Rabbi Haim Moussa Douek

Last Chief Rabbi of Egypt


Rabbi Haiim Moussa Douek   Edited by: Dr. Maurice M. Mizrahi

Rabbi Haim Moussa Douek was born in Antab, Turkey, in April 1905. He was the first-born child of Moussa Haim Douek and Zarifa Shaoul Harari, observant Jews who engaged in trade in an area close to the present-day Turkish-Syrian border.

In 1910, the family, which by that time had grown to include a brother and a sister, emigrated to Egypt. Rabbi Douek attended day school at the "Ecole de l’Alliance Israelite Universelle". In the afternoon, he attended "Keter Torah" for Judaic studies. On Shabbat and holidays, he attended the Aleppo-rite synagogue "Kenisset el Halabiya” with his father. He pursued rabbinic studies from 1918 to 1933 at the Great Yeshivah "Keter Torah" in Cairo. There he studied Talmud with Rabbi Yossef Pinto, Z”TL, the renowned head of the yeshivah, under the supervision of Rabbi Haim Nahoum, Z”TL, the Chief Rabbi of Egypt at the time.

He was ordained in 1933. He then helped found the "Ahaba ve Ahva" synagogue, located at 4 Midan El Daher in Cairo. Prior to this, the congregation held services at the home of a pious man named Haim Soliman, who allocated a room in his apartment for this purpose. With the establishment of the new synagogue it became possible to teach Torah to laymen, and to train prospective hazzanim (cantors), shohetim (kosher slaughterers), and rabbonim (rabbis). Thanks to Rabbi Douek's involvement, the synagogue evolved to a full-service yeshivah ready to train a new generation of Egyptian Jews. At the same time, he was appointed rabbi at "Ahaba ve Ahva" with responsibility for teaching Talmud, and he retained this position until 1957 when the government closed down the yeshivah. Rabbi Ovadia Yossef was also part of Ahaba ve Ahva from 1947 to 1951, when he emigrated to Israel.

Unlike in the US, a pulpit rabbi in Egypt had to work in some other capacity to support himself and his family. His income included not only the modest stipend offered by the community, but also his own independent sources. Thus, Rabbi Douek owned his own business or worked at times with business associates. This continuas Rabbi Douek's family, responsibilities, and workload expanded. Nevertheless, he always found time to devote to his first love, learning and teaching Torah.

In November 1952 Rabbi Douek was appointed by the Chief Rabbi of Egypt to join the rabbinical body of the Chief Rabbinate of Cairo. In 1954 the Chief Rabbi also appointed him Chairman of the Beit Din (the Rabbinic Court) and the Egyptian Ministry of Justice appointed him a judge in the Jewish Primary and Appellate Courts in Cairo, which were divisions of the Jewish domestic relations court.

(Before 1956, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam each had its own domestic relations courts in Egypt. They handled, among other things, issues of marriage and divorce, wills, children, and the disposition of assets. These courts had jurisdiction over individuals on family matters, and could impose sanctions and penalties as they deemed appropriate. A Jewish aggrieved party had to obtain a judgment from these courts before going to a Beit Din for a halachic resolution. The Beit Din issued the formal "get" in divorce cases. In 1956, however, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser abolished the domestic relations courts and required the litigants to resort to the civil courts for resolution in all matters.)

In January 1956, the Egyptian Ministry of Justice appointed Rabbi Douek as a notary delegate in charge of all matters affecting the personal relations of Jews. He was also designated to issue all official documents for the chief rabbinate of Egypt.

In September 1956 he was appointed deputy to Chief Rabbi Haim Nahoum, Z”TL, with Rabbi Nahoum's recommendation that he succeed him as Chief Rabbi of Egypt in the event of his death or incapacitation.

With Rabbi Nahoum's death in November 1960, Rabbi Douek became the last Chief Rabbi of Egypt and assumed all of Rabbi Nahoum's responsibility for leading the Jewish community, which by that time had witnessed two major wars between Israel and Egypt and numerous border conflicts. Although the Jewish community at that time had dwindled to about 10,000, Rabbi Douek maintained the unity of the community by providing spiritual guidance to all Jews. He continued as head of the Beit Din and of the Jewish community of Cairo and Egypt.

Picture provided BY Mr. Niso Bitton. 1967 Egyptian Jews joined by Chief Rabbi Haim Douek along with Nagua Salem an artist.Picture provided BY Mr. Niso Bitton (©1997) 1967 Egyptian Jews joined by Chief Rabbi Haim Douek along with Nagua Salem an artist.

During Rabbi Douek's term in office, he presided over a community that was gradually emptying out of Egypt for destinations in Europe, Israel, and America, and that finally witnessed a third war between Israel and Egypt (the Six-Day War), followed by the infamous War of Attrition across the Suez Canal. Each conflict with Israel accelerated the decline of the Jewish community in Egypt. Nevertheless, Rabbi Douek made sure the community functioned as normally as possible despite difficult and trying circumstances beyond his control. He made sure that synagogues remained open for worshippers, that shohetim continued to provide kosher meat, and that Jewish youngsters could take Hebrew and Torah lessons.

Rabbi Douek left the country for France on March 14, 1972. By that time, the Jewish community in Egypt numbered less than a hundred. While in France, he made an emotional trip to Israel to officiate at his daughter's wedding.

On October 18, 1972, he emigrated to the United States and settled in New York.
From that time until his death in 1974, Rabbi Douek coordinated the efforts of the three communities of Ahaba Ve Ahva, located at different sites in Brooklyn. He united them to build the new Ahaba ve Ahva Synagogue of Brooklyn. His efforts and the efforts of others bore fruit in 1979, when the Ahaba ve Ahva Synagogue, located at 1801 Ocean Parkway, was officially opened for the High Holy Days.

During his stay in New York, he proposed the idea of providing a centralized recording system for expatriate members of the Egyptian Jewish community, to enable them to authenticate their lineage and to provide official documentation of background and ancestry. This system would have provided a mechanism for recording marriages, births, deaths, circumcisions, bar mitzvahs, wills, etc. It would have been modeled on a similar system used in Egypt. Rabbi Douek's intention was to house all of this data in a central office, with the assistance of his son Jacques, who worked with him in the Chief Rabbinate in Cairo from November 1956 to March 1972. He shared the idea with Chief Rabbi Jacob Kassin, Z”TL, the Chief Rabbi of the Syrian and Near Eastern Jewish Community in America.

Rabbi Douek was committed to saving Syrian and Iraqi Jews and to safeguarding the remnants of the Jewish community in Egypt. He worked tirelessly to advance their cause and to highlight their plight before the international media. As a direct result of his efforts, many Jews were saved from continued persecution and were spirited out of their countries to safety.

In the United States, Rabbi Douek was sought after at various functions, to give a d'rash or to speak about subjects of interest to the larger Jewish community, particularly the religious community.

In March 1973, he gave the invocation at the 89th annual meeting of the United HIAS Service, the worldwide Jewish emigration agency. He gave lectures at Yeshiva University and spoke at the Sephardic Heritage Convocation in April 1973. In September 1973, he led the Ahaba ve Ahva Congregation in High Holy Day prayers at the Aperion Manor in Brooklyn.

Rabbi Douek's dream was to make aliyah to Israel and to settle in the country he loved so much. In early 1974 he spent several months in Israel to prepare himself for this. Back in the US in June to complete his preparations for aliyah, he unfortunately passed away on August 20, 1974 (2 Elul 5734). He is buried in Jerusalem, on the Mount of Olives (Har Hazetim).

Among his many accomplished students were:
Rabbi Maurice (Moshe) Dayan, Z”TL, the late Chief Rabbi of Lille, France,
Rabbi Joseph Hayon, Z”TL, the late Chief Rabbi of Columbia,
Rabbi Massoud el Baz, Z”TL, the late Chief Rabbi of the Sudan, and
Rabbi Joseph Hamaoui, Z”TL, well-known in the Brooklyn community.

On March 25, 1934, Rabbi Douek married Justine Antebi, Z”TL, born in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1905, to Yaacob Antebi and Esther Attia. She preceded him in death on December 11, 1971 (23 Kislev 5732). Rabbi Douek is survived by his children Bella, Esther, Jacques, Pauline, Fortunee, and Angele Sarah; his grandchildren; his great grandchildren; one sister from a family of nine siblings; and many nieces and nephews. Rabbi Douek’s first child, Maurice, died at the age of 6 months.

On May 6, 1984, some of Rabbi Douek's private religious book collection, that had been brought from Egypt, was donated to Yeshiva University in New York, during “A Day of Dedication to Egyptian Jewry” at the Jacob E. Safra Institute of Sephardic Studies at Yeshivah University. Most of his personal books were left behind in Egypt, at the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue, and most still retain his notes, and bear his name and title.

In 1975, in recognition of Rabbi Douek’s hard work and effort in teaching Torah, some of his students donated a library in his memory at Imre Noam (Ahaba ve Ahva of Jerusalem, Israel). A Teibah (Bimah) was donated in his memory at the Ahaba ve Ahva of Beersheva, Israel. A tree of life was donated in his memory by his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren at Ohalei Yaacob in Tel Aviv. The entrance lobby wall at the Ahaba ve Ahva yeshivah at East 7th Street in Brooklyn, NY, was dedicated to his memory. A memorial plaque Ahaba ve Ahva of Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, NY, bears his name.

Hacham Haim Douek was a great Torah personality who served his people with distinction during a period of turmoil and political instability. Because of his efforts, thousands of Egyptian Jews were able to maintain their traditions and to go from strength to strength (mehayil el hayil) in their spiritual growth. He was a holy man who loved the Jewish people and who continues to intercede on their behalf from the heavenly heights.

From time to time someone would ask him a question of halacha, or a couple would ask him for advice on their marital problems. He would greet them with a smile, listen to them carefully, and patiently give his reply. Or, he would set up an appointment for further discussion. Before he said anything at all, he would insist on hearing both sides, especially when it came to marital problems. He prevented many divorces.

He found delight in Torah day and night. He was a scholar, knowledgeable in all areas of Torah study. He taught the correct way and understood the law. He was a man of halacha and a rabbi of action. He was a humble and righteous rabbi to his community. His deeds were pure and upright. He offered advice and counsel. With a pure heart and clean hands, with honesty and kindness, he went up to Heaven. Justice and charity he did do among his people. Peace be unto his resting place until the resurrection. Amen.