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Mission to Iran

Yisrael Feller

“I haven’t come to take money from you; I’ve come to give!” announced Rav Ben Zion Abba Shaul to a stunned audience of Iranian Jews in the late 1970s. What could this rosh yeshivah from Eretz Yisrael give to what was then one of the wealthiest Jewish communities in the world? Some 30 years after that historic visit — and the revolution that would destroy much of the community’s wealth practically overnight — the answer can be summed up in two words: a future

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

old photoWhen Rabbi Ben Zion Abba Shaul ztz”l, the rosh yeshivah of Yeshivat Porat Yosef, suddenly announced that he planned on traveling to Iran to deliver chizuk to the Jews living there, the declaration startled his students and confidants.

Rav Ben Zion, who had spent his entire life immersed in Torah study, admired the leaders and activists of the teshuvah movement and warmly extended his own assistance to Jews returning to the fold, but he never advised avreichim who were flourishing in their Torah studies to become involved in kiruv rechokim. When bnei Torah would ask him if they should try to bring merit to their brethren by becoming involved in kiruv, he would answer unequivocally, “The best thing you can do for your fellow Jews is to sit and learn.”

But when the administration of his yeshivah, led by Rabbi Yehuda Tzadka, asked Rav Ben Zion to go to Iran, he felt compelled to disregard his own words of advice. Instead, he replied with his customary humility, “I will go.”

 

The Best Person for the Job

The year was 5736 (1976). Iran, still ruled by the Shah, had been experiencing an economic boom since the 1960s that benefited both the country and the Jews who lived there. But along with the widespread prosperity had come a lessening of religious commitment among the youth. A number of halachic issues had also arisen, stemming from a general improvement in living conditions and technological advancements.

Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, who was then serving as the chief rabbi of Israel, had visited Iran in his capacity as Rishon L’Tzion and had taken note of the spiritual state of Iran’s Jews. “You need a great man to repair the breaches and strengthen those who have become lax,” he told the country’s Jewish leaders. The idea pleased them, and they asked him to send such a man from Eretz Yisrael to respond to their needs. On his return to Israel, Rav Ovadiah contacted Rav Yehuda Tzadka, the rosh yeshivah of Porat Yosef. Rav Tzadka selected Rav Ben Zion Abba Shaul for the mission.

In addition to his ability to issue authoritative halachic rulings, his knowledge of the entire Torah, his incredible insight, and his pleasant manner, Rav Ben Zion had another advantage — the fact that his family had originated in Persia. As a Persian Jew who was familiar with the community’s customs and traditions, he knew that he could broker a sweeping agreement that would strengthen the community’s observance. At the same time, his hosts would be able to take pride in the fact that one of their own had become one of the gedolei hador.

It was only after deciding that this was a mitzvah no one else could perform that Rav Ben Zion set out on his historic journey, accompanied by Rav Tzvi Simantov, the rav of the Afghan community. Their journey took place after Pesach in the year 5736. Rav Ben Zion was concerned about transgressing the prohibition of chadash, since some adopt a lenient position outside of Eretz Yisrael, and he made sure to pack a sufficient quantity of matzos to last him until the end of his trip.

 

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