Descendents of Rabbi Israel Abuhatzeira, or "the Baba Sali," a renowned Kabbalist who immigrated to Israel from Morocco and founded his court in Netivot, are known as righteous men, knowledgeable in Kabbalah, and miracle workers – though it is possible that their miracle is accumulating bills and coins.
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Two of the "admorim" (admor is an acronym in Hebrew for our master, our teacher, and our rabbi ) from the Abuhatzeira dynasty top the list of wealthiest rabbis published by Forbes Israel this week, as part of a comprehensive briefing on the "Baba" economy in Israel.
The magazine determines that this branch of the Israeli economy is worth roughly NIS 1 billion a year, according to some estimates, which don't take grey-market and secret channels through which additional money flows, inflating the total sum even more.
The late Baba Sali could therefore be proud of his son, Pinchas Abuhatzeira, a young and relaltively unknown rabbi, who essentially became a tycoon, and currently sits at first place on the list of wealthiest rabbis. His court is valued in the magazine at roughly NIS 1.3 billion, most of which he inherited when his father Elezar was murdered by one of his disciples last summer. Elazar's brother, Pinhas' uncle, Rabbi David Abuhatzeira, comes in at number two with NIS 750 million.
Ranking after them on the list is the Gerrer Rabbi, Yaakov Arieh Alter (NIS 350 million), and the Belz Admor, Rabbi Yissachar Dov (NIS 180 million). The fortune of Rabbi Nir Ben Artzi, who started out as a farmer, and was discovered to be a miracle worker, is valued at NIS 100 million. These rabbis are not deprived of making the "general" list of richest Israelis as well, which is published from time to time. Forbes Israel promises that five of the rabbis will be featured on the general list set to be published soon.
Thus, at a time when pictures of financial tycoons huddling behind some rabbi are becoming more and more frequent, Forbes sheds some light on a relatively new phenomenon, where the rabbi is also the tycoon, and in the case of the Babas (but not the Hasidic admors), also the celebrity.
The list includes more than a few rabbis which emerged, both spiritually and financially, from the world of financial tycoons – including Rabbi Yaakov Ifergen, Rabbi Yishaiyahu Pinto, who count among their followers a long list of tycoons, including Nochi Dankner, Ilan Ben-Dov, Yitzchak Tshuva, Sherry Arison and others, each of which are worth tens of millions of dollars.
Money flows into the rabbinical courts through a number of pipelines: large hilulot (festivals held in honor of saintly rabbis) in which tens of thousands of people take part; selling of Torah scrolls, amulets and blessings; direct deposits to one of the rabbi's institutions; public receptions, in which it is customary to donate and sometimes to collect money from attendees; payment for economic advice; participation in events, such as weddings and serving as godfather to children, in which the rabbi adds a bit of flash to the family album, and so on.
"The transformation of the rabbis into celebrities has brought them enormous economic benefit," writes Shimon Ifergan in the article, "Some of the new rabbis have become the tycoons' economic advisers in Israel and abroad; without them no deal or plan is implemented. The compensation: economic oxygen and the flow of millions of shekels to their courts."
Senior officials past and present at Israel's Tax Authority, including former head Yehuda Nasradishi, told the magazine that the Authority is aware of the tax evasion that exists in the rabbis' courts. "There are rabbis holding sums of money which are much larger than the public thinks." The article noted that last summer's social justice protests, which negatively affected the profits of Israel's largest corporations, was felt in the tycoons' contributions to the courts of rabbis.
Forbes' investigation into the rabbis lasted months, and included dozens of conversations and interviews with people who frequent various rabbinical courts, experts on the world of the ultra-Orthodox, police sources, property appraisers, donors, visitors to the courts and a number of people close to the rabbis and the Haredi world.