New York – – Rav Mordechai Eliyahu was the Sefardic Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisroel from 1983-1993, true. But he was much larger than this. Sometimes the post can make the man. Here, however, the man made the post.
Rav Eliyahu zatzal’s holy neshama embodied the heart of Klal Yisroel. He cried with you, when you were going through a difficult time. The Gemorah quite often uses the expression – Adam Gadol Shaini – a great man is different. He was concerned about those of whom others were not. He knew of a woman undergoing great difficulties, one that few people cared about – and asked about her welfare constantly. He had asked me to see what I could do about her situation too.
His love of the ordinary man on the street was legendary. Man, woman or child knew that they had a close relative in Rav Mordechai Eliyahu. And it was precisely his love for Klal Yisroel that made him so beloved as well.
Eliyahu was born in the Old City of Jerusalem under the British Mandate. He was the son of Chacham Salman Eliyahu, a well-known Mekubal in Jerusalem from an Iraqi Jewish family.
That circle of Mekuballim included not just Iraqi Jews. Persian Kabbalistic luminaries as well as Ashkenazic ones joined together in discussions. He was a brilliant scholar and even though his father died while Rav Mordechai Eliyahu was still a youth, his father’s friends took him under their wing and he continued growing in both Torah, Yirat Shamayim, and Ahavat Yisroel. He learned under the Gedolim – and under a number of the early chief Rabbis of Israel.
He spoke out forcefully against Christian missionaries carrying on their activities in Eretz Yisroel and was a strong believer in the work of Yad L’Achim – supporting all their activities and advising them as well. He cared not about the repercussions of offending anyone – especially when it came to the emunah of his beloved Jewish people.
During the war of independence, he rolled up his sleeves and lended assistance wherever it was needed. He was strongly against giving up any portion of Eretz Yisroel and when Jew fought Jew in the Gaza Capitulation Crisis – it tore him apart.
He was a brilliant Dayan as well, having mastered Choshain Mishpat at a very young age. His methodology of learning was straight and to the point, and he had little tolerance for long-winded pilpullim.
He had numerous disagreements with Maran Rav Ovadiah Yoseph, and was one of the earliest proponents of Sefardic Jews not accepting the leniencies of Ashkenazim in matters of Bishul Akum. He differed strongly with Rav Ovadiah lehavdil bain chaim lechaim in this matter. He also tried to raise the banner of the Ben Ish Chai as the leading Acharon of Iraqi Jewry – while Rav Ovadia Yoseph was trying to raise the primacy of Rav Karo himself. This at times caused halachic conflict between the two luminaries.
He spoke to all types of Jews and his love for the Moshavnik registered with them when he constantly visited them to bolster Mitzvah observance.
His observance of Kashrut was legendary as well. Once when he visited New York he was in a quandary. He did not wish to insult his Rabbinic hosts about a certain food product, and yet at the same time he had not eaten a thing because of his Kashrut concern. Privately, he took me aside and asked me to investigate a certain matter – whether it fit to his standards. I went into high gear and determined that the product would be acceptable to Rav Eliyahu. He thanked me profusely both for my hard work as well as for my discretion in not insulting the hosts. There are people who are very careful in their observance of Bain Adam leChaveiro. There are people who are ver careful in Kashrut. But only rarely do you have people that are extremely scrupulous in both.
His love for every Jew was deep, and even though he disagreed with many of the things that they represented, he still loved them. His Ahavat Yisroel is a model that all of us must learn from.
His position on Gush Katif and the exact parameters of what Israeli soldiers may or may not do was clear. Presciently, he knew what only now the advocates of the pullout from Gush Katif will admit- It would be a fiasco with deadly repercussions that will not only not advance the cause of peace – but would encourage the terror even more and more. He issued numerous halachic positions forbidding observant soldiers from partaking in the expulsion. His positions earned the wrath and ire of the authorities. He remained nonplussed. In Rav Eliyahu’s eyes, halacha is halacha is halacha. He took many brave stands that were often not popular, but his genuine love for others won everyone over. How can someone disagree with someone who loves them all like a grandfather? They couldn’t denounce him – not if they knew him.
He had co-written many teshuvot in his position as a Dayan in the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. He has authored a siddur that follows the customs of the Ben Ish Chai. Also, last year, a volume of his responsa had been released. A quick perusal of the sefer reveals a mastery of many neglected sections of halacha.
Rarely, does an individual come along who so personifies Ahavat Yisroel combined with a truly remarkable Torah erudition. Chaval al deavdin. Klal Yisroel has lost more than a Gadol b’Yisroel – we have lost part of the collective Neshama of who we are.