Journey – Asia Africa 1845

One fine day in 5595/1845, Israel Joseph   Benjamin, a Romanian Jewish resident of   “Foltitzcheny on the Moldau” of Moldavia   (nowadays in Romania), discovered he was   on the verge of bankruptcy. He hit on the   age old strategy of doing something worthwhile   and getting someone else to pay you   to do it. His enterprise included the double barreled   goal of exploring world Jewry in   all its nooks and crannies, while simultaneously   searching for the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.

Adding luster to his sales pitch was his   self-styled title of “Benjamin the Second,”   ideological follower of the famous medieval   explorer, Benjamin of Tudela.

“Being suddenly utterly ruined through   the fault of my partners, I found myself   compelled for my own sake, and more especially   for the sake of my family, to enter on   a new career under changed circumstances,   and this was the first ostensible cause of my   wanderings in my east,” he tells us in his   book, Eight Years in Asia and Africa. “Added   to these external circumstances there was   a long and deeply cherished wish of my   heart… [to] search out the traces of what remained   of the ten tribes of Israel.”

Piety Versus Ignorance
And so he set out, starting his research in   Eretz Yisroel, and working his way through   Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Persia, Afghanistan,   Egypt, Morocco, and Algeria. Western   “progress” was only beginning its ruinous   degeneration of the Middle East, and the vast   majority of Jews were faithful to the point   of messirus nefesh. But there was one fl y in   the ointment. While Jews of large cities and   towns of the Middle East were by and large   learned and pious, Jews of remote villages,   cut off from teachers and seforim and suffering   endless persecution, sometimes reached   a surprising level of ignorance despite their   endless devotion.

One example of large town piety was in   Aleppo, Syria, where Benjamin recorded   Jews studying Torah day and night.   “The study of Torah is cherished here   with the greatest devotion. There is scarcely   a Jew in Aleppo of whatever age or rank,   who… does not find leisure every day at   certain time to repair to the ever fl owing   stream of Torah… At the hour of midnight,   the greater part of the community is to be   found assembled within the walls of the   synagogue… Until the morning dawns, they   remain together, occupied in the study of the   Talmud and Zohar, or giving themselves up   to prayer. The morning prayer closes these   assemblies, and the day finds them busy and   active in their different occupations.”   This contrasted strongly with the more   remote community of Urfa in Turkey, still   revered until today as the reputed scene of   many of Avrohom’s trials and tribulations.

Of this place Benjamin wrote: “In Urfa reside   about 150 Jewish families. They are   free and happy; so ignorant, however, that   hardly fifty persons among them are able to   pray.”

In Urfa and other sites, he described many   artifacts supposedly dating back to the dawn   of Jewish history:

“In Urfa are to be found monuments of   antiquity dating back from the oldest Biblical   times. Some are preserved to this day,   others are lying in ruins. We mention here   some of the most remarkable. 1) The house   in which Avrohom was born. It is an artificial   grotto hewn out of a single piece of rock and   a cradle of white stone. The grotto is closed   and guarded by the Arabs. They are wont to   carry thither their sick children and lay them   in Abraham’s cradle for the whole night. If   they are not found dead the next morning,   their recovery can be looked forward to with   safety.”

Other places he lists include Avrohom’s   furnace – a trench surrounded by a railing.   The fi sh breeding in its pools were considered   holy as Muslims believed they had   helped extinguish the fi ery furnace; catching   them was a capital crime punishable by   death. Nearby were two pillars connected   to each other with a chain, which, it was   claimed, were used to throw Avrohom into   the flames since it was impossible for his   executioners to draw near the roasting furnace.

Nearby, a number of grottoes carved   into the mountainside were supposedly the   dwelling place of Nimrod the Hunter, and an   hour beyond that was a grotto reputed to be   the house of Iyov.

Six hours north from there, Benjamin   visited Charan where Yaakov fled, met with   Rochel, and rolled the stone from the well.   Here, he writes, “The Arabs show, half a   mile from Charan, a very deep well covered   by a stone, and assess that this is the well   mentioned in the Bible.”

Benjamin penetrated the deep, inhospitable   mountains of Kurdistan, convinced   that this was the secret fastness of the ten   lost tribes. Although he never succeeded in   his goal, he did succeed in almost losing his   life half a dozen times from the depredations   of desert bandits who infested the deserts,   mountains, and rivers like fleas. High in the   Afghan mountains he came across the town   called Alkusch and witnessed once more   what happens when customs incubate in a   vacuum of ignorance. In this case, Shavuos   ceremonies celebrated at the reputed tomb   of the prophet Nachum had a strange anti halacha   oriented twist:

“At break of day morning prayer is recited   and then the men, bearing the Pentateuch   before them, go, armed with guns, pistols,   and daggers to a mountain in the vicinity   when… they read the Torah and go through   the Mussaf prayer,” he wrote. “With the   same warlike procession they descend the   mountain. The whole community breaks up   at the foot and an Arab fantasy, a war performance   begins… This war performance is   said to be representative of the great combat…   the Jews will have to maintain against   those nations who oppose their entrance into   the Promised Land.”

In response to Benjamin’s agonized protests,   they countered that their custom was   sanctioned by ancient custom.

A Narrow Escape
During his travels, locals often took him   for a chacham from Yerushalayim and conferred   with him for halachic knowledge or   advice, and while serving in the capacity   of impromptu poseik, he discovered to his   shock that some remote places had the erroneous   impression that a husband converted   to Islam was no longer considered Jewish   and his wife could remarry without a get. In   one place, after reconstructing their ruined   mikveh and fine-tuning some of their erroneous   observances, the village elder thanked   him for his help and begged him to proceed   to a further village that was also desirous of   his instruction. This visit almost ended his   sojourn in the physical world.

“In the village, a man had assumed the   title of Mailum (leader) and without any   authority or right officiated as slaughterer,”   he records. “At my suggestion, he was deprived   of his office. This appointment he had   purchased for a yearly sum from a Kurdish   chief, who now, perceiving the injury done   to his pecuniary interest, came to me himself   and asked me who I was… My companions   explained to him that I was a chacham of the   Bet-el-Mikdass, sent out to watch over the   proper administration of the religious laws   among the Jews…

“To this the Kurd had no reply to make,   further than the exclamation: ‘That is true   – but you have deprived me of my revenue   and you shall pay for it with your head.’ He   then went out in a rage. My companions…   were deeply grieved, for they knew that such   threats were never spoken in vain. We were   immediately informed afterwards that several   armed men were lying in wait for us…”

After worrying over the situation the   whole evening, Benjamin struck upon a plan   of escape.

“‘Remain together,’ I said to my brethren,   ‘sing and make a noise, but bring in no light.   The Kurds will have no suspicion and my   comrades will escape with me.’ My proposal   was approved of; but we were not to go out   all together, but two or three at a time, and   then meet at an appointed spot. Our flight   happily succeeded… but what fate befell   those who remained behind, whether their   joyful songs were changed into songs of   lamentation, I dare not think.”

Some time afterwards during a visit to   Shiraz in Persia where a rebellion was taking   place, Benjamin records how his meeting   with a no less vicious Muslim leader   ended with happier results:

“Another day the leader of the rebels   a new tax. When he perceived me there, he   asked who I was, to which the Nassi replied:   ‘He is a Chacham from the Beth-el-Mikdass.’   Hardly had the Persian heard this   than he addressed me in the following   words, ‘I have been told that the Chachamim   of that town are very learned and   understand in particular the art of making   amulets. Make one for me to protect me   in war.’

“…I turned over irresolutely the leaves   of my Bible and at length came upon the   history of Esther. I took the names of the   ten names of Haman and… wrote them   on a square piece of parchment. This I   gave to the Persian – who expressed great   joy at receiving it… Two days later, this   Persian took part in a combat of the insurgents   against the troops in which the latter   were worsted. He now believed firmly   in the power of my amulet, brought me a   present and proclaimed that I was a man   of G-d.”

In the Persian town of Hamadan, which   locals believed was Shushan, he once   more had opportunity to halt an incorrect   practice when he noticed that whenever   the community feared approaching   danger, lambs would be slaughtered at a   reputed tomb of Mordechai and Esther.   While he was there, at least, he persuaded   them that it is forbidden to offer any sacrifice except in Yerushalayim.

Back in Europe, Benjamin planned to   journey to Java and forge the many Jews   there into a community. After this plan   failed, he journeyed to the US where, as   an earlier article described, he successfully   prevented a statue of Judah Touro from   being erected in the courtyard of the New   Orleans Portuguese shul.

Since the days of Rabbi Benjamin I of   Tudela and until the days of Benjamin II,   it is doubtful whether any Jew ever explored   so much of the Jewish world. If   anyone ever deserved to find the ten lost   tribes, he was the man.

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