Letters of Immigrants to Palestine from the Fifteenth Century
W E owe to Italian Jews the first comprehensive and the most impressive letters sent from Palestine by early Jewish travellers (see Introduction). The writers of the following somewhat abbreviated letters, Elijah of Ferrara, the celebrated scholar Obadiah Jaré of Bertinoro, author of the well-known commentary on the Mishnah, and an unknown student who was attracted by the fame of the last-named, left Italy in the fifteenth century in order to begin a new life in the Land of Israel devoted to learning and to the welfare of the country. The activities of these pioneers of the 'Italian Alijah' may be regarded as the beginning of the Palestinian revival.
Elijah of Ferrara, who arrived in Palestine as early as 1434, had to pay a high price for the change of his domicile: two sons and a grandson lost their lives on the journey. His letter is an eloquent testimony to the heroism with which he sustained this cruel blow. The interest of the letters of Obadiah da Bertinoro is quite different. When, after a long journey, he reached Palestine in 1488, he found the social and cultural life of the country at a low ebb. But Obadiah's arrival in Jerusalem marked, as has been said, an epoch in the history of the city and the entire land. The letter of the unknown author - a Venetian Jew who arrived in Palestine in 1495 - is largely a tribute to Obadiah's moral eminence and his splendid work in the Holy Land. The particular significance of this letter consists, however, in the various references to the Spanish disaster and to the emigrants from the Iberian Peninsula who, together with the writer, travelled to the homeland of the Jewish people.
All these letters are important contributions to our knowledge of the conditions in Palestine at the close of the Middle Ages. The letters of Elijah and Obadiah also throw light upon a peculiar subject: the great interest in the whereabouts of the lost Ten Tribes, concerning whom many exciting rumours were circulating in Europe - decades before David Reubeni, the ambassador of the Jewish kingdom of Habor, made his appearance in Italy in the 'twenties of the sixteenth century.
The value of the following four letters does not lie, however, merely in the information which they furnish. All of them are personal letters with a strong human appeal. The insight which they furnish into the souls of their writers is not less attractive than the recorded picture of countries and peoples.