HaRav Abdallah Somech of Raghdad
This article was originally published in 1994. It is here published online for the first time.
For Part II of this series click here.
Master and Student
It is the thirteenth of Kislev, 5650. Headed by the chief military governor of Baghdad, a large procession of Jews, soldiers, constables and high government officials is streaming toward the grave of the gaon, R' Abdallah Somech, the principal mentor of the Ben Ish Chai. R' Abdallah Somech had passed away eighty-four days prior to the procession. However, when some burly and fanatic Arabs complained that the burial site (known as the courtyard of Yehoshua Kohen Godol) was sacred to the Moslems, the Jews were forced to agree to remove the body of their beloved rav from its resting place, and bury it somewhere else.
The congregation wept bitterly. Doctors held pungent herbs in order to diffuse the effects of the stench which would emanate from the corpse of the deceased tzaddik, who had been the head of all of Babylon's rabbis, and had died on the eighteenth of Elul, 5649, a hundred-thirty-four years ago.
They were startled. They did not believe their eyes.
When the grave was uncovered, the body of the gaon, R' Abdallah Somech, was totally intact and in the same state as when it had been interred. It displayed no signs of decay, and issued no bad odors. Even the shrouds had not rotted. The land where the Babylonian Talmud had been written had never witnessed such an occurrence.
When the military ruler saw what had taken place, he descended his horse and ordered all of his men to follow suit. "We are attending the funeral of a man of G-d, and must accord him due respect. It is not proper to ride a horse before him."
A number of curious Arabs who had mounted the tall palm trees near the site, quickly climbed down. They fled Baghdad, and moved to other cities where they converted to Judaism. "The religion of that man of G-d is the true one," was the inevitable conclusion they reached.
The words of the verse, "And all the nations of the earth shall see that G-d's Name is called on you, and they shall fear you," was fulfilled through R' Abdallah Somech.
The dictum, "[The impact of] tzadikim is greater after their deaths, than during their lifetimes," was remarkably manifested by the principal mentor (rav muvhak) of the illustrious Ben Ish Chai, who died one-hundred-twenty-four years ago, ten years after his mentor.
Many amazing stories were told about R' Abdallah Somech during his life. The following occurrence took place after his death:
The Tigris River flowing through Baghdad
It is well-known that Baghdad is divided into two by the Tigris (Chidekel) River. The Jewish community was located on its eastern bank, and the Moslem community, otherwise known as Al Korach, on its western one. It was on the western bank, far from settled areas, that the grave of Yehoshua ben Yehotzadak, the Kohen Godol, was located. This sacred grave site, which was called Al Kohen by the Jews, was surrounded by a fortified wall. Both the Jews and the Moslems possessed its keys.
At that time, the civil governor (Wali) of Baghdad, Mutztafa Atzam Pasha, embittered the lives of his Jewish subjects. Their efforts to persuade him to permit them to bury their revered sage beside his forefathers, in the cemetery near the city, fell on deaf ears. The Wali was very opposed to the idea, and only permitted them to bury him in the courtyard of the prophet, Yehoshua, the Kohen Godol, which was on the western side of the Chidekel. They were granted a written burial permit, signed by the Wali himself. The mentor of R' Abdallah Somech, R' Yosef Harofeh, is also buried there.
On motzei Shabbos, the eighteenth of Elul, the broken and downcast students of R' Abdallah Somech, the great luminary of Iraq, followed his bier to the cemetery, and prepared to dig his grave. It soon became clear that the permit, which had been signed by the governor himself, was worthless. As they were overturning the earth beside the grave, a fanatic Moslem named Abdallah Zibeg, who was also the mayor of Al Korach, lunged forth. He was accompanied by a band of wild Arabs, who accosted the Jews and forbade them to continue digging. "It is forbidden to bury a stranger in the courtyard of the prophet Yehoshua," they decisively said.
The diggers were removed from the cemetery. The gates were locked, and the keys, which had until then been held by the Jewish cemetery attendant, were taken away from him. The entire occurrence was instigated by the avaricious Moslem attendant.
A few hours later, all of Baghdad's Jews gathered to participate in the funeral of their great rav. Many held torches. They crossed the Chidekel bridge and reached the courtyard of the Kohen. After discovering what Zibeg's henchmen had done, a number of Jewish leaders reported the incident to the minister of the cavalry and to Ishmael Effendi, who was the mayor of Baghdad, and a friend of the Jews.
When the Jews showed him the burial permit, which had been signed by the Wali, the minister mobilized a number of soldiers, as well as some horses and cavalrymen, and set out to rescue the Jews from their oppressors.
Abdallah's Zibeg's band burned with religious fanaticism. They were not satisfied with having prevented the Jews from burying their rav. Over fifty thugs were recruited in order to attack the Jews who had gathered in the courtyard of the Kohen Godol, and were listening to the eulogy of R' Moshe Shamash. Suddenly, a tumult erupted. Six brave Jews sensed impending disaster, and prepared for the worst. They opened the gates and quickly buried their great rav beside his own mentor. In order to delude the marauders, they removed the empty casket and sat around it, so that Abdallah Zibeg's men would not realize that R' Abdallah Somech had already been buried.
The virulent antisemitism of Zibeg's band manifested itself immediately. They did not wait, but in their rage, fell upon the Jews, broke their lanterns and barraged them with rocks. Fortunately, they thought that the body of the deceased was still in the casket, awaiting burial. This prevented them from entering the courtyard of the Kohen and destroying the true grave.
The minister of the cavalry and his henchmen arrived just in time to protect the Jews, and drive away the rioters. The next morning, the Jews filed a complaint with the Wali. They hoped that he would honor his signature.
However, the marauders beat them to the punch. Abdallah Zibeg, the head of the band, hired false witnesses and accused the Jews of beating many Arabs, of rebelling against the army and of burying their deceased illegally.
The Wali, who despised the Jews, accepted the slander. He was certain of its veracity, and did not investigate the charges. He summoned a number of the leaders of the Jewish community, and rebuked them harshly. All their efforts to prove that the witnesses had lied, fell on deaf ears. The Wali himself denied that the signature on the permit was his, and claimed that he had given the Jews permission to bury their rav in Chatzeir Yehoshua (Yehoshua's courtyard) and not in the courtyard (chatzeir) of the actual grave of Yehoshua the prophet.
That incident marked the onset of a very difficult two years for the Jews. The Wali dispatched constables to seize every Jew found in the streets of Iraq. They then beat them severely, and incarcerated them for long periods. Attacks, riots, robberies and blood baths were the lot of the Jewish people during that epoch.
The Jews "Fight" Back
A time of calamity for the Jews! The traditional Jewish weapon was launched. The Jews of Iraq assembled for prayer rallies and cried out to their Father in Heaven. World Jewry was mobilized. The Jews of Yerushalayim were notified of the situation. Detailed letters, which described every facet of the atrocities, were sent to the Yerushalayim based journal, Chavatzelet, and to Hatzfira of Warsaw.
One such item, written to Hatzfira by R' Elisha Nissim Sasson, the Chacham Bashi of Iraq, read:
"The Pasha has become our cruel and bitter foe. He not only failed to take revenge on our enemies, but also abetted and helped them, by believing their slander and the malingers who told him that the Jews had buried their revered rav in a plot which did not belong to them. In addition, they beat the members of the religion of the very prophet whom they regard as sacred and sent soldiers to arrest the great leaders and sages of the Jewish People, and to imprison them with murderers and thieves.
"He also sent cavalry to the Jewish streets to seize whomever they encountered. They beat them severely, tied them to the tails of horses, and dragged them through the city's streets, to the prison, where they were given the same treatment as rebels against the king.
"Now, the Jews are in deep danger, and their lives are in peril. In the morning they say,`When will night fall?' and at night, they cry out, `When will dawn break?' They fear for their lives, because the Arabs threaten to extinguish them, as they attempted to do to the Christians in Damascus in 5620."
The editorial staff of Hatzfira responded very sharply, and wrote that "this incident is worse than the Damascus pogrom which shook the entire world in 1840. How strange it is that until now, no telegrams were sent to us, apprising us of the matter...
"Are such crimes, perpetrated against a community of forty thousand people, less severe than the accident which occurred in a theater in a distant Australian city. Even though no one in Australia was injured, we were informed of the incident by telegraph, only three days after it occurred."
Shutting Off Communication
The next act of the Wali was to shut down all of the Jewish community's lines of communication. At his orders, all telegrams sent by the Jews were confiscated and did not reach their destinations. The Jews overcame this inconvenience by sending their telegrams and money orders to Constantinople, London and Paris via another city.
The famous and wealthy Sasson family of Persia, which resided in Paris at the time, rallied to the aid of their brethren. Their connections and deep influence in British political circles aided them greatly. On the twenty-fifth of October 1889, an urgent letter was sent to Lord Salisbury, a highly influential government advisor. In it the woes of the Jews were described in great detail.
When Mutztafa Pasha learned that the Jews of Constantinople had managed to send a telegram accusing him of misbehavior, he persuaded twenty false witnesses from Abdallah's band to sign a telegram stating, among other things, that R' Abdallah Somech, had been buried in a Moslem mosque where prayer services were regularly held.
As if this wasn't enough, the Wali issued an order to imprison all of the Jewish leaders and sages who had sent telegrams. Only those who were able to pay large ransom fees were spared.
The influence of the Sasson family in London's political circles, and the activities of Chevras Shluchai Hakehillos, Agudas Achim and Kol Yisroel Chaveirim, bore fruit. The British government sent a stern warning to the Sultan, Abad El Chamid, threatening that if he did not rally to the aid of the Jews of Baghdad quickly, Britain would be compelled to intervene. This warning made a tremendous impression in Constantinople.
The Sultan asked the Chacham Bashi of Baghdad, R' Elisha Nissim Sasson Dangur, to wire him an account of what had occurred. The Chacham, who was accompanied to the telegraph office by the Wali, was very careful not say anything offensive about him. Instead, he replied: "Were I to dare describe the true facts, I would end up limping on my other leg." This cryptic reply indicated that the Chacham was not able to speak freely.
On the fourth and fifth of Cheshvan 5650, Turkish officials investigated the Wali's behavior. On the sixth of Cheshvan, at 2 a.m., Turkish officials turned to the Moshir (civil governor) by telegraph and asked him to tell them the truth. The Moshir revealed the entire story. On Sunday, the eighth of Kislev, 5650, the Sultan issued a high order (arada sinya) to discharge the Wali, Mutztafa Atzam Pasha, from his position.
On Thursday, the twelfth of Kislev, a telegram arrived from Constantinople, appointing Tewfik Pasha to temporarily replace the ousted Wali, Mutztafa Atzam, as Moshir. In this telegram, he was asked to release some of the prisoners in order to mollify the Jews. However he was also asked to remove the body of R' Abdallah Somech from its grave in the courtyard of the Kohen and to transfer it to the regular Jewish cemetery, in order to mollify the Moslems.
The miracle which occurred when the grave of R' Abdallah was opened, caused a number of Moslems to convert to Judaism. After the dismissal of the Wali, the lot of the Jews improved. Tewfik Pasha, who was appointed temporary governor of the region released all the Jewish prisoners, and warned the government officials to cease abusing the Jews. With that, the saga of the burial of R' Abdallah Somech came to an end.
Next week: Stories about his life