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Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Greatness of Ribi Shalom

The greatest halachic authority of Moroccan Jewry in recent times was the universally respected and consulted Sephardic rav of Yerushalayim, Ribi Shalom Messas זצ”ל. Ribi Shalom is regarded by many as the second-greatest Sephardic posek in the prior generation, next to Rav Ovadia Yosef. He was born in 1909 to a family with a long line of first-rank Torah scholars, in the city of Meknes, which was renowned for its great Torah scholarship and piety.

Rav Ovadia held Ribi Shalom in the highest of esteem, even asking Ribi Shalom to compose a haskama (letter of approbation) to the 10th volume of Teshuvot Yabia Omer. Hacham Ovadia often cites Ribi Shalom as his support in issuing bold halachic decisions regarding matters of personal status such as mamzeirut and agunah (see, for example, Teshuvot Yabia Omer 9: Even HaEzer 5 and 13).

In 1978, then-Israeli Chief Rabbi Chacham Ovadia Yosef זצ”ל asked Ribi Shalom to come to the holy city of Yerushalyaim and serve as its Sephardic chief rabbi—a position in which he served with distinction and acclaim for 26 years, until his passing. When he departed for Eretz Yisrael, Rav Messas was escorted to the airport by Morocco’s King Hassan himself, who requested that the rabbi bless him one last time before his departure.

During his tenure as rav of Yerushalayim, Ribi Shalom wrote many teshuvot to the great poskim of our generation such as Chacham Ovadia Yosef זצ”ל, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv זצ”ל, the Tzitz Eliezer and more. Although he had many halachic disputes with Chacham Ovadia, they admired each other greatly, as is evident from the countless times they quote each other in their many halachic works.

He would also not hold back from answering any of his critics, and often write back and forth five or six times to those who questioned his psakim, even if they were younger talmidei chachamim. Chacham David Yosef שליט”א, son of Chacham Ovadia, related that he once wanted to argue a matter of halacha with Ribi Shalom and received a warning from his father: “When you argue with Rav Messas, make sure to review your claims 10 times!”

Alain Amar of Shaarei Orah is very close with the Messas family. Alain told me that the Messas family were told by Rav Ovadia Yosef when he paid a shivah visit upon Ribi Shalom’s passing, that whenever he wrote his teshuvot, Chacham Ovadia wrote very cautiously, knowing that Ribi Shalom would catch any lapse in rigor and judgment.

The Need to Widen the Circle of
Recognition of Ribi Shalom

Anyone who learns Rav Messas’ Teshuvot Tevu’ot Shemesh and Teshuvot Shemesh U’Magein recognizes the greatness of Ribi Shalom. This is apparent from regular readers of this column who often see our quoting the brilliant and convincing argumentation of Rav Messas. He is clearly and undoubtedly in the same class as the Tzitz Eliezer, Rav Ovadia, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and Rav Elyashiv.

Why then have many, if not most, Ashkenazic poskim, especially those who do not have the merit to reside in Israel, never even heard of him? His lack of recognition in wider circles is reflected in the sad fact that his teshuvot do not even appear on the Bar Ilan Responsa website!

I shared this concern when the respected rosh kollel Rav David Bueganim (brother-in-law of Avi Ohayon, z”l, of Shaarei Orah) visited Shaarei Orah a few years ago. He explained that Rav Messas arrived in Israel at the relatively advanced age of 69. Rav Bueganim told me that Rav Messas was preoccupied with beit din matters during his years in Eretz Yisrael and did not have the time to devote to traveling to various yeshivot so that talmidim would become familiar with him. Thus, dayanim and many Sephardic rabbanim gained an appreciation of this great man, but outside of these circles he remained mostly unknown.

Rav Shalom Messas passed away on Shabbat HaGadol in the year 5763 (2003), at the age of 94. Tens of thousands of people flocked from all over Eretz Yisrael and abroad to attend his levaya, and he was buried in Har HaMenuchot in Yerushalayim. On a personal note, Ribi Shalom’s kever is located in the immediate vicinity of the graves of my wife’s grandparents Hillel a”h and Malca a”h Tokayer. Although I did not have the wisdom to visit him during his lifetime, I visited his kever in 2012, asking him to serve as a meilitz yosher (advocate before Hashem) on my behalf that I be successful with both my work as a mesadeir get and as the rav of Shaarei Orah.

Rav Messas’ many sefarim still serve as an enlightening resource to many talmidei chachamim across the globe, and North African Jewish communities have held on to precious and ancient minhagim in accordance with his psakim. We hope that a wider circle of talmidei chachamim and poskim become more aware of his writings and incorporate them in their learning and piskei halacha. I hope our columns play a role in this effort.

By 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.