The nineteenth of Teves is the yahrzeit of Rav Avrohom Aharon Freedman (1906- 1943). Born into a wealthy family of Torah scholars in Galicia, he grew up, one of thirteen children, in a house where many Chasidic Rebbes and other travelers would come to visit. His father, Reb Yonah, was considered to be one of the elder Belzer Chassidim. When his father would visit Belzhe he would be invited to sit with the prominent Chassidim and was even invited by the Belzer Rebbe to learn with his sons.
As a child Avrohom Aharon learned together with his younger brother Aryeh Leib in a room in their home that was designated for Torah study. Their father was able to afford to hire the best melamdim for them and they were known for their diligence and sharpness. Eventually, they were sent to Chust to learn under Rav Yosef Zvi Dushinsky. After learning for a few years after his marriage, he did not want to earn a living in the rabbinate, so he moved to Tschop and founded a winery. Despite being very involved in the day-to-day running of the winery, he found time to learn and would frequently share his novel insights with others.
As the situation in Europe worsened, he planned to move his family, however his wife took ill and the move had to be postponed. With the fascist takeover of Hungary, he was forced into a labor camp, where he continued to encourage and share words of Torah with the other prisoners. His wife passed away on the twenty-fourth of Elul in 1941. Two weeks later, his father died. With some political pull, he was able to get a furlough from the prison camp for each of their funerals. In the camp he refused to eat non-kosher food or to work on Shabbos, which led him to be put on trial for his refusal. Each Shabbos he would count his footsteps as they were being led to work and, as he reached the end of the techum, he would fall down and not move farther. All of this weakened him substantially and on the ninteenth of Teves, 1943 he died.
Almost all of the manuscripts of his chidushei Torah were lost with the exception of his hagaddah commentary called Bais Avrohom Bais Aharon which was hidden for years. Before his last trip to the labor camp he gave the bound hagaddah manuscript to his only daughter with instructions to give it to her uncle, Rav Aryeh Leib. When he read the manuscript, Rav Aryeh Leib knew that he had a great responsibility, but he had no idea what to do given the wartime circumstances. He heard that a friend had built a bunker and passed it to him for safekeeping. The friend, Reb Chaim Teichman, and his family survived in the bunker and after the war informed family members that they were in possession of the manuscript but requested that they be allowed to publish it. As they had no children they wanted the hagaddah to serve as an everlasting memorial to their family. The Teichmans had to quickly escape Hungary when the Communists started to take over in 1946. Immediately afterwards Reb Chaim Teichman passed away and his possessions were taken by different people, including the manuscript. After several years of efforts, the family found out that someone in the United States had possession of it and through great effort they were able to retrieve the manuscript and publish it.
The hagaddah is an unparalleled work of breadth, depth and creative thinking. Rav Avrohom Aharon wrote eleven different commentaries, each one in a different style. One commentary focuses on pshat in the hagaddah and, as one of my sons pointed out to me, even in pshat he has many new insights. Another commentary has intricate pilpulim that leave you with your jaw dropped. One is based on complex mathematical calculations to resolve questions on the hagaddah while another is based on Kabbalah. It is by far this author’s favorite hagaddah. One can only lament the loss of such a great Torah scholar at such a young age, as well as the loss of his other manuscripts.
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The nineteenth of Teves is also the yahrzeit of Flora Sassoon (1859-1936). Flora was born in Bombay, as it was referred to at that time, to parents who had moved there from Baghdad to oversee the Sassoon family interests in the far east. The oldest of twelve children, she was educated by melamdim who her parents brought from other countries to educate her and her brothers. She rounded out her secular education by attending a local Catholic high school. By the time she graduated she was fluent in six languages.
In 1876 she married Saliman Sassoon who had just returned from spending time in China looking after the family business interests. They had three children. She spent much of her time trying to improve the health and living conditions of the people of Bombay. Among other projects, she supported the research of bacteriologist Waldemar Haffkine who developed a vaccine against cholera. She expended much effort to persuade the Moslem and Hindu residents to allow themselves to be inoculated. After her husband’s death in 1894 she replaced him as director of the family business interests. In the early 1900s her daughter Mozelle became ill, and Flora moved to London to be able to provide her daughter with better medical care than was available in India. During her years of living in London she traveled frequently. Unlike the London branch of the Sassoon family which had left a Torah way of life, she was strictly observant. On all of her trips she took a minyan of men along as well as a shochet. In 1910 when she visited Baghdad for three months, she was allowed to read from the Torah in shul.
Members of British high society frequented her home which was known to be a place of intriguing conversation. According to historian Cecil Roth, she walked like a queen, talked like a sage, and entertained like an Oriental potentate. Due to her vast knowledge of Tanach and Talmud, she wrote a lengthy article about Rashi which was published in The Jewish Forum. She also published there an article explaining the significance of the number thirteen in Judaism. The article demonstrated her broad knowledge of Talmudic and Midrashic sources. She is known to have corresponded with the Ben Ish Chai, who even composed a song in her honor, as well as with other Sephardic leaders. Questions that she sent to Rav Yitzchok Nissim are printed in his responsa. She met Rav Shlomo Eliezer Alfandari, the Saba Kadisha, in Syria and had a lengthy discourse with him about the chain of mesorah.
She personally responded to all requests for financial assistance and helped to build a Jewish hospital in London in 1907. She helped European refugees who arrived in England during and after WWI to resettle in England. At her funeral, Rav Yitzchok Isaac HaLevi Herzog eulogized her as “A living well of Torah, G-d fearing, wise, a good and generous heart.”