Seventeenth-century Gluckel did not follow her dream. There were others, however, who lived in the Middle Ages who did manage to act upon their own similar feelings of longing. Fifteenth century rabbinic scholar, Ovadia Bertinoro was one of them. He left his family behind in Italy and made a new home for himself in Jerusalem. Twelfth century poet, Yehuda Halevi, was too. He yearned for the Holy Land, and set sail for this destination at the end of his life (though it is unclear if he actually ever arrived). Likewise a group of thirteenth-century rabbis (300 some say!) left France and Germany behind to establish themselves anew in the Holy Land.
What drew these individuals to move to the Land of Israel in the Middle Ages? Of course it’s difficult to make generalizations, as they lived at very different times. Nevertheless, I think we can learn a few things from the shared aspects of their experiences.
First are a few factors that were not reasons to move to the Land of the Israel:
(1) During much of the Middle Ages, the Land of Israel was not a lively center of religious and cultural activity. Indeed, only a tiny percentage of the world Jewish population lived there. Jewish life was so sparse that traveler Benjamin of Tudela writes almost nothing of the communities there, but dwells instead on describing the architectural ruins. Ovadia Bertinoro tells us that when he was there, only 4,000 families lived in Jerusalem (among them only 70 were Jewish). And letters composed by several of the rabbis who moved there during the thirteenth century suggest that it was a difficult place to study Torah because the institutional infrastructure was so weak. (During Gluckel’s time the situation was somewhat different, as Safed was becoming an active Jewish town under Ottoman rule. Let’s put this aside, though, for now).
(2) Those Jews who did move to the Land of Israel during the Middle Ages found themselves living under Muslim rule during some periods, and under Christian rule during others. These Jews may have been living in a land to which they felt a historic and spiritual connection. Yet, unlike in Israel today, they did not live as sovereign people in their own land any more than did the Jews of North Africa or Western Europe.
(3) Nor was it easy to make a living there during much of Middle Ages. Indeed, a large percentage of the Jewish population that lived there was either supported by charity that came from Jewish communities abroad, or they had moved there with some money on which to retire (as in the case of Ovadia Bertinoro).
What then would have motivated Jews to move there? And even for those – like Gluckel - who never got up the guts to go, why would they have longed to go there at all?
Historian Ephraim Kanarfogel (who analyzed the responsa letters from those rabbis who moved there during the thirteenth century) suggests that they were motivated by a sense of obligation. Simply put, they understood there was a religious injunction to live in the Holy Land, and they believed it necessary to fulfill this command.
Ovadia Bertinoro penned intimate letters to his father and brother, which shed some light on his interior world; the personal feelings and motivations that may have led him to the decision to pick up and leave his family in Italy and stake out a new life in Jerusalem.
He writes with great pathos of the sadness he felt about leaving his father. When he thinks of his greying old man he is “inconsolable,” and “cannot refrain from tears.” This emotional display sounds a bit over the top to me. I wonder if his expression of guilt might not in fact be meant to cover up the fact that he really wanted to get as far away from dear dad as possible. Perhaps fleeing to the Holy Land was a legitimate excuse to go out on his own.
That’s just conjecture, but I can’t help but wondering….
Another simpler and more obvious explanation is that Ovadia Bertinoro wanted to live a spiritual, holy life. Living in the Land of Israel allowed this, because it provided him with the opportunity to leave his business concerns behind. In addition, he found himself surrounded by others whose primary concern seemed to have been their spiritual lives. “There are some excellent regulations here,” he writes. “I have nowhere seen the daily service conducted in a better manner. The Jews rise an hour or two before day-break… and recite psalms and other songs of praise till the day dawns… the ‘Hear, O Israel’ being read on the appearance of the sun’s first rays.”
What a dramatic and moving description of what it was like to pray in Jerusalem! Though Gluckel of Hameln never made it to the Holy Land, it seems this was precisely the sort of experience she longed for; far away from mundane and trivial troubles. Connected instead to that which - seemed to her - must really matter.
“Leaving behind me all the nothingness of this world, I should have taken myself, with the handful that remained me, to the Land of Our Fathers. There I might have lived as a good Jewess, and the cares and griefs of my children and all the other vanities of the world would no longer have burdened me, and there I might have served God with all my heart and soul.” It might not have been an easy place to live, but perhaps the Holy Land – even just the thought of it - provided an answer to some of life’s existential troubles.