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B'siyata d'shmaya - With the help of Heaven

The Champion of Zion: Hakham Mordehai Eliyahu, shelita

by Shelomo Alfassa / Israel National News - June 18, 2008

I wish to thank my friend Amb. Yossi Ben-Aharon for contributing toward this essay.

Hakham Mordehai Eliyahu has been in the recent news after suffering major health ailments, yet, he remains strong. During this period, where calls for public prayers in his name have been established, some unfamiliar with him have asked, "who is this rabbi?"

Hakham Mordehai Eliyahu is the former Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel that served from 1982 to 1993 and is a member of the Bet Din Harabani Hagadol (Supreme Rabbinical Court) based in Jerusalem. Hakham Eliyahu is considered one of the leading Zionist rabbis and certainly one of the most popular and charismatic rabbinical leaders in all of Israel.

The rabbi was born in the Old City of Jerusalem in British-occupied Palestine during the dark year of 1929 when Arabs attacked, killed and maimed over 100 Jews throughout Hebron, Jaffa, Safed and other towns. A consequence of these sad events was an increased growth in Jewish nationalism and intensification of Jewish self-determination for Jews all over the holy land. Hakham Eliyahu's upbringing was one imbibed with a rigorous love of the land of Israel which helped him become a staunch defender of such, first inspired by his father, the Iraqi-born rabbi, Hakham Salman Eliyahu (1878-1940). The elder Eliyahu was not only considered a respected rabbi and mekubal (kabbalist) of Jerusalem, but he also had been educated in London. As a result of his Western education, he later served as personal secretary of the British High Commissioner of the Palestine British Mandate, Lord Herbert L. Samuel (1870-1963) -- the first Jew to govern the historic land of Israel in 2,000 years.

Hakham Mordehai Eliyahu's early religious education was conducted by his father, who died when Eliyahu was still young. He continued to study under the prominent Syrian-born rabbi, Hakham Ezra Attia (1885-1970), the head of the Porat Yosef Yeshiva in Jerusalem, as well as Askkenazi rabbis such as Avraham Karelitz (1878-1953), author of the well know book, 'Hazon Ish.' His commitment to the Torah was displayed when as a youth, the young Eliyahu joined an underground group that struggled for a Torah-directed government in Israel and was involved in at least one attempt at pressuring the government by means that were considered, by some, to be illegal. Eliyahu would later graduate with honors from the Institute of Rabbis and Religious Judges, under the direction of (former Sephardic chief rabbi) Hakham Yishak Nissim (1896-1981). He later was elected as the youngest person in Israel to ever hold the post of dayan (Judge).

The rabbi continued as a dayan in the religious court of Beer Sheva for four years before transferring to Jerusalem where he was elected to the Supreme Religious Court. In Beer Sheva, people learned of his good grace and outgoing manners that were coupled with his vast knowledge of the Torah. The general public grew to trust him as a reliable source to solve problems and answer intricate questions. Soon after, he was elected as Rishon LeSion, Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel. As with the previous Sephardic chief rabbis, Eliyahu was inaugurated into the rabbinate in a ceremony held at the famous Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai (Kal Grande) synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem. Immediately he became known as an eminent poseq (decider) of Jewish legal issues and his conduct added prestige to the office of the Chief Rabbi.

In the religious world, Hakham Eliyahu has worked for the preservation of the tradition of his father, the Iraqi Jewish nusah (rite) and the opinions of Hakham Yosef Hayyim, author of the book Ben Ish Hai. Eliyahu does not desire a uniform "Israeli Sephardi" rite based on the Shulkhan Aruh (Code of Jewish Law), as other Sephardic rabbis have called for. Eliyahu's opinions are his own, and they have been elaborated in a siddur (prayer book) known as Kol Eliyahu. He has written many books on Jewish religious law and interpretations of the law, some which are very popular. In his person-to-person conduct, the rabbi is often swamped by people from all walks of life, who want to get a blessing or seek advice. In recent years, his capacity as a kabbalist became more public, but he has discouraged any reference to this aspect of his Torah knowledge or practice. As chief rabbi, he sought to give the non-religious public a better understanding of Jewish traditions and the importance of the Torah. He has lectured at secular communities and kibbutzim, as well as non-religious public schools. He also has traveled extensively throughout the world, teaching Jewish communities the importance of fighting assimilation, increase Shabbat observance, educating children, observing family purity and the need to immigrate to Israel. During his tenure as chief rabbi, Israel enjoyed a measure of peace. Its soldiers returned from Lebanon, and Israel did not got to war with any of its neighbors. During this time, the U.S. Army destroyed Iraq's Arab army, one of Israel's strongest enemies.

The rabbi has been a much sought after expert for his knowledge of Torah and halakha (Jewish law), and for his great piety. His best testimonial is seen by the intense love that people of all backgrounds have for him. Hakham Eliyahu grew up firmly planted with a love of all Jewish people, secular and religious, and the desire for those people to live free-and-be free in their own land. Fearless, he has developed into one of the most frank and honest rabbinical leaders of Israel, a man not scared to issue statements which reflected his passionate religious values in reference to international political events. After the attacks by Arab terrorists against the United States on September 11, 2001, the rabbi essentially called for President Bush to take up arms against the Arab terrorist enemies, not just issue empty words:

My heartfelt sorrow at the immense tragedy that has been perpetrated upon the American people by wicked evildoers, so utterly devoid of conscience and compassion, that it is difficult for the lips to utter and words are simply inadequate to express…I would also like to extend from Jerusalem heartiest condolences to the bereaved families in their hour of grief. "May no further sorrow befall you." (Jeremiah 31:12). And for those who have been injured may 'The Almighty send them His message of healing and relief.' (Psalms 107:20)…I would like to offer you my praise and my support for your plan to convene a world alliance of nations to work together to fight terror -- not only in words but also in deeds.

The rabbi remains well known for his outspoken position on the Israeli government's decision to give land away to the Palestinian Arabs. When he stepped down from his formal position, he became automatically the accepted rabbinic leader of the Religious Zionist camp in Israel and abroad. He fought the Oslo Agreements to such an extent, that the Attorney General saw fit to warn him that as a civil servant, he could not be perceived as supporting opposition to government policies. He was one of the very few senior rabbinic personalities who joined the inhabitants of Gush Qatif in a day of fasting and prayer against their uprooting and expulsion. He could not conceive that any Jewish government in its right mind could undertake such a dastardly operation against Jews. Addressing the many thousands of people in the town square of Neve Dekalim, he exclaimed, "It cannot and will not happen" ("Hayo lo tihye")! Since then, he has been outspoken in his strong opposition to the dismantling of Jewish villages in Judea and Samaria.

Outraged after seeing the terror attacks that originated from Gaza which killed and maimed hundreds of Israeli citizens, the rabbi wrote a letter to President George Bush who was arriving in Israel during January of 2008 on his first official visit. Hakham Eliyahu desired to make sure the President was aware of the popular public opinion which does not call for wanting to establish a larger Palestinian self-governing area; he said:

The Jewish nation is eternal, and forever remembers those that have aided it throughout history, as well as those that have done it harm. Please let your name go down in history as a president who aided the Jewish nation, who worked alongside God and not against him.

The rabbi has been the spiritual advisor and one of the strongest advocates Jonathan Pollard had. Pollard, a Jewish man serving a life sentence in the U.S., remains a controversial figure because his punishment has been widely regarded as being excessive, solely for political reasons. Pollard received a life sentence for spying for an ally (Israel), when the maximum sentence today for such an offence is 10 years-and the median sentence for such an offence is 2 to 4 years. He has spent 23 years in prison, 7 of which were in solitary confinement, in the harshest prison in the federal U.S. system. On many occasions, Hakham Eliyahu has visited Pollard in prison, and frequently writes letters and appeals on his behalf. Following heart surgery and in his hospital bed, Hakham Eliyahu wrote George Bush a letter which was hand-delivered to the President while he was in Israel. Reminding the President that Pollard has languished in American prisons for over 20 years, he pleaded:

I urge you to release Jonathan Pollard and to send him home to Jerusalem…I would like to point out that I am willing to act as Jonathan Pollard's guarantor, to take him into my custody and to accept full responsibility for him. I have visited Jonathan in prison on numerous occasions. He is a dignified man, a man of noble sensitivities who is deserving of special consideration.

Hakham Mordehai Eliyahu and his wife have four adult children. Their daughter teaches at a religious school for girls. Their oldest son is a rabbi and attorney that works for the Israeli government; their second son is the Chief Rabbi of the city of Safed, and their youngest son is the head of a religious school in Jerusalem. Hakham Eliyahu is one of the voices of reason which is severely needed to continually counterbalance the growing haredi influence which has been encroaching upon the culture of the office of the Chief Rabbi. The office that Hakham Eliyahu once held has morphed into something it was never intended to be, one that forces its opinion based on a paradigm which at one time existed only within the haredi world, and was never part of Torah observant classical Judaism. Hakham Mordehai Eliyahu remains as a shining example of a man who loves and respects the Land and a man who understands how Jews can live both as part of the modern world and yet remain loyal to the Torah.


All of kelal Yisrael wish Maran, the Rishon LeSion, Hakham Mordehai Eliyahu, shelita, a refuah sheleima.


This essay is available for syndication


© Shelomo Alfassa