Rabbi forbids looking at NIS 50 bill featuring poet who married a Christian
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Rabbi forbids looking at NIS 50 bill featuring poet who married a Christian

Sephardic Rabbi Benzion Mutzafi says he folds note face down in pocket to avoid seeing visage of ‘apostate’ Saul Tchernichovsky

The front of the NIS 50 banknote featuring the late poet Saul Tchernichovsky. (Courtesy)
The front of the NIS 50 banknote featuring the late poet Saul Tchernichovsky. (Courtesy)

Followers of an influential Sephardic rabbi will from now have to avoid looking at the country’s NIS 50 banknote because the poet whose image adorns the bill was married to a Christian woman.

Rabbi Benzion Mutzafi issued his ruling after pulling the offending note out of his pocket during a weekend lesson he was giving, the ultra-Orthodox news site Kikar HaShabat reported Sunday.

After one of his students asked for a fuller explanation for the ban, the rabbi — a senior adjudicator of Jewish law in the Sephardic community — wrote, “As regards the illustrated image: It is known he [Tchernichovsky] was ‘married’ to a devout Christian woman who every Sunday would ‘pray’ in church.

“They say that at the time, the late Rabbi [Abraham Isaac] Kook [the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine] pleaded with him, requested of him and tried to convince him that she convert to Judaism. And he refused.”

Sephardic rabbi Benzion Mutzafi, who reportedly told his students not to look at the NIS 50 bank note because it carries the image of a man — the poet Saul Tchernichovsky– who was married to a Christian. (Youtube screenshot)

Tchernichovsky was married to Russian-born Christian Melania Karlova, with whom he had a daughter, Isolda.

He was one of four poets chosen in 2011 to appear on Israeli banknotes, together with Nathan Alterman, Leah Goldberg and Rachel Bluwstein.

The issuing of the NIS 50 note was met with anger by religious and other figures in Israel, when it was unveiled in September 2014.

Dr. Hagi Ben-Artzi, brother of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, said that the use of the Russian-born poet’s image on the bill was “an outrage.”

“Shaul Tchernichovsky has become a symbol of assimilation, of assimilation ideology,” he said at the time, according to Israel National News. “It is inconceivable that such a person, as important a poet as he may be, should become a symbol in the State of Israel.”

Bentzi Gopstein, director of the violent anti-assimilation group Lehava, told Kikar HaShabat at the time that avoiding using the new notes was unrealistic.

“I could say (that) but no one would do it,” he said, though he too lamented the use of the poet. “We should learn who the real role models are.”

Prominent Orthodox rabbi Shlomo Aviner said Tchernichovsky’s portrait on an official bill of the Jewish state was “horribly grating.”

“Tchernichovsky was indeed an incredibly talented author and poet, and is tied to the people of Israel, but a terrible dishonor was deeply imprinted on his life, as he was married to a gentile woman, a very religious Christian,” Aviner, head of the Ateret Cohanim yeshiva in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, told the NRG news website, adding that it was unthinkable that an intermarried poet should be “glorified on the nation’s banknote.”

Last month saw the introduction of the new NIS 100 and NIS 20 banknotes featuring Leah Goldberg and Rachel Bluwstein, better known simply as Rachel the Poet.

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