This month’s anniversary of the passing in October 1878 (4 Tishrei on the Hebrew calendar) of Rabbi Yehuda Alkalai, a Sephardi Jew from Serbia, presents an opportunity to correct the record and restore the Sephardi impact on Zionist renewal to its rightful place.
While his name may not be overly familiar to most Israelis, his intellectual legacy laid the groundwork for the modern rebirth of Israel.
Though he was born in Sarajevo in 1798, Alkalai’s formative years were spent in Jerusalem, where he delved into ancient Jewish texts and became steeped in Jewish mysticism.
At the young age of 27, he was offered the post of rabbi in the town of Zemun, which is today part of the Serbian capital of Belgrade. At the time, however, it fell within the boundaries of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and straddled the border of Turkish-occupied Serbia.
Within a decade, in 1834, he produced a booklet called Shema Yisrael (Hear, O Israel) proposing something which at the time was considered radical: to create Jewish colonies in the land of Israel as a prelude to redemption.
In other words, Rabbi Alkalai advocated that man take action to bring about Jewish national emancipation.
This notion ran counter to conventional wisdom, which primarily believed that Jews should wait passively for Messianic deliverance.
Nonetheless, he developed the concept further, writing additional books and pamphlets and traveling throughout Europe to spread his message.
IN HIS 1845 work Minhat Yehudah, Rabbi Alkalai wrote, “In the first conquest, under Joshua, the Almighty brought the children of Israel into a land that was prepared: its houses were then full of useful things, its wells were giving water, and its vineyards and olive groves were laden with fruit. This new Redemption will – alas, because of our sins – be different: our land is waste and desolate, and we shall have to build houses, dig wells, and plant vines and olive trees.”
“Redemption,” he wrote, “must come slowly. The land must, by degrees, be built up and prepared.”
To accomplish this, Rabbi Alkalai offered novel, and highly prescient, suggestions, which included the launch of a national fund to purchase land in Israel, the convening of a “Great Assembly” to oversee Jewish national affairs, and a redoubling of efforts to revive Hebrew as a spoken language.
At a time when many Jews were beginning to despair after centuries of persecution, Rabbi Alkalai offered concrete hope.
More importantly, by highlighting practical measures that Jews could take, he empowered people throughout the Jewish world to become involved in a national act of self-redemption which would engender Divine mercy. In 1874, at the age of 76, Rabbi Alkalai and his wife made aliya, settling in Jerusalem to fulfill his life-long dream. He passed away four years later.
In one of those curious twists of fate that even the most inventive novelist could not contrive, one of Rabbi Alkalai’s faithful congregants and most ardent disciples was a man named Simon Loeb Herzl, whose grandson Theodor would later alter the course of Zionist and Jewish history.
Is it possible that Simon Loeb came home from synagogue on the Sabbath, fired up by the rabbi’s sermon about the need for Jews to head to Zion, and shared this passion with his offspring?...
“We, as a people, are properly called Israel,” he once wrote, “only in the land of Israel... Though this venture will begin modestly, its future will be very great.”
Here is a passage from one of Rabbi Alkalai's works:
Now we pray every day: Let our eyes behold Thy return to Zion in mercy, and if we believe our own words, then upon whom will the Divine Presence become manifest? Upon the trees and the rocks?According to this article at The Jewish Agency, the town of Ohr Yehuda near Tel Aviv is named after Alkalai.
Therefore, as the first step to the beginning of redemption of our souls we must return to the Land twenty-two thousand (Jews), the Holy One Blessed Be He to cause the Divine Presence to descend upon them. This most certainly will be followed by His showing us and all of Israel beneficial signs.
Such an idea is hinted at in the Torah: And Jacob came in peace to the city of Shechem... and he bought the parcel of ground where he spread his tent. Why did Jacob buy the land if his only intention was to rest there for a time and then continue on to see his father, Isaac? It is apparent that this act was realized to teach his descendants that the redemption would come about by purchasing the land from its inhabitants. Because he bought the parcel of land it was as if he lived (permanently) on it.
More so, the redemption from Egypt brought the people of Israel to a good and spacious land, one whose wells were already dug, and whose vineyards and olive groves were already planted. Yet, because of our sins, the Land is now empty and desolate and we must, for this redemption, build the houses and dig the wells and plant the vineyards and the olive groves.