(Seri Tokoh Zionist 1) RABBI YEHUDAH ALKALAI 1798-1878

YEHUDAH ALKALAI was born in 1798 in Sarajevo to Rabbi
Shlomo Alkalai, the spiritual leader of the local Jewish community.
We know very little about his early years, but it is established that he
spent his boyhood in Jerusalem. There Alkalai came under the influence
of the cabbalists, who were then a significant element in the
spiritual life of its Jewish community. In 1825 he was called to serve as
rabbi in Semlin, the capital of Serbia. Not far away the Greeks had
recently won their national war of independence, and the other
nationalities of the Balkans, including the Serbs among whom he
lived, were each beginning their efforts to rise against their Turkish
overlord. Hence ideas of national freedom and restoration came easily
to Alkalai’s mind from the atmosphere of his time and place.
The notion of commencing a serious effort to effect a Jewish
Redemption appears in his writing as early as 1834, in a booklet entitled
Shema Yisrael (Hear, 0 Israel). He proposed the creation of
Jewish colonies in the Holy Land, by man’s own effort, as the necessary
preamble to the Redemption. This idea was, of course, at variance
with the usual pious notion that the Messiah would come by miraculous
acts of divine grace. Alkalai argued, both here and later, that
self-redemption was justified by “proof texts” from the tradition. As
cabbalist, he invoked an ancient Jewish myth, which had been much
embroidered by the mystics, that the days of the Messiah were to be
ushered in by a forerunner of the true miraculous Redeemer. This first
Messiah, the son of Joseph, would lead the Jews in the wars of Gog
and Magog; under him, they would conquer the Holy Land by the
might of their sword.
The real turning point in Alkalai’s life was the year 1840′ TIle
Jews of Damascus were confronted in that year by the Blood Accusation,
the charge that had often been repeated throughout the Middle
Ages that they annually slaughtered a gentile and used his blood in the
preparation of their unleavened bread for Passover. This affair quickly

became a calise celebre throughout the Jewish and, indeed, the
European world. It convinced Alblai (as it half-convinced his younger
contemporary, Moses Hess) that for security and freedom the Jewish
people must look to a life of its own, within its ancestral home. Aftcr
,840 a succession of books and pamphlets poured from Alkalai’s pcn in
explanation of his program of self-redemption. Much of his pleading
was addressed to the Jewish notables of the Western world, men like
the English financier Moses Montefiore and the French politician
Adolph Cremieux, for he knew that his schemes could not suceced
withont the support of their money and political inRuenee. Alblai
imagined that it would be possible to buy the Holy Land from the
Turks, as in biblical times Abraham had bought the field of Machpcloh
from Ephron, the Hittite. The sehemcs which Alkalai conceived
for carrying out this great work included the convocation of a
“Great Assembly,” the creation of a national fund for the purchase
of land and another fund to receive tithes, and the Roating of a
national loan. Sneh ideas were to re:lppear later in Herzl and actually
to be realized through the Zionist movement.
Alkalai was not merely a writer and propagandist; he journeyed
frcqucntly to the capitals of Europe to attempt to inspire practical
efforts for the redemption of the Holy Land. I-Ie snccccded in organizing
a few small circles, including one even in London, to sllpport his
ideas, but their careers were brief. However, Simon Loeb I-Icrzl,
Theodor Herzl’s grandfather, was a disciple and admirer-one of the
very few-of Alkalai. One of Alkalai’s granddaughters was among
the dclegates to the First Zionist Congress. In a memoir that appcarcd
in ‘9>2, in honor of the twenty-fifth anniversary of that event, she
wrote: “I thought about my grandfather, Rabbi Ychudah Hai Alblai,
who spent his life preaching the return to the Land of Israel and I
remembered my grandmother-his wife-who, in joyous dedication,
had sold her jewels to enable my grandfather to publish his books in
which he broadcast his idea of the return to the Land of IsraeL”
Albini ended his days in the city of his visions, in Jerusalem, in
,878. Regarded among the pietists and the modernists alike as a
strange being, he was half forgotten. Recent scholarship has red is·
covered his writings, and in ‘945 a literary epitaph in the form of a
major novel in Hebrew, Judah Burin’s KisslIfim (Longings), helped do
delayed justice to an intriguing personality.
The excerpts below arc Iorgely from one of his early works, and his
first in Ilebrew, Min”al YelIt/dali (T”e Offering of Ye/JUda”) , which
was published in 1845.

IT rs WRrTTEN in the Bible: “Return, 0 Lord, unto the tens and
thousands of the families of IsraeL'” On this verse the rabbis commented
in the Talmud’ as follows: it proves that the Divine Presence
can be felt only if there are at least two thousands and two tens of
thousands of Israelites togetheL Yet we pray every day: “Let our eyes
behold Thy return in mercy unto Zion.'” Upon whom should the
Divine Presence rest? On sticks and stones? Therefore, as the first step
in the reden,ption of our souls, we must cause at least twenty-two
tbousand to return to the Holy Land. This is the necessary preparation
for a descent of the Divine Presence among us; afterward, He
will grant us and all Israel further signs of His favor.
“And Jacob came in peace to the city of Sheehem … and he bought
the parcel of ground where he had spread his tent.'” We must ask:
Why did Jacob buy this land, since, being on his way to his father,
Isaac, he had no intention of living there? Obviously, he performed
this act to teach his descendants that the soil of the Holy Land must
be purchased from its non-Jewish owners.
We, as a people, are properly called Israel only in the land of
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. We are, therefore, commanded not to attempt to go at once
and all together to the Holy Land. In the first place, it is necessary
for many Jews to remain for a time in the lands of dispersion, so that
they can help the first settlers in Palestine, who will undoubtedly
come from among the poor. Secondly, the Lord desires that we be redeemed
in dignity; we cannot, therefore, migrate in a mass, for we
should then have to live like Bedouins, scattered in tents all over
the fields of the Holy Land. Redemption must come slowly. The
land must, by degrees, be built up and prepared.

There are two kinds of return: individual and collective. Individual
return means that each man should turn away from his evil pcrsonal
ways and repent; the way of such repentance has been prescribed in
the devotional books of our religious tradition. This kind of repentance
is called individual, because it is relative to the particular needs of each
man. Collective return means that all Israel should return to the land
which is the inheritance of our fathers, to receive the Divine command
and to accept the yoke of Heaven. This collective return was foretold
by all the prophets; even though we are unworthy, Heaven will help
us, for the sake of our holy ancestors.
Undoubtedly our greatest wish is to gather our exiles from the four
corners of the earth to become one bond. We are, alas, so scattered
and divided today, because each Jewish community speaks a different
language and has different customs. TI,ese divisions arc an obstacle to
the Redemption.
I wish to attest to the pain I have always felt at the error of our
ancestors, that they allowed our Holy Tongue to be so forgotten. Because
of this our people was divided into seventy peoples; our one
language was replaced by the seventy languages of the lands of exile.
If the Almighty should indeed show us His miraculous favor and
gather us into our land, we would not be able to speak to each other
and such a divided community could not succeed. Let no one “solve”
this problem by saying that, at the time of Redemption, God will send
an angel to teach us all the seventy languages of mankind, for such a
notion is false. This sort of thing is not accomplished by a miracle,
and it is almost impossible to imagine a true revival of our Hebrew
tongue by natural means. But we must have faith that it will come,
for Joel prophesied: “I will pour out My spirit upon all flesh, and your
sons and your daughters shall prophesy.'” If the prophet forctold that
the sons and daughters of the era of the Redemption will prophesy in
a common language which they would know and be able to use, we
must not despair. We must rcdouble our efforts to maintain Hebrew
and to strcngthcn its position. It must be the basis of our cducational
The Redemption will begin with efforts by the Jews thcmsclves;
they must organize and unite, choose leaders, and leave thc lands of
exile. Sincc no community can exist without a governing body, the
very first new ordinance must be the appointment of thc elders of cach
district, men of piety and wisdom, to ovcrsee all thc affairs of the community.
I humbly suggest that this chosen assembly-the asscmbly of

the elders-is what is meant by the promise to us of the Messiah, the
son of Joseph.
These elders should be chosen by our greatest magnates, upon
whose influence we all depend. The organization of an international
Jewish body is in itself the first step to the Redemption, for out of this
organization there will come a fully authorized assembly of elders, and
from the elders, the Messiah, son of Joseph, will appear. It is fundamental
to the success both of an international Jewish organization and
of an assemblage of elders that the elders be men of high caliber, who
will command respect and obedience, so that the people of the Lord
cease being like sheep without a shepherd. Redemption depends
We have certain bad habits among us and there are forces which are
weakening our religion. Our faith will not regain its strength until
these elders are appointed. Even before we re-enter the Holy Land,
as, with God’s help, we assuredly will, we must first name elders to
arrange for the observance of those commandments which apply, in
particular, in the Holy Land, like the law of letting the soil be fallow
on the seventh year, for the blessings to come to us from the land
depend on the faithfulness with which we will adhere to these laws.
It is not impossible for us to carry out the commandment to return
to the Holy Land. The Sultan will not object, for His Majesty knows
that the Jews are his loyal subjects. Difference of religion should not
be an obstacle, for each nation will worship its own god and we will
forever obey the Lord, our God.
I ask of our brethren that they organize a company, on the mode of
the fire insurance companies and of the railroad companics. Let this
company appeal to the Sultan to give us back the land of our ancestors
in return for an annual rent. Once the name of Israel is again applicd
to our land, all Jews will be inspired to help this company with all the
means at their disposal. Though this venture will begin modestly, its
future will be very great.

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