Remembering Father, Rav Shapira

Rabbi Yaakov Shapira: 'Growing up with my father was like hearing the shofar every day.'

Yoni Kempinski, | updated: 01:13

Rabbi Avraham Shapira
Rabbi Avraham Shapira
Mercaz Harav

Three years have passed since  the stalwart leader of religious Zionism, Rav Avraham Elkana Cahana Shapira, Dayan, Chief Rabbi and head of the flagship yeshiva of religious Zionism, Merkaz HaRav Kook, was called to the heavens. Rav Avraham Shapira, or Rav Avrum, as he was lovingly called, was a strong supporter of Jewish life in Judea and Samaria, and made headlines when he fought the "disengagement" expulsion from Gush Katif to the point of telling soldiers to refuse orders to expel Jews from their homes.  

INN spoke to Rav Yaakov Shapira, his son and head of Merkaz HaRav today, about his father’s spiritual legacy.

Yoni Kempinski: Do you feel your father’s presence in the Yeshiva?

Rav Yaakov: On the one hand, three years seems like a long time. On the other hand, only the future will reveal if we are able to continue in his path, as we are certainly trying to do.  I have the memories of an illustrious Chief Rabbi, forceful head of the yeshiva and above all, a beloved, wise father to guide me.

Can you tell us some things that will make us understand his greatness?

You can try to get to know him through stories about his life, but they don’t hold a candle to having lived with his radiant personality.. It is like the difference between a prayer book and a shofar. The prayer book is an intermediary, an indispensable one, of course, but a shofar is the voice of the inner being, straight from the soul. Growing up with my father was like hearing the shofar every day.

He was a man of gentleness and strngth, uncompromising on principles but able to reach people. What can you tell us to illuminate that?

Little things can explain it. For example, when we were little, four boys in one room, he would awaken us lovingly with the blessing of the Torah. 

Once, an American rabbi came to see him in our house in Geula, and could be heard exclaiming in Yiddish in the hall: This is the house of the Chief Rabbi? I don’t believe it. We lived in a small, old, barely furnished apartment then, and when we moved, the apartment near the yeshiva was bigger, but just as bare except for his books.

He respected his mother z”l to the point of tying her shoes when he took her for a walk, even when his beard had already turned white. We used to kiss her hand, and I recall as a teenager, trying to get away with not doing that. My father noticed and sent me back to her house to do so, reminding me that the Ari Hakadosh would kiss his mother’s hand in respect. One look from his gentle, twinkling, but firm eyes, was enough for discipline.

That is the personality that radiated to the public in all his positions. That’s why he never had fixed hours for people to come, he said his hours were day and night, because he was afraid that if he had two hours reception a day, one person’s problems might use up all the time and leave the others outside.

He asked his doctors for a blessing, telling them that their blessings are worthy as they have high standing before G-d for helping so many people. 

And his teaching?

He didn’t lecture, he allowed students to talk, made them think. He loved his motzei Shabbat Kzot Hachoshen class, which took place in his house, because of the give and take.

He loved his students and the yeshiva was the last thing he asked about before he died.

Right before he was hospitalized for the last time, there was a minyan for prayers in his house, and one of the younger students came over to him and said he has a problem understanding a commentary—but suddenly realized that my father had an oxygen tube in his nose and moved back. My father said to him: “I’m an old man, and if G-d gave me the strength to sit at this table, it is because He wants me to explain the passage to you.”

What about his legendary friendship with his partner in the Chief Rabbinate, the Rishon Letzion Rav Mordechai Eliahu, zts”l?

They were fast friends from the days of being Rabbinic court judges, and continued to consult one another on important issues after the chief rabbinate period, as they continued to be the undisputed leaders of religious Zionism. They had deep respect for one another.

He was a real leader, wasn’t he?
Hundreds of meetings and consultations of ministers, MK’s and leaders took place in my father’s simple home, all benefiting from his wisdom, the wisdom of a non-political Torah sage whose every word was Torah-based, receiving direction and advice from him. He believed that the Torah is relevant to every issue and that guided his form of leadership, making his opinions clear and unwavering. He didn’t mix in politics, it was never a factor in his decisions.

When he finished analyzing an issue, he was fearless in sticking to his principles and never compromised on truth.

How do you manage now?

We were spoiled, we had everything: A halachic decision maker (posek), judge, and rosh yeshiva who knew the answers all in one tsaddik. But knowing how to ask the questions is also important, and he left a legacy of thousands of Torah true families, who know that they have to ask Torah authorities before they act and know how to ask. People said that about Rav Moshe Feinstein zts”l as well, who wrote answers in Igrot Moshe, but the fact that the questions were asked was just as important. My father created a generation of sabras who know and want to learn Torah, ask halakhic questions and whose life is guided by Torah.

What about the Chief Rabbinate?

He felt that any slighting of the Chief Rabbinate is irrevocably damaging, he believed in its crucial importance to the functioning and image of a Jewish, Zionist state.

And now? And After the massacre two years ago?

Someone asked me then what my father would have done. I said that my father’s merits would have prevented it from happening.
He saw the yeshiva as a unifying force where all kinds of Jews came to receive spiritual strength and Torah knowledge, and that is how we go on, making sure that there is no break with the past generations, working with G-d’s help to elevate this generation to what it can aspire to be.
Translated by Rochel Sylvetsky