They reign supreme
People come to see them from all over the world. Hundreds of thousands of admirers await their every word. Their assets are estimated at millions of dollars. They are most important, influential Israeli rabbinical courts
|The Court of Rabbi Ovadia|
Leader: Rabbi Ovadi Yosef
Location: Hakablan Street, Jerusalem
Origins: Eighty-six year old Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was born in Baghdad and came to Israel as a small child. In his teens he wrote books on Jewish law and he later won the Israel Prize for Jewish Scholarship. In the 1940s he served as Deputy Chief Rabbi of Egypt, in the 1960s he was appointed Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Tel Aviv, and in the 1970s he became Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel. Rabbi Yosef is well known not only for his thousands of innovative rulings in Jewish law, but also for his Torah classes and his popular preaching. The tens of thousands of classes he gave in Israel and abroad in the late 1970s won him many admirers, especially among the common people.
Influence: Almost all Sephardic rabbis and dayanim (rabbinical court judges) in Israel and overseas are subject to his court and await his declarations. The Sephardic religious community views his court as a kingdom, with all that this implies.
No fewer than ten books have been published in recent years about Rabbi Yosef’s life, doctrines, and political creation, the Shas Party. Nine doctorates and hundreds of academic papers have been written about Rabbi Yosef and his court. He himself has written dozens of weighty tomes on Jewish law, and hundreds of other books on Jewish law have been written as a result of his books. It is estimated that there are thousands of books with his haskamah (a recommendation of a book and its author).
To promote his political vision he established Shas, which he has used at times to direct the country’s political agenda. Ministers, prime ministers, and senior public figures from all parties have sought him out and asked for his blessing and support. There are currently 12 MKs affiliated with the rabbi’s court, including ministers and representatives in all branches of government.
The rabbi hands down his own decisions on Jewish law, but before he makes a decision the members of his entourage have a great deal of influence in collecting and presenting information. Initially the Rabbi’s wife Margalit Yosef and his son Rabbi David Yosef managed the court, along with Aryeh Deri. There was a coup following Mrs. Yosef’s death in 1994, and another son, Rabbi Moshe Yosef and his wife Yehudit took charge of the court, along with Shas Chairman Eli Yishai.
Today the court is managed from three apartments on Hakablan Street, which include a magnificent synagogue, one of the largest libraries of religious books in Israel, an office, and of course the home of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and that of Rabbi Moshe Yosef and his family. Every day Shas ministers and MKs visit the building, as do personal secretaries, study partners, and guards.
|The Court of Rabbi Elyashiv|
Leader: Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv
Location: Hanan Alley, Meah She’arim, Jerusalem
Origins: Rabbi Elyashiv was born in 1910 in Lithuania, and after celebrating his bar mitzvah moved with his family to the Land of Israel. They settled in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Meah She’arim, where Rabbi Elyashiv lives to this day. He served as a dayan in the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, resigning from the Supreme Rabbinical Court in 1972 in protest at the election of Rabbi Shlomo Goren as Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi. Since then he has stayed at home and given a daily class in the synagogue. In the early 1990s the health of Rabbi Eliezer Menachem Schach deteriorated, and a group of young rabbis designated Rabbi Elyashiv as his successor. These rabbis, including Yosef Efrati, Chaim Cohen, and Aryeh Dvir, identified the electoral power of spiritual leadership and the political strength that came with it on the basis of the model of Rabbi Schach, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and Rabbi Kadouri. Rabbis Efrati, Cohen, and Dvir became Rabbi Elyashiv’s advisors, companions, secretaries, and drivers, and marketed him as a spiritual leader and the most important rabbinical authority of this generation.
Influence: Rabbi Elyashiv, 96, is the spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox Lithuanian faction throughout the world, but his influence is felt even among other segments of the religious public, and has implications for all of Israeli society. Actually, he lacks the basic elements of leadership: he is not charismatic and does not speak in public, he does not have his own yeshiva, he has not written a large number of books on Jewish law, and he did not inherit the mantle of leadership from someone in his own family, as is the norm among the ultra-Orthodox. Nevertheless, even at his advanced age Rabbi Elyashiv puts together and brings down governments, is sought out by heads of state, and has a hand in everything.
In recent years the Elyashiv court has begun to involve itself in personnel matters, supporting its own rabbis and dayanim. When they were selected it was clear to everyone that the road to office went through Rabbi Elyashiv’s court. Thus, for example, the court selected Rabbi Yona Metzger, a neighborhood rabbi in Tel Aviv, and pushed him into the role of Chief Rabbi. Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski was also selected, and anointed to a role in Rabbi Elyashiv’s court.
On issues of Jewish law Rabbi Elyashiv has tremendous influence. For example, he was asked to decide whether wigs produced in India were kosher and could be worn by married Jewish women. After he nixed the wigs, thousands of ultra-Orthodox women made bonfires and burned their wigs. In another case, the ultra-Orthodox did not eat frozen meat for weeks until the rabbi finished checking into the issue.
The court of Rabbi Elyashiv easily gained hegemony among the Lithuanian faction of the ultra-Orthodox world. Agudat Yisrael’s hassidim fell into line, and then the court was able to force Shas to accept its authority. Even Rabbi Ovadia Yosef accepted Rabbi Elyashiv’s position, and members of Rabbi Elyashiv’s court made sure to publicize this fact. Today Rabbi Elyashiv’s court is considered to be the strongest and most influential Ashkenazi court in Israel, but in light of Rabbi Elyashiv’s advanced age, only time will tell how long the hegemony will last.
|The X-Ray Court|
Leader: Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Ifergan
Origins: Rabbi Ifergan and his late father are scions of a 500-year old rabbinic dynasty from the Moroccan city of Oufran. Some of the books written by the dynasty’s founder, Rabbi Yaakov Ifergan, were discovered a number of years ago in a library in London. In less than ten years since the death of his father—who was also a mystical figure, though diffident—Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Ifergan went from being a young yeshiva student from Netivot to one of the most influential rabbinical figures in the country. Before turning 40 he made his court into a place of pilgrimage for hundreds of thousands of people from all over Israel and the entire world.
Influence: Rabbi Ifergan is one of the most famous and intriguing figures in Israel. People of all kinds, all ages, all educational levels from many countries take an interest in him. He’s called the “X-ray rabbi” because of the powers of discernment his followers attribute to him. Wealthy people and simple laborers, high-ranking government officials and simple citizens all wait in the long lines leading to his court in Netivot.
They all come to ask for a blessing, advice, and a small peek into the recesses of their minds and their bodies. A year ago The Marker crowned him one of the most influential people in the Israeli economy; Noah Dankner, G. Yafit, and many other major figures in the Israeli economy have made pilgrimages to his court in Netivot.
What is special about Rabbi Ifergan’s court is the tikkun held on the eve of every new month at the grave of his father, Rabbi Shalom Ifergan, in Netivot. During the tikkun, which includes singing, prayers, and blessings, Rabbi Ifergan throws thousands of packets of candles to attendees from all over the country.
Leader: Currently none
|The Chabad (Lubavitcher) Court|
Location: Kfar Chabad
Origins: The court was founded by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, author of the Tanya, the main treatise of Hassidism. The seventh Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, made the movement into the well-known force it is today.
Influence: In the world of Jewish law people like to joke that the second most common brand name in the world, after Coca Cola, is the Chabad movement, which has branches and activists in even the most far-flung locations. Lubavitchers, the most influential and activist Hassidim today, are hard to categorize. Though they have branches and Habad houses all over, they have had no rabbinic leader since Rabbi Schneerson’s death in 1994.
The messianist faction of the Lubavtichers does not accept that he died. They claim not only that he is alive, but also that he is the Messiah. Others acknowledge that he died but have continued his legacy on the basis of the verse, “And you shall spread forth to the west, to the east, to the north, and to the south.”
Chabad is considered one of the richest Hassidic groups in the world, and it runs Jewish schools in many different countries, especially in the former Soviet republics. The group believes in using modern technology like satellite broadcasts and web sites, as well as extensive billboard ad campaigns, to disseminate its message.
Habad Hassidim are more involved in public life than other types of ultra-Orthodox Jews. Inspired by their late rebbe to take a right-wing line in Israeli politics, they helped Benjamin Netanyahu to be elected Prime Minister with their slogan, “Netanyahu is good for the Jews.”
Leader: Rabbi Yaacov Aryeh Alter
|The Ger Hassidim|
Location: Bnai Brak, Jerusalem, Ashdod
Origins: It all began in the town of Góra Kalwaria near Warsaw, Poland, home of Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter, the founder of Ger Hassidism. Since then there have been six generations of Gerer rebbes.
Influence: Ger has yeshivas and institutions both in Israel and abroad. In Israel it is the largest, strongest, and most influential Hassidic court. It controls Agudat Yisrael with two MKs, Knesset Finance Committee Chairman Yaacov Litzman, and MK Yaacov Cohen. Two other MKs, Shmuel Halpert, a Vizhnitz hassid, and Meir Porush, who is descended from members of the Old Yishuv in Jerusalem, are also subordinate to the Gerer rebbe.
The Gerer hassidim have dozens of yeshivas for young men and older men, as well as schools for boys and girls, run by Rabbi Nachman Vidislavsky, with a population totaling 24,000 students. They also run social welfare organizations.
Ger, considered the wealthiest hassidic court in the world, is an economic empire. Its holdings include real estate throughout Israel valued at tens of millions of dollars. The land housing the Schneller army camp in Jerusalem was bought by the Gerer hassidim so that they could build a new neighborhood for their adherents.
Nevertheless, the Gerer rebbe’s court recently published instructions for its followers to hold modest weddings, and placed limitations on the amount spent on each wedding.
The current Gerer rebbe does not meet with non-religious public figures and makes do with giving instructions to his Knesset representatives.
Leaders: Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, Rabbi Mordechai Elon
|Rabbis Aviner and Elon|
Location: Ateret Hacohanim Yeshiva, Yeshivat Hakotel (The Western Wall Yeshiva)
Origins: Rabbi Aviner is the rabbi of the settlement of Bet El and head of the Ateret Hacohanim Yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Old City. He has published dozens of books, and is known for his strict rulings on issues of modesty and dress.
Rabbi Elon, head of Yeshivat Hakotel but currently on sabbatical, has appeared on television shows, as well as radio shows about the weekly Torah portion. His classes at the Yeshurun Synagogue in Jersualem and at Bar Ilan University attract hundreds of people every week.
Influence: Rabbis Shapira and Eliyahu are the leaders of religious Zionism, but religious Zionist young people look to Rabbi Aviner and Rabbi Elon.
Rabbi Aviner is considered the guru of the new religious right, whose members often consult him on personal matters, either in person or in writing. He also receives over 100 SMSes with questions every day.
Rabbi Elon is considered a charismatic speaker and lecturer. His constituency, mainly young people from the religious areas of Jerusalem, Givat Shmuel, and Petah Tikvah, is more religiously moderate.
Sixty thousand people came to his pre-Shavuot pilgrimage this year. Thousands of young people see him as their teacher and rabbi, and the tisches (festive gatherings) he holds are a bit reminiscent of a Hassidic rebbe’s tisch.
Leader: Rabbi Yaacov Abuhatzeira
|The Abuhatzeira Family|
Location: Netivot, Beersheba, Ashdod, and Nahariya
Origins: The Abuhatzeira dynasty began with Rabbi Yaacov Abuhatzeira, who according to legend flew to Israel from Morocco on a mat (hatzeira in Moroccan Arabic). The most prominent rabbi in the family was the Baba Sali, Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira, who settled in Netivot.
He attracted hundreds of believers who discovered the power of his blessings and his miracles. His son, Baruch Abuhatzeira, was a National Religious Party activist who became his father’s heir and successor.
Influence: The Sephardim now have their own version of Ashkenazi rabbinical courts. The Abuhatzeiras, with branches around the world, are among the most prominent.
Baruch Abuhatzeira, known as the Baba Baruch, has turned his court into an empire, building institutions and yeshivas and making his father’s grave into a national park and a magnet for believers of North African origin. Tens of thousands people throng to the hilulot (public celebrations) that he holds and buy “holy water” and other souvenirs.
The Baba Baruch’s brother, Baba Meir, established his own court in Ashdod but died when young. His sons, grandsons of the Baba Sali, have also founded their own courts.
Baba Elazar’s court is in Beersheba and has thousands of admirers from around the world, including a number of Ashkenazim. His brother Rabbi David Abuhatzeira, who served as the Chief Rabbi of Nahariya, also founded as large court in the north. Yekutiel, the youngest brother, has his court in Ashdod.
Today all the Abuhatzeira rabbis are identified with Shas and have their own representative in the Knesset, Rabbi Chaim Amsalem. Politicians, businessmen, and celebrities visit the family’s courts, with each choosing his own Baba.
Leaders: Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, Rabbi Avraham Shapira
|The Kiryat Moshe Courts|
Location: Jerusalem’s Kiryat Moshe neighborhood
Origins: In the past, religious Zionists subordinated themselves to their rabbis only on questions of Jewish law and did not involve their rabbis in political issues. In recent decades, following changes undergone by religious Zionism and at the inspiration of Shas and Agudat Yisrael, the National Religious Party has also developed its own rabbis’ courts. It is through these courts that Rabbis Eliyahu and Shapira have become the spiritual and political leaders of religious Zionism.
Rabbi Eliyahu came from the ultra-Orthodox world, and in his youth he was imprisoned for membership in “Brit ha-Kana'im” (The Covenant of the Zealots), an underground group in the early 1950s that sought to establish a state based on Jewish law. Later he became part of the national religious Zionists and was chosen to be Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel.
Rabbi Avraham Shapira, who was head of the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva, served as Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi alongside Rabbi Eliyahu. Rabbi Shapira is also a spiritual leader of national religious Zionists and of hundreds of students in prestigious yeshivas. He runs his court from the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem and from his home in Kiryat Moshe.
Influence: Rabbi Eliyahu is considered one of the spiritual leaders of the settlement movement and the religious-nationalist right wing. The dominant figures in his court are his wife, Tzvia, his son Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, Chief Rabbi of Safed, and Rabbi Shmuel Zafrani. In recent years Rabbi Eliyahu has followed in the footsteps of his father, Rabbi Salman Eliyahu, and become a kabbalist. His followers have numerous mystical stories about him and his deeds.
Rabbi Shapira has avoided making statements on everyday issues and has talked only about major political issues. He proved his strength during the period of the disengagement from Gaza when he called upon soldiers to refuse orders and caused an uproar in the army.
Rabbi Shapira is the leader of Israelis who call themselves “chardal” (nationalist ultra-Orthodox), and his Mercaz Harav Yeshiva has wide spheres of influence. The heads of the National Religious Party, the National Union, and most MKs from Yisrael Beiteinu are receptive to his statements.
Leaders: Rabbi David Kadouri, Rabbi David Basri, Rabbi Benayahu Shmueli
|The Kabbalist Courts|
Origins: The world of kabbalah used to be secret, but it’s come out of the closet. Kabbalists are now famous, and they have their own courts with aides and attendants, offices and yeshivas. The best known and most prominent court was that of Rabbi Yitzhak Kadouri, a bookbinder who wrote amulet texts in his free time and died in early 2006.
Influence: VIPs and simple people alike from Israel and abroad streamed to Rabbi Kadouri’s home to receive a blessing or an amulet. Aryeh Deri identified Rabbi Kadouri’s electoral power and issued amulets that became a hit and contributed to Shas’s winning 17 seats in the 1996 elections. Rabbi Kadouri’s court includes a yeshiva, a synagogue, and a place for Torah study.
He was assisted by his son Rabbi David Kadouri, his grandson Yossi, and his wife Dorit. When he died at over 100 years of age in January, Rabbi David was chosen as his successor. While he has continued to run the court in the same format, it has been forced to compete for primacy with other kabbalists’ courts. Rabbi Yitzhak Kadouri’s young student Rabbi Benayahu Shmueli has established his own court in the kabbalist Nahar Shalom Yeshiva in Jerusalem.
Another rising star in the world of kabbalah is Rabbi David Basri, head of Hashalom Yeshiva near Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market, who holds mass tikkunim every month and secret tikkunim nearly every day.