Rabbi Mordechai Tzemach Eliyahu was born on 21 Adar A 5689 (1929) to Rabbi Salman Eliyahu, a Kabbalist and disciple of the Ben Ish Chai, and to his mother Mazal nee Tzadkah, the sister of Rabbi Yehudah Tzadkah and the granddaughter of the Ben Ish Chai’s sister. From childhood, Rabbi Eliyahu was exceptionally talented. The family, however, lived in dire poverty. When Rabbi Eliyahu was just eleven years old, his father passed away and he had to work to help support his family. He went to work selling cooked garbanzo beans and then became a mezuzah checker for the mezuzot that his brother, Rabbi Na’im Eliyahu, had written. Despite the hard work, Rabbi Eliyahu continued to study whenever and wherever he could. In his youth, he learned under the tutelage of Rabbi Ezra Atiyah in the Porat Yosef Yeshivah and under Rabbi Tzedakah Chutzin. When he was 20 years old, he was a member of the Brit HaKana’im, an underground movement that aimed to make Israel a state that would be governed by Jewish law and coerce the public to keep the mitzvot of the Torah. Years later he said that “the path that I had chosen in the past is not appropriate for our generation.”
At the beginning of 5720 (1960) Rabbi Eliyahu was appointed as the youngest ever dayan (judge) to the rabbinical court in Be’er Sheva. That year, the bones of the famous rabbinic figure, Chaim Yosef David Azulai—the Chida—were brought to Israel for reburial from Italy and Rabbi Eliyahu attended to his burial in Jerusalem. After four years in Be’er Sheva, he became a member of the regional rabbinical court in Jerusalem. In 5730 (1970), he was appointed to the Great Rabbinical Court. On 4 Nissan 5743 (1983) Rabbi Eliyahu was chosen as the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, alongside Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Avraham Elkanah Kahana Shapira. Even after he finished his tenure as Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Eliyahu remained the spiritual leader of multitudes. He was known as a Kabbalist and miracle worker.
Rabbi Eliyahu was the president of Kollel Darchei Hora’ah in Jerusalem, which trains young Torah scholars to become rabbis and community leaders in Israel and abroad. Today, there are over 60 shluchim (emissaries) of Rabbi Eliyahu’s disciples throughout the world and in Israel.
After a period of two years in which Rabbi Eliyahu’s health constantly deteriorated, the tzaddik passed away on 25 Sivan 5770 (2010). He was buried together with the Chida, whose bones he had buried there fifty years earlier.
Once, when Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu was Chief Rabbi of Israel, he made an official visit to France, where the official delegation of the Jewish community of France awaited him. There was a woman there, one of the important members of the CRIF (Representative Council of the Jewish Institutions of France) responsible for the reception. During the event, this woman approached Rabbi Eliyahu and asked to speak to him alone.
The Rabbi found a quiet corner and the woman poured out her heart to him: “My daughter met a young Muslim man. She fell in love with him and has informed me that they are getting married.” Rabbi Eliyahu asked a number of questions, and the woman related that the young man was a member of an important family and they had already set a wedding date for the near future. In keeping with the Muslim sha’ariya, the chief mufti of Paris would be performing the wedding. The woman told Rabbi Eliyahu, that she no longer wished to live, for her daughter had hardened her heart and would not listen to any of her pleas.
“When you go home today,” Rabbi Eliyahu replied, “I ask you to tell your daughter that she should at least take it upon herself to keep one of the mitzvot of the holy Torah. In the home she is planning on making with the Muslim, there should be two kitchen sinks: one for meat and the other for dairy. The woman agreed and Rabbi Eliyahu blessed her from the depths of his heart that his words would penetrate her daughter’s heart and that she would agree to that one request.
A number of days later, an official ceremony was held for Rabbi Eliyahu in the palace of the then-French President, Jacques Chirac. Among the other guests, the Rabbi met the Chief Mufti of Paris, who was invited to the event as the head of the Muslim community. Rabbi Eliyahu approached him, shook his hand warmly and embarked on a friendly conversation with him in Arabic. They discovered that both of them were born in the Old City of Jerusalem and that they had even been neighbors as children. The conversation became more and more friendly and the Mufti was taken with Rabbi Eliyahu’s charm.
“My dear friend,” Rabbi Eliyahu whispered to the Mufti, “because we are not only friends but also neighbors, I want to reveal something important to you. True, I am a Jew, and you are a Muslim, but we must each preserve our own unique path. When I came to France, I heard about a Jewish girl who is planning to marry a Muslim boy. Actually, however her plan is to draw him into Judaism and to cause him to convert to Judaism!”
The Mufti reddened with anger, but Rabbi Eliyahu continued: “I did not come here to anger you, but I do want to give you all the details, the girl’s name, and her strategy so that you will put her in her place. We, men of religion, must maintain the borders between religions. If today, a Jewish girl can convince her Muslim boyfriend to convert, then tomorrow there will be the opposite situation and Muslim boys will pressure Jewish girls to become Muslims.”
The Mufti saw that Rabbi Eliyahu was serious and paid close attention to the details about the girl. The rabbi gave him her name and mentioned that she had decided to demand that there would be two sinks in their home. That would be only the beginning, for she intended to add more and more commandments until the Muslim would convert to Judaism. “I know them and they have asked me to officiate at their wedding,” the Mufti said. I will call the boy tomorrow and will ask him if his fiancée is planning to install two sinks in their new kitchen. If so, nothing will help him. I will force him to leave her!” the Mufti said.
On the day that Rabbi Eliyahu was returning to Israel, the CRIF delegation once again accompanied him. Once again, the same woman approached Rabbi Eliyahu and asked to speak with him privately. This time the tears in her eyes were tears of joy. She related that less than just a week ago, she had convinced her daughter, as per Rabbi Eliyahu’s instructions, to install two separate sinks in her future home. Yesterday, her daughter came home sobbing and broken. She told her mother that her Muslim boyfriend had broken their engagement and told her that he never wanted to see her again. He was overtaken by the thought that the two sinks were just an excuse that would eventually convince him to convert to Judaism, and he was furious. As much as she denied this, she did not manage to convince him, and he abandoned her forever.
Wisdom and Shrewdness
We can apply the verse “I am wisdom, my neighbor is shrewdness” (אֲנִי חָכְמָה שָׁכַנְתִּי עָרְמָה) to this story. Because of his Muslem neighbor, Rabbi Eliyahu was forced to fulfill the words of the Talmud, “A person should always be shrewd in [order to attain] fear of Heaven” (לְעוֹלָם יְהֵא אָדָם עָרוּם בְּיִרְאָה). Rashi explains that the meaning is that one should employ all sorts of deviousness in order to serve the Creator with awe.
In Chasidic philosophy, shrewdness is associated with the power of the intellect (כֹּחַ הַמַּשְׂכִּיל), a super-conscious faculty of the soul also known as the concealed wisdom (חָכְמָה סְתִימָאָה), the source of the super-conscious flashes of insight of wisdom that a person experiences during his lifetime. It enclothes within it the attribute of might of the higher aspect of the crown, known as Atik Yomin (the Ancient of Days). This particular attribute is also referred to in the Zohar as the butzina dekardonita. The Zohar also refers to it as the “rod of measurement” (קַו הַמִּדָּה), because it is also the basis of all measurements; measurements are used to define the limited size of an object.
In our story, we see the connection between Rabbi Eliyahu’s wisdom and his might, which as noted is responsible for setting up limits and borders—in this case at first between dairy and meat and then in his words to the mufti that men and women of different religions should not mix. About wisdom it is said, “Who is wise? He who sees that which will be born [or begotten]” and in this case, Rabbi Eliyahu was shrewd enough to see that by getting the young woman to set up boundaries between dairy and meat, her engagement to the Muslim man would be called off.
Rabbi Eliyahu’s clarity and propitious advice came as the result of years upon years of studying the intricacies of the Torah’s fine print in legal matters, which train the individual to make hair-splitting decisions, thereby exercising and awakening his super-conscious powers of the intellect.
. Proverbs 8:12.
. Berachot 17a.
. Tanya, Sha’ar HaYichud VeHaEmunah, ch. 4.