Tradition & Travel

Judaism is a way of life on the road no less than at home. Kosher food and a Sabbath-friendly place to stay are essential considerations for Jewish travellers. Tefillin worn by observant Jews during weekday morning prayers, prayer books, psalms, and the Hebrew Bible are familiar travel companions.

For millennia, Jews journeyed for commerce and pilgrimage. Travellers connected far-flung communities whilst bridging between and amongst other civilisations.

Travel could be difficult and perilous. Embarking on a journey – whether by land, sea, or nowadays air, Jews recite a travel prayer appealing to Divine providence to guide them safely to their destination and back.

It is an ancient prayer cited in the Talmud with emendations made over time and according to rite:

“May it be Thy will, O Lord my God, to lead me forth in peace and direct my steps in peace and uphold me in peace, and deliver me from the hand of every enemy and ambush by the way, and send a blessing on the works of my hands, and cause me to find grace, kindness, and mercy in Thy eyes and in the eyes of all who see me. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who hearkenest unto prayer.”

Jewish travellers could reasonably expect hospitality from co-religionists. Study halls might serve as makeshift hostels. A friendly welcome is a biblically-grounded virtue recalling Abraham’s embrace of the stranger. The dictum “let all who are hungry come and eat” – is hallowed in Talmud and enshrined in the Passover Haggadah.

During the Middle Ages, European communities provided meals and lodgings for itinerant Jews. It is commendable to have a table guest – especially on the Sabbath – ideally, one who is religiously erudite, displays business acumen, and enjoys engaging in matrimonial matchmaking.

Finally, when our traveller was safely home, it was time to recite the Benediction of Deliverance in the synagogue before a Torah scroll.

Benjamin of Tudela, The Travels of Benjamin. Antwerp, 1575. National Library of Israel, 8= 64 B 844

Latin translation of renowned medieval Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela's account of travels to the Near East and Asia between 1160 and 1173 in which the commercial activity of various eastern cities is described in vivid detail, predating Marco Polo's journeys by a hundred years.

With his broad education and vast knowledge of languages, Benjamin of Tudela was a major figure in medieval geography and Jewish history, offering insight not only into the lives of broadly dispersed yet interconnected Jewish communities, but also into the surrounding cultures and the relationships between them.

One of Benjamin's motives to travel may have been trade. A widespread reason for travel in the Middle Ages, commerce was a traditional profession among Jews and carried many of them far away from their places of origin, leading to the establishment of new communities along the commercial routes.

By dint of their profession, Jewish merchants traveled far and wide. Read more about their journeys >>

Read The Travels of Benjamin in the English translation on the NLI website (the English translation begins in the end of the scan, as the book is bilingual) >>

Judith Montefiore, a British linguist, musician, travel writer, and philanthropist, wife of Moses Montefiore, whose journals record the lives of Jews in the cities she passed

Read more about Sir Moses Montefiore >>

Pinchas ben Abraham Halevy of Halberstadt, Jewish Calendar. Saxony, Germany, 1716. National Library of Israel, Ms. Heb. 8°2380

The book enables one to calculate Jewish dates correctly, using the Christian calendar for reference.

Discover what has replaced this book and others in the twenty-first century >>