Rabbi Ephraim Ben Joseph Eliakim

From Rabbis meet Jesus the Messiah – a collection of 24 biographies and testimonies of Rabbis encounters with Jesus the Messiah

© Messianic Good News.

From the second century of the Christian Era, Tiberias by the Sea of Galilee was the seat of the Jewish Patriarchate, at that time the greatest centre of Jewish learning. It gave the world the Mishnah (188A.D.), the Jerusalem Talmud (360A.D.), the Revised Hebrew Bible (552 A.D.) and that magnificent work, the Massoretic pointing (750 A.D.). It has maintained its position and place of dignity down to our own day, and few titles could command respect like that of “A Tiberias Rabbi.”

In such an atmosphere Ephraim ben Joseph Eliakim was born. His father was a Rabbi in the old city, a leading man in the Arabic speaking Jewish community, which probably represents the age long indwellers in the Holy Land, though as a matter of convenience they are generally reckoned with the Sephardim. Following the rabbinical maxim that a boy should take up the occupation of his father (Arachin, 16b) Ephraim was from the first destined for the Rabbi’s chair, and became a diligent student in Bible and Talmudic subjects, and in due time attained the dignity of Haham, the usual designation for Rabbi in the native section of Palestinian Judaism.

Esteemed and honoured by Jews and Arabs alike he received a leading place in the community, and became one of the dayyanim, (overseers of Justice) being specially entrusted with the rights and interests of the individuals of the community. Coincident with these advances he married the daughter of the Chief Rabbi, and as the family had in some way that we cannot now trace acquired French protection, he had good reason to look forward with confidence to a life of comfort and freedom from the worries that Turkish born Rabbis had to endure at the hands of petty Turkish officials.

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 the last decade of the last century. The Rabbi had his chair and the pupils sat around on mats on the floor, literally at the feet of their master. Generally the Bible was only studied through the Talmud, but the Bible for its own sake attracted him and received more than ordinary attention.

Still he remained the fanatical Jew, hating Christians and especially missionaries, planning persecution against any who would venture near them. His own words to me were that he had been so bitter that he had “never permitted his wife or children to go near the hospital department of the mission, however ill they might be,” a compromise most of the other Rabbis were ready to make, whenever a Jewish doctor was not available. Every suspect of sympathy with Christian teaching had reason to fear him.

But a change was to come. The missionary of the Church of Scotland in Tiberias at that time was the Rev. Dr. William Ewing. He had as guest a Pastor Becker of Berlin. A visit was made to the town, and the present writer accompanied them. The school of Hahan Ephraim was passed, and the party looked in at the open window. Dr. Ewing was already facile in Arabic, and he talked cheerily to the Rabbi. Kindly words from one he had been accustomed to look upon from a distance with fear and hatred touched his heart, and a few days later he appeared as a visitor at the Manse door, and was received with courtesy.

The two men were of almost equal age, and very soon the formal visits developed into friendly talks, the Talmud and the Bible at first having a prominent place, but every conversation leading from both sides to the claims of Christ as Messiah and Redeemer. His Bible knowledge stood him in good stead, and the prophecies gradually became clearer till the dawn of the perfect day broke.

The older Jewish interpretation of the fifty third chapter of Isaiah was known as referring to the King Messiah, and it was not long before Haham Ephraim recognized the picture of the Suffering Servant “by whose stripes we are healed.” The sufferings of his own people throughout the ages and their desperate outlook touched him keenly. He looked back through the centuries and asked, “Where are the promises to the fathers? We are God’s peculiar chosen people, the glorious things that were to be ours are the possession of strangers.” Guided by his friend he 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 1,800 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 for sacrifice. 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?”

He wept and prayed and struggled with the problems, unwilling to give in. He even asked questions about these things of his brother Rabbis, but they could only give the time worn, formal answers of traditional Judaism. He was still unsatisfied, and the only result of his queries was a suspicion created and a closer watch being set on his movements. Still he struggled, convinced that some terrible sin had been the cause of the wrath of Almighty God against His people. Then there dawned upon him the secret of it all – “groundless hate” (Yoma 9b), and a still, small voice expostulated with him, “Cease to hate Me. Love Me and I will give thee peace.” The struggle was over, he found a peace that was unbroken till his dying day.

At the thought of the next scene I still shudder, though 38 years have passed. Haham Ephraim had told his family that he meant to go to Jaffa for a few days. He was suspected and set upon, but found refuge in the Manse. There the night was spent and it was resolved that Dr. Ewing, the Rabbi and myself start before dawn.

We had just got clear of the old castle when a signal was given, and we were surrounded by a raving crowd, more like maniacs than men. We were immediately unhorsed, and Ephraim was set upon and almost torn to pieces. Just in time he seized my arm and that stopped the fury. He was a French subject and questions might arise, but the matter would be doubly serious if injury were done to two separate men of different nationalities a double complication. Dr. Ewing talked to and calmed the crowd, and we returned to the Manse.

A conference was then held in which his wife and one or two Rabbis took part. It was suddenly broken up by the interference of a foolish, intruding Arab, who offered the wife some indignity, and attempted to come between her and her husband. The Haham intimated that the journey 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 and kept from the knowledge of the missionaries. 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 and suffered unspeakable degradation. His resolution and his spirit remaining 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 Merom (Lake Huleh), and his name was blotted out of remembrance of his friends and companions.

Many months later one of the missionaries riding in the Upper Jordan valley saw a forlorn figure bending to his task in the field under a hot sun, and was surprised on nearer approach to find it none other than Rabbi Ephraim. He was greatly changed. The hardships he had endured had left their marks upon his frame, and 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. Return to Tiberias was then impossible. For self support he willingly endured the weariness of unwonted toil in the service of the stranger, until it should please God to make his duty plain. He stood among the furrows waving a genial farewell to his departing friend, then, heartened by the interview, he bent afresh to his labour.

Not long afterwards Rabbi Ephraim turned up at Nazareth, the light of a great purpose in his eyes, and was there baptized. He soon learned how great things he must suffer for Christ’s sake. Upon his return to Tiberias his wife and children were taken from him, and 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. The synagogue authorities seemed to feel keenly his defection. “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 have never even heard of such a thing!” His children were young, and were kept beyond his influence. They were continually on his heart, and were constantly in his intercessions, but in matters of faith the rabbinical barrier was maintained, and there was but little association, except with the oldest son during the period of the World War.

He made his way to Jerusalem. To the Christian communities he was unknown. Dr. Ewing had left permanently for Scotland, and the present writer for Aleppo. Suspicion and misrepresentation dogged his path, and he was misunderstood by nearly everybody. He finally came in contact with the Schnellers, whose Orphanage and other works have been a blessing to every class in the land for over three generations. Just at that time they were about to build an addition to provide extra accommodation.

There the Tiberias Rabbi wrought as a day labourer, carrying stones and mortar. His income was that of an ordinary servant, but of that he never complained. He was content with the simplest of living and clothing, and anything he could spare from his meagre resources he used for the help of the poor with whom he met, and of whom he had knowledge through his continual testimony to the Gospel, and thus his service was not only in word but also in deed. His connection with the Schnellers continued, being thenceforward employed by them in their pottery factory.

During his association with the Orphanage, he came much into contact with the Rabbis in Jerusalem who had been his pupils in Tiberias, and who, through his teachings, had attained to their high rank. They were much troubled and vexed to find him in this despised service and pleaded with him, “We beg you to have pity on your age, and to abandon this hard and menial work and return with us to be our father and chief as you were formerly.” He accepted their proofs of friendship with thankfulness and even with joy, for they were in part at least evidences of their love for their old teacher, but he remained all through unswerving in his loyalty to Christ.

A happy change came in his transfer to the service of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, nearer to the city and to those he was anxious to reach. Freed from hard manual labour he could now devote his whole time and strength to missionizing among the Jews, to whom he was specially appointed as a regular Evangelist. The Alliance rented for him a meeting room on the Jaffa Road, and there Haham Ephraim spent his days presenting the Lord Jesus to his brethren and reasoning with them on the things of the Gospel. There many a warm disputation took place and the Oriental vanquished in dispute generally feels more than the phlegmatic westerner a soreness that manifests itself in opposition. This led sometimes to his being stoned while returning to his lodgings, and on one occasion he received an ugly gash on the head. But still he never thought of ceasing to preach Christ, and for the Saturday evening service the hall was often filled to overflowing with Jews.

Efforts were again made to secure his recantation or silence at least. Persecution had failed. Fair speaking and tempting inducements were resorted to. He was invited out by the Rabbis, and he accepted the invitation even to the Chief Rabbinate, for thereby he got what his whole heart yearned after, the opportunity of proclaiming the Gospel. He spent hours with the Rabbis in proving to them from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Messiah. The majority remained unconvinced, but some of them were awakened, recognized the infallible proofs he presented, and thereafter met him from time to time privately for study and prayer. Inquirers increased in number, but there was scattering in the usual way, which simply meant that they went to other lands where their influence was felt in the churches. Through those that remained there was created an undercurrent of seeking and meditation, which has continued until this day.

At the beginning of the World War, Haham Ephraim went to Egypt and was received by his eldest son, who was at that time resident in Port Said. There he was met by fresh attempts on the part of the learned to overcome him by their arguments, but the conferences soon broke up when it was suspected that one of the younger Hahamin was leaning toward Ephraim’s position.

After the conclusion of the war he returned to Jerusalem where he was employed as a gatekeeper at the Schnellers. In his little room at the gate he was continually witnessing for Christ, and there the writer met and talked with him in the summer of 1927 a joyful and happy meeting after 34 years. He was most steadfast in the faith, humble and contented. His association with the Alliance was continued in a voluntary way. It gave him great joy to spend a portion of his Saturdays in their Reading Room, which bore the designation Beth DorscheEmeth (The House of Seekers After Truth.) As men and boys came pouring in he talked with them, and very often remained for the evening meeting carrying through the service in Hebrew, which had again become a living language in the Holy Land. In all things he was an outstanding testimony to the saving power of the Lord Jesus.

The Rev. Esber Domet, a Christian Arab and a close friend of the Rabbi, gives a beautiful account of their last talk together, the evening before he was called Home. He wrote me: “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 hast 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 thank Thee specially for the secret Church in Jerusalem. Give her, Lord faith and means to increase and prosper to Thy Glory. Amen.'”

With such words and thoughts of praise and adoration of the Lord he loved and whom he served so well through good and evil report, with sacrifices many, he passed to meet his Lord, and to hear the welcome, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” “I will give thee a crown of life.”

That was on the 30th of August, 1930. Next day the venerable Rabbi, at the age of seventy four, but through persecutions and afflictions older than his years, was laid in his last earthly resting place. The Schnellers, and the Revs. Mr. Domet and Mr. Gabriel of the Arabic Christian community were there. Mr. Gabriel records a characteristic fact. “Another grave was dug just alongside of his for another brother in Christ, of the Arabic race. Jew and Arab were laid one beside the other, and Jews and Arabs were standing with bowed heads by the two open graves, touched and softened the one toward the other.”

From “When Jews face Christ”. Copyright by Henry Einspruch, D.D. Reprinted by permission.