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Called by the Walls

Yisroel Besser

When the Old City was liberated in 1967, Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl was drawn like a magnet. “We are Leviim, and soon the Beis HaMikdash will be rebuilt,” he told his then-reluctant wife. Since then, he has been an inseparable part of Yerushalayim bein hachomos, serving as the beloved rav of the Old City for the last four decades, renowned for his tolerant, all-embracing nature — and for his famous Shabbos morning vasikin Kiddush, which has become an Old City tradition.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

rav in old cityuThe sun-splashed plaza is a chorus of prayer and song, with voices rising in a thousand ways to express His glory.

It’s Shabbos morning in Yerushalayim, and the vasikin minyanim at the Kosel are coming to a close — most of them, at least. One is still going, the davening a bit slower, the Kriyas HaTorah drawn out like a symphony. There is a lone figure standing off to the side, clearly the rav of this little group. He wears a long wool coat against the early-morning chill — when he came to pray it was still dark out — his face obscured by the folds of his tallis.

It is only with the conclusion of tefillah, the very last “Amen,” that he uncovers his face.

“Shabbat Shalom.”

The face of Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl is aglow, his smile sublime.

A crowd gathers instantly, joining the Rav as he heads across the plaza and up the wide steps into the Old City.

The minhagkiddush at his home — is several years old. No invitations issued and no RSVPs necessary. Anyone can come, and from the looks of things, anyone has. There seems to be another minhag here as well: like pekelach raining down on a chassan, the questions come at the Rav from all sides as he ascends the steps.

“If someone is being taken to the hospital on Shabbos, may he instruct the ambulance to take him to a more distant hospital if he feels the care is better?”

“Does the halachah that one must feed his animals before he eats also pertain to housing, that he must erect shelter for them before he has a house?”

“How come Yaakov Avinu got punished for withholding Dinah from Eisav? What did he do wrong?”

With each step, the Rav pauses, answering questions as they come.

A Brisker yungerman is studying the Rav’s every gesture, focused intently as if on a sefer.

“Rav Shlomo Zalman said about him that his every move is Shulchan Aruch — do you notice how he’s tied his tallis around his chest, because of hotza’ah?”

I hadn’t.

The Brisker provides a running commentary on myriad halachos and chumros evident in the Rav’s behavior.

At the entrance to his apartment, the Rav stops, allowing everyone to enter before him.

The Brisker lingers. “Why does the Rav have this practice, to enter last?”

The question remains unanswered, hanging there as a slow smile lights up the Rav’s face.

Me’asef l’chol hamachanos,” he finally remarks, a reference to the position of the Tribe of Dan, which traveled at the rear of Klal Yisrael through the desert and served as a gatherer for all camps.

Sort of a mission statement.


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