Weekly Chasidic Story #860 (s5774-38 / 19 Iyar 5774)
An Indispensable Requirement for a Blessing
In 5664 (1904), when Tsfat’ sages learned that the venerable Rabbi Shlomo-Eliezer Alfandri had moved to Israel, they invited him to serve as their city’s chief rabbinical judge. .
Connection: Seasonal–74th yahrzeit of Rabbi Alfandri
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 Chacham Bashi (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, which consisted of a turban and a silk robe. When people referred to him as the city’s chief rabbi, he would reply, “I am not a rabbi – just a simple layman.”
Instead, he recommended his student, Rabbi Yitzchak Akarish, for the position of Istanbul’s chief rabbi. Rabbi Yitzchak was one of Rav Shlomo Eliezer’s most outstanding students. He tried to devote himself solely to Torah study, but when his family’s financial situation became desperate, he sought Rabbi Shlomo-Eliezer’s advice.
Rav Shlomo Eliezer promised to find Rav Yitzchak a rabbinical post – on one condition: he had to accept any position offered to him. The latter agreed to his teacher’s terms, but was startled when Rabbi Shlomo Eliezer secured him the position as Chacham Bashi of Istanbul. How could he serve as chief rabbi in the very same city in which his illustrious mentor lived? But he had already accepted Rabbi Shlomo Eliezer’s condition, and couldn’t renege on his word.
Istanbul’s Jewish leaders were likewise reluctant to appoint Rav Yaakov, and for the very same reasons. However, they couldn’t disregard Rav Shlomo-Eliezer’s directive or his demand that Rabbi Yaakov receive a respectable salary.
From then on, whenever questions were addressed to Rabbi Shlomo- Eliezer, he would refer them to Rabbi Yitzchak, stressing that he was the city’s chief rabbi.
Appreciating Rabbi Shlomo-Eliezer Alfandari’s greatness, Istanbul’s Jews founded a yeshiva for him, and many outstanding scholars studied there. One of his most distinguished students was Rav Chaim Chizkiyahu Medini, author of the encyclopedic Sedei Chemed, who was to become the chief rabbi of Hebron.
Once, when Rabbi Shlomo-Eliezer was seated at a celebratory meal at the home of one of the most prominent members of Istanbul’s Jewish community, he heard two secular Jews discussing the “natural” causes of earthquakes. His face ablaze, Rabbi Shlomo-Eliezer rose from his seat and vehemently countered their arguments.
“According to your scientific theories,” he cried, “an earthquake can’t occur here at this moment. But if the Al-mighty wills it, an earthquake will occur here this moment, in defiance of the laws of nature.”
At that very moment, an earthquake shook the entire city. And that was when Istanbul’s Jews came to regard Rabbi Shlomo-Eliezer as a miracle worker, and he became even more precious in their eyes.
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 close to 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 #118in 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 Tsfat.
In Nissan of 5674 (1914), Rabbi Shlomo-Eliezer, accompanied by many of Tsfat’s residents, went out to bless the new moon. After completing the prayer, he looked upward, clapped his hands and let out a piercing cry. Then he said: “I see that a large-scale war will soon break out.”
Four months later, World War I began.
During the war, Tsfat’s residents suffered from a lack of food and water. One time, the Turkish pasha (governor) visited the city. He was perched on a white steed, and was accompanied by an entourage of soldiers. He wore a flashy uniform, and a glossy medallion, which indicated his high rank, hung from his neck.
When Rabbi Shlomo-Eliezer heard of his arrival, he went out to greet him. The pasha was awed by the Sabba Kadisha’s majestic appearance, and asked him for a blessing.
Rav Shlomo-Eliezer replied, “Only the humble can receive blessings. I will bless you after you come down from your horse.”
The pasha got off his horse and lowered his head to receive Rabbi Shlomo-Eliezer’s blessing. “May Almighty G-d help you in your efforts to see to the needs of the oppressed Jewish Nation,” Rabbi Shlomo-Eliezer said.
The pasha was very impressed by Rabbi Shlomo-Eliezer and, as a result of that encounter, he made sure that Tsfat’s residents had sufficient food and water.
* * *
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 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!
In 1930, the Rebbe of Munkacz, Rabbi Chaim-Elazar Shapira, made a special trip from Hungary to meet with Rabbi Shlomo-Eliezer face to face. He even tried his best to speak with him using Sephardic Hebrew, in order to facilitate better communication. The Rebbe told him that he had learned from great tzadikim that the closeness of the Final Redemption depended primarily on the tzadik of the generation – if he would decree by the power of his Torah that Mashiach should arrive. Therefore the Rebbe was imploring him to make such a decree. Rabbi Shlomo-Eliezer, in his humility, immediately replied: “I am not a tzadik,” whereupon the Munkaczer burst into tears.
This conversation took place about eight days before his death. On Tuesday morning, the 22nd of Iyar 5690 (1930), he asked his disciples to envelope him with his Tallit and to put his two pairs of Tefilin 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 Tefilin. He then said, “Enough, enough. The main thing isemet (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! *
[Source: Excerpted and adapted by Yrachmiel Tilles from // hevratpinto.org/index.html, //torahcenter.com, and //yadyosef.com]
Rabbi Shlomo-Eliezer Alfandari (1820* – 22 Iyar 1930) was born in Istanbul, Turkey, where his reputation for piety and wisdom was established at a young age. He served as the chief rabbi in Istanbul (unofficially) and Damascus, and subsequently in Safed for 20 years toward the end of his life. He passed away at age 110 (!) in Jerusalem. Eight days before, the world-renowned Rebbe of Munkacz, Rabbi Chaim-Elazar Shapira, made a special trip from Hungary to meet with him, calling him the “the top tzadik of the generation.” Many of his rabbinical correspondence on topics in Jewish law are included in his book, Sabba Kadisha. For more information on his life and writings, see our website.
* Editor’s note: There are conflicting opinions about his year of birth. The three main candidates are 1815, 1820 and 1826. I used the middle position. But it could be that he lived to at least 115!
Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.
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