From Shepherd of Jerusalem

Shepherd of Jerusalem
A Biography of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook

By Dov Peretz Elkins

Reprinted by permission of the publisher  Jason Aronson Inc.,

                                            Northvale, NJ  © 1995

The two rabbis spent many hours together.  For weeks and months, they reviewed the sections of the Code of Jewish Law which deal with priests and the temple worship.
      After a year passed, the Hafetz Haim gave Rabbi Kook some important advice.
      "Abraham, my friend," he said in a frank manner, "I think it is time for you to seek a community that needs a rabbi and to serve it.  You need the practical experience of solving community problems, of helping people solve their dilemmas, and of answering questions of Jewish Law."
      "But I don't want to become involved in these matters,"answered Abraham.  'That will take too much time from my studies."
      "Just to sit by yourself and study, or even to help another rabbi on occasion, will not suffice.  To really fulfill God's will, one must be of service to his fellow man."
      Abraham began to see the logic in the words of the elderly rabbi.  After a long discussion and much thought, he finally accepted the idea.


      Thus, at age twenty four, Abraham became the rabbi of a small town called Zoimel.
      The six years he spent there were quiet years, and although there was not as much activity as he had expected, it was still a good opportunity to get to know the problems of a Jewish community and try to solve them. He also continued with his studies, and by the end of his sixth year in Zoimel he achieved much wisdom and maturity.
     One of the problems that he encountered in Zoimel was that many people were not careful to observe all of the ritual commandments of the Jewish religion.  One of the extremely important rituals which he saw was being neglected - was the wearing of tefilin (phylacteries).  Tefilin are two small black boxes containing quotations from the Bible, which are wrapped around the head and arm during the daily morning worship, except on the Sabbath and holidays.
      Rabbi Kook taught the people about the background of tefilin, and coaxed them with all his energy to restore the ritual.  Finally, he decided to compose a book, compiling everything he taught about the tefilin.  This was his first book. He did not sign his name to it because he did not want credit or glory.  All he wanted was that people observe the ritual in their morning prayers. He distributed it free of charge to all the people of the town, hoping to reach them through the book as well as personal contact.
      Once, while Rabbi Kook served in Zoimel, an epidemic of cholera broke out.  Many died from its ravaging influence, and scores of others lay ill.  When Yom Kippur arrived that year, Rabbi Kook knew that if his community would fast as prescribed by the Torah, it would only worsen their state of weakness.
      To prevent this, he did a daring and courageous thing. On Yom Kippur morning he stepped up to the Bimah (pulpit) of the synagogue with a piece of bread in his hand, pronounced the blessing over bread, and proceeded to eat it in front of the entire congregation.
      Needless to say, the people were shocked.  On the most sacred day of the Jewish year, the community Rabbi was violating the obligation to fast!
      "God gave us His law," explained Rabbi Kook, "so that we may live by it, not die by it." He was quoting a Talmudic dictum, based on the Bible.  "It is much more important," he continued to explain, "to obey the laws of guarding one's health than to fulfill a ritual commandment.  We must all eat to preserve our strength and our health.  Thus, we will live to fast on many more Yom Kippurs in the future."
      The people realized that Rabbi Kook was steeped in Jewish law, and knew whereof he spoke.  They then joined him in a light meal to preserve their health.
      Finally, Rabbi Kook felt himself ready to become a religious leader in a larger town.  He was now thirty years old. When an invitation came to him one day to become rabbi of the large city of Boisk, in Latvia, he gladly accepted.  This was to be a new and important challenge in his life.


     Rabbi Kook moved from the small, quiet village of Zoimel to the large, busy metropolis that was Boisk, a city filled  with controversy and bitterness among the Jewish leaders and the masses.
      Upon arrival in Boisk, he wasted no time in plunging into the arena of debate between two opposing forces - the religious and secular Zionists.
      A word of background is in order here.
      For a brief while in Russia, beginning in 1865, Czar Alexander 11 attempted to assimilate the Jewish population with the rest of the people.  He freed them from their ghettos, opened certain once closed business opportunities to them, and gave them the chance to be like other Russians.
      The plan did not last long.  After only a few years, an attitude of anti-Semitism again swept across Russia.  While the plan lasted, many young Jews took advantage of studies outside the realm of Judaism.  The study of Talmud and Torah were replaced by the study of science, mathematics, literature, music, and art.

Return to Zeimelis History Page

Return to Zeimelis Home Page

Copyright © 1999, Barry Mann