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

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The Torah in Parashat Vayeshev (37:3) tells that Yaakov Avinu felt special love and affection for Yosef because he was a “ben zekunim.”Rashicites the Targum(the Aramaic translation by Onkelos) as translating this expression to mean “bar hakim”– “a wise son.” Yosef received this special wisdom, Rashi explains, from Yaakov, who transmitted to Yosef the Torah that he studied in the yeshiva of Shem and Ever.

Rashi then brings a different interpretation of “ben zekunim,”explaining that “shehayah ziv ikunin shelo domeh lo”– Yosef looked just like Yaakov. The Ba’al Haturim adds that the word “zekunim”has the same gematria(numerical value) as the word “raz”– “secret,” indicating that Yaakov transmitted the secrets of the Torah to Yosef.

This special connection that was forged between Yaakov and Yosef would save Yosef years later, when he was in Egypt and confronted one of the most difficult tests imaginable, a test which Yosef overcame, thereby earning the title Yosef Hatzadik – “Yosef the Righteous One.” When his master’s wife tried luring him to sin, Yosef responded by “vayema’en”– outright refusing (39:8). The note on this word is a very rarenote – the “shalshelet,”which means “chain.” When confronted by this test, Yosef said to himself, “How can I do this? I come from a chain. I come from tzadikim. My father is Yaakov Avinu. My grandfather is Yitzhak Avinu. My great-grandfather is Avraham Avinu. I come from a sacred chain.” And so “vayema’en”
he refused.

The Sages teach that Yosef looked up at the window and saw “deyukono shel aviv”– the image of his father, Yaakov Avinu. When he saw that image, he abstained.

The great tzadik who lies before us today, like Yosef, is the “ben zekunim”of Yaakov, of Hacham Yaakov Kassin,zt”l.He, too, was a“bar hakim,”a man of great wisdom, and he, too, resembled his father. And, like Yosef, he received from his father all the Torah his father had learned, including the secrets of the Torah.

Furthermore, the Hacham was driven throughout his life by the “shalshelet,”the chain of tradition. This was his guiding light – the tradition of his father, of his grandfather, the tradition that goes all the way back to the many generations of the illustrious Kassin family.

During the month of Tevet, Hacham Shaul would go around to every synagogue to announce the Ta’anit Dibur
a day when people refrain from speaking the entire day, other than prayer and Torah, and read Tehillim three times. He did this even in old age. Where did he receive the motivation to do this? I remember as a young boy in Shaare Zion hearing his father, Hacham Yaakov, teach that a person is born with a certain number of words, and if he speaks carelessly, then he may, Heaven forbid, cut his life short. Hacham Shaul learned about careful speech from his father. And so, with great humility, he personally went around all the synagogues announcing the Ta’anit Dibur.

Hacham Shaul devoted himself tirelessly to collecting charity. Every morning in the synagogue, he was collecting for somebody in need. And he taught the importance of supporting aniyeh Eretz Yisrael
the poor in the Land of Israel, viewing them as local residents in need, who are to be given priority. Where did he learn the great value of collecting charity? His grandfather, for whom he is named, Hacham Shaul Kassin of Halab (Aleppo), once saw a young man crying in the synagogue. This boy, named Yosef Yedid Halevi, was crying because he wanted to study Talmud with the commentaries, but his father could not afford to pay for a teacher. Hacham Shaul told the young man that he would support him so he could learn. Hacham Yosef Yedid Halevi became one of the leading sages of Jerusalem, and he credited Hacham Shaul Kassin – the grandfather – with making it possible for him to learn. This is where our Hacham Shaul learned the importance of charity – from the “shalshelet,”the glorious chain of tradition.

I recently read in the diary of Hacham Yaakov Kassin that once, as a young man, he fell ill, and was visited by somebody who told him of a dream he had the night before. In his dream, he saw Rav Shalom Sherabi, the famous “Rashash,” one of the greatest scholars of Kabbalah of all time, praying near a Torah scroll. The Rashash explained that he was praying for Hacham Yaakov Kassin. This is who Hacham Yaakov was – somebody for whom the Rashash offered a special prayer in the heavens. Hacham Yaakov wrote that from that day on, he began recovering from his condition. Hacham Shaul received his holiness from his
great father.

I was once in a meeting with Hacham Shaul and a woman whom we were trying to convince to stop doing things that were detrimental to the community. I spoke to the woman diplomatically, until Hacham Shaul jumped out of his chair with great passion and yir’atShamayim(fear of Heaven), and exclaimed, “This is no time for diplomacy! This must end immediately!” The woman felt the hacham’s yir’at Shamayim, and this story ended. It is not the diplomacy of the youth, but the yir’at Shamayimof the elders, that yields results.

There was also something else Hacham Shaul learned from
his ancestors.

When the hacham’s grandfather lived in Halab, a wealthy man made a party next to his home, and non-Jewish music was played at the party. Hacham Shaul, the grandfather, strongly condemned the playing of non-Jewish music, asking, “How can you sing these songs? This is unacceptable! We have our own sacred songs!”

The wealthy man was very angry, and went over to Hacham Shaul and tore off his galabiyyeh.

“This does not bother me,” the hacham said. “If this you made you feel better, then I’m very happy you got rid of your anger.”

That man taunted Hacham Shaul relentlessly from that moment on, to the point where Hacham Shaul had to leave Halab, and he moved to Jerusalem.

Our HachamShaul Kassin learned about the sanctity of pizmonimfrom his grandfather.

I recall once being in Shaare Zion as a young man at a time when many members – including myself – were planning on attending a certain non-Jewish concert. Hacham Shaul banged on the bimah and exclaimed that this is absolutely forbidden. This was the “shalshelet” – the great chain to which he was passionately and uncompromisingly committed. His grandfather was chased out of Halab because of this very issue – and he, too, waged the same fight to defend the sanctity of religious music.

Hacham Shaul also fought like a warrior to protect our community’s edict. Even in situations where the Rabbinical Council made exceptions, Hacham Shaul would not attend the wedding, out of respect for hisfather.

This is the legacy of our great rabbi, and this is the lesson that we must all learn. Whenever decisions need to be made for the community, we must not ask what the modern-day rabbis want to do, but rather what the rabbis of previous generations would want us to do. The older rabbis are so much wiser. We need to understand that with age comes wisdom, and with age comes experience. Hacham Shaul had experience, having served Torah scholars both in Yerushalayim and here in America. We must follow his example and strive to live as close as we can to the “shalshelet avot” – the glorious chain of our tradition.