A number of weeks ago we described the great contribution made by Hacham Ben Zion Abba Shaul to contemporary Sephardic Jewry. This prompted Mrs. Loree Cohen of Englewood, New Jersey, to describe her family’s moving interactions with this great man. Mrs. Cohen’s husband, Mr. Elazar (Elie) Cohen and his family, had a longtime relationship with Chacham Ben Zion, which Mrs. Cohen describes below.
Rav Abba Shaul, his family and the Cohen family all lived in the neighborhood of Bet Israel along Rehov Shmuel HaNavi. Life was precarious in this neighborhood prior to the Six-Day War, as it straddled the border with Jordan. This neighborhood is where so many of the great rabbis of that generation were raised, such as Rav Ovadia Yosef, Rav Baruch Ben Haim of Brooklyn, Rav Cohen from Panama, Chacham Tzadka and many more. Today the Mir Yeshiva flourishes in this neighborhood. Rav Manzour, who attended my grandson Zachary’s bar mitzvah, still lives and his yeshiva is located there. He told us that this neighborhood is built over where the ashes of Korbanot were taken from the Beit Hamikdash.
The father of Rav Ben Zion Abba Shaul and my father-in-law, Binyamin, with a few others formed the Kehillah Ohel Rahel that is still operated by the Abba Shaul family. This is where Rav Abba Shaul delivered his weekly drasha on Shabbat for many years. This is where my brother-in-law, the legendary Chazan Yaacov Cohen, learned the tefilla that he brought to Englewood.
The families were very close. When my husband Elie was born, Rav Abba Shaul told Elie’s father that since his uncle Elazar had no children, Elie’s father should name this son for him. This is why Elie is named Elazar! Over the years we would visit Rav Abba Shaul when we traveled to Israel. On two occasions when Rav Abba Shaul came to America we had the privilege of hosting him at our house in Englewood together with his son, wife and oldest grandson. I took them shopping to Alexander’s department store that was then located in Paramus. I remember how he wanted his wife, Hadas, to buy a few dresses (like a sweater dress so that she would be warm). I remember the the extreme kavod/honor that he showed to her. This occurred approximately in 1980.
Rav Abba Shaul was so humble that he did not want people to stand for him. When he would attend the Beit Knesset he would wait for the point when everyone was already standing. Only then would he enter the room. He never sought honor; he desired only to study Torah.
My son Ben and daughter Kiki had the great honor to spend Shabbat with Rav Abba Shaul at his Jerusalem home, but this occurred after he had already suffered a stroke and was not verbal. My son Ben took him down the steps in a wheelchair with his grandson Benzion to take him to tefillah.
Still today we remain in touch with many members of the Abba Shaul family. When my son Isaac studied in Israel for the year, one of his teachers was the nephew of Rav Abba Shaul. Our connection with the Abba Shaul family is one of the most special memories of our family!
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.