Menachem Friedman, an expert on Orthodox Judaism and professor emeritus at Bar Ilan University, says religious Jewish businessmen since the 19th century have solicited rabbis' blessings for cash to ensure their success — though today the sums have reached unprecedented amounts.
"If the market is dangerous and shaky, the millionaires who benefit from that market have less confidence. They need these rabbis to give them that security," Friedman said.
The country's richest rabbinic dynasty is the Abuhatzeira family, scions of the revered Baba Sali who left Morocco for Israel in 1963, gaining a following among Israel's large Moroccan and Middle Eastern Jewish immigrant population. The Baba Sali died in 1984, but his portrait — a shriveled face wrapped in a white shawl — still graces the walls of Israeli homes, businesses and falafel stands.
His grandson, Rabbi Elazar Abuhatzeira, became the richest of them all, building himself a three-story villa said to include an events hall, deluxe guest rooms for important donors and an underground tunnel allowing him safe passage to his synagogue and office across the street, according to journalist Yossi Bar-Moha, who says he obtained the house plans from the Beersheba municipality.
Bar-Moha published a series of exposes in Israeli dailies accusing the rabbi of cheating his followers into believing he had no money in the bank, and violently threatening some to pay up.
The Israeli police's national fraud squad opened an investigation in the late 1990s, discovering $125 million in his personal account. He reportedly reached a settlement with Israel's tax authorities to pay a fraction of what he owed them.
Last year, a desperate adherent whose donations to the rabbi hadn't improved his lot stabbed Rabbi Abuhatzeira to death. His son, Rabbi Pinchas Abuhatzeira, inherited his wealth and his spot at the top of Israel's affluent rabbinic aristocracy.
"These rabbis are charlatans, swindlers and cheaters. They have no real knowledge. And people eat it up," said reporter Bar-Moha, who heads Tel Aviv's journalists' association.
An Israeli tax official, speaking anonymously because of the issue's sensitivity, said in the past two years tax authorities have approached some 20 religious figures, requesting earnings reports. Some rabbis have been investigated for tax fraud. No convictions are known, but some have reportedly reached settlements with Israeli tax authorities.
Reached for comment, advisers of some of the rabbis profiled by Forbes either would not comment on the income estimates, or said they were wrong but would not provide other figures. A spokesman for Rabbi Ifargan said his charitable institutions and received donations are above board.
At the end of the feast, adherents followed Rabbi Ifargan up a hill to pray at the hulking stone pyramid that houses his father's grave. Ifargan emerged from the tomb surrounded by paparazzi, bodyguards and a host of followers shouting out requests for the rabbi to pray for their health and for their children to find a good match.
When an Associated Press reporter asked the rabbi the secret to his success, Ifargan stopped. The 46-year-old rabbi with a pointed jet-black beard and brimmed hat fixed his gaze for a few moments, cocked his head up toward the heavens and shrugged.
Then his bodyguards whisked him into a black Mercedes-Benz, and they sped off.
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