Rabbi Shlomo Hacohen of Vilna

Rabbi Shlomo Hacohen, the dean of the Vilna Rabbanim, served as a Rabbi for nearly 40 years. He was famous throughout the Diaspora for his commentary Cheshek Shlomo on the Talmud and his responsa Binyan Shlomo and Atzei Beroshim, which deal with concrete problems in all areas of our holy Torah.

Rabbi Shlomo Hacohen was born in Vilna (“the Jerusalem of Lithuania”) in 1828. He was the son of Rabbi Israel Moshe Hacohen, whose lineage dates back to the priests of Eli Hacohen’s family. Rabbi Shlomo’s father was great in Torah and the fear of Heaven, and he devoted himself to his son’s education. As Rabbi Shlomo himself recounts, he studied the written Torah, the Mishnah, and the entire Babylonian Talmud with his father, and by the age of 17 he had finished the entire Talmud.

Still a boy, at the age of 12 he had already begun corresponding with the great Torah scholars of his generation on questions of Halachah, and everyone predicted that he would become a great Torah scholar himself. He was extremely diligent and did not leave the tent of Torah study during his entire life. He amazed everyone who witnessed his exemplary behavior, for he was just, upright, and fled from honor.

Rabbi Israel Meir (the Chofetz Chaim), who had been friends with him from his youth, had the habit of recounting how incredibly assiduous Rabbi Shlomo was. He would say, “His love for Torah reached the level of self-sacrifice” and described how, when Rabbi Shlomo was 13 years old, doctors had cautioned him against studying, for his heart was fragile and his nerves were frayed. Since the study of Torah demands great effort and is exhausting, the doctors stressed that the boy would certainly die if he failed to listen to them. When Rabbi Shlomo heard this warning he responded, “If I don’t study Torah, I’ll die of sorrow, for I cannot live without it. Better to die from Torah study than from its absence!” As a result, he did what he wanted and continued to study diligently. And by the grace of G-d, he got better. When the Chofetz Chaim would recount this story, he was very moved and would passionately repeat Rabbi Shlomo’s words several times: “Better to die from Torah study than from its absence!”

After being healed of his illness, he began to study Torah with great scholars. He first traveled to the famous Gaon, Rabbi Yitzchak Shirwint, who was among the greatest Rabbis of Vilna. Next he entered Rabbi Yaakov Brit’s Beit Midrash, where he studied for several years and went through all the Arba’ah Turim with the Shulchan Aruch and its commentators, ancient and more recent, to the point of knowing them all by heart. With the passing of Rabbi Yaakov Brit, his student Rabbi Shlomo Hacohen continued to give lectures there for many years.

In 5625 (1865), Rabbi Shlomo was named as Rav and leading Posek of Vilna. He was known the world over as a master of Halachah, and throughout the Diaspora people began to send him their questions to resolve. Authors addressed him with requests for his approbation on their books, and today we still find hundreds of works bearing the approbation of Rabbi Shlomo of Vilna. Happy was the author who obtained it, for Rabbi Shlomo was not content with giving his approval to a book just to please its author; he went though almost every book and added his remarks and comments on the subjects being dealt with. We find his approbations not only on works of Halachah and Aggadah, but also on biographies and stories concerning great figures of the Jewish people.

People say that when Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor, the Rav of Kovno, reached the age of 75, all the great men of Israel sent him their best wishes. Rabbi Shlomo, who was one of his good friends, also sent him a letter, albeit a short one. In it he wrote: “The blessing of the Cohen to the Cohen.” Such a statement astonished all who read the letter, for everyone knew that Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan was not a Cohen! However Rav Yitzchak, who understood Rabbi Shlomo’s style, said to those close to him: “I’m surprised that you don’t understand this blessing from by good friend Rabbi Shlomo Hacohen! The numerical value of cohen is exactly 75. What Rabbi Shlomo wants to say is extremely simple: ‘The blessing of the Cohen to the Cohen’ – meaning to someone who is 75 years old.”

Rabbi Shlomo Hacohen was not active in the affairs of the community, but instead was always enclosed in his four cubits of Halachah. His greatest pleasure in life was studying Torah and rejoicing in it with all who came to see him – and many people came! Whoever came, be it a Rav, a Talmid Chacham, or a simple yeshiva student, experienced the pleasure of spending time with him and listening to his Torah words. He welcomed everyone pleasantly, and spoke with people as much as they wanted.

When the “Lovers of Zion” movement first appeared, Rabbi Shlomo Hacohen became interested in it and gave it his approval. At that time he wrote a letter asking people to help farmers and wine-growers in our Holy Land: “Up to now, a dozen or so villages have been established in our Holy Land, and it is a great mitzvah to help, support, and give them what they need in order to survive, and to assure them of a solid foundation. The merit of this mitzvah is extremely great, and one mitzvah brings about another. We must also remember the Rabbi Meir Baal Haness fund and collect money for it as well, for it is also very precious and holy to us. From Zion G-d will bless you all, and you will merit to see His return to Zion in mercy, speedily in our days. Amen.” His work for the “Lovers of Zion” movement in Russia demonstrated his great love for Eretz Israel, which had conquered his heart and soul.

In reality, where Rabbi Shlomo Hacohen’s greatness lay, there we also find his modesty. Never did he seek out honor. He behaved like a simple and ordinary man, and in no way did he feel that he deserved respect because of his Torah. When he went to synagogue and people rose in his honor, he thought that they wanted to perform the mitzvah of rising before the elderly. It did not even enter his mind that people were honoring him because of his Torah and importance.

Rabbi Shlomo Hacohen lived to a good old age. On Kislev 29, 5666 (December 27, 1905), this Gaon and Tzaddik rendered his soul to G-d in purity from the town of Vilna, where he had lived and worked all his life.




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