Daily Israel Report

The Abuhatzeira Dynasty's Legacy

As Israel mourns the loss of Rabbi Elazar Abuchatzeira A7 brings you the story of his family and famed grandfather, the Baba Sali.
By A7 Staff
First Publish: 7/29/2011, 4:29 PM

Today Israel mounrs the death of Rabbi Elazar Abuhatzeira, who was tragically murdered by a mentally disturbed congregant on Thursday.

Two years ago the Knesset discussed making the memorializing of Rabbi Elazar's grandfather, the famed Baba Sali, part of the Israeli school curriculum.

At the time, then-MK David Azulai (Shas) said at the Knesset Education Committee meeting chaired by MK Zevulun Orlev (Jewish Home), “The Baba Sali was very humble, his house was open to all Jews, he did not rule or try to gain honor, quite the opposite. All he cared about was the Jewish people and the Torah.”

“His children also went to off-the beaten-track places. Rabbi Elazar went to Beer Sheva, not Jerusalem, all of them just want to serve the Jewish people without fanfare in the merit of their forebears.

“This is a family all of Israel can truly be proud of,” Azulai added.

In the memory of the Rabbi Elazar and in honor of his dynasty, A7 brings you the history of his saintly grandfather and forebears.

A Distinguished Family

The Baba Sali was the scion of a distinguished family of Sephardic Torah scholars widely acclaimed as tzaddikim (saints) baalei mofet (miracle workers).

The patriarch of this family was Rabbi Shmuel Abuhatzeira. Born in Israel, Rabbi Shmuel lived in Damascus for a while, where he studied Torah together with Rabbi Chaim Vital. In Shem Hagedolim, the Chida described Rabbi Shmuel as "an ish Elokim kadosh (a holy man of God). Wise people speak of his might and wonders in saving the Jewish community from many difficulties."

Rabbi Shmuel and his family eventually moved to the city of Tafilalt, Morocco, where Rabbi Shmuel's son Moshe beecame the rav of the city. Rabbi Moshe's son, Yaakov, known as the "Abir Yaakov,: succeeded his father as rabbi of Tafilalt.

Rabbi Yaakov's eldest son, Moshe, became an Av Beit Din in the same city, and it was here that his son, Yisrael, the man who would become the Baba Sali, was born on Rosh Hashanah 5650 (1890).

The name Abuchatzeira was not the family’s original name. The grandfather, Rabbi Masoud, was named Elbaz. When he came to Israel, he traveled on a large type of barge or raft and in Moroccan that is called a chatzeira, which is the source of the name—owner of the raft.

Early Life

The Baba Sali grew up in a home permeated with Torah study and holy behavior. His family lived on a large estate which included a yeshiva where young scholars studied night and day. The beit din (rabbinical court) of his father, Rabbi Moshe, was also located on the premises. His older brother, Rabbi David, studied by himself in an attic.

It is said on the rare times that Rabbi Moshe traveled, he would cover his eyes with his cape to avoid seeing inappropriate sights - a practice the Baba Sali himself emulated in his own life.

As a child, the Baba Sali was a diligent Torah scholar, studying day and night. At the age of 12, he began to fast during the six weeks of Shovavim. Knowing his parents would not let him continue, he hid his fasting from them, but his brother, David, noticed how weak and pale he was. Though David urged him to stop, he continued his fasting.

After his bar mitzvah, the Baba Sali entered his family's yeshiva, where the students rose at midnight for Tikkun Chatzot prayers and then studied Kabbalistic works until dawn, when they would go to the mikveh, ritual bath, pray the morning service, and eat breakfast. This was followed by in-depth Talmud study, the afternoon prayers, and Halakha study.

The Baba Sali was an ascetic from a young age who is said to have only eaten on the Sabbath and eschewed meat. At the age of 16, he married Freha Amsalem.

Exile

During World War I, after France had taken over many parts of North Africa, Mulai Muhammad led a rebellion against the French in the region near Tafilalt and drove out the occupying army. Three years later, the French came back to shell the rebel's strongholds, which were located near the Jewish districts.

As the conflict increased, Mulai Muhammed placed a ban on anyone entering or leaving Tafilalt. His campaign against the French extended to the Jews as well; he accused several Jews of being French collaborators and had them executed. Shortly after Hanukkah 1920, Mulai Muhammed issued a decree to massacre the Jews of Tafilalt.

Rabbi David, Rabbi Yisrael's brother and then rav of Tafilalt, was trying to calm his frightened townsmen when Mulai Muhammed's soldiers came to arrest him. He was strapped to a cannon and shot to death. The Jews of Tafilalt had to bribe the rebel leader to release his body for burial.

After this incident, the Jewish population of Tafilalt fled to the nearby city of Arpud, and then to the city of Bodniv. In Bodniv, Rabbi Yisrael was asked to succeed his brother as rav, but he refused. It was his desire to immigrate to Israel and publish his brother's Torah writings.

In 1922, Rabbi Israel journeyed through Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt (where he visited the grave of his grandfather, the Abir Yaakov), then boarded a ship to Jaffa port and set out for Jerusalem.

He stayed in Jerusalem for a year, living at the home of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Shloush, who helped him publish his brother's writings. Then he returned to Bodniv, where he accepted the position of Rav and head of the Jewish court there.

Return

Over the next three decades the Baba Sali visited Israel three times, but finally chose to immigrate in 1952.

At first the Baba Sali settled in Lod, not far from his brother Rav Yitzchak, who lived in nearby Ramle. But when he was offered the position of rav of Lod, he moved to Jerusalem. There he rented a small apartment in the Baka neighborhood, and devoted himself solely to Torah study at the He studied the Beit El yeshiva in the old city of Jerusalem, a kabbalistic yeshiva headed by Tunisian rabbis.

Three years after his arrival in Jerusalem, he was offered the position of Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, but he declined the offer. Shortly afterward, the leaders of the small southern Negev town of Netivot, most of whose residents were of Moroccan origin, invited him to move there.

At first, the Baba Sali hesitated to accept their invitation because he wasn't certain whether Netivot was within the consecrated borders of Eretz Yisroel He discussed the issue at length with Rav Yissochor Meir, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Hanegev. When the two concluded that Netivot did, indeed, have the sactity of the land of Israel, the Baba Sali agreed to go there.

Netivot, in 1952,  was "the end of the world and then some" geographically, a poor development town that could only be reached by a one lane highway that turned into a dirt road. A giant in Israel's sephardic community, Jews from all over the world would travel to see him and seek his advice and blessings. For the rest of his life the Baba Sali remained in Netivot and when he died he was buried there in 1984.

Legacy

The Baba Sali's funeral was attended by some 100,000 people. His gravesite in Netivot has become a popular pilgrimage site in Israel. Two other people are buried nearby. His second wife, Miriam Abuhatzeira, is buried in an adjoining wing of the Baba Sali Tomb as well as David Bouskila, the builder and founder of the tomb complex. The Baba Sali's third wife, Rabanit Simi Abuhatzeira, who married Baba Sali when she was 15, still lives in Netivot.

The Baba Sali's first wife died young without children. His second wife bore him two sons, Rabbis Meir and Baruch.

Rabbi Baruch is the Baba Sali’s second son and has two sons of his own, Rabbi Yekutiel and Rabbi Refael in Ashdod.

Rabbi Meir was a private man who died two years before his father and was not well known to the general public, but his two sons became revered figures like their grandfather.

One is Rabbi David, a sage who is also known to many, lives in Nahariya, founded the “Abir” institutions.

The other was Rabbi Elazar who lived in Beer Sheva, to where many Jews of all backgrounds and opinions would go to ask his advice and to receive his blessing until his tragic murder. The suspect had come for advice about his failed marriage all the way  from the city of Elad, not far from Petach Tikva.