1. He Was a Beloved Miracle Worker

Rabbi Yisrael Abuchatziera, known universally as the Baba Sali, was one of the most beloved leaders of Moroccan Jewry. His leadership spanned the tumultuous dissolution of most Jewish life in Muslim lands and its subsequent replanting in Israel and the West. A humble miracle worker—whose life consisted of little beyond prayer, Torah study, and helping others—he is revered to this day.

2. He Was a Link in a Golden Chain of Moroccan Kabbalists

The Abuchatziera family, revered kabbalists, trace their lineage to Rabbi Shmuel Elbaz, who was a student of Rabbi Chaim Vital, prized protege of the Arizal and chief expositor of his teachings. Rabbi Yaakov Abuchatziera, the Baba Sali’s grandfather, was a towering figure in the annals of Moroccan Jewish history, whose works, including Abir Yaakov and Pituchei Chotam, are still widely studied.

Read: 19 Facts About Moroccan Jews

3. Baba Sali Means “Praying Father”

Baba is Arabic for “father” or “grandfather” and Sali is said to be either a contraction of the name “Yisrael” or Arabic for “praying.” And, indeed, during his very long life, thousands upon thousands of Jews and non-Jews streamed to the Baba Sali, who would graciously receive them and pray for them—often with miraculous results.

Read: Why Is It OK to Ask a Tzaddik to Pray for Me?

4. He Grew Up in the Moroccan Hinterland

His father, Rabbi Masoud Abuchatziera was a rabbi and Torah teacher in Rissani, Tafilalt, an oasis on the edge of the vast Saharan desert, separated from the large Moroccan cities by the Atlas Mountains. In that isolated locale, young Yisrael devoted nights and days to asceticism and study. He frequently abstained from speaking and fasted from one Shabbat to the next.

5. He Rose Quickly to Greatness

Mausoleum of Rabbi Israel Abuhatzeira (the Baba Sali) in Netivot.
Mausoleum of Rabbi Israel Abuhatzeira (the Baba Sali) in Netivot.

By the time the Baba Sali was 18, he was appointed to lead the yeshiva in Rissani. Following tensions between locals and the French, which led to the 1919 execution of his elder brother Rabbi David, the family fled to the village of Boudenib, where the Baba Sali was appointed rabbi of the entire region.

6. He Was Married Four Times

While still in Tafilalt, around the age of bar mitzvah, he married his cousin, Rouchama, who passed away in childbirth just two years later. At the age of 16, he married Farecha, with whom he had three children who survived into adulthood. His third wife, Miriam, gave him four children. And his final wife was Simi, whose late daughter, Esther, was married to Rabbi Yashar Edrei, director of Chabad in Netivot.

7. He Wandered a Lot

In 1922, Baba Sali traveled to the Holy Land and studied in the Beit Keil Yeshivah for Kabbalists. He was then called back to his former position in Boudenib, where he served before once again making his way to the Holy Land, where he remained before returning to Morocco once again. In 1951 he and his family immigrated once again to the Holy Land but soon relocated to France and then Morocco.

8. He Would Prepare for the High Holidays in the Chabad Yeshiva

During his final decade in Morocco, he’d travel every year to the Chabad Yeshiva in Brunoy, France, where he immersed himself in Chabad teachings as the personal guest of Rabbi Nissan Nemanow. The students there once observed that after he arrived from an exhausting 10-hour trip from Morocco, late at night, he unrolled a mat, sat down and began studying. This continued until daybreak, when he was ready to start the day.

9. He Had a Deep Connection With the Rebbe

In Morocco, he worked hand in hand with Rabbi Shlomo Matusof and the team of Chabad emissaries there. Through them (and on his own), he frequently corresponded with the Rebbe—both regarding his personal matters as well as issues pertaining to the community.

Watch: Baba Sali’s Son-in-Law Tells of His Connection to the Rebbe

10. He Never Visited the US

The Baba Sali in his youth.
The Baba Sali in his youth.

In 1952, he wished to immigrate to the United States where he hoped to study Torah and serve G‑d with less distraction. He changed his plans, however, after he received a letter from the Rebbe advising him that he could accomplish much more among his fellow Sephardic Jews.

11. He Enthusiastically Supported the Mitzvah Campaigns

When the Rebbe launched the tefillin and Shabbat candle campaigns (in 1967 and 1973 respectively) he enthusiastically threw his weight behind them and encouraged others to do the same. The same was true for the Rebbe’s campaign to have children purchase letters in a special Torah Scroll, with the Baba Sali going so far as to write that he sent his personal blessing to every child who would purchase a letter.

Purchase: A Letter in the Kids’ Torah

12. He Lived in the Humble Town of Netivot

In 1964, he returned to the Holy Land and remained there for the rest of his life. In 1970, he moved to the dusty desert town of Netivot, which has forever become associated with his name and legacy.

13. His Miracles Were Legendary

Baba Sali would often distribute arak, a strong liquor, as a conduit through which miraculous healing would take place. When he gave a person a glass of arak, the expectation was that they’d drink from it along with a wish for the arrival of Moshiach. There are also stories of him covering a bottle of arak with a kerchief and then pouring from it much more than the bottle could have ever held. He’d often tell people that his blessings were contingent on them increasing their mitzvah observance, which they’d gladly do.

14. He Lived a Simple Life

Even as magnates, elected officials and social leaders streamed to his door, Baba Sali remained simple as ever, wearing the same Moroccan-style robe and hood he’d worn his whole life. The checks proffered by eager donors and lavish gifts sent his way meant nothing to him. He was content with his simple mat and tiny room, where he could serve G‑d in peace.

15. He Suffered Personal Tragedy

Baba Sali’s life was punctuated by suffering. Beyond the execution of his revered older brother, he lived through the untimely death of his first wife, and the passing of several of his children, including his eldest son, Baba Meir, who was seen as next in line to become the heir to his legacy.

16. He Published Few Works

His entire life could be seen as a living lesson of Torah and devotion, yet he left few printed works. Much of his writing had been lost. The work Ahavat Yisrael was published after his passing. He also left several original piyyutim (poetic prayers) including Yodu Lecha Raayonai (“My Thoughts Shall Thank You”), in which he sings of the joy he’ll have upon welcoming Moshiach.

17. His Hiloula Is Celebrated on 4 Shevat

Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef (the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel) speaks to the crowd in the annual hillula of Rabbi Israel Abuhatzeira (Baba Sali), Netivot, Israel.
Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef (the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel) speaks to the crowd in the annual hillula of Rabbi Israel Abuhatzeira (Baba Sali), Netivot, Israel.

Baba Sali passed away on 4 Shevat (8 January, 1984), at the age of 94, and was buried that very same day in Netivot. Every year the date is marked with hillulah celebrations that include singing, feasting, and sharing words of Torah and inspiration.

Read: Celebrating the Baba Sali in Skokie, Ill.