EULOGY DELIVERED AT THE CONSECRATION OF THE TOMBSTONE OF
THE LATE CHIEF RABBI CYRIL K HARRIS OBE
HAR HAMENUCHOT – GIVAT SHAUL – JERUSALEM 8 TAMMUZ 5766 / 4 JULY 2006
BY RABBI MOSHE SILBERHAFT
Friends, Rabbi Harris always championed the cause of the Jewish People and the Land of Israel. It is therefore fitting that he is buried here in Jerusalem, for which he expressed such a deep devotion.
Many of you must wonder, therefore, why Chief Rabbi Harris retired to Hermanus, a small seaside town, an hour and a half drive out of Cape Town, with his wife Ann, in what would be the last year of his too-short life.
Hermanus is one of many dispersed, far-flung Jewish communities for which I, as Rabbi of the Country Communities, am responsible.
While I knew and worked with Rabbi Harris in Johannesburg and elsewhere, it was in Hermanus that I truly came to know this powerful man, here I was privileged to council him in his last few months and weeks.
I have also wondered what Hermanus meant to him and Ann. I believe a key to this is found, in a hint, in Rabbi Harris’s autobiography, For Heaven’s Sake where he described the community of his early childhood in Scotland:
I quote - “The Ayr Hebrew Congregation, of which my father was the proud chairman … was very close-knit and intimate, and the hundred or so Jewish souls of the seaside town really seemed to care about each other. Perhaps it was the war which brought everyone closer together but I believed every community was as warm as that, and it was one of the reasons I decide early on to become a congregational rabbi” – end of quote.
He often spoke about how lovely it was to live in a small village Jewish community. He said to me that when he retires he wants to retire to a small community where he can assist in building a community. This I feel endeared Hermanus to him.
In choosing to go to Hermanus, the note he struck in shaping his life, silently, privately but equally powerfully, was a return not only to the kind of community in which his father had been chairman, but – given the South African context with its predominantly Litvak heritage – also one which continued to evoke the Litvak atmosphere of his early life:
“Our family are direct descendants of the Vilna Gaon". Rabbi Harris wrote in his book, "Of course every Litvak claims this honour, but unlike most of them we can prove it. My mother’s maiden name was Bloch and our family is descended from the Gaon’s youngest daughter Tova”
With Rabbi Harris’s retirement to Hermanus, in important personal ways, his life came full circle, bringing him back to the atmosphere and values of his early life with his beloved parents.
While I was ministering to him and was pleased to be able to help him, I still felt like his student. I sat next to him in his tranquil home in Hermanus in a similar way to the way Reb Yochanan Ben Zakkai’s students stood next to him in his last days, as described in Masechet Brachot daf כח amud ב.
I learned what wonderful attributes this ' man amongst men' possessed. His vast knowledge, his learning and his genuine understanding of mankind, his modesty, his concern for others, and his enormous strength of character. He was a great man who could approach people in all walks of life and at all levels, and make them feel adequate and with purpose.
I observed that even as he suffered immense pain, which could have been a real test of faith and belief, he never showed fear and retained the regal presence, truly a prince among men, for which he was so well known.
He was extremely humble. When he could no longer walk to the Hermanus synagogue, I arranged for services to be held at his home. He would always remark, “you are doing this for me?”
When Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai fell ill, his disciples went in to visit him. They said to him; ישראל נר - הימיני עמוד - החזק פטיש - Lamp of Israel – pillar of the right hand – mighty hammer. My dear friends, Rabbi Harris was all of these things to the Jewish community, and within the wider community as well. He was a man who epitomised Torah and all that it stood for. For this, he was widely recognised.
For those of you who are not aware, Chief Rabbi Harris died with Torah on his lips and a prayer for peace.
Testimony to the impact he had on the country as a whole was the genuine grief expressed by the wider, non-Jewish and African community on his passing.
I would like to end by sharing with you the words of Former President Nelson Mandela of South Africa who on hearing of the passing of Chief Rabbi Harris wrote: “In that difficult challenge of our transition and early democracy to pull and keep our country together, Chief Rabbi Harris played a central role that will be remembered in our history. We today remember a great spiritual leader, a man of exceptional humaneness, one who has made his mark in the social transformation of South Africa. And in African fashion we say: HAMBA KAHLE CYRIL”, end of quote.
The image I had in my mind when thinking what to say today was of the Star newspaper which ran a banner up and down the main streets of Johannesburg stating: “Shalom To Rabbi Harris” in bold letters. I have one such banner hanging prominently in my office.
Today, here in Jerusalem, I say on behalf of all South Africans - “SHALOM TO RABBI HARRIS”
To Mrs Harris, Rabbi Michael, Jonathan and family, I want to thank you for afording me the privilege of paying tribute to Rabbi Harris here today. I am truly humbled.
May Hashem grant you all a good and meaningful life filled with much nachas and peace of mind. Amen