Rav Kook and Rav Shlomo Elyashev (“Leshem”) (1841-1926)
The Hebrew word “Kabbalah” means literally “receiving” or “reception.” Implicit is the idea that authentic Jewish mysticism is a received tradition, into which one must be initiated by a bona fide master. Rav Kook’s rebbe in Kabbalah was none other than Rabbi Shelomo Ben Hayim Haikel Elyashev of Shavel, now referred to as the “Leshem” after his work, Leshem Shevo ve-Ahlemah (Vol. I, Piotrkow, 1909; Vol. II, Piotrkow, 1912).
Rav Elyashev initiated Rav Kook into the mysteries of the Kabbalah when the latter was yet a young man in his twenties. Rav Kook, then rabbi of the small town of Zoimel (his first rabbinic post), was granted by his community a month-long leave of absence to study with the famous kabbalist in Shavel. (See Rabbi Moshe Zevi Neriyah, Sihot ha-RAYaH [Tel-Aviv, 1979], pp. 152, 159.) Later they would renew their friendship and once again study together at the end of their days in Jerusalem — but we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Rabbi Elyashev, a brilliant talmudist, had studied in the yeshivot of Minsk and Telz. After the death of Rabbi Isaac Haver (Wildman), Rabbi Elyashev emerged as the major exponent of Lithuanian Kabbalah. Rabbi Yizhak Eizik Haver of Suvalk (author of Pithei She’arim) was a student of Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Shklov, who in turn, had been apprentice to the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Elijah, founder of the Lithuanian school of Kabbalah. (Concerning the personality of the Gaon, see the introduction of his foremost disciple, Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin, to Be’ur ha-GRA le-Sifra di-Zeni-uta.)
Besides his own prodigious literary output (a couple of folio volumes of Leshem), Rav Elyashev was instrumental in readying for print works of earlier mekubbalim, such as Pithei She’arim by Rabbi Yizhak Eizik Haver, and Adir ba-Marom of RaMHaL (Rabbi Moses Hayyim Luzzato of Padua, Italy). Together with Rabbi Samuel Luria of Mohilev, he was responsible for the publication of many kabbalistic manuscripts. Luria assumed the role of publisher with Elyashev acting behind-the-scenes as editor.
When the first volume of Leshem reached him in Jaffa, an enthused Rav Kook penned this letter of congratulation:
The house was filled with light upon the appearance of his holy book. I cannot convey to my soul-friend my feelings of inner happiness from the good light. In its yet unbound state, I have already devoured several pages, so enamored am I. It was sweet as honey to my mouth.
How my soul longs to see the manuscripts of His Holiness. It it were possible to have a copyist transcribe his writings, I would not spare any expense (Igrot RAYaH, I, pp. 236-237)
Rav Kook goes on to express his desire that Rav Elyashev settle in the Holy Land — a wish Rav Kook would one day help to fruition. He concludes with an affirmation of his deep affection: “We have been bound by a divine bond in the depths of the heart” (naftulei elohim niftalnu bema’amkei levav) (ibid.).
On another occasion, when asked for new works concerning “Shi’ur Komah” (the mystical body of the godhead), Rav Kook recommends Da’at Tevunah of Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad (“Ben Ish Hai”), and the work of “the greatest kabbalist of the generation, Rabbi Shelomo of Shavel” (Igrot RAYaH, II, p. 114)
The opportunity to assist in Rabbi Elyashev’s ‘aliyah presented itself thirteen years later in 1922. By then Rav Kook was Chief Rabbi of Palestine (as the British mandate was called) with access to the “certificates” vital for immigration purposes. Two letters of Rav Elyashev to Rav Kook survive from this period (Igrot la- RAYah [Jerusalem, 1990], pp. 210-213).
In the first, Rabbi Elyashev, who had since relocated to Homel, writes on behalf of a learned friend of his by the name of Feigin, desirous of living in the Holy Land. Could Rav Kook intercede with the authorities in obtaining the necessary papers? Rabbi Elyashev apologized the letter is not in his own hand; his failing eyesight prevents him from writing. (Rabbi Elyashev at this time was eighty-one years old.) He prefaces his remarks with congratulations to his old friend upon his appointment as Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem.
Some months later, Rav Elyashev again writes to Rav Kook, this time concerning his own ‘aliyah. He has decided to take Rav Kook up on his offer. But there are complications: The rabbi cannot separate himself from his family — his daughter Haya Musha, his son-in-law Rabbi Abraham, and their only son, Yosef Shalom (Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv of Jerusalem zt”l [1910-2012], acknowledged as the “posek ha-dor,” the greatest authority on Jewish Law, passed away at age 102 years). Rav Elyashev reminds Rav Kook that he will certainly remember his son-in-law from the days they spent together at the Latvian sea resort of Dubelin. Furthermore, Rabbi Abraham Elyashev, who served for some time as a rabbi in Homel, had been ordained by Rav Kook. Then there is the matter of Rabbi Elyashev’s library. Does Rav Kook have a suggestion how to transport the books? (This letter Rabbi Elyashev himself writes, but apologizes for the appearance of the script, once again lamenting his poor vision.)
Rav Kook’s disciple, Rav Ya’akov Moshe Harlap, describes the commotion surrounding Rav Elyashev’s entry into Jerusalem:
Toady there arrived in our holy city the genius of Kabbalah in our generation, Rabbi Shevah (acronym for Shelomo Ben Hayyim) [Elyashev], author of “Leshem Shevo ve’Ahlemah.” Many went to receive him at the train station. He came through the efforts of our master [Rav Kook].
(Mikhtevei Marom [Jerusalem, 1988], p. 50)