Thursday, 5 June 2014

Rabbi Zelig Reuven Bengis

Rabbi Zelig Reuven Bengis and his Wife

Rabbi Zelig Reuven Bengis (1864 - 7 Sivan 1953) was one of the outstanding scholars from the previous generation. By the age of 17, he had already mastered the entire Talmud to such a degree that he was able to recite it forwards and backwards (literally.) He was born in the city of Shnipshik close to Vilna in Lita and arrived to learn in the famous Yeshiva of Volozhin at the age of 17. He received his Semicha from Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin - known better as the Netziv - Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin. He also received his Semicha from Rabbi Elchanan Spektor and Rabbi Shlomo HaKohen (The Cheshek Shlomo). In 1894 (at the age of just 30) he was appointed as the Rav and Av Beit Din in Bodoki in Palach Hurdana and remained there until 1912. 

In 1938 he made Aliyah and worked as Rosh Yeshiva of Ohel Moshe. After the death of Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Dushensky in 1949, he became the head of the Eida HaCharedit and remained in this capacity until his death in 1953 - having lived 89 years. He is buried on Har Hamenuchot in Jerusalem. Some of his famous students include Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliyashiv and Rabbi Yisrael Grossman.

Once, it came to the attention of Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik from Brisk that there was a Bachur (young student) named Zelig Reuven Bengis who could recite the entire ShaS (the Talmud) both forwards and backwards. He could not believe that such a young man was capable of this and asked to meet with him to test him. When Rabbi Soloveitchik met him and asked him whether the news was true, Rabbi Bengis answered that it would be better to test him. Rabbi Soloveitchik tested him by asking him to recite a particular piece of Gemara off by heart - only, this time, from the end of the Gemara backwards to its beginning! Indeed, he found the "rumour" to be 100% true - at which point in time he acknowledged the rumour, never having to test the young Bachur again!

Once, when he was just a young student in Yeshiva, a wealthy man approached the Yeshiva with the news that he would donate an entire carton of wine (12 bottles) to the Yeshiva if the student Zelig Reuven Bengis could pass his test. In those days, such an offer was well sought after and to receive such a prize was a true gift! The Bachur approached, and the wealthy man began his test. He asked the young man to recite a certain Mishna in one section of the Talmud off by heart. Then he was to recite another Mishna from a different place - also off by heart. However, there was a catch! He would have to intertwine the two Mishnayot by reciting the first word of the first Mishna and then the first word of the second Mishna. Then he would have to recite the second word of the second Mishna with the second word of the second Mishna and so on. Indeed, Rav Bengis did not fail the test, winning the much sought out wine for the Yeshiva!

Once, when he was already acting in the capacity as Rav, a young man learning in Kollel approach Rav Bengis to talk with him in learning. He was over impressed with himself and filled with great pride that he was able to discuss the issues with the great Rabbi. When Rav Bengis saw his arrogance, he gently put him in his place. Rav Bengis asked the young man to select any book from the bookshelf that he would like to learn. Then he was to recite just a few words from anywhere on the page and that he would continue. Rav Bengis then began tor recite word for word the remaining words on the page, continuing with a lengthy discussion discussing the points. He then asked the young man to select another book and do the same - and continued this way with a third and fourth book. By the end of the day, the young man had learnt a fortune of Torah and seen the real greatness of a true Torah giant. At this point, Rav Bengis gently berated the Avreich. He explained to him that in truth man is just worms (Rima Ve'Toleah) and there was no need for such a being to be filled with pride - since after all, he will one day leave this world in any case and this is how he will end up!

The Netziv very much wanted to "show off" his student at one point in time but never seemed to have the chance. One day, the Russian authorities approach the Netziv reprimanding him for having set up a Yeshiva which did not teach the secular values of the government - to such a degree that the men in Yeshiva did not even know the Russian language! The Netziv critisized them heavily stating that not only were the students knowledgeable in the Russian language, but they did in fact listen to all the instructions told to them by the government. He even had such a student who would recite everything over word for word and even backwards - so attentive was he! The official decided to test the Netziv by giving over a lecture and then asking the students questions. When the lecture was over, the Netziv asked Rav Zelig Reuven Bengis to tell them what they had said. Rav Bengis relayed over word for word every single thing the authority had said - and then said it over yet again from the end to the beginning in reverse order! The authorities, upset at having been defeated replied that one could prove nothing from the uniqueness of such a person!

Rabbi Shurin in his book Sefer Keshet Giburin 1:40 tells over that he remembers visiting Rav Bengis in Jerusalem in 1939 - when he was then the head of the Edia HaChareidit. Even at the age of 80, he attached no special importance to himself or his role. He lived in a two and a half room apartment - very modest with simple and old furniture. His house was open for visitors all the time. He had no servants, Gabbaim or Shamashim to assist him - attending to everything on his own. There were never special times to see him, and he would receive everyone whenever they came through!

It was said that the Rav completed the entire Talmud 101 times in his life. He would be making a Siyum (celebratory meal) for the completion of the Talmud every so often. But on one occasion, he celebrated a Siyum just a couple of months after the previous Siyum. This made no sense. Some 60 days to complete 2711 double sided pages?! When asked how he managed it - he replied that this Siyum was a most special one! He explained that he had been asked on many occasions to fulfill some sort of rabbinical role for others - whether being the Mesader Kiddushin for a marriage, or invited to other celebratory meals etc. He realised soon enough that much time was wasted as he would stand around waiting for things to get going! He decided quickly to begin a new cycle of learning Talmud just for those particular occasions. "Now," he said, "this celebratory Siyum is due to completing the entire Shas just in those 5 minute waiting periods every time!"

His talk was always filled with Torah. Once, when Rav Shurin was young, he wanted to test the Rav - as is the custom of certain Bachurim who wish to find out exactly where their teachers are "holding". He asked the Rav if he agreed to be tested to which he acquiesced. He explained how he should be tested. "Take any Gemara you wish," he said, "flip through the bottom of the pages." he said, "take a look at the very bottom of the page and read out just three or four words from the smallest print. Take the Gemara, the Rashi, the Tosefot or anything and read just three or four words, and I will tell you which Gemara you are reading from and the page you are on." Rav Shurin did as the Rav asked and every time he received the correct answer - exactly! Masechet - such and such. Page such and such. In this could be seen his pure simplicity and his desire to show and teach his students the love of Torah and how it should be studied.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Rabbi Shlomo Eliezer Alfandri


Rabbi Shlomo Eliezer Alfandri 1820 - 22 Iyar 1930 – known as the Saba Kadisha (the Holy Grandfather – because of his length of years – almost 110!) was born in Instanbul, scion to a line of outstanding Rabbis. In his youth he corresponded with Rabbi Akiva Eiger and his son-in-law, Rabbi Moshe Sofer – The Chatam Sofer. He was known for his sharpness. His way in Halacha was to intertwine the words of the Rishonim with the final decision leaning on the opinions of the masters of Kabbalah from the schools of the Arizal and the Rashash.

A few years after he married he began to take care of a number of young orphans in his own home! He was a Rosh Yeshiva in Kushta, but refused to accept a salary any higher than what the Avreichim who were learning there were getting. He became the Chacham Bashi of Damascus – a post he maintained for 20 years until after the First World War.

In 1908 the Sages of Tzefat asked him to become the Rabbi of the city and to bring peace into the community which was then in need of someone to assist them. He arrived in Tzefat in1917 (aged 97!) and from that moment onwards decided he would never leave the boundaries of the Land of Israel. Later he went to live in Jerusalem, living in the street which today is known by his name i.e. Rechov Alfandri. During these last years, his home was open only for a select group of Torah students.

Even though he merited very old age, his body remained strong until his last years when he was very ill. He was able to stand by himself and his eye sight remained perfect until his very last days – even though he had used them to read handwritten texts and the smallest of print of masses of Torah works.

On the evening of 22 Iyar 1930 after reciting the Tikun Chatzos prayers (special prayers recited by righteous individuals at midnight every night,) he wrote his last response (Teshuva) – one of the longest he ever wrote. In the morning after dawn, he put on his Tefillin, read the Shema and immediately upon finishing it even before starting the main Amidah prayer he died in his chair adorned with his Tallis and Tefillin – at the age of almost 110.

His Halachic rulings on the four sections of the Shulchan Aruch were printed after he died in the work known as Shailot and Teshuvot of Maharsha (Moreinu Harav Shlomo Eliezer) Alfandri known also as "HaSaba Kadisha". 

One famous story told about him concerns an evening when he went out to make the blessing on the new moon. At the end of the blessing, he looked up and began clapping his hands in consternation. He shouted out, "I see that a large scale war will soon break out!" This happened in April 1914 shortly before World War One broke out!

Monday, 19 May 2014

Rabbi Ezra Attia - Rosh Yeshiva Porat Yosef - Yahrtzeit 19 Iyar


Rabbi Ezra Attia (1887 - 19 Iyar 1970) was one of the greatest Torah giants, and teachers of contemporary times. He was not just a Posek, but extremely well versed in all the hidden mystical Torah (Kabbalah.) He was the Rosh Yeshiva of the famous Porat Yosef Yeshiva teaching hundreds of the Sefardi Talmidei Chachamim of today – and certainly tens of the greatest of Sefardi leaders in world Jewry today. He was well known for being the teacher of Chacham Ovadia Yosef (died 2013), previous Chief Sefardi Rabbi of Israel and no doubt the greatest of the Sefardi Poskim of recent times! He also taught Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, the elder Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Kaduri (died at over 100-110 years of age in 2006), Rabbi Yehuda Tzadka, Rabbi Ben-Tzion Abba Shaul, and many other well known Tzaddikim, Torah giants, Poskim and Mekubalim.

His parents were having a difficult time in having children, and so they went to the grave of Ezra HaSofer to daven for Divine help. His mother had mentioned that should they be blessed with a son, she would call him Ezra after Ezra HaSofer and would devote his entire life to Torah. The blessing came about, and indeed Rabbi Ezra Attia achieved the highest of Torah levels.

His family was extremely poor, and he would eat only one pita a day – if he was lucky. He told his pupils that when things were good, he would share a pita with his mother. On rare occasions he would even divide an egg in half! His father-in-law was the great Rabbi Avraham Sallam the Kabbalist.

He studied Torah under Rabbi Chaim Shaul Dweck – the well known Kabbalist responsible for the Sadeh commentary on the Eitz Chaim of the Arizal. His other teacher was Rabbi Shlomo Eliezer Alfrandi (who Yahrzeit falls out in just a few days!) another of the greatest kabblists of recent times – who died at the age of almost 111 in 1930!

Perhaps one of his most famous stories concerns his pupil Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. One day (Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was still a Bachur in his teens) when it became apparent that Rabbi Yosef was not attending Shiurim, Rabbi Attiya looked into things and found out that he had taken a job helping his father in his grocery store. He was forced to work due to the extreme poverty in which they lived. When Rabbi Attiya tried to convince his father of the importance of Torah study, the father did not listen, saying that the money needed was more important. The next day, Rabbi Attiya himself appeared at the grocery store all dressed up in a work apron. When asked about it, he told Rabbi Yosef's father that he had told Rabbi Yosef to continue his learning as he had already found someone else to take his job at the store for no pay! The worker – was none other than Rabbi Attiya himself! When the father saw just how much Torah study meant to the both of them, he left Rabbi Yosef to continue study. Today, we can see just how much that decision has affected the entire Jewish world!

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