By: Jack Srour
Hilula of the Abir Yaakov: An Uplifting Experience Like No Other
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are approaching our final destination. Please ensure your seats are in the upright position and your seatbelts are securely fastened,” the stewardess announced in Cairene Arabic. Awoken from my deep slumber aboard the 12-hour Egypt Air flight MS 986 from JFK to Cairo International, I thought of what lay ahead. Just a couple of days earlier, my father had reminded me of the upcoming hilula, or memorial ceremony, of the great saddik, Hacham Yaakov Abuchassera. Being the travel enthusiast that I am, I jumped at the opportunity, which gave me the chance to not only explore one of the most ancient civilizations in history, but also to visit the rabbi’s holy tomb.
Exiting the airport, my father and I knew Cairo was not going to be just another travel destination. Indeed, the experience was definitely different right from the outset. Venturing into the Egyptian capital, you feel as if you’ve gone through a time machine landing hundreds of years earlier; even the air feels ancient. What one may consider a “normal” taxi in NYC is a dream car for the populace of Cairo. Along the ride to the hotel in a 1975 Peugeot sedan, my father drew my attention to a small, narrow van with the letters “GMC” on the rear, while the front was labeled “Suzuki.” Still, I had the impression that notwithstanding their modest standard of living, the Egyptians are nevertheless a vivacious and proud people.
A Family Legacy of Greatness
Although the pyramids of Giza are certainly an architectural wonder and the Khan al Khalili Souk is indeed a unique shopping experience, the highlight of our trip was undoubtedly day one – visiting the tomb of Hacham Yaakov Abuhassera z.s.l., better known as the Abir Yaakov. The rabbi, the Baba Sali’s grandfather, was born in Tafillalt, Morocco in 1807. Before the Abir Yaakov was born, the rabbi’s pious father, Hacham Messod z.s.l., was told in a dream that his wife would bear a child who would enlighten Jews around the world. Indeed, over the years the Abir Yaakov became a renowned posek and leader of the Jewish community in Morocco.
The original family name of the Abuhassera dynasty was actually Elbaz. It is told that the name was changed as a result of a remarkable incident involving the patriarch of the family, Hacham Shmuel Abuchassera, a man of exceptional humility and piety. Hacham Shmuel set out to Constantinople to collect money for the poor residents of Israel, which at the time was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, but he could not afford the fare to sail to Constantinople. He pleaded with the captain to allow him to work aboard the ship in exchange for passage, but the captain adamantly refused. Having no other means of transportation, Hacham Shmuel took out a small mat from his bag, sat on it next to the shore, and prayed with intense concentration. Miraculously, the rabbi and the mat began to float. He remained afloat behind the ship until it reached its destination. To commemorate this miracle, Hacham Shmuel changed the family name from Elbaz to “Abuhassera,” which means “the father of mats.”
Following his family legacy of spiritual greatness, the Abir Yaakov was an exceptional saddik. He barely slept, spending nearly every moment learning Torah and helping those stricken by poverty or depression. Hacham Yaakov composed twelve scholarly works on topics in Torah, halacha and Kabbalah, all of which were published posthumously. He wanted to ensure that the books were acceptable in the heavens before they were distributed to the public here on earth, and he therefore chose not to publish the works during his lifetime. After his death, when he determined that the sefarim were accepted in the heavens, he appeared to his son in a dream and gave his approval for their publication.
Throughout his life, Hacham Yaakov earned a reputation for unparalleled humility and yirat shamayim (fear of Heaven). His reputation was so widespread, in fact, that even non-Jews came to the rabbi for advice and for solutions to their problems.
One of the many remarkable stories about the rabbi is told by Hacham Yosef Ben Na’im, and took place in the village of Temoushent. After spending some time with the local residents of the village, the time came for Hacham Yaakov to return home. The rabbi climbed onto a shared coach and saw among his fellow travelers only boorish Algerians and no one who could be identified as an observant Jew. Fearing the effects of being exposed to the group’s lewd and vulgar behavior, but, having no other transportation arrangements, Hacham Yaakov reluctantly sat down in the carriage and started to pray. With everyone on board, the driver tried to begin the journey. Inexplicably, the horses drawing the carriage refused to move their legs. The driver tried everything, including whipping the horses and bringing other horses, but his efforts were to no avail. After some time, the other passengers brusquely left, thinking the carriage was doomed. Once they were gone, the rabbi asked the driver to try traveling again. To the residents’ astonishment, the horses responded immediately and the Abir Yaakov was on his way!
A Sacred Tomb
The tomb of the Abir Yaakov is located in the town of Damanhour, Egypt, a remote village situated 70 kilometers southeast of Alexandria. It is told that the rabbi was passing through this city on his way to Israel, but fell ill and passed away on the 20th of Tevet. Not coincidentally, the Nazis were defeated by the Allied forces in the vicinity of the Abir Yaakov’s grave as they marched toward Israel through Egypt during World War II.
Every year, hundreds of Jews from Israel and the Diaspora flock to the tomb of the great leader to remember the rabbi and pray at his gravesite. These pilgrimages require advanced diplomatic arrangements between the Israeli and Egyptian governments. Requests have to be submitted to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s administration to grant visas and protect the busloads of people seeking entry to the sacred site. Last year, access to the tomb was denied, as the anniversary occurred immediately after Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, and the Egyptian authorities denied Israeli worshipers entry, saying they could not ensure their safety.
Access to the site was initially denied this year, as well, once again on the grounds of alleged security concerns. However, Shas leader Eli Yishai, along with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, lobbied the Egyptian government to allow the annual pilgrimage. The Prime Minister made a personal appeal to the Egyptian President during a meeting, and Mubarak acquiesced. Once permission was granted, Egypt’s intelligence chief Omar Suleiman was instructed to take measures to ensure the worshippers’ safety. Approximately 350 people from Israel and around the world attended the hilula.
Security was very tight from the highway exit in Damanhour all the way to the tomb. At each of the three checkpoints, the Egyptian security services asked us our nationalities, checked our passports, and did a background check. And once we passed the first checkpoint, we were led via a motorcycle convoy to the site of the tomb. By a conservative estimate, there were several hundred security men stationed along the path to the tomb. There was also additional security personnel, a bomb squad and fire truck (the only one I saw in Egypt) at the site of the tomb.
Due to the large number of pilgrims at the kever, visitors had to enter the tomb in shifts. The rabbi is buried on a high plateau, and a beautifully decorated hut was built over the tomb to enhance the site. My father and I first prayed outside the hut, and then lit candles in memory of the great saddik. Others relayed stories of miracles the rabbi conducted. Once the first group of people cleared, the double doors to the hut were opened and the next group rushed in. Standing among the crowd, I noticed a variety of languages, including Hebrew, French and some English.
The scene by the tomb was uplifting, inspiring and just awesome. Hundreds of worshippers were praying, crying, and reciting Tehillim on and beside the tomb. Many carried envelopes full of notes with Hebrew names of people written on them and their special requests. Men, women, and children were pouring out their hearts to Hashem at the resting place of the former chief rabbi of Tafillalt, Morrocco. In the merit of the holy Abir Yaakov, may those prayers be answered and may we all be blessed with health, happiness and only good things, Amen.
 Azoulay, Yehuda, A Legacy of Leaders (2008) Page 126.