Haim Nahum Effendi (1872-1960)
Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Egypt
By Victor D. Sanua, Ph.D.
One of the most eminent rabbis in the Middle East was Haim Nahum Effendi - a scholar, lawyer, linguist and diplomat who served as Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Egypt for over thirty-five years from 1925 until his death in 1960. During this period Rabbi Nahum was witness both to a vibrant and successful community of 80,000 Jews living in Egypt and also to the community's disintegration after 1948 when government hostility, violence, economic restrictions, confiscation and deportation caused most Jews to leave. To this day he is remembered with honor and affection by those who were privileged to know him.
Rabbi Nahum (the title "Effendi" was a Turkish title of honor within the Ottoman Empire), who was born in 1872 near Izmir in Turkey, received an extraordinarily broad education before ascending to the Chief Rabbinate. After being sent by his parents to receive a traditional religious education at a yeshiva in the holy city of Tiberias, he later went to a French Lycee for his secondary education and then obtained a degree in Muslim law in the Turkish capital city of Constantinople (now Istanbul). Thereafter, he traveled to Paris in order to attend rabbinical school and to receive his ordination. Simultaneously with his rabbinical studies, he attended the Sorbonne's School of Oriental Languages, where he perfected his linguistic abilities and also studied history and philosophy.
Upon his return to Istanbul Rabbi Nahum occupied various teaching positions including an instructorship at the Turkish Military School. There, he became familiar with the leaders of the "Young Turk" revolution, a movement which sought to modernize and strengthen the centuries-old Ottoman Turkish Empire. He was invited to serve as the Chief Rabbi of Turkey and was an adviser to the Turkish delegation during peace negotiations with European powers following World War I.
In 1923, Rabbi Nahum received an invitation from Moise Cattaoui Pacha, head of the Jewish community in Cairo, to become the Chief Rabbi of Egypt.
The rabbi was appointed to serve as a Senator in the nation's Legislative Assembly and helped to found the Royal Academy of the Arabic language. One of his major scholarly works, commissioned by the King himself, was to translate into French all of the Ottoman Turkish firmans (Imperial decrees and laws) which had been sent to the rulers of Egypt since the 16th century when Egypt had first passed under Ottoman imperial rule.
The history of the Egyptian Jewish community was of special interest to him. In 1944 he helped to reconstitute the Societe d'Etudes Historiques Juives d'Egypte (Society for the Historical Study of the Jews of Egypt) and served as its honorary head.
Rabbi Nahum's dream of documenting the contemporary history of Egypt's Jews found its voice in the recent International Conference organized by the International Association of Jews from Egypt. With the support of communities in the US and around the world, it is possible that his dream might yet be realized.
From Egypt Rabbi Nahum was also active in international affairs, establishing contacts between Jews throughout the world. Early in his rabbinical career he visited Ethiopia and, convinced that the "Falashas" were Jews, arranged to have a few brought to Egypt and educated there. He was also eager to foster future Jewish leadership and sent young men to study at the Sephardic Rabbinical Seminary located on the Island of Rhodes which at that time belonged to Italy. Several of these former students are still pursuing active scholarly work to this day.
The community of which Rabbi Nahum served as religious leader started to feel uneasy and unwelcome with the rise of Arab nationalism, the rebellion against colonial British authority in Egypt, and the support of Egypt for the Arabs of Palestine. Under the terms of the "Company Law" passed in 1947, at least 75 percent of office employees and 90 percent of the workers in any business in the country had to hold Egyptian nationality. This caused an employment crisis for Egypt's Jews, who were an important part of the nation's business life. Thousands were fired from their jobs or unable to find work and, being unable to earn a living, were forced to leave the country.
While all foreigners were targets of Egyptian displeasure in the late 1940's, Jews fell under especially dark clouds of suspicion with the outbreak of hostilities in Palestine. The Zionist movement and Zionist youth groups, which sought to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine, had indeed gained many adherents in Cairo and Alexandria, but Jews found themselves accused whether they had been active in the movement or not. Large numbers of individuals were arrested and interned for alleged Zionist activity. Jewish businesses were sequestered, Jewish bank accounts frozen, and exit visas could only be approved by a special government Agency for Jewish Affairs.
During these eventful years, as Rabbi Nahum witnessed the sorrows of his flock, he sought to intercede and to minimize the impact of all these rules with the Egyptian authorities. He himself had to tread very carefully in the face of government opposition, fearful that the entire Jewish community might suffer because of his words or actions. Rabbi Nahum was frequently asked to make statements denouncing the Zionists. During the few times he complied with such orders, he was sure to make his statements as short and as vague as possible. During Israel's War of Independence, he was also asked to have prayers recited at all of Egypt's synagogues for the victory of Egyptian forces. These orders he refused to follow at all.
From the mid-forties onward Haim Nahum was slowly losing his eyesight and eventually became totally blind. At first this did not affect his determination to resist hard measures against the Jews and to carry on his religious duties as best he could. He remained in his seat at the Naar Shamayim, the major synagogue of Cairo on Adly Pacha Street (also known as Temple Ismailiah.) He was still able to give long quotations from rabbinical sources from memory.
By 1960 Rabbi Haim Nahum Effendi was a broken man. His own physical vicissitudes and distress at the irremediable decline of the Egyptian Jewish community had taken their toll. He died that year at the age of 88 and was buried at the Bassatin cemetery where a special Mausoleum was built for him. At his funeral thousands of people including Muslims and Christians came to pay their respects to this remarkable man. His remains do not rest in peace, however. By the 1990's, when barely 100 Jews remain in the whole of Egypt, much of the cemetery has been desecrated and squatters have taken up residence in the great rabbi's tomb.
The legacy of Rabbi Haim Nahum Effendi remains, however. Few rabbis have attained such eminence in the world of Jewish history. Not only was he a great Chief Rabbi in Turkey and Egypt; because of his political wisdom, his outstanding erudition, his wonderful personality, his contributions to international Jewish causes and Jewish education and his courage in trying to alleviate Jewish suffering, he deserves recognition from all of us who come from that region. May his memory be for a blessing.
Dr. Victor D. Sanua is Research Professor in the Department of Psychology at St. John's University, and the President of the International Association of Jews from Egypt. He resides in Brooklun, New York.