The Invention of a Tradition
The Messianic Zionism of the Gaon of Vilna
Immanuel Etkes



AT A CONFERENCE HELD AT Jerusalem’s International Convention Center on October 15, 2009, on the bicentennial of the immigration of the Gaon of Vilna’s students to the Land of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, who was then speaker of the Knesset and later would become president of the State of Israel, said, among other things:

Our family [the Rivlin family] can take pride in the steadfastness and the deep roots we have struck in the Land of Israel over the past two centuries, being among the first immigrants to come here, a century before the Zionist movement. Some of the family was blessed to serve as trailblazers of the immigration movement commanded by the Gaon of Vilna and his students. Herzl and his associates in the Zionist enterprise can take credit for many things, but the credit for primacy is reserved for our great grandparents, who changed the situation in the Land of Israel and laid the foundations for Zionism. This was the first true aliyah.1

Is this really true? Would it be right to regard the Gaon of Vilna and his students, those who immigrated to the Land of Israel in the early nineteenth century, as the first Zionists? Is there a historical basis for the assertion that the immigration of the Gaon’s disciples was the “first true aliyah”?

Between 1808 and 1810, a group of Jewish rabbinic scholars from White Russia and Lithuania immigrated to the Land of Israel. Leading the immigrants of over forty households were some of the closest students of Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, the Gaon of Vilna.2 This group of immigrants laid the foundations of the settlement in the Land of Israel of the community known as the Prushim.3 In their outlook, these people were Mitnagdim, opponents of Hasidism, and they regarded themselves as bearers of the legacy of the Vilna Gaon.4 The immigration of the Prushim in the early nineteenth century is the historical nucleus around which grew the myth according to which the Gaon and his disciples were the first true Zionists.5 As we shall see, this myth was crafted largely through the broad literary efforts of one man, Shlomo Zalman Rivlin, in the 1930s and 1940s and has been enthusiastically adopted in certain quarters of Israeli society since the Six-Day War. This book is devoted to the task of critically examining that myth in its various incarnations, discussing its reception, and clarifying the motives for its emergence and growth.

Yet before turning to discuss the myth, some words are in order about the historical context of the immigration of the Prushim to the Land of Israel.

Zionism—with its ideals of national revival and independence of the Jewish people through immigration, settlement, and reclamation of the Land of Israel, and productive labor in agriculture and industry there—is a movement that emerged in late nineteenth century, mainly in Eastern and Central Europe. Yet older, traditional Jewish communities did already exist in the Land of Israel. These were bolstered by immigrants who came with different ideals and lived on a different economic basis.

The immigration by the Prushim in the early nineteenth century was in fact the second stage in the development of the Old Yishuv (that is, the Ashkenazi Old Yishuv, or “old settlement”) in the Land of Israel. The Prushim’s immigration was preceded by an immigration of Hasidim from Eastern Europe. Individual Hasidim came to the Land of Israel in the 1740s, 1750s, and 1760s. A convoy of about three hundred Jews, about half of them Hasidim, led by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, Rabbi Avraham of Kalisk, and Rabbi Israel of Polotsk, immigrated to the Land of Israel in 1777. These immigrants settled in the two “holy cities” in the Galilee—Safed and Tiberias.

Shortly after the immigrants reached the Land of Israel, R. Israel of Polotsk was sent back to Eastern Europe to organize the raising of funds for their community. The underlying assumption for this mission was that the Hasidim residing in the Land of Israel were not expected to work for a living but rather to pray and study Torah, while their Hasidic brethren in Eastern Europe were expected to support them. This arrangement was based on three justifications. For one, the Hasidim residing in the Land of Israel are public emissaries who are fulfilling the mitzvah of settlement in the Land of Israel; although this mitzvah applies to every Jew, since it is inconceivable that all or most Jews will settle in the Land of Israel, the immigrant Hasidim serve to represent all of their brethren in the Diaspora. For another, the Hasidim who live in the Land of Israel pray for their brethren in the Diaspora; since the Land of Israel is the “gate of heaven,” prayers recited there are incomparably more beneficial than those recited in the Diaspora. Finally, the Hasidim who live in the Land of Israel are poor, and it is a mitzvah to support them.

FIGURE 1. A rabbi from the Old Yishuv in Jerusalem. Photograph by Felix Bonafils, circa 1875.

The head of the donation enterprise for the Hasidim in the Land of Israel in the last decades of the eighteenth century was R. Shneur Zalman of Liady, the founder and leader of Chabad Hasidism. At a later stage, additional Hasidic leaders joined to manage the fundraising enterprise. The organizational framework entrusted with the distribution of donations among the Hasidim residing in the Land of Israel was the kolel, but over the years, the kolel of the Hasidim split into several kolels, each associated with the regions of Eastern Europe from which the immigrants had come. Thus, a situation arose in which the donations collected in a certain region of Eastern Europe were distributed among the Hasidim who originated from that region.

As said, between 1808 and 1810, several dozen families from Lithuania and White Russia immigrated to the Land of Israel under the leadership of a few students of the Vilna Gaon. These Prushim first settled in Safed, and in 1816 some of them moved to Jerusalem and renewed the Ashkenazi settlement there. About a year after their arrival in the Land of Israel, R. Israel of Shklov, one of the leaders of this community, was sent back to Eastern Europe to organize fundraising there. Indeed, similar to the Hasidim, the Prushim who settled in the Land of Israel were likewise not expected to work for a living but rather to earn a living from the donations of their brothers in the Diaspora. The raising of funds for the Prushim was headed by R. Hayyim of Volozhin, the most senior of the students of the Vilna Gaon and the one who took over his role as the leader of the Mitnagdim camp. Like the Hasidim, the Prushim too established a kolel that was responsible for distributing the donations, through an arrangement known as the haluka.

It is important to note that such reliance on donations from Diaspora Jews was typical of Ashkenazi immigrants (i.e., those of Eastern and Central European origin). For their part, the Sephardim, who until the middle of the nineteenth century constituted the vast majority of the Jews in the Land of Israel, made a living from commerce and small trade, while only the hachamim (i.e., the rabbis) benefited from donations from Jews of the Diaspora. Unlike the Ashkenazim, the Sephardim were subjects of the Ottoman Empire and knew the language and customs of the region, and their economic base was no different from that of Sephardic Jews who lived in other realms of the empire.

The immigrations of both the Hasidim and Prushim to the Land of Israel can be characterized as traditional. These were aliyot of people belonging to the spiritual-religious elite, whose purpose in immigrating to the Land of Israel was a quest to elevate their spirituality and quality of worship. For both the Hasidim and the Prushim, settling in the Land of Israel had special meaning, in addition to the value of fulfilling the mitzvah of dwelling there and the possibility of fulfilling the additional mitzvoth that apply to the Land. The Hasidim, who prioritized fervent prayer as a means of mystical communication with the divinity, greatly prized the opportunity to pray at the tombs of celebrated Mishnaic and Kabbalist figures. The Prushim, by contrast, greatly prized the opportunity to study Torah in the sanctified atmosphere of the Land of Israel.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, a sharp gap developed between the religious ideals of the early members of the Old Yishuv and the reality that was emerging in the four “holy cities”: Safed, Tiberias, Hebron, and Jerusalem. The improvement in conditions of personal safety in the Land of Israel and the improvement in the means of maritime transportation led to an increase in Jewish immigration from Eastern and Central Europe. Many of the new immigrants were not among the class of rabbinic scholars for whom the contributions of the Jews of the Diaspora had been intended. Not all the descendants of the first immigrants were leading scholars either. This created a situation in which donations were distributed also to those who were not engaged in Torah study. Moreover, the increase in the number of recipients of the haluka funds was not matched by an increase in the amount of donations. As a result, many members of the Old Yishuv faced increasing economic hardship. What exacerbated the distress was the unequal nature of the distribution of funds.

In the 1840s, Jews from Central and Western Europe began to initiate programs to modernize the system of education in the Old Yishuv. The purpose of these initiatives was to provide students with knowledge and skills that would let them make a living from their own labors. The most important initiative was that of the Lemel family of Vienna, and the envoy sent on its behalf to promote this initiative was Dr. Ludwig August Frenkel, secretary of the Jewish community in Vienna. Frenkel arrived in Jerusalem in 1856 and presented the leaders of the various communities his plan to establish a modern school. The Sephardic rabbis were persuaded by his arguments and tended to support the establishment of the school, while the heads of the Ashkenazi kolels strongly rejected it and even declared a boycott of anyone who sent their children to the new school. This reaction to the initiative of modernization in education reflected the conservative position of the heads of the Ashkenazi kolels, a position that was also reflected in regard to additional initiatives to modernize the Old Yishuv and shift its economic basis to productive labor. The defensive, isolationist position of the heads of the Ashkenazi kolels can be explained as an Orthodox response to the processes of secularization taking place among European Jews. In any case, the insistence of the heads of the Ashkenazi kolels on the idea that Jews residing in the Land of Israel are meant to be engaged in prayer and Torah study while their livelihoods rely on donations of Diaspora Jews ran sharply against the demographic and cultural changes that were taking place in the structure of the Old Yishuv in the nineteenth century. It is no wonder, therefore, that Jews from Central and Western Europe who visited the Land of Israel strongly criticized the leaders of the Ashkenazi kolels and contributed to the creation of the negative image of the Old Yishuv. The negative image would only intensify when the Hibat Zion movement arose in the early 1880s.

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The first appearance of the myth of the Gaon of Vilna and his disciples as “the first Zionists” may be found in two books published in the late 1940s by Shlomo Zalman Rivlin. The first, Hazon Zion (Vision of Zion), describes a Messianic Zionist movement supposedly launched in Shklov in the late eighteenth century at the initiative of R. Binyamin Rivlin and R. Hillel Rivlin, the patriarchs of the Rivlin family, with the blessings of the Gaon of Vilna. The core idea of this movement was that the first step toward Messianic Redemption must take the form of mass immigration to the Land of Israel, the greening of its wastelands, and the rebuilding of Jerusalem. The purpose of the aliyah of the Vilna Gaon’s students to the Land of Israel in the early nineteenth century, according to the myth, was to implement this ideal. The second book penned by Shlomo Zalman, Kol ha-Tor (Voice of the turtledove), purports to present the Messianic Zionist teachings of the Vilna Gaon as conveyed to his disciple R. Hillel Rivlin. The book is full of Kabbalistic terminology, and the arguments presented in it often rely on hints from biblical verses and gematriot.6

The first two parts of the present study describe the Rivlinian myth in detail, examine it critically in light of sources from the period, trace its evolution, and discuss its adoption by authors who have sought to lend it the veneer of academic scholarship. The question in the background of the third and fourth parts of this book is that of the origin of Kol ha-Tor. Put otherwise: Is there a basis to the claim of rabbinic authors and academic scholars that this book reflects an ancient tradition dating back to the students of the Vilna Gaon? To answer this question, I chose to set off on a voyage into the other writings of Shlomo Zalman Rivlin. An examination of these writings permits us to acquaint ourselves with further aspects of the Rivlinian myth. Moreover, familiarity with the entirety of Shlomo Zalman Rivlin’s literary oeuvre serves as a fertile foundation for drawing conclusions about the origins of Kol ha-Tor.

The importance of a critical assessment of the Rivlinian myth goes beyond historical scholarship for its own sake, since for several decades this myth has been adopted by rabbis and educators of the Religious Zionist movement who seek to spread it among the broad public. Following the Six-Day War, many of the Religious Zionists in Israel were caught up in Messianic modes of thought. The striking victory of the Israeli army in this war was interpreted by them as the fruit of divine intervention and a clear sign of Messianic Redemption. This point of view also developed into the perspective that the entire Zionist enterprise was part of the process of Redemption and that the roots of Zionism had already been planted in the soil of a Messianic vision. In light of these currents of thought, it is easy to understand why authors belonging to the Religious Zionist camp adopted the Rivlinian myth and made efforts to wrap it in the mantle of academic respectability. At the same time, rabbis and educators from Religious Zionism have increasingly come to rely on Kol ha-Tor as a book that reflects, supposedly, the Messianic Zionist doctrine of the Gaon of Vilna. The passionate adoption among some Religious Zionists of the myth about the Gaon of Vilna and his students as being the first Zionists is a denial of the fact that Zionism was a modern national movement, with all that this implies.


1. “Rivlin: Aliyat talmidei ha-GRA—tashtit ha-Zionut” [Rivlin: The immigration of the students of the Vilna Gaon—foundations of Zionism], Arutz-7, Oct 15, 2009, All translations in this book are my own unless other wise credited.

2. See Igeret Talmidei ha-Gaon mi-Vilna mi-Tsfat [Epistle of students of the Gaon of Vilna in Safed], in Yaari, Igrot Eretz Israel [Letters from the Land of Israel], 330.

3. Prushim (literally “those who withdraw”) are people who withdraw from practical life and from worldly pleasures so as to devote all their strength and time to worship and Torah study.

4. On the role of the Vilna Gaon in the battle against Hasidism, see Etkes, The Gaon of Vilna, 84–108.

5. For a comprehensive overview of the historiography of the immigration of the Prushim, see Barnai, Historiographia ve-Leumiut [Historiography and nationalism], 160–76.

6. Gematria (pl. gematriot) is a form of numerology in which a new meaning for a biblical word is discovered besides its literal one. The numerical values of the biblical word’s letters are summed, and another word with the equivalent sum of letter values is its “secret” additional meaning.