An Asir Tzion, a Prisoner of Zion, is a Jew who was imprisoned or deported for Zionist activity. The phrase is taken from Kinah (Elegy) #36, written by Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi which we read on Tish B’Av morning: “Zion, ha’lo tishali l’shlom asirayich”, “Zion, surely you will inquire after the well being of your imprisoned ones.”
Yuli Edelstein and Natan Sharansky were both “Asirei Tzion” prisoners of Zion in the Soviet Union.
The term “Prisoners of Zion” was also used to describe Jewish prisoners in dictatorships unrelated to the Soviet Union, who were arrested for pro-Israel activity or an attempt to encourage aliya. Jews in Iraq, Morocco, Yemen and Ethiopia who were arrested for Zionist activities in the 1940s and 1950s were considered prisoners of Zion as well.
Rav Soloveitchik points out that the word Zion has many definitions. The literal definition from Yirmiyahu 31:20 is a signpost: “hatzivi lach tziyunim”, “set up road markers.” Zion can refer to the Land of Israel, Jerusalem, the Beit HaMikdash (Temple) or the Kodesh HaKodashim (Holy of Holies).
Rav Soloveitchik explains that Kinah #36 reflects Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi’s philosophy in Sefer HaKuzari- the land of Israel is unique in a metaphysical sense as well as in a natural sense:
The air is clearer and charged with Ruach HaKodesh, the Divine Spirit. Nature is more beautiful. The rain, soil and stones are physically different. It is a land flowing with milk and honey.
Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, was a doctor and a philosopher as well as one of the greatest Hebrew poets. He lived from approximately 1075-1141 in Spain, loved the Land of Israel and ached to go there. One of his most famous quotes is: “Libi BaMizrach V’Anochi BeSof Maarav,” “My heart is in the east while I am stranded in the farthest end of the west.”
According to Rav Soloveitchik, the Kinot that are read earlier on Tisha B’Av morning focus on the churban- destruction and exile. Kinah #36 is the turning point as it reminds us of the beautiful life in Jerusalem from before the destruction. Rather than it being Zecher Lachurban (a reminder of the destruction), this Kinah is Zecher Lamikdash (a reminder of the Temple).
Kinah #36 opens by describing the relationship between Zion and its captives and their concern for each other.
Even though the Jewish people were taken away into exile, they are still Dorshei Shlomech- they still send greetings to Zion and are determined to return. The land sends regards back to them.
Both sides kept their part of the bargain:
The Jews have yearned to come back and the land remained desolate until we returned. No other nation was able to properly develop the land as it says in Vayikra 26:32: “And I will make the land desolate and your enemies that dwell in it will be astonished.”
The Midrash, Sifrei Bechukotai 2:65 explains:
This is a noble trait of the Land of Israel that it grants from its fruits only to its children.
Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi’s longing for Zion is not just for the land itself, but for the Shechina, Divine Presence, that dwells in the Land. In the Kuzari, he explains that the Shechina never departed from the Land and is still present. According to Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, in order to find God, one must go to the Land of Israel.
Prayer in Israel is different than in any other location:
God sends down blessings through the Temple Mount. As well, our prayers go up through the Temple Mount.
No matter how far away we are, when we pray, we face Jerusalem. In that way we keep the bond.
Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi yearned to visit the places where the prophets spoke to God. He considered every place where God revealed Himself to a prophet to be holy.
“Who can make wings for me so that I can roam afar and move my ruptured heart to your ruptured hills? I will fall to my face upon your land and treasure your stones and cherish your soil.”
According to the legend, in 1140 Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi went to Egypt and then moved on to the Land of Israel. He wrote Kinah #36 while he was on the way to the Land of Israel. Sadly, when he arrived, he prostrated himself on the ground and was killed by an Arab horseman.
Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi emphasized that the sanctity of the Land of Israel arises from the fact that the graves of our ancestors are there- especially in Hevron. His vision of the Land of Israel is that even the air is spiritual. The earth is sweeter than the finest spices, the rivers drip with honey. He would rather walk barefoot in the Land of Israel than walk in Spain in his finest shoes.
Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi’s pining for the Land of Israel is evident. He reminds us of how great Zion was before the destruction and how great it will be once again. We are lucky to have the opportunity to live in Israel or fly in and out when we feel like it, unlike in the days of Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi where it was a dream which was only fulfilled by a lucky few and may we put the days of the Prisoners of Zion behind us.