In the celestial realms

Israel's oldest and most legendary kabbalist fights to delay the surrender of his soul.

kaduri upfront 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
kaduri upfront 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Normal sleep is one-sixtieth of death, as Jewish mystics say. Which would put Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri dangling in limbo midway between this world and the next. The centenarian kabbalist - a bit of a folk "phenomenon" due to his extremely advanced age and legends of his supernatural powers - has been in intensive care on and off over the past few weeks, suffering from pneumonia and complications caused by it, such as kidney failure and internal infections. When he fell into a coma several days ago, scores of his followers rushed to his side. In the waiting room outside Kaduri's room on the second floor of Bikur Holim Hospital in downtown Jerusalem, there is non-stop prayer and reciting of psalms. Two teenage girls pray passionately, bowing rhythmically, keeping their eyes glued to King David's psalms, hoping that the same God that rescued David from his enemies will rescue Kaduri from his sickness. "We need Rabbi Kaduri down here with us," says Mazal, an elderly woman who came to bless the sage. "His righteousness protects the entire generation." A group of tough-looking men, unshaven and bleary-eyed, sit talking quietly. One of them is Avi Gabbai, a close aide to Kaduri. Gabbai is tense but responsive. His cell phone rings constantly. "How is the rabbi?" asks yet another caller. "Thank God, better. [But] we need a lot of mercy from the heaven," says Gabbai, rolling his bloodshot eyes toward the ceiling and gesturing vaguely. REPORTS THAT Kaduri could be at the end of his life unleashed a deluge of miracle stories. On Radio Beit Yisrael, a pirate radio station connected with Moshe Nimni, a close aide to Kaduri for many years, dozens of listeners called in to share their amazing experiences with Kaduri. For Yitzhak Mazon and his wife Ruthie, the 15 delicate saplings in the flower pot were testimony that, after eight baren years, they would be blessed with children. Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri said so. "I had been to all sorts of different rabbis and holy men," recalls Mazon, a janitor at the Knesset. "My wife suffered through painful fertility treatments. Nothing helped." The breakthrough, he says, came when the couple met with Kaduri. "He calculated the gemmatria of my name. Nothing was wrong. He checked my mother's name. Everything was fine. But when he checked my wife's name he discovered the problem. He told us it had something to do with water. Ruthie was afraid of water or she had experienced a trauma connected in some way with water," he explains. "The cure was to plant 15 seeds of wheat and water them every morning after the ritual hand washing and reciting of the morning blessings. If the seeds sprout it is a sign Ruthie's problem is cured." The following month Mazon returned home from military reserve duty and found his wife and mother-in-law half laughing, half crying. Mazon's mother-in-law presented Mazon with a box of chocolates and a "mazal tov." That was 26 years ago. Today Ruthie and Yitzhak Mazon have four girls, two boys and three grandchildren. "To this day, I do not know why 15, or why wheat," says Mazon. "But I know Rabbi Kaduri is a special man." The rabbi has also blessed non-Jews. Jamal Abu Shalbak, a Palestinian from Atarot, had been married 17 years without having children. A Jewish friend recommended that he go see Kaduri. "He put his hands on my head and blessed me," recalls Abu Shalbak. "He gave me a bag of balls and told me to put them under my pillow. He said my wife would be pregnant within the year." She was. Abu Shalbak named his son Yitzhak, after Kaduri. Kaduri and other mystics see that the apparent strife, brokenness, contradictions and discontinuities relayed via our senses as concealing a hidden unity, wholeness and peace. In the "real" world there are no conflicts between Palestinians and Israelis. "God blessed Rabbi Kaduri," says Abu Shalbak. "He is a holy man." Shimon Malul, another Kaduri aide, says the rabbi blessed Abu Shalbak with all his heart. "Why not? Our cousins [the Arabs] were also created in God's image." King Hussein of Jordan is probably the most famous gentile blessed by Kaduri. "The king wanted the rabbi to visit him at his palace. But the rabbi had a little gripe: the trip would be too difficult. The king was so keen on the visit that he even offered to build a special road." "Rabbi Kaduri extended his intense love for the Jewish people to include all humanity, including Arabs," says Gabbai. ACTUALLY, KADURIS'S close friends and aides say, the rabbi likes few things more than giving blessings. Before he was hospitalized, Kaduri dedicated a good portion of his mornings to blessing visitors. He would wake up at about 7 a.m. (he does not pray at the sun's first gleaming, as do many kabbalists) and strap on two types of phylacteries. Between 8:30 and 9 a.m. Kaduri learned Chok Le'Yisrael, a book that includes daily portions of bible, Mishna, Talmud, Halacha, Jewish philosophy and Zohar. Kaduri's breakfast was small, like all his meals. No meat, with fish only on the feast of Purim and on the eve of Yom Kippur. After breakfast he would receive visitors through the early afternoon, take a nap, then learn into the night with a group of 40 elderly kabbalists. They studied the kabbalistic thought of Rabbi Yitzhak Luria Ashkenazi, known as the Ari. Over Kaduri's 106 to 113 years - nobody knows precisely how old he is - the veteran kabbalist had the opportunity to learn with some of the most awe-evoking Jewish mystics of the modern era. Legend has it that, at the age of 16, Kaduri received a blessing for a long life from Rabbi Yosef Haim, known as the Ben-Ish Chai, the most important Sephardi halachic authority and mystic of the modern era. At the age of 17, Kaduri left his native Baghdad and came to Israel, where he studied under Rabbi Yehuda Petaya, known as the Beit Lehem Yehuda. Rabbi Yitzhak Batzri, a young Jerusalem-based kabbalist, says that Petaya refused to teach anyone who could not read foreheads. The reading of foreheads is based on the kabbalistic belief in the transmigration of souls. A select group of advanced kabbalists have the ability to tell by marks in the forehead what class of soul a person has, how many transmigrations it has endured and what that soul still needs to do to rectify itself. According to Batzri, Kaduri must have had that ability if he was accepted by Petaya. Kaduri also learned with Rabbi Efraim Cohen, who headed a group of Sephardi kabbalists who learned at the Porat Yosef Yeshiva. Others who belonged to that group include Rabbi Mansur Ben-Shimon and Rabbi Salman Eliyahu, father of former chief rabbi Mordechai Eliahu. Later, Kaduri moved to Rabbi Yehuda Hadaya's Beit El Yeshiva in Jerusalem's Mekor Baruch neighborhood, a hotbed of Kabbala yeshivot. He made a living binding books. In books such as Eitz Chaim, Sha'ar Hakavanot and Sefer Hagilgulim, Kaduri and his fellow kabbalists learn about the "tzimtzum," or contraction, of God. They learn about the shattering of the divine vessels. They study ways how to free sparks of holiness from corrupted matter. They study techniques of prayer that transform the supplicant into a conduit of heavenly energies. And there are the intricacies of how the transmigration of souls works. TO BE A true kabbalist - with supernatural powers - it is not enough to learn with the right people, say students of Kabbala. Perfection of personal traits and highly moral behavior, combined with a solid grounding in the material world, is a must. A kabbalist is both a good father and husband and a righteous mystic. He is down to earth but he is also a climber of spiritual pinnacles. The Jewish mystic is no airy ascetic. He is involved with the world of desire, but he channels it to serve God. Twelve years ago, at the age of 90-plus, Kaduri chose to marry Dorit, a woman in her 40s who had lived a secular life before embracing Judaism. A former close aide of Kaduri's says of Dorit, "They say she is in her late 50s, but she sure doesn't look it." Kaduri is sensual, not materialistic, say followers. He loves cold Coca-Cola, Bamba snacks and Marlboro Reds. Yosef Haim Ben-Zakai, a flowery alto cantor hand-picked by Kaduri for his yeshiva Nachalat Yitzhak, tells a story to illustrate the elderly kabbalist's lack of interest in monetary issues. "About six months ago Rabbi David [Kaduri's only son] called me into his office and showed me a check for $50,000," recounts Ben-Zakai. "The check, which was found tucked into a copy of the Zohar, was dated 1995. Apparently a rich donor had given the check to Rabbi Kaduri when he was in the middle of learning. He did not even bother looking at it. "Rabbi David found the check 10 years later. He tried getting it cashed but the bank would not honor it. The donor has since fallen on hard times, so he refused to write another one." KADURI'S SIMPLE modesty and lack of interest in economic success or politics put him on the anonymous path followed by many rabbis and mystics. But about two decades ago, Kaduri began breaking into the public consciousness. His followers are natural constituents of the Sephardi party Shas. Although Kaduri enjoys less popularity than party mentor and former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, his supporters still comprise a sizable faction. "There was a sign from the heavens that it was time for Rabbi Kaduri to become famous," says Gabbai. There is, however, a more earthly theory. In Maran, their biography of Yosef, journalists Nitzan Chen and Anshel Pfeffer claim that it was the business acumen of Kaduri's son David and grandson Yossi, not Providence, that pushed Kaduri into the limelight. David and Yossi realized the economic potential of the venerable, amulet-writing kabbalist in the '80s when mysticism was a burgeoning trend, they say. "I hear people talking..." says one source close to Kaduri, confirming that David and Yossi were driven by strong economic motives. "It just goes to show that righteousness is not an inherited trait." In 1996, Shas used Kaduri's amulets to catapult it from six mandates to 10 (polls had forecast four before the amulets). Yossi demanded a place on Shas's list in return for the use of his grandfather's amulets, according to Chen and Pfeffer. Instead, Shas chairman Aryeh Deri gave Yossi a job in the Histadrut leadership. Yossi remained there until 2003. In the 2003 elections, Yossi tried to cash in on his grandfather's spiritual clout at the voting booth, forming a breakaway party called "Ahavat Yisrael." But it failed to muster enough votes to gain representation in the Knesset. "Yossi did not understand that Rabbi Kaduri was like gravy to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's main course, that he could never be an entr e unto himself," says a senior Shas source. Kaduri himself is not the kind of rabbi who is a natural political character. He is a mystic, and in Orthodox Judaism mystics and mysticism are luxuries that can be entertained once the basics - such as the simple meanings of the Torah and the Talmud and the Halacha - are secured. By contrast, Yosef's encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish sources, prodigious study and analytic capabilities make him the foundation of Shas and an educational role model par excellence. Kaduri represents Judaism's acknowledgement of the irrational, the esoteric, the magical. There is a real thirst for this type of spirituality. But there is also the accompanying awareness among Shas's constituents (and among Orthodox Jews in general) that you check your rational faculties at the door when you enter the world of mysticism. That, many feel, is why Kaduri could never be the sole spiritual leader of a political party. IT IS UNCLEAR who is Kaduri's spiritual heir. Kaduri's son David says his father taught him the secrets of writing amulets. Malul, Gabbai and others close to the Kaduri family back up David's claim. So does Rabbi Yitzhak Batzri. However, Batzri and David's faithful are pitted against Rabbi Benyahu Shmueli, head of the Nahar Shalom Yeshiva. Shmueli, 44, known as "Rav Benyahu," is already a highly respected kabbalist in the yeshiva world. Comedian Eli Yatzpan, MK Isaac Herzog (Labor), former foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami and MK Silvan Shalom (Likud) and his wife Judy Nir Moses-Shalom all have close relations with Shmueli. President Moshe Katzav has a weekly Talmud class with him. "Kaduri and Shmueli have spent hours learning together the holy names of angels," says a close aide to Shmueli who also spent several years with Kaduri. "Rabbi Kaduri has a very high regard for Rabbi Benyahu." David Kaduri admits that Shmueli is an important kabbalist. "But," he says, "to say that he is my father's inheritor is like saying a little boy can be prime minister." Kaduri has never openly expressed his opinion about who should be his heir. Except for blessings and teaching, he rarely speaks. "The rabbi says talking too much shortens your life," explains Ben-Zakai. At the moment, Kaduri can't speak at all, and the roles have been switched: now he needs the prayers of others to save him from death. Kaduri's critical medical condition is a sign from God, according to Kaduri's son David. "My father is one of the "lamed-vav" [36] righteous of every generation. He is capable of making his prayers heard up in heaven. If he is sick it is a bad omen for the Jewish people. It means that the time has come to repent."