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The Japanese Pastor and the Vilna Gaon

Updated: Jun 8, 2020

(Extract as it appeared in the Ami Magazine)

It’s hard to believe that just two decades ago, Rabbi Hattori served as a Christian pastor in Japan.

What is even more interesting is the fact that his convoluted journey began with a single story he read about the Gra, which led him to Shaarei Chesed, a neighborhood that was actually founded by talmidim of the Vilna Gaon and where his teachings live on through his students, generation after generation. |

“It was a book in English containing various stories from Jewish sources,” he recalls, “and

there was a story about a man who was called the Gaon of Vilna. I did not know the meaning of ‘gaon’ or even where Vilna was, but his story changed me.”

Hattori was referring to the famous tale of the time when Sukkos was approaching and there were no esrogim to be had in Vilna. The Gaon was known for always having a mehudar set of arbaah minim for Yom Tov. One of his talmidim was charged with finding a beautiful esrog for the Vilna Gaon at any cost. On his journey to find an esrog, the talmid stayed at an inn for the night and was startled to see that the innkeeper had a beautiful esrog in his possession.

He asked, and then begged, the innkeeper to sell him the esrog so that he could take it

back to Vilna. Finally, the man made an offer; he would give the esrog to the Vilna Gaon for

no money but on one condition—he wanted the Gaon’s reward in Olam Haba for obtaining this esrog.

The messenger returned to the Gaon’s home with the beautiful esrog and a heavy heart. He explained the condition imposed by the innkeeper, and the Gaon responded with great excitement and began to dance. He explained to the confused talmid, “All my life I have regretted that I would never be able to do a mitzvah for the sake of the mitzvah and not in a way that I would merit any reward for it. But now Hakadosh Baruch Hu has given me an opportunity to do this precious mitzvah for its own sake. How can I not dance for joy? For this I would certainly give my portion of Olam Haba.”

“I was very moved after reading this story,” Hattori recalls. “I said to my wife, ‘Read this story. I have found the truth.’ You see, in Christianity and Shinto there are no required acts. But if you choose to do anything, it is to get something tangible in return. This story shows the importance of deeds in Judaism. Your actions are a way to connect with Hashem, not a means to a reward. They are an expression of your personal relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu.”

Reading this story seriously reinforced Hattori’ interest in Judaism, and he ordered a siddur from Israel, which he used to learn to make Kiddush and the blessings on food. His wife started lighting Shabbos candles. Slowly they added more mitzvos to their daily lives.

In 1983, the Hattoris arrived in Israel without knowing a single person in the country. Nonetheless, they continued to immerse themselves in the Jewish community, having faith in G-d that things would work out. They took the message of the Vilna Gaon’ story to heart—faith requires action.

“We opened a conversion file with the Rabbanut, though there were many who tried to dissuade us. In one of our discussions, one of the rabbis said to me, ‘You have the Sheva

Mitzvot, the Seven Noahide Laws. Why do you have to be Jews? You can be a ben Noach and get the same Olam Haba as a Jew. I told him I was aware of that, but I wanted to be

Jewish. He raised his voice and said, ‘You’re crazy.’ I replied, ‘With all due respect, I want to be a Jew so I can study Torah, something that is forbidden to a non-Jew. And he replied, ‘Come to the yeshivah tomorrow so that I can see how you learn.”

That was the beginning of his yeshivah career. He devoted his time to studying Torah, spending three years at Yeshivat Nachalat Tzvi, then six years at Machon Meir, reaching the point where he could learn Gemara and the Poskim by himself. He and his wife were converted in the beis din of Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg.

Today, Rabbi Moshe Hattori sits in a library full of sefarim near his home in the Shaarei Chesed neighborhood of Jerusalem. He spends his days and nights immersed In the Torah. Today Rabbi Moshe Hattori sits in a library full of seforim near his home in the Sharei Chesed neighborhood of Jerusalem.

The rabbi is considered to be a talmid chacham, and he was a beloved and devoted

student of the former rosh yeshivah of Yeshiva Maalot HaTorah, Rav Shmuel Auerbach, zt”l. Rabbi Hattori is known particularly as an expert, a baki, on the writings and teachings of the Vilna Gaon, commonly known as the Gra. He has published a number of sefarim related to his great interest in the Gaon, including a siddur based on the customs of the Gra.

Rav Auerbach would delve into the Toras haGra. He claimed that there were some things that “Only I would be able to understand, and he passed the Toras haGra that he had acquired to me. I am still busy with the things he taught me. I built a private library near my house with special lighting for the visually impaired, and I spend most of the day there learning, with a special emphasis on the Shulchan Aruch with Biur HaGra.”

“Most of my time is devoted to Toras haGra. When talmidim in his yeshivah have

questions about the Gra’s works, they come to me.”

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