Chief rabbi let in on the secret of Nelson Mandelas nuptials

JOHANNESBURG — For several weeks, South Africa's chief rabbi was privy to the best-kept secret in South Africa — the marriage of President Nelson Mandela.

While clerics from the Christian, Muslim and Hindu faiths gave their blessings during the marriage ceremony in Mandela's Johannesburg home on Saturday, the president made special arrangements for Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris and his wife Ann to be present the day before.

"He has real `derech eretz' — respect for every religion and for young and old alike," the chief rabbi said in an interview, adding that Mandela "accommodated my Jewish observance instead of expecting me to fall in with his plans."

Mandela married Graca Machel, widow of the former Mozambican president, Samora Machel, in a wedding that coincided with his 80th birthday.

Speculation was rife among the media regarding a possible marriage up until the actual event, with vehement denials by the official presidential spokesman.

But two months ago, Mandela called Harris — with whom he has a close personal relationship — and asked the rabbi to hold the date of July 18 to attend a special meeting.

"I checked my `luach' (calendar) and realized it would be Shabbat, so I called back Mandela and told him that, while I had to respect him as president of our country, I owed higher respects to the good Lord," said Harris. "He laughed and said he would try to make alternative arrangements for the previous day."

One month later at a meeting of religious leaders in Cape Town, the president took Harris aside and said, "Cyril, I am getting married on July 18 and would like you to give us a blessing."

On Friday of last week, the rabbi bestowed a blessing on the couple, wishing them "deep contentment."

On Sunday, Harris was among a host of local and international celebrities — including Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder — to attend the president's birthday bash.