We live in a hectic age. Nowadays, emails zip along at the speed of light, while, in comparison, Rome’s Circus Publicus, the world’s finest postal service until modern times, moved at a snail’s pace, covering only fifty miles a day. How does four thousand years of Jewish civilization tie in with the history of the post office?
A surprising aspect of postal history is that comparatively speaking, it is little discussed by halachah. One of the rare places Chazal mention mail is in Masseches Shabbos (19a) where they discuss the problem of using a non-Jewish bei do’ar that might transport and deliver mail on Shabbos. Because the word do’ar usually refers to the Persian authorities, Rashi explains it in terms of a ruler, “the ruler of the town whom people generally send letters to [for redistribution]” (Shabbos 19a). He may also be hinting that the efficient courier services of olden times were primarily for kings and rulers. Private people could send their mail slower, but at less expense, with regular travelers.
The next major meeting between halachah and postage occurred a thousand years ago when Rabbeinu Gershom enacted his famous cherem against opening another person’s letters. As the Shu”t of the Maharam M’Rothenberg cites it: “A cherem was issued not to look at a letter of one’s fellow that was sent to someone else without his knowledge. If it was thrown away, it is permitted.” In reference to this decree, many people used to mark their mail with the reminding acronym, B’Chadra”g (Becherem d’Rabbeinu Gershom). Halachah and postage met a third time when distant divorcing husbands began using the mail to send gitten to their wives. Many poskim validated the practice so long as it was done according to proper halachic procedure.
Long before the Gemara’s discussion about bei do’ars, Megillas Esther described Persia’s excellent courier service that conveyed the king’s orders to all the king’s provinces (3:13). Historians credit the creation of this system to Daryavesh I. Chapars (Persian for couriers) traveled on the 1,500 mile long highway between the cities of Sardis and Shushan that linked most of the major towns of the empire.
The Greek historian, Herodotus, praised the system: “It is said that as many days as there are in the whole journey, so many are the men and horses that stand along the road, each horse and man at the interval of a day’s journey; and these are stayed neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed” (volume 4 book 8).
Assuming that the system was as fast as the Circus Publicus of Rome, Achashveirosh’s messengers would have taken about a month to deliver their deadly missives across the empire. Some historians claim that the earliest postal system dates back to Sargon of Akkad (modern day Iraq), who preceded Avrohom Avinu by centuries. A historian writes how “the empire was bound together by roads, along which there was a regular postal service, and clay seals which took the place of stamps are now in the Louvre bearing the names of Sargon and his son.”
Faster at carrying mail than the swiftest horses were carrier pigeons first used in ancient Egypt, and later developed into an efficient communication system by the Arab world. Muslim rulers used a pigeon service to communicate with each other during the Crusades. This was not without its dangers. On one occasion, Richard the Lion Heart’s men captured a pigeon that bore a message reporting that a Muslim army would arrive in three days to break the Christian siege of Acre. Cunningly, the Christians substituted a message saying that no help was on its way. The subterfuge worked. The besieged town surrendered and by the time the Muslim relief army arrived, the Christians were solidly entrenched in the captured city.
In pre-modern times, public mail systems often worked in tandem with private postal arrangements. At the beginning of the 17th century, for example, we find Loeb Sorel Gutmans, a Prague based merchant who was living in Vienna at the beginning of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), arranging a private postal service between the two cities. A messenger delivered Gutmans’ letters to his wife in Prague, and she gave the messenger letters to convey back to Vienna. Unconsciously, Gutmans was performing an invaluable service to Jewish history.
Due to the hostilities of the time, Austrian authorities confi scated fifty-four letters from Gutmans’ messenger at the end of 1619. These lay in the royal archives of Vienna for three centuries until rediscovered at the beginning of the 20th century. The cache provided an unprecedented picture of Jewish life in old time Prague, particularly, an overriding concern for Torah study. In one letter, Chanoch ben Yisroel Hamerschlag admonishes his son, Aharon, for leaving his Torah studies to make his fortune.
“Your father-in-law told me… at the wedding that he would study with you that you would be able to hold your own even with a Moreinu in barely two years,” he complains. “Instead, you have studied making money night and day (I have not educated you for money-making), and I am afraid that Hashem, may he be praised, may punish you for the neglect of Torah.”
In the Holy Land
As transport improved, international trade increased and people traveled further and more frequently, and postal services developed accordingly. Eretz Yisroel was no exception although slower to develop than Europe and the United States.
“The Post Office in Syria is yet in its infancy,” it was reported. “There are weekly mails between Jerusalem and Beyrout, performing the distance in about four days; there is a bi-weekly post between Damascus and Beyrout, taking about 22 hours in fine weather, but occasionally a fortnight in winter; and there is a weekly Tartar [mounted messenger] from Damascus to Hums, Hamâh, Aleppo and Constantinople— making the whole distance in 12 days. He leaves on Wednesday. All letters by these routes must be addressed in Arabic or Turkish, and prepaid. The Turkish posts have no connection with those of any other country; and consequently letters for foreign countries must be sent either through the consuls, or the post agents of those countries, resident at the seaports” (Handbook for Travelers in Syria and Palestine, 1858). Later, the British Mandate developed a fully fledged European style postage system.
One problem they contended with was a Jewish/Arab squabble over which Hebrew name to overprint on the stamps. Jews argued that the traditional name of the area was Eretz Yisroel, while Arabs preferred to use the old Roman name of Palestine. As a compromise, the British imprinted both names in Hebrew: Palestine, followed by the initials aleph yud for Eretz Yisroel. Illustrations for the stamps were carefully chosen to preserve a balance between Jew and Arab. They included Kever Rochel, Migdal Dovid, the Kipat Hasela, a mosque in Teveriah (to keep the Arabs happy), and Lake Kinneret. Incidentally, when the British appointed Peel Commission proposed a two-state solution to the Jewish-Arab conflict in 1937, the Arabs famously retorted: “Not even the size of a postage stamp.”
At the end of the Mandate, the British began phasing out their postal service and destroying their stamps. The Jews devised their own temporary stamps, authorizing the use of Keren Kayemet labels overprinted with the word do’ar. Some towns, especially when cut off from the rest of the country, produced temporary local stamps. Weeks before the declaration of the state, Jews worked feverishly to print the new state’s stamps in advance. This was no easy task. Paper was in short supply, suitable printing presses were hard to fi nd, and the new state did not even have a name; it was undecided whether to call it Yehuda, Israel, or Eretz Yisroel. In the end, papers of various thicknesses and shades were printed on a retrofitted press of the Ha’aretz newspaper in Tel Aviv. As for the non-existent name of the state, the problem was avoided by simply imprinting them as Do’ar Ivri (Hebrew Mail). The first stamps designs featured ancient coins minted during the Jewish rebellion against Rome and the Bar Kochva revolt.
Since that time, the Israel Post has produced thousands of new stamps, dozens annually in recent years. This is highly profitable as philatelists everywhere buy them up and provide a lucrative revenue stream for the Israeli government.
On occasion, the Israel Post runs into halachic snags. In 1960 when the Israel Mail commissioned an artist to design a series of airmail stamps based on historic sites in Eretz Yisroel, public furor was aroused by a stamp that depicted the Church of Nativity in Nazareth topped by a cross. The postal service replaced it with a stamp bearing a depiction of the ancient shul in Kefar Nachum (Capernaum). This was a cunning compromise. Christians could not be offended by the swap as Capernaum is a well known Christian location, while Jews could not complain of a stamp bearing the likeness of a shul. In November 2006, there was another furor when an Israeli stamp depicting a Tunisian chamsa was found to include the Sheim Hashem. The notice of the Minister of Communications, Eliezer Attias instructed that the whole run should be put into sheimos. A similar problem arose when the post office printed a series commemorating the Shishah Sidrei of the Mishnah that included texts from the Mishnah. This too was put into genizah.
America’s Jewish Stamp
America’s first Jewish stamp was printed for Chanukah 1996 in a joint Israeli- American venture. Until then and since 1962, the US postal service had issued X-mas stamps, yet refused to issue Chanukah stamps, arguing that the X-mas stamps were not in commemoration of X-mas but merely reproductions of works of art. Israel’s Communications Minister, Limnor Livnat, said at the time: “‘For the first time, a stamp has been jointly issued with the State of Israel’s greatest friend – the United States. This is an additional expression of our special relationship, the American people’s esteem and appreciation for the Jewish religion and culture, and the two countries’ shared commitment to each other.”
Thanks to the proliferation of Jewish themed stamps in Israel and elsewhere, an author has even produced a volume titled, 4000 Years Of Jewish Civilization On Postage Stamps, that covers Biblical episodes, Jewish values, the history of Eretz Yisroel, and the Jewish Diaspora. It’s amazing what you can squeeze onto a one square inch scrap of paper!