By Aharon Sorasky
In the pantheon of Sephardic Torah giants, the Sabba Kaddisha, HaRav Shlomo Eliezer Alfandari, zt”l, stands out. A unique personality, he was held in high esteem by Admorim and Rabbanim from Eastern Europe as well as by his own community. He merited a particularly long life, serving as a bridge between generations. His rich and varied experiences spanned more than a hundred years. In his youth, he corresponded with the Gedolei Olam Rabbi Akiva Eiger and the Chasam Sofer. For decades, he served his community as a Rav and Rosh Yeshivah, holding the titles of Chief Rabbi of Kusta (Istanbul) and Damascus, among others. When at an age that most people are at the end of their lives, he emigrated to Eretz Yisrael and became the Chief Rabbi of Tzfas and the Galilee. In his last years, he moved to Yerushalayim and immersed himself in Torah, filling his surroundings with his saintliness and wisdom.
Rav Shlomo Eliezer was born around the year 5575/1815 in Kusta, the capital of what was then the Ottoman Empire (now called Turkey). His parents were Rav Yaakov and Chanah Alfandari. The Alfandaris were an illustrious family; according to the Chida in Shem Hagedolim they are descendants of Betzalel ben Uri ben Chur.
Rav Yaakov was named after his grandfather, the Chacham Yaakov Alfandari, the author of the sefer Mutzal Mi’eish. The father of the first Rav Yaakov was Rav Chaim Alfandari, who also lived in Kusta and maintained a yeshivah there more than 350 years ago. His great-great-grandson, the Sabba Kaddisha, told the following family legend about him.
A righteous woman married a talmid chacham and they had a son named Chaim. Her husband died shortly after, and she remarried, again bearing a son who was also named Chaim. Sadly, her new husband also passed away and she married for a third time. This time too she gave birth to a boy, and again the name chosen was Chaim. These three boys apparently were separated in youth and lost touch with one another. They all grew up to be great talmidei chachamim, and each became a Rav of an important city. It happened that the three of them were on ocean voyages at the same time and the three ships were caught in the same terrible storm. All three were miraculously saved from the tempest and were stranded on the same deserted island. The three raised their voices in thanks to Hashem for saving them, and only then started talking —and discovered that they were in fact brothers! The first was Rav Chaim Abulafia, the second Rav Chaim Algazi, and the youngest was Rav Chaim Alfandari.
There is another story that the Sabba Kaddisha, Rav Shlomo Eliezer, told about his ancestor Rav Chaim. Rav Chaim’s yeshivah in Kusta had many talmidim, among them a group of 60 iluyim, each one of whom knew a different masechta of Shas by heart. One year, on Erev Pesach, Rav Chaim sent each one a secret message asking that they join him at the Seder. As per their teacher’s request, they all received permission from their spouses and families and took their wine and matzos with them. They spent an uplifting night in the company of their rebbi, and when dawn broke, he revealed to them that his time had come to depart to the World to Come. They recited Shema Yisrael with him, and at the word echad his pure and holy soul went up to Heaven.
Rav Shlomo Eliezer’s father, Rav Yaakov, was a talmid chacham and yerei Shamayim, but he died young. Rav Shlomo Eliezer’s mother, Chanah, an intelligent and educated woman of the noted Tzuntzin family, raised him; she lived well into her eighties. She taught her child Torah on her own. She apparently inherited the qualities of her own mother, who is said to have known Shas and Poskim. At the age of 110 Chanah’s mother decided to move to Eretz Yisrael. Because she didn’t want to daven without a minyan, she brought ten talmidei chachamim and one sefer Torah along with her at her expense! She was so weak that she was unable to walk; her companions laid her in an armchair and carried her that way.
Rav Shlomo Eliezer showed signs of greatness from a young age. He spent much time in solitude, hiding away in quiet places to study Torah without interruption. He was blessed with a sharp intellect and a photographic memory. Anything he ever learned was deeply recorded in his mind. Occasionally he would spend time with the scholars of Istanbul but most of his wisdom was obtained by his own hard effort. Slowly the community discovered the gem hiding in their midst. At 17 he married a girl from a fine family and a son was born to them. Tragically, the boy died shortly after birth; the couple remained childless for the rest of their lives. Rav Shlomo Eliezer accepted the difficult judgment and dedicated himself entirely to harbatzas haTorah.
At the age of 30, the leaders of the Turkish Jewish community made him a member of Istanbul’s Majlis (Jewish spiritual council). A noted philanthropist by the name of Fuah funded a yeshivah for him to teach in, where dozens of select avreichim studied. Rav Shlomo Eliezer selected the students himself. They all were talmidei chachamim of stature and yirei Shamayim; most were older than he was. His approach in Torah study was one of clear and straightforward logic, as was the tradition of Sephardic Gedolim for generations. His talmidim were later known as Gedolim, among them Hagaon Harav Chaim Chizkiyahu Medini, the Sdei Chemed.
As time passed Rav Shlomo Eliezer’s fame spread. He refused offers to become the Chief Rabbi or to join the beis din. He didn’t wear traditional rabbinic garb, choosing to dress like the simple folk. He did agree to decide disputes between litigants on occasion. After hearing the two sides, he would consider the issue and then tersely announce “He is the guilty party one, the other is innocent.”
In his written responsa his writing style was also very brief and extremely decisive. One time the newspaper Tzefirah printed the decision of a certain Rabbi approving divorces issued by French courts. On that occasion the Sabba Kaddisha saw it as his holy obligation to protest and wrote a detailed responsum (printed in the Torah Mitzion periodical, Yerushalayim, 5647/1887) in which he completely deconstructed the Rabbi’s heter.
His talmidim attested to the fact that he never used the common expression “l’aniyus daati” (in my lowly opinion, literally “with my poor knowledge”). Rav Rafael Dovid Halevi once told Rav Shlomo Eliezer’s wife in jest, “Your husband is very rich.” At her puzzled look, he explained, “He never writes l’aniyus daati like other poskim do, because he is truly rich in knowledge.”
Another famous talmid of the Sabba Kaddisha was Rav Yitzchak Akarish, the author of the sefer Kiryas Arba. Dedicating his life to Torah, he and his family lived a life of poverty. When the situation became acute, he approached his rebbi and in his desperation asked that the Sabba Kaddisha arrange a rabbinical position for him. Rav Shlomo Eliezer agreed on one condition — that Rav Yitzchak accept any position offered him. The talmid accepted, and Rav Shlomo Eliezer promptly went to work to get him the position of Chief Rabbi of Istanbul. Rav Yitzchak was mortified — it had never occurred to him that he would have to serve as his mentor’s Rav, but he was committed. The city’s residents were also doubtful — how could they have an official Rav at all while Chacham Alfandari (as he was called) resided there? However, they too submitted themselves to the Sabba Kaddisha’s will. Rav Shlomo Eliezer himself rented a respectable residence next to his own home for the new Chief Rabbi and his family. After the appointment took place, Rav Shlomo Eliezer referred to Rav Yitzchak all halachic inquiries that came to him, pointing to the house next door and saying, “The Rav of the city lives there!”
Although Rav Shlomo Eliezer was a great kanai (zealot) he kept away from strife and disputes as much as possible, unless he felt compelled to get involved. For example, he was very active in the campaign to preserve the purity of Jewish education in Turkey. At that time, the secular Alliance school network made inroads in Turkey enticing many parents to take their children out of the kutabim (the term used for what would be called chadarim in Eastern Europe) and entrust their children’s education to them instead. He released a public letter exhorting people not to listen, explaining that the continued existence of Am Yisrael is only due to Torah sheb’al peh. His involvement made an enormous impression.
When the Sultan Abdul Hamid ascended to the Turkish throne, he issued a royal decree expanding the draft to the Ottoman army to include non-Muslims. The majority of the members of the Majlis wished to make a point of displaying loyalty to the new ruler and issued a proclamation calling on the Jewish community to fulfill their patriotic duty and enlist. Only Chacham Alfandari and two other Rabbanim — Rav Yehoshua Ben-Menachem Tzuntzin and Rav Chaim Ventura — did not sign. Rav Shlomo Eliezer was firm in his opinion. When the Spanish exiles first came to Turkey after the expulsion he would not allow them be forced to do anything that would damage their religious way of life. He objected to the draft decree because serving in the army entailed chillul Shabbos, eating treif food, etc.
Rav Shlomo Eliezer discovered that a very wealthy member of the community with ties to the royal household was involved in formulating the decree. He went to the man in the hope of convincing him to remove his support, and warned him that if he did not, there would be dire consequences. The fellow refused and acted in a disrespectful manner to the Chacham. Several hours later, on his way to the Sultan’s palace for a meeting on this very matter, the man died suddenly. The entire city was shaken. Rav Shlomo Eliezer forbade eulogies at the man’s funeral. He stood fast even after the deceased’s children offered him enormous amounts of money as a penance and government officials asked that he rescind his ban. “I am a servant of the King, the King of the world, and only His honor concerns me!”
The Sultan was very angry with this rebellious Jew and sent for him, intending to mete out heavy punishment. However, when he saw the Sabba Kaddisha’s holy countenance — he appeared to be a heavenly angel — the Sultan dared to do anything to him.
In the end, the decree was rescinded due to differences of opinion within the government, but Rav Shlomo Eliezer decided that the time had come for him to leave Istanbul. When word reached the leaders of the Jewish community in Damascus, they were quick to offer him the rabbinate of their city, and he accepted. The Sultan, who in the meantime learned more about the wondrous Chacham, gave his requisite approval to Rav Shlomo Eliezer’s appointment as Chacham Bashi (Chief Rabbi).
In 5665/1905 an enormous controversy erupted, involving all the Rabbanim of the period. A Karaite woman wished to convert to Judaism to marry a Jewish man. Halachah views Karaites as pesulei chitun (forbidden to marry), a problem that even conversion cannot amend. A resident of Damascus, Hagaon Harav Yitzchak Abulafiya, the author of Pnei Yitzchak, an enormous talmid chacham with a sharp intellect and fiery character, wrote a responsum permitting the marriage. Rav Shlomo Eliezer met with the Pnei Yitzchak to discuss the issue. He later published a long response to the Pnei Yitzchak’s lenient decision in which he refuted everything the latter wrote. All the Gedolim of the day took sides in the dispute. The dispute came to an end only when Rav Abulafiya wrote to Rav Shlomo Eliezer that he had rescinded his psak and accepted the opinion of the Chacham Bashi and his supporters. It is interesting to note that despite their disagreements, Rav Abulafiya commented about the Sabba Kaddisha that “he learns Torah like a Rishon…”
While in Damascus, Rav Shlomo Yitzchak worked unceasingly to strengthen Judaism and supervised the kashrus and education systems. Here too, he dedicated himself to harbatzas Torah. For reasons that are unknown to us, he returned to Istanbul for a time, later returning to Damascus to continue leading his flock. When he approached the age of 90 he decided that the time had come for him to move again — this time to the Holy Land.
Rav Shlomo Eliezer initially settled in Haifa. Shortly afterward, the Rabbanim of Tzfas invited him to move there; in anticipation they appointed him the Sephardic Av Beis Din and Chief Rabbi. Around the year 5669/1909 he accepted the position and moved to Tzfas. The old lion shocked everyone with his vitality and sharpness of mind. A select group of mekubalim, Sephardim and Ashkenazim, studied Kabbalah with him regularly. Many wondrous tales of open miracles were attributed to Chacham Alfandari. Even the Muslim residents respected and honored him. Once, an Arab pasha, a representative of the Ottoman government, was in Tzfas and wished to receive the blessing of the “Chacham from Istanbul.” Rav Shlomo Eliezer told him that to receive his blessing he would have to show humility — to get down from his horse and bow his head. The Arab nobleman immediately acceded to the condition and Rav Shlomo Eliezer gave him his brachah.
It is told that in the month of Nisan 5674/April 1914, after the Sabba Kaddisha finished saying Kiddush Levanah, he clapped his hands in distress, then sighed deeply, still looking at the sky. In response to his disciples’ inquiries, he explained that he saw that a terrible war would soon begin. At the end of that summer, on Tishah B’Av, World War I broke out.
Late in life Rav Shlomo Eliezer’s health began to fail. He traveled to Teveria and Yerushalayim to consult doctors there. While in Yerushalayim he started to work on getting his writings ready for printing; however, for reasons only known to him, he decided to stop the project, even sending to genizah some pamphlets that were already printed. Most of his many writings, including chiddushim and halachic responsa, were stolen after his death and remained unknown until recently when some were discovered by Rav S.A. Margaliyos.
In Elul 5685/1925, while on a visit to Teveria, the Rav fell ill and traveled directly to Shaaare Tzedek Hospital in Yerushalayim. He agreed to be hospitalized, only under the care of the tzaddik Dr. Moshe Wallach, z”l. Dr. Wallach went to great lengths to accommodate the needs of the holy Sabba Kaddisha, arranging that only male nurses treat him and giving him a private room where he could daven with his own minyan on Shabbos. During his lengthy recovery, many of the city’s spiritual giants visited him; they extended an invitation for him to remain in Yerushalayim. He acquiesced, and after his release moved to an apartment in the Ruchamah neighborhood (outside the Old City) rented for him by his followers. After his death, the street he lived on was named after him.
Rav Shlomo Eliezer spent his last years in Yerushalayim. He was already more than 110 years old, but he still had all his faculties: his mind was still clear, his eyesight still sharp — he didn’t even need glasses, he spoke to the point, and even had the agility in his hands to write his chiddushim himself.
He davened vasikin every morning. Even while hospitalized, and even on his deathbed, he always gathered the strength to get up then. He wore two pairs of tefillin — Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam — as was the custom of Sephardic chachamim. His voice was strong until his last day, and on Shabbos and Yom Tov he acted as the chazzan himself.
He spent most of his time toiling in Torah; the focus was practical halachah. His incredible memory worked until the very end. He had hundreds of sefarim “on file” in his mind. Someone read to him from the Pri Megadim and he commented that it was read to him inaccurately — he had seen this portion in the sefer 60 years before! Of course, he was correct.
Gedolei Hador — of every stripe and color — were awed by him. The Munkatcher Rebbe, Rav Chaim Elazar Shapiro, zt”l, the Minchas Elazar, was particularly close to him. He finally came to Eretz Yisrael expressly to visit the Sabba Kaddisha and even learned to speak lashon hakodesh with a Sephardic accent to communicate better with the mekubal. During their first meeting, the Rebbe told the Sabba Kaddisha that he had a mesorah from his father-in-law, Rav Yaakov Moshe Safrin of Komarna, that Moshiach’s arrival is dependent on the will of the tzaddik hador (the greatest tzaddik of the generation). He begged the Sabba Kaddisha to decree that Moshiach come. Rav Shlomo Eliezer refused, saying simply, “I am not a tzaddik.” This meeting took place on 14 Iyar 5690/1930. Several days later Rav Shlomo Eliezer wrote an approbation and made notations by hand in the Rebbe’s sefarim.
The following day, the Sabba Kaddisha developed severe pneumonia. His dedicated physician, Dr. Wallach, did all he could to alleviate the Rav’s suffering. Even in these hours, hovering between life and death, he continued learning Torah. Toward evening, there was a slight improvement in his condition.
At daybreak on Tuesday, 22 Iyar 5690/1930, he asked his talmidim to put his tallis and tefillin on him. He said Krias Shema, and when he finished, at the word emes (truth), he motioned that they should remove the tefillin. He blurted, “Enough, enough, the main thing is emes…. I can’t any longer…” A few minutes after that he motioned for a cup of milk. He made a brachah in a strong voice and took a sip. He whispered something, made motions upward with his right hand, then stopped breathing, returning his soul to his Maker in holiness and purity.
His levayah was attended by tens of thousands. The batei din decreed a day of bitul melachah. Although according to various sources, there were no hespedim, Rav Chanoch Zundel Grossberg, zt”l, remembered the levayah clearly, and he recalled that Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, zt”l, did deliver a hesped despite his great weakness. The Sabba Kaddisha’s talmidim carried him all the way to Har Hazeisim where he was laid to rest toward evening.
Part of the inscription on the matzeivah reads: “In this spot the source of wisdom is interred, darkness came to the world/Come, Bnei Tzion and cry … at the place where the Luchos and Aron are buried…” (Tuesday, 22 Iyar 5690).