Rabbi Shlomo Eliezer Alfandri

Rabbi Shlomo Eliezer was one of the great sages of Sephardic Judaism. All the greats of the land came to see him – Ashkenaz Rabbis and Rebbes, as well as Sephardic Chachamim – in search of Torah.

He lived a long time, more than 100 years, and from his youth he corresponded with the greatest Gaonim of Israel, Rabbi Akiva Eiger and his son-in-law Rabbi Moshe Sofer.

Rabbi Shlomo was born in Constantinople (Istanbul), the capital of Turkey, into a renowned family. According to tradition, his family descended from Betzalel of the tribe of Judah, from which Sages and Rabbis of Jerusalem, Constantinople, and Izmir emerged. His father Rabbi Yaakov was known as a great G-d fearing scholar, yet he did not live a long time. At his death, Rabbi Shlomo was but a small boy.

The exact year of his birth is unknown, with some saying that he was born in 5586 (1826) and others saying in 5575 (1815).

He was first brought up by his mother, Hannah, a wise woman who was well-versed in the Torah. She had probably inherited this trait from her mother (Rabbi Shlomo’s grandmother). She was very learned and filled with the knowledge of the Talmud and Poskim.

In his youth, Rabbi Shlomo Eliezer loved to isolate himself and study Torah without being disturbed. He would study all day long, late into the night, and he had no social life.

Still a young man, people predicted that he would one day become a Gaon. He possessed an extraordinary memory, a “cistern that does not lose a drop” of everything that he saw and heard. He witnessed many things in his life, for his diligence knew no limit. From time to time he would go to the Chachamim of Constantinople to hear their words of Torah, but the majority of his wisdom was due to his dedication to study. His name quickly became famous, and everyone knew that a new light shined in Constantinople.

At the age of 17 he married, and he had one son that died after a short time. For the rest of his life, he and his wife had no more children.

At the same time a wealthy resident of Constantinople built a special yeshiva for him, and great Talmidei Chachamim studied there, men who would become known, over the course of time, as great Torah scholars in Israel. Rabbi Haim Hizkiyahu Medini, the author of Sdei Hemed, was among them.

At about the age of 30, Rabbi Shlomo enjoyed great renown, and many people addressed him with questions of Halachah. His replies were short, concise, and categorical.

Even though he held firm opinions and possessed great courage and fervor for Torah and Judaism, he conducted himself with extreme humility. He wore neither a silk hat (as did the Chachamim), nor the customary apparel of the Rabbanim, bur rather took care that his garments were clean and simple, like those of ordinary individuals.

He fought for education that was in conformity with the demands of the Torah. When some wanted to establish new schools in which secular subjects were to be taught instead of the Talmud, Chacham Alfandri (as he was known) went out to war against this idea. He published an open proclamation in which he stated: “If the Jewish people exist, it is precisely because of the Oral Law. Without it, there would remain no trace of Israel, whereas thanks to the devoted study of the Oral Law, no people will be able to subjugate us.” These words had a profound effect on all.

When the position of Rabbi in Damascus became vacant in 5659 (1899), the leaders of the community called upon Chacham Alfandri and asked him to become their Chief Rabbi. Despite his age, he accepted.

In 5664 (1904), Rabbi Shlomo Eliezer left for Eretz Israel and settled in Haifa. From there, the Chachamim and Rabbanim of Sefat invited him to become their Rav and Av Beit Din. He accepted this appointment and went to settle in Sefat.

A new period in his life began there. The aged lion surprised everyone who saw him by his vigor and sharp mind. All the great men of Torah came to him in order to hear his Torah and wisdom, and all who came into contact with him sensed that they were dealing with a holy man.

Legends of miracles and wonders began to circulate about him. The elders of Sefat recounted that during Nissan 1914, after having recited Birkat HaLevanah and his eyes were still turned upwards, Chacham Alfandri struck his hands together and he let out a deep sigh as tears flowed from his eyes. When he was asked the reason for this, he replied, “I see that a terrible world war will soon break out.” At the end of that summer, the First World War began.

Chacham Alfandri spent his last years in Jerusalem, surrounded by a multitude of admirers and disciples. He was already more than 100 years old at that time, yet his mind was lucid and his vision clear. He didn’t even need glasses.

In 5690 (1930) Rabbi Chaim Elazar Shapira (the Rebbe of Munkacz) came to meet him face to face. He even spoke with him using Sephardic Hebrew in order to better communicate with him. The Rebbe told him that he had learned from great Tzaddikim that the closeness of the Final Redemption depended primarily on the Tzaddik of the generation – if he would decree by the power of his Torah that Mashiach should arrive. This is why the Rebbe implored him to make such a decree. However Rabbi Shlomo Eliezer, in his humility, immediately replied: “I am not a Tzaddik.” Upon hearing this, the Rebbe burst into tears.

This conversation took place about eight days before his death. On Tuesday morning, the 22nd of Iyar 5690 (1930), he asked his disciples to envelope him with his Tallit and to put his two pairs of Tefillin upon him, on his arm and head (according to the custom of the Sephardic Chachamim). He immediately recited Shema, and when he came to the word emet [truth], he signaled his disciples to remove his Tefillin. He then said, “Enough, enough. The main thing is emet. I can no longer continue…” and his soul departed in holiness and purity. By one estimate, he was 115 years old at the time.

Multitudes attended his funeral, and shops closed down as the rabbinical courts of Jerusalem decreed a stop to the workday. There were no eulogies given at his funeral, but multitudes from the Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities followed his coffin in tears.

His disciples carried his coffin on their shoulders all the way from his home in the Ruhama district to the summit of the Mount of Olives.




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