Rabbi Ezra Attiya • “Rosh Yeshiva of Porat Yossef”
Rabbi Ezra Attiya was born in Aleppo in 1884 (5645) and died in Jerusalem in 1969 (5730).
Sephardic Jews, who in every generation have given Torah giants and luminaries to the Jewish people, have seen their spiritual stature dry up and their influence decline following the evil decrees and persecutions that have descended upon the world. Rabbi Ezra Attiya, a Sephardic Gaon of his generation, is the one who opened a new era and inaugurated a spiritual revolution among his brothers in Sephardic communities. His ideal was to boost the prestige of Sephardic sages, and during the 88 years of his life he encouraged generations of Talmidei Chachamim – rabbis and poskim, shochatim and chazzanim, teachers of young and old – who became leaders of Sephardic communities around the world. Sephardic Jews crowned him with the title of Rav Rabbanan (“the Rav of Rabbis”), and in fact Sephardic Jewry considers him as being the greatest of his generation.
Rabbi Ezra was born on Shevat 15, 5641 (1881) in Aram Tzova, i.e., Aleppo, Syria. His father Rabbi Yitzchak and his mother Leah were upright, G-d fearing people.
In 5651 (1891), his father and his family went and settled in the holy city of Jerusalem, but soon afterwards his father died suddenly. His mother, who was left a widow and without any resources, worked as a cleaning lady for a wealthy family in order to provide her son with food. The tiny Ezra studied Torah in poverty, content with some dry bread that he dipped in salt, and sleeping on benches in the Beit Midrash. Sometimes when his mother brought an egg to her beloved Ezra, he would slice it in two and give half to her. Even though he was often hungry, he never ceased studying Torah, and Torah was on his lips both day and night. He isolated himself in the tiny Shoshanim LeDavid Beit Midrash in Jerusalem, when he studied wholeheartedly and with all his soul. With time, he covered numerous tractates along with their commentators.
At that time the Ohel Moed yeshiva for poor children opened in Jerusalem, with the young Ezra Attiya being among its first students. The yeshiva was headed by Rabbi Avraham Ades, one of the great Kabbalists of the time and a well-known figure in the holy city. Ezra became the main disciple of the Rav, who infused him with his Torah and wisdom. In the yeshiva he set himself apart from all the other students by a method of study that was truly his own. He did not follow the paths of his rabbis or friends (for whom the primary thing was the scope of one’s knowledge) but rather created a special method of study for himself that was based on contemplation and logic. After dozens of years, when Rabbi Ezra encountered the Chazon Ish and they began discussing Torah, the Chazon Ish said of him: “His way of thinking is like that of the Rishonim.” When yeshiva students discussed Torah with him, they marveled at the straightforwardness and clarity of his logic. The directors of the Ohel Moed yeshiva believed that he had a great influence over students, and they named him as its Rosh Yeshiva.
In the meantime, Rabbi Ezra reached the age of marriage and wedded the daughter of Rabbi Avraham Shalem. Throughout his life, his wife helped Rabbi Ezra by enabling him to study Torah in tranquility.
When the First World War erupted, there was a danger that Rabbi Ezra could be drafted into the Turkish army. Thus he fled to Egypt, and there he saw that the spiritual situation of Jews in Cairo was deplorable. He therefore devoted all his energies to teaching Torah to the young, and in fact managed to bring the light of the Torah to the darkened alleys of Cairo. To Rabbi Ezra, the Jews of Egypt applied the verse: “For all the Children of Israel, there was light in their dwellings” (Exodus 10:23).
The First World War ended in 5679 (1919), and the gates of Jerusalem were once again open to those who had exiled themselves, among them being Rabbi Attiya. He began to teach Torah once again in the Ohel Moed yeshiva.
Four years later in 5683 (1923), the great Porat Yossef yeshiva opened in the old city of Jerusalem. Rabbi Ezra, who had become famous as a great Gaon and a superb Rosh Yeshiva, was called upon in 5685 (1925) to be its Rosh Yeshiva. Thus began a new period in his life, and he devoted all the love of his heart and soul to this new task, using various ways to attract youngsters from Sephardic communities to the benches of Torah study. How marvelous it was that in little time many new students came and swelled the ranks of the yeshiva. All the yeshiva students in Porat Yossef loved their Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Ezra. He would calmly gave his courses with careful explanations until all his listeners completely understood what he wanted to convey to them, and every Thursday he was in the habit of speaking of faith and the fear of Heaven, of chesed, humility, and love for all created beings.
Rabbi Ezra was not content with speaking eloquently; he also put his own principles into practice. He loved his students like a father loved his children. When one of his students would come to see him, he would rise to greet him and speak with paternal tenderness: “Sit down, my son, sit down.” All Sephardic children were precious in his eyes, and he saw in every child from a Sephardic community the spiritual heir to giants of Sephardic Judaism from centuries past. He never gave up on any of them, regardless of their background.
One day an extremely gifted young man entered Porat Yossef, a youngster whose outside appearance testified to his poverty. After a short conversation with Rabbi Ezra, the youngster vouched that the material welfare of his elderly parents depended on him, and that he needed financial support. Rabbi Ezra immediately recommended that he be accepted in the yeshiva and that he be granted a large scholarship. The directors of the yeshiva, however, told Rabbi Ezra that they could not accept him because of budgetary constraints. Right away Rabbi Ezra went to them and said, “I beg you to lower my monthly salary and support this student.” This young man went on to become a great Talmid Chacham and a very famous Rav.
The students of Porat Yossef attached themselves to Rabbi Ezra with their entire soul. Even later on, when they went out into the vast world – some of them to far off countries – when they would return to Eretz Israel they would hurry, before doing almost anything else, to go and visit their beloved Rav. His student Rabbi Yehuda Tzadka said, “After having gone to the Kotel, they would go and visit him. They had the feeling that he himself was a type of Kotel.”
Rabbi Ezra was very modest in his way of life, finding the good side to everyone and speaking well of all Israel. He also gave much to the poor, particularly in secret. His son, the Dayan Rabbi David, recounts the following story:
“During the last year of my father’s life, while he was held firmly in bed because of illness, his grocer came to me and said, ‘Your father’s account with me has accumulated an enormous debt that he has not yet paid.’ I was very surprised upon hearing this, for I knew that in our home we owed nothing to the grocer. However he explained to me that my father had directed him to provide food to the family of a Talmid Chacham, as much as they wanted, and that my father would pay for it. I mentioned this to my father, and he greatly regretted that the matter had become known. He asked me to speak of this to no one, and he told me where there was money hidden in the house for me to pay the grocer.”
At the end of his life, Rabbi Ezra experienced great satisfaction. He was surrounded by thousands of students and administrators who showed him great respect. He saw his students at the head of great communities around the world, and his numerous students established yeshivot throughout Eretz Israel, teaching Torah to youngsters in various Sephardic communities. With his own eyes, he saw that the Torah was returning to its home, to its ancient abode among Sephardic Jews, whose leaders were all Torah scholars and great men.
On Monday the 19th of Iyar 5730 (1970), Rabbi Ezra was called to the Celestial Academy. His last request was that his faithful ones “guard themselves from the sin of baseless hatred, which risks provoking catastrophes in the world, and on the contrary to increase brotherhood and friendship among themselves.”