Throughout history, Jewish communities have often had iconic rabbis with whom they closely identified – the Vilna Gaon for Lithuanian Jewry, the Rema for Polish Jewry, the Chasam Sofer for Hungarian Jewry, the Rebbe Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk for Galician Jewry, and Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch for German Jewry. In many instances, these rabbis’ portraits hung in Jewish homes and their gravesites served as places of pilgrimage.
Contemporary Israel also has a national tsaddik: Rav Yisrael Abuhatzeira (1889-1984), better known as the Baba Sali, which means “the praying father” in Arabic. At least six full-length biographies of this great rabbi have been written, and his portrait adorns siddurim, Tehillin, and other sefarim – as well as leichters, key chains, kiddush cups menorahs, kippot, postage stamps, prayer cards, and plates – throughout the world.
His yahrzeit on the 4th of Shevat – this Thursday – is a major holiday in Israel with pilgrimages of over 100,000 people coming to his resting place in Netivot for prayer and celebration. The pilgrims include Moroccan Jews, other oriental Jews, chassidim, charedim, Modern Orthodox Jews, and secular Israelis.
Few of us really know much about this tzaddik. Like similar figures in Jewish history – i.e. the Vilna Gaon, Chofetz Chaim, Chazon Ish, and Ben Ish Chai – the Baba Sali was not a rabbi, rosh yeshiva, or even a rebbe. He was known rather for his saintly character and ability to perform miracles.
The Baba Sali was born in Morocco in 1889, the grandson of a major North African rabbi, Rabbi Yaakov Abuhatzeira, author of countless kabbalistic works and a commentary on the Torah, and known as the Avir Yaakov. The Avir Yaakov died in Egypt on his way to the Holy Land.
The Baba Sali’s father, Rav Massoud Abuhatzeira, was the rav of Tafilat in Morocco (a post Rabbi Yisroel eventually assumed), but also served as the rav, dayan, and rosh yeshiva in several other North African cities.
In Morocco, the Baba Sali was known not only for his knowledge of Shulchan Aruch and Talmud, but also for his ascetic lifestyle and the miracles he performed. He and his family were profoundly influenced by chassidic teachings that reached Morocco after WWII when a number of Chabad rabbis settled there.
The Baba Sali visited Israel several times prior to settling there in 1964, his first visit coming in 1921. He also resided in France at several points in his life.
In 1971, I purchased a small book called Maase Nissim in a bookstore in Meah Shearim that had pictures of various Abuhatzeira family members. I recognized the picture of the Baba Sali’s brother, Rav Yitzhak Abuhatzeira, the chief rabbi of Lod and an important member of Israel’s chief rabbinate council, but I had no idea who the saintly-looking rav dressed in a Moroccan Djelleba and hood was. The Baba Sali kept a low profile in Israel and was mainly only known to his countrymen from North Africa.
It was only following his brother’s death in a car accident in 1972 that he assumed a more public stance, and by the time of his death in 1984, he had become a well-known baal mofes, highly regarded not only by North African Jewry, but also by many Ashkenazic rabbis such as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Lelever Rebbe, the Belzer Rav, and Rabbi Shmuel Wosner.
Above all, the Baba Sali was famed for his Sepahrdi-style farbrengens marked by song, dance, Torah, and arak. The purpose of these activities was to keep Moroccan Jewry in Israel connected to the Torah and their Torah culture.
Several members of the Baba Sali’s family entered politics; his nephew, Aaron Abuhatzeira, for example, served as Minister of religions in an Israeli government. Other members of his family established centers in Israeli development towns – his oldest son, Baba Meir Abuhatzeira, in Ashdod; his grandson Baba Eliezer in Be’er Sheva; and another grandson, Rabbi David Chai, in Netanya.
The rav’s final years were marked by several tragedies. His eldest son, Baba Meir, who was supposed to be his successor, passed away in 1982 after a lengthy illness, and several close family members were jailed on false charges by political opponents
His official successor was his sole surviving son, Rabbi Baruch Abuhatzeira, shlita, of Netivot who established a series of schools, yeshivot, kollelim, and synagogues in memory of his great father. He also built a huge tomb in his father’s memory that has become the site of constant prayer and pilgrimage.
Most of the Baba Sali’s Torah writings were either stolen or lost in transit. Aside from some of his psakim, little from his hand remains. In 1998, his son, Rabbi Baruch, published Ahavat Israel, a work by his father on the 127 mitzvot alluded to in the words “v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamoacha.” This small volume also contains some yom tov sermons and homilies and thoughts on the weekly parshah. Although a small book, it gives us a window into the Baba Sali’s Torah thought process and the profound influence Kabbalah had on his understanding of Torah.
The Baba Sali was the first Sephardic Torah leader in Israel to be accepted by the Ashkenazi community on a fully equal basis as other distinguished rabbinic peers. This development was very important in the eyes of Sephardic Jews who had suffered years of neglect from the traditional Ashkenazic rabbinic establishment. Remarkably, in his death, he has been claimed by all religious camps – the National Religious party, Agudath Israel, and even the Edah Hachareidis.
In this sense, the Baba Sali forged the way for the full participation of the Sefardic Torah community in Israel’s religious life, which saw its fulfillment through the Shas party and the personality and teachings of the late Rishon LeZion, Rav Ovadiah Yosef. Both of these gedolim raised the prestige of the Sephardic Torah community and instilled them with pride in their mesorah.
Chazal inform us that the righteous are greater in their death than in life (as they are not limited by their material bodies). May the Baba Sali continue to bring miracles upon the land of Israel and Klal Yisrael.