History

Rabbi Eliyahu Mani and the Ottoman Era Revival of Jewish Hebron

For 40 years, Rabbi Mani led the thriving Jewish community in Hebron and encouraged Sephardic aliyah.

20.3.16, 20:10
Mani is a short name for a short street tucked away near the busy Mahane Yehuda marketplace in Jerusalem. The passengers on the many buses that speed by give it nary a notice. But Mani Street memorializes an illustrious family that revitalized that historic community in one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world. The new towering Saidoff building off Mani Street is perhaps a kind of testament to the towering Torah legend.
 
Rabbi Eliyahu Mani was a Torah scholar who authored at least eleven books on Jewish spirituality. He served as Hebron's chief rabbi from 1858 to 1899, with his children and grandchildren becoming leading members of Hebron and greater Israeli society. His son, Rabbi Menachem Suliman Mani was also a chief rabbi. A descendant, also named Eliyahu Mani, became the first Israeli Supreme Court judge of Sephardic/Mizrachi heritage. 
 

(Menachem Suliman Mani (1850–1924). Writer, poet and rabbi. Credit: My Tzadik)
 
Today the Jewish community carries on the tradition of hospitality and search for knowledge set by Rabbi Mani and his wife, Samra, a leader in her own right. The place where they are buried, the ancient Jewish cemetery of Hebron, attracts visitors from around the country. Many of the places where they lived are now in full contemporary use. The Avraham Avinu synagogue holds services three times a day, and the Beit Hadassah building, the second floor of which was once dedicated in his memory, now houses residential apartments, a children's playground and a museum of the Jewish community. 
 
Colorful legends abound about Rabbi Mani such as a miracle cure for blindness and a stolen body from a graveyard. Such tales highlight life during a thriving time in the history of Hebron. 
 
Rabbi Eliyahu Sulieman Mani was born in 1818 in Baghdad, today's Iraq, where he was considered one of the most outstanding scholars of the community. He studied at the famed Beit Zilka yeshiva with such luminaries as Rabbi Abdallah Somekh and the Ben Ish Chai.
 

(Grave of Rabbi Eliyahu Mani and his wife Samara (Samra) in the ancient Jewish cemetery in Hebron.)
 
The name Mani, also spelled Ma'ani or Meni, according to family tradition, is an acronym for Min Netzer Ishai, or descendant of Ishai (Jesse). However due to persecution, the family chose to conceal its ancestry. Fittingly, Hebron is the city where King David established Israel's first capital city and ruled for seven years. An ancient hilltop structure called the Tomb of Jesse and Ruth is revered as the burial site of King David's father and great-grandmother.
 
In 1856 he moved to the Land of Israel, first living in Jerusalem for two years before relocating to Hebron, where it was said the weather would be better for his health. 
 
Rabbi Mani was known for his generosity and humility, founding synagogues, study centers and guest houses. He went on numerous fundraising trips to Jewish communities abroad in places such as India, Egypt and England.
 
His grandson, the journalist Menashe Mani published a biography about him entitled Rabbi Eliyahu Mani of Hebron in 1936.  Menashe was a survivor of the 1929 massacre. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency quoted him a month after the massacre as stating, 
 
"Menasche Many, one of the survivors of Hebron, writing in the “Ha’ Aretz” declared: “Wounded, aching, hungry and thirsty, we left Hebron thirty days ago. But we shall return. We shall not abandon the tombs of our ancestors to unclean hand nor leave the graves of our martyrs desolate. We shall return to you. Oh, Hebron, not with the sword and dagger, but by virtue of eternal truth, courage and strength to rebuild your ruins. We shall erect a monument on which will be inscribed the names of the sixty-four martyrs. We shall show that the supposed day of doom marked the beginning of a new Hebron. We shall clear away the vestige of ruin and destruction, erect a house of prayer in the place desecrated and from the cupola of the synagogue shall greet peacefully the muezzin calling the faithful Moslems to prayer from the monaret towering over the tombs of our patriarchs."
 
Other historical records include the excellent website My Tzaddik, which chronicles Jewish personalities. One story from their entry on Rabbi Mani reads as follows:
 
"In [the Hebrew year of] 5651, he lost his vision and was extremely sorrowful at his inability to study Torah despite people reading to him. He argued that hearing is not the same as reading. Some four years later a certain person came to him in rural dress, claiming that he could bring his sight back if he would pay him. After three days of treatment he regained his sight and when he asked to pay, the person could not be found anywhere."
 
Other passages focus on his personality:
 
"He would be strict on himself but tried to be lenient on others and would reprimand only when he knew that his words would be heeded. He educated his sons to concentrate on Torah study but not to use it to make a living, but rather deal in commerce for one's livelihood. Even non-Jews respected him, came to him to discuss their own matters and even allowed him to enter the Cave of the Patriarchs. However, he refused, and Jews from different countries turned to him to pray for salvation and success."
 
The mention of the Tomb of Machpela, burial site of the Biblical Matriarchs and Patriarchs refers to the ban on non-Muslim entry into the site by the Ottoman Turks who ruled the land at the time. This ruling was instituted by the Mamelukes before them and last for 700 years. Only by special orders of the ruling sultan and/or a steep entry fee would allow access. 
 
The Jews and Muslim lived in a dichotomous relationship. While tension existed, as evidence by discriminatory practices at holy sites, there was also numerous stories of close friendly relationships. The legend of Rabbi Mani's funeral is evidence to this.
 
According to the website Tzadikim:
 
"Rabbi Eliyahu Mani was so accepted and admired by the Arabs that they called him 'Sheikh.' When he died - the Jews buried him in the Jewish cemetery, but the Arabs wanted him to be buried near them, so they stole the body and buried it in the Muslim cemetery. The Jews had to snatch the body back and stand guard over the grave."
 
This story is also told by a descendant of Rabbi Mani in an October 9, 2012 article by the New Statesman.
 
"Even the Arabs regarded him as a "haham", or wise man. When he died in 1899, hundreds of Jews and Arabs attended his funeral, and the family had to post guards at his grave to stop the Arabs taking his body and re-burying him 'as one of their own'."
 
According to the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, which refers to him an Elijah Mani:
 
"He was very active in charitable and communal affairs, and his simple and noble life won for him the respect and admiration of all the inhabitants of that ancient city; Mohammedans as well as Jews thronged to his funeral."
 

(Hebron native Malkiel Mani, (1860-1933), son of Rabbi Eliyhau Mani with his family. He was a respected judge and supporter of Theodor Herzl. Credit: Wiki Commons.)
 
His books include works on Kabbalah, all of which, due to his humility were published after his passing. The Tzadikim website relates a colorful incident related to his writings.
 
"After his death, a manuscript of one of his books was found stating the following: 'I have accepted upon myself not to question the writings of the Divrei Shalom, because of what happened to me.' What led to this statement is the following incident:"
 
"Once Rabbi Eliyahu Mani sat and learned the text of the Divrei Shalom with his colleague Rabbi Nissim Ini. They discussed the interpretation of a difficult Kabbalistic issue that his [Rabbi Ini's] grandfather, the Rashash (Rabbi Shalom Sharabi) addressed. After reading the Divrei Shalom's understanding of the issue, Rabbi Mani proclaimed, 'This was not the Rashash's meaning!' Rabbi Mani, with his great knowledge, was able to show the true meaning of the Rashash's work.
 
"Immediately, after saying these words, Rabbi Mani became mute. He began to cry, and formed the words of the Vidui [prayer of confession] with his lips. Soon afterwards, he regained his power of speech. Rabbi Mani explained that while he was mute, he had a vision of the Rashash who said, 'What right do you have to say that my grandson didn't understand me! You are the one who misunderstood the great words of my grandson.' Only after Rabbi Mani further asked for forgiveness, did he become healed."
 

(Hebron native Mazel Mosseri (1894 - 1981) granddaughter of Rabbi Eliyahu Mani, newspaper founder, and youth aliyah active, with two of her children.)
 
Rabbi Mani was instrumental in building up not just community institutions, but also in encouraging people to move to the burgeoning town.
 
According to Hebron Jews by Prof. Jerold Auerbach, the most definitive English-language source on Hebron described Rabbi Mani's world, based on the Moses Montefiore census.
 
"His arrival has encouraged a dozen families from Mesopotamia (probably Baghdad) to follow his lead. It included twenty-three scholars, thirteen civil servants, six businessmen, four moneylenders, two bakers, two peddlers, a tailor, a carpenter, a vegetable vendor, and a butcher. The Avraham Avinu synagogue alone employed a secretary, a beadle, a Torah reader, a prayer reader, a treasurer, a president, and a member of the Bet Din (religious court)...."
 
"The final Montefiore census, completed in 1875, bore the endorsement of an array of Sephardic rabbis, the communal leaders. At the head of the list was Rabbi Elijah ben Suleman Mani, who had come to Jerusalem from Baghdad in 1856 and, on his move to Hebron two years later, had founded the Beit Yaakov yeshiva. He would serve as Sephardic chief rabbi until his death in 1899... The Sephardic community, with Turkey and Mesopotamia as its major sources of immigration, included 433 people, a sharp increase in ten years."
 
The 1906 Jewish Encylopedia has a entry for his listed under MANI, ELIJAH. Written by Solomon Schechter and Peter Wiernik it reads as follows:
 
Turkish rabbi; died in Hebron, Palestine, in the summer of 1899. He was a native of Bagdad, where he was held in great esteem for his piety and his knowledge of the Cabala. About 1856 he went to Jerusalem, and two years later settled in Hebron. When R. Moses Pereire of that city died, Mani succeeded him as rabbi of the Sephardim. For fourteen years he accepted no remuneration, but later was forced by poverty to overcome his scruples. He was very active in charitable and communal affairs, and his simple and noble life won for him the respect and admiration of all the inhabitants of that ancient city; Mohammedans as well as Jews thronged to his funeral. He is said to have written eleven works, which he refused to publish.
 
Bibliography:
Ahiasaf, 5661 (1900-1), pp. 385-386.
At its height, the community reached 1,500 people, including prominent Ashkenazic and Sephardic families.
 
Rabbi Mani's children and grandchildren went on to become successful judges, rabbis, and journalists. Unfortunately, the Jewish community was decimated in the 1929 massacre and Hebron became off limits until after the Six Day War of 1967. In the mid 1970s, his grave, among others in the Sephardic section of the cemetery, was refurbished and today is included in regular tours of the city.
 
SEE ALSO:
 
 
To visit Hebron:
 
United States contact info:

http://www.hebronfund.org
1760 Ocean Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11230
718-677-6886
info@hebronfund.org

In Israel contact the offices of the Jewish Community of Hebron at:
http://en.hebron.org.il/
02-996-5333
office@hebron.com
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/hebronofficial
 
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