CHIEF RABBI, HACHAM SHAUL KASSIN 5681 – 5779 / 1921-2018

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By: Kelly Jemal Massry

Words from Rabbi Yosef Harari-Raful, Rabbi Shimon Alouf, Rabbi Shlomo Diamond, Rabbi Edmund Nahum, Rabbi Shmuel Choueka, Rabbi Meyer Yedid, and Rabbi Saul Kassin at the levaya at Magen David.

“When Hacham Shaul was young, he carried the burden of the community on his shoulders. When he grew old, he carried the burden of the community in his heart.”

So proclaimed Rabbi Edmond Nahum, one of the numerous distinguished rabbis who eulogized Chief Rabbi Hacham Shaul J. Kassin at his funeral in Brooklyn on Sunday, December 2nd. This description of Hacham Shaul beautifully captures the delicate balance between strength and softness that characterized Hacham Shaul.

“He was an image of sweetness and purity,” said Rabbi Shlomo Diamond, and yet, as Rabbi Shimon Alouf put it, “his inner strength was so powerful because he had one purpose in front of his eyes – the welfare of this holy community.”

The Humility of Moshe Rabbenu

Although he was a giant of Torah scholarship, Hacham Shaul had an especially unassuming presence. He always conducted himself in a humble, unassertive manner, constantly attached to Hashem, without any interest at all in the kind of great respect that was showered upon him.

Rabbi Meyer Yedid recalled in his eulogy the elevation he felt whenever Hacham Shaul entered the dome of Shaare Zion, the powerful moments when every man, woman and child stood up for the rabbi. In his later years, it would often take the rabbi a full minute to reach his place at the front of the sanctuary. Throughout the entire process, he could be heard muttering under his breath, “mehilah, mehilah”– “forgive me.”

The rabbi’s humility was a recurring theme at his funeral, with some speakers describing it as so extraordinary as to invite comparisons to that of Moshe Rabbenu. Countless examples of his humility were presented. Rabbi Alouf noted that Hacham Shaul would walk over to every guest at the Shabbat table and respectfully hand him a piece of hallahhimself. The hacham’s grandson, Rabbi Saul Kassin, once found him down on his hands and knees before Pesach, searching his kitchen for hametz– when he was well into his 90s. And Hacham Yosef Harari-Raful spoke of the Chief Rabbi’s insistence on never having an assistant, and instead personally maintaining his own meticulous records. Hacham Shaul believed strongly that glory should be given only to Hashem, and that his purpose in life was to increase Gd’s glory and prominence, not
his own.

“Pure and Clean”

The rabbi’s steadfast, single-minded focus on this lofty objective was manifest at moments when crucial decisions needed to be made, and when he saw wrongdoing that needed to be halted. Though he was always gentle when addressing the congregation or a room full of students, he would not hesitate to show his proverbial iron fist and clearly lay down the final word when needed. Rabbi Yedid compared Hacham Shaul on these occasions to a lion, courageously and fearlessly opposing forces which he saw as dangerous to ourcommunity. Thus, for example, the Chief Rabbi firmly and uncompromisingly insisted on upholding our community’s edict concerning converts, without any exceptions.

“He did everything leshem Shamayim[for the sake of Heaven],” said Hacham Harari-Raful.
“His motives were pure and clean.”

His commitment to purity was expressed through his painstaking efforts to raise awareness of taharat hamishpahah– the laws of family purity – in the community. He was instrumental in ensuring that engaged couples were educated in these laws, and in spearheading the building of both the Avenue S and Kings Highway mikvehs. Before these mikvehs were built, women went to the mikveh in Boro Park, or didn’t go at all.

“We have so much berachahbecause of his merit,” Rabbi Yedid reflected.

“Every Ounce of His Being”

Remarkably, Hacham Shaul managed to make himself accessible and relatable to all members of our community, in order to inspire us and raise our level of observance, despite his lofty personal standards of piety, which put him in a league of his own.

“My grandfather was the consummate eved Hashem[servant of Gd],” said his grandson, Rabbi Saul Kassin. “He dedicated every ounce of his being to Torah, to Hashem and to mitzvot, and he did it faster than anyone else.”

Forexample, the Chief Rabbi prayed Shaharitat vatikin– sunrise – every day of his life. But besides ensuring to pray each morning at the earliest possible moment, he also prayed every morning as if he were doing so for the first time, reciting the words each and every day with the kind of fervor and intensity that most of us likely never feel during prayer. His son Isaac recalled in particular how the rabbi would pray from the depths of his heart for every Jew. He would get particularly emotional while praying for ill patients, and when mourning the destruction of the Bet Hamikdashduring the late-night Tikkun Hatzotservice. As his grandson shared, “He really was someone who was metzapeh legeulah” – who desperately longed for the arrival of Mashiahand the end of our nation’s exile.

The Loss of Our Teacher

For many community members, reflecting upon the life, work and character of the Chief Rabbi raises uncomfortable but vitally important questions about ourselves and our own lives. Do we take a holy sefer(book) with us wherever we go, as the rabbi was known to do? Do we take pains to educate our children and grandchildren in each and every mitzvah, sending them reminders, as the rabbi did for his family members? Do we marvel at the wonders of the natural world and feel awe-inspired by Hashem’s infinite wisdom, as the rabbi did so frequently? For most of us, such simple joy and awe is all but impossible to experience in our fast-paced world. We mourn the rabbi’s passing because he epitomized the values that for the rest of us, unfortunately,
tend to get lost as a result of technology, materialism, and
skewed priorities.

We’ve also lost our teacher – the man who brought us and perpetuated the tradition of his father, Hacham Yaakov Kassin, zt”l.It was a tradition that stood on the values of peace and acceptance, which sought to achieve a sense of ahdut (unity) and closeness within the community.

Rabbi Nahum compared the rabbi to a menorah tehorah(“pure menorah”), and also to the kohenwho stood between the branches of the menorah, bringing together the righteous Jews with the less observant.

“He handled conflicts with peace as his main goal, and he worried about the community like a father does for his son,” said Rabbi Saul Kassin of his grandfather.

Our Protective Shield

 “The tragedy of losing a Hacham Gadol is greater than the destruction of the Bet Hamikdashand all the curses in Devarim,” Rabbi Shlomo Diamond lamented. He explained that the great tzadikimserve to protect us, and so when they leave this world, we become vulnerable to harm.

“Our community had a shield in Hacham Yaakov, and after him, Hacham Shaul,” said Rabbi Diamond. “And now there is no shield. The best we can do is try to emulate his ways of sweetness and shalomandkedushah, so that each one of us will build a little part of that shield that we need for the community.”

It is up to us, then, to build this shield through our collective efforts. Though none of us can reach the level of greatness achieved by Hacham Shaul or hisfather, our combined efforts can perhaps wield the same power. With the loss of our great leader, we must work to enhance our relationship to each other, and to redouble our efforts to transmit to our children the sacred tradition we’ve received from our Chief Rabbis, and thereby earn Hashem’s protection.

May we all learn from Hacham Shaul’s religious passion, his gentle nature and his purity of heart, and may we all work to love one another and grow together, just as he always wanted us to do. May we forever remain united and strictly maintain the standards of purity that were so important to him. By continuing the legacy and teachings of our great Chief Rabbi, we will, please Gd, rebuild the protective shield that we lost when Hacham Shaul’s brilliant light was extinguished.