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1553: Va'yeshev 21 Kislev 5775 13/12/2014

Rabbi Yosef Mashash (1892-1974) had the courage to make daring decisions, and he was a wonderful speaker. He grew up in Morocco and moved to Algeria, where he served as the rabbi of the city Tlemcen. In the town, he had to struggle against processes of modernization that were forced on the Jews in the wake of the conquest by France. After serving for seventeen years, he returned to Meknes in Morocco, where he served as a member of the High Rabbinical Court and as the President of the court in ministerial matters. He had a broad general education, he saw the value of studying about the achievements of human society. He was a skilled poet and artist. In 1964 he made Aliyah and was appointed the Chief Rabbi of Haifa.

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When Rabbi Mashash returned from Tlemcen to Morocco, the people saw him holding long conversations with a man who had been banned by the community. This man had publicly desecrated Shabbat over and over, which was not common in Morocco, and he had therefore been banned. Some people who thought that the rabbi was not aware of the ban went to him and told him about it. Rabbi Mashash replied to them, I know all about the situation. And just whom do you think I came here to speak to as a rabbi?"

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The above story happened in Morocco, which was very different from Algeria. The Jews of Algeria were very strongly influenced by French culture. France invaded Algeria in 1830. Forty years later emancipation laws were published, and the Jews became French citizens and became involved in its culture. The process of modernization led to widespread secularization. In response, the wise men of Algeria developed an approach of openness and flexibility along with a continued dedication to Jewish traditions. They tried to respond to the challenges of the times by attempting to create a synthesis between modern values and Judaism. Morocco, on the other hand, was only marginally influenced by French culture, and the Jews there remained closer to the traditions. Secularization was a minor effect, and public desecration of the Shabbat was very uncommon and was met with a harsh punishment of a public ban.

Rabbi Mashash returned from Algeria to take on a central role in Morocco, but he did not fall in line with the practice in his old/new dwelling place. The people around him assumed that this was an innocent mistake on his part due to a lack of knowledge of the situation, but in reality Rabbi Mashash rejected the accepted norm on purpose. He is aware of what is going on, but he speaks to the person who has been banned anyway.

Rabbi Mashash sees himself as the rabbi of those people who are hesitating, and even those who have already abandoned Jewish traditions. He wants to encourage them and give them strength, and to maintain his contact with them. He understands that the processes of modernization and secularization will grow, and that the way to cope with this phenomenon is by getting close to the people, not by pushing them further away. It is necessary to maintain direct and warm contact, and not to subject them to boycotts. In the end, his modest approach of containment quite often (but not always) had positive results:

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One Shabbat Rabbi Mashash was walkng in the street, and he met one of the members of the congregation, who had not come to the synagogue for a very long time, with a cigarette in his hand. The man was embarrassed and tried to hide the cigarette, but Rabbi Mashash saw him and went straight to him. When he reached the man, the rabbi asked him how he was. "I have missed you very much. Every Shabbat at the end of the service I recite a Mi Shebeirach prayer for the people of the community, and since you were not there I have not blessed you in a long time. Please try to come to the service, and if it is too long for you, at least come at the end of the prayers." And the rabbi parted with a greeting of Shabbat Shalom, and a smile. His words made a great impression on the man. At first he only came for the Mi Shebeirach at the end, but afterwards he came for the entire service.

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Rabbi Mashash's approach to modern times, with all that this entails, can also be seen in his courageous halachic decisions. In one of them he described his approach: "This matter has been considered in terms of three pillars of teaching – the law, logic, and the times" [Responsa "Mayim Tehorim"]. Who are the three pillars of teaching? This usually refers to three great rabbis – the RIF, the ROSH, and the Rambam. But Rabbi Mashash uses the old phrase in a new way. Halacha is first in his list, but it must be responsive to the times, and the two elements will be combined with understanding and logic.

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