AM APPRECIATION OF RATSON ben BENYAMIM TSEDAKA (1922-1990)
90th Anniversary of Ratson’s Birth
We salute the memory of our father, Ratson ben Benyamim Tsedaka Hatsafari, on the 90th anniversary of his birth. We also salute the young generation under 30, who never met him.
Some of the attributes that Ratson showed in the 67 years of his life were engraved on his tomb: writer and poet, devout worshipper, inspiring singer and exemplary reader of the Torah.
He was born in Nablus, Samaria on 22nd February 1922. When 6 years old he completed his first reading of the entire Torah. At 8 he sang his first poem before worshippers in the ancient Samaritan synagogue in Nablus. When aged 10, he sang the Night of the Day of Atonement Poem, receiving encouragement from enthralled listeners.
Raised by his uncle, Asher ben Shelach Tsedaka Hatsafari, Ratson was the pride of his father, Benyamim. He was drawn to poetry and acquired great skill in its composition. From the 1930s until the middle of the 1940s the synagogue hall was dark on Sabbath and Festival mornings, so every worshipper learned the poems and prayers by heart. Ratson was prominent in this regard, with his remarkable photographic memory. He learned the books of Genesis and Exodus in their entirety by heart, reciting them on the night of the Day of Atonement. By the end of the 1940s the installation of lighting in the synagogue hall meant that most worshippers read from the book, instead of reciting from memory.
In later years, his father’s sight deteriorated due to illness, and he became unable to work. Consequently Ratson had to give up High School studies in Nablus. He helped the family in their textile shop in Nablus market.
In the early 1940s Ratson grew close to Batia, the first daughter of Yefet ben Abraham Tsedaka Hatsafari, the head of the Samaritan community in Tel-Aviv-Jaffa. Batia was almost 4 years younger than Ratson. As time passed, they fell in love, and were married in 1943. Batia moved from Tel Aviv to Nablus, to the house of her husband and father-in-law. There she gave birth to their two children, Benyamim and Yefet.
Batia’s family continued to live in Tel Aviv. After the establishment of the State of Israel, she convinced her husband to move back to Tel Aviv with their children. Eventually, they made the move, in 1951, within the framework of the agreement on family unification between Israel and Jordan. By this time, Batia had completed her studies in the Teachers’ Seminar and became a highly regarded teacher in Israel.
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They lived in tents and wooden houses on a sandy area that her father Yefet bought in Holon. They remained there until 1955, when they all moved to the new Samaritan neighbourhood in the south of Holon. Ratson worked hard in different labouring jobs, before working in a camping equipment shop. There he gained expertise in tailoring and trading. At the start of the 1970s he bought the shop from its owner and developed it into a much larger business, selling camping tools, bags and beach and picnic tents. Batia flourished in her work as a teacher and became a school principal in the Dan District.
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During these years Ratson improved his knowledge of the Samaritan traditions. He and his wife developed a centre for sages and scholars from Israel and abroad who expressed an interest in Samaritan Studies. The greatest scholar of Samaritan Studies of our generation, Professor Zeev ben Hayeem called Ratson “my teacher and mentor”. In Ratson he found the ultimate source of knowledge of the Israelite Samaritan traditions in Torah reading, poetry and hymns. Professor Dov Noy and Doctor Yom Tov Levinski found him to be an unparalleled source of knowledge of Samaritan folklore. They collected hundreds of folk tales orally from Ratson. Professor Noy described Ratson as “The force behind the new renaissance in Samaritan culture”. Professor ben Hayeem described Ratson as “The sea of knowledge of the traditions of the Samaritan community”.
So Ratson’s meetings with scholars and sages from inside and outside the Samaritan Community deepened his knowledge of all aspects of Samaritan literature. By the time he reached manhood, he had already copied the five books of Moses several times, the hymn books, the books of Halacha (Religious Law) and the homiletic of the Samaritans. His mastery of Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic greatly facilitated the work.
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Printing and Publishing
Ratson became a close friend of other Samaritan sages in Holon. These included Abraham ben Marchiv Hamarchivi and Yisrael ben Gamliel Tsedaka Hatsafari. They started to print the manuscripts they had copied from the Torah, as well as prayer books for Samaritan use. Between 1962 and 1965 Ratson and his cousin, Abraham ben Nor Tsedaka, published the first comparative edition of the Jewish and Samaritan versions of the Torah. Ratson was the first to publish a three-language Torah, which he edited and copied. He published the first punctuated version in order to make the reading of the Torah easier. Ratson’s elegant Ancient Hebrew and Arabic scripts embellished this particular Torah.
In 1956 Ratson and his colleagues published the first Samaritan book of Prayers of the Six Sabbaths of the Counting of the Omer. Unfortunately, two years later, after publishing the second book, Prayers of the Seventh Month and the Ten Days of Forgiveness, the group separated and each started to publish books separately. Ratson never despaired. He continued to edit and publish the Samaritan prayer books, presenting the prayers in his beautiful script. Then he started to publish other works of Samaritan literature: Praises for Happy Occasions, Pleas to the Almighty, as well as hundreds of poems that he had collected from private Samaritan libraries. He copied and published in Aramaic and Arabic translation the 4th century composition Tibat Maeqeh by Marqeh, the greatest Samaritan sage. In 1965 the University of Haifa Press published 12 folk stories in Modern Hebrew by Ratson and Professor Noy.
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Ratson demonstrated his mastery of Samaritan poetry when he recorded 400 hours of Samaritan melodies for week days, Sabbaths, Festivals, and days of happiness and mourning. The National Library in Jerusalem collected the recordings. They constitute an authentic, reliable source for scholars and Samaritans who wish to study and sing Samaritan poetry.
Ratson continued to attract every Samaritan who wanted to understand the mysteries of the hymns and Samaritan culture. After the Six-Day War in 1967, Nablus came under the control of Israel. Ratson then strengthened contacts with the priests and sages of the Nablus Samaritan community and introduced them to the scholars in Holon.
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El Tasabich and Tachnuney Israel
Of great importance, Ratson brought together compositions of Samaritan poets from old manuscripts in public and private collections. To this end, he copied, edited and published them in his books El Tasabich (Praises) and Tachnuney Israel (Pleas of Israel). Both books reflect the enduring skill of the Samaritan hymn poets. Without Ratson’s initiative their achievements would be largely unrecognised. In reviving these poems he concentrated on three Samaritan poets of the 19th and 20th centuries: Pinhas ben Issac the Priest, Abraham ben Marchiv Tsedaka Hatsafari and Ab-Sikkuwwa ben Saed Hadinfi. Ratson collected many poems of other neglected poets. He also copied and edited some 1000 poems composed by Abraham ben Marchiv Hatsafari, adding an Arabic translation alongside the original.
Of course, Ratson himself was a great poet, writing around 800 poems. He incorporated dozens of his poems in the books he published. His books of prayers are the primary source for modern scribes. In the event of differences between versions, Ratson’s text has precedence.
In the latter years of his life Ratson suffered from heart disease. He dedicated the remainder of his life to renewing the set of books of prayers of the year. Ratson recopied them, restoring elements of the tradition in the titles and between the parts of each prayer. He added hundreds of new poems of his own, as well as poems he had collected from ancient manuscripts in Europe and the USA. His marginal notes ensured that important cultural knowledge remained close to the hearts of the Samaritans.
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Ratson served as the cantor of Holon synagogue. He enriched the role with his deep understanding, until the first priests came to Holon after 1967. He also composed many hymns for happy occasions – delighting members of the community with personal lines to each of them. Ratson had the remarkable ability to make a story sound fresh, despite hundreds of retellings.
May the Almighty give mercy to his soul and may he dwell in His paradise when the time is right. Ratson died on the Sabbath, 20 January, 1990.
Choir and MUSIC
More paintings by Miriam Tsedaka
See also this article by Nathan Schur