The Sages tell us that the Jewish people retained their unique heritage while being enslaved by their Egyptian oppressors. They did not alter their names, their mode of dress, or their language. The Jewish language has always been with us from the beginning of time and it remains a language that is pure, precise, and unparalleled in the entire world.
The exact origins of the Jewish community in the Tunisian island of Djerba is unclear. Jews lived there under various regimes for close to 3,000 years, with varying levels of peace and security until the French protectorate of Tunisia was established by a treaty in 1881, after which the situation of the Jewish community improved. Many Tunisian Jews welcomed the opportunity to become French citizens and shifted their cultural identification to French-European. For the generation born under the protectorate, the French language replaced Judeo-Arabic as the Tunisian Jews’ mother tongue.
The chief rabbi of Tunisia at that time was the pious tzadik, Chacham Yosef Barbi, zt”l, who lived in ascetic purity, learning and teaching Torah to his students. However, there were those who meant the rabbi harm and they sent informers to the French protectorate belittling the rabbi and accusing him of crimes he did not commit. The authorities did not bother to look into the matter, and from one day to the next, Chacham Barbi was summarily dismissed from his position as chief rabbi.
Not to take this matter sitting down, one of the Chacham’s prime disciples, Chacham Yaakov Chadad, zt”l, sat down and penned a two-page letter in Hebrew to the local rabbinate in the capital city of Tunis, describing the terrible injustice that was done to his master. He poured his heart directly into the written words and he signed it with the hope and fervent prayer that this letter would be made available to the proper French authorities in order to correct the infringement that was done.
The letter was received in Tunis and handed over to a well-known Jewish lawyer by the name of Scemama. He spent a number of days translating Chacham Chadad’s words into the local French dialect before submitting it to the protectorate. The letter was well-received and made quite an impression on the protectorate, who immediately rescinded the previous decree and restored the chief rabbi to his position. By governmental courier, they dispatched a missive to the local French administrator in Djerba, informing him to restore the rabbi to his former stature. Together with their edict, they also included copies of both the original letter in Hebrew and the translated version in French.
The French bureaucrat in charge of the Island of Djerba and its environs was a haughty man who did not appreciate that his decision to fire the chief rabbi was overturned. He scrutinized the letters and learned that the original author was the young rabbinical student Jacob Chadad. He immediately summoned him to his lavish executive office and in rapid-fire French he began to heap insults on the young Jewish student.
“Are you the author of this dastardly letter?” he yelled accusingly, holding it up and waving it in the face of the younger man. “How dare you go behind my back and write a letter to Tunis criticizing my decision? I’ll have you know that I am in charge here and they have no right to alter my edict! Besides,” the Frenchman added for effect, “I will report you as well as the Jewish rabbinate in Tunis for forging a phony and counterfeit translation that has no basis in fact.”
Chacham Chadad began to protest that this was not true, but the administrator curled his lip into a sneer and said, “Is that so? Well, I have proof. You see, I am holding your original Hebrew letter that contains two pages, and the French-translated letter, which is 15 pages long! How is this possible? The only explanation is that the translator lied and added many sympathetic words of his own – fifteen pages worth – and therefore, the decision from Tunis is faulty and ineffectual!”
At this point, Chacham Chadad broke into a smile and replied evenly, “Sir, I can assure you that the translator did not add even one word of his own. You see, my letter in Hebrew was crafted like a coin of the purest gold. As you know, a small coin weighs only five grams, but if you were to change it into copper, you would need many kilograms of copper to equal its value. The same goes for the Hebrew language. Two pages in Hebrew are so pure that in order to match its value in French, one would need many more pages to express the same sentiment!”
The decree was rescinded and Chacham Barbi was restored.
Rabbi Dovid Hoffman is the author of the popular “Torah Tavlin” book series, filled with stories, wit and hundreds of divrei Torah, including the brand new “Torah Tavlin Yamim Noraim” in stores everywhere. You’ll love this popular series. Also look for his book, “Heroes of Spirit,” containing one hundred fascinating stories on the Holocaust. They are fantastic gifts, available in all Judaica bookstores and online at http://israelbookshoppublications.com. To receive Rabbi Hoffman’s weekly “Torah Tavlin” sheet on the parsha, e-mail Torahtavlin@yahoo.com.