The Chofetz Chaim – on his Yahrtzeit

“If we had the capability,” he wrote to his son, “it would be appropriate to buy land and make aliyah to Eretz Yisrael.”

Tzvi Fishman ,

Tzvi Fishman

The Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaCohen, from Radin, was certainly one of the greatest Torah scholars of modern times. His unparalleled halakhic work, the “Mishna Berura,” is the considered the definitive compendium of Jewish law. In addition, his writings on good deeds and kindness, “Ahavat Chesed,” and his treatises on the evils of Lashon Hara, the “Chofetz Chaim” and “Shmirat HaLashon,” show his great piety and saintliness. He is known never to have spoken unfairly about anyone.

In spite of the fact that the Chofetz Chaim was vehemently opposed to the non-religious spirit of the secular Zionists, he encouraged the aliyah of God-fearing Jews. He saw the surge of mass aliyah from Russia as “the footsteps of the Mashiach,” and the beginning of the ingathering of the exiles which precedes the Mashiach’s coming. “If we had the capability,” he wrote to his son, “it would be appropriate to buy land and make aliyah to Eretz Yisrael” (Letters of the Chofetz Chaim to His Son, Reb Aryeh Leb HaCohen, pgs. 43-44.)

In the year 5681 (1920), Rabbi Kook’s only son, HaRav Tzvi Yehuda, traveled to Poland to meet with Rabbis and Chasidic Rebbes to convince them to join the "Degel Yerushalayim" movement which his father had established to infuse the Zionist Movement with the spirit of Torah. At that time, the Chofetz Chaim came to Warsaw for a gathering of Rabbis. HaRav Tzvi Yehuda hurried to the place where the famous Rabbi was staying, longing to see the splendor of the righteous Torah Gadol.

He found him surrounded by people. After over an hour, HaRav Tzvi Yehuda approached to say hello. The Chofetz Chaim asked: "Are you a local?" HaRav Tzvi Yehuda responded: "No, I am from Jerusalem," and he added: "Your honor was close with Rabbi Eliyahu David Rabinowitz-Te'omim, father-in-law of my father." When the Chofetz Chaim understood whose son was standing before him, his face lit up and he joyfully said: "Your honor is the son of the Rav of Zoimel, the Rav of Boisk, the Rav of Jaffa, the Rav of Jerusalem? Then why does he speak about his grandfather? Tell me about your father! How is he? We are old and close friends."

The Chofetz Chaim was a personal friend of Rabbi Kook’s father, and a friend of his esteemed father-in-law, the Aderet, as well. On one of his visits to Ponevezh, the Chofetz Chaim conversed with the young Torah prodigy Avraham Yitzhak Kook about halakhic issues and became exceedingly impressed. He invited him to join a chavura group of Kohanim who were studying “Kodashim” – the laws regarding the Beit HaMikdash and the Temple service. The Chofetz Chaim, a Kohen himself like Rabbi Kook, believed that Kohanim must be ready for the re-building of the Beit HaMikdash, which he steadfastly hoped would occur in their time, especially now when Jews of all types were returning to dwell in the Promised Land.

Seeing groups of devoutly religious Jews, marching off to Zion, along with bands of simple Jewish laborers, and brazenly secular, university-learned Zionists, he was inspired to joyfully remark, “The Redemption is beginning!” (See the biography of Rabbi Kook, “Above the Stream,” Ch.1).

The Chofetz Chaim appealed to the twenty-three-year-old Torah scholar to accept the position as Rabbi of the Jewish community of Zaumel. In a letter to the Aderet, the Chofetz Chaim expressed his joy that the Aderet’s son-in-law, the young Rabbi Kook, had agreed to the appointment, writing, “My heart rejoices over this. May Hashem help him ascend higher and higher, for he is truly great in Torah.”

A short time later, zealots belonging to a Haredi sect in Jerusalem began a slanderous campaign against Rabbi Kook for his appreciation of the secular pioneers in their devoted efforts to settle the Land of Israel.

Not satisfied with inciting the Haredi community in Jerusalem against the newly appointed Chief Rabbi, they sent a delegation to a Rabbinic convention in Vienna to persuade the Rabbis of Europe to sign on the ban condemning Rabbi Kook. In the lobby of the hotel where the Chofetz Chaim was staying, they passed their proclamation to his gabai, requesting to meet with him. Dutifully, the gabai brought the envelope to the famous Rabbi’s room. “Two shlichim who have arrived from Yerushalayim gave me this letter which they say is from the elder Rabbis of the Old Yishuv,” he informed the Torah Sage.

Glancing at the letter, the Chofetz Chaim threw it to the floor, as if it was something impure.

“The holy Torah Elders of Yerushalayim would never write such a letter, denigrating the prince of our Torah, the holy Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael, HaRav Kook,” the Chofetz Chaim exclaimed. “We should rend our garments! Tell these zealots that I will not receive anyone who stirs a controversy against the esteemed Rabbi of Yerushalayim whom I have the great privilege to know. He is holy and pure, and whoever harms him will not be forgiven!” (“Above the Stream,” Ch.7).

HaRav Tzvi Yehuda recalls the Chofetz Chaim saying: “Fulfilling a mitzvah in the Land of Israel is twenty times greater than performing the mitzvah outside of the Land, (“Sichot HaRav Tzvi Yehuda – Vayikra,” pg. 265, and “L’Netivot Yisrael,” Vol. 1, pg. 160, 202).

HaGaon Reb Leib, the son of the Chofetz Chaim, told HaRav Tzvi Yehuda that when the pioneers in Eretz Yisrael began to build Rishon L’Tzion his father said to him: "Reb Leib, it has begun," i.e. the beginning of the Redemption has begun, (“Sichot HaRav Tzvi Yehuda – Bereshit,” pp. 457-458, and Devarim, pp. 485-486; “B’Derech HaTorah HaGoelet,” pg. 98).

HaRav Tzvi Yehuda related to students at the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva: "A few years ago, a Torah Scholar told me that a few young men in Poland wanted to avoid military service in the non-Jewish army because they didn’t want to waste time from learning Torah. They wanted to physically injure themselves and disqualify themselves from Polish military service. But the Chofetz Chaim opposed this: He said to them, 'A person is not permitted to injure himself. The body is not his. And why avoid service? You can practice in the Army. The Mashiach will arrive soon. There will be a Jewish State. And when there is a Jewish State, there will be a need for an army. Prepare here. Thus, you have the opportunity to prepare for the army of the State of Israel,'" (“Like Father, Like Son,” Rabbenu, Ch.4).

Another revealing story about the Chofetz Chaim is brought down by the Torah scholar, Rabbi Daichovsky, in his book, “Neot Desha,” on concluding a tractate of Talmud. In the introduction, he recounts his visit to the Chofetz Chaim in order to ask him a question about moving to Israel at a time of danger. He writes:

“I saw it proper to record a statement made to me by the most pious of all of the Cohanim, the Rabbi of all Israel, the glory of the generation, the holy of all Israel, may he be blessed in memory, in the matter of Aliyah. I asked him about this question, and the following are the details of our encounter.

“It was the beginning of the year, 1933. There was a group of Torah scholars who had organized themselves to go together to Israel to learn Torah. I too was amongst them, but I had many doubts, because I knew that many of the great gedolim (Torah scholars) of Israel were opposed. The heads of my Yeshiva were especially opposed to the idea that Yeshiva students would go to Eretz Yisrael, even for the sake of studying Torah. They said that the proper conditions had not as yet been established in order to facilitate Torah study with the proper diligence in the Holy Land, to the extent that we are able to study Torah in the Yeshivot in the Diaspora. Therefore, I said in my heart, that I must not ask my rabbis in this matter, for obviously the answer will be no.

“Like Rabbi Zera, who ran away from his teacher, Rav Yehuda, when he wanted to make Aliyah to Israel (Tractate Ketubot, 110B,) I decided to go and ask the counsel of the righteous man of our generation, our revered rabbi, and to receive his blessing before I departed. Therefore, just before the Day of Atonement, I journeyed to the yeshiva of the Chofetz Chaim in the town of Radin, where I stayed in the shadow of this great, righteous individual. This was, as is known, the last Yom Kippur of this special Tzaddik, for at the end of the year, in the month of Elul, he was taken to the Yeshiva Above, may his merit be a shield to us and all Israel.

“In spite of his great physical weakness, a Heavenly Providence was with me, and I merited to see him the day after Yom Kippur. I told him my situation, and that I had a good chance of making Aliyah to Israel as a Torah student, only I had lingering doubts if I would be able to learn Torah with the same diligence with which I was learning now. Immediately, he answered, in his famous sweetness of speech, that there was no room at all for my wariness. Why in the world would I not be able to learn Torah there with absolute diligence – just the opposite would seem to be true, for the Land of Israel, without question, was more conducive for steadfast immersion in Torah.

"He recited the verse, ‘The gold of the Land is good,’ (Bereshit, 2:12) on which the Midrash says, ‘These (the gold of the Land is good) are the words of Torah, for there is no Torah like the Torah of Eretz Yisrael; and there is no wisdom like the wisdom of Eretz Yisrael.’ (Bereshit Raba, 16:7)

“Before I could express the rest of the doubts that I harbored - especially the fear of the danger in Israel because of the children of Ishmael who were marauding violently against the Jews, for only a few years had passed since the Hebron Massacre in the year 1929, which made clear to everyone the wild, bestial nature of the Ishmaelites, who with savagery and unbounded cruelty massacred Yeshiva students and showed no mercy even to the women and children - before I was able to confess all of my apprehensions, the Rabbi answered the question himself.

“In the following words of Torah, he said: ‘The holy Torah tells us regarding Ishmael that he is a ‘Pere Adam,’ a wild beast of a man. It is known that our Torah is eternal, and if it says about Ishmael that he is a wild beast of a man, then Ishmael will remain forever a wild beast of a man. Even if all of the cultured nations of the world gather together and try to educate Ishmael and transform him into a cultured individual, so that he will no longer be a wild beast of a man, obviously this will be impossible in every fashion or form. They will not be able to do this through any means whatsoever, because he is not capable of being a cultured individual, for behold, the Torah testified regarding him that he is a wild beast of a man. This means that forever, for all eternity, Ishmael is by definition a wild beast of a man. Even if Ishmael is involved in intellectual endeavor, like being a lawyer, or some similar profession, he will be a bestial lawyer. If he studies diligently to be a professor, he will be a bestial professor. This means that the bestiality of Ishmael will never cease.’

“Then the Chofetz Chaim let out a long, painful sigh and said, ‘Who knows what this wild beast of a man is capable of perpetrating against the Jewish people in the end of days?’

“Concluding his words to me, he said, ‘Nevertheless, fear not – there is no reason for this to prevent you from making Aliyah to the Land of Israel.’

“Then he blessed me, saying, ‘Go in peace, and the L-rd will bless your path.’

“So I left him, and journeyed in peace to the Holy Land.”

[The author of this article, Tzvi Fishman, has recently published two new books, “Above the Stream,” an illustrated biography of Rabbi Kook; and “Like Father, Like Son,” on the lives and teachings of Rabbi Kook and his son, HaRav Tzvi Yehuda, co-written with HaRav Shlomo Aviner.]