Rabbi Shabtai Hacohen – the Shach

In the year in which our revered teacher Rabbi David Halevi (the Rosh Yeshiva of Lvov, who at the time was already advanced in age) completed writing his book Turei Zahav (Taz) on the Shulchan Aruch, Yore Deah, another important book was also being written. In Vilna, a young man of 24 years of age wrote Siftei Cohen (Shach), which was also on the Shulchan Aruch, Yore Deah. The most surprising thing about the work of the young Rav was that it was very well received. Up to our day, Siftei Cohen is a Halachic source for all that concerns the laws of Kashrut.

One day this young Rav, Rabbi Shabtai (known by the name of his work, the Shach) and the elderly Rabbi David, author of the Taz, met one another. Rabbi Shabtai asked Rabbi David, “Please explain to me how you proceed. When exactly do you study and when do you write your commentaries?” The Taz replied, “I normally study during the night and formulate my thoughts then. The next day in yeshiva, I expound on my ideas with my students and write them down.”

“I do everything completely differently,” replied the Shach. “During the day I study and develop my commentaries, and at night I write them down. The next day I carefully go over what I wrote the night before, erasing quite a few things. I end up keeping only the best and most true.”

The Taz got up, kissed him on the head, and said, “I am certain that your book, Siftei Cohen, will be used to render Halachic decisions.”

Rabbi Shabtai was born in 1621 in Vilna, where his father Rabbi Meir was Rav. His father began to teach him Torah while still young, and from his earliest years he surprised all who knew by with his sharp mind. One story goes that at around the age of five (while he was a cheder with other little boys of his age) his class was reviewing the parsha of the week, Chayei Sarah, with Rashi’s commentary. The boys came to the story of Abraham’s servant Eliezer, who was telling Rebecca’s parents, “I came today to the spring” (Genesis 24:42). They repeated to their Rav what Rashi said on this passage: “Today I left and today I arrived, which teaches us that the route was shortened in a miraculous way.” One child got up and asked, “How could Eliezer recount such a strange story to Rebecca’s parents? Maybe they wouldn’t believe it?”

The instructor didn’t know what to say. Then the little Shabtai stood up and answered, “Some verses further on, what Eliezer told them is mentioned: ‘Sarah, my master’s wife, bore my master a son after she had grown old, and he gave him all that he possesses’ [v.36], and Rashi says that Eliezer showed them a document proving that Abraham had allotted him these things. By means of this document, which was written on the same day that Eliezer left, he proved that he had actually arrived in a miraculous way.”

Even before adolescence, he had acquired a deep understanding of the Talmud and the commentators. His father sent him to Tiktin, Poland to study with the author of Meginei Shlomo, and after that he also studied at the great yeshiva of Rav Heschel of Krakow. In Vilna, Rabbi Wolf (the grandson of the Rema) took him as his son-in-law and provided for all his material needs. Rabbi Shabtai then settled in Vilna to devote himself entirely to Torah. During his twenties, he joined the Beit Din of Rabbi Moshe Lima, author of Chelkat Mechokek, and it was at that time, at the age of 24, that he wrote his immense Siftei Cohen on the Shulchan Aruch, Yore Deah.

In the introduction of his book, he wrote: “Honestly, for years I have invested a great amount of work … without leaving place for sleep. …I examined each case from every side, not once or twice, but rather a hundred and one times.”

Eighteen of the greatest rabbanim of the generation gave their approbations for the printing of his book. He also wrote a second volume of Siftei Cohen on the Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat.

His works made a great impression throughout the world, and the rabbanim very quickly began to use them to render Halachic decisions, thus fulfilling the words of the passage: “For the lips of the priest [siftei cohen] should safeguard knowledge, and people should seek teaching from his mouth” (Malachi 2:7).

An interesting story concerning Rabbi Shabtai goes as follows:

Rabbi Shabtai once had a financial dispute with one of Vilna’s prominent men. They both agreed to present their arguments to one of the greatest rabbanim of the generation, someone who lived far from Vilna and didn’t know Rabbi Shabtai. They agreed on the Rav of Novardok, who was known for his scholarship and honesty. Before leaving to appear before him, Rabbi Shabtai, author of the Shach, reviewed all the relevant passages of the Talmud and the commentators, arriving at the conclusion that he was in the right. When they reached Novardok and presented their case to the Rav, he decided that Rabbi Shabtai was in fact wrong, thus agreeing with the other person. Rabbi Shabtai was stunned by this decision, for in his opinion it was not in agreement with Halachah. He therefore asked the Rav to explain his reasoning to him.

The Rav went towards his library and took out the book Siftei Cohen on Choshen Mishpat, which had just come out the year before, and he showed Rabbi Shabtai that he had based his decision on the opinion expressed in this new book. Rabbi Shabtai then revealed himself as the author of the book and said, “How great are the words of the Sages. A man never thinks that he is wrong!”

Many legends surround the character of the Shach, testifying to the great admiration that people had for him. According to one of these, one day he was taking a walk, completely immersed in his ideas and filled with Torah thoughts. During this time he didn’t notice that he was approaching the edge of a steep slope, and that a deep chasm stretched before him, there being nothing but a hair between him and death. At the exact moment that he arrived at the edge of the precipice and continued onwards, a miracle occurred and the mountain in front of him approached, allowing the Shach to pass by without mishap.




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