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January 8: The Baba Sali (Praying Father)

Lawrence Bush
January 8, 2017
Moroccan kabbalist Rabbi Israel Abukhatzera, who acquired a reputation as a healing miracle-worker and clairvoyant, died at 94 on this date in 1984. He belonged to a family of Sephardic Torah scholars and wonder-working rabbis who established an estate, a yeshiva and a rabbinical court in Tafilalt, Morocco. Abukhatzera moved to Israel from Morocco in 1964, encouraging thousands of other Moroccan Jews to emigrate to the still-young Jewish state in a mass migration. His funeral was witnessed by tens of thousands, and each year hundreds of thousands make pilgrimage to his gravesite in Netivot, the development town he helped put on the map. His tomb is also a favored spot to which Orthodox Israelis bring their 3-year-old sons for their first haircuts. In the 1980s, the Baba Sali's son was convicted of corruption and bribery connected to his role as deputy mayor of Ashkelon; in 2011, the Baba Sali's grandson was stabbed to death at age 70 a mentally deranged follower. (Both of these descendants were considered to be holy men, too.) The name, Abukhkatzera, which means "owner of the carpet," refers to a story about the Baba Sali's grandfather's use of a magic flying carpet. "Descendents of Rabbi Israel Abuhatzeira . . . are known as righteous men, knowledgeable in Kabbalah, and miracle workers –- though it is possible that their miracle is accumulating bills and coins. Two . . . 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." --Yair Ettinger, Haaretz To see a khasidic rabbi telling stories about the Babi Sali, look below.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.