A regular visitor of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who advised him on a public career spanning 60 years
By the age of 12 he had become a Nazarite, just like his father, foregoing haircuts and eschewing meat, wine and leather shoes. He stopped a few years later—having explicitly avoided making a vow—although he never did eat fish, poultry and meat, or drink wine again. At age 20 in 1948, with Israel’s War of Independence raging around them, he and a group of fellow yeshivah students snuck into Jerusalem’s embattled Old City to help with its defense—physical and spiritual. He was badly injured and captured by the Jordanian military, joining hundreds of other Jewish fighters as a prisoner of war in Jordan.
“The moment they moved us out of the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem we began to sing,” remembered the young man, Rabbi She’ar Yashuv Cohen—who prominently served as Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Haifa for 36 years—decades later in an interview with Kfar Chabad magazine. “We sang songs of Jerusalem; the Arabs thought we had lost our minds. But it was with the strength of these songs, thank G d, that we were able to overcome the hardships of our subsequent seven months of imprisonment, until our return to Jerusalem.”
Cohen, who passed away last Monday at age 88, never did stop defending the territorial integrity of the Holy Land nor the Jewish people’s innate right to it, and over the course of more than half-a-century became one of Israel’s most influential and respected rabbinic figures.
The scion of a rabbinical family with roots in the Kopust branch of the Chabad movement, he enjoyed a lengthy relationship with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, spending hours with the Rebbe in private audience—first as a politician in Jerusalem, and then while in the rabbinate—and corresponding with him extensively.
“During all of my visits with the Rebbe I felt a sense of reverence and awe,” Cohen told Kfar Chabad’s Rabbi YitzchakHoltzman. “But from the moment I entered his room, the Rebbe, for his part, made me feel comfortable there. It became like a visit to family.”
In a way, it was.
Around 1926, while still in the Soviet Union, the Rebbe went into hiding from Communist authorities at the home of Cohen’s maternal grandparents, Rabbi and Mrs. Chanoch Henich Etkin, in Luga, Russia, where Etkin served as rabbi.
“The Rebbe used the words, ‘I was brought.’ Chassidim who knew my grandfather decided this was a safe place for him,” said Cohen, according to the forthcoming biography The Rebbe’s Early Years, by Rabbis Elkanah Shmotkin and Baruch Oberlander. “He ate, drank and slept there. My late grandmother hosted him, caring for all his needs . . . He had a study session with my grandfather . . . My grandfather wasn’t a chasid, he was a follower of the Musar movement, a student of the Novardok yeshivah . . . they mostly learned Talmud, and a bit of Tanya . . . ”
It was a kindness the Rebbe did not forget. Later, just before departing the Soviet Union for the last time, he visited the Etkins together with his mother, perhaps to thank them for their assistance.
Years later, the Etkin’s grandson, Cohen, by then a Jerusalem city councilor, came to the Rebbe’s headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, N.Y., as a part of the delegation of Israel’s President Zalman Shazar. Shazar pointed to Cohen and asked the Rebbe: “Ir kent dem yungerman?” (Do you know this young man?”)
“And the Rebbe said, avadeh, avadeh, of course, of course,” Cohen told JEM’s “My Encounter with the Rebbe” Oral History Project. “Mir zaynen duch alte gutte freint; we are old, good friends.” Cohen continued: “Not because I [was] old, but because of my grandfather, I’m sure.”
Learning, War and Politics
Eliyahu Yosef She’ar Yashuv Cohen was born on Nov. 4, 1927, in Jerusalem, the son of Rabbi Dovid Cohen, known as the famed Harav Hanazir, the Nazarite of Jerusalem, and his wife, Sarah.
Dovid Cohen’s own voracious intellectual appetite led him through various institutions of Torah study—from his little hometown in Lithuania to the Slobodka yeshiva across the river from Kovna, and on to BaronDavid Ginzburg’s academy of higher learning in Petersburg, where the elder Cohen studied alongside Israel’s future president, Shazar. Cohen’s father, Rav Yosef Cohen (for whom She’ar Yashuv was partially named), was a dedicated follower of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Schneersohn, a grandson of the Tzemach Tzedek (third Rebbe of Chabad), who was known as the Magen Avot.
“In his youth my father traveled to Germany to gain a general education,” Cohen recalled to Kfar Chabad. “Before he left his father gave him the Chassidic tract Kuntres Hahispaalus (Treatise on Ecstasy) of Rabbi Dovber of Lubavitch. I have this booklet to this day.”
At the onset of World War I, the elder Cohen became engaged to his first cousin, Sarah Etkin. He left Russia shortly thereafter, and while in Switzerland in 1915 met for the first time the man who would become his mentor and teacher, Rabbi Avraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, the first chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine. Due to war, the couple’s wedding did not take place for 12 years after the initial engagement, eventually taking place at the home of Rav Kook in the Land of Israel.
A Talmudist, Kabbalist and philosopher, the ascetic Cohen became one of Rav Kook’s chief students and expositors of his teachings. From the time of his own birth, She’ar Yashuv was close to Rav Kook, and then later became a close student of his son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, at Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav. His only sister Tzefiya was married to Rabbi Shlomo Goren, the chief chaplain of the Israel Defense Forces, and from 1973-1983 the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel.
While deep internal rifts split Jewish forces during the War of Independence, intra-rival peace was the rule within the ancient fortifications of the Old City of Jerusalem, where Haganah, Irgun and Lechi forces fought together against the invading Arab army. It’s there—as he fought and studied alongside fellow yeshivah students based out of the Jewish Quarter’s Menachem Zion synagogue—that She’ar Yashuv was badly injured in the leg and taken prisoner.
Later, he became involved in politics at the municipal level, becoming a Jerusalem city councilor. He was deputy mayor at the time of the Holy City’s reunification following the Six-Day War, having the distinction of being one of the last Jews to be led out of the Old City in 1948 and among the first to re-enter in 1967.
By: Dovid Margolin