Jerusalem is a treasure house. We have no diamond mines, no great, successful industries, no spectacular natural wonders. Our riches lie in a rarer commodity, more precious than all those things. For Jerusalem is home to quiet, modest giants who hide in the shadows of her rambling old streets, studying in the corners of whitewashed rooms, quietly achieving wonders of scholarship.
Last week, Jerusalem lost one of its most precious treasures: Rav Joseph Kafach.
Born in the city of San’a, Yemen eighty-three years ago, he was the grandson of Yihye Kafach, a noted and respected Torah scholar and rabbi. Isolated from their Jewish brethren in Europe, the Jews of Yemen studied the works of such famous Jewish scholars as Maimonidies and Sa’adiah Gaon in the original Arabic. These works only became accessible to European Jewry in the twelfth century with the translation of the texts into Hebrew by the Ibn Tibon family of Montpellier, France
About the turn of the last century, the Ibn Tibon translations found their way to Yemen. The Jews of Yemen found the translations difficult, clumsy and inaccurate. Yihye Kafach decided to collect all the old original Arabic texts from which Yemenite Jews had studied these works, beginning the process which would allow for their restoration. When Rav Yihye’s son died at a tragically young age, it was left to his grandson, Joseph, to carry on the work.
The Yemenite take on Jewish learning and scholarship is very different from the European yeshiva world’s. Following the strict dictates of Maimonidies, every rabbi and Torah scholar in Yemen supported himself at some trade or profession – even the Chief Rabbi of the City! – and Torah study was accomplished at odd hours of the day and night, giving rise to the rumor that Yemenites never slept.
Married at the unbelievably young age of twelve in order to avoid the fate of Jewish orphans – who were routinely given over to the state to be brought up as Moslems — Rav Kafach emigrated to Israel in 1943 with his young wife and growing family. Working as a gold and silversmith to support his family, he nevertheless found time to begin his monumental life’s work: retranslating major works of Arabic Jewish scholars into correct Hebrew and providing commentaries.
With the encouragement of his little treasure of a wife (a Jerusalem personality in her own right, famous for her deeds of charity) who ran a successful Yemenite embroidery factory, Rav Kafach began to devote himself full-time to scholarship, translation and publication.
His commentaries on and translations of such works as Maimonidies’ Commentary on the Mishnah, Sefer HaMitzvot, and Guide to the Perplexed, took these works out of the exclusive domain of academics and into the hands of the average person. His translations of Sa’adiah Gaon’s works, and the work of many other important Jewish-Arabic scholars could have occupied a team of scholars several lifetimes. It is hard to even describe his immeasurable contribution, the beauty and accuracy of his translations. Perhaps the only fair comparison is to that of art restorers who take paintings covered in the grime of the ages and restore them to their original splendor.
His own work: Halichot Teiman, about Yemenite religious practices, has rescued the interesting and most important traditions of this unique community from obscurity.
Appointed Judge to the Rabbinical Courts in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the 1950’s, Rav Kafach won the Israel Prize in 1969. In 1970, he was appointed to the Rabbinical High Court in Jerusalem.
And yet, despite all his world-class accomplishments, which would have given a lesser person an ego the size of Montana, Rav Kafach lived a simple, modest life in the working class area of Jerusalem’s Nachlaot quarter. His weekly shiurim – in the tiny Yemenite synagogue of his neighborhood – were free and open to all. They were attended by an eclectic crowd dominated mostly by hardworking Yemenites who looked as if most of them spent their days working in the nearby open air Machane Yehuda market.
But as one of the few Ashkenazim who attended the shiur told me: these simple men often made comments or offered corrections that made it clear that every, single one of them knew the entire Tanach by heart.
Unlike his counterparts who traveled with entourages of respectful “fans”, Rav Kafach walked alone from his shiur to his modest home nearby, unless one of his students wished to ask him a question. He gave of his time generously, and never made those around him feel small. Quite the opposite. Sitting in the same room with Rav Kafach one was infused with his greatness of mind, as well as the enormous modesty, simplicity and honesty of his character.
His light has gone out of Jerusalem, and we are all shaded by it. But the light of scholarship that he ignited shines on, and each one of us who seeks to understand the greatest Jewish scholars of the Middle Ages have Rav Kafach to thank that it is now, and for all future generations, not only possible, but pleasurable.
May his memory be blessed.