Rabbi Chaim Aboulafia
Credit must go to Rabbi Chaim Aboulafia for the rebuilding and restructuring of the Jewish community of Tiberias. Rabbi Chaim Aboulafia was born in Hebron in 1660, and rendered his soul to G-d on Nissan 6, 1744.
During his youth, Hebron’s Jewish community sent him on a mission to Turkey, where his knowledge and wisdom enabled him to be named Chief Rabbi of Izmir. In addition, upon returning to the Holy Land he was named Chief Rabbi of Sefat and later of Tiberias.
He was the friend and study partner of two of the greatest sages of his generation: The author of Peri Hadash and the author of Ohr HaChayim Hakadosh. He himself wrote several important works on Torah, in particular Etz Chaim, Mikraei Kodesh, Yosef Lechah, Shevuot Yaakov, Yachei Yaakov, and a commentary on the laws of Passover and the holidays.
Rabbi Chaim Aboulafia committed himself to the spiritual resurrection of Tiberias’ Jewish community through the construction of yeshivas and synagogues. As well, he consecrated himself to the development of the city itself by improving numerous homes for the community. Yet he didn’t stop there, as the members of the community owed him much – some their jobs, some their livelihoods. In fact Rabbi Chaim, whose name had become synonymous with chesed (generosity), was responsible for reviving the famous Rabbi Meir Baal Haness fund, a communal fund devoted to the city’s poor. He didn’t hesitate to send messages, and messengers, to the Diaspora and call Jews the world over to come help their brothers in Tiberias.
During that era, the Holy Land’s Jewish community was weak, and the country’s roads were fraught with danger. An Arab Sheik, who had rebelled against the central controlling power, marched on Tiberias and took control of the town and its surroundings. This Sheik wanted to develop the region under his control and knew that he could only achieve this with the help of the Jewish community. He hoped that Jews would settle in Tiberias, create jobs by investing there, and give the city a much-needed boost. In doing so, the Sheik also sought to increase his power base and political standing against the Pasha (high ranking official) who ruled in Damascus.
This Sheik therefore wrote letters to the leaders of the Jewish communities in Turkey, proposing that they encourage their brothers to settle in Tiberias. He promised to grant them protection and rights.
Thus Rabbi Chaim Aboulafia, who was then Chief Rabbi of Izmir in Turkey, had found an opportunity to return to the Holy Land, which he did as soon as possible with his family and a dozen of his students. Beforehand, however, he went through the entire city collecting funds aimed at strengthening the community of Tiberias. On the day that he did this, the Sultan was also in town, and when he came across Rabbi Chaim Aboulafia, he saw a column of fire above the head of the Tzaddik.
The Sultan hastened to have Rabbi Chaim Aboulafia approach him, then showed him so much respect that the Sultan’s counselors were astonished.
“If you had seen the column of fire above his head as I did, you too would have showed him honor,” he replied.
The Sultan wasn’t content to simply show Rabbi Chaim Aboulafia honor. When he learned that the great Rabbi was gathering funds for his sacred cause, he rushed to give him a very large sum of money.
Thanks to this, as soon as he arrived in Tiberias, Rabbi Chaim Aboulafia took to renovating a synagogue located in the very same place that the Arizal used to pray. The community didn’t cease to grow and develop with every new wave of immigrants from countries abroad. It was thus that Rabbi Chaim, after having built a magnificent synagogue, went on to create stores, public markets, and local industries as well.
It was not surprising that the author of Ohr HaChayim, on the day that he immigrated to the Holy Land, decided to settle in Tiberias, and this even before coming to Jerusalem. The Rabbi of the city endeavored to persuade him to stay and build a yeshiva there, but the author of Ohr HaChayim replied that he couldn’t do so before receiving a letter from by his Italian friends. The Chief Rabbi of Tiberias therefore dispatched messages to the leaders of the Jewish communities in Italy.
Before the answer could arrive, however, it happened that the Pasha of Damascus resolved to quell the Arab Sheik’s rebellion, and so he dispatched a significant military force to Tiberias with firm intention of reconquering it. For 85 days, assault troops tried subjecting the city to such massive bombardment that Rabbi Chaim’s friends begged him to escape. But he stubbornly refused, certain that Tiberias would not suffer from this attack. With a surprising calm, he promised that with G-d’s help, nothing bad would happen. And in fact the shells aimed at Tiberias miraculously missed all their targets and landed in Lake Kinneret.
Among the assault troops, the rumor quickly spread that the bombardment’s failure was a result of Rabbi Chaim’s influence on the decisions of Heaven. They sensed that there was nothing they could do against Rabbi Chaim’s prayers, and so decided to rise up against their commanding officer and break camp.
This occurred on Kislev 4, and in order to commemorate this miracle (comparable to the one of Purim) Rabbi Chaim Aboulafia decreed that every year from then on, Kislev 4 would be a holiday for the Jewish community of Tiberias.
Several months later, the Pasha of Damascus once again attempted to attack. This time his troops assaulted the city from every side, including from the water. Frightened, the city’s inhabitants joined together at the synagogue to hear Rabbi Chaim say to them, “Don’t be afraid. Remember that today is Friday, the eve of Shabbat. Tomorrow we read Parsha Shoftim, and in its Haftorah it is stated, ‘Who are you that you should be afraid of mortal men?’”
The next day, Shabbat, Rabbi Chaim again encouraged his compatriots by repeating this same prophetic verse.
Thus it was on Sunday that an emissary from the city of Akko arrived and announced that on the day earlier, the Pasha of Damascus fell seriously ill and died the very same day. All danger having thus finally been removed, the inhabitants of Tiberias decided that Elul 7 would itself be a holiday as well, in the same way as Purim.
From this we can easily understand that Divine protection never ceased to accompany Rabbi Chaim, a protection that provided him with success in all his endeavors.
Of particular relevance to this subject is the following story, which occurred well before Rabbi Chaim Aboulafia settled in Tiberias to become Chief Rabbi.
One day Rabbi Chaim traveled to Sefat on a pilgrimage in order to pray at the tombs of the Tzaddikim. On the way back he passed by Tiberias, which was then a small town with a scanty population, inhabited solely by Bedouins. Rabbi Chaim sent his Shamash (assistant) into town to buy him something to eat. When there, however, a group of non-Jewish youths ganged-up on the Shamash, throwing stones at him and then violently hitting him. They finally stopped and left, but the poor Shamash, who could only speak Turkish, Hebrew, and Spanish, didn’t know what to do. He happened to notice a passer-by, who saw the Shamash and came to his aid. This man spoke a little Turkish, and our Shamash managed to explain to him what happened. From his description of what transpired, the man understood that the leader of the youths was the son of the Sheik of Tiberias. The man therefore suggested to the Shamash that he come with him to the Sheik, and assured him that the latter would not remain indifferent to this incident, and would no doubt punish his son for having publicly dishonored his father by his disgraceful conduct.
The Shamash accepted and followed the man to the Sheik, where he explained everything. And so indeed the Sheik became violently enraged and resolved to punish his son as he deserved: “Even 100 clubs on his back wouldn’t be enough to pardon such an offence!”
Having heard from the Shamash that he served the great Tzaddik Rabbi Chaim Aboulafia, the Sheik thereafter asked if he could meet him. Thus Rabbi Chaim came to the Sheik, who received him with great honor. He was impressed by the both the Rabbi and his Shamash, and confided in Rabbi Chaim the following: “The punishment that I swore to inflict on my son is clearly too severe. Please advise me on another punishment, but in such a way that I don’t break my oath.”
Rabbi Chaim responded, “Since you didn’t speak of actually blows, I suggest that you simply place 100 clubs on his back without actually striking him. In this way you will not break your oath, and it will be sufficient to dissuade your son from repeating his offensive behavior.”
Hearing such wise advice, the Sheik took a great liking to Rabbi Chaim Aboulafia, and when the time came he generously helped him to rebuild the Jewish community in Tiberias.
The Hilloula of Rabbi Chaim Aboulafia is Nissan 6.