Alkalai, Judah ben Solomon Ḥai

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ALKALAI, JUDAH BEN SOLOMON ḤAI (1798–1878), Sephardi rabbi and precursor of modern Zionism. Alkalai was born in Sarajevo (then Bosnia) and brought up in Jerusalem, where he was strongly influenced by Sarajevo-born R. Eliezer Papo. From 1825 until he again moved to Jerusalem in 1874, Alkalai was rabbi of Semlin (Zemun), near Belgrade. He taught Hebrew to the young men of the congregation, whose mother tongue was Ladino. As a young man, Alkalai was introduced to the concept of the Jewish nation by the rabbi of Corfu, Judah b. Samuel *Bibas, one of the originators of the idea of Ḥibbat Zion and settlement in Ereẓ Israel. The struggle of three nations – Turkey, Austria, and Serbia – for the domination of the town of Semlin also directed his thoughts to a modern political conception of the destiny and aspirations of the Jewish people.

His first two books were written in Ladino; the rest in Hebrew. In his first book, Darkhei No'am (1839), a Ladino-Hebrew textbook, the outstanding feature is his revolutionary attitude toward redemption as opposed to the traditional religious interpretations. Teshuvah ("repentance"), which, according to the Talmud (Sanh. 97b), is the precondition for redemption, is interpreted by Alkalai in its literal sense, i.e., shivah, return (to Ereẓ Israel). This approach, which was first expressed by R. Bibas and was later developed in Alkalai's writings, is the foundation of his preaching for a Return to Zion within the framework of traditional religious thought. He interpreted the traditional meaning of teshuvah as peratit ("personal"), i.e., "that each man shall return from the path of evil according to the definitions of repentance given by the early sages," whereas the new meaning refers to teshuvah kelalit ("general return"), i.e., "that all of Israel should return to the land of our fathers."

Alkalai's second book was a rebuttal to the scornful criticism that was heaped upon these interpretations. Entitled Shelom Yerushalayim (1840), it contained the first reaction to the *Damascus Affair and hints of a Return to Zion. The united stand of world Jewry during the Damascus Affair, as well as the struggle of the Serbs for their independence, led him to publish his first Hebrew work Minḥat Yehudah (1843). In this work he interprets the year of the Damascus Affair, 1840, as a fateful and symbolic year for the Jewish nation on its road to redemption. The libeling and suffering of Damascus Jewry occurred in order to arouse the Jewish people to their plight in exile and "to the remoteness of Jerusalem." "Complacent dwellers in foreign lands" should learn the lesson of the Damascus Affair.

In all his writings, Alkalai cites passages from the Talmud, the Midrash, and the Kabbalah, to which he adds his own mystical interpretations. His own views, however, which he repeated both verbally and in writing, are clear, namely that redemption is primarily in the hands of man himself, of the people, and redemption through a miracle can only come at a later stage. This introduction of a natural voluntaristic factor into the yearnings for redemption was a daring concept for his period.

Alkalai aroused strong opposition in Orthodox circles, which rejected the modern concept of redemption. However, he continued to publish pamphlet after pamphlet, stressing that the settlement of Ereẓ Israel was the primary solution to the Jewish problem in Europe. In these pamphlets he quoted the early and later sages, also using *gematria. From these pamphlets, a far-reaching plan for the realization of the return to Ereẓ Israel emerged. Alkalai called for the introduction of the tithe for financing settlement, for the achievement of international recognition of Jewish Ereẓ Israel, for the restoration of the assembly of elders as a Jewish parliament, for the revival of Hebrew (particularly spoken Hebrew), for Jewish agriculture, and for a Jewish army. He expressed the hope that Great Britain would supervise the execution of the program. He opposed a plan, discussed in the early 1860s, to erect houses for the Jews in Jerusalem (battei maḥaseh) as being merely of temporary benefit, whereas agricultural settlement would prove of permanent value.

In 1852 Alkalai visited England in order to propagate his idea for a return to Ereẓ Israel. He subsequently traveled to several other West European countries seeking support for his plan. In each locality that he visited he founded a Society for the Settlement of Ereẓ Israel. He corresponded with prominent rabbis in Germany and Austria who gave their imprimatur to his pamphlets. Alkalai also called for the establishment of an international Jewish association, which was realized only in 1860 with the founding of the *Alliance Israélite Universelle. He requested of this organization to help him carry out his plans. However, when, in 1870 the Alliance established the *Mikveh Israel agricultural school in Ereẓ Israel, he opposed the project, arguing that, despite the usefulness of the school in training future Jewish farmers, the only worthwhile activity was the large-scale acquisition of land for settlement purposes. Alkalai opposed the religious Reform Movement in Germany which omitted the references to Zion and Jerusalem from its prayers. He also had no faith in the Emancipation movement, which he regarded as an unwanted diversion from migration and settlement in Ereẓ Israel. For this reason, he also opposed Jewish emigration to the U.S. and elsewhere.

His efforts brought few results. He encouraged the Society for the Settlement of Ereẓ Israel, founded by Ḥayyim *Lorje, but it achieved nothing. Alkalai eventually lost faith in his own society and those founded by others. He went to Ereẓ Israel in 1871 and founded the Kol Israel Ḥaverim society for the settlement of Ereẓ Israel, giving it the same name as the Hebrew translation of Alliance Israélite Universelle, as if to establish an Alliance branch in Ereẓ Israel. However, when Alkalai returned to Serbia, the organization failed as a result of the opposition of the Jerusalem zealots and the Amsterdam center for the distribution of *ḥalukkah funds. Alkalai violently attacked the Jerusalem zealots and all other opponents of the settlement of Ereẓ Israel, from leading Orthodox rabbis to the heads of the Reform movement.

He published 18 pamphlets and many articles in Hebrew newspapers. One of his pamphlets, Mevasser Tov, also appeared in English translation entitled Harbinger of Good Tidings: An Address to the Jewish Nation on the Propriety of Organizing an Association to Promote the Regaining of Their Fatherland (1852). A selection of his writings, with a bibliography and an introduction by G. Kressel, was published in 1943. A complete edition of his works, with an introduction by Y. Werfel (Raphael), appeared in 1944. Alkalai is the hero of a novel by Yehudah Burla, entitled Ba-Ofek ("On the Horizon," 1943–47).


A. Herzberg, Zionist Idea (1960), 32–36, 103–7; Kressel, Leksikon, 1 (1965), 119–20 (incl. bibl.). add. bibliography: M. Penkower, in: Judaism, 33:3 (1984), 289-95; Y. Rephael, Kitvei ha-Rav Yehudah Alkalai, 2 vols. (1974); Z. Loker, "Le Rabbin Juda ben Salomon Hay Alacalay et l`Alliance Israélite Universelle à propos de ses letters inédites," in: Revue des Etudes juives, 144 (janvier–septembre 1985), fasc. 1–3, 127–44; J. Lebl, "Ḥoleh Ahavat Yerushalayim," in: Peʿamim, no. 46 (1989), 21–48.

[Getzel Kressel]