I enclose an article which appeared in the American Jewish paper "Yated NE'EMAN about my grandfather (my mother's father) HARAB SHIMON AGASSI Z.L., as well as a photograph at the unveiling of a street in Jerusalem named after my grandfather.
Violet Gabbay (née Shashou)
The year was 5600 (1840). Thousands of pure Jewish children were faithfully learning Toras Hashem in the various branches of Beit Midrash Talmud Torah that were established by Rabbenu Abdulla Somech zt'l, considered one of the greatest Iraqi rabbonim of recent times. Baghdad's children, who had previously learned at home were now streamlined into a Torah school system.
And then, like a thunderstorm on a clear day, the agents of Alliance Israelite Universelle (Kol Yisrael Chaveirim) stormed in to trap the pure souls of the young children. "We only want to promote Torah with derech eretz,"they claimed. Rav Yosef Chaim spoke against it. Baghdad, a large city residing in glory in the middle of Babel was a Torah center for hundreds of years. Even after the Talmud was sealed in the time of the Rabbonon Saborai, it continued carrying the flag of Torah in full strength. For five hundred years the geonim of Babel lit up the Jewish world with their Torah, and the light of their written Torah continues to shine today.
For many years they glorified the eastern side of the Torah world with gedolim and chachomim, great poskim, Kabbalists and paytanim whose songs are still sung today in Iraqi communities. "There was a man in Baghdad, HaRav Shimon Agassi, whose light of Torah spread through the hearts of that entire generation and the those after it. Gadol bakol mikol kol," HaRav Yaakov Hillel, rosh yeshiva of Ahavas Shalom wrote about him, "in the revealed and hidden Torah, in his vast knowledge and depth of understanding. A great posek and darshan, a great paytan and philosopher, a great leader in chassidus and perishus, great in his tzedaka and kindness, great community activist and great in understanding and vision, great in accepting affliction with love, overcoming nisyonos, and above all and in spite of everything, he was a great masmid".
In 5615 (1855), the sun began to shine with the birth of a son to Reb Aharon Agassi zt'l, whose parents came to Iraq from Persia. The Agassi family had a paint business, which was an ancient Turkish profession, and wanted the thirteen year old lad, who had just finished talmud Torah, to join the business.
The struggle, as the reader can well understand, was difficult. The young Shimon was up against the rich family and their tremendous pressure to utilise his talents, as well as the fact that all his frineds decided to continue their studies in the new secular school of Baghdad. In spite of everything, Shimon pursued his one and only goal - Torah!
His parents, who encouraged him the entire times, supported his decision. The decision enriched Klal Yisroel with one of the foremost geonim of the generation. In the end, he benefited materialistically too. When his parents observed in wonder how their young boy was growing into a mighty giant, they decided a few years later to give him their house as a sign of appreciation for his great accomplishments.
He began to realise his brave decision in Beit Zilkha: the city of Baghdad's huge beit midrash established by HaRav Abdulla Somech zt'l, which became a place where hundreds of talmidei chachomim studied Torah diligently, twenty-four hours a day.
Rabbenu was twenty-six years old when he started writing his peirush on the Torah, an explanation that began a long chain of outstanding seforim: Zahav Shevo, Imrei Shimon, Bnei Aharon and Shem MiShimon which encompass all parts of the Torah in breadth and depth. As the years went by, Rabbenu became one of the important ones.
Rabbenu did not have pleasure from Olam Hazeh, and he described the terrible tragedies that befell him in a sea of tears and blood. He witnessed the tragic death of his three sons, one after the other. Rabbenu refused to be comforted. His students related that Rabbenu did not accept comfort for his oldest son until his last son Ezra Tzion grew up and married his brother's intended wife. Only then, on the day of his wedding, did Rabbenu remove the black turban from his head and rejoice happily.
His son's death gave Rabbenu the impetus to toil in the Torah of gilgul, creating for later generations the outstanding sefer Bnei Aharon which took him nine years to write.
In 5659 (1899), Rabbenu turned his house, which he inherited from his father, into a beit knesses. Six years later, he gave it to a gemilus chesed organisaztion to establish a school for orphans and poor children. Many of Baghdad's poor who were in danger of shmad were saved by this outstanding school and eventually developed beautifully.
With chasidei Hashem, a philanthropist was found in the city who agreed to Rabbenu's request to dedicate a large portion of his riches to build educational Torah institutions for the young. In a number of places in his seforim, Rav Shimon mentioned the gvir Meir Eliyahu "who poured money out of his pocket to raise the flag of Torah and return the crown to its former glory." This mesiras nefesh saved the generation from the clutches of those who sought to uproot religion from the youth.
Rabbenu succeeded in hiding himself so well that when he went up to eulogise Rabbenu Yosef Chaim zt'l in 1909, some of his neighbours were surprised to see a man whom they considered a simple merchant among the chachomim eulogizing. Hakham Shimon died peacefully in 1914.
At the unveiling of the plaque of Hakham Shimon Agassi Street in Jerusalem. On the left is Aharon Shashou, a grandson.
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