Rabbi Shlomo-Eliezer Alfandari was born in Istanbul, Turkey, in 1820, into a well-known rabbinical family. His father Rabbi Yaakov was a great G-d fearing scholar, but he did not live a long time. At his death, Rabbi Shlomo was still a small boy. He was first brought up by his mother, Chana, a learned woman who was well-versed in the Torah, the Talmud and the Laws.
His piety and wisdom was evident even as a youth, and while still a young man, he was appointed to the Spiritual Council of Istanbul. At that time he already was involved in correspondence with two of the greatest rabbinical authorities of the generation, Rabbi Akiva Eiger and Rabbi Moshe (“Chatam”) Sofer.
Many of Istanbul’s Jews pleaded with him to accept the position of chief rabbi of the city, and to join its rabbinical court. Rabbi Shlomo-Eliezer, however, refused to accept any rabbinical positions, preferring to devote himself to Torah study. He also refused to wear the customary dress of the Torah scholars of Istanbul, and when people referred to him as the city’s chief rabbi, he would reply, “I am not a rabbi – just a simple layman.” Eventually he arranged for his student, Rabbi , to be appointed and well paid as the Chacham Bashi (chief rabbi).
Appreciating his greatness, Istanbul’s Jews founded a yeshiva for him, and many outstanding scholars studied there. One of Rabbi Shlomo-Eliezer’s most distinguished students was Rav Chaim Chizkiyahu Medini, author of the encyclopedic Sedei Chemed, who was to become the chief rabbi of Hebron.
When he was nearly 80 years old, in 1897, he accepted an invitation to be Chacham Bashi (chief rabbi of the city) in Damascus. He held the position for seven years.
In 5664 (1904), Rabbi Shlomo-Eliezer Alfandari resigned his position as chief rabbi of Damascus and moved to Israel. He settled in Haifa, where he studied undisturbed for the next several years. When the sages of Tzefat (Safed) learned that Rabbi Shlomo-Eliezer had made aliyah, they invited him to serve as their city’s chief rabbinical judge.
Rabbi Shlomo Eliezer accepted the position, even though he was already nearly 90 years old. It began a new period in his life. And he served in this position for nearly twenty years! The aged sage surprised everyone who saw him by his vigor and sharp mind.
All the great scholars of Torah came to him in order to benefit from his knowledge and wisdom [including Baba Sali on a special trip from Morocco – see story #118 in this series -YT], and all who came into contact with him sensed that they were dealing with a holy man. He was referred to fondly as Sabba Kadisha, the “holy grandfather,” a title he has already acquired even before his decades in Tzefat.
In 1925, Rabbi Shlomo-Eliezer contracted a serious illness. He was in Tiberias at the time, and he refused to undergo treatment in a hospital where tznius, the Jewish laws of modesty, were not meticulously observed. Instead, he was brought to Shaarei Tzedek Hospital in Jerusalem. When he recovered, the sages of Jerusalem pleaded with him to settle in the city. The elderly rabbi acceded to the sages’ request, and rented an apartment in the Ruchama neighborhood, near Geula and Mekor Baruch. Today, the street on which he lived is now named in his memory.
So Rabbi Alfandari spent his last few years in Jerusalem, surrounded by a multitude of admirers and disciples. He was already more than 100 years old at that time, yet his mind was lucid and his vision clear. He didn’t even need glasses!
On Tuesday morning, the 22nd of Iyar, 1930, he asked his disciples to envelope him with his Tallit and to put his two pairs of Tefillin upon him, on his arm and head (according to the custom of the Sephardic Chachamim). He immediately recited Shema, and when he came to the word emet [truth], he signaled his disciples to remove his Tefillin. He then said, “Enough, enough. The main thing is emmet (truth). I can no longer continue.…”
Shortly afterward, at his suggestion, he was served a glass of warm milk. After he recited the appropriate blessing (shehakol) and had sipped some milk, his pure soul departed to the World of Truth. He was buried just before sunset on the Mount of Olives, at the age of 110!