Rabbi Haim Messas
The Messas family was one of the most important in all of Morocco. It gave rise to great sages who served in rabbinic courts and produced many disciples. In our time, those who are best known are Rabbi Yossef Messas Zatzal, the Chief Rabbi of Haifa, and our teacher Rabbi Shalom Messas Zatzal, the Rav of Jerusalem.
Rabbi Haim Messas, the father of Rabbi Yossef, was born in Meknes in Elul 5603 (1843), and from his youth a pure fear of G-d burned in him. He behaved with the utmost holiness, and his prayers were heard. He had many disciples, among them being Rabbi Raphael Baruch Toledano, his son Rabbi Yossef Messas, and many others who became dayanim and taught Torah in Morocco and Eretz Israel.
He left behind the book Nishmat Haim on Torah and Tanach, as well as important Halachic books. His work was published in 1949 by his son Rabbi Yossef, and later republished by the Bnei Issachar foundation thanks to his son Rav Eliyahu.
Rabbi Haim Messas Zatzal passed away in 5664 (1904). His disciple Rabbi Raphael Baruch Toledano recounts the following story about him:
“Friday morning, Nissan 6, 5663 (1903) began a day of mourning for Israel, for all our wicked enemies surrounding us attacked like wild beasts, trying to exterminate and pillage the whole community. They were armed with axes and all sorts of lethal weapons, and they came like woodcutters to tear down the city walls. At the time Morocco had no king, which prompted this terrible crises. On that morning, everyone was assembled in the streets of the town, young and old alike. I too was there during those terrible times. Our holy teacher was among this multitude when he fell to the ground. His long beard, as white as snow, lay in the dust as he let out great cries for repentance and awakened hearts with his enflamed voice. He said, ‘My children, return to G-d with all your heart! Perhaps He will be favorable with us and we will not perish.’ He recited Shema Israel aloud, and the entire community repeated it after him several times. [Note: See Targum Yonatan on the verse that states, “Behold! A man of the Children of Israel…” (Numbers 25:6), which he translates as, “They cried and recited Shema Israel”]. We all wept amidst the lightening and thunder of the enemy. With lead bullets flying over our heads, we screamed and cried. Then G-d saved us from this terrible danger, for the watchmen from every rampart announced that a great dread had descended upon our enemies, and that they had all fled and were dispersing in every direction. Blessed be He Who answers His people Israel in times of trouble; blessed be G-d Who saves. We know very well that it was the merit of our holy teacher that protected us. A few days later he fell ill, and he remained bedridden until rendering his holy soul to his Creator on Tammuz 8, 5664 (1904), for he had atoned for the generation. May the merit of his beautiful soul protect and defend us, we and all Israel, Amen.”
His son Rabbi Yossef Messas Zatzal, the former Chief Rabbi of Haifa, recounted the following stories:
“One Friday after the morning service, while he was still in synagogue, some people came to see him and accused the grandson of the great and venerated Tzaddik, Rabbi Shemuel ben Vaish, of having stolen a Kiddush cup and a candlestick from them in the synagogue. My father saw the accused man, dressed in patched-up clothes, barefoot, and looking half asleep. He then sent the man’s accusers away immediately and asked him if he had recited the morning prayers, or if had a Tallit and Tefillin. The man replied that he did not. At that my father became very angry and began to strike him. He then made him sit down and gave him his own Tallit and Tefillin and a prayer book. While he was praying, my father began to cry, moan, and ask for mercy on the man. When he was finished, he had the man read the parsha of the week with him, twice in Hebrew and once in Aramaic, while telling him to look at the Tetragrammaton printed in the book in order to become filled with holiness. Once finished, he began to question the man about the theft. My father concluded that he had stolen the objects and resold them to another Jew because of his great poverty. He then had the buyer summoned and spoke to him harshly, accusing him of supporting sinners and issuing him a fine equal to half of what he paid for the stolen objects, the other half coming out of his own pocket. He gave the owners back what had been stolen from them, and he bought the thief a new pair of Tefillin and gave him a Tallit Katan. My father also gave him a prayer book, some shoes, a hat, smock, and pants, all the clothes being made from beautiful fabrics that were very ware-resistant and practically new. He also gave him some money to purchase what he needed for Shabbat. After having given him all this, which my father paid for out of his own pocket, he began to console the man. He brought him to his home and fed him breakfast before sending him off. On Shabbat, he again had him come over in order to eat with him, and all day long he had him listen to words of Mussar.”
“Once, near Passover (a time when houses are rented out in Meknes), a man came to my father demanding that a poor Talmid Chacham pay up his rent for the past year and then leave his house. My father had great difficulty in getting the landlord to accept a compromise, namely that my father would pay the rent for the past year and the landlord would allow the Talmid Chacham to remain where he was for another year. Now the Talmid Chacham said that he had no way to pay the landlord, and so the latter asked him for some collateral. The Talmid Chacham replied that he didn’t have any, and when my father heard this, he immediately took out my mother’s silver bracelets and gave them as collateral. My father then sent the two parties home in peace. The bracelets remained as collateral with the landlord for more than three years, until G-d gave the Talmid Chacham a little money. At that point he purchased the bracelets back and returned them to my father.”
“One day, during a time when a Jewish laundrywoman was working for us at home, my father went to synagogue to pray Mincha. Before praying, however, he remembered that he had not paid the laundrywoman. He immediately decided to take the money out of his wallet and pay her, and it was at that point that he realized that he didn’t have the money available. He then left synagogue to find someone to lend him the money with which to pay her, but because it was raining and there were no passers by, he couldn’t find anyone. He was quite worried about this and said, ‘Master of the world, do for us what You promised: “The one who purifies himself is helped.” ’ He had barely finished speaking when he looked around him and saw a package sticking out of the mud. He went to take it, and inside he found just enough money to pay the laundrywoman, neither more nor less. Overjoyed, he hurried to have it brought to her, and then he went to pray Mincha with a happy heart. For several days he looked for the owner of this money, but without success.”