Yasha der Shtetl Macher
Written by: Vardah Littmann Photos by: Rimonah Traub
fascinating glimpse of the
expansion of the Old City
beyond the walls
that enclosed it and stifled
its growth for many years,
an expansion led by such
intrepid pioneers as
Rav Yosef Rivlin, z”l,
whose yahrtzeit will be
commemorated this week
on 27 Elul
Rav Yosef Rivlin was born in Yerushalayim on 10 Teves 5697/December18, 1836. His parents were Avraham-Binyamin and Shifra-Miriam (née Shapira)
Rivlin. He absorbed the ideals of the Vilna Gaon’s “Vision of Zion” (Chazon Tzion) with his mother’s milk, for both his great-great-grandfather Rav Binyamin Rivlin and his great-grandfather Rav Hillel Rivlin arrived in Eretz Yisrael in the early years of the 19th century, motivated by that vision of the Gra. Rav Hillel dedicated fifty-eight years of his life to the Chazon Tzion movement. Rav Yosef Rivlin’s grandfather, Rav Moshe, the well-known maggid, was renowned for his fiery sermons urging the rebuilding of Yerushalayim and the ingathering of Jews to the Holy Land.
In 5600/1840 Rav Moshe Rivlin came from Europe to lead the Ashkenazic community of Yerushalayim. When he arrived in Yerushalayim he found an overcrowded city riddled with disease. An acute housing shortage existed, in answer to which he and other community leaders bought land outside the city walls in 5605/1845. Their primary objective was to erect a wall around the property to protect it, but this activity ceased abruptly when the Sultan issued a prohibition forbidding foreign residents from buying land outside the Old City walls.
Nevertheless, when Rav Yosef Rivlin became engaged in 1855, he stated in the tena’im that he wanted eventually to live outside the walls of the Old City of Yerushalayim. In an attempt to save his daughter from
|Rechov Yaakov Berav - in Mishkenos Yisrael|
In the year 5615/1855 the idea of living beyond the strong, protective walls built by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent around the city of Yerushalayim was considered, to say the least, insane.
Past the walls the terrain was rough and uncultivated, and bands merciless, marauding Bedouins roamed the area. Wild animals and snakes abounded. It was life threatening to set foot outside the city gates after nightfall.
Actualizing the Vision
The Rivlin family tradition was to actualize the Chazon Tzion and bring it to fruition. Thus it was not merely youthful enthusiasm
that drove young Yosef Rivlin, but a spiritual calling inspired by the teachings of the Vilna Gaon. Rav Yosef wanted to build up Yerushalayim as a forerunner to messianic times.
The Vilna Gaon (5480/1720–5558/1798) had tried twice, in 1772 and in 1782, to settle
According to the Gra, the Geulah will come about in the same way that it had in the days of Ezra Hasofer (at the beginning of the Second Temple period). At first, there had to be an awakening from below (isarusa d’l’sata),which entailed settling in Eretz Yisrael and building Yerushalayim both spiritually and physically. “Spiritually” meant making Yerushalayim the Torah center of the world; “physically” meant expanding the Yishuv of Yerushalayim within and beyond its walls.
Although the building up of the whole of Eretz Yisrael was also a requirement, the building of Yerushalayim
took precedence. These steps would create a vehicle to allow the light of Moshiach to shine forth and enable
It is because “Your servants have cherished her stones and favored her dust” (Tehillim 102:15) that “You will arise and show mercy to Zion, for the time to favor her at the designated time has come” (ibid.102:14). That is to say, to the extent we hasten the redemption by cherishing her (Yerushalayim’s ) stones and favoring her dust (building her up), the redemption will hasten toward us.
These were the ideals that fueled theGaon’s talmidim, known as Perushim, infusing them with a great desire to settle in the Holy Land. This desire helped them overcome the seemingly insurmountable difficulties and hardships the journey and settlement presented in the early 1800s. Only deep belief in their Heaven-directed mission sustained them as they braved the challenges of settling the neglected and primitive country that Eretz Yisrael was at that time.
|Rechov Abulafia oppsite the former home of|
haRav Aryeh Levin the tzaddik of
As early as 5540/1780, the Chazon Tzion movement began propagating the Gra’s ideas. A sprinkling of his students settled in Eretz Yisrael in the late 1700s. A larger group of talmidim and their families arrived in 5569/1809. A year later the Pe’as Hashulchan (Rav Yisrael of Shklov, zt”l) led a second influx. Over the next thirty year approximately several hundred Ashkenazim, most of them Perushim, arrived each year.
There had been a previous immigration more than a hundred years before when Rav Yehudah Hechassid arrived in Yerushalayim with a large following in Cheshvan 5460/1700. However, within a week he passed away, and his followers eventually accrued a tremendous debt due to taxes, and bribes that had to be paid to the local pashas and neighboring Arab sheikhs. The debtors were identified as Ashkenazim and consequently all European Jews were banned from settling in Yerushalayim. Due to this ban, most of the Perushim who came in the early 1800s settled in Tzfas.
Breaking the Ban
The first thirty years of the Perushim’s settlement in the Holy Land was a period of unbelievable tribulation. It is known in history as 'The Era of Suffering' (1810–1840). Tragedy struck late in the afternoon of Sunday, 24 Teves 5597/1837; a violent earthquake erupted in the Galil. The city of Tzfas was leveled within seconds. The walls of Teveria fell. The tremors were felt miles away in Yerushalayim. About 4,000 Jews were killed in Tzfas, and between 700 and 1,000 in Teveria. This terrible “natural” catastrophe was attributed by the Rabbanim of the time to Divine retribution for the people’s having opted to settle in Tzfas and forgetting
Yerushalayim during the previous 100 years, and especially after the ban was lifted.
In 1811 Rav Hillel Rivlin (Hillel of Shklov, grandnephew of the Gra and greatgrandfatherof Rav Yosef) had been the first to breach the ban on Europeans settling in Yerushalayim. Eight other Perushim infiltrated Yerushalayim, incognito, after him and quietly settled in the Holy City. They dressed in Sephardic garb (the blackstriped yellow caftan), which until today remains part of Yerushalmi dress. Slowly more and more Ashkenazim settled in thecity. With lavish bribes and gifts, and a great deal of tactful diplomacy, they managed to create an atmosphere of good will. In 5580/1820 the sultan himself nullified all old unpaid debts and lifted the ban.
As a result of the earthquake in the north, most new
European immigrants now settled in Yerushalayim. Between the years 1840 and 1870 the Jewish community in Yerushalayim grew from 2,000 to 10,000 souls. The severe overcrowding reached unimaginable proportions and became a veritable health hazard. Due to lack of sanitary facilities, the odor in the city was horrendous and epidemics overwhelmed the population. Houses were hovels, and yet the Arab landlords kept raising the already high rents, arrogantly evicting those who could not pay.
Father of the (New) Neighborhoods
Something had to be done, and Rav Yoshe Rivlin was ready to do it. He dedicated himself to the task of relieving the congestion and poor living conditions by establishing new neighborhoods outside the city walls. His total devotion to the project earned him the title of Av Hashechunos, Father of the Neighborhoods.
From 1845 until 1855 no European had been permitted to buy land outside the Old City. In 1855, Lord Moses Montefiore had a personal audience with Sultan Abdul Majid and received permission to purchase and build on the area called Mishkenos Sha’ananim, but the sultan’s firman applied only to that area. Rav Yosef Rivlin and Rav Benzion Lyon, representing the Rabbanim
of Yerushalayim, traveled to Constantinople to negotiate for a general dispensation to allow foreigners to
purchase land outside the walls, and they succeeded.
Rav Rivlin had many opponents besides his future father-in-law. Some were sure he was possessed by a dybbuk. He was even taken to a beis din accused of being a danger to his own life. Nevertheless, in 5617/1857 at the age of twenty, spurred on by the dream of the Gra, Rav Rivlin established Bonei Yerushalayim (Builders of Jerusalem), an organization whose goal was to initiate building residences outside
In 1859, together with Rav Yoel Moshe Salomon and Rav Michel Cohen, he traveled throughout Europe and Russia to arouse interest in the organization and enlist members. They collected 800 rubles.
Rav Yoel Moshe and some friends were taking a stroll outside the walls one day when they met some Arab farmers who asked them what they were doing there. Rav Salomon offered to buy their land for half a grush per square meter, claiming he wanted to grow wheat for matzah there. The farmers were more than willing to sell. Rav Salomon had started the ball rolling, but it was Rav Yosef Rivlin who pushed through the purchase of the land, and attained the goal. Traversed the many bureaucratic hurdles, and became the driving force that created the new colony in 1869. He called on the help of Esther Lumzar (née Altusha Rivlin), the wife of one of the original seven founding fathers of Nachalas Shiva, which in Hebrew means “Inheritance of the Seven”. Esther spoke Arabic fluently and held Ottomani
citizenship. She disguised herself as an Arab woman and was allowed to buy the land for 170 Turkish lira, with another 170
lira in baksheesh to the clerks. The cornerstone-laying ceremony for Nachalas Shiva took place on LagBaOmer 1869. Rav Yosef placed an earthenware jug, containing a handwritten letter the Vilna Gaon had given his great-grandfather Rav Hillel Rivlin, under the cornerstone. A month and a half later Rav Yosef Rivlin and his friend Nissim Shemesh fearlessly moved into a newly built apartment in Nachalas Shiva. Because of the ever-present danger involved in living outside the walls, however, Rav Rivlin’s wife stayed in the Old City, and he returned “home” only on Shabbos. For protection against his hostile new neighbors, he wrote a sefer Torah. He also built a high wall and hired non-Jewish guards.Once when Rav Yosef attended a meeting in his brother’s home in the Old City, his friends locked him in, claiming that it was too dangerous for him to return to Nachalas Shiva. He broke through thelocked door, saying that if he missed living in the new settlement even one night, that would be the end of the New Yishuv.
Life and Death in Nachalas Shiva
In the spring of 1872, two and a half years later, more settlers moved in to Nachalas Shiva. At this point Rav Rivlin brought his wife to live in the new neighborhood. Within a year they were granted their first child, after having been childless for fifteen years. They saw the birth of their daughter, Nechamah, as a sign of Divine approval of their activities.
One summer day in 1873, while Rav Yosef was in the Old City, an Arab attackedMrs. Rivlin. She managed to wrest the dagger from his hand and stab him to death. This incident was so traumatic for her that she suffered a heart attack and died shortly afterward. Not much later Rav Rivlin’s infant daughter also passed away.
This heartbreaking succession of events notwithstanding, Rav Rivlin found the courage to remarry a year later, and he was blessed with several more children. From the founding of Nachalas Shiva, Rav Yosef
Rivlin went on to build more new neighborhoods.
He was always among the first to move into the newly formed areas. When enough residents had moved in to
stabilize and secure the neighborhood, he would move on to the next housing project. Rav Yosef Rivlin was the initiator andamong the founding fathers of at least eleven “colonies” outside the Old City: Meah Shearim, Beis Yisrael, Even Yisrael, Mishkenos Yisrael, Mazkeret Moshe, Ohel Moshe, Yemin Moshe, Zichron Tuvya, Shaarei Tzedek and many others, some of them consisting of only several streets in the Nachalot — he was indeed the Father of the Neighborhoods.
The names Rav Rivlin chose for each new community were steeped in mystical connotations. The words meah shearim, for example, have the same numerical value as the passuk in Bamidbar 14:17, “Now I pray,
let the power of my L-rd be great” — 666 —which according to the Vilna Gaon is imbued with esoteric significance. The Even Yisrael neighborhood contains fifty-three plots of land, the numerical value of even,
In Iyar 5633/1873, Rav Yosef Rivlin was among the first homesteaders in the new Meah Shearim neighborhood. At one point it seemed that the Meah Shearim colony would fold. A swamp in a nearby valley
east of the neighborhood (where Beis Yisrael is today) was infested with malaria carryingmosquitoes. Rav Rivlin formulated a plan to drain the marsh, using a dog, a pipe, and a long rope. With the help of Hashem the
operation was successful, and thanks to it the settling of Meah Shearim was also successful. Harav Chaim Sonnenfeld, zt”l, a young avreich at the time, was one of those who helped Rav Rivlin drain the swamp.
In 5635/1875 Even Yisrael was built on land to the side of where Rechov Agrippas runs today. Rechov Agrippas was also legally purchased from its Arab owner with
authorities, but help was not forthcoming. One of the clerks, however, whispered to him, “What moves at night stays in place
during the day.” Rav Yosef understood the hint. One fine night he and many friends arrived on the purchased land fully equipped with building material and vehicles. In one night they laid the whole road. For many years Rechov Agrippas was known as Rechov Bilah, an acronym for Bin Laylah Hayah, “In one night it happened.”
No Dearth of Public Works
Rav Yosef Rivlin’s “golden” pen was in constant use, urging the building of more and more settlements in New Jerusalem. He also wrote in defense of the Old Yishuv in opposition to the secularitst and Zionists who criticized it.He wrote most frequently under his pen name “Adir” (alef-daled-yudreish, for Eileh Divrei Yosef Rivlin); all the newspapers carried his articles. A collection of his writings has been published in a book entitled Megillas Yosef (1966). Pizmonei Rav Yoshe is a book of Rav Rivlin’s poems, including a five-page sonnet written in honor of the chanukas habayis of the Churva Synagogue in 1864.
From the age of twenty-eight until his passing, Rav Yosef Rivlin was the director and secretary of the Vaad Klali, the central body of the Ashkenazic community’s charitable trust funds. There was at first much opposition to his nomination because of his youth, but Harav Shmuel Salant , zt”l, backed Rav Yosef’s appointment to thepost. Harav Salant prevailed and Rav Yosef Rivlin was installed; he carried out this public duty for more than thirty years in the most trustworthy manner. Enormous sums of charity money passed though his hands, yet he himself lived most simply. Someclaim that he did not even have the money
to buy medicine to combat the illness that took his life.
Rav Yosef Rivlin passed away in Yerushalayim on 27 Elul 5756/1896 at the age of fifty-nine. Although he had built such a great portion of the new city of Yerushalayim, he left not even one flat for his surviving widow and orphans.
Published in 'Hamodia' 1 Sept 2010
Parts of this article were based on information from:
Light magazine # 129 (28 Iyar 5736); # 175 (3 Adar
I 5738); # 184 (7 Nissan 5738); Where Heaven
Touches Earth, by Dovid Rossoff (Guardian Press);