Rabbi Bans Followers From Looking at Banknote With Poet Married to Christian

Sephardi rabbi rules against image of Russian-Israeli poet Shaul Tchernichovsky on the banknote introduced in 2014, noting 'people like that are called apostates'

The new 50-shekel bill featuring Shaul Tchernichovsky.
The new 50-shekel bill featuring Shaul Tchernichovsky.

A top Sephardi rabbi in Israel sparked controversy when he ruled recently that religious people should not look at the 50-shekel banknote because it is adorned with the image of Shaul Tchernichovsky, a renowned Hebrew poet who was married to a Christian woman.

Shaul Tchernichovsky was born in Russia and created most of his work in Israel in the early 19th century and is considered to be one of the greatest Hebrew poets. He was also married to a Russian woman named Melania Karlova.

According to Kikar HaShabbat, a Hebrew-language daily which caters to the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, Rabbi Benzion Mutzafi made the ruling after teaching several of his students over the weekend.

Following a lesson, the rabbi reportedly pulled out a 50-shekel note from his pocket and told one of his students that he should be forbidden from looking at the banknote.

Rabbi Benzion Mutzafi
Wikimedia Commons / doresh-tzion.co.il

The rabbi's written explanation to his controversial ruling went as follows: "As for the illustrated figure [referencing the image of Tchernichovesky], It is known that he was 'married' to a devout Christian who would go to pray in  church every Sunday.

"They say that at the time, Rabbi Avraham Kook [the Ashkenazi chief rabbi prior to the country's establishment] begged, implored and asked him to try to convince her to convert to Judaism. And he refused."

Mutzafi reportedly went on to add that "in our tradition, there are grave things written about whoever [lives his life] with a Christian. Tied to him like a dog. [People like that are] called apostates."

"Rabbi Moses ben Maimon called it 'the wreck of the nation,'" Mutzafi said, referring to the medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, also known as the Rambam.

"Therefore," Mutzafi continued, "I place the banknote in my pocket with it folded upside down so that I don't even have to look at it for a second."

Since Mutzafi is a senior rabbi in Israel's Sephardi community, his ruling, which encourages the shunning of non-Jews, has a direct impact on ultra-Orthodox Jews living in the country.

The 50-shekel note was introduced in 2014 and prompted angry reactions from senior religious figures in Israel.

Orthodox rabbi Shlomo Aviner said Tchernichovsky's portrait on the bill was "horribly grating."  

Bentzi Gopstein, the leader of anti-assimilation group Lehava, reportedly told Kikar HaShabbat at the time that one couldn't help but use the banknotes featuring Tchernichovsky but that Israelis should instead "learn who the real role models are."

The Israeli ultra-Orthodox community adheres to rulings of senior rabbis on halakha, or religious Jewish law. These rulings dictate how individuals should carry out their lives on a variety of topics: marriage, dating, child-rearing, nutrition and other routine issues.

The direct followers of Mutzafi now have to abstain from looking at the banknote.