Posted by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
In loving and revered memory of a Gadol Ha-Dor, a great rabbinic sage, scholar, leader and teacher, the State of Israel’s first
Sephardic Chief Rabbi, a giant in Torah, a pursuer of peace and unity,
who loved every Jew with all of his heart,
Rabbi Ben Zion Meir Hai Uziel, z”l,
whose 60th memorial we mark this Friday (August 30), the 24th of Elul.
60 years ago, late on a Friday afternoon, the 24th of Elul, just as the Shabbat candles were lit, a great light was extinguished in Israel,
as Rabbi Uziel breathed his last breath here on earth,
just a few days before Rosh Hashanah.
Every time I walk into the courtyard building on our Sephardic Educational Center campus in the Old City of Jerusalem, I feel a sense of awe and pride, knowing that in his pre-Chief Rabbi days, Rabbi Uziel was the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Tiferet Yerushalayim, the Old City’s most prominent Sephardic Rabbinical institution. This historic yeshiva was housed in our SEC courtyard building. We are privileged to be carrying on his brilliant teachings and illustrious legacy today.
The Talmud teaches:
“We do not make monuments for the righteous;
their own words and teachings serve as their ultimate memorial.”
In this spirit, in loving memory of Rabbi Uziel, I offer below a selection of his teachings on various topics, which I have translated directly from the beautiful and poetic Hebrew that characterized his literary style.
Rabbi Uziel was the quintessential classic Sephardic Haham of the modern era, and his halakhic rulings and spiritual way of life serve as the greatest model of how Classic Sephardic Judaism can be expressed in today’s world. As we enter a New Year, I pray that the merit of this great sage protect us, and may his teachings continue to guide us and inspire us, illuminating our path in Torah and wisdom.
Rav Uziel, in his own words…
On the State of Israel as a fulfillment of Biblical Prophecy
The first stage to redemption is removing the Jewish people’s subservience to the nations of the world. This messianic stage is taking place before our eyes, as we well know that our past subservience to the nations has caused us great harm, but now, with the return of the Jewish people to their land and the building of our own state, we are no longer subservient to the nations. Despite all of the dangers we are encountering in realizing this messianic stage, we nevertheless see an awakening of God’s will for the Jewish people to settle in their own homeland. This Divine awakening is what inspired us towards the Declaration of Independence of our own Jewish state. We live in an era where we are witness to the fulfillment and realization of the vision of our prophets.
On Halakha (From the introduction to his Mishpetei Uziel responsa)
In every generation, conditions of life, changes in values, and technical and scientific discoveries create new questions and problems that require practical solutions. We are not permitted to avert our eyes from these issues and say Torah prohibits anything new, i.e., anything not expressly mentioned by earlier sages is automatically forbidden. We may not simply declare such matters permissible, nor can we let them remain vague and unclear, with each person acting with regard to them as he wishes. Rather, it is our duty to search all halakhic sources, and, based on what they explicate, to derive responses that address current-day issues. In all my halakhic responsa, I never inclined towards leniency or strictness according to my own personal opinions; rather, my intentions were always to search and discover the truth. Gathering all of my intellectual strength, I walked in the light of earlier halakhic masters, whose waters we drink and whose light enlightens us; with this holy light, which issues from the concealed Light of God, I illuminated my eyes...
On Torah and the Modern World
Our holiness will not be complete if we separate ourselves from human life, from human phenomena, pleasures and charms, but only if we are nourished by all the new developments in the world, by all the wondrous discoveries, by all the philosophical and scientific ideas which flourish and multiply in our world. We are enriched and nourished by sharing in the knowledge of the world. At the same time, though, this knowledge does not change our essence, which is composed of holiness and appreciation of God’s exaltedness.
His goals and aspirations as a rabbi
To spread Torah among students, to love the Torah and its mitzvot, to love the Land of Israel and its holiness, to love absolutely every Jewish man and woman and the people of Israel in its entirety; to love God, the Lord of Israel; to bring peace among all Jews physically and spiritually, in their words and actions, in their thoughts and in the ruminations of their hearts, in all their steps and deeds, at home and in the street, in the village and in the city; to bring true peace in the house of Israel, to the entire congregation of Israel in all its subdivisions and groupings; and between Israel and their Father in heaven.
His peaceful overture to Muslim leaders
To the Heads of the Islamic Religion in the Land of Israel and throughout the Arab lands near and far, Shalom U’Vracha. Brothers, at this hour, as the Jewish people have returned to its land and state, per the word of God and the prophets in the Holy Scriptures, and in accordance with the decision of the United Nations, we approach you in peace and brotherhood, in the name of God’s Torah and the Holy Scriptures, and we say to you: Please remember the peaceful and friendly relations that existed between us when we lived together in Arab lands and under Islamic Rulers during the Golden Age, when together we developed brilliant intellectual insights of wisdom and science for all of humanity’s benefit. Please remember the sacred words of the prophet Malachi, who said: “Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us?”
On Rabbis Working Together for the Common Good of Am Yisrael
We must remove this divisiveness that plagues us, and instead make our work as a community a reflection of peace and love. But who will stand and lead this change amongst us? This specific task belongs to the “Faithful in Israel,” our rabbinic and spiritual leaders. This belongs to them, because the Torah is not an alienating force; rather it is a force that brings people closer together. The true announcement of the redemption and the coming of the Messiah will only happen when the hearts of parents are drawn closer to their children, and the hearts of children are drawn closer to their parents. It is about time that the “Faithful in Israel”(rabbis and spiritual leaders) unite forces in their sacred work, and unite the entire Nation of Israel around them. Such unity, of spiritual leaders working together, unifying our people as one, will serve as our greatest source of comfort and strength.
On Jewish Unity (from his Ethical Will)
Preserve with absolute care the peace of our nation and of our state -- “And you shall love truth and peace” (Zechariah 8:19) -- because disputes and divisiveness are our most dangerous enemies…they are like moths on Beit Ya’akov, causing our bones to rot. By contrast, peace and unity are the eternal foundations for the national sustenance of Beit Yisrael. Therefore remove all causes of divisiveness and disputes from our camp and our state, and place in their stead all factors that will lead to peace and unity amongst us.
His Inspirational Message for Rosh Hashanah
Awaken, all sleepers, from your deep sleep. Let us come together as one family and gather around the grand ideas and ideals of our Jewish tradition. Let us, with our bodies and souls, be the Shofar that awakens us, and awakens the whole world. Our unified voice – as one Shofar – will help bring about the ultimate sound of the Shofar that we all await: the Shofar of the Messiah. This Shofar will enlighten the world with the knowledge of God, filling the world with truth, righteousness, justice and peace.
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August 22, 2013 | 4:49 pm
Posted by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
My first memorable experience with Parashat Ki Tavo came when I was a child. My father and I were invited to a Bar Mitzvah in an Ashkenazi synagogue, and the parasha was Ki Tavo. The Bar Mitzvah family was kind enough to honor my father with an aliyah to the Torah, so it was a real shocker to them when my father refused to go up to the Torah. What was the problem? How could my father refuse such an honor?
The aliyah was the sixth aliyah in Parashat Ki Tavo, which contains a description of the most devastating curses in the Torah. In Morocco (where my father grew up), nobody ever wanted that aliyah. It was actually the custom for the community to pay someone to take that aliyah! Just imagine – we usually make donations after receiving an aliyah, but for this one aliyah in the year, you had to pay someone to take it.
What’s so spooky about this aliyah?
"If you will not listen to the voice of God ... all of these curses shall come upon you and overtake you" (Deuteronomy 28:15).
The aliyah proceeds with 54 verses filled with detailed descriptions of some of the most dark and devastating curses. Understandably, this aliyah has instilled fear and superstition in generations of synagogue goers. In fact, the list is so gloomy, that it is customary for the person reading the Torah to soften his voice and read this section almost silently. Jewish law is even sensitive to this frightening section of the Torah, in that the schedule of Torah readings on the Jewish calendar is permanently fixed to assure that we always read Parashat Ki Tavo before Rosh Hashanah, so that we do not begin the New Year and then go to the synagogue on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to hear all of these curses.
Enough with curses. What about blessings? With Rosh Hashanah around the corner, we should all have blessings on our mind. In the Sephardic tradition, we not only think about blessings – we cook them! Sephardim turn blessings into a tasty array of foods on the first night of Rosh Hashanah -- a “feast of blessings.”
When we come home from Arvit (evening) services, Sephardim sit around the table and conduct a Rosh Hashanah Seder, eating a wide array of symbolic foods whose theme is rooting out curses and praying for blessings.
We eat pumpkin or gourd, which in Aramaic is called kra (in Hebrew the word for "tear up" is also kra), and in a play on words, we pray that God will "tear up [kra] any evil decrees against us, and let our merits instead be read before God."
We then eat pieces of a fish or lamb's head, and we say, "May we always be the head, and not the tail" (see Deuteronomy 28:13 -- "And God will make you the head, and not the tail").
We then eat dates, leeks and beets. All three foods are eaten accompanied by prayers for the termination of our enemies. The Hebrew word for date is tamar, and before eating the date we say "She-yitamu oyvenu" (May our enemies be consumed; yitamu -- consumed -- sounding like tamar). The Aramaic term for leeks is karti, and before eating the leeks we say "She-yikartu oyvenu" (May our enemies be cut off; yikartu -- cut off -- sounding like karti). The Aramaic word for beets is silka, and before eating the beets we say "She-yisalku oyvenu" (May our enemies disappear; yisalku -- disappear -- sounding like silka). These beautiful (and tasty) customs reflect our innermost desire to begin a year void of some of life's most brutal curses: strife, conflict and war.
We then eat pomegranate seeds and say "May we be full of mitzvot as a pomegranate is full of seeds" (according to one tradition, there are 613 seeds in a pomegranate). My family has the custom of eating sesame seeds mixed with sugar, and we say, "May our mitzvot be as abundant as sesame seeds, and as sweet as sugar."
As sweet as all of these foods are, we know that the blessings they symbolize are even sweeter.
In Sephardic synagogues, the Arvit (evening) prayers on Rosh Hashanah open with a beautiful liturgical poem – Ahot Ketanah. Each stanza of the Ahot Ketanah poem concludes by saying "May this year and all of its curses come to an end,” and the finale of the poem is “May this coming year with all of its blessings come to a good beginning." As we read Parashat Ki Tavo on Shabbat, we do so knowing that we will soon gather in synagogues and around our tables, ushering in the New Year and all of its blessings, thus leaving behind the awful curses of Parashat Ki Tavo.
Tichleh Shanah V’Kileloteha -- May this year and all of its curses come to an end.
Tahel Shanah U’Birchoteha -- May this coming year with all of its blessings come to a good beginning.
August 2, 2013 | 12:08 am
Posted by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
Upon his election as Israel’s new Sephardic Chief Rabbi/Rishon L’Zion, Rav Yitzhak Yosef said:
“I will not sway to the left or right from the path of the Torah, rather I will do everything in the spirit of Beit Hillel.”
His father, former Sephardic Chief Rabbi/Rishon L’Zion Rav Ovadiah Yosef, had these words of advice for his son:
“It is your task to have mercy on the oppressed and exploited members of society, and to stand by the side of the needy. Have pity and take care of the Agunot (anchored/chained wives in a dysfunctional marriage, whose husbands refuse to grant them a divorce, thus preventing them from moving on with their lives). Make every effort within halakha to find creative solutions to permit them to be released from these situations. You must hear the cries of the oppressed, and do all that you can for the sake of social justice.”
With regards to rulings in halakha, Rav Ovadia Yosef had these words of wisdom for his son:
“A person who has little knowledge of Torah, when in doubt, will always say ‘forbidden.’ On every issue, such a person will say ‘forbidden, forbidden.’ Such is not the path of Torah. The true path of Torah is to search for halakhic ways to be lenient, so as not to make the Torah a burden upon the Jewish people. You don’t need to be a great scholar to say ‘forbidden,’ and there is no wisdom in searching for halakhic stringencies.”
Both father and son Yosef spoke in the spirit of Hillel, whose sensitivity and care for (in Rav Ovadiah’s words) the “oppressed and exploited members of society” made his halakhic rulings the ideal path for rabbis – and the Jewish people as a whole – to follow.
One of the primary examples of Hillel’s bold, socially conscious halakhic rulings has its roots in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Re’eh. In this parasha, we are commanded to observe the special mitzvah of the Sabbatical Year (Shmitta), and the economic legislation mandating that all loans be forgiven during the Seventh/Sabbatical Year.
The mitzvah of loan cancellation in the seventh year is a piece of legislation intended by the Torah to ease the burden upon those who are unable to meet their financial obligations. This well-intentioned mitzvah met with abuse and misuse. A cheating trend developed where some people took out loans, knowing they will not pay them back, as they will hold off paying until the seventh year comes around, which then – by Torah law – cancels the debt. This awful abuse of the Torah’s goodwill towards society created a financial crisis during the late Second Temple period, as creditors were now afraid to lend money. Like in any good society, who usually suffers when people abuse the law? Those for whom the law was created. Creditors were afraid to lend out money, and those who most needed a loan were unable to secure one. But it’s the Torah’s law that the seventh year cancels the debt. What to do?
The Talmud records that Hillel the Elder saw that the situation in Israel was creating hardship on many members of society, and that the well intentioned Shemitta law from the Torah designed to help the poor was now working against the poor. Enter Hillel’s bold and creative halakhic innovation -- the prosbul.
The Talmud teaches:
Hillel instituted the prosbul in order to mend society (mi’pnei tikkun olam). When Hillel saw that people were refraining to loan money to one another, he instituted an amendment to the Torah’s law (a takanah) stating that every creditor and debtor must appear before a Beit Din (Rabbinic court of law) to sign the prosbul. What does the prosbul say? That the undersigned understand that the seventh year does not cancel debts, and that the loan must be paid back in full. (By Hillel’s decree, it now became a halakha that the seventh year no longer cancels debts, and, as a result, this removed the fear from a creditor of lending money, since the now amended halakha stated that he must be paid back. As a result, those in need could now secure a loan).
Hillel’s prosbul stands out as the classic example of a rabbinic leader making a bold halakhic decision with the intention to improve the quality of life within society. Hillel understood that Jewish law is not frozen in time, rather is a dynamic system that allows for amendments and changes, especially when it comes to improving life for those who are most committed to following halakha. Hillel also felt that if people are suffering as a result of abusive loopholes within halakha, then halakha was no longer bringing honor and glory to God, and God could not possibly be looking down happily at Jews who were suffering as a result of halakha. I am sure if Hillel were alive today, the situation of Agunot, for example, would be quite different. It is the handling of these difficult issues in halakha that will determine if Rav Yitzhak Yosef is – in his own words – “doing everything in the spirit of Beit Hillel.”
But to be a true student of Hillel takes more than bold and creative halakhic rulings. There is also an overall approach to one’s fellow man – derech eretz (polite, soft spoken, courteous and dignified behavior) -- that characterizes a leader behaving “in the spirit of Beit Hillel.”
When contemplating why Hillel’s rulings were ultimately chosen as the preferred halakhic path for the Jewish people, the Talmud teaches:
Since both Hillel and Shammai’s rulings are ‘words of the living God,’ what was it that entitled Beit Hillel to have the halakha fixed in agreement with their rulings? Because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of Beit Shammai, and were even so humble as to mention the teachings of Beth Shammai before their own.
Hillel also sought to unify the Jewish people with darkhei shalom (peaceful ways), which is why Hillel taught:
Be students of Aaron, a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace, a lover of human beings who brought them closer to Torah.
Hillel loved the ways of Aaron, because they were his own ways.
In this spirit, Rav Yizhak Yosef has much to learn from one of his illustrious predecessors in the position of Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Rav Ben Zion Meir Hai Uziel, the State of Israel’s very first Rishon L’Zion. Considered by many to be a modern day incarnation of Hillel, Rav Uziel’s brilliant halakhic rulings were certainly in “the spirit of Beit Hillel,” especially as it concerned Agunot, orphans, widows and converts. But Rav Uziel also embodied Hillel’s call to be students of Aaron, an example of which is seen in his call to unity for the Jewish people, and for rabbis to serve as the engines in creating unity:
We must remove this divisiveness that plagues us, and instead make our work as a community a reflection of peace and love. But who will stand and lead this change amongst us? This specific task belongs to the “Faithful in Israel,” our rabbinic and spiritual leaders. This belongs to them, because the Torah is not an alienating force; rather it is a force that brings people closer together. The true announcement of the redemption and the coming of the Messiah will only happen when the hearts of parents are drawn closer to their children, and the hearts of children are drawn closer to their parents. It is about time that the “Faithful in Israel”(rabbis and spiritual leaders) unite forces in their sacred work, and unite the entire Nation of Israel around them.
Rav Yizhak Yosef is a Talmid Haham (rabbinic/halakhic scholar), and I have no doubt that he is up to the task of being a refelction of Hillel in his halakhic rulings. As a student of his father’s own halakhic rulings, he certainly has a rich legacy of halakhic leniency to build upon.
His greatest challenge, however (and arguably his most important task) will be to create an atmosphere of tolerance, respect and unity amongst rabbis, and for the Jewish people.
Honorable Rav Yosef: please – for the sake of Am Yisrael -- be a student of Rav Uziel, a lover of peace and pursuer of peace, a lover of human beings who brought them closer to Torah.