Madrid’s chief rabbi, Yehuda Benasouli, dies at 77

Morocco native presided over sensitive 500th anniversary of Jewish expulsion.

July 2, 2010 04:12
4 minute read.
Rabbi Yehuda Benasouli

Rabbi Yehuda Benasouli 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Rabbi Yehuda Benasouli, the chief rabbi of Madrid who presided over what the Los Angeles Times called a “remarkable gesture of reconciliation” from the Spanish monarchy on the 500th anniversary of the Jews’ expulsion from Spain, passed away recently in Madrid.

Benasouli, who was born in 1933, was the city’s chief rabbi from 1978 until his retirement in 2000. He had been a rabbi for nearly 60 years, and he frequently represented the Jews of Spain at international Jewish conferences. He died on May 31.

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The most prominent moment in his chief rabbinate took place on March 31, 1992, when Spanish King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia came to the Beth Yaakov Synagogue in Madrid on the quincentinnal of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella’s cataclysmic Alhambra Decree ordering the expulsion of Jews from Spain. The expulsion order, which forced hundreds of thousands of Jews to leave and many others to convert, was not formally revoked until 1968, when the first official synagogue was built.

At the 1992 commemoration, the king wore a white yarmulke as he prayed with then-Israeli president Chaim Herzog. Benasouli spoke to the assembled crowd and was featured in a front-page picture in The New York Times.

It was fitting that Benasouli was there to preside over the services. Born in Alcazarquivir, Spanish Morocco, Benasouli was descended from survivors of the 1492 expulsion. His ancestors had chosen to settle in Morocco following the horrific end of what many consider the most glorious era in Jewish scholarship since the completion of the Talmud. This period is noted for the creation of several major legal codes – the Mishneh Torah, the Arba’a Turim and the Shulhan Aruch – that serve as the basis of Halacha today.

Like his relatives and fellow Jews, Benasouli’s first language was an old-world version of Castilian Spanish. A fluent linguist, Benasouli also mastered Hebrew, French, Arabic and Ladino, and spoke some English.

He lost his father at an early age, and was quickly marked as a leading intellectual of the community. His uncle, Rabbi Yaakov Sebag, took him under his wing. After teaching him for many years, he enrolled Benasouli in the famous yeshiva in Meknes, in northern Morocco, where he studied under Rabbi Baruch Toledano.

The Meknes Yeshiva was one of the central yeshivas in the Sephardic world, one that drew on the traditions of Maimonides. Toledano himself was the scion of 40 generations of rabbis, tracing his lineage back to Toledo, Spain.

Benasouli also studied in Tetouan. He received rabbinic ordination from Toledano at age 18.

“Even as a child, Yehuda was considered special. He always had a sefer [Jewish scholarly book] and was constantly studying Torah,” his cousin Luna Nissenbaum said.

After his uncle left for Israel with the first wave of migration following the establishment of state, Benasouli became rabbi of the community of Alcazarquivir. Over the following years, as the community dwindled further following a 1963 reopening of the gates for emigration, Benasouli also took over the leadership of the nearby towns of Larache and ElSouk ElArba.

“Yehuda did not want to abandon the Jewish people of Morocco, even though the community began to disappear. He felt a deep commitment to serving every Jew,” Nissenbaum said.

Following Israel’s victory in the Six Day War, a large part of the Moroccan community departed overseas. Benasouli arrived in Madrid in 1968, a momentous year for the Jewish community in Spain. In addition to the formal revocation of the Alhambra Decree, the year marked the opening of Beth Yaakov, the first synagogue built in Spain in 500 years.

In addition to regular service as a rabbi, Benasouli immediately began service as a community shohet (one who performs kosher slaughter), mohel and head of kashrut.

“When we arrived, eating kosher required a great deal of effort, and there was no Jewish school for children over eight years old,” said his son, Yamin Benasouli.

The elder Benasouli focused on developing the religious connections of the community. He was instrumental in starting a kosher food industry in Spain, and he worked to expand educational opportunities for Spanish Jewish tradition. Today, 300 children attend Jewish schools in Madrid.

“My father worked tirelessly to build the institutions of Jewish life and help keep the Madrid Jews a part of the Jewish fold. As a trip to Madrid and Spain shows, he was successful. Over the years, with a lot of perseverance and patience, the community has increased its observance and maintains a strong connection to the religious world,” Yamin Benasouli said.

Rabbi Benasouli was buried in the Ponevezh cemetery in Bnei Brak, where his mentor Toledano is buried. Benasouli was predeceased by his wife, Mercedes; he is survived by his sons Yamin of Brooklyn, Yisrael in Madrid and Moshe in Israel, and his daughters Simy in New York, and Devorah and Ruth Geulah, both in Israel.

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