Friday, May 9, 2008

The Seashell Lottery and the Birth of Tel Aviv, Israel

It's Fun Friday -- time for some fun for the weekend. Enjoy today's post and I'll see you back here on Monday with more philatelic news and notes.


Tel Aviv is an ultra-modern city located on the Mediterranean coastline of Israel. From the appearance of the city, it is hard to fathom that the city is officially just 100 years old. Even harder to believe is the story, some will say legend, that the original settlers determined which plots belonged to which settlers by virtue of a "Seashell Lottery"!

The Birth of Tel Aviv

The story of Tel Aviv begins in the city of Jaffa. Jaffa is an ancient port city in Israel that in the 1850s and beyond was largely populated by Arab peoples.

Starting in the 1880s, there were several waves of migration of Jews into Palestine called aliyah. The primary causes for the migrations can be traced to persecution, especially in Tsarist Russia, and anti-semitism is other areas. As the Jews returned to the area, several settled in Jaffa.

By the late 1890s, about 1500 Jews lived in the city and yearned for a place of their own. Several banded together in the hopes of creating a Jewish garden suburb on the outskirts of the town.

In 1906, that dream began to become reality as the "Ahuzat Bayit" Association was forming. The name means "homestead" which is what the Jewish association members were desperately wanting.

Three years later the group consisted of 60 families. The association had recently purchased 12 acres of land from Bedouins and wanted to distribute the land equitably to its members. The method used to distribute the land has been called the the "Land Lottery" or the "Seashell Lottery."

According to the story, during the time of Passover, in 1909, Mr. Akiva Aryeh Weiss, chairman of the "Ahuzat Bayit" Association, retrieved 60 white seashells and 60 gray seashells from the nearby beach. Inside the white seashells, he wrote the names of the each family that was part of the association . In each gray seashell, he wrote the plot numbers to the land.

A young boy and girl were chosen to select one of each color shell. For sixty times a white and gray seashell was paired together. By matching the family name inside the white shell and the plot number inside the gray seashell, the land was distributed without favoritism.

By 1911, 60 dwellings had been built in the city now known as Tel Aviv.


Some historians believe that the story of the founding of Tel Aviv by Seashell Lottery is just a romanticized story. It does seem to hold true that the land was distributed by lots, but whether seashell or some other method may be open to more scholarly research.

Some historians point out that the foundation for the city may hinge upon how you define the city proper. They point to the existence of earlier neighborhoods such as Neve Tzedek.

Avraham Soskin's Photo of
The Founding of Tel Aviv

There is a photograph that is purported to be the Seashell Lottery, although it does have the appearance of having been staged. The picture was taken by Avraham Soskin and is the basis for the January, 2008, Israel stamp celebrating the founding of Tel Aviv.

Israel Post issued the stamp to mark the approaching centennial of the founding of Tel Aviv. In the foreground of the stamp, a simple depiction of Soskin's photo shows the families attending the lottery to divide the land. Above this setting is a vignette of the modern skyline of Tel Aviv, showing how in just 100 years, the city has grown from a small settlement on a sand dune, to the largest city in the Middle East, and the 17th largest city in the world.

The stamp is available from Israel Post.

Thanks to Philippe and Guido Poppe of Poppe-Stamps for the idea that lead to this article.






Previous Fun Friday Posts


1 comment:

Rick said...

Tel Aviv is by far the largest city in Israel.

However, it is not the largest city in the Middle East. Larger cities: Cairo, Tehran, Baghdad, Jeddah, Riyadh, Damman, Alexandria, Ankara, Dubai (depending on whether you consider Egypt and Turkey part of the Middle East).