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Rav Haim Sabato

Roshei yeshivot are not generally known for writing novels. Rav Haim Sabato, however, is not your average rosh yeshiva. Not only does he write novels, his semi-autobiographical narrative of a young man fighting on the front lines of the Yom Kippur War won him Israel’s most prestigious literature award, the Sapir Prize, in 2000.

Rav Sabato often graces his works with language inspired by Tanach and midrashim, lending them an other-worldly aura. A reviewer in Haaretz declared that Rav Sabato writes with “a music that slowly filters through to the soul of the reader.

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Born in 1952 in Cairo, Rav Sabato descends from a long line of Syrian rabbis. He currently lives in Maale Adumim where he serves as rosh yeshiva in Yeshivat Birkat Moshe. Among his works are “Adjusting Sights,” “Aleppo Tales: A Tapestry of Tradition and Faith,” and “The Dawning of the Day: A Jerusalem Tale” (all published by Toby Press). In September, Maggid Books will publish a collection of his essays on the parshah, “Rest for the Dove.

The Jewish Press recently interviewed Rav Sabato.

The Jewish Press: Most people find the combination of rosh yeshiva and novelist unusual. Somehow, the two don’t go together in their minds.

Rav Sabato: Anyone who learns Torah is constantly dealing with sources, language, and the precise meaning of the written word. He is exposed to various strata of Jewish culture, many of which are replete with beautiful literature, such as tefillah, midrash, and piyyutim. In addition, a yeshiva educator must be highly sensitive, which is a characteristic trait of artists and writers. So I don’t see an inherent contradiction between the two [callings].

It’s true that there has been a schism, even a crisis, between the Torah world and the world of Hebrew literature ever since the Enlightenment due to the many people who were drawn to the latter and left the former in the process. But I believe that just as literature can have an effect in one direction, so too it can have an effect in the opposite direction and express purity, beauty, truth, deep faith, and closeness to God. And if those who feel these values deeply in their heart have the ability to express them but don’t do so, who will? Must we only read about heresy and lust in our literature? Aren’t faith, prayer, innocence, and repentance sublime values that should be expressed in literature?

Your writing style has been likened to Nobel Prize winner S.Y. Agnon’s. Do you embrace or reject that?

Certainly I agree with it, although a simple writer like me is very far from a giant like Agnon. But I did not imitate Agnon; imitation is intolerable. I followed in his footsteps. In other words, I used the same [traditional Torah] sources he used because I’m at home with them.

I did not, however, follow Agnon in his habit of cynically injecting an element of “bitter fate” in his works, which pained me very much in my youth. I replaced it with an element of faith that casts an optimistic light even when very deep pain is being described.

You come from an illustrious line of Syrian rabbis. Who were your ancestors? What did they do? 

My grandfather’s grandfather was HaRav Aharon Choueka, who was the chief rabbi of Aleppo in Syria. He was a tremendous gaon, and the greatest poskim of his generation corresponded with him. His son was Chacham Menachem Choueka, a pious man, a mekubal, and an incredible gaon who learned the entire Talmud by heart by the age 18. He moved to Egypt.

His son, my grandfather, was HaRav Aharon Choueka, who left Egypt and moved to Israel. He was a gaon in Torah but was mainly known as an excellent darshan who had an effect on thousands of Jews. He was among the most elite Torah scholars in Egypt and studied under Rav Ezra Attia whom he loved and greatly admired.

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Elliot Resnick is the former chief editor of The Jewish Press and the author and editor of several books including, most recently, “Movers & Shakers, Vol. 3.”