During the mid-19th century, a staid German talmid chochom, plunged into the oriental milieu of Palestine in order to know the land first-hand. After traveling its length and breadth for 15 years, he produced the groundbreaking sefer Tevuos Haaretz, the first Jewish Geography of Eretz Yisroel since the 14th century Kaftor Vaferach.
One Jew among 300
Born in Flosz, Bavaria in 1804, the brilliant Rav Yehosef’s mentors included Rav Nosson Adler, rav muvhak of the Chasam Sofer. At 17, he went to Wurzburg University where he spent 15 years studying geography, astronomy, languages, and ethics, simultaneously toiling in Torah during every free moment. Despite being the only Jew among the university’s 300 students, he observed every nuance of the Shulchan Aruch, getting kosher meals from the kitchen of the city’s rov. During this time, he studied Eretz Yisroel thoroughly enough to produce a modern map pinpointing its natural features, towns and villages. But for him this was not enough. He yearned to travel to Eretz Yisroel and learn its geography from the facts on the ground, not from second hand opinions percolated through the reports and writings of other people.
His family begged him not to go as a war was raging between Mohamed Ali the ruler of Egypt and the Turks of Eretz Yisroel. Regardless, he set off in 1833. In the end he paid for his impetuousness. In Hungary, the authorities sealed the borders due to a cholera epidemic and he was trapped there for a year. And after reaching Italy he couldn’t budge for six months; ships weren’t sailing to Eretz Yisroel because of the war between Egypt and the Turks.
In Eretz Yisroel‘ he blended into the local society like a chameleon. His policy was to take no sides in local politics and be friends with everyone. In accordance with local custom, he married his wife, Chayah Rivkah Luriah, who was only twelve-years-old. As he wrote to his brother some time later, this was perfectly normal in most of Eretz Yisroel’. “Generally, boys marry [here] when they are 14 and girls when they are 12. There is an old minhag in Yerushalayim that a girl does not get married before 12. If she has not reached that age they make her wedding outside the town in one of the nearby villages.”
After his marriage, Rav Yehosef bought a home a stone’s throw from the Kosel, dug a personal mikveh in its courtyard, and adopted Sefardi garb due to social pressure.
“Until not long ago, a person wearing western clothing was subject to public embarrassment and insults,” he explained later. “Because of this, when I came to the land I was forced to change my German clothes for Turkish garb. Nowadays, however, people relate to this [European dress] positively and respectfully. I always appear before a court in German clothing and then they give me preferential treatment as a Franco (European).”
He also established a private beis medrash in his home where he davened Vasikin every day, studied kabollah at the famous Beis El Yeshiva, and lived on money his family sent him so that he could study, explore, and write seforim to his heart’s content, unburdened by financial concerns. In this he was not different than many Jews of his time who lived off chalukah funds. In his writings, he often discussed the dire financial situation of his neighbors and why it was not the easiest thing in the world for them to simply get up and work.
“Many have spoken and written at length about the idea of buying properties and fields in Yerushalayim to alleviate the livelihood of the Jews, our people, by enabling them to support themselves through agriculture,” he wrote. “All they say is futile. In civilized countries where a person dwells in peace beneath his vine and fig even a Jew can turn forests into productive fields as in earlier times. But why should one do such a thing in this land, investing toil and sweat in order to hand one’s produce to the thieving enemy and feed cruel barbarians the fruit of one’s labor? As the verse says, When a Jew sowed, Midiyan, Amalek, and the sons of the east rose over them and camped against them, and destroyed the produce of the field, and left no sustenance for Yisroel (Shoftim 6:3).
“Who will secure the produce from bandits who have the encouragement of the authorities? In Yerushalayim, Jews have attempted to work parcels of land together with Arab farmers. They cheated and robbed them sevenfold, for their nature is to rob and steal instead of being true and straightforward.”
Investigations and Explorations
Always the practical person, Rav Yehosef began making his own observations of sunset in order to pinpoint the exact moment of Vasikin each day.
“More than 4,000 times I took the time and trouble to observe the moment of sunrise,” he wrote. “I went up onto rooftops and denied myself sleep to investigate and know the true facts… both in the Diaspora and now in Eretz Yisroel.’
This contributed to his first sefer, the influential Tevu’os Shemesh, which discusses the halachic times in Yerushalayim. The drawback of the sefer was that the primitive book press available in Yerushalayim did not have the technical ability to reproduce the diagrams and charts necessary for books of this nature. At the same time, he began a series of journeys throughout the length and breadth of the land, exploring towns and villages, picking up Jewish and Arabic lore, and squaring his new information with that found in sifrei kodesh and earlier older geographical works.
His son-in-law, Rav Eliezer Don Ralbag, Rosh Yeshivas Eitz Chaim in Yerushalayim, said that to compensate for the many Keri’os Hatorah he missed during the fifteen years of traveling, Rav Yehosef accepted special fasts upon himself in addition to his regular habit of fasting every Monday and Thursday. He poured the results of his explorations into his best-known sefer Tevu’os Ha’aretz, first printed in 1845, which discusses the geography, history, zoology, and botany of Eretz Yisroel. Thanks to this work, he became considered the greatest Jewish authority on Palestinian geography since Rav Eshtori Haparchi (1282-1357), author of Kaftor Vaferach. Altogether, Rav Yehosef published eight seforim during his lifetime and left three seforim and other writings in manuscript when he passed away. His brilliant writings demonstrate a thorough erudition in the Bavli, Yerushalmi, Tosefta and medrashim, Sifra and Mechilta, Zohar and Pesikta, and the Targum of Rav Saadia Gaon.
In 1849, he went on a fund-raising mission to England and the United States. The Occident newspaper (Oct. 1849) of Rev. Isaac Leeser mentioned his goal of trying to encourage a number of kehillos to donate a fixed annual sum.
“We had the pleasure of becoming personally acquainted with Rabbi Joseph Schwartz, a native of Floss, in Bavaria, but for near twenty years a resident of Jerusalem,” the paper wrote. “He has been sent hither in company with Rabbi Zadok Levy, to make an appeal to the Israelites of this country, to do something active for those who still linger in the land of their fathers; and to obviate, by a regular contribution, the necessity of sending out in future messengers, the expense of, which procedure is, as we have already stated, onerous in the extreme.
“We lay before our readers the circular which has been addressed to the various American congregations, by the two Rabbis already mentioned, and we trust that the appeal will not be in vain,” the article continued. “There are more than forty organized congregations in the country, and if each gives only from ten to twenty-five dollars per annum, it would form a relief fund much larger than ever has been devoted from America hitherto, except on some special occasion and urgent necessity… We hope that the will may not be wanting to protect the poor of Palestine, and to snatch them from the necessity of receiving aid from the missionaries, those inveterate foes of our religion.”
Although his fund-collecting tour was not all that successful, it led to Rev. Isaac Leeser translating his Tevu’os Ha’aretz into English. The new translation also contained correspondence about his attempts to discover the Ten Lost Tribes whom he thought might be in Africa and/or Yemen, Tibet, and China. His interest in the subject may have been stimulated by a family tradition that his family was descended from the tribe of Yehosef. Indeed, the family connected its surname, Schwartz, with the black shoham stone in the kohen gadol’s breastplate that corresponds to the tribe of Yosef.
In his shu’t DivreiYehosef (responsa 32) he mentions his American visit in connection to esrogim found growing in certain wild forests of the West Indies. He wrote that although they looked different than the esrogim of Asia and Europe, he personally used them for the mitzvah and recited a berochoh over them.
No More Wedding Music
Only two of Rav Yehosef’s eight children survived. Their descendants include members of the distinguished Ralbag family in Eretz Yisroel and the U.S.A. who published many of his manuscripts.
In 1865, Rav Yehosef passed away during a cholera epidemic that claimed the lives of many tzaddikim. Rav Meir Auerbach, Av Beis Din of Kalish, who had arrived in Eretz Yisroel in 1860, made of sheilos cholom to learn the reason for the tragedy, and was shown the verse, My beloved one is like a gazelle or like a young hart, behold he stands behind our wall (Shir Hashirim 2:9). The mekubal Rav Rafael Yedidyah told him since Chazal explain the end of the verse as hinting that the Shechinah never leaves the Kosel, the dream was hinting that Jewish blood was being shed like that of gazelles and harts because of insufficient mourning over the churbon, To emend the deficiency, Rav Meir Auerbach and other leading rabbonim of Yerushalayim decreed that henceforth, the Jews of Yerushalayim should cease playing musical instruments at weddings as an additional sign of mourning over the churbon.
So without realizing it, the drummers at Yerushalayim weddings are perpetuating the memory of Eretz Yisroel’s first modern Jewish geographer.
Sources include: Besha’arei Yerushalayim, Yehosef ben Menachem Schwartz, published by Bezalel Landau, Yerushalayim 1969