During his 45 years as head of one of the world’s most influential yeshivas, the revered sage, Hacham Ezra Attieh z.s.l., developed and trained the greatest Sephardic leaders in the modern era, including Hacham Baruch Ben-Haim z.s.l., Hacham Mordechai Eliyahu z.s.l., Hacham Ben Zion Abba Shaul z.s.l., Hacham Yizhak Kaduri z.s.l., and sheyibadelu lehaim tovim Hacham Ovadia Yosef shelita, Hacham Yosef Harari-Raful shelita, and Hacham Avraham Harari-Raful shelita among many other roshei yeshivot and prominent rabbis throughout the world.
Both Hacham Yizhak and Rabbanit Leah, the parents of Hacham Ezra, descended from illustrious families of Torah sages. Rabbanit Leah was the daughter of Hacham Michael Shammah Halevi, one of the great scholars of Aleppo in his time and a scion of a long line of great scholars. Hacham Yizhak’s family traced its lineage back to David Hamelech, and even possessed a written family tree with all the names of their ancestors. Hacham Yizhak brought this manuscript with him when he moved to Israel, and it was eventually stored in the Ossar Hasefarim (library) in Yeshivat Porat Yosef in the Old City of Jerusalem. Unfortunately, this precious piece of history, together with the rest of the library, was destroyed when the Arab Legion attacked the yeshiva after Israel’s founding in 1948.
A Mother’s Solemn Pledge
A month prior to Ezra’s birth, in Tevet, while Rabbanit Leah was still pregnant , she and her husband made the three-day journey by donkey from Aleppo to the city of Tedef and visited the ancient kinees (synagogue) known as Sidna Ezra. According to tradition, Ezra Hasofer wrote a Sefer Torah by candle light, in holiness and purity, in that synagogue in the early Second Temple Era. Rabbi Yizhak and Rabbanit Leah had experienced a number miscarriages and the death of young children, so they wanted to pray for extra divine assistance to merit a healthy child who would become a great talmid hacham (Torah scholar) and sadik. As they prayed in the ancient synagogue, the Rabbanit made the following promise to her Creator:
Ribono Shel Olam, in the merit of Ezra Hasofer, I pray that if I merit a son born whole and healthy I will name him Ezra in memory of Ezra Hasofer,and I vow that I will do everything in my power to help ensure that this son will dedicate his entire life to the study of Torah. (Leader of the Generation pg.2)
Young Ezra grew up in the town of Aleppo and learned in the famous Katab elementary school. Already at a young age, he stood out as an extraordinarily brilliant and diligent student. Well before his bar missva, he outgrew the Katab and he learned with his relative, Hacham Yehuda Aslan Attieh z.s.l., who introduced him to the fundamentals of Gemara. Later, his father found him a study partner, Hacham Shaul Matlub Abadi z.s.l., who at that time was a young, unmarried scholar. The two formed a special learning partnership, spending long hours late into the night and early morning learning Torah. Even though Hacham Ezra eventually immigrated to Israel and Hacham Shaul immigrated to New York, they maintained contact throughout the years. They even died within a few months of each other, and are buried side by side on Har Hamenuchot in Jerusalem.
In the Holy City
In the year 1900, the Attieh family and their three children – Eliyahu, Ezra and Frieda – immigrated to Israel and settled in a small apartment in the Shamah neighborhood on the slopes of Har Sion, just outside the Old City. Young Ezra continued his studies in Yeshivat Torat Hayim in the Old City, where he met a fellow Syrian immigrant, Yizhak Ades, who became his lifelong study partner.
Unfortunately, soon after the family’s arrival, Ezra’s father, Hacham Yizhak Attieh, took ill and died, leaving Rabbanit Leah to raise her family alone. The Rabbanit tended to her family with extraordinary self-sacrifice and fortitude, and urged young Ezra to immerse himself completely in Torah study and not involve himself in supporting the family. It was due to her selfless devotion that Hacham Ezra was able to grow to be the great scholar that he was.
In Nissan of 1909, Hacham Ezra married his wife Bolisa, the daughter of Hacham Avraham Salem, a famed kabbalist from Aleppo who had moved to Israel shortly after the Attiehs.
During World War I (1914-1917), it became increasingly difficult for the Jewish immigrants in the Land of Israel to avoid the Turkish draft, and so Hacham Ezra was forced to flee to Egypt, where he remained for 6-7 years. While in Egypt, Hacham Ezra wrought a Torah revolution among the country’s Jewish community, opening several yeshivot and delivering shiurim to the working men. When he returned to Israel, he left behind a group of young scholars who continued his work for many more years, until Jewish presence in Egypt came to an end in the years following the establishment of the State of Israel.
Yeshivat Porat Yosef: Forging the Future of Sephardic Jewry
Upon his return to Israel, Hacham Ezra became involved in one of the most significant enterprises in the modern history of Sephardic Jewry – the founding of Yeshivat Porat Yosef. The yeshiva was established in Jerusalem in 1923 by two outstanding hachamim, Hacham Ben Sion Hazan from Baghdad and Hacham Rephael Shlomo Laniado, and Hacham Ezra was selected to serve as Mashgiah (spiritual advisor). Two years later, upon the death of Hacham Rephael Shlomo Laniado, who had served as Rosh Yeshiva, Hacham Ezra was unanimously chosen as his successor. For the next 45 years, until his death in 1970, Hacham Ezra led the yeshiva with extraordinary devotion and expertise. Under his capable leadership, Porat Yosef became the primary Sephardic yeshiva and the crown jewel of Sephardic Jewry. Hacham Ezra personally educated, trained and nurtured countless talented scholars who went on to become the leading Sephardic sages of the next generations. It is no exaggeration to say that Hacham Ezra singlehandedly molded the future of Sephardic Jewry by building towering sages and spiritual leaders who bore his legacy and transmitted it to their own disciples.
Part of what made Hacham Ezra Attieh such an inspirational figure was his unparalleled diligence and intensity in study. He was so immersed in Torah learning that even while he walked in the street, he wouldn’t notice anyone unless someone stood in his path and addressed him. His son, Hacham David, wanted to see if Hacham Ezra would recognize his own son while walking in the street, and thus conducted a “test” while his two friends, Hacham Avraham and Hacham Yosef Harari-Raful, stood on a nearby street corner to watch.
Hacham David began walking towards his father, who was deep in thought as always, his eyes gazing upward. When they converged, the son looked straight into his father’s face but Hacham Ezra continued on unaware. (Leader of the Generation p. 149)
Outside the Yeshiva Walls
Hacham Ezra Attieh earned the respect and admiration of rabbis across the spectrum of Torah Jewry for his brilliance in Torah coupled by his deep humility and compassionate nature. He was an outstanding member of Agudat Yisrael’s Council of Torah Sages in Israel for over 20 years, and stood at the forefront of the all the struggles waged by Torah Jewry during those turbulent times. Even the Ashkenazic and Hassidic leaders of his time sought his advice and counsel, and he was viewed by all as the leading voice of da’at Torah (Torah authority) for Sephardic Jewry.
Hacham Ezra also served as an Av Bet Din, the head of a Rabbincal Court that dealt in monetary and marital matters, a position he accepted only on the condition that he would not receive any payment for his work. Dayanim (rabbinic judges) who sat with Hacham Ezra on the Bet Din told many stories of the overt divine assistance he received enabling him to reach the correct halachic ruling, often bordering on actual ru’ah hakodesh (divine intuition). Even when Hacham Ezra left his post as Av Bet Din, the dayanim would constantly seek his opinion on the difficult and complicated cases they faced.
Hacham Ezra was privileged to live a long and remarkably accomplished life. He spent his 83 years devoted to Torah and the Jewish people, inspiring a generation with his passion for learning, yirat Shamayim (fear of Gd), humility and devotion to his fellow Jews. His legacy is felt throughout the Jewish world until today, faithfully borne by his countless disciples and their own students.
Perpetuating his Memory
After Hacham Ezra’s passing, his youngest son Hacham David Attieh, a talmid hacham (Torah scholar) in his own right, decided to establish a kollel in his father’s memory. Hechal Ezra which was founded in 1970 has drawn the elite of Sephardic budding scholars. Over the years, the kollel has produced many rabbanim and dayanim, preparing them to go forth and spread their knowledge in Jewish communities far and wide. In addition to educating the leaders of tomorrow, Hechal Ezra runs a charitable fund to help the needy of Jerusalem in a discreet and respectable manner.
In a very real way, Hacham Ezra Attieh’s persona continues to guide and inspire Sephardic Jews around the world, even today, over 40 years after his passing.
Leader of the Generation is a newly translated book about the exalted life and times of Maran Rosh Yeshivat Porat Yosef–Hacham Ezra Attieh. Written by Rabbi Yehuda Attieh, the grandson of Hacham Ezra Attieh, this new sefer along with the aid of hundreds of rare photographs, weaves together the fascinating life story of the father of the Sephardic Yeshiva world and leader of Sephardic Jewry, whose name is revered among Torah giants the world over. Leader of the Generation has just been released and is available at your local bookstore.