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May 16, 2023 11:01 am

Making Aliyah Is Not a New Idea: The Aliyah of the Tosafists in 1211 CE

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avatar by Jacob Sivak


Young immigrants make Aliyah to Israel. Photo: Nega Melsa

Jewish history is long, tortuous, and difficult to appreciate. A primary barrier has been the meager documentary record. With a few exceptions, such as one that will be described below, Jewish historical records can be characterized by the lack of material during the large 1,800-year gap between the first century writings of Flavius Josephus, and the modern Jewish histories written by Heinrich Graetz and Simon Dubnow in the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively.

Because of Josephus, we know a lot about the first Jewish revolt against the Romans (67-70 CE). Yet, until the discovery of letters between Bar Kokhba and his subordinates in the 1950s and 60s, the main source of information about the second Jewish revolt (132-136CE) was the Roman historian Cassius Dio, who noted that the Romans paid a heavy price in casualties for their victory. The archaeologist Yigal Yadin noted (in “Bar Kokhba”) that other than the occasional mention of coins of this period, references to this revolt in the Talmud and Midrash are scanty and vague.

The Talmud, the core text of Rabbinic Judaism, written in Hebrew and Aramaic, is a compendium of Jewish law (Mishnah) and commentaries (Gemara). The Jerusalem Talmud (the Yerushalmi), written in the Holy Land, primarily in Tiberius, Sepphoris (Tzipori), and Caesarea, was compiled roughly between the 3rd and 4th centuries, while the Babylonian Talmud (the Bavli) was written in what is today Iraq in various Jewish academies — the most prominent of which were Sura and Pumbedita. The Babylonian Talmud was mainly written during the 4th and 5th centuries, but editing continued for centuries and, as Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz notes in “The Essential Talmud”, Talmudic scholarship continues today. The Babylonian Talmud, substantially larger than the Jerusalem Talmud, is the primary focus of Talmud study.

Scholars such as Jacob Neusner have noted that despite its central position in Jewish life, the Talmud does not “spell out events that happened at a particular place or time.” Graetz described the Talmud as ahistorical, while Steinsaltz notes that it is not a schematic textbook.

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On the other hand, the historical details of the Talmud itself are clear and most of the many contributors over the centuries are known. The Mishnah, a collection of what were originally oral laws, was written by the Tannaim (including the rabbis mentioned in the Passover Haggadah) during the first two centuries of the Common Era, while the Gemara, commentaries and elaborations of the Mishna, was compiled by the Amoraim over the next 300 years.

The Rishonim were leading sages who lived between the 11th and 15th centuries, among them Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), a French rabbi who wrote an almost complete commentary on the Talmud. Rashi’s work was followed by commentaries of the Tosafists, a subset of the Rishonim, among them Rashi’s descendants and disciples.

There is a point when the Talmud and external historical events do intersect, and this is described in one of the few Jewish historical sources from the period of the Late Middle Ages. “Shevet Yehudah” (Scepter of Judah, 1550), was written in Hebrew by the Spanish Jewish historian, Solomon ibn Verga. It describes the persecutions experienced by Spanish and Portuguese Jews, leading up to and after their expulsions.

Verga also notes that in 1211 CE, 300 French and English rabbis immigrated to the Holy Land:

In the year 4971 (1211 CE), God inspired the Rabbis of France and England to go to Jerusalem. They numbered more than three hundred and were accorded great honor by the king. They built for themselves synagogues and houses of study. Our teacher … Rabbi Jonathan ha-Kohen went there as well…

Did this event, the aliyah of the Tosafists, really happen?

Ephraim Kanarfogel thinks so. He points out that Jewish writers who visited the Holy Land a few years after 1211 corroborated Verga’s account. For example, the traveler Rabbi Judah al-Harizi reported meeting French Tosafist scholars, such as Rabbi Joseph of Clisson, in the Holy Land in 1216 CE.

The immigration of 300 rabbis, as mentioned by Verga, may be an exaggeration, although perhaps not if families, students, and or disciples of the leading scholars are included. In “Tools for Tosafos — written in 1996 — Haim Perlmutter names a total of 101 Tosafists, the majority either French or German. (Only six were English.) However, this number includes a span of two or three centuries. In this context, the five identified as making Aliyah early in the 13th century; Rabbis Samson of Sens (student of the famed Rabbeinu Tam), Joseph of Clisson, Baruch ben Isaac of Worms, Samson of Coucy, and Jonathan ha Kohen of Lunel, represent a significant component of the Tosafist cohort. Perlmutter also shows that the main motivation for the migration was spiritual, not economic or because of persecution.

So why is it important to draw attention to a migration that took place over 800 years ago? Because it highlights the fact that aliyah is not a modern invention. Moreover, the Jewish people never did completely leave their indigenous homeland. Throughout the centuries, there has been a continual and active Jewish presence in the Land of Israel. While it is true that many Jews were dispersed to other lands, some stayed on and, when possible, they were joined by returning exiles.

Jacob Sivak, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, is a retired professor, University of Waterloo.

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