Ephraim ben Joseph Eliakim – A Tiberias Rabbi
Ephraim’s father was a rabbi in the city of Tiberias, a leading man in the Arabic-speaking Jewish community. Ephraim was from a young age expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a rabbi, and was well trained in Bible and Talmud. In due time he attained the dignity of Haham, or rabbi.
Esteemed and honoured by Jews and Arabs alike, he held a leading place in the community, and became one of the dayanim, a judge in the religious court, specially entrusted with the rights and interests of the individuals of the community. His wife was the daughter of the chief rabbi of Tiberias.
Along with other duties, Rabbi Ephraim undertook the teaching of the Bible and the Talmud. His school was of the kind usual in Tiberias in those days, with the rabbi sitting on a chair and his pupils gathered around him on mats on the floor.Generally the Bible was studied only through the Talmud, but the Bible for its own sake attracted him, and received more than ordinary attention from him.
Haham Ephraim was wary of Christians, especially missionaries, and would not venture near them. In his own words he said that he had “never permitted his wife or children to go near the hospital department of the Church of Scotland Mission, however ill they might be,” a compromised most of the other rabbis were ready to make whenever a Jewish doctor was not available.
But a change was to come. The head of the Church of Scotland in Tiberias at that time was the Rev. Dr. William Ewing. During a visit to the Jewish section of the town, I accompanied him. On our way the schoolf of Haham Ephraim was passed, and we looked in through the open window. Dr. Ewing, fluent in Hebrew, greeted the Rabbi. Kindly words from one he had been accustomed to look upon with fear and distrust, touched the Rabbi’s heart, and a few days later he appeared at Dr. Ewing’s home.
The two men were of almost equal age, and very soon the formal visit developed into friendly talk. Many different subjects were discussed, with the Talmud and the Bible having a prominent place. The Haham called upon Dr. Ewing again and again, and every conversation led from both sides to the claims of Jesus as Messiah. The Rabbi’s knowledge of the Bible stood him in good stead, and the prophecies gradually became clearer to him.
The older Jewish interpretation of the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah was known as referring to the King Messiah. It was not long before Haham Ephraim recognised the picture of the Suffering Servant “by whose stripes we are healed”. The sufferings of his own people throughout the ages touched him deeply. He looked back through the centuries and asked: “Where are the promises to the fathers? We are God’s chosen people, the glorious things that were to be ours are the possession of strangers.”
Guided by Dr. Ewing, the Haham considered: “The first temple was destroyed and the nation scattered on account of three great sins committed by Israel, but seventy years later the temple was rebuilt. Then came the second destruction, and for over eighteen hundred years Israel has been without the Holy House. What was the cause of this second destruction and of the greater scattering? Idolatry was not the reason. There was no lack of zeal for either the Law or the sacrifices. Men were zealous for God and did not cease the temple service till the hour of destruction came. Why has God forsaken us so long?”
The Haham wept and prayed and struggled with the problem, unwilling to give in. He even asked questions about these things of his brother rabbis, but they could give only the time-worn formal answers of traditional Judaism. He was still unsatisfied, and the only result of his queries was to arouse suspicions among his brother rabbis who set a closer watch upon his movements.
Still he struggled, convinced that some terrible sin had been the cause of the wrath of God against his people. Then there dawned on him the secret of it all – ‘hatred without a cause’ (Yoma 9b). A still, small voice expostulated within him, “Cease to hate Me. Love Me and I will give you peace.” The struggle was over. Rabbi Ephraim found a peace that was unbroken till his dying day.
At the thought of the next scene I still shudder. Rabbi Ephraim told his family that he was going to Jaffa for a few days. He was suspected and set upon, but found refuge with Dr. Ewing. It was decided that Dr. Ewing, the Rabbi and I start for Jaffa before dawn the next morning. We had just got clear of the old castle when we were surrounded by a raving crowd, immediately unhorsed, and Ephraim was almost torn to pieces. Dr. Ewing talked to the crowd, and they finally dispersed.
A conference was then held in which the Haham’s wife and one or two rabbis took part, but it was suddenly broken up, and the Haham let it be known that the journey to Jaffa was off. He took his wife’s arm and walked home with her.
Then began a time of fierce persecution. Rabbi Ephraim was secretly and suddenly seized. Afterwards it became known that a false accusation of theft had been brought against him, and that he had been confined in a filthy cell. His resolution and spirit remained unbroken. He was flogged and starved, a punishment which injured his health for life. Still he was true to his convictions.
Condemned as a traitor, he was secretly removed from the town to a Jewish colony at the Waters of Meron (Lake Huleh) and his name blotted out of the remembrance of his friends and companions.
Months later one of the workers of the hospital at Tiberias, while riding in the Upper Jordan Valley, saw a forlorn figure bending to his task in the field under a hot sun. On closer approach he was surprised to find it was none other than Rabbi Ephraim. He was greatly changed. The hardships he had endured had left their marks upon his frame. The lines had deepened on his weather-beaten features, but there was a light of eager welcome in his eyes.
In answer to questions, he told briefly of his experiences. But these things had not moved him. Nothing daunted, he held on his way. A return to Tiberias was then impossible, and for support he willingly endured the weariness of unwonted toil until it should please God to make his duty plain. He stood among the furrows in the field, waving a genial farewell to his departing friend.
Not long afterwards Rabbi Ephraim turned up in Nazareth, and there was baptised. Upon his return to Tiberias his wife and children were taken from him. Though his wife loved him dearly, the relatives on both sides of the house united in threats and warnings, and kept the closest observation on her movements.
Had he been an ordinary Jew”, they said in my hearing, “we could have understood it. But that a rabbi, and one of his standing, should change, why, we never heard of such a thing.”
His children were young, and were kept beyond his influence. However, they were continually on his heart, and were constantly in his intercessions. In matters of faith, however, the rabbinical barrier was maintained and there was little association, except with the oldest son during a period of World War I.
The Haham made his way to Jerusalem. Suspicion and misrepresentation dogged his path, and he was misunderstood by nearly everybody. He worked as a day laborer, carrying stones and mortar. His income was that of an ordinary worker, but he never complained. He was content with the simplest of living and clothing, and anything he could spare from his meager resources he used to help the poor whom he met through his continual testimony to the Gospel. Thus his service was not only in word, but also in deed.
During this time he came much in contact with the rabbis in Jerusalem, many of whom had been his pupils in Tiberias. They were troubled and vexed to find him doing such lowly work, and pled with him: “We beg you to have regard for your age and to abandon this hard and menial labour and return with us to be our father and chief as you were formerly.”
He accepted their offers of friendship with thankfulness, for they were evidences of their love for their old teacher. But he remained unswerving in his loyalty to his Messiah.
A happy change came when he was appointed as an evangelist in the service of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, nearer to the center of Jerusalem and to those he was anxious to reach. Freed from hard manual labour, he could now devote his whole time and strength to witnessing among his fellow Jews. The Alliance rented a meeting-room for him on the Jaffa Road, and there many a warm disputation took place. This sometimes led to his being stoned, and on one occasion he received an ugly gash on the head. But still he never thought of ceasing to praise his Messiah, and the meeting room was often filled to overflowing for the Saturday evening service.
Efforts were again made to secure his recantation, or at least his silence. Persecution had failed. Flattery and tempting inducements were resorted to. He was invited out by the rabbis, and he accepted the invitations, even to the Chief Rabbinate, for thereby he got what his heart yearned for most – the opportunity of proclaiming the Gospel.
Haham Ephraim spent hours with the rabbis, reasoning with them from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Messiah. The majority remained unconvinced, but some of them were awakened, recognised the proofs he presented, and met him privately from time to time for study and prayer.
I met him again in the summer of 1927, a joyful and happy reunion after thirty-four years. He was steadfast in the faith, humble and contented. His association with the Alliance was now continued in a voluntary way. It gave him great joy to spend a portion of his Sabbath day in the Reading Room, which bore the designation Beth Dorshe Emeth, the House of the Seekers After Truth. As men and boys came in he talked with them, and very often remained for the evening meeting, carrying through the Service in Hebrew, which by this time was again a living language in the land. In all things he was an outstanding testimony to the saving power of the Messiah Jesus.
The Rev. Esber Domet, a close friend of Haham Ephariam, gives a beautiful account of their last talk together the evening before he was called Home. He wrote: “I felt the presence of the Lord near that bed. Haham Ephraim asked me to pray with him. After I had done so, he too prayed as follows: ‘O Lord Jesus, I praise thee that thou has redeemed me. I bless thee that thou didst use me in thy service for the salvation of many souls. I beseech thee, Lord Jesus, to bless thy Church all over the world and to strengthen it. But I especially thank thee for the many believers here in Jerusalem. Give them faith and courage that they may never falter in their witness. Amen.'”
WIth such words and thoughts of praise for the Lord he loved and whom he served so long, he passed from this world to hear the welcome, “Well done, good and faithful servant… I will give you a crown of life.”
That was on the 30th of August, 1930. The next day the venerable Rabbi, at the age of seventy-four, was laid in his last earthly resting place. Mr. Gabriel, of the Arabic Christian community, records the event: “Another grave was dug alongside of the Haham’s for another brother in Christ, of the Arabic race. Jew and Arab were laid one beside the other, and Jews and Arabs, standing with bowed heads by the two open graves, were touched and softened the one toward the other.”
Einspruch, Henry (ed). When Jews Face Christ. The Mediator, Baltimore, MD. 1932
Christie, W.M. The Tiberias Rabbi, in Would I? Would You? pp. 50-57. Einspruch, Henry (ed); The Lewis and Harriet Lederer Foundation, Baltimore MD, 1970.