“Rabbi Meir says that Akko is like Eretz Yisrael with regard to bills of divorce: With regard to bills of divorce, yes, but with regard to slaves, no” (Gittin 8a)
In discussing the borders of the land of Israel, the first Mishnah in the tractate mentions various points beyond which we are already outside the land of Israel, i.e., in the mysterious medinat hayam. One of the points is Akko, on the northern part of Israel’s coast. These points are ambiguous: are they themselves within the land or outside it? On daf 8, quoted above, Rabbi Meir implies that Akko is inside the land for some purposes and outside for others.
The question of borders and how they change over time is a fascinating one, as is the question of what borders apply for which halachot: shmitta, terumah, gittin and others. Akko is a very interesting case as we see here. It is inside and outside, a portal to the larger world but an entrance to the land of Israel. Throughout history Akko was a place for outsiders to enter the land and for residents to leave it. A dramatic example of this is the Yerushalmi in Shviit:
“Rabbi Yosi ben Hanina would kiss the rocks of Akko and say “till here is the land of Israel.”” (Talmud Yerushalmi Shviit 4:7)
What do we know about Akko and how does it help us to understand the borders of the land? Akko was a port for millennia, but its origins were not on the coast. It was founded on a hill that today is at the entrance to the city, east of the sea. The early settlers were Phonecians although there may also have been a Philistine presence. Archaeologists have not found too many Philistine artifacts yet, but we know that the Philistines were seafarers and Akko would have been a prime location for them.
By Second Temple times the city had expanded to the sea and we have evidence of a Hasmonean port. This port has been excavated and so far is the largest Hellenistic era port found in the land of Israel. Akko had become a major crossroads. Traders, armies and travelers made their way to the port and from there to other parts of Israel.
The Romans gave the now significant city a new Roman name, Ptolomais, although the Jews continued to call it Akko. As we saw, the rabbis thought of it as being on the edge of the land of Israel, sometimes considered inside and sometimes outside. We hear of rabbis who lived in Akko as well as those who passed through it on the way out of the land, towards the ”ladder of Tyre,” what we know today as Rosh haNikra.
Itamar Grinberg for the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
While the city grew and developed in the Roman, Byzantine and Muslim periods, the major building project of Akko did not happen until the Crusaders arrived. After they lost control of Jerusalem with Saladin’s invasion in 1187, they transformed Akko into the capital of the “Kingdom of Jerusalem.” It was a city divided against itself with each rival Crusader group creating its own little enclave. The Hospitalers built a massive complex near the sea, the Templers built their own secret tunnel underground and everyone competed with everyone else. Ironically, although the Crusaders were hardly known for their tolerance and pluralism, Akko became a very cosmopolitan city. Crusaders married local women and Jews began to come to Israel via Akko as well, as the sea routes were opened up. A contemporary witness, the local bishop, condemned Akko for its lax morals and loose living, not exactly what you would expect from a religious Christian enclave.
Lev.Tsimbler, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Maimonides landed at Akko’s port in the twelfth century and traveled from there to Jerusalem. Another significant Jewish traveler to Akko was Nachmanides, Rabbi Moses ben Nachman. He was exiled from Spain after winning a debate against a converted Jew and he traveled to Jerusalem in 1267. After revitalizing the Jerusalem Jewish community, he made his way to Akko and settled there. A rare artifact was discovered not long ago on the road near Akko, perhaps our road from Akko to Kziv that the Gemara talks about on daf 7. In 1972 a seal that says Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman Gerondi Hazak was found, clearly belonging to the rabbi himself.
Museu d’Història dels Jueus – Girona, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Akko’s golden age came to an end with the Mameluke invasion in the late 13th century. The city was conquered, destroyed and abandoned. When it began to be rebuilt by the Ottomans in the 18th century, they needed to build above the Crusader city whose ruins were far too massive to be cleared away. So Akko became a two layered city: Ottoman on top, and twelve meters below Crusader, largely preserved but hidden. The work of excavation started in the 1950s and is mostly completed today. It has revealed an astounding Crusader complex: large halls, tunnels, a dungeon and even bathrooms.
With the revival of the city, the visitors continued to arrive. The kabbalist and moralist Rabbi Moshe Hayim Luzzato (the Ramchal) lived his final years in Akko before dying tragically young of the plague. Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav passed through Akko during the time of the Napoleonic Wars.
The Ottomans built their own massive structures. Besides a new wall for the city (the wall we see today) they built a formidable prison. This prison is where the Bahai prophet Bahaullah was imprisoned. The prison was inherited by the British and it had a host of “celebrity” prisoners, including Zeev Jabotinsky. The Akko prison was the site of the famous prison breakout in 1947, an Irgun and Lehi action that greatly embarrassed the British.
In 1948, in the War of Independence, Akko became part of the State of Israel. Today it still has a feel of “abroad,” with a large Arab minority, a colorful Old City market, and churches and mosques alongside synagogues and Jewish neighborhoods.
Akko has always had its sights on the outside world and the outside world flocked to its shores. Inside or outside Eretz Yisrael? Depends on your perspective.
Oren Rozen, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons