May 21, 2024
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May 21, 2024
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Rav Haim David HaLevi: An Underappreciated Sephardic Gadol

He served with distinction as the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv from 1973 to 1998. He composed volumes of very accessible teshuvot titled “Aseih Lecha Rav” in which he responded to an astonishing range of questions for an astonishing range of ordinary Israelis. He composed Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Mekor Hayim, a one-volume-digest of halacha providing practical conclusions only, which served as the standard text for teaching halacha at Religious Zionist schools in Israel for decades. Rav HaLevi is also noted for his devoting much attention in writing to the relationship between Medinat Yisrael and Halacha. Despite all of this, mention the name of Rav Haim David HaLevi to even knowledgeable Sephardic Jews and many will say they never heard of him!

One of the Porat Yosef Stars of the 1930s-1940s

The stars fell on the iconic Sephardic Yeshiva Porat Yosef (located close to the Kotel HaMaaravi in the Old City of Jerusalem) in the 1930s and 1940s. Four great Sephardic luminaries emerged from Porat Yosef in these years. They are Rav Ovadia Yosef, Rav Ben Tzion Abba Shaul, Rav Mordechai Eliyahu and Rav Haim David HaLevi.

However, unlike the other three who were profoundly influenced by Porat Yosef’s rosh yeshiva Chacham Ezra Attia, Rav HaLevi was deeply influenced by Porat Yosef’s nasi (president) Rav Ben Zion Hai Uzziel, who also served as Rishon L’Tzion, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel. Perhaps the special connection was made between these two great rabbanim due to their shared Turkish Jewish background. Rav HaLevi was influenced by Rav Uzziel’s enthusiasm for Religious Zionism and pragmatic approach to halacha. He even became Rav Uzziel’s assistant for a significant amount of time.

Teshuvot Aseih Lecha Rav

“Teshuvot Aseih Lecha Rav” belong in the home of every Jew. Here is a sampling of some of the questions posed to him by Israelis of all religious background that he addresses in the first volume of this wonderful work: Should One Make Extravagant Weddings and Bar Mitzvahs; Transcendental Meditation; Was the Yom Kippur War the Milchemet Gog UMagog; Palestinian or Jordanian Rule in Yehuda V’Shomeron are examples of issues not typically dealt with in more conventional works of Halacha responsa.

Of course, Rav HaLevi responds to many “garden variety” questions such as is it permissible to visit a church or mosque, may a religious male Israeli army medic administer an injection to a female soldier, and the like. Most important to Rav HaLevi was to provide Torah guidance to Israelis of all backgrounds, in a manner and language that speaks to a very wide audience. It was, in my opinion, providential for him to serve as chief rabbi of Tel Aviv. Residents of this diverse city were and still are most in need of the type and style of religious leadership offered by Rav HaLevi.

Boldness in Halacha

Rav HaLevi’s bold approach to Halacha is succinctly expressed in an essay printed in Techumin (8:367). Rav HaLevi speaks about the need for halachic creativity but within, of course, the bounds of tradition. He makes a dramatic assertion: “Whoever is bonded to the written halacha of the prior generations is a ‘halachic Karaite.’ He is attached to the written letter and rejects the oral law.”

Since Rav HaLevi’s comment can be misconstrued, I share the example he provides in this essay. The example is youths interfacing with non-Jewish counterparts about intellectual and social concerns. While Rav HaLevi is not comfortable with such meetings between religious and secular youths, he feels that Jews have what to learn from the outside world and may be exposed to the thought of others outside our nation. However, he insisted on strict gender separation during these meetings.

Prohibiting Smoking, and Nacheim on Tisha B’Av

The two rulings for Rav HaLevi are most renowned are his rulings regarding smoking and the recitation of Nacheim on Tisha B’Av. Rav HaLevi is regarded as the first posek of note to formally and officially declare that smoking is forbidden according to the Halacha (Teshuvot Asei Lecha Rav 2:1, 3:18, and 9:28-29). Rav HaLevi labels smoking as “slow suicide.” Among his other reasons are:

In enlightened countries, smoking is banned in public places, commercial advertisements of smoking are banned, and manufacturers of cigarettes are compelled to print health warnings on every pack of cigarettes. Should we, whose holy Torah is a “Torat Chaim” (a life-giving Torah), lag behind?

Rav HaLevi (Teshuvot Asei Lecha Rav 6:58 and 7:65) was asked whether one must honor his father’s request to purchase cigarettes for him. Normally, halacha requires one to fulfill a parent’s request for service (Kiddushin 31b). On the other hand, one is not required to follow a parent’s order to violate halachah (Bava Metzia 32a). Rav HaLevi rules that one should not give his father cigarettes if he requests them. Rather, he should politely and gently explain to his father (in accordance with Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 240:11) that smoking is very dangerous and that the Torah obligates us to preserve our bodies.

Rav HaLevi’s ruling regarding smoking issued already in the 1970s are quite bold in light of the fact that so many rabbis and Torah scholars at that time (sadly) smoked. Nonetheless, Rav HaLevi set the mold, and by the 2000s nearly every rabbi of major stature has declared smoking to be forbidden.

Nacheim on Tisha B’Av:

The second most famous ruling issued by Rav HaLevi is his stance regarding the current recital of Nacheim on Tisha B’Av. In the Shemoneh Esrei on Tisha B’Av, we add a prayer for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple, which starts with the word “Nacheim.”

While Ashkenzic Jews recite this only at Mincha, most Sephardic Jews recite this prayer during each of the tefillot on Tisha B’Av.

In this special bracha we describe Yerushalayim as “the mournful, destroyed city, degraded, desolate without inhabitants.” After our recapture and reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, the question arose whether the language of Nacheim needed to be adjusted for the new reality.

Rav HaLevi felt that while it was too soon to change the prayer, it is dishonest to say in our tefillot to Hashem that Jerusalem is in a state of destruction and denigration. The Gemara (Yoma 69b) teaches that we cannot be dishonest in our prayers to Hashem! Therefore he advocated adding the word “shehayetah, that was,” before words of destruction, indicating that the city had been destroyed, but no longer is (Teshuvot Aseh Lecha Rav 1:14, 2:36-39, 7:35).

Indeed, the reality of Yerushalayim seems to accord with this approach. More than a half a million Jews reside in Yerushalayim, most of them observant and thousands of them devoted to full-time Torah study. The Jewish Quarter of Yerushalayim is pulsating with Jewish life. The synagogues destroyed by Arabs during the years of Jordanian occupation between 1948 and 1967 have almost all been restored, with even more glory than before. The Kotel HaMa’aravi has more than 10 million visitors per year. Even though 50 years have passed since the Kotel has been restored to Jewish control, the Jewish attachment to the Kotel grows in intensity as each year passes. Thus, Rav HaLevi argues, how can we describe Yerushalayim as destroyed and desolate based on the current conditions?

Although Rav HaLevi’s position on this issue was accepted within certain portions of the Religious Zionist community, for the most part it has not been accepted by most Jews. Most Sephardic congregations do not implement Rav HaLevi’s recommendation and recite the traditional text without emendation. At Congregation Shaarei Orah, for example, we do not accept Rav HaLevi’s ruling on this matter.


I recently asked a young Sephardic rav if he ever heard of Rav Haim David HaLevi. His answer was, “Yes, I think he wrote Teshuvot Asei Lecha Rav.” In other words, Rav HaLevi was just barely on his radar. It is time to change this reality. I recommend rabbanim and learned laymen to incorporate Teshuvot Asei Lecha Rav in their learning and teaching. We may not necessarily follow his rulings, but his is an important late-20th-century halachic voice that we should not and cannot continue to ignore.

By Rabbi Haim JachterBy Rabbi Haim Jachter

Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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