By: Rabbi Yonatan Magazzinich
The seven years of plenty seem far behind us as one of the worst financial crises in modern times continues to pose financial challenges to just about every American across the economic and social spectrum. Across the world, and certainly here at home, legislators have introduced “stimulus packages” cumulatively amounting to trillions of dollars in an effort to jumpstart the flailing economy. But while even sponsors of these initiatives readily admit that there is only a speculative chance of success for these unproven measures, a historical record from Halab (Aleppo, Syria) may offer an unconventional option with far better fundamentals.
A Financial Crisis in Halab
The Jewish people have confronted economic crises before, and somehow great communities have always been able to find relative prosperity – even under the often restrictive laws governing Jewish commerce in host countries. One such instance occurred approximately four hundred years ago, when the community of Halab experienced a severe drought. Not a single drop of rain fell for three years. Nowadays, modern transportation methods could help drought-ravaged regions survive by transporting food and water from other areas. Back then, however, a severe drought posed the threat of economic ruin and widespread starvation.
As the situation continued to deteriorate, the kehila (congregation) approached the sadik Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto, who is known by the acronym “Rif” (not to be confused with Rabbi Yizhak Elfassi, the famous Medieval codifier who is also known as the Rif), to plead to Gd on their behalf. The Rif responded by instructing the community to observe a public fast the following Thursday. On that day, the entire community gathered in the k’nees (synagogue) and poured out their hearts in impassioned prayer, begging the Almighty to end the dreadful crisis. After hours of heartfelt prayer and supplication, the Rif rose and addressed the congregation.
The crowd sat attentively, thirstily absorbing the rabbi’s every word. Suddenly, in the middle of the lecture, two men in the congregation began conversing with one another. Their conversation gradually grew louder, to the point where it disturbed the people around them. Repeated requests to keep silent had no effect. Finally, the synagogue’s gabbaim had no choice but to demand that these two men leave the k’nees.
Just as the Rif finished his lecture, the skies darkened and rain began to fall. The members of the congregation excitedly gathered around the Rif kissing and thanking him for ending the drought. The two men who had so rudely disrupted the lecture also came to thank the rabbi, but the congregants, still fuming over the men’s disrespect to the rabbi, refused to let them through. The Rif, however, in his unparalleled humility, instructed that the men be allowed to approach. He warmly drew them towards him and blessed them as sincerely as he had blessed everybody else.
A Meritorious Agreement
That night, the Rif saw in a dream that the drought had ended in the merit of the two men who had been ousted from the synagogue, specifically, as a result of a deal they had struck during the rabbi’s lecture. The Rif awoke and instructed the community leaders to assemble the entire community once again the next day, emphasizing that the two men who had disrupted the lecture should also be present.
The next day, the entire congregation, including the two men, gathered in the synagogue, curious as to why the rabbi had called for yet another urgent assembly. The men who had disrupted the first lecture were especially anxious, fearing that the Rif had perhaps called this assembly to publicly censure them for their misconduct.
Their worst fears seemed to be realized when the Rif ordered the two men to come to the front of the k’nees and stand beside him. They did as they were told, expecting to be publicly scolded in front of the entire community. But to their sheer amazement, the Rif announced that the rain that fell the previous day arrived not in his merit, but rather in the merit of these two individuals. The Rif then ordered the men to reveal to the audience the conversation they had in the middle of the rabbi’s lecture. One of them stepped forward and explained that he and his friend were deeply affected by the rabbi’s address, in which he emphasized the unparallel importance of Torah learning in the community’s efforts to end the drought. During his lecture, the Rif urged the community, and especially the wealthier members, to increase their support of the talmide hachamim (Torah scholars) and yeshivot. The lack of rainfall and general economic decline, he explained, were a result of the waning of support for Torah in the community. Upon hearing this, the two men immediately agreed to a “Yissachar-Zevulun” partnership: one of them would learn Torah all day, and the other would support him. They were so excited over their new partnership that they forgot where they were and continued animatedly discussing and celebrating their agreement, seemingly oblivious to their surroundings.
The Rif then kissed both men, turned to the congregation and reiterated that the drought had ended in their merit.
The Mechanics of Yissachar-Zevulun
The correlation between economic conditions and the level of support for Torah is an ancient precept. Just before his death, Moshe Rabbenu blessed the tribes of Yissachar and Zevulun by proclaiming, “Semah Zevulun bessetecha, ve’Yissachar beaholecha – Rejoice Zevulun in your excursions, and Yissachar in your tents” (Devarim 33:13). Normally, when businessmen leave for a business trip, they feel a bit anxious and uneasy, wondering if their efforts will prove successful. The people of Zevulun, however, who engaged in commerce to support the Torah scholars of Yissachar, could rejoice and pop the cork of the champagne bottle immediately upon embarking on their trip. The Torah is telling us, “The learning of Yissachar will guarantee your ultimate success, so right from the outset it is appropriate to celebrate!”
Charitable giving of no less than maaser (a tithe) is unique among the commandments in that we are encouraged to “test” Gd’s promise of reward. By supporting institutions of Torah, such as yeshivas, learning centers and kollels, we are essentially engaging in a Yissachar-Zevulun partnership. Our rabbis teach that this is the most effective method we have of extricating ourselves from the economic drought – just as it saved our ancestors in Halab four centuries ago.
The Rif: Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto (1565-1648)
The Pinto family, originally known by the name Gaon, has its roots to Spain and traces its lineage to Rabbi Sherira Gaon. As anti-Semitic oppression grew, the family changed its name to Pinto, the name of a Spanish city, so they would be less easily identifiable as Jews. In 1497, Rabbi Yosef Pinto moved to Damascus where he became very wealthy.
In 1565, Rabbi Yosef’s son and daughter-in-law, the sister of Rabbi Haim Vital, gave birth to Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto. Rabbi Yoshiyahu studied under and received rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Yaakov Abulafia. In 1620, when Rabbi Haim Vital passed away, the Rif succeeded him as Chief Rabbi of Aleppo and Damascus. He authored many sefarim on all facets of the Torah. In the approbations to the Rif’s sefarim, Rabbi Abulafia describes him as “Sinai veoker harim” (referring to both the breadth and depth of his knowledge), and Rabbi Avraham Sasson wrote that he is “mishayere kenesset hagedolah – from the remnants of the Great Assembly.” The Rif led the communities of Syria until his passing in Adar 1648.
Rabbi Yonatan Magazzinich teaches the Sephardic Heritage curriculum in the Bnot Torah Sharfmans seminary for American girls in Jerusalem.