Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Rabbi and Terror

(Posted on Innernet).

by Shlomo Z. Sonnenfeld
Excerpted with permission from "Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld on the Parashah." Published by ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications Ltd., Brooklyn, NY --

On Friday, the 17th of Av, 5689 (1929), the Arabs in Israel began the infamous "riots of 1929," which culminated the next day, Shabbos, with the murder of 59 Jews -- including 29 yeshivah students -- in Hebron. After the Friday prayers at the A1-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount ended, thousands of frenzied Moslems -- incited by the Mufti's inflammatory sermon -- marched through the Old City, exiting through Sha'ar Shechem (Damascus Gate), heading towards the Meah Shearim and Beis Yisrael quarters, and chanting "Itbah al-Yahud" ("Kill the Jews!").

Fright, bordering on hysteria, seized the women and children of these neighborhoods, as word was received of the approaching mob. The Jewish men grabbed whatever instruments they could get their hands on -- poles, axes, pipes, etc. -- to defend themselves and their homes. The few Haganah men posted at the entrance of the neighborhood were at a loss as to how to deal with the huge mob, which was making its way down St. George Street (now named Shivtei Yisrael), headed by a sword-wielding sheikh who egged them on with shouts of "Jihad!" and "No mercy on women and children! Kill all the Jews!"

Suddenly a young religious fellow emerged from the flour mill at the entrance of Meah Shearim (which served as the Haganah's guard station) and, accompanied by just one other man, confronted the approaching mass of rioters. He took out a pistol, aimed it at the sheikh, and fired one shot at his head, killing him instantly. The mob was suddenly seized with panic when they saw that their leader had been slain, and turned on their heels, running back toward Sha'ar Shechem. Several of them were trampled to death in the ensuing stampede.


The next day, Shabbos, Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, [the revered Sage who lived in the Old City of Jerusalem,] had been scheduled to perform a circumcision in the Meah Shearim neighhborhood. Everyone, including the rabbi's family, took it for granted that he would not dare to undertake the perilous walk from the Old City to Meah Shearim; it was so obvious that no one even discussed it. How surprised they were, then, when Rav Yosef Chaim put on his coat after Kiddush on Shabbos morning and announced that he was going to the bris! They shouted and protested, but to no avail. Rav Yosef Chaim had made up his mind. The mitzvah of circumcision would protect him from harm for, as the Sages taught, "Those who travel on a mission to do a mitzvah will experience no harm, neither on their way there nor on their way back" (Talmud - Pesachim 8b).

Since the rabbi was already 80 years old, some of his acquaintances decided to accompany him. When they arrived at "Street of the Jews," at the end of the Jewish Quarter, Rav Yosef Chaim turned to them and told them to go back, for he saw that they were gripped with terror. As they turned to walk back home, they were shocked to see Rav Yosef Chaim head down the street leading to Sha'ar Shechem -- which was considered "treacherous terrain" even in the best of days -- rather than the safer "Bazaar Street" route, which led to Sha'ar Yafo (Jaffa Gate).

And so, following the very same path that the rioters had trodden less than 24 hours previously, the rabbi made his way toward Meah Shearim, confidently and proudly, buoyed by the happy thought that he would soon be bringing "another Jew into God's legion," as he liked to put it.


The first residents of Meah Shearim who noticed the distant black-clad figure walking down St. George Street stared in amazement and fear as the old Jew confidently strode along. As soon as they realized who it was that was coming, they burst out in shouts of joy. Within minutes, hundreds of residents assembled to greet Rav Yosef Chaim as he safely entered the neighborhood. Among them were his grandchildren, who promptly invited him to spend the rest of Shabbos with them, so that he would not have to retrace his steps through "enemy territory."

After the bris, Rav Yosef Chaim stopped by his grandchild's house to visit for a while, and then bid farewell, as he put on his hat and prepared to head home. The scene of the early morning replayed itself. The family members vehemently protested, arguing that coming to the bris was bad enough, but now there was certainly no longer any reason to undertake such a perilous journey.

Once again, however, Rav Yosef Chaim's persistence won out in the end. "Those who travel on a mission to do a mitzvah experience no harm, even on their way back," he reminded them. As he began walking down the street toward the edge of Meah Shearim, thousands of residents poured out of their houses to accompany him to the "border." When they reached the Italian hospital (now the Education Ministry, on the corner of Shivtei Yisrael and Nevi'im Streets), the crowd took their leave of the beloved rabbi and watched him as he began to walk, briskly and proudly toward Sha'ar Yafo!

Why did he insist on going to the bris through Sha'ar Shechem? he was later asked. "So that the Arabs should not think that they succeeded in driving out Jewish passersby from even one corner or street of Jerusalem!" he explained.

And why did he return through Sha'ar Yafo? "This has always been my custom, to leave the Old City through Sha'ar Shechem and to return through Sha'ar Yafo, to fulfill the verse, 'Walk about Zion and encircle it' (Psalms 48:13)!"


Rav Yosef Chaim once wrote, "I have no Torah or wisdom to my credit. The only distinction I can apply to myself is that I had the merit, by God's grace, of living my life in the Holy City of Jerusalem."

In his will, he left instructions that no one should eulogize him, and that no one should say anything more than, "Pity the loss of an old Land of Israel Jew." For Rav Yosef Chaim, that was the ultimate praise!

Hat Tip: Daniel


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