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Philanthropist Sam Sher passes on

“Sam has departed. South Africa has lost its glory” declared Rabbi B Grossnass; “The whole community is in mourning over the loss of a tzaddik in our time and one of the most wonderful philanthropists in our city” lamented Isaac Reznik in a ChaiFM tribute. Anguish was felt across Johannesburg, Manchester and many towns in Israel.






Written by Sam’s grandson DAVID SHER

“Sam has departed. South Africa has lost its glory” declared Rabbi B Grossnass; “The whole community is in mourning over the loss of a tzaddik in our time and one of the most wonderful philanthropists in our city” lamented Isaac Reznik in a ChaiFM tribute. Anguish was felt across Johannesburg, Manchester and many towns in Israel when friends, family and beneficiaries of the late Samuel Michael Sher, learnt of this exceptionally humane philanthropist’s passing last Monday.

Born in Anterlypt, Lithuania during 1926, Samuel (known to many as Sam) immigrated to South Africa with his parents during 1927 and settled in Doornfontein. His family was religious and Sam attended Shul first in Bertrams and then in Berea; his non-frangible bitachon (faith) and selflessness are attested to by the thousands who came into contact with him. Working during the day, he attended night school, trekking to and from the CBD each evening in order to study.

Sher Sam 

RIGHT: Sam and Rose Sher


Qualifying as a pharmacist, and through his vivaciousness and perspicacity he eventually built up a pharmaceutical portfolio and prospered. He married his wife Rose in 1956 at the Great Synagogue; she remained his devoted companion for well over half a century.

Sam was always communally engaged; he was Senior Warden at the Oxford Shul and became Chairman of the United Hebrew Congregations of Johannesburg alongside Chief Rabbi BM Casper in 1987. One of his particularly outstanding endeavours was his support of the fledgling ba’al teshuva movement in South Africa and beyond. Ever a visionary, he recognised the proficient capability of Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch and sponsored the new Torah Centre building in Yeoville (opened by Mayor Harold Rudolph); the only Shul still functioning in that area.

The Chofetz Chaim Shul in Raedene and Rabbi Aaron Pfeuffer’s Yeshiva Maharsha were other formative ventures and he led the purchase of the magnificent new premises on which one finds this latter key institution today. In 1987 the Torah Centre celebrated the first Sefer Torah to be completed in South Africa in over 50 years due to his munificence (he paid for many such scrolls); this event was captured inter alia by The Citizen newspaper.

A great lover of Israel, the Vilna Gaon Shul was built by Sam and opened by his wife Rose several years later in Jerusalem and the venerated Etz Chaim Yeshiva of Jerusalem was assisted in being kept afloat by him. A Kollel and Synagogue followed during 2005 in the Modi’in Illit area of Jerusalem and one of the world’s most majestic Shul Arks was unstintingly donated by him to a vibrant Betar Congregation. In his later years he was an unwavering supporter of the Kollel Yad Sha’ul and the West Street Shul.

Never one to exhibit his affluence, he lived unassumingly, often rapidly striding the some three miles to the Torah Centre every Shabbos from Houghton for many years (He learnt Tehillim by heart on these walks).

He became a confidante of many of Israel’s most distinguished Rabbis and of those in Johannesburg. Samuel’s empathetic style endeared him to his manifold employees (some of half a century standing) who revered him for the way he treated them, as he did all he met, with dignity and compassion. Assisting countless brides to marry, he never refused to provide to any individual in need; “Giving is better than receiving” was the dictum he lived by and he would give away costly medication gratis to those in need.

On his visits to Israel a burdened orphanage was assisted discreetly and a wedding hall was secured by his and Mendel Kaplan’s intervention to enable the marriage of impecunious couples.

Myriad causes in South Africa and Israel, – most of which he never made known to his family and friends – benefitted from his kindness of heart. He is survived by his 3 children, 11 grandchildren and 1 great grandson.

May his memory serve as a blessing.

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  1. Choni Davidowitz

    Jan 20, 2014 at 6:29 pm

    About 10 years ago my wife, daughter and myself were walking along a crowded pavement/ road in Meir Sharim. (the ultra religious area of Jerusalem).

    As we were strolling along a very tall ultra orthodox man accidently bumped into me. var’shkuldig mier (excuse me) he said. dos magt nit ous; I replied in broken Yiddish (Yiddish is the only language spoken in the area). Listening to me the Rabbi said; fun vanit kumst to. (from where do you come from). Drom Africa I replied; (from S.Africa I replied).

    Do kenst efser a Mr. Sam Sher ?( do you perhaps know a Mr. Sam Sher he asked.). Quite surprised I pointed to my wife and said. Ot is Mr. Sher’s shwetzer (This is Mr. Sher’s sister). It was as if an angel came down from Heaven. The rabbi got so excited that he called all his friends in the area to meet Sam’s sister.

    Imagine bumping into this rabbi amongst this crowded area. Sam Sher donated a large sum of money for the orphanage that the Rabbi supervised. 

  2. jack shnaier

    Feb 20, 2014 at 2:43 am

    ‘I knew Sam Sher since Habonim days.We were Gedud Trumpeldor and we met every Saturday night at the Doornfontein Talmud Torah premises in Beit St Doornfontein.This was around 1944.Sam was Rush Gedud.I met him on many occasions thereafter,especially at Oxford Shul.I used to see him walk through Norwood to his house in Houghton.He was a great philanthropist, not wishing to boast about his success in life & sharing his wealth with the community here & in Israel. He will sadly missed’

  3. ariel

    Mar 28, 2014 at 3:33 pm

    ‘Everyone at the Kollel Yad Shaul remembers Mr Sher for his great warmth and kindness. He was up at the crack of dawn and at his davening place long before any of the younger members. He learned Torah and loved Israel and every Jew. Johannesburg and South Africa was privileged to have him as a Jewish leader; rarely have our community leaders been so religiously inclined. Who else was friends with both Rabbi Sternbuch and Chief Rabbi Harris and Chief Rabbi Casper? On cordial terms with the likes of Rabbi S Z Auerbach and Rabbi Pinkus?

    In England too he was known as a supporter of Gateshead Yeshiva and the Shaarei Torah Yeshiva in Manchester. All this was done behind the scenes. The whole community mourns the passing of this humble yet great man. ‘

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Take heel of your character flaws



“If you do obey these rules…”

This is the opening line of the Torah portion this week.

More accurately, the Torah states, “If you eikev obey these rules…”

The word “eikev”, which, in fact, is the name of our Torah portion, seems to be redundant. Moreover, it’s an uncommon use of the word. The root of the word “eikev” comes from the word “akeiv”, meaning “heel”. There are far more common options that the Torah could have employed in this context.

Rashi, the famous biblical commentator, interprets this phrase to mean, “If even the lighter commands, which a person typically walks upon with one’s heels, you will listen to…” Rashi, thus, understands “eikev” as denoting emphasis. One must not only obey and abide by the so-called “big” commandments, but also – and perhaps especially – the “smaller” commandments that one would figuratively-speaking walk over.

The portion of Eikev is a reminder and a warning that we must remain vigilant in regard to all our actions, the seemingly important and the seemingly unimportant. There are, perhaps, things we do every day by rote and by habit without thought. It’s how we treat others and how we allow others to be treated. It’s about how we regard the world around us.

It’s in the realm of the mundane and the ordinary that we must remain particularly vigilant.

In the Book of Proverbs, the wise King Solomon wrote, “In all your ways know Him.” It’s not only when we are actively engaged in the performance of a mitzvah that we need to bring Hashem into our lives. Every moment and every place should be filled with G-dliness. We shouldn’t be so hurried in our journey through life that we pass these moments by.

Yes, the heel symbolises that upon which we step. However, the heel, more importantly, symbolises what we stand for.

What defines us as individuals isn’t necessarily the actions on which we place the highest value. We aren’t defined by the length of time we spend in shul over Yom Kippur (please do, though, come to shul this yom tov, and don’t keep glancing at the clock) or the size of the annual donation we give to charity. Rather, it’s in the everyday moments – the ways in which we interact with others socially, in our homes, and in our places of work – that we are measured.

Our eikev, our heel, indeed our very foundation, is established upon our behaviours that are almost automatic, the ones we may take for granted.

It’s here where we need to stand tall.

Shabbat Shalom!

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The never-ending voice



And Charlton Heston came down from Mount Sinai and gave us the ten commandments. Oops! Sorry, make that Moses. And he was carrying the tablets with the Big 10, repeated this week in Deuteronomy as part of Moses’ review of the past 40 years. He describes how G-d spoke those words in a mighty voice that didn’t end.

Rashi writes that Moses is contrasting G-d’s voice with human voices. The finite voice of a human being, even a Pavarotti, will fade and falter. It cannot go on forever. But the voice of the Almighty didn’t end, didn’t weaken. It remained strong throughout.

Is this all the great prophet had to teach us about the voice of G-d? That it was a powerful baritone? Is the greatness of the Infinite One, that he didn’t suffer from shortness of breath, that He didn’t need a few puffs of Ventolin? Is this a meaningful motivation for the Jews to accept the Torah?

Moses was the greatest of all prophets. He foresaw what no other prophet could see. Perhaps he saw his people becoming caught up in the civilization of ancient Greece, in the beauty, culture, philosophy, and art of the day. And they might question, “Is Torah still relevant?”

Perhaps he foresaw Jews empowered by the industrial revolution, where they might have thought Torah to be somewhat backward. Or maybe it was during the Russian Revolution, where faith and religion were deemed to be absolutely primitive.

Maybe Moses saw our own generation, with space shuttles and satellites, teleprompters and technology. And he saw young people questioning whether the good book still spoke to them.

And so, Moses tells us that the voice that thundered from Sinai was no ordinary voice. This was a voice that wasn’t only powerful at the time, it didn’t end. And it still rings out, still resonates, and speaks to each of us in every generation and every part of the world.

Revolutions come and go, but revelation is eternal. The voice of Sinai continues to proclaim eternal truths that never become passé or irrelevant. Honour your parents, revere them, look after them in their old age. Live moral lives, don’t tamper with the sacred fibre of family life. Dedicate one day every week, and keep that day holy. Stop the madness. Turn your back on the rat race, and rediscover your humanity and your children. Don’t be guilty of greed, envy, dishonesty, or corruption.

Are these ideas and values dated? Are these commandments tired or irrelevant? On the contrary. They speak to us now as perhaps never before.

Does anyone know this today better than us South Africans?

The G-dly voice has lost none of its strength, none of its majesty. The mortal voice of man declines and fades into oblivion. Politicians and spin-doctors come and go, but the heavenly sound reverberates down the ages.

Moses knew what he was saying. Torah is truth, and truth is forever. The voice of G-d shall never be stilled.

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Memory versus history



Devarim is the parsha associated with Tisha B’Av, the Jewish national day of mourning. After Shabbos, we will recall the destruction of our holy temple nearly 2 000 years ago.

But why remember? The world cannot understand why we go on about the Holocaust, and that was less than 80 years ago! For more than 19 centuries, we have been remembering and observing this event, and it has become the saddest day in our calendar. Why? Why not let bygones be bygones? It’s history. What was, was. Why keep revisiting old and painful visions?

They say that Napoleon was once passing through the Jewish ghetto in Paris, and heard sounds of crying and wailing emanating from a synagogue. He stopped to ask what the lament was about. He was told that the Jews were remembering the destruction of their Temple. “When did it happen?” asked the emperor. “Some 1 700 years ago,” was the answer. Whereupon Napoleon stated with conviction that a people who never forgot their past would be destined to forever have a future.

Elie Wiesel famously once said that Jews have never had history. We have memory. History can become a book, a museum, and forgotten antiquities. Memory is alive, memories reverberate, and memory guarantees our future.

Even amidst the ruins, we refused to forget. The first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. As they led the Jews into captivity, they sat down and wept. “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept remembering Zion.” What did they cry of? Their lost wealth, homes, and businesses? No. They cried for Zion and Jerusalem. “If I forget thee ‘O Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning.” They were not weeping for themselves or their lost liberties but for the heavenly city and holy temple. Amidst the bondage, they aspired to rebuild, amidst the ruins, they dreamt of returning.

And because we refused to forget Jerusalem, we did return. And because we refused to accept defeat or accept our exile as a historical fait accompli, we have rebuilt proud Jewish communities the world over, while our victors have been vanquished by time. Today, there are no more Babylonians, and the people who now live in Rome aren’t the Romans who destroyed the second temple. Those nations became history while we, inspired by memory, emerged revitalised and regenerated and forever it will be true that am Yisrael chai (the people of Israel live).

Only if we refuse to forget can we hope to rebuild one day. Indeed, the Talmud assures us, “Whosoever mourns for Jerusalem, will merit to witness her rejoicing.” We dare not forget. We need to observe our national day of mourning this Saturday night and Sunday. Forego the movies and the restaurants. Sit down on a low seat to mourn with your people; and perhaps even more importantly, to remember. And, please G-d, He will restore those glorious days and rebuild His own everlasting house soon.

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