Holy Land – old tales about its Arabs

The historian, Rav Yosef Schwartz, knew how to blend his scholarship with more than a drop of entertainment. Thus his famous book, Tevuos Ha’aretz, the first modern geography/history of Eretz Yisroel, is packed with personal anecdotes and fascinating tidbits of information. The volume proved so popular that it was translated into English and German almost immediately.

Born and raised in Germany, Rav Schwartz moved to Eretz Yisroel in 5593/1833, where he spent the next nineteen years in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City until his untimely passing in 5612/1852. During these years, he traveled the land, studied its geography and history, became a close friend of Jews and Arabs, and wrote Tevuos Ha’aretz and other seforim.

In a chapter of Tevuos Ha’aretz, “Jews and Muslims of Palestine,” Rav Schwartz relates a series of anecdotes that illustrate the old-time Arab mindset, a mixture of conniving and foolishness that would have been amusing had Jews not been forced to suffer its consequences.

In an episode, entitled “The Wall of Paradise,” he relates how a Kadi (Muslim religious judge) forestalled a pogrom by hoodwinking his coreligionists. This incident occurred after a frightful epidemic had killed many Muslims and left the Jews unscathed, raising such envy and hatred among the Muslims that they plotted to kill the Jews in revenge. The Jews resorted to the time-tested weapon of bribery, promising the Kadi a huge sum of money if he could foil the evil plot.

“Be quiet and have no fear,” he assured them. “I promise you that everything will be alright.”

The following day, the Kadi delivered a long, impassioned sermon to his flock, saying that he had been wallowing in sorrow for a long while and wondering why only the Muslims were so terribly punished while the Jews escaped untouched.

“Finally, the previous night,” he told them, “Mohammed appeared to me in a dream and told me the answer, saying, ‘Take courage, faithful believer! For several years, the Wall of Paradise has needed repairing and this year, it totally collapsed. In order to rebuild it quickly, many believers are needed to contribute their labor and this is why so many faithful Muslims have died. The unbelievers are being spared, since they cannot be permitted to enter Paradise.”

When the Muslims heard this joyful news from the mouth of their holy preacher, they rejoiced and even wanted to die in order to take part in the holy work. They abandoned their plot against the Jews who, after all, had been unworthy to die in the plague. Who knows, if one of the Jews died, he might have accidentally been recruited to take part in rebuilding the wall!

Rav Schwartz adds a witty footnote, writing that he is sorry that the Germans, French, and Spaniards did not receive a similar message from Paradise in 5108/1348, when a terrible plague raged among them and spared the Jews, leading to terrible slaughters.

In “The Bargain Void in Law,” Rav Schwartz describes a problem that plagued both Jew and Muslim in those times: the corrupt justice suffered by all under Arab rule.

A Muslim merchant once exchanged several chests of indigo for sugar with another merchant. Indigo then suddenly jumped in value and the seller sought some way to make the sale null and void. The second merchant obviously maintained that the trade was perfectly fair and, as the other would not deliver the indigo, he realized that he would have to go to court. In the meanwhile, the defendant went privately to the Kadi and promised him a considerable sum if he could annul the sale, even though there was no pretext for such a proceeding. On the day fixed for the hearing, both parties appeared before the Kadi, to hear his judgment. The judge thereupon delivered the following wise and just decision: ‘Indigo is blue. Sugar, on the other hand, is white. Therefore, since they are of almost opposite colors and totally dissimilar, they cannot be bartered for one another and the sale is accordingly declared null and void.’

Another example of local cunning appears in “The Poisoned Coffee,” where Rav Schwartz describes how money was extorted from a wealthy Jew who had come from Constantinople. One day, a Muslim, accompanied by a Bedouin, brought two camel loads of charcoal to the Jew’s house, offering them to him for a bargain price.

“Meanwhile,” they said, “entertain us with pipes and coffee until the camels are unloaded.”

As they were drinking and smoking, the Bedouin suddenly fell down as though dead, and the Muslim accused the Jew of poisoning him. When the Jew protested his innocence, the Muslim responded, “My friend, I can think of only one solution by which you and your people can be saved. I will employ all possible means to keep this matter secret and, this evening, I will send thee two confidential people to take the corpse and bury it in secrecy. But to do this, a large sum of money is necessary.”

Of course, the Jew happily agreed and, after sunset, two Bedouins arrived with a large sack and removed the evidence. No sooner were they a few steps from the rich Jew’s house, the ‘dead’ Arab jumped out of the sack and the Jew realized that the whole affair was a gross deception.

In an anecdote called “The Grave of Moses in Muslim Tradition,” Rav Schwartz describes the Muslims’ strange belief in a wandering grave.

At that time the book was written, Muslims used to make an annual trek to a place called Nebi Muse (the Prophet Moshe) that lay about twenty miles from Yerushalayim and almost seven miles from the Dead Sea, claiming that this was Moshe Rabbeinu’s burial place. This custom still persists, and the 5680/1920 pogrom in Yerushalayim was largely instigated by Arabs from Chevron and Shechem who were visiting Yerushalayim after making a pilgrimage to Nebi Muse.

“But how could Moshe Rabbeinu be buried within the borders of Eretz Yisroel when the Torah explicitly writes that he never entered the Holy Land and was buried on the east side of the Jordan,” Rav Schwartz once challenged a highly respected Sheikh, or preacher, of the great mosque of the Temple Mount, who used to visit him from time to time.

Rav Schwartz does not mention why he did not ask an ever better question. How could anyone visit Moshe Rabbeinu’s grave at all when the Torah writes that its location is unknown to any person?

The cleric replied that, about eighty years earlier, a pious Muslim was grieved at the great fatigue and danger that the faithful had to endure in order to cross the Jordan to make their pilgrimage to the grave on the eastern side, and so he prayed for some way to avoid this. Mohammed appeared to him in a dream and said that the problem was solved. Mohammed would transport the whole grave near Yerushalayim in order to save pilgrims the exhaustion and peril of traveling over the Jordan. Soon afterwards, the pious individual erected a monument at this spot, which became the well-known Nebi Muse near Yerushalayim.

Rav Schwartz wryly observes that if Mohammed indeed possessed the power to transport graves, it would have been an even better idea for him to transpose his own grave from Mecca, in Southern Arabia, to some more convenient location in the north, in order to spare his followers the long and dangerous journey to his own distant grave.

Earlier in Tevuos Ha’aretz, Rav Schwartz depicts how Rav Yehuda Hachossid (not the author of Sefer HaChossidim) built the Churva Shul and tried to establish his kehillah in Yerushalayim. Due to his untimely death, the Ashkenazi Jews fell into debt to the Muslims and fled from Yerushalayim in 5481/1721 after the Muslims set fire to their buildings. From then on, the Churva Shul became a garbage dump. Seventy years later, a terrible epidemic raged in the Galil and about twenty Ashkenazim fled to Yerushalayim disguised as Sephardim.

As their numbers increased, they rented a small place to serve as their bais medrash. Because they had no permission to keep a sefer Torah in this unofficial location, they used a small Torah scroll, which they kept hidden between the covers of a book in the regular bookshelf. During Krias HaTorah, they would close the courtyard doors and post guards to ensure that no Muslim caught them committing this crime.

Somehow, however, the Muslims found out their secret and, one day, in the middle of Krias HaTorah, there was a thunderous knocking at the door. The Jews had just enough time to replace the scroll in its book covers on the bookshelf, when a large number of law officials burst inside, trying to catch the Jews red handed. However, to their amazement, the officials saw no sign of a sefer Torah, and the terrified Jews vehemently denied having an Asara Kilmat (Ten Commandments), the Arab designation for the entire Torah Scroll.

“Why were the courtyard doors closed?” the officials demanded.

“To keep out the dogs that roam the streets, which might run in and disturb our prayer,” the Jews replied.

The Muslims searched every corner of the shul, never dreaming that the sefer Torah was standing before their eyes among the other seforim.

The next day, the owner of the place came to the kehillah’s leader and told him, “We know for certain that you have an Asara Kilmat in your Bais Medrash from which you read in public, but a Higher Power must protect you to make it invisible since we could neither see nor find it. Give a large sum of money and I will ensure that no more searches are made in your meeting-place. After all, if I, the owner, do not care whether such a sin is committed in my house, why should any other Muslim care?”

The kehillah leader handed him the money and the Jews no longer had to worry about surprise raids from the authorities.

Later in 5576/1816, the fledgling kehillah applied to the supreme government at Constantinople and received a firman (decree) permitting them to read their sefer Torah publicly without interference, and in 5596/1836, the kehillah petitioned Mahmud Ali Pasha at Alexandria for permission to rebuild the Churva Shul, simultaneously presenting petitions to the Austrian and Russian consuls to employ their influence with the Pasha to approve the Jews’ request. By this time, Rav Schwartz was living in Yerushalayim and brought his personal influence to bear.

“I gave myself all possible pains to address this request to these gentlemen in a powerful and touching petition so that nothing might be left undone to obtain our wish,” he writes, “and we must offer our thanks to these worthy men, who felt sincerely for this noble cause, and actually employed all their influence to induce the tolerant Pasha to be favorable to our petition.”

After the Pasha granted permission to rebuild the Jews’ buildings and canceled their debts, the Jews rededicated the Churva Shul that had lain unused for 116 years, two months, and three weeks.

(Paraphrased from: Schwartz, Rav Yosef. A Descriptive Geography and Brief Historical Sketch of Palestine. Philadelphia: A. Hart, 5610/1850.)

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