History
Medieval Flourishing Period
1250 – 1799:  A Flourishing Medieval Community 
Years passed.  The Jewish community in Gaza rose and fell repeatedly. From medieval times and the period of the Mamluks, we have many testimonies of Jews dwelling in the city – in books recording the travels of Jews and non-Jews alike.
The highest neighborhood in town is that which the Arabs call till this day “Harat al-Yahud" ("The Jewish Quarter").  A Catholic church stands at the highest point, its entrance faces east and the direction of prayer is to the west – a rare phenomenon in that region and in the world. A few years ago, shards of ancient lattices made of marble were found.  Engraved on one of them were the words: “The guardian angel who delivers me from all evil will grant me passage to Jerusalem."  Apparently, the church was built on the ruins of the ancient synagogue of the city, which explains its strange shape.
The livelihood of the Jews of Gaza in that period continued to base itself on trading and agriculture.  By its nature, the involvement with agriculture creates many halachic problems and they find expression in the books of response, which are full of questions directed to the Rabbis from the Jews of Gaza.  In one of his books of response, The RADBAZ, Rabbi David Ben Zimra, who lived in Egypt at that time, recalls a question sent to him by a Jew from Gaza: “Our Rabbi will inform us whether inhabitants of Gaza are obliged to contribute and tithe themselves because few of them are landowners. Does the same rule that
applies to all of the Land of Israel apply in this matter?  The Answer:  It seems certain that the rule regarding contributions and tithes does apply because at that time Gaza was obliged by the Torah.”  (Responsa, 1:105).



                                                                                                                         
  
The cover of ‘The Song of Songs’ from 1715                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  
     The Guardian Angel Pillar over Hirshfeld’s tomb                                                                                                      
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Who of us is not familiar with the refrain “Yah Ribon Olam”, which is sung to this day at every Sabbath-eve table in Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities alike? It is a hymn by Rabbi Israel Ben Moses Najara, who dwelled in Damascus and Safed.  Around the year 1620, apparently because of an epidemic that broke out in Safed, he moved to Gaza and shortly afterwards was appointed Chief Rabbi of the Jews of Gaza.
Rabbi Israel Ben Moshe Najara occupied the position of Chief Rabbi for five years until his death in 1625.  He was buried in Gaza and his son, Rabbi Moshe Najara, succeeded him to the Rabbinate. 
The era of the Rabbis of the House of Najara is one of the most prosperous periods of the Jewish community in Gaza.  In the mid-17th Century, the Jewish community in Gaza was important and very active; a united, orderly and organized community with its own synagogue and headed by a Rabbi.  The community elders and leaders of the congregation concerned themselves with the welfare of the whole community.  Moreover, the Jewish citizens were responsible for their own livelihood and were not dependent on donations and “halukkah” like their fellow Jews who lived in Jerusalem and Hebron.
This situation would soon change due to another Jew from Gaza, for whom Gaza is remembered to this day – and not favorably, at that: Nathan of Gaza, assistant of the false messiah, Shabtai Tzvi.  The “coronation” of Shabtai Tzvi as the Messiah took place at the Gaza Synagogue on the night of Festival of Weeks in 1660.
The affair caused a deep division among the People of Israel – as well as  severe damage to the Jewish community in Gaza.  The important status of the Jewish community, which flourished so well – spiritually and economically – at the beginning of that century, descended to the bottom of the pit by its end.  However, the speed of the revival of the city's Jewish community was commendable.  Towards the end of the 17th Century the testimonies tell once more of many travelers and pilgrims traversing Gaza and mentioning the Jews of the city they met.
The man who renewed the Jewish community in Gaza at the beginning of the 18th Century is apparently Rabbi Shmuel Ben Moshe Kastel.  This seems to have occurred in 1690 or perhaps even earlier.  The illustration on the cover of the "The Song of Songs" written by Rabbi Shmuel Kastel reads: "This is a book of the Song of Songs with a recopied Arabic translation.  I wrote it here in Gaza in 1715, and from this year on, the Jewish community once more goes from strength to strength."
We find further testimony of this in the travel journal of Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azoulai, who arrived in Gaza in February, 1753, on his way from Hebron to Egypt. He described his travels, and how he was forced to wait in Gaza for fifty days until he found a convoy bound for Egypt.  From the description of his delight at spending “Shabbat Zachor” in Gaza, we learn that there was a Jewish Minyan (prayer quorum) – and, probably, a synagogue – the reason for his joy.  (Abraham Yaari, “Travels in the Land of Israel”, p. 372.)
Additional testimonies from the period inform us that there was a significant Jewish community in Gaza of that time.
Napoleon’s failed attempt to conquer the Land of Israel in the last year of the 18th Century severely hit Gaza and caused the abandonment of the city by the Jews shortly afterwards.  Once more, there were no Jews left in Gaza.


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