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.