In Memoriam: Bobby Hill זיכרונו לברכה

I met Bobby sometime in 2018. At that point, I had moved to London and was learning under his auspices, practically every other day, Sunday to Friday. During 8 months together we covered a range of topics: Shabbat, Kashrut, Berachot, Chagim and Tefillah, through Talmud Torah and Chumash. We delve into our Siddur, understanding each aspect of our liturgy anew.

Our encounters typically lasted up to 2 hours. At the end of which, we needed a hard stop! It was as if I had just sat my Oxford Finals all over again, every time we met. He pushed me and stretched my reasoning skills like no other teacher. I asked him probing questions challenging him; he would respond with a Mishna or introduce another Baraita, endlessly. There was so much depth to his knowledge. During our sessions, we payed close attention to the Rambam, the Rema, the Tzitz Eliezer, and the Rabbis of the Mishna, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the Chazon Ish, among others. I heard their voice intimately through Bobby’s discourse, and he quoted the responsa from these giants with fluency, quoting context and bibliographical reference with ease. Their voices were so clear and so loud and they also became intimate to me. The Torah became a consuming fire as they lectured us in the comfort of Bobby’s living room.

At the start of our sessions, he would teasingly probe me: “Fruit tea perhaps?” He knew full well that I wouldn’t (and still don’t) drink traditional Earl Grey Tea with milk, offering some type of resistance to British social norms and etiquette. In reply, I would ask if he had not learnt how to park properly, as his small, black Toyota hatchback was badly positioned on the road! […] When it came to look for a wife, he pulled me aside and said: “Gabriel, my wife likes you very much and wants to match you well!” I told him I did not know whether I was ready. He challenged me and said: “We will work on it. Let’s start the search”.

He told me when he married Mrs. Hill he had £200 on his bank account and a few books with him. Now, after several decades together, he had multiplied those £200 and amassed an entire house of Torah. I was not sure he was referring to the actual books or the number of children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and friends amassed over the course of a life lived at the fullest. I still have two of Bobby’s books in my shelf with stickers reading: “Bobby lent you this book. Return it after you finish using it!”. They are watching me as I type these words.

On the topic of family, he would ask me: “Is it fair to suggest you are a national-religious Zionist, and would like to build your family while living in Israel?” I nodded. He would tacitly respond: “I understand”. The silence following those statements was piercing! And I never knew what he was thinking and was too afraid to ask. Perhaps he agreed with me, or perhaps he was concerned (and rightly so!) that my identity was more founded on the merits of Ben Gurion, Menachem Begin or Golda Meir – giants of Political Zionism – than on my always-urgently needed Torah learning! He’d be concerned like that. The Torah preceded anything, especially Political Discourse! And if we learnt Torah, we would always understand the reasoning for the State of Israel, and anything else for that sake. I was quickly reminded that the Torah is the blueprint for the world.

At the end of our sessions, he would say: “Let’s go to pray Arvit (the evening prayer) at Hagers in Golders Green”. Of course, I would join him! It was a real highlight: captive attention and unique time with Bobby in the car, for a short 5 -10 min drive to the synagogue! At the end or the service, he would simply say “see you tomorrow”. And like that, I was left alone, with a million questions unanswered about our learning that afternoon. The responsa would reverberate through the night, and the voices of the Halakha would come back, time and time again, during the waking and night hours alike until we met again. It was Total Learning, Total Devotion. Total Torah.

He was particularly happy when I finally met a “Manchester girl”. He was one of the first I introduced Hannah to. Above all, he agreed it was a good match and he asked me if I was still losing weight to fit in the suit! Having moved away from London, after a while, we kept in touch; I would ring him very frequently. Mrs Hill would pick up the phone and ask me to call in 30 minutes, in-between students. And it was so: every time I came to London I would make extra effort to come and see Bobby Hill, even if it were for those few minutes, always in-between students, accompanied by Fruit Tea! The house was always busy with Torah learning and teaching, all the time.

Eventually Hannah and I got married in Jerusalem, a few months later, “a real Manchester wedding in Israel” for which he particularly excited. He could not come to the wedding for health and family reasons. However, on Erev Shabbat, the Shabbat before our Chuppah, after all the students he taught that day, at 16:30 PM, I got this message from him:

JUST TO SAY WE WILL BE THINKING OF YOU ON SUNDAY. MAZAL TOV AND DON’T FORGET TO SEND PHOTOS!!!

Sometime later, Hannah and I moved to Israel, now a married couple to settle in the hills of Judea, in Efrat. We started exploring the land, from Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Dead Sea, the Judean Desert and the South. We slowly made Israel ours to have and to hold! I would report back to Bobby frequently, and he would always show his typical care for my family and our spiritual growth.

In February 2020, a few months ago, I flew to London for a funeral and stayed in the UK for 48 hours – a very short visit. But, of course, I went to see Bobby and he took me in, this time at short-notice. The living room always full of Torah books, spread all over the table, blended with the voice of students learning with him on the phone, Skype or in person would reverberate through the kitchen where I’d wait for him, whist talking to Mrs Hill. The living room was jam-packed with the most gorgeous pictures of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren, with sparkling smiles and so much joy in multi-generational Jewish festive events. Gorgeous jewels built from an entire life devoted to Torah learning and teaching – Sapphires, Diamonds, Gold, Silver, and choice metals – the largest Hill family.

This time he carved one full hour to see me, in the middle of an wintry Monday afternoon!  That was most unusual: I do not ever recall ever spending 1 hour with Bobby, if not devoted to Torah learning. For the typical, the ordinary life conversations he would typically carve about 20 min and no more – time to teach again, another student through the door! This time, we sat in the couch in the living room and had a calm and wonderful chat. I refused the Fruit Tea  and drank water instead. Mrs Hill complied. And the telephone or the door bell did not ring even once.

He asked me: “How is Israel treating you and Hannah?” I took out my wallet and presented him my Israeli I.D. card. He held it and exclaimed: “a Proud Israeli Jew!” I nodded. I went on to say how we had made Israel ours to have and to hold: He smiled and said, for the first time: “I am very proud of you! When we met, there was good material there [pointing to my head], but no guarantee of success!” I interjected: “There never is, Bobby”. To which he said: “Indeed, but if I were to take the smaller parts of our learning and picture the end-product, I would not have believed it”. I interjected again: “What success, Bobby? I have so much more to learn!”. He would respond: “Torah, married life, Israel, Zionism. A proud Israeli Jew faithful to a Torah lifestyle. That’s an achievement!” – was he talking about his own “achievement” here, in an exercise of self-reflection? Probably!

I blushed. It was now 16:30 PM. He asked me if I wanted to pray Mincha and Arvit at Hagers – as we always did together when we learned together. I said that I needed to go to Hamsptead Gardens to attend a Shiva house and that I would pray there instead. He interjected: “I will drive you to the Underground Station in Golders Green”. I said: “Bobby, you will be late for the synagogue, and I can walk!” He insisted. I always felt incredibly guilty if I ever caused him to be late for prayer in the synagogue or we arrived whilst Ashrei had already started.

During the 10 min trip on his car, I was mostly silent, tired from the last, fast-paced and hectic last 48 hours in London! He told me then: “Do you know the best decision you have ever taken?” I shrugged my shoulders. “You moved to Israel. Is the Torah in England or in France? Is it in the United States, of all places? No! The Torah lives, healthy and strong in Eretz Israel. That’s where the Torah lives! It is where it is best experienced and understood. By going to Israel you have decided to cleave to it.

Bobby never spoke candidly about these sort of personal decisions. He was always supportive, but kept his cards close to his chest. Now we let this gem off his chest. He had complete confidence and faith that if we focused our life and relationships on the Torah, all else would fall into place. We were fast approaching the Train Station and traffic was horrible; he gave me directions where to go, which transport to take and I jumped off the car. We waved goodbye.

And that was the last time I saw him. Bobby has passed away yesterday, having mastered the entire Torah I have no doubt. And because he made the Torah his own, he could transmit it so passionately to his students, amongst them myself. Much of what I know stems from my endless hours with Bobby, labouring over the Torah textual learning sat in his front room: My teacher, my rebbe and my friend. A Tzadik and a Pillar of Torah learning, strong like the cedar of Lebanon, taller than the Date tree, and more precious more than any jewel.

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, Israel’s Chief Rabbi writes in his commentary to Pirkei Avot:

“R. Chanina bar Papa, our sages relate, was cognisant of the presence of the angel of death. When death finally came to take him, R’ Chanina asked for 30 days’ grace so that he might review his Torah learning, “for I am afraid that I will otherwise forget my learning, and I know that a voice from heaven proclaims ‘Fortunate is the person who comes here having Mastered the Torah’ (Pesachim 50a’).

A person must have the awareness he is the only person left upon earth, the only person who can learn Torah. Then he will dismiss the impulse to be absent from the study hall […] he views the world as if it stood upon a razor’s edge, with every good deed being able to tip the balance (Kiddushin 40b)”

That was Bobby, of blessed memory, my teacher, my rebbe and my friend who always tipped the balance, while he mastered the Torah and transmitted it to his students, with love and care beyond any measure.

About the Author
Dr. Gabriel Sapir is a medical doctor and strategic consultant in Biotechnology. He has a Master's in Global Health Sciences, Health Economics and International Development. Born in Brazil, he lived in the US, UK, Germany and Switzerland before moving to Israel where he now resides with his wife, Hannah. He contemplates life from the hills of Judah, in Efrat; loves Moroccan fish and Mujadarrah.
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