Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, who at the age of 28, became the youngest member ever to serve as a judge in the Israeli rabbinical courts, and later served for a decade as Israel’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi, succumbed Monday afternoon to a prolonged illness. He was 81.

Born in 1929 in Jerusalem’s Old City, Eliyahu was orphaned from his father at the age of 11. He spent his childhood in poverty, and devoted his energies to studying Jewish texts night and day under the tutelage of the city’s leading scholars and Kabbalists. He became proficient in rabbinic law under legal authority and future Israeli Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Nissam.

As a young rabbi, he quickly earned a reputation for deciphering complicated issues in Jewish law. He became a rabbinical judge in the southern city of Beersheva before moving back to Jerusalem, where he later served on the country’s Supreme Religious Court. Following the Six Day War in 1967, he became rabbi of Israel’s holy sites.

Each day following morning prayer services, scholars, rabbis and students gathered in the foyer outside Eliyahu’s office awaiting his legal deliberations. His brilliant smile and radiant enthusiasm endeared him to people from all walks of life, who sought out his guidance on a host of issues.

At 10:00, Eliyahu typically made his way to the rabbinical court, where he spent hours each day reviewing cases and issuing responses.

Although relatively unknown in the wider Jewish world, Eliyahu was elected chief rabbi in 1983. He originally rejected the position, but Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira, the Sephardic sage known as the Baba Sali, told him to accept the office.

As chief rabbi, he maintained a lengthy correspondence with the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, and was one of the last to have a private audience with him in New York. He would tell family, associates and public audiences alike that he considered himself to be a disciple of the Brooklyn-based leader.

Even after he stepped down from the chief rabbinate in 1993, and up until his illness sapped his strength, he maintained an active lifestyle. He travelled to schools throughout the country to give classes, delivered inspirational talks at a host of functions, and at least once a week, visited soldiers to boost their morale.

“Once an Israel Defense Force commander offered to greet the rabbi with a live ammunition show,” recalled Rabbi Yehudah Mutzpi, who faithfully served as an assistant to Eliyahu for years. “The rabbi refused and said that instead of using the time to greet him, he would like to have the time to speak to every soldier individually.”

As chief rabbi, Eliyahu was known for remaining above Israel’s many social and political divisions. He travelled for hours going from one event to the next to inspire local audiences, but would not hesitate from turning around if he found out that organizers intended to bring politics into the discussion.

He also refused to accept monetary gifts for his institutions when on speaking engagements.

“If they gave him an envelope with money for Israeli institutions,” said Mutzpi, “he would say, ‘Do you have a Jewish school in town here? Do you have a beautiful mikvah here? First you need to build Judaism in your community.’ ”

Eliyahu rose from the depths of poverty to become the youngest member ever to serve as a judge in the Israeli rabbinical courts.
Eliyahu rose from the depths of poverty to become the youngest member ever to serve as a judge in the Israeli rabbinical courts.

Unique Style of Leadership

The first in six generations of his family to leave the Holy Land on a trip, Eliyahu had reservations when he travelled to the United States with his Ashkenazi counterpart, Israeli Chief Rabbi Avraham Schapiro. He mentioned that to the Rebbe when he sat down with him at Lubavitch World Headquarters.

“As a descendant of a family that never left Israel for six generations, it is extremely difficult for me to leave,” said Eliyahu.

The Rebbe responded by dissecting the biblical story of Jacob leaving the Land of Israel for Haran.

“Through leaving the Holiness of Israel,” Jacob was able to build a great family and secure the future of the Jewish people, explained the Rebbe. “It is through the descent that an ascent is possible; through darkness comes light.”

And just like Jacob, who left the Holy Land with a positive and joyous outlook, the Rebbe told the chief rabbis, it was necessary to inspire the crowds of Jewish people who would gather to hear them.

“When approaching a new call to strengthen or increase in Judaism, it needs to be approached with trust and joy,” said the Rebbe, “Not only in G‑d, but you [also] have to place your trust in the community that you are calling out to, to fulfill the call.”

If even one individual heeded the call, he continued, it would be worth it.

The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, and Eliyahu meet in 1989, one of three audiences they had at Lubavitch World Headquarters in New York.
The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, and Eliyahu meet in 1989, one of three audiences they had at Lubavitch World Headquarters in New York.

In whichever country he travelled to, he frequently invoked the Rebbe’s unique outlook as a lesson in Jewish leadership.

“The Lubavitcher Rebbe sent his best and brightest far away from him to open Chabad Houses,” he said.

In his last two decades of life, Eliyahu dedicated much of his energy to doing the same, opening an institution adjacent to his synagogue and office whose mission was to train rabbis who would then set up their homes in communities around the world that requested a Sephardic rabbi.

Associates pointed to Eliyahu’s correspondence with the Rebbe, and the more than 12 hours he spent in his presence over the course of three personal audiences, as having a profound effect on the chief rabbi.

The Rebbe, in particular, encouraged Eliyahu to bolster Jewish practice in Israel.

“During our audience in 1986, the Rebbe requested that the chief rabbinate of Israel organize public Passover Seders in every city, so that people who could not attend another Seder could enjoy a communal one,” Eliyahu once recalled in an interview. “Those Passover events attracted Jews who had never before attended a Seder. Upon seeing the great public interest in this initiative, we worked on broadening the program, which, thank G‑d, is active in many cities and communities to this day.”

Although the meetings would begin in the presence of their aides, most of what the Rebbe and Eliyahu spoke about was discussed behind closed doors. Their conversations touched on the most sensitive topics involving Jews in Israel and abroad.

“It was intriguing that the Rebbe knew minute details of what was happening in the Land of Israel, as if he lived in Israel,” said Eliyahu. “He knew for example, that in this and this city, there are issues with the ritual bath, or that they need assistance in a certain communal area.

“I came to understand that he knew what was happening across the globe just like he knew what was happening in Israel,” continued Eliyahu. “He knew the issues that affected every country and city, as if he lived there.”

Of the Rebbe’s scholarship, Eliyahu reminisced that his “reasoning and answers to our in-depth queries were of the sort that I had never previously experienced: clear and brilliant. There are those who have a vast all-encompassing knowledge of all sections of the Torah, but they usually do not possess an in-depth and deep understanding of the material. To meet a great mind that had both great knowledge as well as depth was a unique experience, an exceptional and rare phenomenon.”

In 1992, only a short while before the Rebbe’s 90th birthday and his devastating stroke, Eliyahu came for a meeting. According to Eliyahu’s son, Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu, the brilliance in that last audience was legendary.

“The sight was astonishing, my father and the Rebbe were referring to sources from all sections of the Torah,” said the son. “Every minute, they were crossing the entire spectrum of the Torah, Talmud, Jewish law, Kabbalah and the commentaries. I remember my father shaking my hand and telling me, ‘You had the great merit to be in this brilliant tzaddik’s study.’ ”

Eliyahu speaks at an event commemorating the anniversary of the Rebbe’s birth.
Eliyahu speaks at an event commemorating the anniversary of the Rebbe’s birth.

An Open Heart

Almost two years ago, Eliyahu fell ill, at times returning home under miraculous circumstances as myriads of Jews worldwide prayed for his recovery. After he succumbed on Monday, outpourings of grief came from every sector of the Jewish world.

“He was devoted to our nation,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement as tens of thousands of mourners took part in Eliyahu’s burial procession. “He always combined the words of Torah with a sharp intelligence and brilliant guidance.”

To Meir Zeiler, a businessman from the Kiryat Chabad neighborhood in Kiryat Malachi and a close confidant of the rabbi, the variety of those who came to the funeral was no surprise.

Eliyahu “greeted everyone the same, gave them advice and always spoke with an open heart,” said Zeiler.

“I will never forget when he came to an event to boost the morale of orphans and their widowed mothers,” said Rabbi Shalom Duchman, director of the Colel Chabad social welfare organization in Israel. “He took the time to speak to every single one of the children and mothers privately for several minutes.

“I was an orphan myself from the age of 11,” he told the group, “anyone who really wants could reach for the greatest heights, even become the chief rabbi of Israel.”

Rabbi Naftoli Roth, director of the Lubavitch Youth Organization in Jerusalem said that Eliyahu’s passing was a great personal loss.

“He always had the best way of handling complicated situations, [and] nothing was too small or petty for me to discuss with him,” said Roth. “He was kind beyond words.”

To read an article Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu wrote about his interactions with the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, click here.