When the first followers of the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna) came to the Land of Israel 200 years ago, they aspired to bring about the redemption and the coming of the Messiah. As their first step, they planned to recreate the Sanhedrin, the supreme council in the era of the Second Temple. However, halakha (Jewish religious law) teaches that the Sanhedrin can only be established by someone with a continuous chain of succession of authority from Moses. No such individuals existed.
"Rabbi Israel of Sheklov, one of the leaders of the Vilna Gaon disciples in Israel, decided to look for assistance to the Ten Lost Tribes living beyond the Sambatyon river, in the belief that they still had a Sanhedrin that had been operating continuously since the time of Moses," says Dr. Arie Morgenstern of Jerusalem's Shalem Center. "He sent to Yemen a man known as Baruch of Pinsk with a document addressed to the leaders of the Ten Tribes that informed them: The redemption depends on you," Morgenstern explains.
The story of the attempt to revive the Sanhedrin was one of the topics presented at an academic conference held last week at Bar-Ilan University (BIU) to mark the 200th anniversary of the aliyah, in 1808, of followers of the Vilna Gaon, considered by many the greatest rabbi in centuries. It was one of the largest pre-Zionist immmigrations to Israel, bringing hundreds of the Gaon's disciples from Europe, based on the belief that the Messiah would arrive in 1840. Prof. Ben-Zion Rosenfeld, head of BIU's Jewish history department, says it can be considered the first organized aliyah, heraldin the ideologically inspired immigrations that were to follow.
The descendants of the Gaon's disciples from that aliyah were the foundation on which the "old" ultra-Orthodox settlement in Jerusalem was built when the first Zionist immigrants began to arrive.
"The people of the First Aliyah and the Second Aliyah didn't build the yishuv (pre-state Jewish settlement) out of nothing," Rosenfeld says. "When they reached Israel, there already was a quite developed yishuv in Jerusalem, started by Gaon's students." However, he adds, "There is a significant difference between this messianic aliyah and the Zionist aliyah. This was not a productive aliyah that sustained itself. They were inspired by messianic motives and counted on European Jewry for their livelihood. That is one of the things to which the Zionists who came later objected."
The Vilna Gaon attempted aliyah himself toward the end of the 18th century, but while still in Europe he changed his mind for unknown reasons and returned home. Perhaps he felt that he did not have divine permission to go to the Land of Israel. Even so, says Rosenfeld, the Gaon legitimized a mystical, messianic view of Israel that was not shared by other Jewish sects.
The Gaon's followers settled in Tiberias before moving to Safed. Later on, some settled down in Jerusalem. "From the start they suffered from epidemics and from persecution by the Ottoman rulers," Rosenfeld says. "In 1837 they were affected by a powerful earthquake. Rabbi Israel of Sheklov lost his family but remained unbroken. He stayed in the Galilee for almost his entire life."
When 1840 arrived but the Messiah did not, Dr. Morgenstern says, some abandoned their messianic beliefs and clung to Jerusalem, which is the origin of Jerusalem's Ashkenazi Haredi community.
What came of Baruch ben Samuel of Pinsk's mission to the Ten Lost Tribes? "He got to Yemen, where he was supposed to meet with individuals who could put him in touch with the tribes, but naturally, they weren't there," Morgenstern relates. "Because he was a natural healer, he reached the court of the Yemeni leader, Imam Yihye, who suffered from epilepsy, and became his doctor. Baruch of Pinsk developed a close relationship with the king, which aroused the jealousy of the courtiers, and the Imam murdered him in 1834."