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Hakham Yehudah Fetaya

This Shabbat marks seventy-five years of the passing away of my great [literally] grandfather, and I would like to dedicate this article to him. The rabbinic roots of the Fetaya family can be traced back to Hakham Reuven David Nawi (1770-1821). Hakham Reuven was disciple of Hakham Moshe Haim, the father of the Ben Ish Hai, and was described by the latter as: הרב הגדול אביר בתורה מורנו הרב רבי ראובן דוד  – “the great scholar, master of the Torah, our master…” Hakham Reuven passed away at a young age and only one of his halakhic works, Yehi Reuven, has been published. His grandson Hakham Moshe Yeshua Yehezkel Fetaya (1830-1905) was a mystic and a poet. He founded one of the first printing houses in Baghdad, in 1866, with his brother Aharon and their partner Rahamim ben Reuven. Fifty-five books were printed by the printing house until 1882, but Hakham Moshe’s own poems, covering a range of themes from mysticism to stories of personal miracles and prayers for redemption, were printed only in 1909 by his son, my great grandfather, Hakham Yehudah, who was born in 1860. 

Hakham Yehudah Fetaya passed away this day, the 27th of Menahem Av, in 1942, and until his last day he conducted intensive prayers, with his many disciples, for the well-being of the Jews in Europe. My grandfather told me that during the funeral the sky were covered with dark clouds and heavy rain started pouring. Being that this is very atypical to the Israeli summer, people felt that the heavens were weeping for his death. Since then, each year on his yahrzeit (except between 1948-1967), hundreds of people ascend to his grave on Har HaZetim (Mt. Olives), to read the special prayers he composed for tumultuous times, and specifically the Holocaust. He kept abreast of the news from Europe and conducted prayers for the Jews of Germany years before the Holocaust. When the war started, Hakham Yehudah’s efforts intensified. Besides running with his son, Hakham Shaul, a center for distributing basic food staples to poor families, he wrote and published special prayers in a booklet he titled אסירי התקוה  – Bound by Hope, a name which conveys the message that despite all the difficulties we are going through, we are still bound to God by our faith and hope.

The introduction to the first edition, printed in 1940, reads:

סדר האמור במחברת זו הוא מה שעשינו לדאבון נפשנו בעיר הקודש ירושלים בשנת תקע בשופר גדול לחרותנו, אשר היתה עת צרה ליעקב ובאו מים עד נפש. והוכרחנו להדפיסו כדי שיהיה מצוי בידי הכל, וכולנו נתחבר כאיש אחד להרבות בתפילה ובתחנונים לפני המקום ברוך הוא, אולי יחנן ה’ צבאות על שארית עמו וצאן מרעיתו שלא יהיה דמם נשפך כמים…

The order of prayers in this booklet is what we had to do, with great sorrow, in the holy city of Jerusalem, in the year 1940 (corresponding to the Hebrew date alluded to in the verse: Sound a great shofar and bring forth our freedom), as we were drowning in the tidal waves of disaster [in Europe]. We had to publish it to make it available for all, so we can join together, with one heart, to plead with prayer and supplications in front of God, and hope that He will have mercy for the remnant of his flock and will not let their blood spill like water…

Among the many books of Hakham Yehudah there are anthologies of commentaries on the Torah and Pirke Avot, original prayers, and mystical writings, but the most popular of his works is no doubt the one he calls a notebook. That book, Minhat Yehudah, is basically a Kabbalistic commentary on the bible, but in several places the author segues to discuss the interpretation of dreams and issues related to reincarnation. In the introduction to the book he writes that his main purpose in writing the book was to inform people of the full spiritual scope of their life in this world and the world to come and to encourage them to repent.

Among his many disciples in the field of Kabbalah were H. Sasson Mizrahi, H. Yitzhak Khadouri, H. Salman Moutzafi, and H. Salman Eliyahu, father of H. Mordechai Eliyahu, Chief Rabbi of Israel and a very close friend of my grandfather and my family. Although his printed works focus on Kabbalah, H. Yehudah’s activism and teachings were not limited to the esoteric. In one of his few Halakhic responses which were preserved, he uses harsh words to criticize men who take advantage of women desperate to get married. He calls on the other judges to amend the situation where all the power was in the man’s hand, saying that women should not need to suffer by being summoned to court, or by feeling that they are tied to a man against their will. 

He was also concerned with the physical and mental health of the people, who came to him for a blessing or to seek help. My mother, who was eight years old when her grandfather passed away, told me that people used to say about him in Arabic “idou khudhra” – his hands are green, meaning that they felt special spiritual energy when he blessed them. She herself felt it, and I have experienced it as a kid when my grandfather, H. Shaul, took care of me after I was frightened by a dog and could not sleep several nights. He sat me on his lap, placed his hand on my chest and recited verses, and I felt a pleasant warmth spreading through my body and soul. Years later, when my own children went through similar experiences, I tried to do the same, thinking that it might have been a placebo effect, but I failed.

There are many stories about H. Yehudah as a miracle worker, but the one which is truly close to my heart is one which can be emulated by all of us, and does not require an expertise in Kabbalah and the ineffable name of God. The story is about one of his students in Baghdad, whose wife was expecting. H. Yehudah was concerned that the due date has passed, and asked the man about his wife’s health and whether she gave birth already, but his student dodged the question. The Hakham understood that something was wrong and kept pressing, until finally the man admitted that his wife was acting in a strange manner after she gave birth, and so she was sent by the embarrassed family to live with a Muslim foster family in a village outside the city. H. Yehudah asked for the name of the family and its whereabouts, and then immediately left the Rabbinic Seminary and went home. He asked his daughter Lulu, who was 17 at the time to join him, and together they traveled several hours until they arrived at the foster family’s house. They found the woman, who suffered from what today is known as postpartum depression, in a miserable condition. Besides the shock of being rejected by her family and separated from her young daughter, she was weak and emaciated, since she refused to eat non-Kosher food.

H. Yehudah promised the woman that he will help her, and asked her to hold on for just a little while. He then traveled with his daughter Lulu to the nearest Jewish settlement and went directly to the local Rabbi’s house. The rabbi was surprised and honored to see the great Hakham at his door and asked with excitement what can he to do for him. H. Yehudah explained that he was traveling with his daughter to Baghdad and that they were very hungry, and asked if the rabbi can offer them a hearty meal. Once the meal was ready, however, Hakham Yehudah said that he cannot delay and ask the perplexed host to pack the food “to go”. The Hakham and his daughter returned to the woman’s bedside, where they fed her and took care of her until she was strong enough to travel back to the city of Baghdad. When they arrived there, the women in H. Yehudah’s household took care of the woman for several months until she recovered physically and mentally. H. Yehudah then called the husband and reintroduced him to his wife, not before rebuking him for abandoning her at her darkest hour.

I have heard this story for the first time at a very young age, and it remained engraved in my mind. Of all the stories attributed to H. Yehudah as a miracle worker, this one is of special importance to me, because it teaches something that we are all capable of doing, even if we are not prodigies or great mystics. The Hakham’s great sensitivity and understanding of human nature shines through this story.

First, he was concerned not only with the learning of his students, but with the well-being of their families, and when he heard of the crisis he dropped everything and rushed to the woman’s help. At that point, he did not waste time on rebuking the husband, knowing that he would not listen to him and considering the urgency of helping the woman. He traveled with his daughter, because he wanted the woman to feel comfortable with Lulu taking care of her. When visiting the rabbi’s house, he did not reveal the real reason he was asking for food, and would rather cast himself in a negative light, barging into a home and asking for food to go, in order not to embarrass the woman who needed the food. Finally, after returning to Baghdad, he made sure that the woman has fully recovered and then orchestrated her reunion with her husband and daughter.

The many Halakhot which can be gleaned from this story cannot be found in any Halakhic compilation, and they should be for us a guiding light in our dealings with others. I was fortunate enough to learn directly from his illustrious son, my grandfather Hakham Shaul, and his teachings inform my halakhic and theological approach, which is to always consider the emotional and personal implications of every mitzvah and custom, and never forget that we were all created equal and that we are commanded ואהבת לרעך כמוך. 

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