Rabbi Avraham Elkahana Shapira
Rabbi Avraham Elkahana Shapira Merkaz HaRav

For people the world over, these are often painful and challenging times, filled with wars, mega-epidemics, hometown violence, economic instability, and the like. In Israel as well, the ongoing battle against Arab terror afflicts Jewish communities with feelings of apprehension and uneasiness. That is why when a happy event occurs, a birth, bar mitzvah, an engagement, or a wedding, an added simcha can also be felt, as if to counterbalance the anguish the nation experiences each time a terror victim is laid to rest.

I was thus especially pleased to receive an invitation to the upcoming bar mitzvah of the youth Elkana Dov Sylvetsky, great grandson of the late Chief Rabbi of Israel, HaRav Avraham Elkana Shapira, may his memory be for a blessing, who also served for 25 years as the Rosh Yeshiva of Mercaz HaRav in Jerusalem after the death of HaRav Tzvi Yehuda Kook. The invitation came from the boy’s grandmother Rochel Sylvetsky, Consulting and Op-ed Editor of the Israel National News website whose son, Rabbi Avraham Yisrael (ben Dov) Sylvetsky, is married to the daughter of Rabbi Yaakov Shapira, son of the late Chief Rabbi and today’s Rosh Yeshiva at Mercaz HaRav.

The Mishna of “Avot,” commonly known as the “Ethics of the Fathers, teaches that every Jew should find himself a Rabbi. This injunction should be self-evident. In order to properly follow the Torah, a person needs personal guidance, in spiritual and ethical matters, and in matters of Jewish Law. To underscore the vital role that a Rabbi plays in the life of a Jew, the Hasidic Master, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, stated that a Jew who doesn’t have a Rabbi resembles a monkey trying to act like a human being.

The question naturally follows: how do you choose a Rabbi? After all, there are many Rabbis to choose from. How can a person know which Rabbi is right for him or for her? Once again, our Sages offer their advice to help expedite our search: “If the Rabbi resembles an angel of the L-rd, then seek Torah from his lips” (Moed Kattan 17A). This definition perfectly describes the bar-mitzvah boy’s late grandfather, HaRav Avraham Elkana Shapira who died on the first day of Sukkot, fifteen years ago, at the age of 93. His son, Rabbi Yaacov, says that a few days before his father’s death, he presented him with the Arba Minim he had purchased for him. “After examining the Hadasim and Lulav, my father, HaRav, picked up the very large Yemonite Etrog, the kind he preferred, which he had to hold in both hands because of its size. People often said the Yemonite Etrog resembled his big heart, in his great love for all of the Jewish People. Half smiling, half sad, he said that he wasn’t sure he would have the merit of performing the mitzvah that year.”

A seventh generation Jerusalemite, Rabbi Shapira was born in the Old City. Rabbi Haim Steiner, a longtime teacher at Mercaz HaRav, recalls that ‘Reb Avrum’ had a Haredi Yeshiva education at the Tiferet Tzvi and Hebron Yeshivas. Recognized as a prodigy in Torah study, the young Rabbi Shapira formed lasting Torah-learning partnershipz, “hevrutot”, with such outstanding scholars as Rabi Moshe Hevroni, Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer, Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soloveichik, and the Hazon Ish. “Rabbi Moshe Feinstein also recognized his greatness,” Rabbi Steiner relates. “In ‘Igrot Moshe’ (Even HaEzer 24) he deliberates over the words of Rabbi Shapira at length and refers to him as, ‘the brilliant and illustrious Rabbi amongst the Sages of Jerusalem - fit to rule in every aspect of Torah.’"

When Rabbi Shapira was 42, Israel’s Chief Rabbi Herzog appointed him to the High Court of the Jerusalem Chief Rabbinate, and later he served as Av Beit Din in Jerusalem. Forming an intimate friendship with Rabbi Kook’s only son, HaRav Tzvi Yehuda Kook, and marrying into the family, Rabbi Shapira began teaching at the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva, becoming the Rosh Yeshiva upon the death of HaRav Tzvi Yehuda in 1982.

I first met Reb Avrum, as his students called him, a year later. I was still living in New York, a budding baal tshuva, directing the “Volunteers for Israel - Sarel” emergency recruitment campaign during the War in Lebanon, sending American Jewish volunteers to work for a month in Tzahal warehouses. The founders of the program, Rabbi Yehuda Hazani and Meir Indor, brought me to Israel to see what the volunteers were doing during their time in the country. I arrived at Ben Gurion a few hours before Simchat Torah. In the morning, after davening shachrit at Mercaz HaRav and after few mind-blowing rounds of fervent dancing, Rabbi Hazani and Indor brought me into Reb Avrum’s study for his private Kiddush and introduced me to the smiling Rosh Yeshiva, who was also the newly-elected Chief Rabbi of Israel. I am embarrassed to admit, his small stature, happy gleaming face, sparkling eyes, and pure white beard reminded me of Santa Claus – that’s how far away I was from Judaism!

In answer to Rabbi Hazani’s question if I had to keep two days of Yom Tov since I was planning to make Aliyah later that year, Reb Avrum answered that no, but I shouldn’t travel outside of Jerusalem or publically engage in anything that was forbidden on Yom Tov. All the time he spoke, he focused his happy beaming expression and twinkling eyes directly at me. His smiling angelic appearance overwhelmed me. Though I considered Rabbi Hazani to be my spiritual mentor, when I realized HaRav Shapira was my Rabbi’s Rabbi, he immediately became my chief Rabbi too.

After I moved to Israel, a Haredi newspaper in Jerusalem that was running a campaign against the Chief Rabbinate offered me a job as the editor of an English edition they wanted to start. I asked Rav Avrum if I could accept the position. “You may have reward in This World,” he replied with his almost constant smile. “But you won’t have any reward in the World to Come.”

On another occasion, his combination of Torah scholarship and down-to-earth wisdom startled me completely. I went to him to ask about a screenplay I had written in which a young man from America comes to Israel and is murdered by an Arab terrorist. I told him the plot and said that I was worried that it might fall into the forbidden category of speaking negatively about the Land of Israel, since the murder of the youth in the film might give support to people’s fears about making Aliyah.

“Movies are for the goyim, aren’t they?” he ask.

“Not only for the goyim,” I answered. “Jews watch movies too.”

“Well, if you are worried about discouraging Jews from America, not many of them make Aliyah anyway,” he said. “In addition, I am not a ‘maven’ about movies, but the little I understand is that if you don’t have the murder, you won’t have a movie.”

His eyes twinkled. The answer characterized the dual nature of Reb Avrum – immense Torah wisdom with a down-to-earth simplicity, accompanied by a serious peering expression and a perpetual smile in his eyes.

Another time, before Sukkot, I asked him if I could try the mystical kavanot and yichudim prayers when waving the lulav. In his humble manner, he answered, “I don’t know anything about yichudim. I’m not a Kabbalist.” Later I discovered that he knew every sphere of the Torah, including its secret esoteric teachings.

During the protests against the Israeli Government’s negotiations to surrender the Golan, I made a poster portraying Yitzhak Rabin in a negative fashion, escorting Arafat and Assad into the Old City of Jerusalem. The caption read: “Today the Golan, Tomorrow Jerusalem.” One of the volunteers whom I drafted to paste the poster on billboards throughout the city was a student at Mercaz HaRav. Before setting off with a brush and a pail of paste, he wanted to ask Rabbi Shapira’s permission. I accompanied him to the home of the Rosh Yeshiva. “Would the Chofetz Haim make a poster like this?” the Chief Rabbi asked me. “After all, Yitzhak Rabin is also a son of Avraham Avinu.”

Later, when Arik Sharon decided to give away Gush Katif to Arab terrorists, I interviewed Reb Avrum in a protest film made to rally public opinion against the evacuation. When we asked him if the Torah permitted a Jewish government in Israel to surrender pieces of Eretz Yisrael, he answered sharply, ‘Yesh yetzer l’rah!’ ‘There is an inclination to do evil!’ When we repeated the question, wanting the Chief Rabbi to give a more direct answer about the legality of Sharon’s plan, he repeated his words, ‘Yesh yetzer l’rah!” Once again we asked if a Jewish government in Israel could surrender pieces of Eretz Yisrael, and this time he replied in a loud, irritated voice, ‘Why do they ask me a question that every child in Heder can answer?!’”

Rav Avrum wasn’t only a Rabbi I went to for Halakhic guidance. When each of our six curly-haired boys reached the age of three, my wife and I took them to Rav Avrum for the first-time “Chalakeh” hair-cutting ceremony. “Invite me to the boy’s wedding,” he always said with a happy smile, “and give the curls to his bride.”

HaRav Shapira and my son Bini
HaRav Shapira and my son Bini Tzvi Fishman

I asked his son, Rabbi Yaacov, to share some recollections of his father’s visits to America as Chief Rabbi. “I accompanied my father, HaRav, on all of his trips to meet with Rabbis in America. Once he met with President George Bush in the Oval Office. It was a time of considerable tension between the State Department and Israel. The White House offered to provide a translator, but Abba insisted that we bring our own, wanting to be sure that his words were conveyed exactly. The visit was scheduled to last 15 minutes, but it went on for almost an hour. The President asked many questions about Eretz Yisrael. He seemed amazed to learn that it was no longer a barren desert. Surely he knew, but meeting a holy Rabbi from the Holy Land seemed to trigger a deep emotional response. You could tell by his contented expression that he really enjoyed spending time with my father.

Can you recall some unusual event in America that characterizes your father?

“Once, in Manhattan, we had some free time before the next scheduled appointment. HaRav insisted we go to what he called, ‘the tallest tower.’ He wasn’t supposed to go anywhere without a police escort, but we arranged for someone to drive us to the Empire State Building. At the very top, he walked all around the observation deck, peering through the binoculars, and gazing this way and that, as if he was checking the kashrut of an Etrog. He explained he was trying to see for himself if Manhattan was truly an island surrounded by rivers which could be considered an Eruv for Shabbat.

What do you remember about his meeting with the Rebbe of Chabad?

When we visited 770 with HaRav Mordechai Eliahu, the Lubavitcher Rebbe came out of his study to greet the Chief Rabbis from Israel. When the time came to enter his study for a less public discussion, the three Gedolei HaDor paused before the doorway, each Rabbi insisting that the others go first. Finally it was decided that my father go first since he was holding a Gemara. Also, as a Kohen, the others insisted he had the right of way. During their conversation, the Rebbe asked my father if anything was missing for him in America. He answered, ‘The daily Birkat Kohanim’ which is only recited on holidays in America. But I found a Halabi shul where they do it, so in the morning, I took my father there to daven.’

During their long discussion, the Lubavitcher Rebbe suggested that they draw up a letter demanding that the Mashiach come immediately. HaRav Eliahu noted that the three of them comprised a Beit Din. But my father refused, saying that he lacked the stature to sign on a document like that. When I asked him later about his refusal, he said that the Mashiach should be induced by other means, such as our own work to improve our character traits and to increase our Torah study and our connection to Eretz Yisrael. Wherever he spoke to an audience of American Jews, he emphasized the imperative for all Jews to make Aliyah, citing the Rambam who equates kibbutz galuyot, the Ingathering of the Exiles, with Mashiach.”

הרב שפירא זצ"ל והרב אליהו זצ"ל
הרב שפירא זצ"ל והרב אליהו זצ"ל צילום: באדיבות ישיבת מרכז הרב

Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu zt"l and Rabbi Avraham Shapira zt"l

To me, your father was the epitome of humility, yet he could also be as fierce as a lion, as when he called upon Israeli soldiers to refuse orders to evacuate the Jews of Gush Katif from their homes. How did he combine these two almost contradictory attributes?

“Apparently, the two midot do not necessarily contradict, as we discover in the deeds of our Forefathers. Once, at a large Jewish Day School in New York, when my father entered the crowded auditorium, a young boy stood up and recited the blessing upon seeing a person of profound Torah wisdom, ‘Blessed are You… who has imparted Your wisdom to those who revere You.’ My father hurried forward to the stage and asked who instructed the boy to say such a thing? ‘It is a blessing in vain!’ he declared. Everyone was stunned. Then HaRav Mordechai Eliahu stepped forward and said, ‘If the blessing was said upon seeing me, indeed it is a blessing in vain. But if it was said upon seen HaRav Shapira, then it is absolutely proper.’”

When your father met with Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, do you remember what they spoke about?

“They spoke about everything. Questions of Halakhah flew back and forth between them the way ordinary people talk about their children when they meet. My father was particularly concerned with the lack of one central Rabbinical authority in America, similar to the Chief Rabbinate in Israel. Rabbi Feinstein agreed.

Did Rabbi Shapira meet with Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik as well?

“Yes. It was arranged that they would both speak at a large Beit Knesset. When they met, my father stepped forward and kissed the surprised Torah scholar. After all, it is forbidden to kiss a creature of flesh and blood in a synagogue, where all of our love is directed exclusively to our Father in Heaven. Sensing everyone’s wonder, my father said, ‘It is forbidden to kiss a person in a Beit Knesset, but it is permitted to kiss a Sefer Torah.’”

Tzvi Fishman was awarded the Israel Ministry of Education Prize for Jewish Culture and Creativity. Before making Aliyah to Israel in 1984, he was a successful Hollywood screenwriter. He has co-authored 4 books with Rabbi David Samson, based on the teachings of Rabbis A. Y. Kook and T. Y. Kook. His other books include: "The Kuzari For Young Readers" and "Tuvia in the Promised Land". His books are available on Amazon. Recently, he directed the movie, "Stories of Rebbe Nachman."