Premodern Travel to Israel and the Aliyah of R. Ovadia Bartenura in 1486-88

ברטינורא אגרות ארץ ישראל - British Library Ms. Add. 27078

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In spite of the hardships of travel, the sequence of repressive regimes that ruled in the Land of Israel, and lack of economic development and opportunity, Jews have always made their way back to their homeland when they were able. A few major figures, such as Yehuda ha-Levi and Ramban, are known for their aliyah to Eretz Yisrael in premodern times. However, when we begin to examine the history of Jewish travel and aliyah to the Land of Israel before the advent of modern Zionism, we quickly uncover not a marginal phenomenon or occasional journey, but a persistent and deep connection to the Land and a commitment to active Jewish presence there.

As is still the case, Jews were motivated by a confluence of factors to make their way to Israel. These include personal or family reasons; spiritual longing and messianic hopes; and, often, political oppression or becoming refugees. Following the final Roman exile of Jews in antiquity in the wake of the Bar Kochva revolt, Jewish settlement became fundamentally contingent. That means that Jews were granted the right to live in the various lands to which they were exiled subject to conditions as well as agreements that could be revoked at the will of the sovereign or local ruler (which might be an ecclesiastical official). In the Islamicate world, this traditionally took the form of protected but marginalized dhimmi status, which stipulated that Jews be allowed to practice their laws provided they were marked as inferior to Muslims, including being subject to a greater tax burden. In Christian Europe, charters permitting Jewish settlement were generally more precarious, as expulsions on the municipal and later kingdom-wide level demonstrate. 

Even as Jews faced what we would today call institutionalized discrimination and marked personal insecurity, travel in the premodern world was fraught with danger, and the journey to the Land of Israel was a daunting one for Jews outside of the Middle East. Piracy was a significant threat in the Mediterranean world, with Jews especially targeted, since community resources would pay for their ransom. To this was added the potential violence to which unfamiliar travelers were subjected and the difficulties in finding lodging and kosher food along the way, as well as the financial burden of financing the voyage. These factors make it all the more remarkable that Jews persisted in making their way to the Land of Israel.

R. Ovadia di Bertinoro (“the Bartenura”)

Born in Bertinoro c. 1450, he was active in a different northern Italian town, Città di Castello, in finance and probably teaching and other communal activities. (In a municipal document related to his financial activities, he’s called Maestro Servadio di Habramo da Bertinoro—“Servadio” being a vernacular translation of “Ovadia,” a commonly-seen convention in medieval Christian Europe.) He is also known in Hebrew by the epithet “Yare” (יר”א), probably an acronym, possibly from Devarim 33:24, יְהִי רְצוּי אֶחָיו.

In late 1486, when he was in his thirties, Bartenura set out from his home in Castello, bound for the Land of Israel. He made his way to Rome, Naples, Salerno, and Palermo, then sailed from Messina, via Rhodes, for Alexandria, arriving in early 1488. Staying for a time in Cairo, he approached Israel overland, entering at Gaza, lodging at Chevron (Hebron), and finally entering Yerushalayim (Jerusalem). Bartenura wrote three extraordinary letters about his journey to Eretz Yisrael, which took him close to a year and half due to the stops he made along the way.

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Letter 3 Hebrew Text

איגרת ג

כתב אחר בא מירושלם שנת ר”ן

אדון תמים, א-ל שדי יתן לך רחמים והארכת ימים, עד תזכה ותראה מקדש ובית עולמים אמן. 

כאשר בא הלום האינבאשאדורי פיורנטינו עם אגרות אדוני החמודות, לא הייתי אז בירושלם עיר הקודש, כי הלכתי לחברון וגרתי בה ימים רבים, עד אשר היתה ישיבתה חביבה אלי כמעט יותר מירושלם, להיות היהודים בה מעט וטובים, ואינם כאנשי ירושלם לרוע. והם כעשרים בעלי בתים, כולם מכונסים במבוי אחד הסוגר עליהם, ולא יעבור ביניהם ישמעאל וטמא. וגם מסורת ביד כל אנשי הארץ כי הקבורה בחברון טובה מבירושלם. ועל הבניין הנושן בנין חדש מהישמעאלים. והמקום אשר שם נגלו המלאכים לאברהם עדין שמו עליו, מומרא, ובו מערה קטנה, ובה אבן, אומרים שעליה נימול אברהם. ומחוץ לעיר מעט באר מים גדולה, קורין לה הישמעאלים בייר אברהם, ורחוק ממנה לעיר מעט באר אחרת, קורין לה בייר אסחק. ורחוק משם כמטחוי קשת או יותר, נחל אשכול, ועדין שמו עליו. והענבים בנחל ההוא גדולים עד היום מכל הענבים אשר בכל המדינה סביב. וכפרים רבים עד היום סביבות חברון, אשר שמם עליהם כמו שמוזכרים בספרי הנביאים.

ופה חברון, על קברות האבות, בנין ישן נושן מאד, מאבנים גדולות, לא תאמינו כי יסופר.

ואמנם דמשק העיר הגדולה, אשר שאל אדוני עליה, אם היא מארץ ישראל, כבר זה מפורסם בדברי כל החכמים, וביחוד מדברי הרמב”ם בהלכות תרומות, שהיא מסוריא תחשב. וכן מסכימים כל יושבי הגליל עד היום הזה, אך אומרים שגבול הארץ קרוב לה מאד. ספַט [צפת] ובנורשה [בנותיה], היא העיר הגדולה בארץ הגליל, קרובים לדמשק, וגבולם נמשך עד קרוב לדמשק. ואולם טריפולי דסוריאה, אשר היא לחוף אניות, והיתה סחר גוים, היא על גבול הארץ תחשב ונכבדות מדובר בה, שהיא מבורכת מפירות ומכל דבר מכל ערי ארץ ישראל, ואליה גרים יבואו מאפסי ארץ. ויש בה היום כמאה בעלי בתים מישראל, ויושבים לבטח עליה. ורבים אמרו לי שאם היה בתוכה איש נכון לחש ממחוז איטאליאה, יהיה מתעשר עושר גדול במעט זמן עם סוחרי ארץ איטאליאה העוברים בקובה תמיד. 

המלחמה ממלך תוגר עם מלך מצרים כבר נשכח זכרה ורבים אומרים כי כרתו ברית שלא יעברו זה על זה לרעה עד שנתים ימים. והמלך אשר הוא עתה מלך, הוא מלך הראשון, לא מת ולא נשתנה; וזה לו עשרים שנה אשר הומלך על מלכות מצרים, והוא זקן מאד ואינו מצר לישראל אלא שלוקח מהן ממון כבד, כאשר עושה גם לישמעאלים וגם לעולים הגרים בארצה.

וחרש אחר אין לי היום לאדוני, כי אשתטח על קברות אבותינו הקדושים, ונוכח פתח בית א’ אתפלל תמיד. יהיה כנהר שלומך ושלום נאות ביתך, וברכך ה’ בכל אשר תעשה כנפשך שבעך, וכנפש נפש עבדך עובדיה ירא, יושב ירושלם עיר הקודש, תבנה ותכונן. בנחץ [נחת?] רב פה חברון כ”ב טבת נר לרגלי לטוב יהיה אמן ואמן. 

העתקתי אלה שלשת הכתבים פה פירארא, ג’ יינאיו של”כ. להיות כבר אצלי זה ימים ושנים תוך קונטריסי שלי, כתיבת כמ”ר ישראל מקורטונה זלה”ה, וחפצתי להעלותם פה בספרי זה למען יעמדו למזכרת החכם הכולל ובר אוריין ובר אבהן כמהר”ר עובדיה מבירטאנורה [91] זלה”ה, מפרש המשניות. נכתב ונחתם על ידי הצעיר אברהם י”ץ בכ”ר משולם מאן אנילו לי”א.

Letter 3 Translation

Written after his arrival from Jerusalem in the year 250 [1490].1

My gentle friend, may G-d Almighty show you compassion and lengthening of days, such that you will merit to see the [rebuilt] Temple, the eternal abode, amen.

When the ambassador, Fiorentino, came this way bearing your dear letters, I was not then in the holy city of Jerusalem, since I had gone to Hebron and lived there for numerous days, such that its yeshiva was almost more endeared to me than that of Jerusalem, given that the Jews there were few and excellent, and not like the people of Jerusalem in their wickedness.2 They [the Jews of Hebron] consist of some twenty householders, all of whom live in a single alleyway which is enclosed; no Muslims or ritually impure people pass through. All residents of the land have in their hands a tradition that burial in Hebron is better than in Jerusalem. On the antiquated buildings, there is new construction by the Muslims. The place where the angels were revealed to Abraham is still called by the same name, Mumra,3 and there is a small cave there in which there is a stone, upon which, they say, Abraham was circumcised. A small ways outside of the city there is a large water well, which the Muslims call Bayyar Ibrahim [the Well of Abraham], and a bit further out from the city there is another well, called Bayyar Ishaq [the Well of Isaac]. And at a distance of an arrow’s barrage or more from there is Nachal Eshkol, which still bears its same name. The grapes that grow there in the vicinity of the stream are to this day larger than in all the surrounding country. And to this day there are many villages in the vicinity of Hebron, bearing the same names they have in the books of the prophets.

Here in Hebron, atop the graves of the forefathers, there is a very old structure made of such large stones, that you wouldn’t believe the telling of it.

Regarding Damascus, the large city about which my master asked whether it is considered a part of the Land of Israel, this has already been made known in the words of all the scholars, and especially in the writing of the Rambam in Hilchot Terumot,4 that it is considered to be in Syria. All the residents of the Galil are in agreement with this to this day, except that they maintain that the boundaries of Israel are very near to it. Safed with its suburbs is the largest city in the Galil, close to Damascus, and their boundaries stretch near to Damascus. Tripoli of Syria,5 which is a port on the shore and a place of foreign merchants, is considered to be on the boundary of the Land of Israel. It is spoken of well, since it is blessed with fruit and all the wares of the cities of Israel, and non-Jews arrive there from all over. Today it has some one hundred Jewish households, where they live in security. Many have told me that if a Jew of Italian origin were to be there, he would quickly become very wealthy dealing with the merchants of Italy who are ever-present there.

The war between the king of Togar [Turkey] and the king of Egypt has already been forgotten, and many people say that a peace agreement has been brokered that they not meet in war for a period of two years. The king that is presenting in power, he is still the first monarch; he has not died or changed. It has been twenty years that he has reigned over Egypt, and he is quite elderly. He does not cause trouble to the Jews except that he levies heavy taxes on them, the same as he extracts from Muslims and foreigners who come to live in the Land.

I don’t have, at present, any other travels to relate to my master, except that I have flattened myself upon the graves of our holy forefathers, and in the opening to the house of G-d I will always pray. May your peace flow like a river, over your house as well, and may the blessing of G-d be with you in all that you do. I am, myself, your servant Ovadia Yareh, who dwells in Jerusalem, the holy city, may it be rebuilt and established. In peace, here in Hebron on the 22nd of Tevet, may my way be lit for the best, amen and amen. 

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  1. This dating was added by the letters’ editor, who identifies himself in a postscript at the end of this letter (see below). It appears to be mistaken, since events described in this letter are known to have occurred in 1491.
  2. This is likely a reference to the Elders of Jerusalem with whom Bartenura had had disagreements, perhaps prompting his stay in Hebron. These events are related in greater detail in the first letter, above.
  3. For the Biblical Mamre.
  4. 1:9.
  5. Today, Tripoli, Lebanon, not to be confused with the better-known “Western” Tripoli that is today in Libya.

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