Rabbi David Cohen, known to all as “HaRav Nazir (the Nazarite),” was renowned for his knowledge of Torah, Prayer and Mysticism. He was one of the greatest disciples of Rabbi Kook, who attached himself to Rabbi Kook and his teachings in Switzerland, after which he merited ascending to the Land to remain connected to Rabbi Kook and edit his master work “Orot HaKodesh”’.
Rabbi Cohen was a unique and wondrous figure, strong and an iron will. His spirit was uncompromising, always aspiring to the ultimate truth, the deepest and most esoteric understanding, for the attainment of which he was willing to sacrifice his entire being. He was outstanding in his knowledge of the wisdom of Kabbalah and in general philosophy, which was all part of his desire to reach greater spiritual heights. Yet he was also a learned and meticulous researcher, who carefully compared various versions of manuscripts and translations before choosing the most accurate one. His strong desire to attain a high spiritual level that would allow him to achieve enlightenment and the sense of prophecy brought him to desolate and distant places. His appearance was arresting, his long hair – unshorn in the manner of Nazarites – golden, his height imposing, his very being emanating nobility and spirituality.
His Life Story
Rabbi David Cohen was born in 1887 in the town of Mishigala near Vilna, to his father Rabbi Yosef Yuzpa HaKohen, the rabbi of the town, son of Rabbi Zecharia Mendel Katz, the famous rabbi of Radin, the seat of the Chofetz Chaim. At the age of seven, he was taught Talmud by his mother’s cousin Rabbi Shlomo Meklar in cheder. Even then his unusual abilities were apparent. At the age of nine he was brought to his grandfather’s house in Radin, where he studied diligently with a group of much older students, every day until 9 p.m. His teacher was Rabbi Moshe Binyamin Schneider. When he was ten years old, his grandfather died an event that affected him greatly. That same year, he went to his father’s house, which was now in Ukraine, in the city of Kanatap, to attend a yeshiva there, established by his father’s cousin. When he was twelve years old, he studied with his uncle, Rabbi Yeshaya Katz, who was a rabbi of the town of Bekshet and the nearby Jewish village of Bariswaka, near Volozhin. There he celebrated his Bar Mitzvah, and from that time on studied diligently day and night.
A year later he was brought to study at the Volozhin yeshiva – “the mother of the Lithuanian yeshivas.” After a short period of time he moved with his uncle to the city of Ravel, where his uncle became the rabbi and studied there for a year. In 1903, at the age of sixteen, he returned to Radin, where he continued to grow in Torah knowledge and attend shiurim given by Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen, the Chofetz Chaim.
The period of his studies in the various yeshivas is characterized by his great dedication to Torah study and special attention to moral education, expressed in daily “moral accounting” and introspection, with behavior recorded daily on a chart. In his personal memoirs, Rabbi David Cohen describes his dedication to the Torah: “The long winter nights were devoted to my studies, between my fingers a lit candle in order to prevent sleep. During the day my legs were placed on snow to prevent drowsiness”. This period of study continued up until the last twenty years of his life.
Engagement and General Education
A unique period in his life was the period when he studied at the Jewish Academy, founded by Baron David Ginsburg in Petersburg, Russia, and at the University of Freiburg in Germany. The studies at the Jewish Academy in Petersburg, focused on historical research of Talmud and Midrash, were led by select lecturers and at the University of Freiburg; the emphasis was on classic German literature. This period, which lasted about three years (1911-1913), crystallized a multifaceted personality that was able, in later years, to edit, compare, and formulate Rabbi Kook’s philosophy vis a vis other viewpoints. His mastery of Judaic knowledge and general philosophy provided the students of the “Central Yeshiva” a unique opportunity to explore varied fields of study and spiritual worlds that a typical yeshiva student did not reach.
Before leaving for university in Germany, Rabbi David became engaged to his niece. The couple hoped to get married a year or two later. Meanwhile, World War I broke out and Rabbi David fled to Switzerland. The Communist revolution in Russia detained her and they were separated for the next twelve years.
Rabbi Kook and Rabbi Nazir Meet
Expanding horizons and dealing with the literature of the Enlightenment opened new paths to the Rabbi Nazir personality, but did not satisfy his thirst for secret teachings and hidden dimension in the world of Jewish wisdom. Nevertheless, the very fact there were non-traditional philosophy books in the bookshelf of a typical yeshiva student must have paved the way for a very important meeting in Galen, Switzerland between Rabbi Kook and Rabbi David Cohen on Rosh Chodesh Elul, 1915.
In his personal recollections, the Rabbi Nazir described the dramatic experience of this meeting, “About twenty seven years ago, I was in Switzerland in Basel, busy learning philosophical studies of their time periods, full of thirst and desire for truth, especially Jewish truth when I received word that Rabbi Kook was in the area. I wrote to him [requesting to visit him] and received an answer; I decided to go to him … I stayed with them. On my bed my heart did not lie, the fate of my life was on the scales. And it is early morning, and I will hear the sound of footsteps here and there, in the blessings of the morning, the prayer of the Akeidah … After the prayer I hastened to announce in a letter that I found a rabbi, I had found a rabbi practically, but also one that bound the spiritual world together with the physical in one geographical location .A new era had begun in my life. I had become a different person,” Rabbi David Cohen later wrote in his memoirs
During their stay in Switzerland, Rabbi David managed to study with the rabbi, to ask questions and to listen to his shiurim. But a year later, the rabbi was called to serve as a rabbi in London, which he agreed to condition that, when it was possible to return to the Land of Israel, his obligation to them would cease. Indeed, two years later, World War I ended, and the rabbi returned to Israel and was appointed rabbi of Jerusalem.
In the meantime, Rabbi David remained in Switzerland, longing to join the rabbi. On Rosh Hashana, in 1921, Rabbi Nazir was informed that his arrival in Eretz Israel had been approved. On Erev Yom Kippur, ten days later at Jaffa. His aim was to help Rabbi Kook with the founding of the “Central Yeshiva.” He wrote in his memoirs upon his arrival:
“I immediately went to the Warshavsky Hotel and planned to go to the rabbi’s house, the life and spirit of my soul, and I was fortunate enough to go up to the holy one in the holy place [Rabbi Kook’s house]. Ashereini, whom I have been privileged to see, [he who] sits in the high and high place on all of Israel (as the Rabbi of Jerusalem), and ashreich Israel, that you have earned your shepherd …”
Two and a half years later, his fiancée received her aliyah visa and together they established their home in the Holy Land.
During those years, Rabbi David established his home at the back of Rabbi Kook’s house, where he slept and ate, and there he continued his studies day and night. He frequently undertook fasts, and often he undertook ta’anis dibur. For example, he used a to undertake a ta’anis dibur, from Elul until the end of Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, from beginning to end, he would remain standing throughout the whole prayers.
His spiritual ambitions were miraculous and wondrous. On Shabbat he would remain silent in order to absorb the holiness of the day. He refrained from eating meat. From his desire for holiness, he accepted the restrictions of a nazir, drank no wine, and did not cut the hair on his head.
An example of his wonderful yearnings can be found, among other things, in his memoirs about tekiat shofar alongside Rabbi Kook: “The holy day went upon me in a wondrous manner. The day before we were crying without end and today we were uplifted to the highest heights.
Especially because the holy Rabbi [Kook] asked me to read the order before he blew the Shofar blasts, he would blow the shofar and I would read word for word. The moments were awe inspiring, like the blasts heralding the Messiah, he was focused as awe and fear fell over me. These are secrets that I don’t want to describe in writing”.
Rabbi Kook’s Unique Relationship with his Disciple
Rabbi Nazir saw Rabbi Kook as an abundant spring with overflowing with his unique system of thought and Rabbi Kook considered his friend as a devoted student who could carry out his thoughts and idea. This connection led to two main outcomes: Rabbi Nazir editing Orot HaKodesh by Rabbi Kook, and the formulation of a comprehensive study program for the yeshiva.
Rabbi Nazir on Rabbi Kook
“I am sitting in the heart of Israel, in the heart of Jerusalem, the holy city, and in the house of the Gadol Hador, the central point of all of the wisdom of Israel, encompassing everything and everything, and his heart is full of tender, deep and sharp emotion. His mind is full of sharpness and brilliance and knowledge. He is a genius, an investigator, a tzaddik, an innocent, a chassid, humble and proud like Hillel. And more than the calf – the student wants – the rabbi wants … “(Nazir Achiv).
He also wrote: “We are in the messianic era, the period of redemption has begun … and we do not know, all of them are have a mask over their eyes, behind the curtain, without knowledge and without understanding what is before them. Only Maran knows, he sees. When I went up to him on Motz”sh Kadosh to wish him mazal on his official appointment to the Chief Rabbinate, few words were exchanged between us, but they were revelations, like a lightning bolt. And the house shone from a prophetic revelation, as a time of redemption “(ibid)
“… the hand of God is upon him, and his spirit is in his midst, and he needs a servant, and I am the servant with all my heart …” (ibid)
A Study Program for the Future Yeshiva
The meeting between the two rabbis led, among other things, to a study program for the future yeshiva. Rabbi Nazir attested to the fact that one of the intentions of Rabbi Kook once he arrived in the Land of Israel was to establish a central yeshiva with a comprehensive study program aimed at reviving the spirit of prophecy in Israel. After the details of the plan were shown to Rabbi Kook, he stated, “If I had written a plan, it would have been like that.” This program shows an unconventional scope of subjects and educational content that were not found in other yeshivas during this period. Its uniqueness lies in providing a place for Tanach, Talmud in a wide range of fields, and Machshava.
Editing Orot HaKodesh
As a person who was well acquainted with the systematic and orderly nature of the great philosophical texts, Rabbi Nazir sought to find a method in the words of Rabbi Kook. He wrote in the Introduction to the Orot HaKodesh (p. 18), “And it was today (in the year 1922), and I will ask him a question: Rabbi, there is holiness here a special influence. Is there also a Rav’s Torah, a specific learning content, a method? And the answer: Yes, of course.
“Since then, I have decided to clarify the teachings of the rabbi, as a complete Divine system, its foundations, and the fundamentals, and to choose his writings and to arrange them, in the words of the Torah. A fundamental system of God, in the system of holy wisdom … “
Rabbi Nazir invested tremendous effort in editing the texts. He considered Rabbi Kook’s words as Ruach HaKodesh, and he also considered the work of editing very much, until he wrote: “If I had not been afraid, I would have said, ‘Write them in the spirit of the highest.’” Rabbi Nazir sat on each article. pondering editing questions and adding titles to chapters. And when he turned Rabbi Kook for guidance, he would not answer. Rabbi Nazir only succeeded a few times in obtaining direction (ibid).
He also wrote, “How many times have I regretted that the words that came out a bit wrong, in content and in form, and then Rabbi Kook would reassure me, that what came out was fine.”
Before Rabbi Kook’s passing, Rabbi Nazir showed him the first volume of the Orot HaKodesh. In the decades that followed he published two more volumes. And after the Rabbi Nazir’s passing, his successors published the fourth part. In this manner, Rabbi Nazir’s vision was fulfilled to present the words of Rabbi Kook as a complete and unified system.
Principles of his Philosophy
The principles of Rabbi Nazir’s philosophical system are evident in two main sources: the editing of the book “Orot HaKodesh” and the writing of the book “The Voice of Prophecy – The Hebrew Sage’s Logic” (which was originally intended to be the first in a three-part series).
Most of Rabbi Cohen’s research aimed to prove his theory that there is a special Hebrew logic inherent in Jewish philosophy. In contrast to Greek philosophy that is based on observations of the world, Rabbi Cohen’s theory is based on the internal listening and hearing of what is happening in the present moment. According to his philosophy for understanding the Jewish worldview, the first element is: listening to the inner voice that beats within, and hearing its inner personality. This inner hearing and complexity, culminates with prophecy.
Shiurim in his Home
This unique and multifaceted personality left a strong impression on yeshiva students, although it should be noted that some students who did not get to the bottom of the “strange” silence did not make contact. A unique atmosphere prevailed in Rabbi Nazir’s home, which was bathed in the scents of flowers and potted plants combined with the heady aroma of ancient books. There were dozens of books on the windowsill for the shiur. Each detail was prepared in advance, each page marked with its own note. Great philosophers from the university would sit together in his shiur, along with his yeshiva students.
Rabbi Nazir passed away on the 28th of Av, 5770, and was buried on the Mount of Olives cemetery in Jerusalem.
He was survived by a wife – the Rabbanit Sarah Cohen, a daughter – Rebbetzin Tzfeya Goren (the wife of the Chief Military Rabbi and later Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren) and a son – Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen (Chief Rabbi of Haifa and the district).