On January 28, the Jerusalem kabbalist Yitzhak Kedouri died, at an estimated age of 108. Most of his life, Rabbi Kedouri was a known and respected scholar in Sephardi religious circles in Jerusalem, with a voluminous memory that gave him total recall of Judaism’s most important texts. It was only in his final years, however, that he became a celebrity outside the religious world and was recruited to the role of kingmaker in national politics. By then it was no longer clear whether he was leading or being led.
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Yitzhak Kedouri was born in Baghdad, possibly in 1898. His father was Kadur Diba ben Aziz, a spice trader and rabbi, and his mother the Rabbanit (rabbi’s wife) Tufaha.
He studied at Baghdad’s Beit Zilka Yeshiva, under Rabbi Yaakov Chaim Sofer, among others. His powerful memory became evident from early on: He was said to have mastered the entire Babylonian Talmud by age 17, about the same time that he began studying the mystical texts of the kabbala.
At one point, after giving a lecture to a group of rabbis, he was advised to be more discreet in displaying his brilliance lest he stir up people’s envy.
In 1923, he was sent to Jerusalem to continue his education at a yeshiva specializing in kabbalistic studies, Shoshanim Ledavid. It was at this time that he took on “Kedouri” as his surname, in honor of his father.
Later, he moved to the prestigious Porat Yosef Yeshiva, in the Old City, to pursue, in addition to kabbala, more conventional subjects like Talmud and rabbinic law. In or around 1930, he moved again to Beit El, known as the “kabbalists’ yeshiva,” in Jerusalem’s Makor Baruch neighborhood.
Interpreting secret codes in Psalms
After certifying him as a full-fledged kabbalist, Beit El provided Rabbi Kedouri with an office where he could receive members of the public, whose futures he said he could predict by interpreting coded messages in the texts of the Psalms.
He also distributed blessings and charms to visitors seeking financial success, help in finding a marital partners, or a cure for health problems, for example. In the period following the Yom Kippur War, in 1973, families of missing soldiers would come to him in hope of learning whether their loved ones were still alive.
Not all Sephardi rabbis looked approvingly on such practices. To Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, for example, who was later Israel’s chief Sephardi rabbi and spiritual head of the Shas party, they seemed primitive and undignified. Still, no one could accuse of Kedouri of profiting from this work, as he refused to accept payment for these services, making his living as a bookbinder and scribe. And he steered clear of politics.
But come the 1980s, Kedouri’s son and grandson began to see the economic potential in the rabbi’s soothsayer’s skills, particularly among newly religious young Mizrahim (Jews of North African and Middle Eastern heritage). They began to manage his “career,” and to charge visitors for his services.
The amulet wars
In 1988, the upstart Haredi-Mizrahi movement and political party Shas, led by Arye Deri, was contending in an election in which its chief electoral rival, Agudat Yisrael, distributed amulets blessed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, in return for a guarantee of their vote. Reluctantly, Rabbi Yosef granted Deri permission to bring Rabbi Kedouri into the campaign in a similar capacity.
As Shas mascot, Kedouri was a phenomenal draw, with even secular politicians – most notably Benjamin Netanyahu – making pilgrimages to him for an endorsement. It seemed as if the older, more wizened and less communicative the sage became (only a few people could hear or understand his speech), the more his status as folk hero and miracle worker grew.
By then, millions of shekels were pouring in – whether to Shas, to Kedouri’s family, or even to commercial enterprises that brought him in for a blessing.
In his death, Kedouri was even claimed by Christians and Messianic Jews, who interpreted a note he supposedly wrote near the end of life, with instructions that it be read only on the first anniversary of his death, as suggesting that the Messiah was on his way, and that his name was Jesus.