The most unusual rabbi

A biography of Rabbi Eliyahu Shear Yashuv Cohen, translated into English, tells of a remarkable life and his military and rabbinic experiences.

Rabbi Cohen meets in Haifa with then-US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro and other religious leaders (photo credit: MATTY STERN/U.S. EMBASSY TEL AVIV)
Rabbi Cohen meets in Haifa with then-US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro and other religious leaders
Rabbi Eliyahu Shear Yashuv Cohen was born into greatness – and he soared with it.
As an 18th-generation descendant of a family of rabbis and Torah luminaries, it was no surprise that he went into the “family business,” but the route he took was anything but typical.
Cohen, who died last year at the age of 88, was best known as the former chief rabbi of Haifa, a position he held from 1975 to 2011, but, as I wrote when I interviewed him five years ago for The Jerusalem Post’s 80th anniversary supplement (“Rabbi, warrior and seeker of peace,”) it could be said that his path to the Haifa position started when he was appointed rabbi of the Jordanian prisoner of war camp where he was a 20-year-old, wounded inmate in the War of Independence.
While this book, Rabbi Eliyahu Shear Yashuv Cohen: Between War and Peace, was written in his lifetime, the English translation was published posthumously this year. Among the fascinating tidbits, it records how Cohen, as IDF chaplain, visited the POW camp at Atlit where Israel held Arab prisoners, and compared the conditions between the Israeli camp and his own experience in Jordan.
He notes that in the Israeli camp, “What really hits you is that the POWs are allowed to circulate freely among the soldiers who are there to guard them... However, it seems to me that all steps should be taken to prevent the POWs from circulating among our soldiers – for the safety of the POWs and soldiers alike. This is what we learned under the Arab Legion and in my opinion, the Arabs were right on this point.”
Cohen was also arrested by the British for his underground activities against the Mandate and briefly held in the Latrun Detention Camp, where sticking to his vegetarian principles and kosher diet, he hardly ate.
No study of Cohen could be complete without the context of his family background.
When I met him, I was struck by the close relationship he obviously had to his father, Rabbi David Cohen, the Nazarite. His mother, Sarah Etkin, was among the founders of a religious organization that developed into the Emunah movement. The piety and modesty of both shines through this biography. His father lived by his Nazarite vows, never touching the fruit of the vine, abstaining from cutting his hair, and avoiding meat and leather.
His mother had a passion for plants (as well as for helping people), and Cohen’s childhood home is described as being crammed full of potted plants and greenery along with books.
Chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook had an especially close relationship with the Nazir, who edited his handwritten notebooks, and his son, Tzvi Yehuda Kook, acted as religious mentor and friend to Shear Yashuv Cohen.
Following his father’s tradition, Cohen grew up with his hair uncut and wearing canvas shoes. He started wearing leather shoes only after his leg injury and captivity but continued to abstain from wine and grape juice and did not eat meat or fish, out of respect for the sanctity of life.
His first hair cut came as a youth when he became a member of the Brit Hahashmonaim (Hasmonean Covenant), the religious wing of Betar.
“It was not practical to be part of an underground movement and having long hair,” he told me.
A special beit din (rabbinical court) convened when he was 12 and 16 to release him from his Nazarite vows.
Between War and Peace comes into its own when Shear Yashuv Cohen is quoted in his own words. His diaries recording how he managed to avoid the British and the ordeals he faced in the besieged Old City of Jerusalem are a fascinating, at times harrowing, read. As the country celebrates 50 years since Jerusalem’s reunification, it is sobering to recall how brave, beleaguered underground fighters struggled to keep a hold on the heart of the city, a heart whose blood washed through the narrow streets.
“At every post, and in every part of the city, childhood friends have fallen who once shared memories and dreams together, while now all we share are wars and combat,” he wrote.
And, leading up to his capture – when Arab Legion members saved him and other survivors from being lynched by the approaching Arab mob – here is how he recalled defeat: “Friday, 19th Iyyar 5708 (28th May 1948): We surrender... We now had only 36 men left – 36 versus thousands, who attacked us relentlessly every morning and evening. It was clear that we would not be able to hold position another day. If not for the many hundreds of civilians whose fate hung in the balance, the Jewish Quarter might have become a second Masada. But our commanding officers felt unable to assume the awesome responsibility of sacrificing the hundreds of families whose lives were now in mortal peril.
“With my failing strength, I managed to whisper to one of my injured comrades: ‘The day the Temple was destroyed, the Messiah was born’ [Jerusalem Talmud Tractate Berachot 2:4]. This was the sincere belief of all of us who were now prisoners of war, as we went that day into captivity and exile, to an unknown fate.
We all sensed that despite the dreadful disaster that had befallen us, we were now witnessing the birth of a new era, the very redemption of Israel.”
In 1967, Cohen, then a Jerusalem city councilor for the National Religious Party, was one of the first civilians to visit the Western Wall in the reunited Old City.
Accompanied by his father and Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, he joined his brother-in-law Rabbi Shlomo Goren, then chief IDF chaplain and later Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, who was married to Cohen’s sister Tzefiya.
He also proudly attended the signing of the peace treaty with Jordan in 1994.
Cohen served in the IDF for seven years, reaching the rank of lieutenant-colonel as the IAF’s chief rabbi. He was later chief of the senior council for dialogue between the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Vatican, and served as chairman of the council for dialogue between Judaism and Islam, in addition to being an emissary of the Israel Chief Rabbinate to interfaith meetings and a member of the Board of World Religious Leaders for The Elijah Interfaith Institute.
His many positions included being dean of the Harry Fischel Institute for Research in Jewish Law and Seminary for Rabbis and Rabbinical Judges and a founder of the Ariel Institutes.
The book is the fifth volume in Urim Publications’ Modern Jewish Lives series and offers a worthy look at the life and personality of an inspirational rabbi.
Cohen’s love for Jerusalem, his love of learning and his love of people are evident throughout. The English version of the book brings to life the extraordinary period of time when the modern State of Israel was born.