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Jerusalem - The People’s Rav: Mishpacha Profiles Chief Rabbinate Of Israel Rav Shlomo Amar

Published on: April 29, 2012 12:50 PM
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Jerusalem - Rav Shlomo Moshe Amar, the Rishon L’Tzion, may be surrounded by pomp and ceremony, yet he insists that the job has not changed him; he remains firmly planted in the tradition he received from his fathers — a Torah rooted in temimus and simplicity. Fifty years after he left his native Morocco for Eretz Yisrael, Rav Amar spoke about the journey that took him from the fields of Ofakim to the halls of Jerusalem’s

When the medieval poet and physician Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi reached the Holy Land, he prostrated himself on the sacred ground and rolled in its dust, the object of his poetic yearning. At that dramatic moment, according to legend, he was trampled by an Arab horseman.

Over 800 years later, on a spring day in 1962, a flight filled with new immigrants touched down at Lod Airport, depositing them in a country that was itself relatively new. For most of them, this was the culmination of a dream. They had uprooted their families from their native lands, turning their backs on livelihood and property and navigating the long and complicated bureaucratic hurdles, for one reason alone: the merit of settling in Eretz Yisrael.

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Among the throng that descended from that flight was a family from Casablanca, Morocco. Their joyous exclamations of gratitude, spoken in French, mingled with the shouts of the other disembarking passengers, drowning out the engine’s drone.

The father was no poet — he’d worked as a farmer back in Morocco — but like Yehudah HaLevi, he fell to the ground and kissed it fervently. His 14-year-old son, worried that his father had fainted, stepped forward to help him to his feet.

And he heard his father say: “Ribono shel Olam! I thank You for the great kindness You’ve shown in bringing us here ... I beg You for more time, until I merit reciting Kiddush this Friday night, and then You can take me to You. I just want to make Kiddush in Eretz HaKodesh.”

The father lived to recite Kiddush on many Friday nights after that, and even now, when he is gone, his Kiddush still resounds. His son, that teenager, would go on to find a home in the tents of Torah. The tefillah of Eliyahu Amar was fulfilled.

When We Had Nothing Prior to meeting Rav Shlomo Moshe Amar, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, I speak with a charming and accomplished young talmid chacham named Rav Yechezkel Mutzafi, the Rav’s son-in-law. A scion of greatness — his grandfather was the mekubal Rav Salman Mutzafi, and his father is the popular maggid shiur Rav Ben Tzion — Rav Yechezkel has initiated a revolution in area of family purity, establishing mikvaos on army bases and far-flung moshavim. He shares a little history with me, laughing that “this is what the shver will never tell you.”

When Rav Amar was a young kollel student, he once traveled to southern Israel to participate in a seudas hiloula at the court of the Baba Sali, Rav Yisrael Abuchatzeira. As is customary, when the young talmid chacham passed by the tzaddik to receive his brachah of “l’chayim,” he reached into his pocket for his pidyon.

Unlike all the others, who handed over significant sums, the impoverished scholar had almost nothing. Embarrassed by the lowly sum he did find in his pocket — a single, crumpled 20-shekel bill — he folded the banknote tightly and pressed it into the tzaddik’s hand, hoping the Baba Sali would give him his brachah and quickly move on to the next person in line.

Instead, the Baba Sali stopped. He unfolded the bill slowly and held it up high, studying it, while the humiliation of its “donor” grew with each passing moment. Then he contemplated the face of young Rav Shlomo Amar and remarked, “This young man is suitable to be the rav in Yerushalayim, don’t you think?”

There was another tzaddik who predicted greatness, as well.

Rabbanit Mazal Amar is a daughter of a good Jewish home but, like her husband, she isn’t descended from prominent, distinguished scholars. The Gerrer Rebbe, the Beis Yisrael, would occasionally visit her native Haifa, and the young girl worked in the kitchen of the family that hosted the Rebbe. Once, the Rebbe ate some of the food she’d prepared and, surprisingly, asked that she be brought in to him. When she approached the doorway of the dining room, he exclaimed, “You will have a husband, a talmid chacham!”

The prophets saw a brilliant future, but that didn’t pay the bills.

A Bnei Brak bookseller related how each Friday the young Rav Amar — a kollel yungerman and father of a growing family — would come to the store with some of his beloved seforim, which he would sell. Then, money in hand, he would hurry off to purchase challah and wine for Shabbos.

Where did the young Amar family develop such hasagos, mesirus nefesh for Torah, in an era before the ideal was as common in the Sephardic camp as it is today? Rav Amar waves off the question, but a single line in the introduction to his classic sefer, Sh’eilos U’Teshuvos Shema Shlomo, answers it:

To my wife, Mazal, whose incredible love for Torah stood by us in the hardest times, when we had nothing: may Hashem remember for the good how she followed me from place to place, through all sorts of situations, for the glory of His Name.

A Mesorah of Simplicity In Eretz Yisrael, the Chief Rabbinate consists of both an Ashkenazic and Sephardic chief rabbi, who are both elected for ten-year terms. Although the job requires frequent public appearances and entails other ceremonial aspects, the rav who occupies the position is not a powerless figurehead. The two chief rabbis, assisted by members of the Chief Rabbinate Council, have jurisdiction over many aspects of Jewish life in the country, including Jewish marriages and divorces, Jewish burials, kashrus, conversions, supervising holy sites, and overseeing mikvaos, yeshivos, and batei din.

The offices of the Chief Rabbinate are located in central Jerusalem. Before I am admitted inside, I am asked for my passport and ushered through a metal detector. When I enter Rav Amar’s spacious and attractive office, I can’t help but think: It’s a long way from Casablanca.

The Rav, who gives an immediate impression of youthfulness and vigor, welcomes me with a broad smile. His large, soulful black eyes sparkle with life and enthusiasm. His beard is graying, but his step and demeanor are energetic.

The pomp and ceremony of the outer office belies the simplicity of the occupant inside. The road from the tarmac at Lod to his prestigious office wasn’t always smooth, a fact that he hasn’t forgotten. Though he no longer has to sell seforim to “make Shabbos,” little else about him has changed.

“Look, lo she’ani pashtan — it’s not that I try to be pashut,” says the Rav, shrugging his impressively draped shoulders. “Ani b’emet pashut! Our mesorah, Yahadut Morocco, is that of temimut, to be simple and trusting. Ironically, it was here, in Artzeinu HaKedoshah, that we became cynical.”

The Rav gives a poignant mashal to explain the unfortunate decline in observance by the children of the immigrant generation. Families that had maintained a glorious mesorah throughout generations of exile suddenly found that their own children were apathetic about the sacred traditions.

“There is a tale about an elderly man with a beautiful, flowing white beard. One day, some youngsters started to mock him, asking him where he positions the long beard when he sleeps at night: under the blanket, or over it?

“The old man ignored them, but that night, after he got comfortable in bed, he found himself unable to relax. He turned this way and that, trying valiantly to remember how his beard rested the previous night, but he couldn’t remember. He never before paid attention to it, and suddenly it was ruining his night.

“That,” concludes the Rav sadly, “is what happened to so many of the Sephardic immigrants, people who had possessed a tangible faith. It rested on simple acceptance, unsophisticated allegiance to the words of the Torah and its scholars. Then they came here, and suddenly there were mocking questions: Where do you rest that beard? Many of them couldn’t handle it. Questions that had never occurred to them gave them no rest. They allowed the scoffers to get to them, and it eventually cost them their children.”

The Rav reminisces about his own father, who embodied the best attributes of Sephardic Jewry: sincerity, temimus and emunas chachamim — values with which he imbued his son.

“Our first year in this country, we lived in Ofakim, where Abba worked in the fields. Whatever work he was given, he did with a smile, saying ‘How fortunate we are to do this on holy soil!’”

The new immigrant spoke no Hebrew when they arrived, but there was a word he used frequently.

“When he would walk down the street, he would nod humbly to whomever we saw and say shalom. I asked him why he greeted people he didn’t know, and he was astonished. ‘Did I curse those people? All I said was shalom. What’s wrong with that?’”

Mussar works were fluent on Eliyahu Amar’s tongue, but rather than rebuke, he told stories. “He loved to read about tzaddikim. If he saw me behaving in a way he disapproved of, he would smile and share a story about one of his beloved gedolim.

“He lived the Jewish calendar. His emotions aligned with the Yamim Tovim. He would sit at the Yom Tov table with a book of piyutim in his hands, singing praise of his Creator with great joy. During the period of bein hameitzarim, he would sit and read the kinnos each evening, his eyes wet with tears.

“Once, in Chodesh Elul, he seemed weaker than usual. I was with him in the field, and I realized that he was fasting. ‘Abba,’ I said, ‘it’s not a fast day, and it’s not Erev Rosh Chodesh.’ He replied, ‘My son, it’s Elul.’

“I suggested that he was too weak to fast. It was a sh’eilah if he was permitted to fast on a taanis tzibur, let alone a taanis nedavah. He said, ‘Listen, it’s almost evening. Let’s go to Minchah and Maariv, the day is over regardless.’ Immediately after Maariv, I brought him a cup of tea. When he avoided drinking it, I understood that he had accepted a taanis of two days upon himself.

“I told him that I believed it was forbidden by halachah, and he looked at me. ‘Are you worried that I will die? Do you consider a person who goes through Chodesh Elul without any fasting, even a little bit, to be alive?’”

Between the Groves Even if Eliyahu Amar chose to overlook his son’s halachic ruling, there were others who listened. After a few years in Ponovezh, Shlomo Moshe Amar made the decision to enroll in a tiny yeshivah located in a moshav called Shlomi. It was there that he developed the qualities of a posek.

“We learned with tremendous hasmadah, but being part of the moshav, we were engaged with the families as well. Each evening we would go for a walk, from home to home, just to visit with the people and speak with them about halachah, emunah, and yiras Shamayim.”

The 19-year-old scholar soon became involved in issues pertaining to shalom bayis and chinuch habanim. The experience also furthered his appreciation for the challenges faced by the country’s ordinary citizens, making him a better rav and a better posek. Later, he authored a work of agricultural halachah.

Pollsters know that the electorate is drawn after a candidate with the common touch, sensing that ordinary experiences will shape a better leader; the rabbinate is not so different. Between the groves in the hot, dusty fields of Shlomi, a rabbanus was growing. When the official rav of Shlomi, Rav Massoud Revach, had to leave for an extended period, he appointed the 19-year-old yeshivah student as interim rav.

A year later, Rav Amar was appointed to head the kashrus division for the city of Nahariya. While still in his early 20s, he assumed the rabbanus of Megadim. He did his military service at that time, working as a “field rav.” He was given the unfortunate task of identifying fallen soldiers, an experience that gave him a special sensitivity to the halachos of kavod hameis, about which he’s written extensively.

A few years later, the young rav took the dayanus exams, setting him on a path which led to the positions of av beis din in Petach Tikvah and Tel Aviv and his current position as Sephardic chief rabbi.

I ask the Rav about the world of dayanus, and the fact that there seems to be no small degree of cynicism, even in the Torah camp, about the beis din process; too many cases end up in secular court.

He leans forward, eyes blazing. “I can’t speak for other batei din, just our own. We are well aware that there have been stories and incidents that made the beis din experience less than pleasant. When Chazal warn that a dayan has to see Gehinnom before him l’olam, always, they’re telling us that it’s an extreme danger to become a dayan, to take the responsibility of ruling for Jews. When we select rabbanim here, in the Rabbanut, we look for more than breadth of knowledge; we also investigate their personal cleanliness. I take pride in the caliber of the people we have.

“Is there cynicism about the process? Sure. Every av beis din has to make sure that his beis din is beyond reproach, that there is nothing to scoff at. Our system works. I can’t speak for anyone else’s.”

When I comment that the Rav has managed to transcend his official title as Sephardic rav harashi and, through his scholarship, earned admirers in the Ashkenazic camp as well, he replies, “Mori v’rabi, my prime teacher, was Rav Yaakov Nissan Rosenthal, under whom I learned dayanus in Haifa, and I received much from him. My other rebbi” — his eyes rest on an immense portrait gracing his wall — “is Chacham Ovadiah Yosef, who guides my every psak and step. So my Torah is a fusion of both worlds, which is as it should be. The Torah belongs to everyone.”

Our conversation turns to his role as unofficial ambassador of worldwide Sephardic Jewry, and the differences between the Sephardic community in Eretz Yisrael and those across the globe. Whereas in Eretz Yisrael there is a cultural divide and occasional tension between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, in the Diaspora there are no such barriers.

“In my travels, I see the Sephardic kehillot in America and elsewhere and how successful they are. Not only are they not looked down upon, they are respected and cherished, working hand in hand with the Ashkenazic yeshivah world. It’s only here that we have problems.

“There is an old joke about a Jew stranded on a desert island. He builds two shuls: one to daven in and the other as the shul that he would never step into.” The Rav smiles, but there is no humor. “There is an innate pride a Jew feels, a sense of elevation. In chutz l’Aretz, the Jew is surrounded by the nations of the world, so he feels superior to them — and his Sephardic neighbor can be his equal. Here, we don’t have the 70 nations. It’s all Jews, all around, so the way people feel better about themselves is sometimes at the expense of other Jews. It’s very sad.”

For the People The chief rabbi is meant to work for the citizens of the country. But how can he possibly be there for “the people” when his calendar is filled with formal ceremonies, events, and appearances?

“It’s not unusual for old friends from Petach Tikvah, Nahariya, or Megadim to come in and say hello when they happen to be in Yerushalayim, or before a simchah. We try to make sure they are all welcome here. The office might be bigger, but the person is the same.”

The Rav’s assistant, Nissim, agrees. “It would make our job   if the Rav was a little less accommodating. It would be easier to keep to the schedule.”

There is shared laughter, and one senses that this is a comfortable work environment. But there must be challenges, as well. What does Rav Amar consider the hardest part of the job?

“That’s a very good question. People think that when Chazal refer to rabbanus as ‘avdus,’ servitude, it means it also has elements of servitude within it; I always tell rabbanim that Chazal mean avdus kipshuto, literally. If you want to be honored and applauded and friends with everyone, then chaval al hazman.

“I was at an event this week and a friend remarked that those things that remove a person from This World start with the letter kaf: kesef and kavod, money and honor. I told him that I had another example: kisei. The seat of rabbanus is just as dangerous. But I added that the word kaf can also mean to bow, like kefifah, to be submissive and humble. With that, I explained the pasuk ‘Kaf achas asarah zahav (one gold ladle of ten shekels).’ One kefifah, one act of humility, is worth gold!”

Our conversation is interrupted by an urgent knock. Two staffers hurry in and whisper in the Rav’s ear. It seems there has been a disturbance in the Shomron, and Israeli soldiers were attacked. Shockingly, the attack is being blamed on other Jews, perhaps hilltop youth or settlers determined to derail a plan to dismantle one of their outposts.

The Rav’s decision comes quickly, almost instinctively. He wants to go to the Shomron immediately, he says, to visit the injured soldiers in the hospital.

The attendant informs me that our interview must be cut short. “No,” protests the Rav, “let him come in the car with us. We’ll continue talking on the way.”

When the attendant explains that since they are going into a high-security area they will need to travel in an armored car, and there is no room in the small vehicle for another passenger, the Rav feels badly. “Please call me,” he offers, his apologetic tone making me feel bad. “We can speak on the phone.”

As if to placate me, one of the members of the Rav’s entourage stops me. “I know you’re disappointed, so I will tell you a story about the Rav.”

The Rav has always attached special importance to releasing agunos, plumbing the depths of halachah to help them out of their horrific plights. One night, the Rav sat at a simchah, gracing the dais, and nodded off to sleep in full view of the participants. The next evening, the Rav was at a public event and again dozed off. Someone close to him suggested that perhaps it wasn’t appropriate for a distinguished rav to nap in public, in front of a crowd.

“You’re right, and I am so sorry,” replied the Rav, who had been up all night toiling to find a halachic solution for an agunah. “It’s not nice to fall asleep in public, but it’s also not nice for a rav to close his eyes when there’s a suffering agunah waiting for a heter.”

Before I leave Rav Amar’s office, I notice a sefer on the table. It’s called Birchas Eliyahu, in tribute to the Rav’s father. The name is appropriate, because in this office, there is more than scholarship and breadth of knowledge. One also finds a unique flavor — the flavor that held Sephardic Jewry for centuries.

It is a gift that the Chief Rabbi received from a simple Jew, a man of the fields: his father. —

When the medieval poet and physician Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi reached the Holy Land, he prostrated himself on the sacred ground and rolled in its dust, the object of his poetic yearning. At that dramatic moment, according to legend, he was trampled by an Arab horseman.

Over 800 years later, on a spring day in 1962, a flight filled with new immigrants touched down at Lod Airport, depositing them in a country that was itself relatively new. For most of them, this was the culmination of a dream. They had uprooted their families from their native lands, turning their backs on livelihood and property and navigating the long and complicated bureaucratic hurdles, for one reason alone: the merit of settling in Eretz Yisrael.

Among the throng that descended from that flight was a family from Casablanca, Morocco. Their joyous exclamations of gratitude, spoken in French, mingled with the shouts of the other disembarking passengers, drowning out the engine’s drone.

The father was no poet — he’d worked as a farmer back in Morocco — but like Yehudah HaLevi, he fell to the ground and kissed it fervently. His 14-year-old son, worried that his father had fainted, stepped forward to help him to his feet.

And he heard his father say: “Ribono shel Olam! I thank You for the great kindness You’ve shown in bringing us here ... I beg You for more time, until I merit reciting Kiddush this Friday night, and then You can take me to You. I just want to make Kiddush in Eretz HaKodesh.”

The father lived to recite Kiddush on many Friday nights after that, and even now, when he is gone, his Kiddush still resounds. His son, that teenager, would go on to find a home in the tents of Torah. The tefillah of Eliyahu Amar was fulfilled.

When We Had Nothing Prior to meeting Rav Shlomo Moshe Amar, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, I speak with a charming and accomplished young talmid chacham named Rav Yechezkel Mutzafi, the Rav’s son-in-law. A scion of greatness — his grandfather was the mekubal Rav Salman Mutzafi, and his father is the popular maggid shiur Rav Ben Tzion — Rav Yechezkel has initiated a revolution in area of family purity, establishing mikvaos on army bases and far-flung moshavim. He shares a little history with me, laughing that “this is what the shver will never tell you.”

When Rav Amar was a young kollel student, he once traveled to southern Israel to participate in a seudas hiloula at the court of the Baba Sali, Rav Yisrael Abuchatzeira. As is customary, when the young talmid chacham passed by the tzaddik to receive his brachah of “l’chayim,” he reached into his pocket for his pidyon.

Unlike all the others, who handed over significant sums, the impoverished scholar had almost nothing. Embarrassed by the lowly sum he did find in his pocket — a single, crumpled 20-shekel bill — he folded the banknote tightly and pressed it into the tzaddik’s hand, hoping the Baba Sali would give him his brachah and quickly move on to the next person in line.

Instead, the Baba Sali stopped. He unfolded the bill slowly and held it up high, studying it, while the humiliation of its “donor” grew with each passing moment. Then he contemplated the face of young Rav Shlomo Amar and remarked, “This young man is suitable to be the rav in Yerushalayim, don’t you think?”

There was another tzaddik who predicted greatness, as well.

Rabbanit Mazal Amar is a daughter of a good Jewish home but, like her husband, she isn’t descended from prominent, distinguished scholars. The Gerrer Rebbe, the Beis Yisrael, would occasionally visit her native Haifa, and the young girl worked in the kitchen of the family that hosted the Rebbe. Once, the Rebbe ate some of the food she’d prepared and, surprisingly, asked that she be brought in to him. When she approached the doorway of the dining room, he exclaimed, “You will have a husband, a talmid chacham!”

The prophets saw a brilliant future, but that didn’t pay the bills.

A Bnei Brak bookseller related how each Friday the young Rav Amar — a kollel yungerman and father of a growing family — would come to the store with some of his beloved seforim, which he would sell. Then, money in hand, he would hurry off to purchase challah and wine for Shabbos.

Where did the young Amar family develop such hasagos, mesirus nefesh for Torah, in an era before the ideal was as common in the Sephardic camp as it is today? Rav Amar waves off the question, but a single line in the introduction to his classic sefer, Sh’eilos U’Teshuvos Shema Shlomo, answers it:

To my wife, Mazal, whose incredible love for Torah stood by us in the hardest times, when we had nothing: may Hashem remember for the good how she followed me from place to place, through all sorts of situations, for the glory of His Name.

A Mesorah of Simplicity In Eretz Yisrael, the Chief Rabbinate consists of both an Ashkenazic and Sephardic chief rabbi, who are both elected for ten-year terms. Although the job requires frequent public appearances and entails other ceremonial aspects, the rav who occupies the position is not a powerless figurehead. The two chief rabbis, assisted by members of the Chief Rabbinate Council, have jurisdiction over many aspects of Jewish life in the country, including Jewish marriages and divorces, Jewish burials, kashrus, conversions, supervising holy sites, and overseeing mikvaos, yeshivos, and batei din.

The offices of the Chief Rabbinate are located in central Jerusalem. Before I am admitted inside, I am asked for my passport and ushered through a metal detector. When I enter Rav Amar’s spacious and attractive office, I can’t help but think: It’s a long way from Casablanca.

The Rav, who gives an immediate impression of youthfulness and vigor, welcomes me with a broad smile. His large, soulful black eyes sparkle with life and enthusiasm. His beard is graying, but his step and demeanor are energetic.

The pomp and ceremony of the outer office belies the simplicity of the occupant inside. The road from the tarmac at Lod to his prestigious office wasn’t always smooth, a fact that he hasn’t forgotten. Though he no longer has to sell seforim to “make Shabbos,” little else about him has changed.

“Look, lo she’ani pashtan — it’s not that I try to be pashut,” says the Rav, shrugging his impressively draped shoulders. “Ani b’emet pashut! Our mesorah, Yahadut Morocco, is that of temimut, to be simple and trusting. Ironically, it was here, in Artzeinu HaKedoshah, that we became cynical.”

The Rav gives a poignant mashal to explain the unfortunate decline in observance by the children of the immigrant generation. Families that had maintained a glorious mesorah throughout generations of exile suddenly found that their own children were apathetic about the sacred traditions.

“There is a tale about an elderly man with a beautiful, flowing white beard. One day, some youngsters started to mock him, asking him where he positions the long beard when he sleeps at night: under the blanket, or over it?

“The old man ignored them, but that night, after he got comfortable in bed, he found himself unable to relax. He turned this way and that, trying valiantly to remember how his beard rested the previous night, but he couldn’t remember. He never before paid attention to it, and suddenly it was ruining his night.

“That,” concludes the Rav sadly, “is what happened to so many of the Sephardic immigrants, people who had possessed a tangible faith. It rested on simple acceptance, unsophisticated allegiance to the words of the Torah and its scholars. Then they came here, and suddenly there were mocking questions: Where do you rest that beard? Many of them couldn’t handle it. Questions that had never occurred to them gave them no rest. They allowed the scoffers to get to them, and it eventually cost them their children.”

The Rav reminisces about his own father, who embodied the best attributes of Sephardic Jewry: sincerity, temimus and emunas chachamim — values with which he imbued his son.

“Our first year in this country, we lived in Ofakim, where Abba worked in the fields. Whatever work he was given, he did with a smile, saying ‘How fortunate we are to do this on holy soil!’”

The new immigrant spoke no Hebrew when they arrived, but there was a word he used frequently.

“When he would walk down the street, he would nod humbly to whomever we saw and say shalom. I asked him why he greeted people he didn’t know, and he was astonished. ‘Did I curse those people? All I said was shalom. What’s wrong with that?’”

Mussar works were fluent on Eliyahu Amar’s tongue, but rather than rebuke, he told stories. “He loved to read about tzaddikim. If he saw me behaving in a way he disapproved of, he would smile and share a story about one of his beloved gedolim.

“He lived the Jewish calendar. His emotions aligned with the Yamim Tovim. He would sit at the Yom Tov table with a book of piyutim in his hands, singing praise of his Creator with great joy. During the period of bein hameitzarim, he would sit and read the kinnos each evening, his eyes wet with tears.

“Once, in Chodesh Elul, he seemed weaker than usual. I was with him in the field, and I realized that he was fasting. ‘Abba,’ I said, ‘it’s not a fast day, and it’s not Erev Rosh Chodesh.’ He replied, ‘My son, it’s Elul.’

“I suggested that he was too weak to fast. It was a sh’eilah if he was permitted to fast on a taanis tzibur, let alone a taanis nedavah. He said, ‘Listen, it’s almost evening. Let’s go to Minchah and Maariv, the day is over regardless.’ Immediately after Maariv, I brought him a cup of tea. When he avoided drinking it, I understood that he had accepted a taanis of two days upon himself.

“I told him that I believed it was forbidden by halachah, and he looked at me. ‘Are you worried that I will die? Do you consider a person who goes through Chodesh Elul without any fasting, even a little bit, to be alive?’”

Between the Groves Even if Eliyahu Amar chose to overlook his son’s halachic ruling, there were others who listened. After a few years in Ponovezh, Shlomo Moshe Amar made the decision to enroll in a tiny yeshivah located in a moshav called Shlomi. It was there that he developed the qualities of a posek.

“We learned with tremendous hasmadah, but being part of the moshav, we were engaged with the families as well. Each evening we would go for a walk, from home to home, just to visit with the people and speak with them about halachah, emunah, and yiras Shamayim.”

The 19-year-old scholar soon became involved in issues pertaining to shalom bayis and chinuch habanim. The experience also furthered his appreciation for the challenges faced by the country’s ordinary citizens, making him a better rav and a better posek. Later, he authored a work of agricultural halachah.

Pollsters know that the electorate is drawn after a candidate with the common touch, sensing that ordinary experiences will shape a better leader; the rabbinate is not so different. Between the groves in the hot, dusty fields of Shlomi, a rabbanus was growing. When the official rav of Shlomi, Rav Massoud Revach, had to leave for an extended period, he appointed the 19-year-old yeshivah student as interim rav.

A year later, Rav Amar was appointed to head the kashrus division for the city of Nahariya. While still in his early 20s, he assumed the rabbanus of Megadim. He did his military service at that time, working as a “field rav.” He was given the unfortunate task of identifying fallen soldiers, an experience that gave him a special sensitivity to the halachos of kavod hameis, about which he’s written extensively.

A few years later, the young rav took the dayanus exams, setting him on a path which led to the positions of av beis din in Petach Tikvah and Tel Aviv and his current position as Sephardic chief rabbi.

I ask the Rav about the world of dayanus, and the fact that there seems to be no small degree of cynicism, even in the Torah camp, about the beis din process; too many cases end up in secular court.

He leans forward, eyes blazing. “I can’t speak for other batei din, just our own. We are well aware that there have been stories and incidents that made the beis din experience less than pleasant. When Chazal warn that a dayan has to see Gehinnom before him l’olam, always, they’re telling us that it’s an extreme danger to become a dayan, to take the responsibility of ruling for Jews. When we select rabbanim here, in the Rabbanut, we look for more than breadth of knowledge; we also investigate their personal cleanliness. I take pride in the caliber of the people we have.

“Is there cynicism about the process? Sure. Every av beis din has to make sure that his beis din is beyond reproach, that there is nothing to scoff at. Our system works. I can’t speak for anyone else’s.”

When I comment that the Rav has managed to transcend his official title as Sephardic rav harashi and, through his scholarship, earned admirers in the Ashkenazic camp as well, he replies, “Mori v’rabi, my prime teacher, was Rav Yaakov Nissan Rosenthal, under whom I learned dayanus in Haifa, and I received much from him. My other rebbi” — his eyes rest on an immense portrait gracing his wall — “is Chacham Ovadiah Yosef, who guides my every psak and step. So my Torah is a fusion of both worlds, which is as it should be. The Torah belongs to everyone.”

Our conversation turns to his role as unofficial ambassador of worldwide Sephardic Jewry, and the differences between the Sephardic community in Eretz Yisrael and those across the globe. Whereas in Eretz Yisrael there is a cultural divide and occasional tension between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, in the Diaspora there are no such barriers.

“In my travels, I see the Sephardic kehillot in America and elsewhere and how successful they are. Not only are they not looked down upon, they are respected and cherished, working hand in hand with the Ashkenazic yeshivah world. It’s only here that we have problems.

“There is an old joke about a Jew stranded on a desert island. He builds two shuls: one to daven in and the other as the shul that he would never step into.” The Rav smiles, but there is no humor. “There is an innate pride a Jew feels, a sense of elevation. In chutz l’Aretz, the Jew is surrounded by the nations of the world, so he feels superior to them — and his Sephardic neighbor can be his equal. Here, we don’t have the 70 nations. It’s all Jews, all around, so the way people feel better about themselves is sometimes at the expense of other Jews. It’s very sad.”

For the People The chief rabbi is meant to work for the citizens of the country. But how can he possibly be there for “the people” when his calendar is filled with formal ceremonies, events, and appearances?

“It’s not unusual for old friends from Petach Tikvah, Nahariya, or Megadim to come in and say hello when they happen to be in Yerushalayim, or before a simchah. We try to make sure they are all welcome here. The office might be bigger, but the person is the same.”

The Rav’s assistant, Nissim, agrees. “It would make our job   if the Rav was a little less accommodating. It would be easier to keep to the schedule.”

There is shared laughter, and one senses that this is a comfortable work environment. But there must be challenges, as well. What does Rav Amar consider the hardest part of the job?

“That’s a very good question. People think that when Chazal refer to rabbanus as ‘avdus,’ servitude, it means it also has elements of servitude within it; I always tell rabbanim that Chazal mean avdus kipshuto, literally. If you want to be honored and applauded and friends with everyone, then chaval al hazman.

“I was at an event this week and a friend remarked that those things that remove a person from This World start with the letter kaf: kesef and kavod, money and honor. I told him that I had another example: kisei. The seat of rabbanus is just as dangerous. But I added that the word kaf can also mean to bow, like kefifah, to be submissive and humble. With that, I explained the pasuk ‘Kaf achas asarah zahav (one gold ladle of ten shekels).’ One kefifah, one act of humility, is worth gold!”

Our conversation is interrupted by an urgent knock. Two staffers hurry in and whisper in the Rav’s ear. It seems there has been a disturbance in the Shomron, and Israeli soldiers were attacked. Shockingly, the attack is being blamed on other Jews, perhaps hilltop youth or settlers determined to derail a plan to dismantle one of their outposts.

The Rav’s decision comes quickly, almost instinctively. He wants to go to the Shomron immediately, he says, to visit the injured soldiers in the hospital.

The attendant informs me that our interview must be cut short. “No,” protests the Rav, “let him come in the car with us. We’ll continue talking on the way.”

When the attendant explains that since they are going into a high-security area they will need to travel in an armored car, and there is no room in the small vehicle for another passenger, the Rav feels badly. “Please call me,” he offers, his apologetic tone making me feel bad. “We can speak on the phone.”

As if to placate me, one of the members of the Rav’s entourage stops me. “I know you’re disappointed, so I will tell you a story about the Rav.”

The Rav has always attached special importance to releasing agunos, plumbing the depths of halachah to help them out of their horrific plights. One night, the Rav sat at a simchah, gracing the dais, and nodded off to sleep in full view of the participants. The next evening, the Rav was at a public event and again dozed off. Someone close to him suggested that perhaps it wasn’t appropriate for a distinguished rav to nap in public, in front of a crowd.

“You’re right, and I am so sorry,” replied the Rav, who had been up all night toiling to find a halachic solution for an agunah. “It’s not nice to fall asleep in public, but it’s also not nice for a rav to close his eyes when there’s a suffering agunah waiting for a heter.”

Before I leave Rav Amar’s office, I notice a sefer on the table. It’s called Birchas Eliyahu, in tribute to the Rav’s father. The name is appropriate, because in this office, there is more than scholarship and breadth of knowledge. One also finds a unique flavor — the flavor that held Sephardic Jewry for centuries.

It is a gift that the Chief Rabbi received from a simple Jew, a man of the fields: his father.

The above article appears in this weeks Mishpacha magazine. Content provided as courtesy by Mishpacha.



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Read Comments (7)  —  Post Yours »

1

 Apr 29, 2012 at 01:42 PM Anonymous Says:

You may say the job hasn't affected him and that he is a pashtan, so why now start a fight and rabble rouse on a 200 year tradition that the Riziner dynasty light the fire lag B'omer. Sure, this year he says he will do it 2 hours later. Next yr it will be one hr and the year after before.

Go light the medura elsewhere. His answer was NO. I am Rishon Letzion. So he has changed and it did affect him.

2

 Apr 29, 2012 at 02:36 PM JustThinking Says:

Reply to #1  
Anonymous Says:

You may say the job hasn't affected him and that he is a pashtan, so why now start a fight and rabble rouse on a 200 year tradition that the Riziner dynasty light the fire lag B'omer. Sure, this year he says he will do it 2 hours later. Next yr it will be one hr and the year after before.

Go light the medura elsewhere. His answer was NO. I am Rishon Letzion. So he has changed and it did affect him.

You obviously have no idea of what a Rabbi is intended to do. His job is to make decisions and sometimes decisions have to be made. You don't have to agree with it.

Anyone who has ever met the RAv will confirm that the real is extremely down to earth, always with a smile and a loving gentle man. May Hashem keep him with usfor many healthy years

3

 Apr 29, 2012 at 08:21 PM Anonymous Says:

The article doesn't explain why Rabbi Amar was given the nickname "Rishon L'Tzion?

4

 Apr 30, 2012 at 12:54 AM BeKind Says:

Whoever keeps the mitzvos in poverty will eventually keep them in wealth.

5

 Apr 30, 2012 at 07:37 AM Avreich1 Says:

Reply to #3  
Anonymous Says:

The article doesn't explain why Rabbi Amar was given the nickname "Rishon L'Tzion?

The Hebrew title for the position of Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Rishon le-Zion, (lit. "First to Zion"), has been used since the beginning of the 17th-century, and is sourced from , כײז,ישעיהו פרק מ"א .

6

 Apr 30, 2012 at 11:09 AM Anonymous Says:

Reply to #5  
Avreich1 Says:

The Hebrew title for the position of Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Rishon le-Zion, (lit. "First to Zion"), has been used since the beginning of the 17th-century, and is sourced from , כײז,ישעיהו פרק מ"א .

Thank you for the citation and the information.

7

 Apr 30, 2012 at 11:23 AM dANNY Says:

This is an authentic picture of a great great man

8

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