Mordehai Eliyahu (1929-2010) ZSL
Chief Rabbi of Israel
YORK, NY (June 7, 2010) - The State of Israel lost a powerful
voice of political reason and religious rationality on
June 7, 2010 (7 Sivan 5770) when Hakham Mordehai Eliyahu,
former Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, succumbed to advancing
health problems he had been suffering for the past two
Mordehai Eliyahu served as Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel
from 1982 to 1993 and was member of the Bet Din Harabani
Hagadol (Supreme Rabbinical Court) based in Jerusalem.
He was considered one of the leading Zionist rabbis and
certainly one of the most popular and charismatic rabbinical
leaders in all of Israel for many decades.
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.
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). His father was
not only considered a respected rabbi and mekubal
(kabbalist) of Jerusalem, but he also had been secularly
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.
Mordehai Eliyahu's early religious education was conducted
by his father, who died when he was still a young boy.
The young man 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 Mordehai
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. Mordehai 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). Mordehai
later was elected as the youngest person in Israel to
ever hold the post of dayan (Judge).
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, Mordehai 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.
the religious world, Hakham Mordehai Eliyahu 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. Mordehai
Eliyahu did not desire a uniform "Israeli Sephardi"
rite based on the Shulkhan Aruh (Code of Jewish
Law), as other Sephardic rabbis have called for. His opinions
were his own, and they were elaborated in a siddur (prayer
book) known as Kol Eliyahu.
Eliyahu authored several books on Jewish religious law
and interpretations of the law, some which remain very
popular. In his person-to-person conduct, the rabbi was
often swamped by people from all walks of life, who wanted
to get a blessing or seek his advice. In recent years,
his capacity as a kabbalist became more public, but he
discouraged any reference to this aspect of his Torah
knowledge or practice.
chief rabbi, he sought to give the non-religious public
a better understanding of Jewish traditions and the importance
of the Torah. He lectured at secular communities and kibbutzim,
as well as non-religious public schools. He also 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.
rabbi was a much sought after expert for his knowledge
of Torah and halakha (Jewish law), and for his
great piety. His best testimonial remains; it can be seen
by the intense love that people of all backgrounds have
for him. The rabbi 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 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.
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 Arab terrorist
enemies, not just issue empty words:
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
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.
rabbi remained 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 against 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.
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")! After
this, he remained outspoken in his strong opposition to
the dismantling of Jewish villages in Judea and Samaria.
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 W. Bush who
was arriving in Israel on his first official visit in
January of 2008. Hakham Mordehai 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:
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.
rabbi was spiritual adviser and one of the strongest advocates
for 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 offense is 10 years-and
the median sentence for such an offense is only 2 to 4
has spent 25 years in prison, 7 of which were in solitary
confinement, in the harshest prison in the federal U.S.
system. On many occasions, Hakham Mordehai Eliyahu has
visited Pollard in prison, and frequently wrote letters
and appeals on his behalf. Following heart surgery and
in his hospital bed, the rabbi wrote President Bush a
letter which was hand-delivered to him in Israel. This
letter reminded the President that Pollard has languished
in American prisons for over 20 years, he pleaded:
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.
Mordehai Eliyahu and his wife had 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
was one of the voices of reason which remains 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
Mordehai 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
Mordehai Eliyahu will forever be remembered as a shining
example of a man who loved and respected the land of Israel,
and a man who understood how Jews could live both as part
of the modern world and yet remain loyal to the Torah.
Alfassa is a scholar of Sephardic Jewry and
coordinates Special Projects for the American Sephardi