Sunday marks 230 years since the first Chassidic Aliyah when three leading rabbis and their students arrived in Israel on Elul 5, 5537 (1777).
They were led by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, Rabbi Avraham of Kalisk and Rabbi Yisrael of Polotsk. The men were leaders of Chassidism in Russia and rallied 300 of their students to make the perilous journey to the Land of Israel.
All were disciples of Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch. They were also joined by Chabad founder Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, but he was instructed by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk to remain in Moholiev, on the Dneistre River, as they passed though the city, in order to remain behind to serve as the leader of the Chassidic community in White Russia and Lithuania.
The group faced many perils on the way and one of the boats they used sank, and with it 30 Jewish passengers died. They eventually reached the Land of Israel on the fifth of Elul.
They established a Jewish community in Tzfat, but were harassed and attacked by the Ottoman Turks and Arabs, and were forced to resettle in Tiberias.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman stayed in close contact with the settlers and arranged for much-needed funds to be sent to them. They faced extreme difficulties as the students lacked trade skills and knowledge of the basics of state-building, but Rabbi Menachem Mendel refused to give up.
In the spirit of the rabbis' penchant for using gematria (the numeration of the Hebrew letters of words for expounding upon their meaning and significance), Sunday's 230-year anniversary is equal to twice the word Aliyah - perhaps connecting their early Aliyah and that of today.
Reasons For the Move
Examining the reason for the rabbis’ move, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed writes:
“It is difficult to understand what exactly caused Reb Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk to make the move to the Holy Land. He was, at the time, at a peak: He was the most important of the Maggid’s students; he wielded great influence over his followers; they loved him and he loved them as well. So great was his authority that even the leading students of the Maggid, themselves fit to be great spiritual leaders, answered to him. Then, suddenly, he decided to take a group of followers and travel to the land of Israel with the intention of staying there for the rest of his life.
“Some believe that the ongoing persecution at the hands of his opponents, the ‘Mitnagdim,’ caused him such hardship that he decided, in order to divorce himself from the quarreling, to move to the land of Israel. And, indeed, because he succeeded in disseminating Chassidism in areas bordering on Lithuania and even enjoyed a following inside Lithuania, Rabbi Menachem Mendel became the main target of the attacks of the Mitnagdim. Public denouncements and excommunications were issued specifically against him, and it was due to such persecution that he was forced to leave his home in Minsk. All the same, it is difficult to accept that as mighty a personage as he would be deterred by such things. What’s more, he was succeeding and his influence was forever expanding.
“It would appear that, in truth, his thirst for closeness to God, and his great longing for the Holy Land - the land wherein God rests His Divine Presence - shook his inner being so strongly that no worldly enjoyment could compare to living in the land of Israel. In addition, by settling in the land of Israel, Reb Menachem Mendel wished to transcend all factional discrepancy, and map out a path for mending the whole Jewish people.”
Rabbi Menachem Mendel instructed his students to avoid arguments with the local Sephardic Jews already living in Tzfat. His son was arranged to marry the daughter of a local Sephardic family, a practice Rabbi Melamed says “was not at all accepted in those times” by Ashkenazic Jews.
Paved the Way
“As a result of his move to the land of Israel Reb Menachem Mendel forfeited his central position in the Chassidic arena,” Rabbi Melamed writes. “His younger students and friends became the leaders of the movement, and founders of dynasties, while his name was forgotten by many. Yet, it would appear that, thanks to Reb Menachem, the land of Israel became engraved in the consciousness of the Chassidic movement. Leading Chassidic sages, his students and his friends, were appointed with the task of collecting donations in order to support the Jewish settlers in Israel. As a result, they and their followers became attached in one way or another to the land of Israel.”