Hacham Yom Tov Yedid Last Chief Rabbi of Halab

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By: Sophia Franco

As I sit down to write this article, I feel small, insignificant, and woefully inadequate for the task at hand. And the more I learn about this towering scholar and tzadik, the more I realize that he would not want an article written about his great qualities and achievements. Yet, how can we not take the time to learn from a man who devoted his life to Hashem and Torah? How can we not examine the traits that made him such a rare and outstanding leader, student, teacher, and embodiment of integrity and devotion?

Hacham Yom Tov Yedid was born in Aleppo, Syria in 1926 to Zakieh Levy and Yaakov Yedid. His grandmother insisted on naming him after her brother, the renowned kabbalist Hacham Yom Tov Yedid, who had passed away several years earlier. Every Friday morning, Hacham Yom Tov went to his namesake’s grave to light an oil lamp.

Yom Tov studied Torah diligently under the guidance of Hacham Moshe Tawil,zt”l. His passion and dedication were unmatched, and he stood out in yeshiva as a top-tier student. His learning partners included future Torah luminaries such as Rabbi Yitzhak Chehebar,zt”l,and Rabbi Yaakob Attieh, shelit”a. In later years, in the introduction to his book, Meir Tov on Tehillim,Rabbi Yedid expressed the feelings of awe, reverence, and gratitude that he felt for his great mentor, Rabbi Moshe Tawil.

In 1950, Yom Tov married Helen, the daughter of Hacham Moshe Bassoul, his community’s hazzan. The two were blessed with nine children. In 1960, he was appointed Chief Rabbi of the thriving Sephardic community in Aleppo. In the capacity of this position, he served as head of the Torah schooland oversaw all aspects of Jewish life, including kashrut, marriage, birth, divorce, civil suits, caring for the sick and needy, burials, and so on. He tended faithfully to all his duties, and he led with a firm hand, never compromising even one iota on matters of Jewish law.

Master Educator in Aleppo

During those years, Hacham Yom Tov would arrive at the bet midrash every night at 3am to study and teach. Due to his long list of duties, this was the only time he could learn together with his advanced students, who themselves taught during the day, and thus were able to learn only in the early morning hours.

The hacham was a master educator who recognized the vital importance of his role. He believed that no Jew could appreciate prayer or Tehillim if he is not able to properly read and chant the text. Rabbi Edmond Nahum, his student, recalls, “Reading skills were taught to perfection at a young age. The boys were expected to read any Hebrew text with ta’amim [melody] without mistakes. As a child as young as eight years old in talmud Torah in Aleppo, I knew I had to be tested by Hacham Yom Tov at the end of every year. We shook as we approached him, because if you didn’t know the material, you would now never forget it; and if two kids were unprepared from the same class, then the rabbi who taught them would have to explain why!”

The hacham never yelled, Rabbi Nahum says. “If he just looked at you, it was enough! He kept us to a different standard. He was strict. There was a right way and a wrong way.”

 As the children got older, they learned Humash with Rashi, and later, Gemara with the classic commentaries. Each and every graduate was able to be hazzan and read the Torah flawlessly, and they are now dispersed throughout the world, sharing their knowledge. The great success of Sephardic communities here in New York, as well as in Panama, Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina, is, to a large extent, attributable to Hacham Yom Tov, whose students spread throughout the Sephardic world armed with the knowledge and inspiration to teach, guide and lead which they received from their great rabbi.

Hacham Yom Tov had the unique ability to simplify otherwise difficult texts and make them more accessible. He wrote pages and pages of commentary on everything he studied, including Tanach, Mishnah, Gemara, Halachah, and Zohar. These notes were not written to share or be published, but rather to help him review the material later and commit it to memory. As a result of this method, the hacham had a vast corpus of knowledge at his fingertips, and could answer any question immediately, without having to go searching through Torah sources. Eventually, his family and community convinced him to print his commentary on Tanach by the name of Meir Tov.

Rabbi Nachum recalls, “The Chief Rabbi of Damascus, Nissim Indibo Hacohen, predicted that Hacham Yom Tov would simplify the Torah for all future generations. Today we know this to be true. These two great men had such enormous respect for one another that when Rabbi Indibo, zt”l,passed away in 1973 at 115 years old, Hacham Yom Tov eulogized him magnificently. It was actually the only eulogy he ever gave.”

Strong Community Leadership

The hacham established strict guidelines for communal events. Prayers started early in the morning, with the last minyan ending before 8am. At school, boys and girls studied on different floors. All weddings were “mlebas” weddings, simple and quick, so nobody would flaunt their wealth by making fancy affairs. He firmly insisted on adherence to these guidelines, and did not hide his displeasure when lines were crossed. As Rabbi Eliezer said (Pirke Avot 2:10), “Warm yourself by the fire of the Sages, but beware of their coals, lest you be burnt.”

Hacham Yom Tov feared nobody but Hashem. He therefore treated everybody the same, without showing any preference to the wealthy and powerful. It is said that the hacham would not even ask somebody for a glass of water or allow somebody to hold the door open for him, as he did not want to be beholden to anyone. Nor did he seek any sort of honor or praise.

The hacham regarded his time as his most sacred commodity. He never engaged in idle chatter, or “haki ballash” as the Syrians phrased it. He filled his time with Torah and community work, and had neither the time nor the patience for wasteful babbling.

Hacham Yom Tov served as hazzan on Yom Kippur, leading the congregation in the recitation of every prayer. His stirring prayers, especially Kal Nidre, uplifted and inspired the congregants, causing many of them to cry. His beautiful voice and pure sincerity allowed the people to truly feel the awesomeness and sanctity of the High Holidays, an experience which impacted them throughout the year.

“You would see the purity that came from his heart,” Rabbi Nahum describes.

Hacham Yom Tov was beloved by his community and adored by friends and family, all of whom recognized that everything he did was driven by a sincere commitment to Torah. And it was clear to them that he worked and toiled for them, and never for himself.

As the Jews’ condition in Syria steadily deteriorated in the latter part of the 20th century, the vast majority of Aleppo’s community emigrated to the United States. During this time, the Mukhabarat (Syrian secret service) detained Hacham Yom Tov and beat him until he could not walk. They did this solely out of hatred, because he was the Chief Rabbi of the community. When he returned home from this harrowing ordeal, he did not complain. Instead, he said, “This is what Gd wanted; I am happy with my lot.” Hacham Yom Tov’s world was the world of Torah, mitzvot and truth, and he never budged from these ideals, regardless of the circumstances.

The hacham remained in Aleppo until November of 1982. During the week of Parashat Vayetze Yaakov, which tells of our patriarch Yaakov’s departure from his home, the hacham departed his hometown of Aleppo, and emigrated to the United States.

An Alcove in Ahi Ezer

The hacham’s wife, Helen, arrived in America in January of 1982 with several of their children, and nearly one year later, the hacham joined her. He received a warm greeting by the Syrian community of Brooklyn,

Much to everyone’s surprise, Hacham Yom Tov decided that he would no longer work in communal leadership. He chose instead to devote himself to fulltime learning. While he held an official position in Congregation Shaare Zion as rabbi, in the capacity of which he delivered a number of classes during the week, most of his days were spent in a small alcove on the balcony in the synagogue of Ahi Ezer. In that small space he had a table and chair, a closet of books, and a pen – and that was all he needed. He left his house at 5am every morning, and remained in the synagogue until late every evening. On Friday morning he would be dressed and ready for Shabbat by 9am, at which time he headed to the synagogue to learn. Aside for some time that he set aside for walking, his days were completely dedicated to the study of Torah. This was his schedule every day for 32 years straight. He always arrived on time, and he never missed a single day. 

“My mother would try to buy him new clothes or shoes,” the hacham’s son, Isaac Yedid, says. “She’d make him magnificent meals. She’d try to get him to go to different semahot [celebrations] of the family. He wanted none of it. His joy and excitement came from the Torah and constant review of Gd’s word. If we had a wedding in the family, he would stay for as long as it took to say ‘boreh peri hagefen…’”

Reflecting on this extraordinary level of diligence, Isaac continues, “The Torah doesn’t obligate us to conduct our life in this way. It isn’t forbidden to go on vacation or enjoy a meal. So why was he like this, and why are we not? We’re all students of Torah, but we’re so far from him. He got so much happiness and satisfaction from his learning that nothing else compared to that pleasure. Everything else was secondary. He wanted to know everything, and in order to do that, it had to be the only thing.”

Hacham Yom Tov’s youngest son, the renowned Rabbi Meyer Yedid of Shaare Zion and YDE, marvels at his father’s unparalleled humility. “If you ask me, ‘How did your father become the Chief Rabbi,’ I’d say I don’t know. If you ask me, ‘Whom did he learn with as a young student,’ again, I don’t know. My father didn’t talk much, and if he did, it was certainly not about himself. He was so humble; we never knew what he accomplished, what he learned, what he wrote, or whom he taught. Most things we do know about him are through other people. He never made a siyum [celebration of the completion of a Talmudic tractate], though we know he finished hundreds, if not thousands, of books. It was just not his way. We also learned not to speak about our accomplishments. There was no applause or congratulations.

“It’s a lesson to be learned... We have obligations in this world, and when we fulfill our obligations, there’s no reason to discuss it. Our rabbis teach us, ‘If you have learned much Torah, do not flatter yourself about it, because it was for this purpose you were created’ (Pirke Avot 2:9). My father lived by these words. I honestly don’t ever remember seeing him without a book in hand. Even the last year or two, when he wasn’t able to read, he always held a book in his hand. That is the only way he knew how to sit.”

Hacham Yom Tov lived his life purely leshem Shamayim, for the sake of Gd, without any personal interest or self-serving agenda. He did the right thing without talking about it, providing us with a living example of the Mishnah’s timeless admonition, “Emor me’at va’ase harbe – Say little and do much.”(Pirke Avot 1:15)He himself often remarked, “Actions are louder than words.”

“The Real Deal”

At Hacham Yom Tov’s minyan, you could hear a pin drop. Nobody dared to arrive late, walk in carrying a cup of coffee or with an untucked shirt, or converse during prayers. For him, it was clear that praying meant standing before the King, and so reverence, punctuality and decorum were strictly required.

Hacham Yom Tov would remind congregants that they were in a house of Gd, and so they needed to come on time and conduct themselves with reverence and respect.

“Really, the only time he got upset was when it came to Torah and Hashem,” Rabbi Meyer Yedid says. “Otherwise, he was the quietest, softest person you ever met. He loved his family, loved his people and was proud of their accomplishments.”

David E. Sitt remembers walking into Shaare Zion and taking a seat near the rabbi in the second row, back in the late 90’s. “People said to me, ‘You can’t sit there, you’ll get yelled at!’ But I did, for the next four years. The rabbi watched me. After 48 months, he called me over for the first time, blessed me, and sent me on my way. For him it was all about respecting the religion. Hacham Yom Tov’s reputation was fear, but if you were afraid, you were not refined enough. He was sweet, as long as you didn’t cross Hashem and you didn’t cross the shul. His strictness shows in the character and humility of his children; they are magnificent, humble, and the royalty of our community. I am in awe of them; this family is the real deal.”

“A Protective Coat”

Hacham Yom Tov’s children are Jack Yedid, Moshe Yedid, Albert Yedid, Isaac Yedid, Rabbi Meyer Yedid, Katy Chabot, Simha Gindi, Shella Fariwa, and Mira Cohen.

“My brothers and sisters are among the most refined people on this planet,” Rabbi Mayer Yedid proudly states. “We are an extremely close family who love, support, and respect each other. This is because our father loved, supported, and respected us; he rarely imposed on us and he was careful to give us our space. We all appreciate each other because we all feel fortunate to be the children of very special parents.”

“He brought up a large family who is spreading Torah throughout our world,” Rabbi David Ozeri remarked. “We are indebted to Hacham Yom Tov. This is an irreplaceable loss. He stood as a ‘magen,’ a shield, a protective coat for our community. Im en Torah, en kedushah – without Torah, there is no sanctity.”

Reflecting on the hacham’s profound impact on the community, Rabbi Shlomo Diamond observed, “Hacham Yom Tov stayed in his little space in Ahi Ezer from 5am till late at night, alone, with no crutches, and only his obligation to learn Torah to drive him. The Talmud explains that one day of King David learning Torah was better than the thousand sacrifices that King Shlomo gave. The welfare of the Jewish nation rests on the shoulders of our Torah scholars and people like Hacham Yom Tov. This man has done more for this community than any other individual.”

Harav Yaakov Hillel remarked that Hacham Yom Tov’s room with just a table, a chair, a pen and classic works of Torah was like the “Bet Hamikdash,” the Holy Temple, in our time.

An Enduring Legacy

Hacham Yov Tov passed away on 21 Tammuz, 5776 (July 27, 2016) at the age of 90, as the oldest rabbi in the Syrian Jewish community in the U.S. A three-hour funeral service was held at Magen David Yeshiva in Brooklyn. Stirring eulogies were delivered by Rabbi Leon Gindi, the hacham’s son in law; Rabbi Yosef Raful; Rabbi Shaul Kassin; Rabbi Meyer Yedid; Rabbi David Ozeri; Rabbi Aharon Farhi; and Rabbi Edmond Nahum. Throngs of people came to pay their last respects, many of whom stood outside in the searing summertime heat.

The hacham’s body was then flown to Israel, and a second funeral service was held at the Har Hamenuhot cemetery. Despite taking place on Friday afternoon, just several hours before the onset of Shabbat, scores of Sephardic Jews filled numerous buses to come pay their respects to this giant. Many prominent religious leaders were in attendance, including Sephardic Chief Rabbi Hacham Yitzhak Yosef, Hacham Yehuda Ades, Hacham David Attieh, Hacham Yaakov Hillel, Hacham David Yosef, Hacham Reuven Elbaz, Hacham Shelomo Zafrani, Hacham Yitzhak Beracha, and Hacham Shmuel Pinhasi, among others.

Hacham Yom Tov Yedid taught with love and sincerity, allowing his students to experience the sweetness and beauty of Torah. He also had the courage to rebuke when necessary, always out of a genuine desire to help people grow and improve. All he wanted from his students, and from all of us, was truth, purity, and fealty to tradition. This means standing together with peace, love and unity. This means abhorring arrogance, acting for the sake of truth and not for personal honor, and respecting simple, good people. This means raising our children to follow the Torah and fulfill the Almighty’s will.

This is the rabbi’s great legacy, and this is the path he charted for us throughout his 90 remarkable years of life. He never asked us to give him honor or do personal favors. What he did ask, repeatedly, is that we faithfully adhere to our ancient traditions and devote ourselves to Torah. Now that he has left us, it behooves us all to fulfill his wish, and follow his inspiring example of selfless devotion to Torah and to the Jewish Nation.

Maythe Almighty comfort the family among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem, and may He grant us the strength and wisdom to follow and perpetuate the hacham’s extraordinary legacy of genuine piety.