Kinneret is today a Greek-Orthodox monastery. About 200 years ago, the Jewish community was forced to sell some of its properties. The contract stipulated that they could buy the place back, but the Church has never allowed it. Today, Jews are not allowed to enter.
The Shela left us a spiritual legacy which has sustained Jews till today. All of it is from the period when he lived in Israel. His book, Shnei Luchot Ha-Brit, written in Jerusalem, laid the foundations for the Hasidic movement, which sprouted a century later in Europe.
Here in Israel, he had access to ancient manuscripts. In one of them he found prayers, which he copied. The most famous of them is today known as "The Shelah's Prayer" - a prayer for parents to say over their children.
Out of his love for the Land, he also popularized the custom of reciting the Psalms "On the Rivers of Babylon" (Psalm 137) and "Shir Hama'alot" (Psalm 126) after the meals. The former expresses our longing for the Land, while the latter expresses our joy at returning to it.
In the early 20th century, the great cantor Yossele Rosenblatt popularized the following tune for "Shir Hama'alot".
The Shelah passed away about a decade after arriving in Israel. Life expectancy in Israel was very low at the time. The many hardships, government persecution, recurring plagues and earthquakes that hit every once in a while - all conspired to shorten the lives of the Jews who lived here.
Despite this tough reality, the Shelah was filled with love for the Land, which he expressed in his books and in his letters, in which he called on Jews to follow in his footsteps and return to their Land.
See here for an archive of articles about our history in Israel.
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