‘Masa’ot Yerushalayim’ and the ‘Sabba Kaddisha’ R. Shlomo Eliezer Alfandari
By: Moshe Maimon
One of the greatest and most unique Torah scholars, Sephardic or otherwise, of the past 100 years was R. Shlomo Eliezer Alfandari . His life spanned about a century and his prolific rabbinic career included stints in Istanbul, Damascus, Safed and Jerusalem. Besides for being an outstanding scholar with a near-photographic memory he was also extremely diligent and was a prodigious writer of responsa and novellae. Additionally, he was renowned as an independent thinker and outspoken critic of many of the societal norms prevalent around him including Zionism and modernity, and he had little tolerance for those who he felt had strayed from the torah-true path. This quality earned him many admirers and not a few adversaries, but all admitted that R. Shlomo Eliezer’s sole motivation was the truth and he did nothing for personal gain. Indeed, despite his considerable means, he lived a life of asceticism and completely shunned any form of publicity.
Amongst his native Sephardic brethren he was known as ‘Chacham Mercado Alfandari’. This unusual-sounding surname; ‘Mercado’, meaning ‘purchased’ in Ladino, was somewhat common in his native Turkey and was indicative of the fact that it’s bearer had undergone a symbolic ceremony in his youth whereby he was ‘sold’ and redeemed. This practice is mentioned in Sefer Hasidim (#245) and was widespread in Sephardic lands. My Great-uncle, Sam Bension Maimon, himself a Turkish native, in his book The Beauty of Sephardic life (p. 188) has this to say about that interesting custom:
This practice of “purchase,” was followed by a family that was blessed with a newborn baby, but had previously suffered the loss of an infant before the new arrival. In order to ensure the life of the muevo nasido (newborn baby), they would go through a formality in which a relative or a friend would “purchase” this baby from the parents, thus transferring ownership. This was done to outsmart the evil spirits and ward off their fatal hold on this family’s offspring that was marked for a fatal accident. So, if it was a boy, he was called Mercado; or if it was a girl, she was called Mercada.
Today, however, he is more popularly known as ‘the Sabba Kaddisha’ which was the title bequeathed upon him by the Minchas Elazar of Munkacz; R. Chaim Elazar Shapira, who was largely responsible for bringing this sage to the attention of the greater public especially in Europe among the Ashkenazim. This also was used as the title of his response - שו"ת הסבא קדישא. In a sense, the Munkaczer was also responsible for shaping the perception that many people have of R. Alfandari, as his perspective as detailed in his writings and in Masa’ot Yerushalayim, is the lens through which many see the Sabba Kaddisha.
The Munkaczer, after hearing about this extraordinary personality almost completely coincidentally, gradually became convinced that this sage was the ‘Holy elder’ or Sabba Kaddisha of the generation. According to a personal Hassidic tradition he had, the Holy Elder of every generation was capable of bringing the Messiah. This is what drew this great Hassidic leader, born and bred in Ashkenazic/Hassidic Hungary to R. Alfandari, although from a distance it might have seemed that the two made strange bedfellows. R. Alfandari, for his part, was delighted to make the acquaintance of an important Torah leader who shared his extreme views on Zionism and modernity.
Masa’ot Yerushalayim; Journey To Jerusalem: A review
There are various sources which provide biographical information on this unique sage, but predominant among them is the detailed account of the Munkaczer Rebbe’s trip to meet R. Alfandari in the late spring of 1930 shortly before the latter’s passing. This account was written by a follower of the Rebbe, who accompanied him on his trip, by the name of R. Moshe Goldstein. The book, entitled Masa’ot Yerushalayim which also contains a biographical section on R. Alfandari was first published 1931 in Munkacz and has been published many times since. This monumental meeting between east and west is a most interesting narrative and in addition to providing insight into the lives of these great scholars, it also allows for a view of pre-war Israel which is the backdrop for this meeting.
The book was recently translated into English by Artscroll (in 2009) and is called Journey to Jerusalem. It is this last work which I will focus on. Unfortunately, instead of adhering to their usual high standard and putting in the type of quality effort they have come to be known for into producing a professional edition of this classic, I found it to be lacking in many basic areas. First off, it is essentially just a simple translation from the original, complete with the archaic syntax such as ‘the Holy Rebbe’, ‘the Holy shul’, etc. Generally speaking, such prose, although sounding fine in Rabbinic Hebrew, nevertheless grates on the ears when rendered into English.
Additionally, the ’famed’ Artscroll system of transliteration was dropped in the case of this book, instead they adopted in many instances the Hungarian Hasidic mode of pronunciation. Understandably, this can be accepted when mentioning the Minchas Elazar who was known to his Hasidim as the Minchas Eluzar; but what justification is there, on the other hand, for spelling out Rabbi Eluzar son of Rabbi Shimon (p. 136) and Rabbi Eluzar Azikri (p. 157)?
In one instance (p. 205) they transliterated the Hebrew spelling of the Isle of Rhodes (רודיס) and thereby refer to “…The great Rabbi Rephael Yitzchak Yisrael, rav of Rudis (!)”.
In one case a faulty translation of the original completely corrupts the meaning of the sentence such as when discussing the origin of the famous Abohab Synagogue in Safed the author writes parenthetically:
אינו נודע אם זהו בעהמח"ס מנורת המאור או זקינו.
In English they got it backwards and wrote (p. 148):
It is unclear whether it was he or his grandfather who authored the Menoras Hamaor.
So much for style, but when it comes to content there are also quite a few editorial blunders such as when they refer to the Maharit (= Moreinu Harav Yosef diTrani) as Rabbi Yitzchak (!) of Trani (p. 204). One particularly egregious oversight can be found in the following paragraph (from p. 142 – 143):
The story is told in the holy Rabbi Shlomo ibn Gabirol’s accounts of his travels in Eretz Yisroel that because of Rabbi Alkabetz’s great wisdom, the gentiles envied him, and an Arab killed him and buried him under a tree in his garden. When the tree bore fruit early, people investigated. The crime was discovered, and the murderer was hanged on that very tree. This story is recorded in the holy work Kav Hayashar (chapter 86) about Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz.
Besides for the obvious problem with this story being that R. Shlomo Ibn Gabirol preceeded R. Alkabetz by 500 years, there are two contradictory sources given for this tale, namely the supposed ‘accounts of R. Ibn Gabirol’s travels’ (a non-existent work) and Kav Hayashar. A quick check with the Hebrew Edition will reveal the source of this error. Here is the original:
ולפלא, כי המעשה שהביאו בספרי תיירי ארץ הקודש מהקדוש מה״ר שלמה בן גבירול שמרוב חכמתו נתקנאו בו אומות העולם, וישמעאל אחד הרגו והטמינו תחת אילן בגן שלו, ועל ידי שהתאנה חנטה פגיה קודם זמנה חקרו, ואכן נודע הדבר ונתלה הרוצח על אותו אילן, מובא בספר הקדוש קב הישר (פרק פ״ו) על מה״ר שלמה אלקבץ ז״ל, יעיין שם.
What he is saying is that he was amazed to find that different accounts of tourists’ travels in Israel record a story supposedly about R. Shlomo Ibn Gabirol, while in Kav Hayashar it is reported to have happened to R. Shlomo Alkabetz. This is indeed an important bibliographical point, but In truth this legend is actually quoted in Shalshelet hakaballah regarding Ibn Gabirol and although the authenticity of this sefer is often questioned, there can be no doubt that the legend predates R. Shlomo Alkabetz and indeed no contemporary sources indicate that R. Alkabetz had anything but a peaceful end. Even though all early prints of Kav Hayashar that I have checked say R. Shlomo Alkabetz, the context leaves no doubt that it is a mistake and should read Ibn Gabirol.
Censorship and political correctness in Masa’ot Yerushalayim
It is clear that the English edition is a translation from the latest Hebrew Edition published in 2003 by Emes publishing ltd. (the official publishing house of the Munkacz Hasidim in Brooklyn). This addition is somewhat different from the first edition and I am not sure on what basis these changes were made. In addition to the footnotes which were actually parenthetical remarks included in the text in the original they have added numerous footnotes expanding and cross-referencing the material and there is no differentiation made between the original footnotes and the later ones. There are also various differences in the text itself. For instance the original edition when describing the Grave of R. Haim ibn Attar, (the author of Ohr Hachaim) the first edition (p.25b) adds:
'סמוך למנוחת האוה"ח הקדוש שם ג"כ מנוחת אשתו ושתי יבמות שהיו לו לנשים'
The 2003 edition is less shocking in it’s revelation by stating instead:
'סמוך למנוחת האור החיים הקדוש שם גם כן מנוחת שתי נשיו'
This is also the version found in the English translation and if memory serves correct, contemporary restorations at the actual gravesite reflect the veracity of the later edition. In fact, this may be the reason they took the initiative, justified or not, to change the text.
On another occasion the altering of the text was clearly intended to avoid possible fallout with today’s Yeshiva adherents. I refer you to the passage in the first edition (p.87b-88a) which recounts how certain members of the Hareidi Rabbis of Jerusalem approached the Munkaczer Rebbe in an attempt to find a solution to the problem of the negative effect the recently established Hebroner yeshiva was having on native Jerusalmite youth on account of the former’s modern style of dress. The Rebbe hastened to consult with R. Alfandari who wisely advised him not to make a commotion over it as such a fuss would only have negative ‘political results’. It reads like this:
בהיות רבנו שליט"א בתוככי ירושלים באו אליו גדולים חקרי לב מהרבנים החרדים שם ליהנות ממנו עצה ותושי' כדת מה לעשות ע"ד ישיבת סלאבאדקע שהיתה מלפנים בחברון ואחר הפרעות והשחיטות ר"ל נעתקו משם וקבעו ישיבתם בירושלים והמה רובם ככולם (אם כי למדנים הם) הולכי קצוצי פאות וזקן ומגדלי בלורית ורגילים לזה ממדינתם ובהיותם בחברון שאין שם ישוב חסידים מהאשכנזים כ"כ לא הזיקו לאחרים משא"כ פה בקרתא דשופריא עיר מלאה חכמים חסידי עליון ירעו וישחיתו לנו ולבנינו ותלמידי ישיבתנו שילמדו מהם ח"ו בדמותם כצלמם.
רבנו בשמעו את כל התלאה הזאת הלך להתייעץ עם הסבא קדישא הרב מהרש"א אם להרעיש עליהם כעת אחרי שנמלטו על נפשם מהפראים וכו'. והוא השיב בחכמת שלמ"ה אשר בקרבו כי יש לחוש בעודם בחמימות מהרוגי חברון שנשחטו גם מתלמידי ישיבתם (ובתוכם יראי ה' הי"ד) ואם ירעישו עליהם יכנסו תחת כנפי אותו האיש קוק וכל משרד הרבנות הציונית שר"י ועי"ז יתרבה חילם עי ישיבת סלאבאדקי מפורסמת בעולם והראש מתיבתא שלהם מפורסם ללמדן ע"כ שוא"ת עדיף כעת...
וכשאני לעצמי כשבאו תלמידי סלאבאדקא לביתי לדבר דברי תורה, וראיתים בלי זקן ופיאות ומגדלי בלורית, אמרתי להם על הכתוב (שיר השירים ב, יד) הראיני את מראיך (צלם אלקים על פי התורה. ואחר כך) השמיעיני את קולך בדברי תורה. אבל כשהוא ההיפך לא אדבר עמכם, ודחיתים כי הם באמת מחריבי קרתא קדישא. וכן יעשה גם הדר״ת להזהיר לאנשי שלומו ויראי אלקים להתרחק מישיבתם, אבל לא לצאת עתה בקול רעש מטעם הנ"ל עכתד"ה.
The 2003 edition censors this passage and simply writes:
בהיות רבינו שליט״א בתוככי ירושלים באו אליו גדולים חקרי לב מהרבנים החרדים שם ליהנות ממנו עצה ותושיה כדת מה לעשות על דבר פרצה מיוחדת שנפרצה בעיר ה׳. ושאל רבנו להסבא קדישא מה לעשות במחיצת כרם בית ישראל שנפרצה. וענה לו הסבא קדישא כי יש לחוש וכו' על כן שב ואל תעשה עדיף כעת...
וכן סיפר הסבא קדיש אל רבינו כשבאו תלמידי ישיבה מסוימת לביתי לדבר דברי תורה, וראיתים בלי זקן ופיאות ומגדלי בלורית, אמרתי להם על הכתוב (שיר השירים ב, יד) הראיני את מראיך (צלם אלקים על פי התורה. ואחר כך) השמיעיני את קולך בדברי תורה. אבל כשהוא ההיפך לא אדבר עמכם, ודחיתים כי הם באמת מחריבי קרתא קדישא. וכן יעשה גם הדר״ת להזהיר לאנשי שלומו ויראי אלקים להתרחק מהם, אבל לא לצאת עתה בקול רעש, עד כאן תורף דבריו הקדושים.
There is no reason to suspect that this was done to protect the identity of R. Kook, because this edition shows little sympathy for R. Kook, in fact in the preceding paragraphs dealing with R. Alfandari’s opposition to R. Kook, the Chief Rabbinate, and even to Agudath Israel, nothing is omitted and the material is buttressed with lengthy footnotes detailing all the letters written by various Rabbis opposing Zionism in general and the Chief Rabbinate in particular. It is obvious that sensitivities for the Slabodka Yeshiva are at the root of this censorship. This is also why the next passage (from p. 88a), which I am loath to reproduce here, detailing R. Alfandari’s assessment of R. M.M. Epstein and R. Kook is also omitted in the 2003 edition.
Needless to say the English edition not only follows lead of the 2003 edition in censoring the Slabodka passages but also omits all of the anti R. Kook passages such as this one, from p. 229 in the 2003 edition:
כשבאו אליו אח"כ אנשים גם רבנים או אדמורי״ם שבאו לא"י, ושמע שהיו אצל ׳קוק׳ רב חראשי של המשרד חציונית והחפשים, לא אבה לקבלם להכניסם לביתו, ואמר הלא כבר היה אצל קוק ומה יחפצו ממני, ומדוע אתם פוסחים על שתי חסעיפים.
Gone too are the following statements regarding Agudath Israel attributed to R. Alfandari, and with them a possible window into the special relationship he shared with the Munkaczer:
פעם אחד שאלו אותו לחוות דעתו בענין האגודה. והשיב שאין חילוק בין הציונים והמזרחים והאגודים רק בשמא, וחוט המקיף את כולם הוא הכסף והשתררות ולא כבוד שמים. על כן היה אוהב מאוד כששמע מצדיק ואדמו״ר אשר לא כרע לבעל לשום אחת מהמפלגות וכתות הנזכרים לעיל, ואדרבה מוחה בהם ומקנא קנאת ה׳ צבאות. ואמר כי מדה זו אהוב לו מן הכל ועולה על כולנה יותר מבקיאות התורה והפלגה בחסידות וזכות אבות, אם כי רב הוא.
Understandably, the English speaking audience this book is intended for is not as virulently anti-Zionist as the Munkacz/Satmar Hasidic base that the Hebrew edition was intended for and certainly wouldn’t countenance any anti-Agudah sentiments and therefore excised the more extreme passages from its translation. It is therefore all the more surprising that the following passage got by the careful eye of the censor and made it into the English edition on P. 178:
We found out that the main reason they did not keep their word was because they were afraid of their rabbi and leader, Yaakov Maier, a member of the official rabbinate, which the Sabba Kaddisha strenuously opposed. Immediately after the Sabba Kaddisha’s demise the zealous Torah scholars of Jerusalem warned Yaakov Maier not to come eulogize him.
Obviously they did not realize that despite R. Yaakov Meir’s affiliation with the Rabbinate as the Sephardic Rishon L’zion, nevertheless he was widely respected by virtually all segments of orthodox Jewry. Indeed another popular Artscroll biography actually lauds R. Yaakov Meir for forging a close connection with Jerusalem’s Ultra-Orthodox Eidah Hachareidit and working together with them on various occasions. Most likely, the American proofreader did not know who this famous Israeli-Sephardic personality was and thus allowed this disrespectful passage though.
The biographical information available on R. Alfandari is sparse, and precious little of it pertains to the bulk of his life before his move to Jerusalem in his final decade. There is certainly much more to the picture we could gain from a fuller biography of his life, also taking into perspective the vastly different milieu that he sprouted from. Yet, the detailed picture we have from the period of the Munkaczer’s visit certainly is an accurate portrayal of at least one dimension of his great personality. As I have demonstrated, the reader is best served consulting the original version where possible to obtain a more complete and accurate snapshot of this historic encounter.
In the case of R. Alfandari, this sort of contest for understanding and presenting his legacy is a testament to his greatness, his broad appeal, and to his own multi-faceted personality. He is certainly worthy of further in-depth study, and a full-length professional biography would certainly give us much to learn from and be inspired. However, this will only be true if the study is free of the constraints of bias and preconceived notions.
 It is difficult to pinpoint his exact year of birth and many different dates have been given. Masa’ot Yerushalayim, on the basis of a statement of R. Shlomo Eliezer regarding his involvement in the Damascus Blood Libel of 1840, assumes that he had to have been born at least by 1810 and thereby making him 120 years old at the time of his death in 1930. In Ohalei Shem (pinsk 1912) p. 507 he is mistakenly referred to as ר' חיים(!) מירקאדו אלפנדרי, and this has caused many to overlook his entry there, but there it states that he was born in 1846. Most sources give 1826 as the year of his birth.
 This quality was unique even among Ashkenazic Rabbis of that era but certainly among the Sephardic Rabbis. See what R. Yosef-Zundel of Salant had to say about his Sephardic contemporaries in Ha-tzaddik R. Yosef Zundel M’Salant p. 37 to wit 'רבני הספרדים שיחיו...אעפ"י שהם ת"ח וצדיקים אכן אין הם יודעים מעניני האשכנזים כלל... ודאי כוונתם לש"ש אמנם יותר טוב היה להם השתיקה ולא להתערב בעניני האשכנזים' .
 His name has understandably been misunderstood and misspelled by Ashkenazic writers. See for example: Mara D’ara Yisrael vol. 2 page 201 where he is addressed as כמהר"ר אלעזר מלכאדו אלפנדרי.
 In fact, the Hida writes in glosses to Sefer Hasidim (Brit Olam ad. loc.): 'בראותי דברי רבנו הנאני דכך נוהגים במדינת תוגרמה ומתקיימים ונמצא שרש הענין בדברי רבנו ז"ל'. See also the other sources referenced in R. Margolies edition. R. Eliezer Brodt pointed out that some Ashkenazic scholars have also followed the advice of Sefer Hasidim, such as the Aderet; see his Seder Eliyahu p. 30.
 The practice of calling a child by anything other than his given surname may seem strange today but it had a parallel among Sephardim not too long ago, where many firstborns were called “B’chor” to the point of where his official surname was all but forgotten. See Keter Shem Tov (Keidan 1934) vol. 1 p. 680 where he writes: 'המנהג בא"י וסת"מ כשנולד בן בכור, מלבד שם העריסה, קוראין אותו בשם "בכור" ולנקבה "בכורה", ושם העריסה משתקע לגמרי. ואם יש לו משרה דתית קוראים לו רבי בכור, חכם בכור, או האדון בכור'.
 This section was printed recently as the introduction to a new work of R. Alfandari’s published from manuscript by Ahavat Shalom (2011), as part of new initiative to publish more of his writings, called Yakhel Shlomo. Surprisingly, they attribute the article to the noted Jerusalem Kabbalist R. Yeshaya Asher Zelig Margolies. I am not sure how they could have made that mistake since it was clearly part of R. Goldstein’s work although he does credit R. Margolies, among others, for providing him with valuable information on R. Alfandari.
 See here.
 The prologue to the English edition, basing itself on the Hebrew תשסד, mistakenly claims it was published in 2004.
 Available here.
Some of which just don’t make any sense, such as this one (from the English edition p. 152): ‘Rabbeinu David ibn Zimra, who taught much Torah and had many great students. He wrote over 2000 halachic rulings, of which only 300 were printed.’ I can’t figure out what is the basis for this statement as there are actually well over 2000 responsa printed from the Radvaz.
 R. E. M. Reich pointed out that in Toldot Chachmei Yerushalayim vol. 3 p. 10, the author states that although according to folklore the two women buried adjacent to the Ohr Hachaim were יבמות, in reality they were his two wives. Interestingly enough, the account in Masa’ot Yerushalayim mentions three women altogether. It would seem that Toldot Chachmei Yerushalayim is the source for this change as you can tell by looking at the interesting footnote in the 2003 ed. (ad. loc.) which was lifted straight from Toldot Chachmei Yerushalayim. To wit: מקובל כי הן .היו נשים גדולות ומופלאות במעשיהן, ומנהגיהן היה להתעטף בטלית ולהתלבש בתפלין על דרך שאיתא במיכל בת שאול The only difference is that in Toldot Chachmei Yerushalayim this is only reported with regards to the second of his two wives. See also R. Rueven Margolies’ Toldot R. Chaim ibn Attar pp 45-46. Interestingly, he records an unsubstantiated report that there were four יבמות in addition to the two wives.
 It is noteworthy that R. Dov Cohen, a Slobodka student at that time, reported that the transition to Jerusalem was smooth ‘and almost completely devoid of any opposition’. See his memoirs: Vayelchu Shneihem Yachdav (Feldheim 2009) p. 250.
 R. Alfandari was so opposed to the Rabbinate that when he heard that R. Tzvi Pesah Frank, who had been close with him, had become involved with the Rabbinate, he remarked that it was 'חמץ שנמצא בפסח'. I heard this from a descendant of R. Asher Zelig Margolies.
 It is instructive that in a written correspondence reproduced on p. 228 of the 2003 ed., R. Alfandari refers to R. Kook respectfully as הר' מהרא"י קוק ה"י even when disagreeing with him sharply. It may be the zealotry of R. Goldstein who saw fit to leave out the honorifics in this quotation.
 To be sure, his appointment to this position after the death R. Elyashar in 1906, was not without controversy, as many favored R. Elyashar’s son to succeed him over the Alliance-trained and Zionist-inclined R. Yaakov Meir. In some cases he proved himself to be too right-wing for some factions, such as when he opposed the Vaad Ha’leumi for giving women the right to vote. See B’toch Hachomot (Jerusalem 1948) pp. 334-335.
 See Guardian of Jerusalem (Artscroll 1983) p. 401.