1777: A Kabbalah Legend Dies

The grave of Rabbi Shalom Sharabi, known by the Hebrew acronym formed by his name, 'Rashash,' is still a site of pilgrimage.

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The grave of the 'Rashash' in Jerusalem.Credit: Wikipedia

On January 18, 1777 (Shevat 10, 5537), kabbalistic master Rabbi Shalom Sharabi died, in Jerusalem.

Known by the Hebrew acronym formed by his name, “Rashash,” Sharabi was born in 1720 in Sharab, as the Jewish quarter in the town of Ta’izz, Yemen, was called. Tradition has it that despite his early distinction as a Torah scholar, after the early death of his father, Sharabi became a merchant to support the family. He continued his studies during his free time, and found himself drawn to Jewish mysticism.

Encountering a dangerous situation during one of his business trips, Sharabi vowed to move to the Land of Israel if God would save him; when the danger passed, he fulfilled that promise, though he took his time traveling to the Holy Land, passing through India, Baghdad and Damascus along the way.

Arriving in Jerusalem, Sharabi found his way to the Beit El yeshiva, which had been founded in 1737 by the noted kabbalist Rabbi Gedalia Chiyun. Initially shy about revealing the level of his learning, Sharabi worked as a shamai (sexton) in the beit midrash there, observing all that happened but keeping his wisdom to himself. Only when a question came up that confounded the entire yeshiva over a period of days, sending Rabbi Chiyun into a profound depression, did he write down the answer on a slip of paper and leave it in one of the rabbi's books.

One person had observed him when he placed the paper into Rabbi Chiyun’s book, the rabbi’s daughter Hanna. In fact, she testified that she had often seen Shalom Sharabi paging through her father’s volumes. Sharabi was now forced to fess up, and it was at this point – according to the legend – that Rabbi Chiyun appointed him as his successor (he was then 27) and had him marry young Hanna.

As a kabbalist, Rabbi Sharabi studied only the Zohar and the works of Rabbi Isaac Luria and his student, Rabbi Chaim Vital; one tradition even identifies him as the reincarnation of the Ari, as Luria is known. The prayerbook he edited and annotated, Siddur Harashash, is still used today by kabbalists.

Under Rabbi Sharabi’s leadership, Beit El yeshiva flourished, and was attended by both Sephardi and Ashkenazi students, who devoted their entire lives to study and prayer. It attracted scholars both at home and from abroad long after his death. During the 1948 War of Independence, the yeshiva building was badly damaged, and after the Old City fell into Jordanian hands, the yeshiva set up a new home, on Rashi Street, in West Jerusalem. Following the Six-Day War, the old yeshiva was rebuilt in the Jewish Quarter, under the name Yeshivat Hamekubalim Beit El, and today, both it and the Rashi Street institution operate.

Rabbi Sharabi’s grave on the Mount of Olives continues to be a site of pilgrimage for students of the yeshivas.

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