A Special <I>Shabbat Nachamu</I> in Jerusalem

In the Old City of Jerusalem in 1920, a recital of the Haftarah resounded throughout the city and infused the people with a renewed sense of hope.

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Larry Domnitch

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לבן ריק
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The Haftarah read on Shabbat Nachamu expresses the message of consolation by the Prophet Isaiah to a grief-stricken nation soon to endure a prolonged exile over two-and-a-half millennia. In the Old City of Jerusalem in 1920, a recital of that Haftarah resounded throughout the city and infused the people with a renewed sense of hope.

In 1917, the British issued the Balfour Declaration, which supported the Jewish aspirations for a Jewish national home in the Land of Israel. Soon after, opposition mounted from members of Britain's government and military establishment. But British premier Lloyd George was a staunch Zionist and stood by the Declaration. The prime minister appointed a Jew and professed Zionist, Sir Herbert Samuel, as the first High Commissioner of British-mandated Palestine.

On July 1, 1920, Samuel disembarked from a British battleship at the port of Haifa as the new commissioner; as Samuel's biographer John Bowle put it, "The first Jewish ruler in Palestine since Hyrcanus the second [whose reign ended 40 BCE]." With his, there seemed to be a renewed optimism in the Zionist camp. One Zionist leader, Arthur Ruppin, commented in his diary on a ceremony held nine days later on Jerusalem's Mount of Olives in honor of Samuel's appointment, "Until now, pronouncements about a Jewish National Home had only been words on paper; but they now rose before us embodied in the person of a Jewish High Commissioner.... Many of the Jews present had tears in their eyes."

Just a few weeks later, on the morning of Shabat Nachamu, Samuel set out on foot toward the famous Rabbi Yehudah HaChasid synagogue in Jerusalem. Surrounded by an entourage of advisors and guards, he entered the Old City's Jaffa Gate and headed toward the Jewish Quarter. As he walked, spectators had gathered on the streets, which were adorned with flowers, to catch a glimpse of the man in whom they placed so much hope. He passed by the onlookers, who cheered; expressions of joy resonated. A sense of euphoria overcame the crowds.

Samuel entered the synagogue, which was filled to capacity, prepared to chant the Haftarah. Soon, he was summoned, as the gabbai called out, "Ya'amod hanasi ha'elyon." ("May the high commissioner arise.")

As Samuel stood up, the entire congregation also rose to their feet out of respect. Samuel made his way to the front of the synagogue and began to chant the words of the Haftarah, echoing the words of Isaiah, "Comfort, comfort, My people, says G-d. Speak to her heart of Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her time [of exile] has been fulfilled, that her inequity has been conciliated, for she has received for the Hand of G-d double for all her sins." (Isaiah 40: 1-2)

The entire congregation trembled upon hearing those words, which embodied their greatest hopes and dreams. It was a moment of intense emotion. An aide to Samuel described it as "a golden moment when the Jews in the synagogue felt as if their hour of redemption had arrived."

Despite the euphoria, Samuel did not live up to the people's expectations. As Arab riots against Jews broke out and pressure against implementing the Balfour Declaration intensified in British circles, Samuel yielded and made concessions to the Arabs and their British supporters. He imposed restrictions on Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel. He also appointed Haj Amin Al-Husseini -- a vehement anti-Zionist, responsible for inciting the anti-Jewish riots and later, an ardent supporter of Nazism -- to the position of mufti (religious interpreter) of Jerusalem.

A British policy of appeasement was set into motion, the restoration of the Land to the Jewish people would be a slow, arduous process filled with many obstacles.

The course of events, however, did not change the impression of that Shabbat Nachamu. It was a very special moment for those Jerusalemites who were present - one in which the age-old message of Jewish hope and redemption resonated with special vitality.


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