Rabbi Ben Zion Alfes • “The Author of Maase Alfes”
When I look back upon the scenes of my childhood, the image of Rabbi Ben Zion Alfes comes alive before me. He was an elderly man, bent over, with eyes turned to the ground and an eternal joy illuminating a face that was adorned by a long white beard.
I had always asked myself who that person was, a man who had written such beautiful explanations on the Siddur, as well as on the prayers and supplications that we recite during the holidays. He had translated all these works into colloquial Yiddish, giving them the external appearance of Hebrew by punctuating the Yiddish with Hebrew vowels.
I once had the chance to meet Rabbi Ben Zion Alfes face to face. The circumstances were as follows:
On a hot afternoon, the door to our house opened and an elderly man with a face shining like the sun came into the room. At that time we were living in Petah Tikva, the largest settlement in Eretz Israel. He was holding a Tzeddakah box in his hand, and he said, “I’m collecting money for Petah Tikva’s mikveh.” We had him sit down in order to rest a little, and we gave him a glass of orange juice. It was very hot, and he was already close to 85 years old at the time. We asked him his name, and he said, “My name is Ben Zion Alfes.” I remember our shock to have merited seeing the author of Maase Alfes. My mother in particular, G-d rest her soul, was overjoyed. Her face shined with excitement, and she could not believe her eyes. She exclaimed, “All my life I’ve prayed in the Siddur of Maase Alfes, and I grew up listening to incredible stories from the Siddur. How many tears did I shed in reading the supplications in the Siddur and the Machzor!”
From time to time I listened to the lectures that he gave in the courtyard of Petah Tikva’s large synagogue. The words that came from his loving heart awakened the hearts of others to Torah observance and a strengthening of faith.
Rabbi Ben Zion was born in Vilna to Rabbi Yirmeyahu Akiva on the first of Kislev, 5611 (1851). As was the custom during that time, the young Ben Zion studied with a private teacher and was successful in his studies. At the age of 14 he began to study with his father, but this did not continue for long because his father died when he was only 15 years old. He then went to study at the Eishyshok yeshiva.
After his marriage, Rabbi Ben Zion continued to study in the Kloiz of the Gra in Vilna. He learned Torah from Torah giants, men who had known the Vilna Gaon himself. In particular, he became close with the son-in-law of Rabbi Avraham, the brother of the Vilna Gaon.
In 5632 (1872), Rabbi Ben Zion decided to go and settle in Eretz Israel. Arriving at the gates of the old city of Jerusalem, he tore his garment and ventured inside the walls. He rented an apartment and began to pray and study in Midrash Menachem Zion, located in the ancient ruins of the Rabbi Yehuda Hahassid synagogue. For six months he taught Jewish children without receiving a salary, and he also offered to check mezuzot in people’s homes.
Rabbi Ben Zion tried to find work to earn a living, but in the end he was forced to return to Vilna. Before his departure, Rabbi Shemuel Salant (the Rav of Jerusalem) gave him a blessing that G-d should help him to return to Jerusalem, as was his desire.
Upon returning to Vilna, Rabbi Ben Zion was accepted as the head proofreader for the HaChevra Metz publishing house, with his work primarily consisting of rereading holy books. One day he noticed that workers in the shop were preparing to print a book by a Jewish member of the enlightenment movement, a complete atheist. His book was filled with scorn and obscenity, and Rabbi Ben Zion was frightened by what he saw. He arose and left his work, saying: “I will not sell my soul for a few pieces of bread.”
He immediately began to look for ways to fight against this plague, and to save young Jewish boys and girls from this toxic secular literature. He began to write stories under the title of Maase Alfes, stories that led to his fame. Jewish youngsters read these stories filled with love for G-d and describing great virtues, and the Chofetz Chaim stated that his writings were useful for the community. Rabbi Ben Zion also published in Yiddish the books HaYirah and Shaarei Teshuvah by Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona. Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, the Altar of Kelm, was grateful for this timely undertaking, and the Netziv of Volozhin conferred on him the title of Rav Pealim (“one who does much”). At the same time, Rabbi Ben Zion began to give public lectures during the week and Shabbat, as well as on the holidays. He awakened people’s hearts to the observance of Torah and mitzvot, and he encouraged his listeners to distance themselves from the advice of the wicked, from the path of sinners and gatherings of scorners. He was also concerned with children who were poor and orphaned, working so that they might study Torah in schools. Over the course of time, he established a network of chedarim for these children that was called Torat Chesed.
Above all, Rabbi Ben Zion acquired the World to Come through his fertile pen, which he used to write 60 books over the course of the years. It is with just cause that Rabbi Ben Zion has been called the “Pioneer of Orthodox Yiddish literature.”
In his old age Rabbi Ben Zion again went to Eretz Israel, the second time being in 5685 (1925). The inhabitants of Petah Tikva offered him the position of spiritual director of the Tiferet Bachurim society. He remained in Petah Tikva for close to two years, during which time he encouraged farmers to observe Shabbat and the mitzvot that depend on the land. He also built two beautiful mikvot.
Up to his final day, Rabbi Ben Zion showed no sign of old age. When he was 90 years old, he wrote his last book: The Life Story of the Maase Alfes.
On Monday, Parsha Mikeitz, the 23rd of Kislev 5701 (1941), Rabbi Ben Zion Alfes passed away at the age of 90.