Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedCourtesy

The ‘Har Bracha Institute’ is publishing new editions of the responsa of one of the greatest sages of the previous generation, Rabbi Hayim David HaLevi zts”l‘Aseh Lekha Rav‘ and ‘Mayim Hayim.’ This is an opportune time to tell a little about his life story.

Rabbi Hayim David HaLevi (18 Shvat 1924 – 12 Adar 1998) was born in Jerusalem to a family that immigrated from Turkey. His parents were God-fearing, his father was a craftsman and a synagogue cantor for decades.

It is told that one day a couple entered the rabbinical court of Rabbi Shalom Hedaya weeping, and asking to arrange a divorce for them. Although they loved each other, they had been married for seventeen years and were not blessed with children. The rabbi, after words of rebuke about the very idea, sent them home with a blessing to have children by the next year, and so it was. The son who was born is Rabbi Hayim David HaLevi. Rabbi Shalom Hedaya served as the Chief Rabbi of the Sephardic community, and was the head of the Beit El Kabbalists’ yeshiva (his son Rabbi Ovadia Hedaya, author of ‘Yaskil Avdi,’ continued in his path as a rabbi, and as head of the Kabbalists’ yeshiva).

His Studies at Yeshiva Porat Yosef

From childhood, he was drawn to Torah study and nestled in the shadow of Torah scholars who lived in his neighborhood, ‘Ohel Moshe’ – Rabbi Ben Zion Kuainka, author of ‘HaMa’asaf,’ Rabbi Shalom Hedaya, Rabbi Ben Zion Pardes, and others. The neighborhood’s rabbi, Rabbi Kuainka, watched over his upbringing, and nurtured him. Once, when he saw him running and playing with the other children, he called out to him and said: “Chaimiko, you are a yeshiva student, you don’t need to play with them.” And the boy accepted his words.

The neighborhood residents sent their children to the ‘Alliance’ school to learn secular subjects and be able to acquire a profession, and the neighbors also told his parents: “Send him to ‘Alliance’, there he will learn a profession, he can become a postal clerk.” However, on the advice of Rabbi Kuainka, when he reached the age of nine, his parents sent him to the Porat Yosef Yeshiva, where he studied for over fifteen years, and where he was ordained as a rabbi, and judge.

Zionism

The head of the Porat Yosef Yeshiva, Rabbi Ezra Attia, supported ‘Agudath Israel’ and stayed away from the controversies surrounding Zionism, but Rabbi Uziel, who by virtue of his position as Rishon LeZion served as president of the yeshiva, wholeheartedly supported Zionism. Most of the yeshiva’s students followed Rabbi Attia’s path and did not engage in the national mitzvot, but a few students, including Rabbi Hayim David HaLevi and Rabbi David Shlush (later Rabbi of Netanya), followed Rabbi Uziel’s path.

On Shabbat, Rabbi Uziel would give a lesson on the ‘Kuzari’, and they participated. Rabbi Attia preferred that they not attend, so he scheduled an additional lesson at the same time, and asked them to attend his lesson. Then Rabbi Hayim David HaLevi’s father intervened, and asked Rabbi Attia not to prevent his son from participating in the lessons of the great sage, Rabbi Uziel. And Rabbi Attia’s warm connection to his student remained, and he ordained him as a rabbi and judge.

Incidentally, most Sephardic rabbis, including most neighborhood rabbisd – Rabbi Kuainka, Rabbi Hedaya and Rabbi Pardes – supported Zionism.

Rabbi Hayim David remained faithful to the position of the neighborhood rabbis. Like them, he supported the Zionist movement which dealt with the mitzvah of settling the Land and the mitzvah of fighting for the defense of the People and the Land. Like them, he had a positive attitude towards the study of sciences and languages. This position was reinforced by his studies with Rabbi Uziel. Under his influence, he also engaged in studies of emunah (faith), which is evident in his books. Under his influence, he learned English and broadened his education at the “Mizrachi Seminary.”

From the year 1942, at the age of eighteen, he was active in the Mizrachi youth movement in Jerusalem. For a short period he trained with the Etzel, and in the 1948 War of Independence he served in the Tuviah Battalion, in which yeshiva students studied Torah by day, and engaged in defense and fortifications, at night.

Marriage and Rabbinate

At the age of 25, in 1949, he married Miriam, the granddaughter of Rabbi Vaknin from Tiberias. During the first week of his marriage, he was appointed to serve as the rabbi of the Mei Neftoach and Romema neighborhoods, and at the same time he began serving as the private secretary of the Rishon LeZion, the Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Uziel. As part of his role, he also assisted in transcribing and editing Rabbi Uziel’s responsa books – ‘Mishpetei Uziel’, and articles and sermons in ‘Mikhmanei Uziel’. About the years under Rabbi Uziel’s tutelage, he said several times: “The best years of my life.”

Years later, when sitting in judgment, Rabbi HaLevi said of himself: “The image of Rabbi Uziel was always before my eyes. Rabbi Uziel never lost composure. Even when he was insulted personally. Even when a woman leaving the courtroom spat at the rabbi…” He also said: “As his private secretary, I saw him up close and knew him from his daily conduct… In Rabbi Uziel’s home, I found our great rabbi of blessed memory to be a upright believer who behaved with gracious humility towards all his household, including the help. Here his great pure soul was revealed in all its glory.”

Rabbi Chaim David Halevi
Rabbi Chaim David HaleviRevivim

Rabbi of Rishon LeZion

After two years under Rabbi Uziel’s guidance, he was elected rabbi of the Sephardic community in Rishon LeZion, and subsequently became the city’s Chief Rabbi. He served in this position for twenty-two years (1951-1973). Seeing that many were not proficient in Jewish law, he began giving many classes in Jewish law. These classes formed the basis for his great and important book ‘Mekor Hayim’ (five volumes), in which Rabbi HaLevi explains the Jewish laws for all communities, prefacing the laws with introductions on emunah, and spiritual reasons behind the mitzvot.

When the rabbi’s daughter, Nitzchia (married to Rabbi Shlomo Levi of the Har Etzion Yeshiva), reached high school age, the young girl wanted to study at a high school in Rehovot that better suited her in terms of Torah studies, academics, and social aspects. When it became known in Rishon LeZion that the city’s Rabbi intended to send his daughter to study outside the city, people approached him, and said that if so, they would have to close down the struggling city’s religious high school that lacked appeal. The Rabbi struggled greatly with the decision, but ultimately decided to send her to the municipal high school.

Rabbi of Tel Aviv

From 1973 until his passing in 1998, he served as the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv. His permanent place was at the ‘Ohel Moed’ synagogue, but he set a schedule to visit all the Sephardic synagogues in the city on Shabbatot, from Jaffa in the south, to the north of the city. The intellectual public also recognized his broad knowledge, and Rabbi HaLevi was asked to give classes at medical, legal and academic conferences as well.

About his role as a rabbinical court judge, Rabbi Zimbalist recounted: “When he sat in judgment, his sharp intellect, quick grasp, honest reasoning and clarity for which he was renowned were evident, both verbally and in writing. His legal rulings were a wonder. He would write with his first draft. Not too much and not too little – exactly what was needed. He did not write, erase and rewrite, but rather, the first writing produced a final ruling ready for print.”

Rabbi Maor Kayam’s Preface Comments

In the forward to the new edition, the head of the ‘Har Bracha Institute’, Rabbi Maor Kayam, wrote the following:

“With G-d’s kindness, the ‘Har Bracha Institute’ merits republishing the twelve volumes of Rabbi Hayim David HaLevi’s responsa – nine volumes of “Aseh Lecha Rav” and three volumes of “Mayim Hayim“.

“The Torah of Rabbi Hayim David HaLevi ztz”l was unique: profound, sharp, and straightforward insights stated after extensive exploration of the depths and intricacies of the subjects, written in a flowing and clear language, such that even the most complex matters appear simple, and sometimes overly simple, to the learners. But this was the Rabbi’s intention – that his responsa be clear and inviting for anyone wishing to study them. In this respect, the Rabbi saw no difference in his writing between his responsa books and the “Mekor Hayim” halakhic ruling book series.

“Often, over time, responsa books become less and less relevant, since by their nature, the questions asked in them dealt with realities that were indeed topical at the time, but have passed in the transition of generations, and are no longer applicable. Correspondingly, the responses to those questions were intended to address the challenges of that time, and mainly what remains is to study the halakhic principles and rulings, and examine the author’s method. Not so with the responsa of our rabbi, Rabbi Hayim David HaLevi ztz”l – it seems we can say that over the years, his responsa become even more relevant than the time they were given, since the challenges of his era have deepened from his generation, to ours. The need to grapple deeply with questions of morality and Torah, the individual and communal, the reasons for the mitzvot and national issues, only increases and intensifies over the years.

“Like his rabbis before him, headed by Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel ztz”l, Rabbi Hayim David HaLevi ztz”l viewed the establishment and solidification of the State of Israel as the beginning of the growth of our Redemption. Therefore, many of his responsa deal with the challenges of the State of Israel, and our nation’s struggles in realizing the words of the Torah on a national level.

“Heeding the internal logic and morality of the Torah guided the Rabbi in responding to his questioners. Thus, the Rabbi did not only provide specific answers to questions on particular cases, but often dealt with general and moral issues spanning entire topics. It seems these responses were deliberately written in an “open-ended” manner to encourage learners to continue delving into the moral and rational principles of the Torah.

“After many years during which these books were unavailable, the Rabbi’s family approached us to examine the possibility of reprinting them through the ‘Har Bracha Institute’. Together we saw that besides the need for a new printing, it was also necessary to complete the source references, thoroughly and meticulously proofread the text, and reference additional responsa dealing with the same, or related topics, in order to fully reflect the Rabbi’s view on the matter. We also became aware of the need to add an index according to the Shulchan Aruch sections. Thank G-d, now after extensive labor and thousands of corrections and proofreads, the twelve volumes are being published, in four magnificent volumes.”

Rebbetzin Gila Amittai

The initial driving force behind the new edition is his daughter, Rebbetzin Gila Amittai, wife of my friend Rabbi Achiya Shlomo, Rabbi of Kibbutz Sedeh Eliyahu.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated.