by Judah S. Harris
Issue of July 16, 2010/ 5 Av 5770
Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu was 81 when he passed away in early June following a year of illness. 150 participants at his shloshim in Kew Gardens Hills gained a better appreciation for the man best known as Chief Sephardic Rabbi of the State of Israel - his accomplishments extended beyond his most public role, stressed the host, Rabbi Ya'aqob Menashe, founder and spiritual leader of Midrash Ben Ish Hai.
"People don't realize his greatness. People know he was a chacham... Chief Rabbi in Israel..." began Rabbi Menashe, as he started to reveal more. "He was humble; he made you feel as if you were his equal." Despite his stature, his accomplishment in learning, and his mastery of mystical texts, Rabbi Eliyahu was accessible to everyone. He loved all Jews and was sought out by all segments of society, Rabbi Menashe said.
Individuals who knew him personally, such as Rabbi Menashe, and Rabbi Eliyahu Ben-Chaim, a Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University, attested to his midot and character.
Others testimonials were in a 40-minute film created for the shloshim that was also shown at the Binyanei Hauma auditorium in Jerusalem. The Queens program was held at Midrash Ben Ish Hai's new Beit Knesset and Beit Midrash.
From more profound moments to small details, lessons can be transmitted from the entire span of a righteous person's life. Rabbi Eliyahu loved Yerushalmi kugel, said one commentator on film, citing a fact that might imply more trivia than Torah, and although he could have eaten more when served what was for him a true delicacy, he sufficed with a very small amount, sharing the remainders, the shiraim, with those around him. The moral: Some people think righteous people do not have temptations; don't experience desire. Tzaddikim always have temptations, but have the inner strength to resist them.
Rabbi Eliyahu exercised the greatest of care in all areas of eating. "He only ate his wife's cooking," said Rabbi Menashe. "So when he traveled, only bread and water." From the age of bar mitzvah, Rabbi Eliyahu avoided beef, and he only ate chicken that had been slaughtered for him or that he shechted personally.
He was similarly strict regarding drinking wine. Even yayin mevushal, pasteurized or cooked wine, would not be acceptable to him if the bottle had been previously opened.
Although at times Rabbi Eliyahu adopted a more stringent halachic stance for himself than he expected of others, he did not seclude himself and during his lifetime reached out to all segments of the community.
Rabbi Eliyahu accorded great honor to others. "He interacted with people as if they were friends," said Rabbi Ben-Chaim.
"A first grader or the prime minister - the same honor," proclaimed a teacher in the video, whose students had received visits from Rav Eliyahu on more than one occasion. He continuously stressed how to treat fellow Jews, illustrating by his personal example. He visited secular kibbutzim and in at least one instance told residents that he was "jealous of them" about one thing. They were surprised but he explained that he was jealous that they "knew that they didn't know." Many people, even the religious, remain unaware of gaps in their understanding, he said, fundamental pieces that are missing, but whose absence goes unnoticed.
Secular individuals could respect Rabbi Eliyahu because he respected them. Four men accessorized with earrings, dressed in blatantly irreligious fashion once asked for a blessing. He graciously provided one before getting into his car to leave. However, moments later he emerged from the car and began to dance with the men, asking them to also join him in reciting the Hebrew words of the song taken from prayer.
Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu was born in Israel to a family of means that originated in Baghdad. His father, Rabbi Salman Eliyahu, was brilliant and learned from the great scholars of his time.
The family immigrated to Israel; Rav Mordechai was born in 1929 in the Old City. He studied intensively with his father who passed away when the boy was only 11. He "was taken under the wing of some great luminaries," whom Rabbi Menashe listed: Rabbi Yitzchok Nissim, the Chazon Ish, and Rabbi Ezra Attiah, the Syrian-born rabbi who served as Rosh Yeshiva of Porat Yosef until his death in 1970. Rabbi Eliyahu studied at the Porat Yosef yeshiva, as did Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, although their halachic rulings differed in a number of areas, and each maintained alternate approaches to Sephardic practices and customs, and how to best retain them.
In 1959, Rabbi Eliyahu became the youngest dayan to be appointed in the State of Israel. He was a Religious Zionist, outspoken about the disengagement from Gaza, and cared deeply about the loss of life at the hands of Israel's enemies.
In 2008, Rabbi Eliyahu responded strangely when invited to a Torah dedication at the Ohr Somayach yeshiva, Rabbi Menashe related. He started crying and said, "I hope it will snow that evening." He called for organized prayers at the Kotel and lots of Merkaz HaRav yeshiva students came. The program was dragged out, and when a bus of students from that yeshiva finally left, it got stuck at a police checkpoint. This was a Thursday evening, the same night as the terrorist infiltration of the Yeshiva's library, which resulted in the murders of eight students.
"Some say he had Ruach HaKodesh," said Rabbi Menashe. "Here and there people have." There are other narratives told: wondrous stories of healing, of rainfall that fell in an unusual manner to fill a parched mikvah. Rabbi Eliyahu is known to have studied Kabbalah, as did his father (intensely), a disciple of the Ben Ish Hai, himself a master of Kabbalah and Halacha. Rabbi Eliyahu made little mention of it. "He dealt with it quietly, and only once in a while would he give out any hints," Rav Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, who succeeded Rabbi Eliyahu as Chief Sephardic Rabbi in 1993, told Arutz-Sheva last month.
More overt contributions were in the areas of scholarship. "His seforim are written in such a beautiful, lucid style - Halacha, Taharat HaMishpacha..." said Rabbi Menashe, who received semicha from Rabbi Eliyahu. Rabbi Eliyahu wrote on the halachot of the holidays, edited annotated siddurim, and published halachic works, including his own responsa.
Rabbi Eliyahu loved Halacha as well as his fellow man. A primary lesson from his life, said Rabbi Menashe, is to "learn to love each other." Societal-problems infect Jewish life today in Israel, America and elsewhere. The Second Temple was destroyed for similar reasons and "the Third Beit Hamikdash is not here," concluded Rabbi Menashe. "So, we're still guilty of it."
100,000 gathered last month for Rabbi Eliyahu's nighttime funeral held at his synagogue and outside on Reines Street in Jerusalem's Kiryat Moshe neighborhood.
Judah S. Harris is a photographer, filmmaker, speaker and writer. His email newsletter circulates to thousands of readers (sign up at www.judahsharris.com/visit). Midrash Ben Ish Hai runs Torah educational programs for adults and singles and maintains a rich website of materials, including videos and recipes (www.midrash.org).