Rabbi Messaoud Raphael Elfassy
Rabbi Messaoud had a great desire to imbue himself with the wisdom of the Torah greats of Tunis. After having taken leave of his community and family in Fez, he and his faithful servant journeyed with a caravan of traveling merchants.
Despite the rigors of travel, Rabbi Messaoud and his servant pursued their Torah studies in order to avoid having such a long journey proceed without the light of Torah.
After a certain time, Rabbi Messaoud began to worry because Shabbat was fast approaching. The desert sun was beating on their heads and the journey was long. There was only wasteland and desolation in every direction, without the slightest trace of vegetation or habitation, without the slightest drop of water to give life to the thirsty. Only the sound of birds of prey and terrifying wild beasts testified to the existence of life in this immense desert.
Friday was about to give way to the repose of Shabbat, and Rabbi Messaoud and his servant did not want to continue traveling with the caravan. Therefore they decided to spend Shabbat in the desert, alone with the Creator of heaven of earth.
The head of the caravan began to mock their foolhardiness and said, “You’re going to turn into a heap of bones! There are wild animals around here!” However a Tzaddik like Rabbi Messaoud does not risk transgressing Shabbat. He signaled the caravan riders to continue on their way while he and his servant settled on the ground.
Rabbi Messaoud took out his pouch of wine for Kiddush and a challah for the meal. He spread out a towel at his feet and lit the candles that he had brought for Shabbat.
The radiant atmosphere of Shabbat filled their hearts as they raised their hands in prayer and supplication.
Suddenly they heard a terrifying roar. They turned to look in the direction of the sound, and they saw a fearsome lion approaching them. Rabbi Messaoud did not move as he continued with his prayers, and the lion, as if obeying some order given by an invisible hand, crouched to the ground some distance from the two men.
The Tzaddik’s faithful servant could not believe his eyes. Hashem had sent the king of the animals to protect them in the desert so that nothing would disturb their Shabbat rest.
Rabbi Messaoud finished his evening prayer and recited Kiddush. After the meal, they immersed themselves in the Talmud and forgot about everything around them. They had placed their faith in Hashem and were convinced that He was protecting them from all harm. They spent all of Shabbat in the joy of study and spiritual growth, while the lion watched them with the tranquil look of a friend.
As soon as Shabbat ended and they had recited Havdalah, the lion got up and approached Rabbi Messeoud. It lowered its head and gave him a sign that it was ready to carry him on its back. Rabbi Messaoud told his servant to also climb up on the lion. Then, after both of them took a deep breath, they suddenly felt themselves flying. The lion ran like the wind and raced without stopping. They covered great distances at tremendous speed, all while chasing away every animal in their path by the lion’s roar. Not long afterwards, the caravan of traveling merchants came into sight.
The lion continued to race toward the caravan, and Rabbi Messaoud saw his former travel companions on their knees trembling in fear.
The head of the caravan shook as he approached Rabbi Messeoud. He then kissed his hand and said, “Rabbi, You are a holy man.”
After the death of Rabbi Messaoud in 5535 (1775), his sons followed in his footsteps and became great Torah scholars. To this very day, their book Mishcha Deravuta (which contains the initials of Rabbi Messaoud and his sons Shlomo and Chaim) clarifies issues for us by its enticing chiddushim.