Sephardic life


Sephardic Thinkers

This blog will include commentaries and analyses of the writings and thought of Sephardic philosophers, homilists, and other commentators, including in particular Maimonides.

Lately, I’ve become very interested in the philosophy and Halakha of Sephardic rabbis. I’ve found that they often rule much more leniently than their Ashkenazi counterparts, taking into consideration the needs and limits of the people. I also find it interesting to speculate how their surroundings and their relative ease of Jewish life in Muslim society contributed to their views. Here are some interesting bios and tidbits from some of these Rabbis. If you have anything to add, please contact Aaron Ari Afilalo; I’d love to hear.


Pearls from Teshuboth of Hakham Yosef Messas & Friends


Hakham Chalom Abuhasseira (1893-1974) was the chief rabbi of Bechar, Algeria and grandson of Mas’ud Abuhasseira, known as Abir Ya’aqob. He was born in Tafilalt, Morocco but moved first to Algeria in 1920 and then Marseilles in 1960. He wrote several books, commentaries to the Mishna, Tora, and Shulhan Arukh, as well as publishing some of his grandfather’s works. Today, we will study a section from his Keli Khesef (original Hebrew below) where he analyzes with the first two pesuqim of this week’s perasha.

Why, specifically here, for the concept of shemita is it mentioned that God spoke to Moshe at Har Sinai? Normally, it does not specify the location. This is a question asked by Rashi and H. Abuhasseira offers a novel answer to teach us the accessibility of Tora.

During Shemita, anything that grows from the ground is free for anyone to take and benefit from its fruits. As it says “but the seventh year thou shalt let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of thy people may eat” (Exodus 23:11). Therefore, shemita represents a year where produce is accessible to all.

So too, with Har Sinai. The Tora, which was given at Har Sinai- anyone who wants to come and study it and delve into it, is able to. As it is said in Masekheth Yoma: “The one of the ark is still lying and whosoever wants to take it, may come and take it”. Here, R. Yohanan is referring to the different crowns: crown of the priesthood which is for the descendants of Aaron, crown of the kingdom which is for the descendants of David, and the crown of Tora, which is accessible to all.

Pearls from Teshuboth of Hakham Yosef Messas & Friends


Hakham Shim’on Duran (1361-1444) was a Rabbinical authority and student of philosophy, astronomy, mathematics and medicine. He was born in Barcelona, Spain, but due to persecution in 1391, he fled to Algeria, where in 1407 he became the rabbi of Algiers. He was forced against his will to accept a salary since he lost all his property during the persecution. He wrote many works, teshuboth, commentaries, hiddushim, and poems. Below is a short summary of a passage from Magen Abot, a commentary on Pirqe Abot, which we begin reading this week each Shabbath.

Please reach out to with any questions.

H. Shimon Duran explains in his introduction to the commentary of Pirqe Abot, Magen Abot, that the reason we study this Mishna before Shabu’ot, is to prepare ourselves to reach the level of “Hasidut”.

“Hasid” is translated today as pious, or is usually associated with a movement of followers of a prominent rabbinical figure. We will see now how Rabbi Duran defined the concept of “Hasid” in his book. Rabbi Duran quotes the Gemara in Qiddushin 40a saying that we might find a man that is a “Sadiq”, a righteous man, but not a good man. For example, when someone is very scrupulous in his relationship with God, but does not behave well towards his or her peers. Rabbi Duran explains that “the highest level, above which there is no other level, is when a person is good toward Shamayim and good toward other people. And when someone reaches this ideal level he is called “Hasid”.

Duran notes three important characteristics of the Hasid:


  • Connection with Bore ‘Olam
  • Integrity
  • Gemilut Hasadim

Duran gives us a good definition of what does it mean to be a role-model Jew. On the one hand, building and maintaining an ongoing relationship with God, and on the other hand, being extremely honest, caring and above all generous and sensitive, doing everything in our power to help others, with our means and with our time.

Rabbi Duran concludes: Why should we study Pirqe Abot? Because this treatise of Mishna contains the advices of our sages to become a real “hasid”, the best possible Jew with HaShem and with one’s peers.

Pearls from Teshuboth of Hakham Yosef Messas & Friends


Hakham Sha’ul Levi Morteira (1596-1660) was born in Venice, Italy and the Sephardic rabbi in Amsterdam. He escorted the body of Elijah Monalto, the physician to the Queen of France, to Amsterdam and while there, he impressed the community so much, that they elected him to be their hakham. He spoke several languages and was fluent Hebrew, Italian, Portuguese, and Dutch. One of his most famous books is Gib’at Sha’ul, a collection of some of his sermons, one sermon per year. Below is a paraphrase of his sermon for Perashat Teruma (Note: while these may not always be halakha lema’ase, his thought processes and conclusions are enlightening.)

Please reach out to with any questions.

The question is if God is indeed omnipresent, why did God command the Jewish people to build and mishkan and worship him there? Why couldn’t they pray to him in any place they so chose?

The reason is that people best understand a concept when they have something tangible associated with it. Since people cannot physically see or feel God, they unfortunately, won’t always feel His presence . This happened with the sin of the Golden Calf, where Bene Yisra’el questioned “Is God amongst us?”

As a result, they think God is up in the Heavens, so to speak, and isn’t involved with their daily lives. Because of this, God commands the nation to take a Teruma, which comes from the Hebrew shoresh, RWM, which can also mean loftiness or exaltedness. God is essentially telling Bene Yisra’el that with this mishkan, they will have something tangible with which to associate his presence (note Mishkan and Shekhina have the same shoresh). This will take away God’s loftiness and make God recognizable in the day to day lives of the people. The result is that they will realize that God is not distance, but rather very much involved in mundane world.