On Shabbat evening, we have a custom to chant at the table the famous tribute to the eshet chayil – the accomplished, upright, and valiant woman. This tribute appears in the Book of Proverbs (31:10-31) which was written by King Solomon. The Midrash Tanchuma, however, cites a tradition that the words of this tribute were first said by our father, Abraham, in his eulogy for our mother, Sarah (Chayei Sarah, Section 4). Within this tribute to the eshet chayil, we find the following verse:
“She spreads out her palm to the poor and extends her hand to the destitute.” (Proverbs 31:20)
With the approach of Shabbat, I would like to share with you some information about an eshet chayil of Old Jerusalem, the beloved Delisia, whose life was an example of the above verse. She was a great and noble Sephardic woman, and in her honor, I am using in this letter the Sephardic pronunciation for certain Hebrew words.
The story about Delisia is found in the noted work by David Rossoff, “Where heaven touches earth” – a moving and historical account of Jewish life in Jerusalem from the medieval period to the present. Information about this work appears at the end of this letter.
On Wednesday morning, the first of Adar 1, 5684 (1924), a special levaya – funeral procession – took place in Jerusalem. Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnefeld, the revered Rav of Jerusalem, ordered all the Jewish shops in the city to remain closed during the procession and burial ceremony. A great Sephardic woman had passed away that morning, and Rav Sonnenfeld felt that her burial deserved this great communal gesture of respect.
This woman was Delisia, the daughter of the late Moroccan Rav of Jerusalem, Rav David Ben-Shimon. Delisia had noble qualities and versatile talents which she dedicated to furthering various communal causes. The following are some examples of her altruistic work:
She founded and led a tzedekah organization called Ezrat Nashim which provided food and money to needy families on each Friday. Before the Festival of Succos, the needy received new clothes free of charge, and on the eve of Passover, a sum of money was issued to poor families from a special fund.
Though she never bore any children of her own, she became the “mother” of hundreds of orphans and needy children. In her motherly role, she helped marry off numerous orphans, outfitting them for the occasion, securing a dowry, and covering all the expenses as well. She treated each one as her own child and truly rejoiced at their weddings. In 1875, she married an Ashkenazic Torah scholar, Rav Yosef Krosz. When she married Rav Krosz, he was a widower with five small children, and she instinctively mothered them as if they were her own.
She also gave special attention to the impoverished people who sat at the Western Wall. Since most of them were physically handicapped, she felt a special urge to aid and uplift them, however and wherever she could.
Her name became synonymous with tzedakah, and her integrity was a model for all to emulate. Wealthy people therefore sent her donations, knowing that every penny would be put to use properly and wisely. Several times she traveled to Cairo, where her brother, Rav Aharon Ben-Shimon, was Chief Rabbi, and collected for the needy of Jerusalem.
For nearly fifty years, the poor had found in her the encouragement and warmth they sought in their hour of need. Her days and nights were dedicated to fulfilling her self-imposed mission of assisting these downtrodden residents of the Holy City; thus, when she left this world, Rav Sonnenfeld felt that the inhabitants of the city owed her a great gesture of respect. Rabbis and dignitaries from every congregation in the city took part in the procession. The poor and the impoverished wept, calling her the “mother of the unfortunate” – a heartfelt epithet which only partially described her greatness.
May we be blessed with the light and shalom of Shabbat.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen
P.S. I highly recommend the noted work by David Rossoff, “Where heaven touches earth” – a moving and historical account of Jewish life in Jerusalem from the medieval period to the present. A Hebrew edition is also available.
Sephardim were the majority of Jerusalem’s population until the 1870’s, and those who are interested in the history of Sephardic Jewish communities in Eretz Yisrael during the centuries of our exile can find much information in this book, which should be available in Jewish book stories. You can also get a copy by calling David Rossoff, who lives in Har Nof, Jerusalem. You can contact me for his telephone number.