Avraham Tzoref, Zionist Pioneer

From the “Encyclopedia of the Builders and Pioneers of the Yishuv.” 

Avraham Shlomo Zalman Tzoref: Born in Keidan, Lithuania on 1 Kislev, November 3, 1785 — or as he himself wrote later, in the year “TaKuM”[1], thereby hinting at his life’s purpose — the son of Reb Yaakov. He learned Torah diligently, as the best Jews in Lithuania did at the time. He married, engaged in trade, and continued to study Torah.

On 8 Iyar, May 2, 1811, a convoy of emigrants, disciples of the Vilna Gaon, left Lithuania for the Land of Israel, among them Avraham, his wife Chasya, his young sons Mordechai, Moshe, and Yitzhak; and two brothers-in-law, Reb Tzvi Hirsh and Reb Yosef the Preacher. They made the journey on horse-drawn carts and sailing ships, and on Hoshana Raba, October 10, 1811, they reached the port of Akko. Following the end of the [Succot] holiday, made their way to Tzfat.

During his long journey, Avraham learned silversmithing and goldsmithing (and thus began to use the name Tzoref[2],) and when he arrived in Tzfat, he bought a house, began engaging in his craft, and learned Arabic quickly. He befriended his customers and acquaintances, Jews and Arabs alike, made a good living, made sure to study Torah regularly, and joined in the leadership of the community.

When an epidemic spread across the Galilee in 1811, many of the Jews of Tzfat fled to the villages. About 10 Ashkenazi families left for Jerusalem, among them Avraham and his family. They snuck into the city in the middle of the night, dressed like Sephardic Jews. After the epidemic subsided, while a few returned to Tzfat, Avraham remained in Jerusalem, opened a shop, and engaged in his craft. Here also, he was liked by the rich Arabs.

At first, the Ashkenazim in Jerusalem were unable to establish their own synagogue, as they did not want their presence in the city discovered. They prayed in the small hut allotted to them by the Sephardim in the yard of their synagogue. When they lacked a tenth person to form a minyan, they added a boy holding a Torah scroll who had not yet reached bar mitzvah age. Over the next few years, more Ashkenazim arrived from Tzfat, particularly following the Druse and peasants’ revolt and the earthquake that brought havoc to the Jews of Tzfat. From then on the Ashkenazi community in Jerusalem grew and flourished.

With no small effort, the first Ashkenazim were able to rent the “right of use” of the courtyard, which until then had housed the yeshiva of Rabbi Chaim Ben Attar, author of the biblical commentary “Or Chaim” [“light of life”]. They established a house of worship there, but during prayer they had to station young men as guards to warn them whenever Muslims approached the building, so worshippers could quickly take away the Torah scroll and disappear from sight. The life of real anusìm[3]!

The Ashkenazi community in Jerusalem also faced obstacles from the leaders of the Sephardim, who feared that donations from European Ashkenazim would now be diverted to local Ashkenazim. With substantial effort, the dispute was resolved using the laws of Torah, together with Ashkenazic representatives, Avraham among them.After they agreed on a way to divide money from Europe, this family quarrel ceased to prevent aliya by European Jews to Jerusalem.

Avraham was held in high esteem by the leaders of the Sephardim, and in 1815 he was sent as an emissary to Europe on behalf of both communities, after he influenced both sides to make peace and be judged by neutral parties (rabbis from abroad) for the benefit of them all. Under the terms of that day, the rabbis’ representative would pay a flat sum to his “senders,” and any income he raised would belong to him.

From 1818 to 1822, Avraham was again sent as emissary on behalf of both Ashkenazim and Sephardim to the Netherlands and England; and again in 1828 he went to Europe on behalf of the kollels [yeshivas for full-time, married scholars]. He also undertook a special mission, the redemption of the ruined “Hurva” synagogue of Rabbi Yehuda HaChasìd — which the Arabs were holding against “the known debt” — so that they could rebuild the synagogue and other public buildings for the Ashkenazi community.

In Germany, Tzoref received Prussian citizenship, and thereafter was close to the Prussian consul in Alexandria, and was appointed the latter’s proxy in Jerusalem and granted the authority to issue Prussian protection documents to Jews. A few years later he was also named to represent the Jews to the council of the governor.

When Muhammad Ali, governor of Egypt, took over Eretz Israel and Syria from the Ottoman Sultan, his stepson, Ibrahim Pasha, was made commissioner of Jerusalem. Pasha was afraid to eat a Muslim dish in the city for fear of being poisoned, so the Jews brought him his meals: One day his dish would be prepared by one of the prominent Sephardim, the next day [a meal was brought] from Avraham’s house, and so on. Avraham’s son Mordechai would bring Pasha his meal on a special copper tray, which served as a sort of entry permit. One day Avraham himself went to bring Pasha his meal, in order to ask him to rescue the Jews of Hebron, whom the revolting Arabs were plotting to destroy, and Pasha sent an army to restrain the insurgents.

During the same period, Avraham asked Ibrahim Pasha to issue a royal decree forgiving the Ashkenazim the debts of the students of Rabbi Yehuda HaChasìd, and returning to them this ruin known as Dir Shaknaz. Toward that end, Tzoref also went to Egypt and with the help of the Austrian and Prussian consuls, obtained the desired decree from Muhammad Ali. In a legal hearing before the mufti and the kadi, the right of the Jews to the ruin was recognized, and the Arabs who had built shops on its grounds were forced give them back to the Jews in return for compensation. Following this, Avraham led the Jews of Jerusalem in quickly cleaning and purifying the site, removing the garbage that had accumulated there for generations, and established there the Beit Midrash [house of study] Menachem Zion.

The Arabs who were forced to abandon the “Hurva” bore animosity toward Tzoref on account of his victory. As he sat in his house one night studying Torah, a young Arab tried to shoot him. The bullet missed its target, and as he ran away the shooter fell into a well of sesame oil and drowned. A year later, another Arab attempted to kill Avraham as he was on his way to sunrise prayers, sneaking up behind him and hitting him on the head with a sword. For some months Avraham was bedridden and lost his memory. Only on his last day on earth did his memory return, whereupon he asked all his family and friends to gather so he could bid them farewell.

Tzoref died in Jerusalem on 19 Elul, September 16, 1851, and was buried on the slopes of the Mount of Olives next to the tomb of the prophet Zachariah. The heads of the Sephardic community sought to delay his burial (there was still no Ashkenazic cemetery at the time) until his heirs paid off the debt that they said he owed them. Only owing to the resolute intervention of Rabbi Shmuel Salant did the Ottoman Chief Rabbi Hahambashi concede, and order the burial to proceed.

Tzoref’s wife, Chasya, died on 4 of Heshvan, October 24, 1865, and was buried beside her husband.

His son Mordechai was one of the agricultural and industrial pioneers in Eretz Israel (and Mordechai’s son, Rabbi Yoel Moshe Solomon, was one of the founders of Petach Tikva as well as various Jerusalem neighborhoods beyond the Old City walls.) Avraham’s son Moshe died in Baghdad on his way back from an emissary mission in eastern Asia. His son YItzhak became the supervisor of construction at the Hurva Great Synagogue, and his daughter Miriam was the wife of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Trachtenberg.

Translated by Miriam Erez.

[1] The Hebrew year of his birth was תקמ”ו [5546]. He switched the letters around to form תקו”מ, spelling the Hebrew word takum, meaning “shall go up”, thereby hinting at aliya to the Land of Israel.

[2] Hebrew for “goldsmith”

[3] Jews forcibly converted to Christianity during the Inquisition, who continued to practice Judaism in secret.

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