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A 16th-century Italian/Jewish pilgrim.

For those of us trying to plan our next visit to Israel, the picturesque and detailed treatise of one who traveled there nearly five hundred years ago seems particularly fascinating. It is the personal account and practical guidebook of Moses Basola (1480-1560), Italian rabbi, teacher, private tutor, distinguished head of the Ancona Yeshiva, cabalist, and sometime banker, who recorded his pilgrimage to Eretz Yisrael beginning in 1521. (1) Coming from Fano at the time, he sailed for a month from Venice to Tripoli on a Venetian galley, which stopped at various ports along the way. He appears to have traveled alone, except for his camel driver on the overland portion of his trip, and he had to be on guard constantly against pirates and highway robbers.

Basola, whose name indicates family ties to Basel, also traced his ancestry to France. While he was born in Italy, all we know is that from the age of nine he lived in Soncino, where his father proofread for the renowned Hebrew press. Moses did not just enrich his travelogue with innumerable colorful details about the Jewish communities at the stops along the way (in Corfu, Famagusta, Tripoli, Beirut, Damascus, among others). More than a fascinating account of his travels, Basola's work seems to have had as an overriding intention the creation of a useful handbook for future pilgrims. Basola's visit to the holy land proved to be a success in spite of his suffering a severe injury while wavering in the Galilee. Approaching Safed, he failed to notice a large tree branch, which struck him in the face, knocking him to the ground apparently unconscious.

With this work, Dr. Abraham David, Senior Researcher at the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem, has added one more work on Jewish immigration and settlement in Eretz Yisrael in the late medieval period to the thirteen he has already edited. Basola's treatise was first published anonymously in 1785 in Livorno, then again several times with its author still unknown. Its author was first identified in 1938 by the late Yitzchak Ben-Zvi, Israel's second president, who published a critical edition based upon a manuscript in the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem.

A significant part of the record that Basola wrote of his trip to the Land of Israel was not only to enumerate the large number of venerated gravesites he visited and how he got there, but also to describe the condition in which he found each one of them. Dr. David has corroborated from scholarly and reliable sources the existence of these holy places. Basola goes out of his way to stand at the reputed graves of Yocheved, Tzipporah, Elisheva, Yishal, the father of King David, Zevulun, and others, along with those Tannaim and Amoraim such as Hillel, Shammai, Rabbis Elazar ben Azariah, Akiva, Tarfon, Shimon ben Gamaliel, Huna, and Chiyya. HIS descriptions of these graves and how he found them are of particular interest today in view of our concern for the preservation of holy sites in Israel.

While the book is meant for prospective pilgrims, it is sprinkled with first-person accounts of his own experiences. Concerning his fall and injury outside of Sated, he tells us that while recovering later that same day, two Jews who had been traveling with him at the time distanced themselves from him, going on ahead, and he was left alone in the company of two Muslims. "Who was to instruct them what to do?" he writes, "and they, in God's tender mercy on me, took care of me, bound up my ribs, placed me on the camel, and brought me to Safed, a distance of twelve miles." There, he adds, a compassionate widow from Prague bandaged and took care of him.

As for his findings in the Jewish communities along the way, he was quite impressed with Tripoli and the approximately 100 Jewish households there, made up of Sicilians, Spaniards, and Mustarabs. Basola mentions, too, specific taxes each adult male had to pay, along with a monthly fee by each shopkeeper to the watchmen "who lit the street lamps and kept a close watch. This is so in all of Eretz Yisrael," he adds, appearing to agree with "some who claim [Tripoli] is part of" the holy land, even though, he adds, "truthfully speaking, this is not the case." Of Beirut, he comments that while there are only twelve Jewish households there, and twenty in Sidon, "most of them are benevolent and treat guests hospitably, which was not the case in all the places I passed through." He refers to a "small, handsome, ornate synagogue" where he stayed for Shabbat.

Incumbent on travelers, Basola reports, were the frequent payments of taxes or khafar, a toll or protection tax levied on dhimmi, non-Muslims, at various check-points. Traveling from Nazareth towards Shechem, he paid the tax in two places, and later, when he arrived in Shechem, once again. Regarding these various fees, he tells us that it is so in all of Eretz Yisrael, even a compulsory payment by residents of the Jewish quarter. He was especially conscious of the exact amounts of expense he incurred along the way in various places, since during the time he had worked as a private rotor for a banking family, he had gained a wide familiarity with that profession and with various forms of coinage.

Upon leaving Shechem and arriving in Jerusalem, he performed keriah (tearing one's garment as a sign of mourning) according to halachic practice. His suggestions on how to make a living in Eretz Yisrael offer an interesting window on its economic situation at that time. For example, he describes a rich and prosperous Jerusalem where people earn a livelihood as craftsmen or in dealing in all manner of fruits, vegetables, spices, grain, wine, and oil. He comments that "there is more trade in this land than in Italy." Again referring to his native land, he notes that regarding the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, "there is none to match it in Italy."

He advises would-be travelers to make sure to sail on a Venetian galley, which was considered safe from the corsairs (pirates). Pilgrims must also be sure to take a berth, preferably a small cabin. But he adds, "There is no place on a galley better than the top deck officer's cabin, for there is no bother or business conducted there," and none of the sailors will disturb passengers there. The cost for such accommodations was apparently not a major factor. He adds another bit of practical advice: "If one gives the cook two or three marcelli (small coins), he will allow him to cook throughout the entire voyage and will make room for his pot.

Basola returned home in 1523, becoming formally ordained in 1535. He moved to Ancona, where he became the head of the local yeshiva and rabbi for that district. He played an active role, Dr. David notes, in maintaining high professional standards, taking a prominent role within the rabbinic leadership of Italian Jewry, including the removal of Joseph da Arli (of Arles) and Moses Provenzali from the rabbinate on charges of forgery and showing disrespect for rabbinic colleagues. Basola was also very much involved in the dispute over the printing of cabalistic works, including the Zohar, first as a supporter of the publication of such books, and later taking an opposite stance along with Maharam of Padua, and others, in banning them. Dr. David tells us that Basola had become renowned as a respected sage in Cabalah, having studied with the eminent Joseph ibn Shraga in Argenta, near Ferrara. Basola was also in close contact with Christian cabalists such as the Hebraist Guillaume Postel, who spoke of Basola as one "who by his outstanding erudition was renowned as pope and chief of all the Jews of this century" (!)

When Basola arrived in Safed in 1560, to settle and permanently make aliyah at the age of 80, he was warmly greeted by a number of rabbinic scholars, including the cabalist Moses Cordovero.

Needless to say, because Moses Basola was such a highly respected rabbinic figure for his scholarship, and within the Italian Jewish community, the travelogue of his first visit to Eretz Yisrael deserves to be reckoned with. Dr. Abraham David's excellent introduction, informative notes, and critical comments, along with Dena Ordan's translation, should give added impetus to all to read this vital and valuable historical work.


(1.) In Zion and Jerusalem, the Itinerary of Rabbi Moses Basola (1521-1523), with notes and introduction, edited by Abraham David, translated by Dena Ordan, Jerusalem: Martin (Szusz Department of "Land of Israel Studies of Bar-Ilan University), 1999.

HENRY A. SOSLAND is rabbi of the New City Jewish Center in New City, NY. His articles have appeared in a number of journals, and he is the author of A Guide to preachers on Composing and Delivering Sermons: The Or Ha'Darshanim, a Seventeenth Century Preacher's manual.
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Author:Sosland, Henry A.
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Jul 1, 2004
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