In this column, I am going to summarize an article from Hakirah, vol. 25 (2018) by Meir Loewenberg. (The article is online at hakirah. org.)
On June 25, 1861, the sultan of the Ottoman Empire died and there was a new sultan.
Eight days later, on July 3, the chief rabbi of Jerusalem was presented with the keys to Jerusalem and held them in his home for one hour. This is what occurred, according to one account:
“The Jews waited with all formalities on the governor Surraya pasha and requested him to restore to them the keys of Jerusalem, according to a right which they claimed on the death of one sultan and the accession of another… They brought forward such proofs of the justice of their demand that the pasha did not refuse it, but referred it to his [council]… Their decision was in favor of the Israelites, the whole council being aware that they were the ancient owners of the country.
“The ceremony was accordingly performed in the following manner. Said pasha, the general of the forces, accompanied by the officers of his staff, and some members of the council… went to the Jews’ quarter, where he was met by a deputation of that nation and conducted to the house of the chief rabbi, who received the pasha at the door, and there was publicly presented with the keys. The pasha was then entertained with the utmost respect…; refreshments, coffee and tobacco were served, and then the rabbi (not having a garrison to defend the keys) restored them with many thanks to the general, who was escorted back by the chief men of the Jews to the governor of the city… to give an account of his mission, and show him that none of the keys were missing. So, in 1861, the Jewish nation possessed for one hour the keys of Jerusalem, which were delivered over to them by the Arabs in consequence of the unvarying tradition which they had preserved.”
Why in the world would the Turkish authorities present the keys of the city to the chief rabbi of Jerusalem for even a short period?
The account above was written by the Italian engineer Ermete Pierotti in his “Customs and Traditions of Palestine” (English tr., 1864). He had been working in Jerusalem, hired by the Ottoman authorities as a consultant. He had no background on Jewish laws and customs. He wrote above that the “decision was in favor of the Israelites, the whole council being aware that they were the ancient owners of the country.” This is how he understood the ceremony. It reflected a publicly expressed conviction by the Muslim leaders of Jerusalem that the Israelites were the ancient owners of the country.
After the 1967 war, Pierotti’s account became frequently cited about what happened that day. For example, Israel’s ambassador to the U.N. cited this account at a Security Council meeting in 1968, and in 1969 Abraham Heschel quoted it to support Israel’s claims to the new territories.
But Pierotti’s explanation for the ceremony was just his mistaken impression and had no basis.
Another explanation for the ceremony was presented by James Finn, the British consul in Jerusalem from 1845-1863. In his book he mentioned the ceremonies of 1839 and 1861. He explained: “For the exercise of this traditional custom they make heavy presents to the local governors, who allow of a harmless practice…It is a matter of baksheesh to them…the Jewish feelings are gratified for their expectation of the future is refreshed, and the Jerusalem Rabbis are enabled to boast all over among their people that they [allow] the Sultan of Turkey to keep possession of the Holy City.”
Another explanation was offered by a monk who lived in Jerusalem in the 1860s. He wrote that the ceremony symbolized that the Jews were given permission by the new sultan to live in Jerusalem and travel all over Palestine.
What is the true explanation for the ceremony? It was stated by Elizabeth Finn, wife of James Finn. (Women always know best!) This is what she wrote in 1869: “Some of [the Jews] termed [the custom] ‘hiring the city,’ and said that it was done in connection with the laws of Eruv, for Sabbath observances; for that when a city is thus hired as a whole—all within its walls is considered by their law to have become one house—within which they are then free to pass on the Sabbath from dwelling to dwelling, even though bearing slight burdens, without infringing any of the laws….”
This eruv explanation was corroborated by Rabbi Eliyahu Bechor Chazan who wrote in 1875 that what happened in 1861 was part of the eruv procedure. He was the grandson of the rabbi who received the keys in 1861.
Loewenberg then gives further background to the Jerusalem eruv. The need for an eruv in Jerusalem began in the 17th century. That is when the Jews began to spread to different areas within the city walls. Prior to that, usually each courtyard had a majority of Jews. This made a citywide eruv unnecessary.
A necessary step for the eruv to work was a lease of the city from the sultan or his representative. It became the custom to enter a lease for a long period like 50 years. But what happened when the lessor dies in the interim? In the middle of the 18th century, some began to question whether the lease would still be effective and recommended a new lease on each succession.
None of the 18th-century rabbinical authorities in Jerusalem mentioned taking possession of the city keys for any period as part of the eruv lease signing. But the Jerusalem rabbinate adopted this chumra in connection with the successions and signings of 1839 and 1861. Prior to this, this chumra had been followed in some Mediterranean cities at the end of the 18th century. (This is reported by R. Chaim David Azulai.)
A problem arose in 1876 when Sultan Murad V was deposed after three months (on a 50-year lease). The Jewish community of Jerusalem did not have the funds for a second round of baksheesh. The Ashkenazic rabbinate ruled that no new lease was necessary. The Sephardic rabbinate arranged a lease with a minor official who was willing to do so for a smaller amount of money.
At the end of the 19th century, the halachic status of Jerusalem changed. It was no longer a “walled city.” This change occurred because Jaffa gate and the other gates were kept open 24 hours in order to facilitate the interaction with the new Jewish neighborhoods outside the wall. Later, in 1898 a permanent breach was made in the wall near the Jaffa gate to permit Kaiser Wilhelm to enter without dismounting from his horse. By the time of the next sultan in 1909, obtaining the city keys was no longer relevant. Other means were used for the Jerusalem eruv.
Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected] As an attorney, he is a believer in giving baksheesh to the judge (but it is important to give more than the opposing attorney gives!).