Hacham Yihya Tzalakh

< Tammuz 5784 July 2024 >

A Short Tribute

Hacham Yihya Tzalakh, known as the Maharitz, son of Mori Yosef Tzalakh, was born in 1713 in Sana'a, Yemen. Mori Yihay Tzalakh studied with his grandfather, Mori Tzalakh, and with the leaders of his generation, Mori Yihya Karoni and Mori Saadia Kti'i. After his grandfather death he was the attendant of the two great sages of his generation, Mori David Mesharki and Mori Yihya Hacohen 'Araki.

He earned a living as a silversmith, as was customary among the Yemenite sages who worked to earn their living rather than be a public burden. He later worked as a scribe of sacred manuscripts.

In 1748 he was appointed President of the Yemenite Jewish community's rabbinic courts, and his authority was recognized and uncontested throughout Yemen. Only a limited number of his thousands of halakhic responsa were collected in his book, Pe'ulat Tzaddik, in which he established the basis for the customs of Yemenite Jewry.

Mori Yihya Tzalakh was the head of the Sana'a yeshiva, which was moved to his synagogue. He had numerous students, the most prominent of which were his son, Mori Avraham Tzalakh and Mori Yoseph Elkara, who succeeded him as President of the rabbinic courts.

Mori Yihya Tzalakh led the resistance against those who sought to change the Yemenite prayer rite to the Shami version, and composed the Etz HaHaim siddur prayer book, which also contains his commentary. He preserved the Jewish Yemenite rite in his siddur, adding some of the customs of the Sepharadi tradition that had been integrated in Yemen and did not pose any contradictions to Yemenite customs. In his book, Helek HaDikduk, he defined the tradition governing Scripture as it had been transmitted to him and in keeping with the ancient Tigan writings. These traditions have been preserved to this day as the Maharitz tradition.

In 1762, Abbas, the Almahdi monarch, decreed that the Sana'a synagogues all be destroyed. Mori Yihya Tzalakh was shocked by the decree, and composed four laments on the destruction of the synagogues. After the monarch's death, his son Elmanzur allowed the synagogues to be rebuilt. Mori Yihya Tzalakh was quick to provide great sums for this purpose and had the Beit Tzalakh synagogue built during his own lifetime.

Mori Yihya Tzalakh had three sons, Abraham, Yehuda and Yoseph. He passed away on 28 Nissan, 5565 (1805).

His writings include Pe'ulat Tzaddik – Responsa, Zevakh Todah – on ritual slaughter laws, Helek HaDikduk – on matters of traditional rite, printed in Keter Torah; Etz Haim – a commentary on the Yemenite siddur prayer book (Tachlal), Me'il Kattan – halakhot on the Morning Prayer, tzitzit and tefillin, Sha'arei Kedusha – on Shulchan Aruch Yoreh De'ah, Sha'arei Tahara – on menstruation laws (in Arabic), and Orach Haim – a commentary on the Five Scrolls.

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