Vilna Gaon
A portrait of the Vilna Gaon, whose followers arrived in the Holy Land in 1809, settled in Safed, and eventually moved on to Jerusalem. Photo by Wikimedia
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On this day in 1809, a group of some 150 followers of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, arrived in the Land of Israel. They were the second of three groups of Perushim (“those who are apart”) who made the 15-month journey from Shklov, Lithuania, to the Holy Land in response to the instructions of their leader. They traveled over land to Constantinople, and then via sea to Acre (arriving in 1808 and 1809, respectively). The 1809 group was led by Rabbi Saadya ben Rabbi Natan Neta, the principal disciple of the Vilna Gaon, who himself remained behind in Lithuania. They immediately joined those who preceded them in Safed, where the first group had moved after discovering that Tiberias, their first destination, was populated by large numbers of Hassidic Jews, with whom the Gaon’s Lithuanian followers had famously bad relations. The Perushim worked the land and studied Torah, and by 1813 their numbers in Safed had reached more than 450. However after being hit by plague, an earthquake in 1837, and anti-Jewish rioting by nearby Druze, they eventually resettled in Jerusalem, bringing to an end a century-old ban against Ashkenazi Jews living in the city.