Ever since churban Habayis, meshulachim maintained an important link between Eretz Yisroel and the Jews of the Diaspora.
“These emissaries from Palestine, who throughout the centuries have penetrated into the remotest corners of the dark continent, serve as a link between the Diaspora and the Jews of Palestine,” explorer Nachum Slouschz wrote in his Travels in North Africa. “A large part of the Jewish populations of the interior of Africa owe the preservation of their Judaism to these men, who bear to the inaccessible corners of the earth greetings from Tziyon, news of all things Jewish, memories of the past, and hopes for a glorious future.”
First to Break Bread
Meshulachim were not of one stamp. Some were old, such as Rav Yitzchak Kubo, Rishon Letziyon (Sephardi Chief Rabbi) in Eretz Yisroel and teacher of the S’dei Chemed, who wept as he left Yerushalayim at the age of 78 saying, “Who knows if I will ever merit to return here?” After collecting a significant amount of funds in Egypt he passed away at Alexandria in 1854. Others were young. In 1626 when meshulachim went out to collect emergency funds after an Arab tyrant impoverished the Yerushalayim kehillah, it was recorded that, “A chosson left his room on the shelichus mitzvah even though it was less than a month since his wedding.”
Some meshulachim were of average learning proficiency. Others were gedolei olam including Rav Betzalel Ashkenazi author of the Shita Mekubetzes, Rav Moshe Alshich, Rav Yosef of Trani (the Mabit), Rav Chizkiyah DaSilva author of the Pri Chodosh, Rav Chaim Yosef Azulai, the Chida, and Rav Yom Tov Algazi.
Indeed, the trend of sending important people on collecting trips occasionally discouraged people from moving to Eretz Yisroel. When Rav Binyomin Cohen the av beis din of Reggio in southern Italy considered moving to Eretz Yisroel he asked Rav Yehuda Giron of Firenze what he thought of the idea. Rav Yehuda advised against it, writing that, “The rabbonim of Yerushalayim… will force you… to periodically travel from place to place going from one kehillah to another collecting from generous people for the poor of Yerushalayim as is customary.”
Similarly, in 1810 a wealthy Jew from Constantinople moving to Eretz Yisroel stipulated with its gabba’im ahead of time that “they obligated themselves not to send him as a shaliach mitzvah to Constantinople or to any other places at all.”
“Happy are Yisroel, that when a shaliach of Eretz Yisroel comes to them, they honor him and cherish him like the pupil of their eye,” the Chida wrote.
They were honored not only because of their level of learning or their importance, but also because of where they came from and whom they represented. In early times the nassi of Eretz Yisroel would write in his letters of authorization,
“Our emissary counts as our representative until his return to us.” During their journeys, some meshulachim enacted decrees, resolved local controversies, and even issued halochic rulings.
They were especially honored in the Middle East where Jews regarded them as holy men who could work wonders through the sanctity of Eretz Yisroel.
“At meals the chacham is the first to break bread, distributing the pieces amongst those present, just as he is the one who eats first and who delivers the blessing over the wine-cup before it is passed round,” the above mentioned Nachum Slouschz wrote. “Everywhere the shaliach is deeply venerated. I was present at the halvoyoh (leave taking) of the chacham who was leaving Homs for Zlitin. The master of the house assembled all the asses in the town and selected for the use of the rabbi a superb mule, covered with splendid trappings.
“The whole community turned out to speed the holy man on his way. The moment of parting was really touching. They kissed the hem of his kaftan, they touched lovingly the rug on which he was seated; with tears in their eyes they implored his blessing. The Muslims passing by saluted him respectfully; the shaliach is charam (holy) and they too are happy to receive the blessing of the charam-esh-Sherif, the holy rabbi of Jerusalem. At last the men returned sadly to their homes, while the head of the community and the most prominent men accompanied the holy man as far as the oasis of Zlitin where all the Jews impatiently awaited his coming.”
Trials and Tribulations
Slouschz recorded that the difficulties meshulachim experienced included inconveniences resulting from local customs.
“A rav of Teveriah told me the following incident,” he wrote. “One day, shortly before Pesach, he was on his way from the Jebel Gharian to the village of Iffren. Owing to an unavoidable delay, he was still on the road on the evening of Pesach half an hour before the time for prayers. He encountered a number of Jews, who, to his amazement, deliberately avoided him, but a Berber invited him to his house. The poor rav was completely at a loss. In a few minutes the holiday would begin, and here he was without any of the facilities for celebrating the festival.
“The Muslim master of the house brought him matzos and everything else which was necessary for the seder. The rav spent two unhappy days, fuming at this extraordinary inhospitality on the part of his coreligionists. And during these two days not a single Jew came to see him or sent word to him.
“On the evening of the second day of Pesach, the rav was astonished to see a mob of Jews, men, women and children, in front of the house. ‘Rabbi,’ they cried, ‘forgive us. You know that the fault is not ours. You know that we would not do anything else. Such is the custom of our ancestors.’ And the rav learned that in these out of the way places a curious belief, the origin and causes of which are not very clear, had sprung up, forbidding the entertainment of a stranger during the two days of Rosh Hashanah and the first two days of Pesach.”
Desert Robbers and Holy Graves
Many meshulachim were murdered during their journeys and some of their kevorim became revered as holy sites.
“One of the major evils to which the poor shaliach is subject is the fierce greed of the desert robbers, who are convinced that he always has in his possession moneys collected from the Jews,” Slouschz wrote. “Along the road from Derna and Msellata to Tagmut, in the heart of the Great Atlas Mountains, are scattered the white, monumental stones which mark the graves of these wandering rabbis. They are the martyrs of the synagogue of Jerusalem who gave up their lives in the patient fulfillment of their sacred duty…
“Some meet their death at the hands of the brigands and others fall prey to disease. Sometimes travelers who come across the dead body of the holy man carry it to the nearest Jewish house and point out to the faithful the spot where they found it. And the Jews bury the body there, placing a white stone over it, and sometimes they build a whole mausoleum on the spot… The tomb becomes a center of pilgrimage for the poor.”
Muslims revered the graves and sometimes usurped them for themselves.
“Awed into belief, the Arabs and Berbers… begin in their turn to honor the rabbi’s grave, and jealous that so holy a place should belong to the Jews, they take advantage of their larger numbers to drive the Jews away and appropriate the sanctuary,” Slouschz wrote. “Often they build a mosque about the tomb, still keeping the Jewish name of the tzaddik. And often his name is forgotten, and he becomes a Sidi Mohammed, the name which is used for the anonymous saint of Islam. I know of no greater sorrow, of no anguish more acute than that of the Jews of Africa, when the tzaddik… is taken from them by the Muslims.”
But he knew of at least one case where Jews restored a kever to its Jewish status.
“Recently, Yehoshua Corcos of Marrakesh re-obtained for the Jews the tomb of Rav David Halevi, near Dra’a, which the Berbers had seized,” he wrote. “He had a mausoleum built about the tomb. Ailing Jews come thither from all Atlas, and on the thirty-third day of the Omer thousands resort to the tomb to celebrate.”
This kever lying 60 miles northeast of Marrakech is one of 600 kivrei tzaddikim found throughout Morocco. People visiting Rav David’s kever still speak of the miracles experienced there.
Perched on a mountain edge above the Ourika valley near Marrakech lies another famous kever — the 500 year old tomb of a meshulach murdered by bandits while collecting funds in southern Morocco. He is known as Rav Shlomo ben Hensh (the snake) due to traditions that a snake was involved in his tragic murder that occurred while traveling in the vicinity. People from all over the world still visit his kever to daven and light candles. Although many such kevorim are neglected and almost forgotten since the emigration of Middle East Jews to Israel in the 1950s, the fame of the meshulachim lives on forever.
Sources: Avraham Ya’ari, Sheluchei Eretz Yisroel, Mossad Harav Kook Yerushalayim 1951; Slouschz Nachum, Travels in North Africa, Philadelphia, the Jewish Publication Society of America, 1927