The Founding of Meah Shearim

Standing on the ramparts of Yerushalayim and staring west a hundred and fifty years ago, you would have seen little more than a few Arab farms. The town’s entire population was imprisoned behind the walls of the Old City.


During 5600/1840, many Yerushalayim Jews were convinced that the Moshiach was due any minute because of a hint in the famous verse of redemption, “The voice of the turtle dove (kol hator) is heard in the land.” People were convinced that the gematria of hator, 600, implied that 5600/1840 would be the year to end all years.

At first, things moved in the right direction when Sultan Abdul Majid of Turkey drove the Egyptian rulers out the land, reestablished Ottoman hegemony, elevated Yerushalayim to the status of a sanjak (major city), and welcomed foreign consulates of six countries into the city, including Austria, England, France, and Russia. Afterwards, however, the momentum slowed and things ground to a halt. Nothing in particular happened and Jews learnt yet again to not pin too much faith on specific dates of geulah.

However, soon afterwards in 5605/1845, a new epoch arose when the leaders of the Perushim (descendants of and adherents to talmidei haGro) bought land outside the city gates and raised a wall in preparation for constructing the first neighborhood outside the Old City Walls.

Arabs sprang into opposition, convinced that this project was the spearhead of a Jewish attempt to create an autonomous enclave. In addition, Arab landlords were reaping a golden harvest from Jews who were forced to pay high rents for miserable living quarters within the city walls. They persuaded the sultan to ban foreigners from buying land and for the next seventeen years Jews were restricted from building the tiniest shack outside the walls.

As the century passed its half way mark, the situation became even more intolerable. Jews were pouring into Yerushalayim like a flood and the city was bursting at the seams – within 30 years, the Jewish population leaped fivefold from 2,000 to 10,000. Diseases spread like wildfire through the narrow streets, and Arab landlords began hiking up rents dramatically. As one of them boasted, “Even if all you Jews were as thin as wood slivers, there still would not be enough room for you all to live in the Churvah (Jewish) section. You would still have to pay us whatever we demand.”

The answer was to move out.


The first breakout was financed by the wealthy Judah Touro of New Orleans who left half a million dollars to charity at his passing in 5614/1854, including $60,000 for the Jews of Yerushalayim to use as they pleased. Sir Moses Montefiore took charge of it, first traveling to Constantinople to get a building permit from the sultan, and then proceeding to Yerushalayim where he bought land opposite the Old City for a thousand pounds. Today the place must be worth tens of millions.

Fascinatingly, the Arab style of selling land in those days was strikingly similar to Efron’s negotiations with Avraham Avinu. As Montefiore’s personal secretary recorded:

“When Sir Moses offered to buy the plot, he (the seller, who knew Montefiore from previous visits) answered, ‘My dear beloved friend. I received this land as an inheritance from my forefathers and in no way am I willing to part with it for any sum of money. But for you I shall give it as a present.’

“Every day when Sir Moses asked to buy it, he returned the same answer. Finally the discussion of the matter lasted a good part of the day. Just when I, the translator, was simply running out of words in Arabic to reiterate Sir Moses’ stand to him, he said, ‘My loyal friend. I swear by the hair on my head that if Sir Moses will give me a thousand pounds sterling as a gift, I am prepared to go with him now to the kadi (judge).”

This was the first Jewish owned tract of land outside the city walls. Three years later, Sir Moses returned and supervised the building of Batei Yehuda Touro, now the Mishkenos Sha’ananim neighborhood opposite the Old City walls. This place is impossible to miss thanks to the incongruous windmill poking out of the middle, which Sir Moses built to wrest the flour grinding monopoly from the Arabs.

In the end, the windmill served better as a tourist stop than at its original task of grinding flour, because after a short while it was discovered that there was too little wind to keep its blades turning. Parked inside the mill, you can see Montefiore’s carriage waiting to take its deceased master for his next diplomatic mission.

The second neighborhood outside the walls was built by Moroccon Jews. It made up for its puny size with its three grandiose names – Machaneh Yisroel, Shechunas haMa’aravim and Shechunas Mamilla.

The third neighborhood was Nachalas Shiva, nowadays a quaint rabbit warren of alleyways at the bottom of Yaffo Street crowded with restaurants, trinket shops and shuls. This place was spearheaded by the “Bonei Yerushalayim” organization led by Rav Yosef Rivlin, who, in order to prevent Arab controversy, bought the land under the pretense of needing it to grow wheat for Pesach and dig water cisterns. Some people considered the idea of living in the wastes outside Yerushalayim so suicidal that they hauled Rav Yosef to beis din, accusing him of endangering his life. Even his father-in-law wanted to break off the shidduch with his daughter when Rav Yosef mentioned the idea during his engagement.

This fear was not unfounded. People in the new suburbs were often victimized and killed by Arab thugs, some of them sent by Arab landlords to encourage people to stay put in the Old City.

During the corner stone laying ceremony on Lag Ba’Omer 5629/1869, Rav Rivlin placed an earthenware container under the stone containing a letter of the Gro to his great-grandfather, Rav Hillel Rivlin. After living there alone with his family for two and a half years, Rav Rivlin was finally joined by more families and by 5635/1875 the neighborhood boasted about fifty families.

The place was named Nachalas Shiva after its seven original members.

Another, tiny enclave of the new city was launched on Rosh Hashana 5632/1872, when the wealthy Russian Jew, Rav Dovid Reiss promised that he would add yet another neighborhood to the town. This was Beis Dovid, a square building near the Bikkur Cholim Hospital that contains a few houses and two shuls.


The fifth and largest new neighborhood of the time was Meah Shearim.

This was launched in Cheshvan 5634/1873, when over a hundred Eastern European Jews, most of them Perushim met to discuss ways and means of building the largest neighborhood ever outside the Old City walls. Leading the proceedings was Rav Yosef Rivlin, by then known as the shtetl macher because of his involvement in earlier neighborhoods. In the course of the road, and in addition, there are indications that this place was once within the walls of Yerushalayim because the Gemara (Bava Basra 75b) says, “Rabba said that an old man told him that he had seen Yerushalayim standing with a diameter of three parsah (about 9 miles).” In addition, they had reason to believe that this was the site where Kohanim used to dispose of the deshen (ash of sacrifices) in the time of the Beis haMikdash.

Because of their theory that the Old City once extended all the way to Meah Shearim, the residents jettisoned their original plan of including a park and orchard, because such things were forbidden in old time Yerushalayim.

The land of Meah Shearim was bought from an Arab, designed by the German architect, Conrad Shick, and constructed by Christian builders from Beis Lechem assisted by Jews.

The following year, the cornerstone was laid on top of a jug that contained the names of the committee members and first settlers. By 5640/1880 the neighborhood had a hundred houses built in a fortress like square with no street level windows on the outer walls.

Access into the “fortress” was through not a hundred gates but six, including the Yerushalayim Gate to the South, Lifta Gate to the North, Grinding Gate to the east, and Beis Dovid Gate to the West. These were locked every night until 5671/1911.

The new neighborhood grew rapidly and by 5653/1893 it had 300 houses and 1,500 residents. As Jews began raising large families, second stories were added on and new buildings were thrown up in courtyards, so an original purpose of the new neighborhood was defeated – Meah Shearim was becoming as overcrowded and neglected as the Old City that the Jews had fled.

By this time, New Yerushalayim was more like a collection of scattered villages than a cohesive town. Nowadays, most of these old suburbs are almost lost in the surrounding urban sprawl, except for Meah Shearim which, besides the Old City itself, is perhaps the most famous strip of real estate in the Middle East.

(Source: “Where Heaven Touches Earth” by Dovid Rossof, Guardian Press, Jerusalem 1998)


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