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1874: A proto-Zionist Dies

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Eliyahu Guttmacher.
Eliyahu Guttmacher.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

October 5, 1874, is the date on which Rabbi Eliyahu Guttmacher, a rabbinical scholar, teacher and mystic who was an early proponent of the Jews’ return to the Land of Israel, died. Guttmacher, who served as the rabbi of the Polish town of Pleschen (today Pleszew), was a colleague and ideological partner of Zvi Hirsch Kalischer, who is remembered as the ideological forebear of the proto-Zionist Hibat Zion movement, but his name is far less well-known than Kalischer’s.

Eliyahu Guttmacher was born on August 5, 1796 in Borek, in the province of Posen in western Poland, the son of Shlomo and Tziporah Guttmacher.

Growing up, he studied in a variety of different yeshivas and earned a reputation for his innovative analysis of halakhic (Jewish religious law) questions. At age 19, Guttmacher began his studies at the yeshiva of Rabbi Akiva Eger, in Ravitz, under whose influence he began studying kabbalistic (Jewish mysticism) texts and developing his own conception regarding the connection of the Land of Israel to Jewish redemption.

In 1821, he took his first job as a rabbi, in Pleschen, where he also opened a yeshiva that eventually grew to enroll 400 students. In 1841, he was appointed rabbi of Graetz (today Grodzisk Wielkopolski), where he stayed until his death in that city, in 1874.

Although Guttmacher never was directly associated with a Hasidic community, he developed a reputation as a holy man, if not something of a miracle worker. Despite his efforts to discourage it, people would come to him for blessings and amulets, and even in the hope that he could cure their illnesses. According to the YIVO Institute archives, Guttmacher was the only non-Hasidic rabbi in western Poland to have this sort of following, whose members referred to him as the Tzadik (righteous man or saint) of Graetz.

It was through his study of kabbala that Guttmacher became a proponent of mystical Zionism. Kalischer (1795-1874) had been classmate of Guttmacher’s at Rabbi Eger’s yeshiva. Later, as a practicing rabbi in Thorn, in what is now Poland, he published his book “Drishat Zion,” in which he presented his concept about the need for the Jews to return to their ancient homeland and to begin to work the land.

Rabbi Kalischer sent a copy of the “Drishat Zion” manuscript to Guttmacher, who in reading it, discovered that he had a spiritual soulmate in his old friend. Kalischer, for his part, respected and admired Guttmacher for his erudition.

In the book, Kalischer developed the idea that the Jews were a nation, and that their aspiration to physically return to their historic homeland was a legitimate one. Instead of believing that the redemption of the Jews needed to await the coming of the Messiah, Kalischer and Guttmacher began to preach the idea that the Jews could themselves expedite the messianic age by going to Eretz Israel and working its land according to the rules set down in the Torah.

Guttmacher proposed sending poor Jews from Europe to Palestine for the purpose, and also involved himself in raising funds to support young scholars already living there. Although he himself apparently never reached the Land (it was a dream of his, but one he was too old to pursue), Guttmacher purchased a property in Jerusalem and allocated it to the use of a kabbalistic study group. He also issued a pamphlet about the renewal of sacrifices in the Holy Land, which in part helped him to overcome the opposition of the Ashkenazi rabbis of Jerusalem to the idea of “return” before the Messianic age.

In 1860, Guttmacher, Kalischer and several other like-minded rabbis founded the Jewish Company for the Settlement of the Holy Land, one of several organizations that raised money for the purchase of land and supporting pioneers in Palestine.

Though many of his positions were unorthodox, Guttmacher was no religious reformer, and he maintained steady opposition to the Reform movement.

Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, a religious kibbutz in the Beit She’an Valley, established in 1934, is named after Guttmacher. Today, it is a pioneer in innovative methods of organic agriculture.

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