Barukh Dayan HaEmeth, what a loss for Kelal Yisrael! The Hakham, Rabbi Ya’aqob Menashe (Ya’aqob Eliyahu ‘Abdallah Faraj Hayyim ben Rahel) a”h, founder and spiritual leader of Midrash Ben Ish Hai (named for Hakham Yosef Hayyim a”h of Baghdad), was laid to rest in Eretz Yisrael on Har Hazetim on the morning of the seventh of Ab (Tuesday, July 28, 2020). Rabbi Menashe’s passing is a tragic loss not only for the Great Neck community, but for Jewish communities as far as India where the Hakham kept the Jewish community functioning, as well as Australia, England, and across the globe, where his teachings are shared with adults and a new generation of children alike. On Monday afternoon, people from all walks of life joined in cars and in person, with social distancing, in the oversized parking lot at the Great Neck Synagogue, to remember the life and legacy of Rabbi Menashe a”h with hespedim.
Rabbi Menashe’s illustrious ancestors paved the way for his accomplishments and mission of spreading Torah to all. Rabbi Menashe was a direct descendant of the philanthropist David Sassoon, who donated generously to Jewish and city causes in Bombay, building schools, synagogues, and docks, as well as the Menashe-Zbeida family from Baghdad, who founded Midrash Beth Zilkha where illustrious leaders such as the Ben Ish Hai and Hakham ‘Abdallah Somekh studied. Rabbi Menashe’s parents, Rabbi Albert and Mrs. Rachel Manasseh, were leaders of the Iraqi Jewish community in Bombay. In fact, his father was the spiritual head of the entire community in Bombay as well as life President of the Sassoon Trusts. Rabbi Ya’aqob Menashe, who immigrated to England with his family at the age of 11, would fondly recall sitting next to his father at the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue, and participating in the religious Habonim organization that his parents led.
Rabbi Menashe a”h was a skilled, cultured, and talented individual. He was fluent in many languages, understood and appreciated music, and was a skilled speaker and lecturer. From his early years, Rabbi Menashe was selflessly dedicated to the distribution of Torah. As a young man, Rabbi Menashe noticed that Sepharadi minhagim (customs) were beginning to be lost, to a large extent because Sephardi yeshiboth and synagogues were few in number. Rabbi Menashe made it his life’s mission to invigorate the Sephardi heritage in others and disseminate the works of Hakham Yosef Hayyim a”h, the holy Ben Ish Hai. Understanding that people learn and connect to Torah differently, Rabbi Menashe brought am Yisrael closer to the holy scripture through speeches, written essays, books, and videos, and pioneered the use of every technological advance available during the respective period. His acclaimed “A Torah Minute” series will stand as an everlasting tribute to Halakha, Hashqafa, and Mussar. He also published numerous books, including compilations of some of his daily Torah Minutes, as well as Ronni WeSimhi LeYa’aqob, a book on the halakhoth of Bar Miswah that he wrote when his son, Menashe, turned 13.
The Hakham, Rabbi Ya’aqob Menashe a”h, was known to speak on the unique blend of Halakha that Hakham Yosef Hayyim a”h achieved and mastered during his lifetime, a feat that very few rabbis have accomplished. In one of his final discussions on the parasha, posted in March of this year on Parshath Ki Thissa, as the novel coronavirus was taking its toll on the New York region, Rabbi Menashe spent time relating parasha insights to the current time and the need to adhere to the rules of washing hands and Netilath Yadayim.
Hespedim given on the day after Rabbi Menashe’s passing focused on the trait of Emeth and integrity that the Hakham mastered. Rabbi Menashe had an unwavering commitment to doing the right thing, whether in Halakha, minhagim, business transactions, or interpersonal relationships. Even when it was unpopular, Rabbi Ya’aqob Menashe a”h would adhere to what was right. At the same time, he treated all people with kindness and respect, no matter their station in life. Like his namesake, he truly embodied the middah of Tifereth and Emeth through the melding of two seemingly opposing traits: Hesed and Geburah.
Throughout the Shib’ah, many people spoke about the close bond they shared with the Hakham. So many referred to him as their “second father” and said they felt that Rabbi Menashe accepted them for who they were. Others spoke fondly of Rabbi Menashe’s sense of humor, saying that even though he was their Rabbi, they felt entirely at ease with him because of his ability to joke around with others. Congregants reminisced fondly about the lectures, shiurim, and classes that Rabbi Menashe gave, which were remembered as thought-provoking, inspiring, and always entertaining.
The Hakham had a special knack, among many others, of leaving his listeners with a renewed commitment to make an effort to see the good in those they encountered. Rabbi Menashe a”h yearned to see people from all walks of Jewish life share a common love for one another. His petirah just before Tish’ah BeAb, the time when the Jewish nation mourns the destruction of the Holy Temples, which were destroyed because of baseless hatred amongst Jewish brethren, further glorifies the Hakham’s teachings as a testament for all eternity. Rabbi Menashe knew that we, as ordinary people, are often plagued with skepticism and a need for self-protection, but his elucidations offered some respite.
The Hakham would often visit India, at times with his family and with the Admor Rabbi Sinai Halberstam, the Zhmigroder Rebbe of America, and a close family friend. Rabbi Menashe served as the senior rabbi and spiritual leader of the Sir Jacob Sassoon Charity Trusts and Synagogues in India, and was a trustee of the Sassoon Trusts, working closely with Mr. Solomon F. Sopher, Chairman and Managing Trustee of the Sir Jacob Sassoon Allied Trusts and Synagogues. When in India, Rabbi Menashe would lead Shabbath services at the Keneseth Eliyahoo synagogue, the same synagogue where Rabbi Menashe’s father led the congregation for many years. Rabbi Menashe was a key and respected figure in the events that were hosted at the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue throughout the years, often hosting dignitaries from all over the world.
Rabbi Ya’aqob Menashe, along with the late Rabbanith Ruth Menashe a”h, built Midrash BEN ISH HAI into a multifaceted organization. From classes to outreach, lectures to singles events, his warm and engaging manner attracted people of all backgrounds. Thousands worldwide receive A Torah Minute daily, for over a decade, alongside much other content.
The Hakham’s battle with COVID-19 saw the Jewish community unite in many ways over the last number of months. Thousands were inspired to deepen their practices and belief in Hashem. The heavens were stormed in a powerful fashion that no doubt was a comfort to the Hakham and his family throughout the ordeal. The tremendous amount of Tehilim read and adherence to miswoth (commandments) alongside the offerings of support and advocacy was noted. Hospital staff themselves remarked on the tremendous respect, kindness, and dignity Rabbi Menashe a”h displayed even in moments of great weakness. He will be remembered as a true mentor and leader, and will be sorely missed and mourned by each life he impacted with his personal touch of care, compassion, and dedication, whilst continually being a role model for honesty and integrity.
By Friends of Midrash Ben Ish Hai