Tag Archives: Ottoman Empire

Jew of the Week: Sarah Aaronsohn

Israel’s Joan of Arc

Sarah Aaronsohn

Sarah Aaronsohn (1890-1917) was born in Zikhron Yaakov to a Romanian-Jewish family which had settled in the Land of Israel during the First Aliyah to co-found a moshav. The moshav was later financed and supported by Edmond James de Rothschild (who renamed it Zikhron Yaakov after his father). Aaronsohn studied languages, and could speak Hebrew, Yiddish, Turkish, French, Arabic, and English. She married a wealthy Jewish-Bulgarian businessman and lived with him briefly in Istanbul. When the marriage unraveled, Aaronsohn returned to Israel. During her journey, she personally witnessed the horrors of the Armenian Genocide, and was deeply affected by what she saw. This inspired her to work against the Ottoman Turks, both to stop what was happening to the Armenians, and to prevent the same happening to Jews, as was rumoured at the time. Aaronsohn and her siblings started the NILI spy ring to supply important information to the British. (NILI stood for the Biblical words Netzach Israel Lo Ishaker, “the God of Israel does not lie”, from I Samuel 15:29.) Their spy ring grew to include 40 operatives, making it the largest British spy network in the Middle East during World War I. The information they provided was so vital that General Allenby later admitted he would not have been able to liberate the Holy Land without it. And without Allenby’s conquest, there would probably not have been a State of Israel (at least not so soon). Aaronsohn was also in charge of taking care of the Jews expelled from Haifa and Tel-Aviv by the Ottomans. At one point she worked with Lawrence of Arabia, and many believe the “S.A” to whom he dedicated his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom is Sarah Aaronsohn. Unfortunately, the Ottomans caught one of Aaronsohn’s carrier pigeons to the British and arrested her shortly after. She was gruesomely tortured for days, refusing to give any information and insisting that she was the sole spy, thus saving the lives of many others. While being transferred to a different torture chamber, she asked to stop at home to change her tattered and blood-soaked clothes. Aaronsohn managed to get a gun and shoot herself in the head. She survived the blast, and suffered for another four days before succumbing to her injuries. In her suicide note, she wrote that she hoped the blood of martyrs like her would one day be avenged, and that her work would speed up the establishment of a Jewish state. History has shown that it certainly did. Aaronsohn was hailed as a new “Joan of Arc”, and is one of Israel’s great heroines.

The Spiritual Purpose of Jewish Exile and Wandering

Words of the Week

Before the Endlessness of God, the highest saint and the lowliest commoner are equal.
– Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk (c. 1730-1788)

Jews of the Week: Rav Saragossi and the Radbaz

Two Inspiring Sages

Tomb of Rabbi Yosef Saragossi in Ein Zeitim, Israel

Yosef Saragossi (1460-1507) was born to a religious Sephardic family, either in Saragossa, Spain, or in Syracuse, Sicily. He became a respected rabbi at a young age. Around the time of the Spanish Expulsion of 1492, Rav Saragossi settled in Tzfat. He discovered a tiny community of just 300 poorly-educated Jews, with not a single full-time rabbi among them. Rav Saragossi revived the three synagogues in the city and founded new schools, reinvigorating Jewish life. His yeshiva soon attracted students from far and wide. Within a century, Tzfat was a major centre of Jewish learning, and the capital of Jewish mysticism. There, Rabbi Yosef Karo would produce the Shulchan Arukh, still the central code of Jewish law, and there the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria) revealed his Kabbalistic system, forever revolutionizing Judaism. Rav Saragossi was beloved not only by Tzfat’s Jews, but by its Muslim residents, too. In fact, the Muslim governor at the time paid two-thirds of Rav Yosef’s salary just to keep him from leaving. Rav Saragossi’s tomb remains an important pilgrimage site, and is known as a place of miracles. Because of one such miracle involving 500 white hens, he has been called Tzadik haLavan, “the White Saint”.

One of Rav Saragossi’s foremost students was David ben Shlomo ibn Abi Zimra (c. 1479-1589). He, too, was born in Spain, and was exiled around the time of his bar mitzvah. His family settled in Tzfat, and the young David studied in Rav Saragossi’s yeshiva. Becoming a renowned rabbi of his own (later known by his initials, Radbaz, as is common among Jewish sages), he moved to Egypt and became a member of its beit din, the Jewish court. He would soon be appointed Hakham Bashi, Egypt’s chief rabbi. Meanwhile, the Radbaz made some good investments, and became exceedingly wealthy. He built a new yeshiva in Cairo, and it was there that a young Isaac Luria, the Arizal, would get his start. After serving as Chief Rabbi for nearly forty years, writing a number of important books, and penning over 3000 responsa, the Radbaz retired at age 90. He left most of his wealth for the poor, then returned to the Holy Land. Although he wished to settle in Jerusalem, the Ottomans made it difficult for Jews to live there, so the Radbaz returned to Tzfat. He was immediately placed on the highest beit din, alongside Rav Yosef Karo. The Radbaz merited to live many more years, inspiring a new generation of rabbis, including the great Rabbi Chaim Vital. He was over 100 years old when he passed away.

Words of the Week

It is never too late to be what you might have been.
– George Eliot