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48 The Rabbi’s Son and the Priest T O L D B Y A H A R O N B E N AV R A H A M M I Z R A H I T O M O S H E AT T I A S Once there was a great rabbi. Although God had blessed him with wealth and possessions, he was not content with his lot, for He had denied his [the rabbi’s] wife children.* However great the rabbi’s sorrow, his wife’s grief was sevenfold. She sighed when she ate and her cheeks were always wet with tears. Both of them prayed long and frequently, distributed money to the poor, did many charitable acts, and tried all sorts of charms. The rabbi even took a vow that if God heard their prayer and favored them with a son he would dedicate him to the Torah and scholarship and educate him to serve as a rabbi. In addition, he would distribute one-third of his wealth to the poor and donate to the synagogue a golden case for a Torah scroll. God heard their prayer. The rabbi’s pious wife became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When he left his mother’s womb, the world was filled with light. He was so fine to look at, with rosy cheeks and large and sparkling eyes. Everything about him bespoke smiles. All who saw him blessed his Creator and spat on the child three times—a charm to ward off the evil eye. His parent’s joy knew no bounds. On the day he entered the covenant of our Father Abraham,** the rabbi made a lavish feast for the poor. All ate and drank their fill, blessed the rabbi and the mother of the child, and left his house happy and lighthearted. The child grew up surrounded by love and affection. When he was weaned and took his first steps his father began bringing him to the synagogue every day for the morning and evening services. At the age of three, he was enrolled in the kuttab§ to learn Torah. The hakham§§ sat him next to himself and began to teach him the alef-bet*** . “Alef,” said the hakham, * Genesis 30:2, referring to Jacob and Rachel. ** On the day of his circumcision.§ Arabic for “primary school” or heder.§§ The Sephardim call their rabbi hakham, but here it is used in his capacity as a teacher. *** The alphabet. 405 and the boy repeated after him, “Alef.” “Bet,” he continued, and the child repeated, “bet.” But when he said “gimmel,” the child sat mute and would not repeat after him. In response to the teacher’s urgings, the boy replied: “First teach me what the letters alef and bet mean. Then I’ll learn gimmel.” To no avail were the hakham’s explanations that first he had to learn all the letters of the alef-bet and only then their meaning. The boy did not want to listen. He left the kuttab and asked his father to transfer him to another hakham who would teach him the meaning of the letters. In this way the boy went from kuttab to kuttab, but no hakham pleased him. Finally his father, disgusted, let him alone. From time to time, he would try to persuade him, but the child would not listen. All day long, he [the boy] loafed in the streets. At the age of ten he still did not know Torah and other subjects and had still not learned the alef-bet. Ashamed and humiliated, the rabbi watched his son grow up wild. He was consumed by misery, and his eyes were dim with tears, but he could find no solution. Over time, the rabbi’s heart grew hard. He felt that he could no longer live with such a wayward and defiant son* who brought such disgrace upon him. Summoning his son, he told him: “I took a vow to the Lord to turn you into a scholar, but you are growing up empty and worthless. I am warning you for the last time: Return from your wicked ways and sit down to learn Torah. If you will not heed me, leave my house, for I will no longer recognize you as my son.” “As you say, Father,” replied the boy. “I am leaving your house to go wherever I will.” He did just as he said. He got together a few clothes and wrapped...


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