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Avelei Zion


AVELEI ZION (Heb. אֲבֵ לֵי צִיּוֹן; "Mourners of Zion," based on Isa. 61:3), groups of Jews devoted to mourning the destruction of the Temple and to praying for the redemption of Zion. The customs of this group can be traced to the period immediately following the destruction of the Second Temple. Perhaps the group itself arose in Jerusalem. The Babylonian Talmud (bb 60b) mentioned that after the destruction of the Temple many became perushim (ascetics) and abstained from meat and wine as a sign of mourning. Rabbis such as Joshua b. Hananiah and Ishmael, while sympathizing with their sentiments, felt that these customs could not be universally applied. After the Bar Kokhba War (132–5) Jews were no longer allowed to live in Jerusalem and could only visit it on the Ninth of *Av. After the Arab conquest, however, the Jewish community resettled in Jerusalem and this led to the revival of the Avelei Zion. They were obviously inspired by mystical and messianic ideas which found expression in writings such as the Orot ha-Mashi'aḥ, Nistarot de-R. Shimon b. Yoḥai, and the Tefillot R. Shimon b. Yoḥai. The ninth-century author of the Pesikta Rabbati may have belonged to the group: he praises them highly, although they were held in ridicule by the community at large (158a/b).

The Avelei Zion would not engage in either commerce or trade and therefore lived in great poverty; for their meager subsistence they depended on the charity of Diaspora communities and pilgrims. The Chronicle of Ahimaaz reports a donation of 1,000 dinars pledged by Paltiel in Fostat (c. 969) for the benefit of the Avelei Beit Olamim. After Paltiel's death, his son reinterred him and his wife in Jerusalem and donated a considerable sum for the Avelei ha-Heikhal. Both these terms are evidently identical with Avelei Zion. Avelei Zion is mentioned for the first time in the Halakhot Keẓuvot (Italy, first half of the ninth century) where it is incorporated into a prayer of consolation as part of the grace recited in the home of a mourner ("Comfort, O Lord our God, the mourners of Zion and the mourners of Jerusalem"). This phrase was also included in the prayer Naḥem of the afternoon service on the Ninth of Av, although it is not mentioned either in the order of prayers in the Jerusalem Talmud (Ber. 4:3, 8a) or in Seder Rav Amram. The new formula is found in Maḥzor Vitry, 269.

Groups of Avelei Zion existed also in Germany, Italy, Yemen, and other Oriental countries. In Germany, one of the prominent members of this group was the liturgical poet *Meir b. Isaac, a contemporary of Rashi. With the conquest of Palestine by the Seljuks (1071) and by the Crusaders (1099) the Avelei Zion disappeared from Jerusalem, though *Benjamin of Tudela, who visited the city about 1179, talked to "R. Abraham Alcostantini, the saintly ascetic, who was one of the mourners of Jerusalem." Benjamin also heard of Avelei Zion in Yemen "who live in caves or secluded houses and fast every day except for Sabbaths and holidays and pray to God to have mercy upon dispersed Israel," and of others like them in Germany.

Most of the Karaites who settled in Jerusalem in the first half of the ninth century ordered their lives according to the customs of the Avelei Zion. Their scholars, for example, Daniel al-Kumisi and *Sahl b. Maẓli'aḥ, sent messages to the Karaites in the Diaspora calling upon them to abandon the vanities of this world and go to Jerusalem to spend their days there in prayer for the redemption of Israel. Some scholars believed, in fact, that the Avelei Zion were a Karaite sect, but this can hardly be maintained as they seem to have developed before the emergence of Karaism. Possibly the Karaite scholars Tobias b. Moses (11th century), who lived in Jerusalem for a time, and Judah Hadassi (12th century) of Constantinople belonged to the Avelei Zion.


Mann, in: jqr, 12 (1920), 271; S. Schechter, Studies in Judaism, 3 (1924), 6–7; Baron, Social, 2:5 (1957), 185, index; Zucker, in: Sefer ha-Yovel… Ch. Albeck (1963), 378 ff.

[Zvi Avneri]

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