Modern Alma was a Jewish Town Until the 17th Century/DR.Rivka Shpak Lissak

The Jewish village (Moshav) Alma is located today on the site of a Jewish town that existed from the 1st century CE until the 17th century. The Arabic village Alma, was established in the 19th century and existed until 1948.

Arabic Alma, which was destroyed during Israel’s War of Independence, had been established by refugees from Algiers who fled the French occupation during the 19th century and had been given permission by the Ottoman Sultan to settle in the Land of Israel.

Nowadays Alma is a religious Moshav, part of the regional council Merom Hagalil. To its west is the Circassian village Reyhaniye, to its south-west is Kerem Ben-Zimra, to its south is the moshav Dalton, and to its north is moshav Dishon.

Moshav Alma was established in 1949 by Jewish immigrants from Lybia who were joined in 1953 by a group of converts from San Nicandero in Italy. Some moved after a while to other settlements and were replaced by Jewish immigrants from Cochin, India. The moshav is home also to Bedouins who have served in the IDF, and the place enjoys a peaceful coexistence.

The Roman and Byzantine Periods (70 CE – 640 CE)

No information exists on Alma prior to the Roman period, but we know it was a Jewish settlement throughout the Mishna and Talmud period. The remains of a 3rd century synagogue and a large Jewish cemetery have been discovered in the ancient site of Alma.

Among the ruins of the synagogue a portion of a door post was discovered in 1914, with the Hebrew inscription: “May peace reside in this place and in all places of His people Israel”. Another portion of the doorpost was later discovered set into the wall of one of the village houses. On this portion was inscribed the name of the artisan Yossey Bar Levy Halevy, the doorpost maker. A fragment of an Aramaic inscription from the 3rd or 4th centuries was found in 1949, saying: “I am the Tiberian who made this doorpost. The King of the World shall bless his work”.

The cemetery’s size testifies to the size of the town. Burial caves have been found on site, and their contents tell of the rich Jewish past of Alma. Alma is the burial place of Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar Ben Erech, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azarya, and other leading intellectuals.

The Crusader Period (1099—1260)

Benjamin Metudella wrote in his book “The Travels of Benjamin” about his visit to Jewish Alma around 1170. He found about 50 families there as well as a large cemetery. A document in Hebrew from the Cairo Genizah (archive of letters from Jews)mentions Alma’s cantor, Rabbi Sasson Ben Rabbi Elazar, indicating Jewish occupancy in Alma during the 13th century. Rabbi Shmuel Ben Rabbi Shimshon visited Alma in 1211. Rabbi Yehiel of Paris, who immigrated to Israel with his students in the mid 13th century and settled in Acre, visited Jewish Alma during his tour of the Galilee. One of Ramban’s students (Ramban, Rabbi Moshe Ben Nahman, a famous Rabbi from Spain) visited Alma at the beginning of the 14th century.

The Ottoman Period (1516 – 1917)

The traveler Moshe Bassoula visited Alma in 1522. He tells of a synagogue there and 15 Jewish families. He reported that Alma’s inhabitants were Musta’arbim, i.e., Jews native to Israel whose families had been living in it continuously since the Second Temple period at least. He also mentioned that Jewish peddlers from Safed used to visit Alma, apparently for business.

The Ottoman archive contains a report on Alma tax payers. In 1555/6 there were 8 tax paying households, and in 1572/3 their number went down to three. Safed’s rabbi during the 16th century reported that Alma is within a two hour walk from Safed. Rabbi Moshe Galanti wrote in a Questions-and-Answers letter about an Alma peddler named Yitzhak El Miridi, who used to frequent the place often and may have resided in Alma.

It is assumed that the village was abandoned for an unknown reason during the 17th century, although there is no clear evidence of the actual date. Rabbi Moshe Yerushalmi settled in Israel in 1769 and toured the Galilee. He reported that the Alma synagogue was in ruins. The book “Praise of Jerusalem” (“Shivhey Yerushalayim”), printed in 1785, also mentions that only the ruined synagogue is left of the village of Alma.

Towards the end of the 18th century, a man named Rabbi Shaul Almani (i.e., of Alma) lived in Safed. His name appears on a number of documents from 1767, along with the names of other Rabbis from Safed.

Montefiori’s census of 1839 (Sir Moshe Montefiori was a rich Sephardic Jew from England who helped Jewish settlers) reports that Alma Jews moved to other places: 14 families moved to Pequi’in, 9 to Shefar’am, and 19 Alma men and women moved to Haifa, according to listings in the books of Knesset Israel.

The Arabic village Alma was established not far from Alma’s ancient site. This village’s residents were Arab refugees who fled the French occupation of Algiers during the 19th century and were given permission by the Ottoman Sultan to settle in Alma.

The British Mandate Period (1917 – 1947)

According to the 1931 British Mandate census, 712 persons were living in the village in 148 houses. Alma’s Arab residents lived there until the end of October 1948, when they were expelled during Operation Hirram.

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