Rabbi Kilav was born in White Russia and studied in the Chabad yeshivot there. The many upheavals to Russian Jewry occurred while he was living there. The First World War struck the Jewish people, including Rabbi Yaakov Kilav’s family. When the nightmare of WWI ended another began, the Communist Revolution, a savage civil war. Following the revolution, the Communist Regime was established, known as one that brutally suppressed religion.
Lithuania was able to remain independent, anyone who wanted to emigrate there from Russia needed to prove their Lithuanian citizenship.
The young Yaakov Kilav’s salvation was Shlomo Natan Raanan Hirschowitz (later Rabbi Raanan, Rabbi Kook’s son-in-law), a Lithuanian, who returned to his birthplace in order to obtain a certificate for his friend. The name on the certificate was Dovid Kilav, which unfortunately was name being targeted by the Lithuanian authorities, known as being connected to the Communist underground. Rabbi Kilav would recount the miracle that happened to him as he crossed the border between Russia and Lithuania:
The border station had two inspectors and when Rabbi Kilav arrived, they took his certificate for inspection. One guard was suspicious and wanted to verify the authenticity of the certificate. The other guard said, “Let him through – I know this man,” although, of course, this was the first time he had seen Yaakov Kilav. Thus, miraculously, he was able to escape Russia.
He went to Ponevezh and studied at Rabbi Kahanman zt’l’s yeshiva. Here, too, the Lithuanian police continued to search for Dovid Kilav, and took him into custody. Only after Rabbi Kahneman invested much money and effort towards his release was Yaakov Kilav was able to return to his studies.
After three years in the Ponevezh yeshiva, he moved to Telz Yeshiva and with much diligence achieved great heights in learning.
His genius and perseverance was already recognized from a young age. He was known to learn straight seven days a week; on Erev Shabbat he would switch his collar inside out in honor Shabbat, due to lack of time and means.
Aliyah to Israel
In 1919, he turned to Chief Rabbi Avraham HaKohen Kook to help him obtain permission from the government to immigrate to Eretz Yisrael.
He was appointed by Rabbi Kook to be part of the Harry Fishel Institute for Talmud, headed by Rabbi Dov Kook, Rabbi Kook’s brother. Rabbi Dov Kook had been the rabbi of a large Ukrainian yeshiva, then rabbi of Afula, and later headed the institute.
Rabbi Rabbi Kilav married Rabbi Dov Kook’s granddaughter.
Rabbi Kook was the Mesader Kiddushin and as a gift to the groom, gave him two volumes of the Shulchan Aruch: Even HaEzer inscribed with personal blessings for success in marriage.
Kfar HaRoeh and the Move to Yerushalayim
Rabbi Kilav taught four years at the Bnei Akiva yeshiva in Kfar Roah while his wife, Rebbitzen Batyah, was in charge of the kitchens. Later on she also was in charge of the kitchens in the Mercaz Harav yeshiva.
After Passover 1948, he moved from Kfar Roah to Jerusalem and founded his new yeshiva, Mishkan Yisrael. The new yeshiva was initially located at the Harry Fischel Institute, headed by his father-in-law, on David Street in the Bucharian neighborhood.
To ensure that their needs were provided for, he made special arrangements with the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva. His students learned in the morning at Mishkan Yisrael at the Harry Fischel Institute, and during the afternoon and evening at the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva on Rabbi Kook St. They also joined Mercaz Harav students for meals in the yeshiva’s cafeteria on Hanaveim St.
Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Neriah zt’l, reminisced in his book that when a group of Yeshiva graduates from the Bnei Akiva Yeshiva in Kfar Haroeh arrived at the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva, Rabbi Shalom Ra’anan received them with open arms. In a letter from Rabbi Yaakov Kilav to Rabbi Neriah on 29 Sivan 5765, he writes:
I am pleased to hear that the group of students have been arranged with the help of G-d, and we think it will be of great benefit to all of us, to increase the Torah and glorify it. And the merit [of that learning] will advocate on behalf of us all.
After a while, the new yeshiva fully merged with the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva and Rabbi Kilav gave shiur in the main room of the yeshiva. Thus, with the group from the Bnei Akiva Yeshiva, Mercaz Harav (which had decreased in its number of students after Rabbi Kook’s passing) was renewed again. This paved the way for more new students that came from the Kerem Beyavneh Yeshiva and the Southern Yeshiva.
His teaching style was to show his students how to penetrate to the depths of the sugya based on understanding the earliest sources. He taught his students to turn to the Rishonim first, and build the peshat of the suygot from there. He always sought the simplest meaning, whether in the Talmud, in Chumash or the Midrash.
Besides for teaching the Talmud every Friday, there was a shiur in Jewish thought or Ramban on the weekly Torah portion. Every Talmud shiur starting with a small lesson from a mussar sefer.
Connection with Students
Every Friday, he reviewed with every student the material he had covered during the week, and he would record his assessments in his diary. When a student needed approval for a course of study, he didn’t just mention what area needed improvement, but he detailed precisely what the student had covered already.
Rabbi Kilav was a teacher of high stature, endowed with the twin gifts of explanation and expression. He lovingly nurtured each of his students, while demanding from them the same dedication and discipline that he demanded from himself.
When first seder started at 9 am, he didn’t permit them to be late by even a minute.
Rabbi Kilav dedicated himself to preparing his students to influence the greater community, and as such he had them give public classes on the weekly Torah portion at the Harry Fishel Institute.
From time to time he would consult with the Rebbe of Gur.
After his father-in-law, Rabbi Dovid Kook passed away, he continued to live in the Harry Fishel Institute in the Bucharian neighborhood and was appointed as the Rabbi of the Tel-Ariza neighborhood and its synagogue, Mishkan Yisrael.
On Chanuka 1958, Rabbi Kilav was appointed as one of the judges of the Rabbi Kook Award given in Tel Aviv to Torah Books. He was to travel there on the last day of Chanukah, the 3rd of Tevet, with Rabbi Aryeh Levin zt’l . That morning, however, he was overcome by a sudden headache that left feeling him weakened. After calling for a doctor, it became clear that he was suffering from a life-threatening stroke. In his last moments, he recited Shema Yisrael before taking leave of this world. The night he had participated in a siyum of Tractate Menachot that he taught at the local synagogue.
His son, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Halavi Kilav published his sefer Ekev Ohna on the Rambam’s Laws of Teshuva. There, with much erudition and understanding, he discussed the laws of Teshuva, including responsa from the leaders of the generation who had corresponded with Rabbi Calev. Additionally, Ekev Mishpat, on the Shulchan Aruch: Choshen Mishpat was published.
His primary disciples include Rabbi Yehoshua Rosen, Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, Rabbi Dov Lior, Rabbi Zefanah Dror, Rabbi Zalman Melamed, and Rabbi Uzzi Kalchim.