The Rabbi Who Captured a Lion, and Saved Israeli Farmers
Raphael Meir ben Yehuda Panigel (1804-1893) was born in Bulgaria—then part of the Ottoman Empire—the only child of a wealthy and religious Sephardic Jewish family. When he was 3 years old, the family moved to Jerusalem. Despite being orphaned at 15, Panigel soon became a respected rabbi in the Holy City. At just 27 years old, the community appointed him as their official emissary to travel around the world to teach Torah and to collect funds in support of the old yishuv, the Jewish community that struggled to make a living in the Holy Land. In 1845, he was received by Pope Gregory XVI and inspired him to support and protect Jewish communities in Christian lands. Rabbi Panigel made several trips across North Africa, gaining a reputation as a holy miracle-worker. In one famous incident that happened in Tunis, a lion escaped from the city’s zoo and was terrorizing the locals. Incredibly, it was Rabbi Panigel that captured the lion. When he was asked how he did so, he replied that one who is righteous and fears God need not fear anything else. In 1880, Rabbi Panigel was appointed the Rishon LeZion, Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, and in 1890, the Ottomans made him hakham bashi, chief authority representing the Jewish community. He composed a penetrating work called Lev Marpe with novel Torah and Talmudic insights. He was also instrumental in developing heter mechira, allowing Jewish farmers in Israel to continue working during the Sabbatical shemitah year (such as this year) in a kosher way. As the shemitah of 1889 approached, the struggling Jewish immigrants of the First Aliyah worried how they would survive if they had to let the land lie fallow, considering the country was then completely undeveloped. After consultations with other Torah luminaries, Rabbi Panigel found a way to work around the shemitah restrictions, allowing the faithful farmers to survive while also adhering to Torah law. Rabbi Panigel was the first to institute heter mechira, a practice which continues in Israel to this day. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the famous “father of Modern Hebrew”, wrote of how he was inspired by Rabbi Panigel and described him as being of “electrifying” holiness, like one of the Biblical Patriarchs.
Mordecai Manuel Noah (1785-1851) is considered by many to be America’s first famous Jew. Coming from a blended family of Sephardic-Portuguese and German-Ashkenazi Jews, Noah’s father was one of the main financiers of the American Revolution. Mordecai began his career in trade, then moved into law while living in South Carolina. He made a name for himself as a journalist, writing passionately to drive the American cause and boosting the nation’s morale in the face of war with the British Empire. For his wisdom and eloquence, President Madison appointed him consul to Imperial Russia in 1811, then consul to Tunis in 1813. There he worked to fight against marauding pirates and saved countless Americans captured and enslaved in Morocco. However, in 1815 the anti-Semitic President Monroe repealed Noah’s position. This stirred a massive controversy. Former presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison all joined Noah’s side, championing equality for all. Nonetheless, Noah left politics, returning to New York where he founded a variety of newspapers (including the Enquirer). He wrote several popular plays (including the famous She Would be a Soldier), as well as three books. He is a founder of New York University and Mt. Sinai Hospital, and also served as a judge and sheriff of New York. But most intriguing of all is that in 1825 Mordechai Noah bought a massive piece of land near Buffalo to be established as a Jewish state called “Ararat”. Surprisingly, thousands of Christians came out in support to lay the first cornerstone, along with Masons, the New York militia and St. Paul’s Church! Unfortunately, the project failed, and Noah realized a Jewish state could only be established in the Holy Land. To this he dedicated the last years of his life, spearheading the return to Israel long before Herzl and the Zionists.
Words of the Week
The progeny of Abraham are likened to the dust of the earth (Genesis 13:16), and to the stars of the heavens (Genesis 15:5). For when they fall, they fall as low as dust; when they rise, they rise as high as the stars.