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| Magazine Feature |

Shoemaker in the Shadows

Elder mekubal Rabi Shalom Shmueli shrouds his greatness in a shoemaker’s guise

Photos: Elchanan Kotler

The bustle of the Machaneh Yehudah market is clearly audible even though it’s only the beginning of the week. It resounds through the stone alleyways around Agrippas Street, echoing through the windows and doors of the century-old homes, until it reaches one narrow street that’s barely wide enough for a car and pedestrian to pass at once. This is the seam line between the quaint Nachlaot neighborhood and pathways that feed into the market. But even during the busiest shopping hours, this spot remains quiet — as if a soundproof barrier exists around the building of Yeshivat Hamekubalim Nahar Shalom.

This isn’t some newly donated structure with gorgeous Jerusalem stone facings and a fancy plaque. It’s an old Arab-style building on Rechov Shiloh, with a hodgepodge of additions and renovations that have been built over the years. The beis medrash was expanded a few times, eventually with another one built on top of it supported by external beams, and the rest of the structure a collection of aluminum patches and makeshift bridges.

But what’s missing in opulence is made up for by a spiritual energy — there’s a feeling of sanctity here hovering like a cloud. The aroma of tobacco rises on the singsong of tefillin-wrapped men, some of whom have been studying here for years.

We’re here before Minchah, which will take nearly an hour, as it is recited with all the kavanos of the Rashash (Rav Shalom Sharabi, the great Yemenite kabbalist who lived in the 1700s). The shaliach tzibbur, a carefully selected talmid chacham, ascends the six stairs to the amud, and his eyes scan the Holy Names printed on a sign across from him. The rest of the mekubalim follow in their siddurim.

These kavanos have their own time and rhythm. The brachah of Mechayeh Hameisim of Shacharis, for example, is not at all like the Mechayeh Hameisim of Maariv. Every avodah has its own meditations and cosmic rectifications.

We scan the mispallelim, and then we see him — the 100-year-old man in the gray suit jacket and trademark taxi driver cap, the elder kabbalist of the generation. His name is Rabi Shalom Shmueli, a man who rarely talks, yet is sought out by chassidic rebbes and mekubalim, each of whom have their own personal connection to him far away from the prying eyes of the chareidi paparazzi. He’s also the father of Rav Benayahu Shmueli, the active rosh yeshivah of Nahar Shalom. (Rav Benayanu later tells us that despite the fact that they’ve spent decades sitting and learning together, he rarely dares to touch his father. “One kiss on the back of his hand and I immediately step back. One who knows what a father is, understands,” he says cryptically.)

For decades, the tzaddik Rabi Shalom hid out in the tiny shoe-repair shop on the bottom of Rechov Agrippas, where he could work in quiet, his hands moving deftly, his lips firmly sealed. But the city’s mekubalim and rabbanim knew the secret of Shalom the Persian shoemaker, as did the chassidic rebbes who waited patiently for Shalom to craft them a pair of shoes.

The mekubalim referred to him with the words of Chazal regarding Chanoch: “He would sew shoes, and with each and every stitch he would be meyached Kudsha Brich Hu u’Shechintei.” (Rabi Shalom the Shoemaker is not to be confused with Rav Moshe Yaakov Ravikov, the famous “Shoemaker” of Tel Aviv and leader of a secret group of mekubalim from decades ago who presented themselves to the outside world as simple laborers, including Rav Yehudah Patilon, the Painter; Rav Yosef Voltoch, the Streetsweeper; and Rav Chaim Ezra Hakohen Fatchia, the Milkman.)

No Innovations

We’re introduced to the centenarian Rabi Shalom Shmueli, who seems to shrink into himself as if to disappear from view — and it’s not just because he’s hunched over from age. There’s a certain aura that emanates from a tzaddik who’s spent decades in self-nullification as he rises to ever-higher spiritual levels in his quest for pure alignment with the Almighty’s will.

Rabi Shalom is the spiritual inheritor of world-renowned kabbalist Rav Mordechai Sharabi ztz”l, who founded Nahar Shalom when he came to Jerusalem from Yemen in the 1950s. Twenty years before Rav Mordechai Sharabi passed away in 1984, while he was at the peak of his energy, he wanted to give the keys of the yeshivah over to Rabi Shalom — and Rabi Shalom did not refuse. But Rav Mordechai’s talmidim were confused: Why had he given the yeshivah over specifically to the shoemaker from Rechov Agrippas from among his better-known disciples?

Rav Sharabi was silent. He had expansive knowledge about constellations and mazalos, and had a vision that spanned the whole world. And from the time he came from Yemen and settled in the Kurdish neighborhood on the outskirts on Nachlaot, he got to know the young Persian with the black beard and the fiery eyes, and he was the one Rav Sharabi trusted to keep the yeshivah pure.

Indeed, while the rest of the world spirals through change, Rabi Shalom has not made any innovations in all these years, not in the style of learning, the nusach of the tefillos, or the kavanos. The practices at Nahar Shalom are exactly the way they were conducted in Yeshivat Hamekubalim Beit-El in the Old City, from the times of Rav Gedalia Chayun nearly three hundred years ago until that yeshivah’s destruction in 1948.

In the internal code of those who have access to the kabbalistic kavanos, Rabi Shalom is considered to be the one in this generation to pass down the traditions of Kabbalah firsthand, a link to the masters of the past.

“Yet to this day,” says his son, rosh yeshivah Rav Benayahu Shmueli, “my father has never taken a shekel from the yeshivah’s coffers.”

And, he notes, it’s not only the derech halimud and avodah that hasn’t changed. Rabi Shalom hasn’t veered from his own structured schedule in decades, even in something so mundane as his daily menu. On Sunday it’s rice and potatoes, on Monday it’s beets, on Tuesday it’s pita with a little techinah. He hasn’t eaten meat in 60 years, since Rav Sharabi told him to avoid it.

Rav Mordechai Sharabi did not have children. When he was once asked how he was able to bless so many others yet his own home remained empty, he paraphrased the worlds of Chazal, “A prisoner cannot spring his own lock.”

Both he and his wife, Rabbanit Leah, saw the yeshivah as their beloved children. And at one point, these “children,” the talmidim, wanted to give him nachas, and informed him of their intention to place a marble plaque honoring the Rav and Rabbanit for having “given birth” to the yeshivah, their names etched on for posterity.

Rabi Shalom relates that Rav Sharabi considered it, but ultimately decided against it.  “Ki even mikir tizak (for a stone shall cry from the wall). In Heaven it is known what each person has really done in This World, what work he did, what he was metaken. That is where the reward is given.”

In the end, there’s no memorial plaque. But in the far corner of the beis medrash, there’s an old chair covered with a paroches. “This is where Rav Mordechai Sharabi, zy”a, sat,” reads the inscription.

The Concealment

At the bottom of Agrippas Street, next to the old Belzer yeshivah, there is a little storefront that once served as a shoemaker’s shop. That was what it looked like from the sidewalk. But it was also a cave of secrets and visions.

Don’t bother going in: It’s closed, abandoned for the last half century. There are those who say that the anvil is still in its place, the tiny nails having rusted. Still, there are many white-bearded Yerushalmim who still remember the days the shoemaker sat here.

There was just enough room there for two people to huddle secretly. There was also room for Sefer Eitz Chaim and Shaar Hakavanos. Two people would sit in this hidden cave, protected from the bustle of the city just a few feet from where they were, as they concentrated on the yichudim of the ten Sefiros and tied ethereal crowns for the Creator.

Old-timers remember a certain student who would surreptitiously slip into the store, a young man with a kapote and a velvet hat. He hurriedly climbed out of the car, and in a moment, he was swallowed up by the shoemaker’s shop. At that moment, Rabi Shalom would glance at his guest, rise up from his shoemaker’s bench, pull down the shutters, and open Shaar Ruach Hakodesh by Rav Chaim Vital.

Rabi Shalom did not pay much attention to external appearances and dress. He knew that the avreich in his shop was “Rav Rokeach,” and he imagined that he must have had chassidic followers, but he never asked him about it. While they learned together for many years, there wasn’t a single conversation on mundane matters between the young Belzer Rebbe and his Persian teacher.

But once the Belzer chassidim discovered their Rebbe’s rebbe, they would try to gift him with various items, although they met with resistance every time. So they started bringing him shoes to fix, and while they paid, they would put down large sums of money and flee.

Even before that, for many years, the Belzer Rebbe would seek out advice from Rav Mordechai Sharabi. Each Friday, he would deliver a bottle of wine for Shabbos and then discuss secrets of Torah with him. During the week, he would often come for krias haTorah.

The Belzer Rebbe wasn’t the only one. Many of the gedolim and tzaddikim of Jerusalem — including the Toldos Aharon Rebbe and Rav Yitzchak Meir Morgenstern — found in Rabi Shalom a fire with which they could warm themselves.

Handed Down

Rosh Yeshivah Rav Benayahu Shmueli is a popular Torah lecturer even as he’s copied his father’s grueling schedule, which in turn was inspired by Rav Sharabi. The cycle begins with Tikkun Chatzos, after which he travels to the Kosel. By four in the morning, he’s already back at the yeshivah, where a group of longtime talmidim wait for his shiur in Sefer Eitz Chaim and Shaar Hakavanos. He concludes Shacharis, with all the relevant kavanos, close to eleven o’clock, together with his father. From then on, he has shiurim and chavrusas until the night.

“Almost all the mekubalim and those who know about kavanos in our time,” he practically whispers, “are the fruits of the elder sage, Rav Mordechai Sharabi. Until he established the yeshivah, the Yerushalmi mekubalim were scattered all over.”

This mystical study is in fact called “Kabbalah” because it’s passed down as a kabbalah (something received) from rav to talmid, person to person. Today’s mekubalim focus on the Torah of Rav Shalom Sharabi, the Rashash, who was born in the Yemenite city of Sharab in the early 1700s. He was extremely gifted intellectually, but the premature death of his father meant that the young orphan became the sole support of his family. Shalom became a traveling merchant, which only left him nights for studying Torah — and he’d often stay in the beis medrash until almost dawn. Eventually he discovered the esoteric realm of Kabbalah as developed by the sages of Yemen, and while he distinguished himself in this realm as well, the young man insisted on continuing to work for a living as a peddler.

One time on a business expedition, Shalom was ambushed, and vowed that if G-d saved him, he would move to the Holy Land. Indeed, he was miraculously saved and, true to his promise, made the journey across the Middle East to Eretz Yisrael. When he arrived in the Beit El yeshivah headed by the famed kabbalist Rav Gedalia Chayun, he couldn’t have been happier, although he chose not to reveal his extensive knowledge. Instead he presented himself as a simpleton and took on the position of shamash of the beis medrash, where he could learn without being observed.

At one point, a complex question came up that no one, not even the revered rosh yeshivah, could answer. Later that night, when the beis medrash was empty, Shalom wrote the answer on a small piece of paper and left it between the pages of Rav Gedalia’s sefer. The next morning, the beis medrash was in shock — where did the brilliant answer come from?

The mystery was solved by Rav Gedalia’s young daughter Chana, who told her father that she’d noticed the Yemenite shamash flipping through the pages of her father’s seforim on several occasions. The next time a tough question came up, Rav Gedalia pretended to go home, but instead hid in a closet — where he witnessed the shamash poring over an assortment of tomes, jotting down some lines, and placing a note in Rav Gedalia’s siddur.

The next morning, the secret was out. The Rosh Yeshivah seated Shalom Sharabi at his right side, took him for a son-in-law, and appointed him heir and successor. For the next 30 years the Rashash served as head of the Beit El yeshivah, was the conduit for the systematic Kabbalah of the Arizal, raised up many famous students — including the Chida and Rav Gershon Kitover (the Baal Shem Tov’s brother-in-law) — and protected the Jews of Jerusalem from their Moslem neighbors.

And so, the study of Kabbalah in Eretz Yisrael was passed down from generation to generation.

“Rabbeinu Mordechai Sharabi received  it from Rabi Shalom Hadayah Hazaken, who served as the last rosh yeshivah of Beit El, until it was destroyed during the War of Independence when the Old City was cut off and fell into enemy hands,” explains Rav Benayahu Shmueli.  “All of the scholars dispersed, and there was no central place where they gathered to study Toras Hanistar until Rav Mordechai Sharabi came and established this holy yeshivah. All the well-known mekubalim who learn the Torah of the holy Rashash, learned and grew here — Rav Yaakov Hillel, Rav David Batzri, Rav Ezriel Mansour, Rav Daniel Hakohein, and many others — all in the merit of Rabi Mordechai. Even Chacham Ovadiah Yosef came to learn the Torah of the Rashash from Rabi Mordechai. He sat here for ten years.”

And the mesorah continues. Today there are 150 avreichim who learn in the kollel, and these are serious talmidei chachamim — before someone is accepted, he must be fully proficient in all areas of the “revealed” Torah.

Pray for Redemption

Last week, Rav Benayahu — as is his annual custom the week before Lag B’omer — traveled to the tziyun of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai in Meron with another 200 people, some from Nahar Shalom and others from another yeshivah he established in Bat Yam, called Meishar (named for Rav Mordechai Sharabi).

On the agenda? “To pray for redemption,” he says. “Every Jew needs to have this desire, to feel pain over the fact that the Shechinah is in exile. But the Geulah will come, and very soon. The question is if it will come with compassion or with harsh dinim, judgements, may Hashem have mercy on us. We are making every possible effort for the Geulah to come with chesed and compassion, and that our Jewish brethren should not be harmed.

“And how will the Geulah come with compassion? Our master Rabi Shimon bar Yochai revealed to us that learning Sefer HaZohar will bring the Geulah with rachamim. With this sefer we will emerge from the galus with compassion. Write it in your magazine. We all have a mission in This World. In the end we will be asked what we did for the Geulah, and Mashiach will take an interest in what we each did to hasten his coming.”

We leave the building together with Rabi Shalom, the 100-year-old legend. As some grandchildren lead him to the car that will take him to his nearby home, none of the passersby on the street — shuk shoppers and others — even give a blink. But for Rabi Shalom Shmueli, that’s just fine. That’s how people are — they gaze only at the famous ones and the holy shoemaker walks unnoticed. But after all these years, isn’t that the way he always wanted it?

Up to Jerusalem

The story of Yeshivat Nahar Shalom actually begins in the Yemenite city of Ta’iz.

There was one pious, holy Jew in Ta’iz named Rabi Yefet. He was the grandfather of Rav Mordechai Sharabi, whom he adopted after Rabi Mordechai’s father passed away.

Rabi Yefet had a custom that each week, for an entire Shabbos, he would lock himself in his attic until the end of Shabbos. The Jews of Ta’iz were innocent and simple, and they did not question their rav. They knew that he spent Shabbos in the attic, and emerged when it was over.

Until one week.

On that Friday, Rabi Yefet’s elderly mother went up to make the final preparations in the attic, when the door opened. Her son Rabi Yefet entered, his garment gleaming and his face aflame. He did not notice anything, not even his mother who was observing him from the side.

She saw her holy son standing with his face to the wall, gripped with dveikus as his soul soared to otherworldly realms. And suddenly, she screamed — her son had disappeared.

After a few moments, her son’s figure returned and stood in front of his horrified mother. “I’m sorry, Mother,” he said, and kissed her hand in respect. “I did not know that you were here. You must have been truly frightened!”

“What just happened here!?” she demanded to know, as she began to calm down.

“Each Friday, I spend Shabbos in the holy city of Jerusalem, Mother.” He finally shared his secret, because of his obligation to honor his mother. “I use the Holy Names to fly there, and I get to Jerusalem very quickly and return here when Shabbos ends.”

But from that moment on, since his secret was discovered, he never left again and he began to spend each Shabbos in his city, among his brethren and relatives.

The young boy watched his grandfather and imitated his ways. At the young age of eight, he began to give shiurim in the kutab [Talmud Torah, as it was known there] in the city of Sharab, teaching Mishnah and Gemara to bochurim much older than himself. At his bar mitzvah, he delivered a speech describing the 70 types of treifos that are in listed in Maseches Chullin and Yoreh Deah.

Later, in Eretz Yisrael, he seemed to rise to a level above nature. His talmid, Rav Yona Raphaeli, today Rosh Yeshivat Pe’er Shalom, once wondered aloud how his body held up without sleep. The Rav waved off his words: “I sleep, don’t worry. At least an hour a day, sometimes an hour and a half.”

It wasn’t easy for Rav Mordechai Sharabi to gather Jews who were ovdei Hashem around him. Existing Yerushalmi yeshivos viewed him as an unknown Yemenite immigrant. But support came from an unexpected place. Rav Mordechai’s wife worked as a cleaning lady in the home of mekubal and posek Rav Sroya Deblitzky ztz”l, who was more financially stable.

Once, Rav Sroya’s rebbetzin noticed the Yemenite woman crying as she worked. When she asked her why Rabbanit Leah replied honestly. “I know my husband is a holy person, and he has so much Torah to teach, but he has no one to teach it to,” she wept. Rav Sroya heard about this and decided to meet the man. A short time later, he became Rav Sharabi’s chassid.

After that, Rav Sharabi’s light began to glow in the alleyways of Jerusalem. He gave a kabbalah shiur every night from 2 a.m. until Shacharis. After davening, he delivered a shiur in Tur Bais Yosef and Rambam.

Throughout those long hours, he didn’t eat. Once, the shamash pleaded with him over and over, until the Rav agreed to accept a cup of coffee from him. When he put it in front of him, an insect flew right into the cup. Rabi Mordechai raised his eyes to the shamash and said, “Above, it is not agreed that I should drink now.”

Rav Sharabi’s talmid, Rav Yona Raphaeli, related how “we almost never saw him open a sefer. He knew all of Shas by heart. Once, some bochurim thinking he was just an elderly Yemenite man who gave out brachos came with a question in Maseches Bava Basra. The Rav listened to them, and then casually answered all of the questions on the spot. They tried to argue, but he counter-quoted them, proving to them that their understanding was deeply flawed. They stood there in awe of the ‘cute old man’ from Machaneh Yehudah.

“And really, his diligence in learning overpowered any other segulah or practice. He visited the tziyun of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai in Meron only once in his life, in his early years in Eretz Yisrael. He rode on a camel for four days in each direction. And he never went again. There were a few times that I wanted to go, and he dissuaded me. He told me, ‘Yona, continue learning. It’s better for you.’ I heard from him on several occasions that if you know how to be meyached yichudim (connecting the physical and the Upper Worlds), you do not need to travel to the kever of the tzaddik. From wherever you are, you can do the yichud and receive the light and abundance that you would have gotten at the tziyun.”

Still, Rav Sharabi saw himself as part of the heichala d’Rashbi — the inner circle connected to Rabi Shimon through his Torah, and felt his mission in This World was to disseminate the study of Kabbalah.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 858)

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