FROM MOROCCO TO TEACHING TORAH IN KFAR CHABAD
January 4, 2018
Shneur Zalman Levin in #1100, Obituary

Rabbi Yaakov Asseraf ah was born in a small town, Taroudant, in Morocco. He ended up in the Chabad yeshiva in Casablanca where he became a Tamim. He later became a teacher himself, in a Chabad yeshiva in Tunisia. * For decades he served as a melamed in Kfar Chabad, empowering and raising up thousands of talmidim, teaching them Torah and mainly enabling them to believe in themselves and their ability to learn

ENCOUNTERING CHASSIDUS

R’ Asseraf was born in the town of Taroudant near Agadir in Morocco. In his town there was a branch of the Alliance network of schools, but hashkafically it was a very modern place and Yaakov refused to go there. He preferred staying home and learning on his own or with his father, when time allowed.

In the summer of 5712/1952, when he was 12, he went to visit his grandfather who lived in Casablanca. His grandfather was a rav of a shul, a shochet and a mohel. In Casablanca, he became aware of the Chabad yeshiva that had been established the year before. Yaakov’s soul, which had already drawn him to Torah study, now drew him to this yeshiva where he found what his soul longed for.

He was drawn to the shliach of the Rebbe to Morocco, Rabbi Shlomo Matusof. “I saw that he had extraordinary Ahavas Yisroel, special refinement and rare cleverness.” R’ Asseraf threw himself into his Torah studies in the new yeshiva.

When he became bar mitzva, he returned home to celebrate, but then he found it hard to part from his parents again and return to Casablanca, 700 kilometers away. There was no good yeshiva that was closer and he remained home and learned Torah, mostly on his own.

Two years later, when he was 15, his father suggested that he start doing business. (“My father dealt a bit with textiles, and he suggested that I go along with him to the markets.”). Then came the day that changed his life. Decades later, R’ Yaakov remembered the day and the date, “on a Sunday, the week of Parshas Chayei Sarah 5716.” He attended a bris in his uncle’s home. After the meal, he went out for some fresh air when suddenly, a Volkswagen car stopped near him and two men with beards got out. Later, he learned that they were Rabbi Ezriel Chaikin, shliach to Morocco, and Rabbi Yehuda Shitrit zt”l, rav of Agadir.

“They asked me where the local rabbi lived and I proudly told them that I am the son of the rav.” The two went to R’ Asseraf’s house and spoke to him about the importance of sending the local boys to learn in yeshiva. Then R’ Chaikin tested young Yaakov in Gemara. When he finished, he said to his happy father, “Your son must go to our yeshiva!” R’ Asseraf happily said to his son, “See? From Heaven they helped you find a yeshiva.”

Yaakov Asseraf went back to yeshiva in Casablanca, and during the next two years he studied Torah day and night (in Rabbi Matusof’s yeshiva).

Yaakov quickly got involved in the study of Chassidus and the ways of Chassidus. Going to the mikva daily became part of his routine, and within a few months he could recite the first 12 chapters of Tanya by heart.

THE GREAT LOVE OF THE MASHPIA AND TALMID

The next stage of his learning was in Yeshivas Tomchei T’mimim in Brunoy, France, under the mashpia Rabbi Nissan Nemanov. He arrived at the yeshiva on 15 Elul 5717, a significant date, since 15 Elul is when Tomchei T’mimim was founded.

When R’ Asseraf would talk about his teacher, the legendary mashpia, he would speak of him with awe and yearning. “We saw amazing things with him. His personality was greatly beloved by all the bachurim, and the Sephardic bachurim in particular loved him tremendously. Every word he said to them they accepted with the greatest seriousness, mainly because of the trait of inner truth that R’ Nissan had, and also because of his enormous love for the bachurim. R’ Nissan also looked out for their physical needs so they did not lack for anything. I remember how he would come to the kitchen in the middle of the day while still wearing tallis and t’fillin, pick up a pot cover, and stir around to see whether the food was well-cooked.”

Love on the one hand, with awe on the other hand: “The talmidim in yeshiva were literally afraid of R’ Nissan. Even the older bachurim, when they saw him come with his tallis in the morning, they were already trembling at the sight.”

R’ Asseraf learned in Brunoy for five years, and in the last year he was appointed as maggid shiur to younger students who came from Morocco. During these years, he merited special attention from R’ Nemanov. “Unlike my friends in the group from Morocco, I would learn Chassidus a lot in the morning and began davening a little later. So I had to eat something before learning Chassidus. R’ Nissan told me to come to his house at the beginning of every week and his wife would give me cake that lasted me for the week.

“I was a ben bayis (member of the household) by him; he loved me greatly. I was once sick for a week and couldn’t get out of bed. R’ Nissan came to my room to see how I was, and then called a doctor to come and check me. The doctor gave me some medication, but it didn’t help. The following week, Yankel Goldberg, who was my chavrusa in Gemara for three years (he later became rosh yeshiva of Hadar HaTorah) told me that one of the staff needed R’ Nissan for something urgent on Friday in connection with the yeshiva, but R’ Nissan told him that he was busy because he had to visit Asseraf.”

The question as to why R’ Asseraf deserved special treatment from R’ Nemanov caused him to squirm. “Maybe because I reviewed maamarei Chassidus by heart, nearly every Shabbos,” he said laughing uncomfortably. “R’ Nissan himself was in charge of telling the bachurim who would review a maamer every Shabbos. When there was a bachur who did not manage to prepare a maamer, R’ Nissan would ask me and I would always agree. I would review long maamarim.

“One time, on Shabbos HaGadol, I reviewed the maamer ‘Va’yehi ba’yom ha’shmini,’ from 5704. It’s a very long maamer. The way it worked in my time was that there was a review of the maamer in Yiddish for the Ashkenazim and a separate review in Hebrew for the Sephardim. R’ Nissan would go to listen to the maamer in Hebrew. That time, there was someone from Anash who was pressed for time and he said I was taking too long. The following morning, R’ Nissan told me not to be impressed and he encouraged me to continue doing what I did.”

KEEP LEARNING

At that time, it was accepted that at the end of three years in Brunoy, the bachurim from Morocco would return home. R’ Asseraf was granted a special privilege to remain in yeshiva for five years.

In 5721, he wrote to the Rebbe that he wanted to learn in 770. Less than a month later, he received the Rebbe’s response. “In answer to your letter, you should know that your friends who were in a similar situation and came here were unsuccessful in their learning; if only they had not come here. So my advice is that you learn assiduously in France and then return to your parents in Morocco. As Chazal say, ‘The poor of your city take precedence.’” (The Rebbe underlined those last words.)

“I asked R’ Nissan to explain why the Rebbe refused to allow me to go to 770 even though I was a masmid and he said, ‘You should know that the Rebbe knows you. I wrote to him about you. But the atmosphere in America is corrupt, and it does not suit you. Continue learning here, and with Hashem’s help you will yet be a rosh yeshiva in Morocco.’”

In R’ Asseraf’s last year in France, in 5722, R’ Nissan appointed him as maggid shiur in the yeshiva for a group of 18 year old bachurim who came from Morocco. This was on condition that he would be given time to learn Chassidus on his own every day for an hour.

This pleasant period came to an end at the end of the summer of 5722/1962, when R’ Asseraf received a letter from the shliach Rabbi Nissan Pinson, who had moved to Tunisia. He asked R’ Asseraf to come to his yeshiva as a maggid shiur. R’ Asseraf went to Tunisia where he was a maggid shiur for a few months. Then there was a problem in extending his Moroccan passport and he had to return to Morocco.

BELOVED TEACHER

At the end of 5723, R’ Yaakov’s parents moved to Eretz Yisroel and he went with them. When R’ Nissan Nemanov heard of his plan to move, he wrote a letter to R’ Efraim Wolf, menahel of Yeshivos Tomchei T’mimim, to give him a teaching position. With the start of 5724, R’ Asseraf began teaching in the Talmud Torah (elementary school) in Kfar Chabad.

Throughout the years, testify his students, it was difficult to catch R’ Asseraf in a free moment; certainly never in an idle conversation. His daily schedule began with the first light of day and ended late at night. During all the hours in between he was occupied with Avodas Hashem and learning Torah, both Nigleh and Chassidus.

For over 30 years, he taught Gemara to the students of the highest class in the Talmud Torah in Kfar Chabad. Hundreds of boys acquired the fundamentals of learning from him and were prepared by him for yeshivos (mesivtos). Hundreds of his students said that “when R’ Asseraf explains a topic in the Gemara, a halachic issue or a maamer Chassidus, there will be no one who does not understand it clearly. His thoroughness and many years of experience teaching, and the fact that he lived his learning, removed every possible obstacle to his listeners’ understanding.”

One of his students is R’ Nosson Tzivin, who could not keep back his tears as he spoke. “We had a teacher who knew how to measure the exact limits of a student’s mind and make learning Gemara, Rashi and Tosafos beloved to them. Whenever we say Hallel, I remember how one day he told us a riddle: How many times do we say the entire Hallel and how many times do we say half-Hallel? We learned that on Rosh Chodesh we say half-Hallel. It turns out that we say the entire Hallel more times. ‘If so,’ he asked, ‘which Hallel do we remember by heart better?’ We all said, ‘half-Hallel.’ He asked, ‘Why?’

“In later years he would go every morning by bus to Ramle to spread Torah. He would return by bus till the highway and then wait for a ride to Kfar Chabad. I stopped for him a number of times and gave him a lift. When I told him I would take him to his house and not just to where I was going, he refused. He did not want to inconvenience me. I had to convince him that it was a privilege for me to take him, kibbud morim, honor for a Torah scholar, etc.

“I may remember the half or the whole, but I will forever remember the teacher, the man, the modest, good neighbor who did not disclose his greatness.”

R’ Yosef Chaim Bolton, a former student and now a resident of Miron, says, “I owe him, and no fortune in the world can pay back or put a price on what he gave me and what he did for me.” He went on to write in first person to his beloved rebbi, “When you are presently under the Throne of Glory, tell the Master of the Universe that there is someone in this world who remembers you favorably without any limit. Say that there is a student who can proudly say that he learned by you, received slaps on the cheek occasionally from you, and still loves you a lot and esteems you greatly. Say over there, in the heavenly court, that there is someone who as a boy, remembers you as the only one who, after slapping me, came outside and apologized and said, in your heavy Moroccan accent, ‘I am really sorry. It’s just a pity. You have a good head and it’s a shame that you don’t put your head into your learning.’ In my heart I said that maybe he is actually right. I knew that you did it out of love, because no teacher put into me as much as you did!

“R’ Yaakov, I remember how you prepared me for the yeshiva entrance exam. We would sit after school hours and you always concluded our learning by saying, ‘Very nice, everything is in perfect order. You’ll do well.’ Who believed that I would do well? Who believed in me altogether, aside from you? Who else dared to talk to me with such love the way you did? I remember the nights that we learned together during the Gulf War in the central shul. How did you say it to me then? ‘I need to be here anyway, and I happen to love to learn at night, so everybody benefits.’ I also benefited from more hours of learning with you with your patience and endless love. About 16 years ago, I remember, after I married and gave you a ride from the entrance to Kfar Chabad, your excitement at seeing me. I remember that you said, ‘I always knew you’d be successful.’ And you matter-of-factly said, ‘I davened for you, Yosef Chaim Ben Rochel.’

“HaRav Yaakov, till today, thirty years later, I remember how you would daven out loud, word by word, and I, as a dyslexic who was traumatized by the pages of the siddur, would repeat quietly after you, sometimes with your accent. HaRav Yaakov, if today I daven and know the words of the t’filla by heart, it is thanks to you and your yiras Shamayim, thanks to your davening, thanks to your being particular to say it word by word, out loud.

“My teacher and rebbi, HaRav Yaakov z”l! Approach the Heavenly Throne and demand Moshiach and the Geula for the Jewish people. Until then, you should know that you have at least one student who remembers you, loves you, and misses you.”

LAST YEARS

In recent years, after retiring from his teaching job, he divided his time between giving shiurim in the kollel in Ramle which he headed and learning on his own or with a chavrusa, as well as giving shiurim in various places.

R’ Asseraf recently became very sick, and still he continued learning as much as he could. He passed away leaving his wife and children who follow in his ways, the way of Torah and Chassidus. Hundreds of residents of Kfar Chabad, many of them his former students, went to give him this last honor and escort him on his final journey. Many shed tears despite the decades that passed since they sat in his classroom where he taught them Torah patiently and with love.

At the end of 5726, Rabbi Asseraf was married:

“Being very busy with preparations for the wedding, I completely forgot to send a letter to the Rebbe about my upcoming marriage. Just six days before the wedding I walked into the post office and suddenly remembered. I immediately sent an aerogramme to the Rebbe, but I was sure that the Rebbe’s answer would not arrive before my wedding.

“The morning of my wedding, the mashpia R’ Velvel Kesselman met me in shul and gave me a letter from the Rebbe! I could not believe my eyes. I felt how our Rebbe is personally devoted to each one of us.

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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