Messianic Migrations

Modern Zionism is not a revolutionary innovation in Jewish history, claims historian Arie Morgenstern, but part of a continuum that began in the Middle Ages.

With cyclical regularity between 1240 and 1840, a messianic tension and a strong desire for redemption appeared in the Jewish world, and were practically expressed in immigration and settlement in the Land of Israel. Such phenomena occurred once every 100 years, around the 40th year of every century (1240, 1440, 1740 and so on), marking the end of a century according to the Jewish calendar.

Dr. Arie Morgenstern, a historian who specializes in the study of messianic movements and Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel, makes this claim in an article "Dispersion and the Longing for Zion, 1240-1840," in Azure, a journal published by the Shalem Center. According to Morgenstern, his research findings prove that waves of immigration to the Land of Israel - by entire groups, not just individuals - which aimed at reestablishing Jewish nationalism, were a constant phenomenon in Jewish history, at least since the height of the Middle Ages. Zionism, therefore, is part of this continuum, not a "fault line" or a change in Jewish history. Furthermore, he says that his findings refute the passive image of Jewish messianism.

According to Morgenstern, it was not by chance that the phenomenon began in the year 1240. According to the Jewish calendar, that was the beginning of the sixth millennium since the creation of the world. In the Jewish messianic conception, every 1,000 years are like a single day for the Holy One, Blessed be He (according to Psalm 90:4: "For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past"). Therefore, the sixth millennium is like the sixth day of creation, after which will come the eternal "Sabbath" - the end of days, in which there is no history in the accepted sense of the word, but rather the kingdom of God on earth. Thus, the sixth millennium, like the sixth day of the week, is the preparatory stage for the "cosmic Sabbath."

In accordance with this approach, Morgenstern documents the various messianic migrations. As early as 1211, about 30 years before the beginning of the sixth Jewish millennium (1240), groups of Jews, the disciples of sages and Torah scholars, came to the Land of Israel from France, England, North Africa and Egypt (and therefore this migration was called "the migration of the 300 rabbis"). An anonymous declaration composed in that period clarifies the messianic background of the group, and explains that the migration stems from the belief that the Messiah will be revealed only after the Jews themselves perform the act of returning to and settling in the Land of Israel.

In the course of documenting this group, Morgenstern also argues with research claims in the past that linked their migration to the Crusades, in the sense of an attempt to "hitch a ride" on the Crusaders and arrive together with them in the Holy Land. In his opinion, this is a mistaken analysis; the migration derives from the date and not from the Crusades.

Messianic birth pangs

There is no known data on 1340. However, as 1440 approached, there was a large wave of immigration, fed mainly by the difficult situation of Spanish Jewry even before the expulsion of 1492. (At the end of the 14th century and the beginning of the 15th century, there were harsh persecutions of the Jews in Spain). This messianic tension became even stronger after the expulsion, which was interpreted as "birth pangs of the Messiah," that is, the calamities that lead up to redemption (like the labor pains that precede a birth). Thus, around 1540 there was an especially large migration of a clearly mystical nature, which also acquired special status in Jewish history, since it founded the kabbalistic center in Safed, from which emerged figures like Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the Ari, founder of the Lurian kabbala; Rabbi Joseph Caro, the writer of the Shulhan Arukh and Rabbi Shlomo Alkavetz, who wrote the liturgical poem Lecha Dodi, a greeting of the Sabbath bride.

One hundred years later, messianic fervor does not erupt around 1640, but rather 1648. This was because of an explicit paragraph in the Zohar (the basic text of the kabbala), which talks about the resurrection of the dead in the year 408 of the sixth millennium. Unfortunately, not only was there no resurrection of the dead in that year, or any other process of redemption, but rather the Chmelnitzky pogroms - the pogroms in which the Ukrainian Cossacks, led by Bogdan Chmelnitzky, slaughtered tens of thousands of Jews as part of their war of national liberation from Polish rule. However, notes Morgenstern, this not only did not undermine messianic fervor, but increased it only a few years later, around the figure of Shabtai Zvi.

In 1740, which marked the middle of the sixth millennium in the Jewish calendar, messianic fervor swelled. This time, it was not just a matter of a single year, but rather an extended period of messianic fervor, from 1740 to 1781 (and this according to the calculation that if a single day of the Holy One, blessed be He, lasts 1,000 years, a "divine hour" lasts for 14 years and eight months). This messianic awakening included, according to Morgenstern, some of the great figures in Jewish history - such as the founder of Hasidism, the Ba'al Shem Tov, about whom new research has documented a plan to immigrate to the Land of Israel in 1733. However, according to Morgenstern, this is also true of the great rival of Hasidism, the Gaon of Vilna, who was considered a decided rationalist. Morgenstern claims he has found proof that he too was interested in immigrating to the Land of Israel and the hastening of redemption through writing a new Shulhan Arukh.

Toward 1840, the disciples of the Gaon of Vilna - a group that numbered about 500 - immigrated to the Land of Israel in the context of the new messianic fervor, which again was based on a paragraph in the Zohar that speaks of the coming of the redemption in the last 400 years of the sixth millennium (1840 in the Christian calendar is exactly the year 5600 in the Jewish calendar). The year 5700 (1939-1940), the year when World War II began, is not discussed by Morgenstern in his article. Practically speaking, the immigration routes to the Land of Israel were blocked during those years of the outbreak of the war and the restriction of immigration by the British Mandate authorities. He also does not report on the awakening of ideological messianism around that year, and the events of the Holocaust as a whole, as happened for example with respect to the expulsion from Spain.

Great expectations

However, in a conversation, Morgenstern suggests that "the increasing messianism in Chabad during the past decades is definitely connected to the Holocaust." Messianic fervor in the Chabad movement in recent years is linked, he says, to the year 1990, which in the Jewish calendar marks the beginning of the last quarter of the sixth millennium.

Morgenstern brings up another phenomenon he did not mention in his article. "On several of the messianic dates that proved disappointing there is a regular pattern whereby the disappointed expectations for national redemption leads to a search for individual redemption," he says. Thus, for example, after the disappointment of the national awakening of 1240 (which ended in the erosion of the small Jewish community that had gathered in the Land of Israel as a result of the war between the Crusaders and the Muslims), the Book of the Zohar was written during the final decades of the 13th century. After the disappointment of the messianic awakening in 1540, the Safed Kabbala was born. And after the disappointment of the messianic awakening of 1740, the Hasidic movement developed; it also stresses individual redemption.

In stories about the Ba'al Shem Tov, it is said that on the Jewish New Year of 1746 he ascended to heaven and asked the Messiah when he would come. The answer was: When your springs are spread outward. That is, the way to national and cosmic redemption runs through the Hasidic redemption of the individual. From this derives the motivation to spread Hasidism.

In effect, a similar pattern can be identified in the religious Zionism of our day: Following the disappointment in the idea of national redemption, in recent years religious Zionism has undergone a reversal in the direction of individual spiritual searching, in the spirit of the New Age.

Morgenstern's research on the messianic migrations to the Land of Israel in the past aroused a bitter polemic, since Morgenstern, who is national-religious, argued that in effect, there is a continuum between those migrations and the secular Zionist movement. This angered several secular historians, especially Prof. Yisrael Bartal of Hebrew University, who argued that he was attempting a "national religious rewriting" of history, whereby the religious immigrants preceded the secular Zionists - whereas there is an essential difference between religious migrations without a political aim and a modern nationalist movement that aimed at establishing a "national home" in every sense of the word.

In his current article, Morgenstern writes on this issue: "Of course, there were major, substantive differences between the messianic aliyot [waves of immigration] and the Zionist awakening that followed. The nationalist ideology that revived the Jewish people in the late-19th and 20th centuries was indeed modern in many ways, not the least of which was its rejection of the traditionalist worldview that had characterized the messianic movements."

His longstanding opponent, Bartal, is pleased and says, "In this way Morgenstern admits that Zionism is not the unbroken continuation of the messianic migrations but rather a dialectic continuation through change." However, of Morgenstern's new argument about continuous messianic fervor from 1240 until the Zionist period, Bartal said: "There is nothing new in this. Shazar [the third president of Israel, Zalman Shazar - Y.S.] wrote about this 100 years ago, as did Benzion Dinur [father of the school of `Zionist historians,' who also served as minister of education during the early days of the state - Y.S.], who back in the 1930s wrote about the messianic migrations between 1740 and 1840."

Prof. Jacob Barnai of the Land of Israel Studies Department at Haifa University, who has studied immigration to the Land of Israel during the Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern period, also says that there is no research innovation in Morgenstern's argument: "Those messianic migrations are a known phenomenon. They never were central phenomena in Jewish history, but only a phenomenon of a small minority." Barnai also repeats his argument, which he had presented in his 1995 book "Historiography and Nationalism," that there is no historical continuity between these immigrations and Zionism, in the sense of the existence of a continuous Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel. "There is no genealogical continuity between those immigrations," says Barnai. "The immigrants were mostly old people without children, who came to end their lives in the Holy Land, or whose children later left the country. The group of immigrants who came later came from a different place, in a different context. There is also no continuity of leadership: In every generation the leadership of the small Jewish community in the Land of Israel comes from a different group. The only continuity that can be identified is a certain continuity of customs and regulations, by which the various groups of immigrants try - not always successfully - to preserve customs and traditions shaped by their predecessors."

Morgenstern says of these responses: "I have never claimed that the messianic migrations were Zionist. This is a claim that Bartal has put into my mouth, and in any case I have not retracted it and I have not changed my position on the issue. As for the innovation with respect to Shazar and Dinur, there is no doubt that they had written in the past about the messianic migrations, but that was at the theoretical level. In reality, they knew only a few details about those migrations, particularly about the later ones of 1749 and 1840, and they knew nothing about the continuity that had existed in this matter since 1240.

"Thirdly, anyone who says that the messianic migrations were not a central phenomenon in Jewish history could also say this about Zionism, which also began as an insignificant minority, and became a central phenomenon. Those migrations did create a significant phenomenon in Jewish history, despite the small numbers of participants in them - they created a new reality whereby the Land of Israel became an option not only for prayer or the observance of religious commandments, but for a real return to the Holy Land. In this respect, Israeli society of today is mistaken in that it does not sufficiently stress not only the continuity of the longings for Zion, but also the continuity of Jewish migrations and settlements in the land."

In his article, Morgenstern does not address the question of whether messianic fervor - similar to that he describes in earlier periods - is to be expected in the year 5800 of the Jewish calendar, in other words, 38 years from now, in 2040. In conversation, he says: "In any case we are in a [period of] swelling messianic fervor, so there is no particular need to wait for that particular date." What is clear is that in another 238 years (in the year 2240), before the end of the sixth millennium of the Jewish calendar, messianic fervor is expected to reach new heights.