The twentieth of Teves is the yahrzeit of Chacham Yaakov Abuchatzeira (1806-1880). Born in Tafilalt, Morocco, he served as a rabbi, communal leader and darshan for decades. He would travel regularly among the different villages in the region. By the time he was thirty he was one of the most respected poskim in the Sephardic world. He was constantly reviewing what he had learned. His son-in-law testified that he reviewed eighteen chapters of Mishna every day. He slept very little and would wake up at midnight to recite Tikkun Chatzot and then study Kabbalah until morning. His student wrote that he had no interest in matters of this world and dispersed great sums of tzedakah to the poor and Torah scholars. He authored works of responsa, Talmudic commentary, a work of two-hundred explanations of the word Bereishis and a number of piyyutim.
His entire life he wanted to go to Eretz Yisrael, but the members of his community prevailed upon him six times to stay in Tafilalt. Finally, in 1879, he convinced them that his son could replace him and he left. His trip took him through Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. On the fifteenth of Teves he came to Alexandria where he stayed for a few days, leaving on the seventeenth for Damanhur, Egypt. He suddenly took ill and died three days later. He is buried in Damanhur.
* * *
The twenty-fourth of Teves is the yahrzeit of Rav Naftali Katz, known by his sefer as the Smichas Chachamim (1648-1719). As a child he was kidnapped by Tatars who mistreated him, but he was somehow able to escape and reunite with his family. He married Esther Sheindel, daughter of Rav Shmuel Shmelke of Ostroh who Rav Naftali described as being “smart, modest and a better woman than her peers.” They had a very loving marriage and a few years later made a pact to ask Hashem that they should both die at the same time as they did not wish to remain alive without the other. They had seven children.
After his marriage he was appointed the Rosh Yeshiva of the yeshiva built with his father-in-law’s funds as well as the head of the Chevra Kadisha and of the Bais Din in Ostroh. In 1689 when Rav Yeshayahu Horwitz, grandson of the Shel”a died, Rav Naftali was asked to become Rav of Posen in his stead. His ancestor, the Maharal, had been the rabbi there a century earlier. In Posen he lived royally. He would frequently travel around in a wagon pulled by eight horses who were dressed in silver. A jealous nobleman once hired some farmers to attack him with scythes. The wagon driver saw them blocking the road and asked Rav Naftali what to do. He said to continue going and as they approached the farmers he glared at them, which frightened them and they ran. Despite the existence of a thriving, learned Jewish community, antisemitic attacks were frequent.
Apparently, others feared him as well. Many times when people would come to him for a Din Torah, all he had to do was stare at the litigants and one of them would admit that he was at fault. Once, when a litigant refused to accept his ruling, he died a painful death shortly thereafter. Rav Naftali remained in Posen for fifteen years at which time he was asked to become Rav of Frankfurt. In his role there he was a member of the Council of the Four Lands, an umbrella group overseeing Jewish matters in Europe. On the twenty-fourth of Teves in 1711 a fire broke out in his home and destroyed the entire Jewish Quarter and shul. Five hundred homes were destroyed and 8,000 people were left homeless and penniless. Thirty-six Sifrei Torah were destroyed and four people lost their lives. While their gentile neighbors assisted them generously, many of those affected left for other towns. Rav Naftali was offered shelter by a tailor named Johannes Finger, however, the authorities jailed him as they held him responsible for the fire.
Rumors spread around town, some claiming that he had made a big party at his home in which he made a bonfire and burned crosses which had ignited the larger fire. Others said it was a kitchen fire that had gotten out of control. Yet others claimed that as a Kabbalist he knew how to stop fires using various charms. So they claimed that he started the fire intentionally to show off his power, but somehow misused his powers when it came to extinguishing the fire. When he was brought before the court he explained that the maid had approached him to tell him that there was the smell of fire. He was surprised as he knew his wife wasn’t cooking at the time. He knew there was a tailor working in one room so he went to the room and when he opened the door his beard caught on fire, so he ran out of the house. The tailor subsequently admitted that he had left a lit candle behind when he exited the room.
While Rav Naftali was freed, he was no longer welcome in Frankfurt and he moved to Prague. He stayed in the home of Rav Dovid Oppenheim for some time but eventually returned to Posen and then to Ostroh. In Prague he had met Nechemiah Chaim Chiyun a student of Shabbatai Tzvi and wrote a haskama to his sefer. He later recanted the haskama but his having written in, as well as the rumors of his using various charms while in Frankfurt, caused allegations of Shabbateism followed him. This was despite the fact that his daughter married one son of the Chacham Tzvi, and his granddaughter married another son, Rav Yaakov Emden, who was the biggest fighter against any Shabbatean influence.
Rav Naftali is best known for his Sefer Smichas Chachamim on Meseches Berachos. The first half of the sefer is an introduction that ties together the end of each mesechta with the beginning of the next. His commentary on Berachos is a mix of pshat, lomdus and Kabbalah.