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Rabbi Eliezer Hakohen: Head and not Tail

The righteous Rabbi Eliezer (“Leizhe”) Hakohen was born in Belarus to his father, Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Hakohen Rozovski, who was a chasid of Lechovitch. In his youth, he was a disciple of Rabbi Moshe of Kobrin (Kobryn), and later, the Ba’al Yesod HaAvodah. It was he who told him to make aliyah to the Land of Israel, where he lived a long life. Rabbi Leizhe was one of the elder chasidim of Tiberias and was even offered the position of Rebbe after the passing of his last Rebbe. He passed away on 26 Av 5672 (1916) and was laid to rest in Tiberias.

Rabbi Yisrael Shimon Kastlinitz prefaces his stories about Reb Leizhe (in his book “Mizkeinim Etbonan”) relating that Reb Leizhe was an example of a chasid of bygone days. Those who never knew such chasidim, cannot understand what this means, for “nowadays, there is nothing like them in the world at all.” Rabbi Yisrael actually met Reb Leizhe and also heard much about him from the previous generations.

He related the following:

Once, Reb Leizhe asked me to accompany him to his home just two days before Pesach, following the morning prayers. “Yisrael Shimon,” he said to me, “are you willing to help me clean and air out my books in preparation for Pesach?” I knew that all that he had was one small bookcase with just a few holy books. “Of course,” I answered. He immediately grabbed his heavy cane with enthusiasm, excited from head to toe, and we set out for his home. I didn’t understand why he was so excited. When we got to his house, he put his prayer shawl and tefillin in their place, removed his gartel and said, “Let us go over to the bookcase and air out the books.”

We approached the bookcase together. I removed a book, wiped it carefully with the cloth that he had prepared, and began to return it to its place. “Let me see what book this is,” he said to me. “It is the book Avkat Rochel, written by the Beit Yosef,” I answered. He grabbed the book out of my hands, and full of excitement, said, “Oy! The holy Avkat Rochel!” He opened the book and glanced inside and then told me to return it to its place.

At first, I thought that he had a special love for this book and that is why he was so excited. I removed another book from the shelf. “What book is that?” he asked me. “Halichot Olam by the Beit Yosef,” I replied. He immediately grabbed the book with delight, just as he had the previous book. When I removed the third book, he again asked me what book it was and when I answered, he said, “Oy, it’s already been half a year since I learned something from this book. Let us sit and learn something from it.” We sat down and he began to learn from the book with immense passion. This repeated itself with every book. It took us three hours to “air out” the books. By the end, Reb Leizhe was elated and dripping with sweat.

The Rebbe, Rabbi Avraham Weinberg of Slonim, asked me to repeat this story to him a number of times.

Another story:

Reb Leizhe was overcome with enthusiasm on the festival of Sukkot, more than at any other time of the year. His prayers throughout the year were full of emotion and excitement that were truly not from this world. But on Sukkot, it was exponentially so. His Hallel prayer was with such excitement that he did not know what world he was in. As soon as the Hallel prayer commenced, he began waving his lulav [Four Species] with so much fervor, that it seemed that he would faint from the enthusiasm. When he reached the verses of “Hodu,” he would shout them from the very depths of his heart. Sometimes his lulav would become defective and unfit for use right from the beginning from so much fervent shaking.

Once Reb Leizhe’s lulav broke and he did not have another lulav to shake during the prayers. He was very worried. Rebbe Avraham of blessed memory told him that he had a lulav in his house that he could use, but that he should be very careful with it because his family members were using it to make the ritual blessings. Reb Leizhe assured him that he would be careful, but when he reached the first Hodu in the Hallel prayer he became so excited that he mistakenly shook the lulav too close to the wall and it too broke…

In addition to his fervent prayers, the author emphasized:

As much as Reb Leizhe’s heart burned for God, he was also blessed with vast intellect. He would serve God with his intellect, with cleaving of the mind to God, and would not detach his thoughts from Him for even one moment.

Rebbe Avraham would relate that the doctor of Tiberias, Dr. Berger, once asked him, “Where on earth would we ever find someone like Reb Leizhe?” He related that once Reb Leizhe had a wound on his hand that required surgery. The doctor wanted to administer anesthesia so that Reb Leizhe would not feel the pain. Reb Leizhe told him that it was not necessary. All that he needed to do was to tell him before the surgery began. “Initially, I was hesitant,” Dr. Berger related. “Could a person ascend to such great heights that he would not feel that his flesh is being cut? But I agreed, thinking that surely when I would begin the surgery, he would quickly change his mind and request the anesthesia. To my amazement, however, he laid down on the bed, rolled up his sleeve and offered his arm. He lay there, cleaving to God in his mind, in peace and serenity, until I completed the procedure. Even after I finished, he remained in this focused state until I finally had to shake him a bit and to arouse him from his meditation.”

“Nu, did you finish already?” he asked me.

“Believe me,” the doctor summed up his experience, “if I could find a person like that today, I would give everything dear to me.”

Generally, we can divide tzaddikim into two types: The heartfelt type of tzaddikim, who serve God with visible fervor, and the intellect-centered tzaddikim, who do not show any external fervor (referred to in Chabad as ohne hispailus). The service of the heartfelt tzaddikim is expressed primarily by manifestation of the holy attributes—the attributes of the heart—which are aroused to serve God with palpable love and fear. Their emotions are also readily discernable by their enthusiastic, fervent prayer, often accompanied by swaying and movement.

Conversely, the service of the intellect-centered tzaddikim is contemplation on Divinity by means of the mind, with no emphasis on the attributes of the heart. These attributes are aroused because of the contemplation, but with no external bulges (בְּלִיטוֹת). This service of ohne hispailus is characteristic of the Chabad school of thought, as is explained at length in “A Treatise on Excitement” by the Mittler Rebbe. In a way, however, all the different chasidic courts that were based in Russia and who had been disciples of Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, were more intellect-centered.

By contrast, Reb Leizhe exemplified both types of Divine service. The story of the lulav on Sukkot is an extreme example of fervent prayer and external movement (which the holiday itself facilitates with the service of shaking the lulav and the joyous dancing). Conversely, the story about the surgery exemplifies a perfection of the principle known as, “the mind over heart” and the depth of the ability to delve into Divine contemplation and cleaving until the body is completely forgotten. The story about cleaning the books for Pesach—the holiday in which we draw down intellect from Above—is a synthesis of both stories. In addition to his great and fervent love for the books—so much so that he was sweating from the performance of the mitzvah of cleaning them—he relates to them with respect and is careful not to ruin them (as opposed to the lulav) as befits holy books, which are the source of the intellect of the person studying them.

A numerical allusion: “Intellectual excitement” (הִתְפַּעֲלוּת מוֹחִין) equals “Hear O’ Israel, Havayah is our God, Havayah is [one]”[1] (שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל י-הוה אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ) These are all but the final word of the Shema, the statement of Jewish faith in God’s oneness. After these five words, there is a mark that indicates a slight pause and then the word “one” is added. In other words, for the person who truly cleaves to God, all is one.

Now for one more story, relevant to the month of Elul and Rosh Hashanah that is fast approaching. This story is taken from the book Otzar Yisrael. Rabbi Yoel Ashkenazi related:

This story happened on Saturday night in the year 5661 (1901), when we began reciting the Selichot prayers. The custom in Tiberias was to say the Selichot prayers at midnight. When I made Havdalah, I thought that I would visit the elderly chasidim who had served the holy Rebbe of Kobrin and Slonim. The hearts of these chasidim were always wide-open. I came to the home of Reb Leizhe of blessed memory, who was among the important disciples of the holy Rebbe of Kobrin. A number four lantern was shining brightly in his home and he was pacing back and forth.

When he saw me, he said, “Yoel’keh, it is good that you came.” And he asked his wife to “bring a cup of tea for Yoel.” “I envy you,” he said to me, “that you are a young Torah student. A young Torah student is like a small fish. Here is his head and here is his tail. Even when he is at the level of tail, he can return to the level of his head in one moment. But an old person, if he is at the level of head, that is very good. But when he descends to the tail, he is far from the head. And until he can return to the head, he must invest much work and effort. He cannot return to the head in one moment.” I saw in his face that his soul was feeling so lowly, and his face had changed and looked dark.

The parable of the fish is not in reference to the toil of, “turn away from evil and do good,”[2] which younger, and certainly older people, must practice at all times (as explained at length in the Tanya) because that is the revealed toil, delegated to those who, as it were, live on dry land, in the regular reality. But the fish in Reb Leizhe’s parable, they live in the concealed world, always covered by water, and allude to the inner service of the soul, which depends on the Torah’s concealed dimension.  Reb Leizhe’s fish are made of a “head” (רֹאשׁ) and a “tail” (זָנָב), whose initials spell “secret” (רָז); the two words “head-tail” (רֹאשׁ זָנָב) also demonstrate self-reference to a “fish” because their sum is 560, or 80 times “fish” (דָּג). The fish is figuratively “self-contained” (aware only of itself), as can be understood from the fact that in halachah, the fish’s being—from head to tail—is the water in which it swims.

The fish’s head represents the toil of the intellect, and the tail represents heartfelt amazement that descends to the farthest extreme (for which reason the chasidim used to call someone in this state of external heartfelt amazement, bereft of independent intellect and a stable backbone, a shvantz—a tail). In the revealed dimension, the tail is considered loftier. So much so, that the sages tell us, “Be the tail of lions and not the head of foxes.”[3] In the concealed world, however, the emphasis is on the head.

In his words to Reb Yoel, Reb Leizhe is echoing the verse, “Do not cast me away during old age.”[4] Do not be an old person who is nothing more than a tail finding himself dragged after the actions and resolutions he made in his youth; do not be like a monkey continuing to imitate your own past behavior. When a person is old, one can see if he is truly a Torah scholar, because he resembles a king, or whether he is nothing more than a monkey, a shadow or imitation of his younger self.[5]

Some tzaddikim eat the head of a fish every Shabbat to rectify the souls and to arouse in the old fish (דָּג זָקֵן) and the young fish (דָּג צָעִיר), i.e., in all their disciples, young and old, their attribute of “Israel” (יִשְׂרָאֵל), which in Hebrew, can be rearranged to spell “I have a head” (לִי רֹאשׁ). On Rosh Hashanah, it is a common custom for everyone to eat the head of a fish and to request of God that we shall be “a head and not a tail.”


[1]. Deuteronomy 6:4.

[2]. Psalms 34:15.

[3]. Avot 4:15.

[4]. Psalms 71:9.

[5]. Kohelet Rabbah 1:2.

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