Introduction to Sir Moses Montefiore


In 1839 CE the most well known Jewish philanthropist, Sir Moses Montefiore, commissioned the first of five censuses of the Jewish population living in Erets Yisrael, which was one of the territories of the Turkish Ottoman Empire since 1516 CE.

During the early nineteenth century, the Erets Yisrael population suffered from insurrections and a very devastating earthquake. At the same time an immigration flow of generally poor people to the Holy Land increased the necessity of bringing the Jews to a higher economic level. While conducting the 1839 CE census, funds were put at the disposal of the Jewish population.

The 1839 Census is online and in English here at FASSAC (GO)

1 = badly nourished (near starvation level)
2 = deep poverty (extreme poverty)
3 = poverty
4 = with much difficulty
5 = with difficulty
6 = easily (moderate income for comfortable living)
7 = pension (retired with pension)
8 = rich (very comfortable)

The translated and classified data is based on: Mifkad Yehudei Erets-Yisrael (1839), ed. in Jerusalem, Merkaz Dinur, 1987

These old registers are composed of individual handwritten pages, which were subsequently bound together. The census-appointed clerks wrote down the following details for the family: head/father, his surname and given name, his birth place, his age, arrival date in the specific town, his income level, his occupation, the number of his children, their name and age and some notes from time to time.

For each town there were separate lists of widows and orphans for whom, in many cases, surnames were never recorded. The lists are subdivided into the “German" (Ashkenazi) and "Portuguese" (Sefardi) ones. In the summer of 2000 CE these registers had their data extracted and recompiled by Mathilde Tagger of Jerusalem for use by the Sephardic community who are researching their family history and genealogy.

Sir Moses Montefiore

Moses Montefiore (1784-1885 CE) was one of the greatest and best-loved statesmen and communal leaders in all of Jewish history. Born in Livorno in 1784 CE, of an Italian-Jewish family that had settled in England in early eighteenth century. An Orthodox Sefardic Jew, Montefiore is best remembered as a philanthropist and zealous fighter for the rights of oppressed Jews all over the world. Besides visiting such countries as Italy, Russia, and Romania on behalf of his co-religionists, he also made seven journeys to Palestine. During his first pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1827 he established a friendship with Muhammad 'Ali Pasha, sultan of Egypt. In 1840 Montefiore utilized this relationship when he helped secure the release of a number of Damascan Jews (Damascus was then part of 'Ali's domain) who had been falsely accused of using Christian blood for religious rites. That year he also persuaded the Turkish sultan to extend to Jews the maximum privileges enjoyed by aliens, privileges he persuaded a later sultan to reaffirm in 1863.

His Background

In 1803 CE at the age of 19 he became one of the twelve Jewish brokers licensed by the City of London and was allowed to have a seat on the London Stock Exchange. He married Judith Cohen, sister-in-law of Mayer Anschel Rothschild. His firm acted as brokers for the Rothschilds, which made him quite wealthy. His personal wealth enabled him to retire from the Exchange at the age of 40 and to devote himself to communal and other interests. He was among the founders of the Imperial Continental Gas Association which extended gas lighting to the major cities of Europe. He was a fellow of the Royal Society, was elected sheriff of the City of London in 1837 CE and was knighted by Queen Victoria when she ascended the throne. For forty years, from 1834-1874 CE, he served as president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

Montefiore visited the Land of Israel seven times between 1827 CE and 1875 CE. He helped set up hospitals, agricultural settlements, built synagogues, apartments and tombs. He helped the Jewish communities in Syria, Russia, Morocco, and Romania by intervening with their governments to alleviate their suffering and persecution.

In 1855 CE, on his fourth visit to Palestine the British-Jewish banker-philanthropist bought ten acres of land for 1000 pounds sterling from a wealthy Moslem. On this plot of land, in 1860 CE, he established the first Jewish residential quarter outside the walls of the Old City. It was named Mishkenot Sha’ananim – peaceful habitation. The new neighborhood was financed from the estate of the Jewish philanthropist Judah Touro of New Orleans and designed by William A. Smith from Ramsgate in England, the town where Sir Moses lived. Meant to house both Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, the two long, narrow buildings, which contained 16 small apartments under an innovative (for Jerusalem) flat roof, had an Ashkenazi synagogue at one end and a Sephardi synagogue at the other. There were also cisterns for drinking water, a ritual bath, public cooking ovens and a wind-driven flour mill where some of the residents earned a living. The windmill has now been converted into a museum in which Montefiore’s horse-drawn carriage is exhibited.

Sir Moses' philanthropic work on behalf of beleaguered and oppressed Jewish communities throughout the world brought him accolades and expressions of admiration and praise on many occasions. But no occasion in his life was marked with greater ceremony and outpourings of affection and admiration than his one-hundredth birthday, truly a remarkable milestone in anyone's life, but one which warranted extra attention because of Sir Moses' stature in the Jewish world.

History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem

The Jewish national and religious tie to Jerusalem was first established by King David and Solomon, his son, who built the first Temple there. This First Commonwealth lasted over 400 years, until the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and exiled the Jewish inhabitants of the city. Immediately following the Persian defeat of the Babylonians, the Jews returned to Jerusalem less than 100 years later, rebuilt their Temple and reestablished the Jewish character of the city.

For the next 500 years, the Jews further strengthened their presence in Jerusalem, surviving various attempts by foreign empires to destroy their national and religious identity. Greeks, Seleucids and Romans took turns in conquering the city, forbidding Jewish religious practices and encouraging the Jews to assimilate into the dominant culture. Several times, the Jews were forced to take up arms in order to preserve their liberty and heritage.

Only after the Second Temple was destroyed by Rome in 70 CE, and a subsequent Jewish revolt was crushed in 135 CE, was the Jewish presence in the city temporarily suspended, following the killing or enslavement of the Jewish population by the Romans.

By the 4th century, some Jews had managed to make their way back to the city. In the 5th century, under early Christian rule, Jews were, at various times, either more or less free to practice their religion. At this time, few non-Christian communities remained in the country, apart from the Jews. Theodosius II (408-450 CE) deprived the Jews of their relative autonomy and their right to hold public positions. Jewish courts were forbidden to sit on mixed Jewish-Christian cases and the construction of new synagogues was prohibited. Jews were forbidden to enter Jerusalem except on one day a year, to mourn the destruction of the Temple.

At the beginning of the 7th century, the Jews looked to the Persians for salvation. Hoping to be permitted to worship freely once the Byzantine oppression had been removed, the Jews encouraged the Persians' conquest of Acre and Jerusalem, and a Jewish community was subsequently allowed to settle and worship in Jerusalem (614-17 CE), though it was later expelled. Under early Arab rule, a Jewish community was reestablished in Jerusalem and flourished in the 8th century. Jews were even among those who guarded the walls of the Dome of the Rock. In return, they were absolved from paying the poll-tax imposed on all non-Muslims. In the 10th and 11th centuries, however, harsh measures were imposed against the Jews by the Fatimids, who seized power in 969 CE. Though the Jewish academy (Yeshiva) of Jerusalem was compelled by Caliph Al-Hakim to reestablish itself in Ramle, entry to Jerusalem was revived by the "Mourners of Zion", Diaspora Jews who did not cease to lament the destruction of the Temple. This movement, which held that "aliyah" -- ascent to the Land -- would hasten the resurrection of Israel, was at its peak in the 9th-11th centuries. Many Jews came from Byzantium and Iraq and established communities.

The Crusader period in the 12th century brought terrible massacres of Jews by Christians, and the prohibition against living in Jerusalem. After the conquest of the country by Saladin late in the century, the Jewish community in Jerusalem again grew considerably.

In 1211 CE, three hundred rabbis from France and England immigrated as a group, many settling in Jerusalem. After the Mamluks took power in 1250 CE, the famous Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman (Nahmanides), traveled from Spain and settled in Jerusalem.

Jewish communities existed in Jerusalem throughout the Middle Ages, though under economic stress, and religious and social discrimination. During this period, the Jews in the city were supported in large measure by the tourist trade, commerce and contributions from Jews abroad (Europe, the Mediterranean countries and North Africa), who did what they could to help maintain the center of the Jewish People. The Expulsion from Spain and Portugal, in the late 15th century, led to an influx of Jews into the Land, including Jerusalem.

Modern Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem

Figure 1. Modern Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem

The 16th and 17th centuries were times of economic hardship for the Jews, during which the population of Jerusalem was somewhat reduced. By the end of the 17th century, however, Jerusalem again emerged as the largest central community of the Jews in the Land. Large numbers of Jews immigrated in the 18th century as a result of the messianic-Shabbatean movement, many coming from Eastern and Central Europe, Italy, and other places. Even so, the majority of Jews in the Land in the 17th and 18th centuries were Sephardic Jews, descendants of those expelled from Spain, and immigrants from Turkey and the Balkan countries.

During the 19th century, immigration increased and the establishment of the modern Zionist movement revitalized the Jewish community throughout Israel. Jerusalem, which in 1800 CE numbered about 2,000 Jews (out of a total population of 8,750), grew to 11,000 by 1870 CE  (out of 22,000), and 40,000 (out of 60,000) by 1905 CE. It is the political, cultural and religious center of the State of Israel and of the Jewish People around the world.


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