History

Rabbi Chaim Hezekiah Medini, the Sde Hemed, Torah Legend from Hebron

A grave robbery, a false accusation and a forgotten Jewish community couldn't stop this sage from remaining humble and studious.

29.3.16, 18:57
(Photo: Rabbi Chaim Hezekiah Medini and his wife Rivka bat Luna. Source: Israel Album)
 
The Sde Chemed is a classic work on Jewish law, a multi volume encyclopedia that organizes different halachic rulings in a concise and easy to read format. Often encyclopedias are compiled by a collection of authors. But in the case of the Sde Chemed, it was all done by one man, Rabbi Chaim Hezekiah Medini. This Torah giant is one of the many Jewish sages to be buried in the ancient Jewish cemetery in Hebron. 
 
His former home and study are located Hebron's Beit Romano building, built in 1879 by the wealthy Sephardic merchant, Avraham Romano. Today the building houses the Shavei Hevron yeshiva,  one of the largest institutes of higher Jewish learning in the country with over 350 students. Plans are in the works to refurbish Rabbi Medini's study and reassemble his massive library which included thousands of valuable books which were donated to the Misgav Ledach Hospital in Jerusalem's Old City after his death in 1904.
 
His home was built alongside Beit Romano and after his passing was purchased by the Rebbe Rashab, the 5th Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneersohn (1892 - 1920). During the 1929 massacre, the building served as the British police station, where the wounded survivors were placed before being deported to Jerusalem and other locations.
 

(Photo: The Beit Romano / Shavei Hevron building today serves over 350 students.)
 
The Shavei Hevron Yeshiva hopes the project will serve as a heritage center for both the rabbi, and the "Old Yishuv", as the thriving community during Ottoman times was called.
 
Today, the Sde Chemed's grave is visited by many as part of regular tours to the city that include the Tomb of Machpela, the Tomb of Ruth and Jesse, the rebuilt Avraham Avinu Synagogue and other holy sites.
 
But it was not always so. The cemetery was off limits for decades, after the 1929 massacre and even after the return to Judea and Samaria in the 1967 Six Day War. It wasn't under the mid 1970s that the cemetery was refurbished and the graves of Rabbi Medini and other community leaders were correctly identified and cleaned up after years of vandalism and neglect.
 
Shavei Hevron, as a modern-day successor to Rabbi Medini's study center, has also faced an uphill battle. Founded in 1981, it has fought in court the right to expand to accommodate the ever growing enrolling. The 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson gave his blessing for contemporary residents to utilize Chabad purchased property in Hebron.
 

(Photo: Rabbi Chaim Hezekiah Medini. Source: Israel Album.)
 
The thirst for knowledge in city of the Matriarchs and Patriarch is nothing new. Rabbi Medini's history is part of the story of the thriving Jewish community during a bygone era. The landmark Tomb of Machpela structure built by King Herod the Great was off limits to Jews per orders of the Ottoman Empire. But the community was strong as is evidence to Rabbi Medini's choosing to move there, becoming the city's Chief Rabbi toward the end of his life.
 
Born in Jerusalem in 1832, Rabbi Medini was the son of Rabbi Raphael Asher Eliyahu Medini and his wife Kalu Vida who noted his special talent at a young age. After marriage, he lived in Bagdad. But when his father passed away, he was advised by one of his mentors. Rabbi Haim Nissim Abulafia to move to Constantinople where he could better held provide for his wife, widowed mother, and two younger sisters. There he excelled in studies, becoming a rabbi at the age of 19. It was here that he published his first work, Michtav LeChizkiyahu in 1865.
 
However he experienced some tension as evidence by a story about a false accusation. A student who was jealous of his quick educational success  spread a nasty rumor about him. The allegations where quickly proven false, and Rabbi Medini found out privately who spread them. But not wanting to make matters worse, and seeing that his name would be cleared anyway, he chose not to publicly disclose who had slandered him in the interest of smoothing things over. This humbleness carried with him throughout his carrier and brought him respect and admiration. 
 

(Photo: Rabbi Chaim Hezekiah Medini. Source: Israel Album.)
 
In 1867 he accepted an offer to serve as chief rabbi in Crimea, peninsula in between Russia and Ukraine that had a dying and poorly educated Jewish community. Rabbi Medini and his family is credited with reviving the community and having good neighborly relations with the non-Jewish residents as well. He spent 33 years in Crimea which is where he wrote much of his multi-volume masterpiece Sde Hemed. 
 

(Photo: The Sde Hemed in Crimea. Source: Wiki Commons.)
 
In 1899 Rabbi Medini returned to the place of his birth and lived in Jerusalem for two years. But, Hebron, the rural city of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs seemed a despicable place to relax and write. Shortly after his arrival Hebron's two major Torah scholars, Rabbi Eliyahu Mani and Rabbi Yosef Franco, passed away. At first, Rabbi Medini declined to become the new chief rabbi of Hebron, but he eventually agreed, serving as a community leader until his passing in 1904.
 
Together with the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi, Shimon Menashe Chaikin, he would pray every night in front of the Tomb of Machpela. He established educational funds and learning centers in Hebron such as the "Chen V'Chesed" free-loan society.
 
One anecdote about his fabled humility took place in Hebron. According to RabbiShimon.com, "When Rabbi Chaim Chizkiyahu Medini was the rabbi of Chevron, a shoemaker once repaired his shoes and delivered them to the Rabbi's house. The cost of the repair was only a small amount, but the Rav only had a large bill in his possession. The shoemaker was not troubled and said that he would return the next day to collect his fee. However, the Rav refused to agree to this. He said that it is written in the Torah (Leviticus 19:13) "...Do not keep the wages of a hired worker with you until morning," and just because he only has a large bill and there is no one available to change it does not exempt him from the prohibition of the Torah. While they were talking another person entered the house and the Rav borrowed money from him in order to pay the wages of the shoemaker." 
 
According to the My Tzadik website, "The Moslem population also respected him and when a public committee on their behalf decided to aggressively collect unpaid taxes, they ordered him to appear before the committee. When he did, they treated him with tremendous respect and even apologized for inconveniencing him by demanding his appearance. In fact, the committee chairman informed him that all past debts were erased and asked for his blessing."
 
One story of Rabbi Medini that echoes that of Rabbi Eliyahu Mani, was the incident of his grave being disturbed.
 
My Tzadik refers to the incident as such: "Around a year and a half after his death, his grave was discovered to be open and that an attempt was made to remove his body by pulling him out by his feet. All of Chevron came to the cemetery and to their amazement, his body was complete, and the shrouds were stainless and completely white."
 
Hamodia newspaper, in a historical piece describes the incident in a slightly different way: "It was told that about a year after his burial, vandals tried to open his kever and remove his body. They were so shocked to find his holy body as fresh as the day he was buried that they fled."
 
The Rabbi Shimon website has this to say: "He was known for his great memory and righteous behavior, even the Arab inhabitants of Hebron respected him very much, and accepted him as a holy man. After his burial they tried to steal his body and bury him in their mosque, but were unsuccessful. "
 

(Photo: Grave of the Sde Hemed in Hebron's Ancient Cemetery. Sourc e.)
 
Today, Rabbi Medini's grave is one of the many in the ancient cemetery that have been refurbished and receives well-wishers until this day. Sde Hemed is read by Torah scholars the world over as an essential resource and is considered revolutionary in its concise aggregation of Talmudic information. 
 
Sde Hemed, literally "fields of grace, is also the name of a a moshav in central Israel near Kfar Saba and an elementary school in Maale Adumim, thus the legacy of his holy sage and his family lives on throughout Israel.

His works include:
 
* Miktav le-Hizkiyahu — Talmudic studies and responsa (Smyrna, 1865).
* Or Li — responsa; (Smyrna, 1874).
* Paku'ot Sadeh — (Jerusalem, 1900).
* Sde Hemed — 9 volume encyclopedic collection of laws and decisions in alphabetical order (Warsaw, 1890)
* Pi'ot Hasadeh and Shiyurei Hapayah — the author's glosses on Sdei Chemed and are included in that work. 
* Sedar Birchat Hachamah — the author's living will were also published in Sde Hemed

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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Rabbi Eliyahu Mani and the Ottoman Era Revival of Jewish Hebron
Newly Discovered Map Offers Clues to Ancient Hebron Cemetery
The Physicist Who Changed Hebron
 
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