The Simple Judaism of a Rosh Yeshiva-Novelist

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Joe Wolfson

[Editors’ note: In an article published at Lehrhaus on Yom Ha-atzma’ut, Rabbi Ariel Rackovsky challenged our readers to become more familiar with Israeli thinkers, leaders, and writers. In response we have launched a continuing series of articles designed to do just that. In this essay, Joe Wolfson presents this examination of important themes in a novel by Rav Haim Sabato, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in Ma’ale Adumim. Other installments in this series may be found here and here].

Another day in Nahlaot. Jaffa Street. Mahane Yehuda. Not through the eyes of a visiting student or young hipster, but rather from the perspective of someone who is as much a part of the neighbourhood as the cobbled stones on the narrow streets. The days may seem repetitive but in the eyes of their beholder they are full of color and wonder. The acts may seem mundane but in fact they shine with meaning and beauty.

Ki-aphapei Shahar, or, Eyelids Of The Dawn, is a novel by Haim Sabato. A founder and senior teacher at Birkat Mosheh in Ma’aleh Adumim, one of the elite yeshivot of religious Zionism, he is also an award-winning novelist and one of Israel’s most respected writers. The unusual combination is made all the more interesting by his Egyptian background—standing in contrast to the Ashkenazi dominated worlds of both Israeli literature and religious Zionism.

The book tells the story of Ezra Siman Tov, a laundryman in the Nahlaot neighbourhood of Jerusalem. On the surface he is a simple man, not broadly educated and not a person of varied interests. He lives for his religion and avodat Hashem (service of God), rising for the vatikin sunrise minyan, attending the daily Ben Ish Hai class, and looks forward with great anticipation to the season of bakashot on a Friday night and the derasha of Hacham Pinto every Shabbat. His daily tefillot, Tehillim, and Talmud structure his life and give it meaning. He finds deep spiritual satisfaction in the cleansing of a tallit from its stains. He loves his wife, Madam Sarah, and the veranda filled with flowers and spices in their little home.

Sabato writes in a dream-like manner, mixing midrashim, pesukim, and folk-tales into his narrative. Familiarity with Jewish texts has sadly been in decline amongst major Israeli authors for many years—a point made on the book’s jacket by Yaron London, a news personality and Israeli literary critic—and Sabato’s range stands in stark contrast to this lamentable poverty.

There were points early on when the style felt too saccharine sweet—Ezra was too perfect and Sabato was trying too hard to be like Agnon. But the simplicity of the style, like the main character, is deceptive. At the heart of the book is a suppressed tragedy in Ezra’s life, and long before it is revealed, the relation of joy and sorrow is a major theme. Consider the following passage, illustrative of both the writing style and Ezra’s internal world (read the Hebrew if you can, otherwise my translation follows):

סבורים אתם שכל ימיו של עזרא טובים היו, אינכם אלא טועים. וכי יש אדם שכל ימיו טובים, והלוא רוב ימיו של אדם מסובב הוא בצרות ובמכאובים … גם על עזרא סימן טוב לא פסחו צרות רעות, ואף שכל ימיו לא ראינוהו אלא כשטוב לו, ולא שמענו ממנו לא תלונה ולא אנחה, זה מפני שהרגיל את לשונו לומר גם זו לטובה.שכך שנינו, חייב אדם לברך על הרעה כשם שהוא מברך על הטובה … וקיים בעצמו מה שאמר דויד ‘חסד ומשפט אשירה’: אם חסד, אשירה, ואם משפט, אשירה. ולא לשונו לבד הורגלה בכך, אלא אף מחשבתו הורגלה בכך. עזרא הכיר טובה על הרגעים הטובים כאילו חנינה הם לנו ולא זכות

If you think that Ezra only ever experienced good all of his days, you are mistaken. Is there a man, all of whose days are good? Most of a man’s days are surrounded by sorrows and pain … So too, for Ezra Siman Tov, wicked sorrows never left him alone, and even though all of his days, it always appeared well with him, and we never heard from him neither complaint or groan, this was because he accustomed his tongue to say ‘this is also for the good’. For thus have we learnt, ‘A man is obligated to make a blessing on evil just as he makes a blessing on the good … And he practised what David had said ‘Kindness and justice will I sing’: if You give me kindness, I will sing to you, and if you give me justice, I will sing to you. And not his tongue alone had he accustomed in this way, but his mind too. Ezra was grateful for the moments of good as if they were a gift to him and not his right.

Sabato then tells a story related to Ezra by one of the local preachers. In Europe, many years earlier, a man beset by troubles had sought advice from the Chassidic master, Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhansk. He had asked the rabbi to explain to him the line of the Sages that a person is obligated to make a blessing on evil just as he blesses on good, which is to say, that they should accept the suffering with joy. Rebbe Elimelech was unable to explain such a difficult line but sent the man to his brother, Reb Zusha, to ask his advice. Reb Zusha lived at a great distance and was known to have a life beset with sorrow and difficulties. But when the man finally arrived Reb Zusha responded in surprise:

פלא על אחי ששלח אותך אצלי שאבאר לך דבר זה. איך אבאר לך אותו ואני לא היו לי מעולם ייסורים ולא טעמתי טעמם

 Astonishing! What is my brother thinking that he sends you to me to explain this matter to you. How can I explain this to you, when in my life I have never known suffering nor tasted any pain! 

One response to this passage could be to view Reb Zusha—and by extension, Ezra—as tragically in denial about their suffering. Religion as the opiate. Yet understanding that Ezra is as much an ideal-type as he is a realistic depiction, the passage strikes a refreshing corrective to a posture more widespread today of turning to God out of anger and frustration rather than out of gratitude and love. And that is if God is turned to at all. As for the writing style, childlike descriptions—just as in midrash or chassidic tales—can move in an instant to being absolutely adult in their pain and poignancy.

Two of the side characters in the book are Rav Moshe David and Dr. Tawil. The former has spent decades in the yeshiva, he studies sugyot of the Talmud in all their profundity. He rebukes Ezra for donning the tefillin of Rabbeinu Tam, in addition to the tefillin of Rashi—a simple man such as Ezra should not take on practices reserved for the elite. He tells Ezra to lower his voice when reading Tehillim in shul, for it disturbs Rav Moshe David’s study. Dr. Tawil is Ezra’s brother in law. He is a scholar of piyut at Hebrew University, who toils in the work of Yehuda Halevi, Ibn Ezra, and Ibn Gabirol. He too looks down on Ezra,mocking his ignorance and simplicity. Ezra loves the hazanim who sing the piyutim with such voice and heart. Dr. Tawil is a man of science and rigour, happy to shout down the hazan in shul if he thinks a vocalization has been mispronounced.

And yet, Sabato delicately mocks both of these men, one in the beit midrash and the other in the academy. Each one is dedicated to plumbing the depths of Torah, yet has only the thinnest of religious personalities in contrast to Ezra. For all of their scholarship, it is the worship of their own ego, be it their hiddushim or scholarly articles, which most excites them. And one whose wisdom is greater than their fear of God, will eventually be abandoned by their wisdom too. It is Ezra—in his devotion to Sefer Tehillim, who visits his blind friend weekly to clean his apartment and share stories—who is the genuinely religious individual, whose surface simplicity masks true depth.

Given that, as mentioned above, Sabato spends his days teaching Talmud in one of the elite yeshivot of religious Zionism, the major argument of the book is especially intriguing: whether as rabbis or professors, Judaism may well be a religion which venerates intellectual achievement and scholarly brilliance. But all of that is nothing and worthless if it is not accompanied by sincerity in avodat Hashem. This is not of course to say that academics and yeshiva bakhurim cannot balance their life of the mind with the life of the heart. I certainly hope they can. Indeed, Sabato published a book of conversations, not long ago, with my teacher, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l—a book whose major focus was on achieving just such a synthesis. Perhaps, inhabiting such a religious-intellectual position, makes Sabato all the more acutely aware that supposedly great scholarship can be shallow and crude, while true simplicity is of great depth, a life-long project to be strived for. To be a simple Jew is no simple thing.

The story takes place almost completely in the neighbourhood of Nahlaot and is a paean to its Sephardic inhabitants. Although I cannot pretend to inhabit the same world as Ezra Siman Tov, many of the places he inhabits are the same places that I learned to fall in love with the holy city. Ezra would say the bakashot at the Ades Synagogue of the Glorious community of Aleppo. I would try to go to Kabbalat Shabbat there as often as I could. For seudah shlishit he spends time with the Ashkenazi hassidim of  Zichron Menachem, a small shtiebel which reminds me of the Munkacs Bet Midrash around the corner from my cousin’s home on Rehov Mesillat Yesharim—large enough to accommodate only around 20 men. There the Rebbe, Rav Steiner, gives a Minhat Chinuch shiur in Yiddish before Shaharit on a Shabbat morning. I could barely understand a word but felt enriched just sitting there. They would always give me (clearly not a chassid) some form of honour and on occasion the rebbe would invite me back to his home for Kiddush—the home he had been born in 75 years earlier. Ezra occasionally makes the journey into the Bukharin neighbourhood, where much of Yerushalayim’s old Sephardi population lives. There, as an 18 year old, I had the privilege to hear Rav Ovadia Yosef teach on a motzei Shabbat. All this without even mentioning the Mahane Yehuda, the Market where much of the story takes place. For me, no words need to be added as to why the shuk is the beating heart of Jerusalem’s greatness—be it for coffee, food, music, spices, cheese, art, politics, and life.

Yet as the story comes towards its close, it is filled with melancholy. Ezra’s Jerusalem is coming to an end. Developers are moving in and the municipality has closed the laundry and the shops of Ezra’s contemporaries. Hacham Pinto, Ezra’s beloved rabbi, has passed away, leaving a gaping hole in Ezra’s world. His children, living across the country, concerned about their aging parents and realizing that their home could be sold at a profit, formulate a plan to convince their mother and father to sell up, leave Jerusalem and move closer to them. Knowing that their father will be firmly opposed to the idea, they arrive at a time when they know Ezra will be at minhah and they will be able to put their idea to Madam Sara, their mother, who they hope will be a softer touch. Although a relatively peripheral character throughout the book, her response is one of the most powerful and beautiful speeches passages in the book:

מדאם שרה הניעה את ידה לביטול. טוב, אמרה. טוב מאוד. טוב מאוד נהגתם שבאתם שאבא איננו בבית. כמה היה מצטער לשמוע אתכם. די שהוא מצטער על רבו החכם פינטו המנוח שאינו סר מזכרונו אפילו שעה אחת, לא ביום ולא בלילה, שבאתם להוסיף צער על צערו. מה זה עלה בדעתכם שנעזוב את ירושלים? יחשיכו לנו את אור החמה, אתם אומרים? אורה של ירושלים לא מן החמה הוא בא. אור שכינה הוא, ולעולם אי אפשר להחשיך אותו. ולאן נלך, לעיר שאין בה כלל אורה? את החלונות יאטמו, אתם אומרים, אור יחסמו לנו? אור של ירושלים לא מן החלונות הוא נכנס. אוויר טהור הוא מטהרתה של ירושלים. סוגרים את המכבסה של כדורי? גם זו לטובה. ודאי יתגלגל מכך שאבא יעסוק יותר בתורה כפי שכל ימיו רצה. הסירו דאגה מליבכם. יפים לנו הימים בירושלים ומתוקים. אין אנו מבקשים לילך בגדולות. לא בית מרווח אנו מבקשים. דירתנו הקטנה נאה היא לנו ונאה אנו לה. דיינו שאנו זוכים להלך שישים שנה ברחובותיה של ירושלים. הבינו האחים שאין להם מה להוסיף, ועברו לדבר בדברים אחרים

Madam Sara raised her hand to silence them. Good, she said. Very good. Very good that you came at a time when your father isn’t at home. How pained he would be to hear you. Isn’t it enough that he is suffering over the loss of his teacher, Hacham Pinto, who doesn’t leave his memory for a moment, neither day or night, that you have come to add further pain to his suffering? What has gotten into your minds that we should leave Jerusalem? [The construction] will keep out the sunlight, you say? The light of Jerusalem does not come from the sun! It is the light of the Shekhinah (God’s presence), and it can never be blocked out. And where will we go? To a city that has no light at all?! They will block the windows with their new buildings you say, we won’t have any light? The light of Jerusalem does not come in through the windows! It is a pure air, from the purity of Jerusalem! They are closing Kaduri’s laundry? This is also for the good! Your father will now be able to dedicate more time to Torah as he’s always wished. Remove the worries from your hearts. They are pleasant for us, these days in Jerusalem, and sweet. We don’t want to live in grandeur. No spacious house are we asking for. Our little apartment is good for us, and we are good for her. It is enough for us that we have merited to walk the streets of Jerusalem for 60 years. The brothers understood that there was no more they could add, and turned instead to other topics …

This is the Jerusalem of Ezra Siman Tov. Did a person like Ezra ever exist? Maybe. Maybe not. But he has a lesson to teach. Did his Jerusalem ever exist? Most definitely it did. And it can still be glimpsed in between the cracks.