Connecting to Our History – The Customs of Aleppo

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Victor Cohen 

 

Tradition and history have always been among the cornerstones of our community. Many of our community institutions are named after giants of our past, and even our manner of speech and unique cuisine feature elements that preserve our ancient culture. We are a community that values its history and strives to connect with it each and every day. 

 

This quality has never assumed greater importance than it does now, in today’s day and age, when we are constantly exposed to foreign influences. Jews today face unprecedented spiritual dangers, and we are more susceptible than ever before to being lured away from our sacred traditions.  

 

Our generation’s unique challenges make the recent publication of The Customs of Aleppo an especially meaningful project and valuable contribution to our community. This book helps us strengthen our connection to our past by teaching us about our ancient customs, and showing us what our community was like centuries ago. By bolstering our knowledge of our history, The Customs of Aleppo helps ensure that our sacred traditions will be preserved through us and through our progeny, well into the future. 

 

A Firsthand Account of Aleppo’s Traditions 

This volume is an English translation of the scholarly Hebrew work Minhageh Aretz written by Hacham Yosef Abadi Shayo in Yerushalayim.  Hacham Shayo spent much of his life in Aleppo, where he observed and absorbed the sacred traditions and customs of the community. His publication thus reflects not only his outstanding scholarship and comprehensive knowledge of relevant halachic source material, but also his firsthand experiences in Aleppo.  Thus, for example, in his discussion of the customs regarding the Friday night prayers (chapter 2, Shabbat, p. 88), the rabbi writes: 

 

After they finished Arbit, the people would go to the cave (adjacent to the synagogue) where, according to tradition, Eliyahu the Prophet once appeared, and they would chant the entire Shir Hashirim melodiously, with its traditional liturgical tune, one minyan after another, until about twenty minutes after sunset. As they exited, at the entrance of the synagogue, a variety of fragrant herbs were distributed to everyone, and they all made their way to their houses in joy.  

 

Reading this, one gets the feeling that the rabbi himself personally witnessed and participated in this practice, thus lending greater power to his words. He is not merely presenting material he had learned in earlier sources – he is providing us with a firsthand report of how the Jews of Aleppo prayed. He is describing his own customs, and, by extension, our customs.  

 

“A Tower of Wisdom” 

 

Born in Aleppo in 1893, Hacham Yosef Abadi Shayo was a scion of a family renowned for its Torah scholarship. His father was Rabbi Ezra Abadi Shayo, a rabbinical judge who authored the work Shaare Ezra. His maternal grandfather was Rabbi Yeshayah Dayan, Aleppo’s chief rabbinical judge. Hacham Yosef was renowned for his exceptional piety, wisdom, and breadth of knowledge. In the foreword to The Customs of Aleppo, the publisher writes: “He was a tower of wisdom, a master of Kabbalah worthy of his holy ancestors.”  

 

Hacham Shayo’s Torah scholarship was complemented by a remarkably versatile set of skills in various fields of practical halachah.  He was a mohel, and the overseer of the city’s eruv and of many of its mikvaot. After moving to Jerusalem, he served as the shofar blower on Rosh Hashanah in the illustrious Ades Synagogue. He spent time studying in the renowned Yeshivat Porat Yosef, the institution which, over the years, produced numerous leading sages, including Hacham Ovadia Yosef. He also learned in other prestigious yeshivot – Yeshivat Shaare Orah, Yeshivat Bet El, and Yeshivat Od Yosef Hai. He drew from the Torah wellsprings of many different sages, growing to become a giant of his own, a repository of Torah scholarship and wisdom. 

 

Preserving the Torah Gems of the Past  

 

In addition to all these skills, Hacham Shayo was also a talented writer – even in the physical sense, being ambidextrous, capable of writing with both his right hand and left hand. But he did not only produce his own scholarship – he also worked tirelessly to preserve and publish the writings of other great rabbis. When he moved to Jerusalem, he brought with him a considerable collection of handwritten manuscripts, scholarly essays composed by earlier sages of Aleppo. The foreword to The Customs of Aleppo lists 20 books that the Hacham took with him, and cites his description of the intensive efforts he invested into preserving these precious texts: 

 

I gleaned these commentaries from wherever they had been scattered – a page here and a page there. In many cases the ink was faded and barely legible, but I took it upon myself to copy them, edit them, and arrange them according to the order of the Talmud… It is my hope that the authors of these commentaries, who are basking in the glory of Gan Eden, will be pleased with this. I pray their merit will protect us, Amen.  

 

On one occasion, some ink fell onto one of the manuscripts. Refusing to allow any “novel Torah thoughts to fall by the wayside,” Hacham Shayo carefully examined the page, dampened it, and held it up to the sun to see the original writing. He then quickly copied the text in order to preserve the Torah gems it contained. 

 

This example of passionate devotion to preserving our heritage and tradition, and ensuring its accessibility to future generations, should resonate deeply with each and every one of us. Seeing the indefatigable efforts Hacham Shayo exerted to safeguard the Torah insights of Aleppo’s luminaries, and to meticulously document the community’s customs, down to the very last detail, should motivate and inspire us all to reaffirm our own commitment to our ancient sacred traditions.    

 

Hacham Shayo’s talents as both a scholar and writer were inherited by his grandson, Rabbi Moshe Rahamim Shayo, shelit”a, who translated Minhageh Aretz into English. Rabbi Shayo says that his grandfather’s objective in authoring this work was to ensure “that the memory of this community’s customs would not be forgotten. It is a historical record of the city’s Jews, especially of the practices observed in Aleppo’s Great Synagogue under the leadership of the city’s great Torah Scholars.” 

 

The Customs of Aleppo is truly a fascinating read, and highly recommended for anyone looking to spark their connection to their history – an ambition that we should certainly all share.  

 

Michael Kaplan and family generously helped sponsor the publication of this book, which, with Hashem’s help, will serve to foster greater love and appreciation for our sacred heritage for generations to come.