Tag Archives: Jaffa

Jews of the Week: Rabbi Yehuda Bibas and Rabbi Yehuda Alkali

The Unbelievable True Story of the Real Founders of Zionism

Yehuda Aryeh Leon Bibas (1789-1852) was born in Gibralter to a long line of Sephardi rabbis. After his father’s untimely death, the young Bibas moved to Livorno to be raised by his grandfather. There, he studied both at the yeshiva and the university, becoming a rabbi and physician. He returned to Gibralter to head its yeshiva, attracting many students from across Europe and North Africa. In 1831, he was appointed chief rabbi of Corfu (a Greek island that had a large population in those days). Over the next decade, he understood the terrible predicament that Jews were in, and resolved that restoring an independent Jewish state in the Holy Land was the only solution. In 1839, he embarked on an international tour to encourage Jews all over the world to make aliyah. Some credit him with being the first prominent figure to do so in modern times. He was supported by the great Moses Montefiore, a wealthy Sephardic Jew who financed the first printing press and textile factory in the land of Israel, refurbished many of its Jewish holy sites, and established several Jewish agricultural colonies.

Rabbi Alkali

It was during Rabbi Bibas’ global tour that he met Rabbi Yehuda Alkali (1798-1878). Rabbi Alkali was born in Sarajevo and studied in Jerusalem under the tutelage of the holy city’s greatest Kabbalists. He went on to become the chief rabbi of Semlin, Serbia. Partly inspired by Serbia’s own nationalist movement, and further spurred by an 1840 blood libel against the Jews of Damascus, Rabbi Alkali was convinced that Jews must have a state of their own after meeting Rabbi Bibas. Rabbi Alkali established the Society of the Settlement of Eretz Yisrael and began a campaign to encourage Jews to settle in their ancestral home. Based on a famous prophecy in the Zohar, Rabbi Alkali proclaimed that the year 1840 would be the start of the process of Redemption, and that it would take one hundred years to accomplish. In an incredible prediction, he said that if Jews failed to take advantage of this spiritually-auspicious century, then by 1940 the Redemption would begin anyway, but in a much more difficult way, and only through “an outpouring of wrath will our dispersed be gathered”. History has eerily confirmed his prophecy. More amazing still, Rabbi Alkali published a book in 1857 titled Goral L’Adonai (“Lot for the Lord”) which clearly outlined the steps to re-establish a Jewish state in Israel. He presented one of the first copies of the book to his dear friend, and a member of his Semlin synagogue, named Simon Loeb Herzl. This happened to be the grandfather of Theodor Herzl, who would inherit the book. Scholars agree that Rabbi Alkali and his 1857 treatise played a major role in influencing Theodor Herzl, and thus the whole Zionist movement. In fact, it was Rabbi Alkali who first proposed restoring Hebrew as the primary spoken language of the Jews, who argued that the Holy Land should be legally purchased piece by piece, and that Jews must re-learn to become agriculturalists for the whole endeavour to work. (All three of these things would soon materialize.) Both Rabbi Bibas and Rabbi Alkali practiced what they preached and made aliyah to Israel. Rabbi Bibas first joined his disciples in Yaffo, then moved to Hebron and opened a library. He passed away shortly after, and is buried in Hebron’s Jewish Cemetery. Rabbi Alkali, meanwhile, founded a settlement near Jerusalem and lived there for the remainder of his life. He is buried in Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives Cemetery.

Did You Know These Famous People are Sephardic Jews?

Words of the Week

It was a city of wonders. Everything was written in Hebrew. People were speaking Hebrew. I thought, This is redemption. This is the city of the Messiah.
– Amnon Shamosh, Syrian-Israeli novelist, on first arriving to Tel-Aviv in 1937

Jews of the Week: Rabbi Shlomo & Shlomo Moussaieff

Shlomo ben Yakov Moussaieff (1852-1922) was born in the emirate of Bukhara (present-day Uzbekistan). Both a renowned rabbi and a wealthy businessman, he made aliyah to the Holy Land in 1888 – bringing with him forty cases of gold – and was one of the founders of Jerusalem’s famous Bukharian Quarter. Moussaieff built four synagogues, and homes for 25 poor families. Meanwhile, he published a prayer book and disseminated it widely, making it his mission to inspire more Jews to pray regularly. He also continued his business ventures, particularly in real estate, tea, silk, and gemstones. Moussaieff was an avid collector of rare manuscripts, and amassed an impressive library with 225 ancient texts, including prized manuscripts of Maimonides and the mystical teachings of the Arizal. Until his last days, Moussaieff was committed to the development of Israel, and stated in his will that only those of his seven children that remain in Israel would receive any inheritance.

His grandson, also Shlomo Moussaieff (1923-2015), though better known as Sam, would become even more famous. One of twelve children raised in Jerusalem, Sam Moussaieff ran away from home as a teen to avoid his strict father. Living in a synagogue, he worked for a carpenter and sold ancient coins he would find in Jerusalem’s caves and tombs. Once arrested by Arab policemen, he ended up in a Muslim school for nearly a year, becoming proficient in Arabic and the Koran. At 17, Moussaieff enlisted in the British Army to fight the Nazis. After World War II, he fought for Israel’s independence and was captured by the Jordanians, who imprisoned him for a year. Moussaieff returned to Jerusalem and joined the family jewellery business. He soon opened his own antiquities shop in Jaffa, at times getting in trouble for smuggling goods. In 1963, Moussaieff was offered to have his record cleared of legal issues, as well as the rights to an exclusive shop in London’s Hilton Hotel, in exchange for handwritten letters from Maimonides which he owned. Moussaieff accepted and moved to London. His shop soon specialized in jewellery, and he became the dealer of choice for wealthy barons from Arab oil states thanks to his pristine Arabic. Moussaieff became world-renowned for his extremely rare and special gems. He owned the most precious stone in the world: a red diamond valued at $20 million. In 2011, he was ranked among the richest Londoners, with an estimated worth of some $350 million. Moussaieff amassed a personal collection of over 60,000 ancient artifacts, including millennia-old seals from Jerusalem’s First Temple, and reportedly even items associated with the forefather Abraham! His stated goal was to collect indisputable evidence proving the accuracy of the Torah. Moussaieff was given an honourary degree by Bar Ilan University (to whom he donated many artifacts, including his grandfather’s ancient manuscripts) which established the Dr. Shlomo Moussaieff Center for Kabbala Research. Interestingly, Moussaieff once purchased an ancient Torah scroll for $1 million from the Allenby family – who had the Torah because the elder Shlomo Moussaieff gave it as a gift to General Allenby during World War I!

Words of the Week

My spirit moved me to leave the land of my birth, in which I grew up, and to ascend to the Holy Land, the land in which our ancestors dwelled in happiness, the land whose memory passes before us ten times each day in our prayers…
Rabbi Shlomo Moussaieff, in the introduction to his prayer book, Hukat Olam


Make your Shavuot night-learning meaningful with the Arizal’s ‘Tikkun Leil Shavuot’, a mystical Torah-study guide, now in English and Hebrew, with commentary.