Rabbi Shabtai HaKohen (Shabbatai ha-Kohen) was born in Vilna, in the year 5382 (1622), that is, a little less than 350 years ago. His father Rabbi Meir was Av Beth-Din (Head of the Jewish Court) in that city, and he was young Shabtai HaKohen's first teacher. At the age of twelve, Shabtai HaKohen was already fully versed in the vast Talmud and Talmudic literature. His father then sent him to the Yeshiva of the great Gaon Rabbi Joshua, author of the Pnei Yeboshua in Tiktin. Later, in the year 1639, he traveled together with his teacher to Cracow, Poland, where his teacher headed a great Yeshiva. Subsequently, he studied Torah under the Gaon Rabbi Heshel, and the Gaon Rabbi Naftoli Katz. Rabbi Shabtai then returned to Vilna, where he was welcomed as one of the leading Talmud scholars of his time.
In Vilna Shabtai became the son-in-law of a famous scholar who was also a prominent businessman, Rabbi Benjamin Wolf Tauber, who was a son-in-law of the famed Maharshal and a grandson of the equally famous Remo. Rabbi Benjamin Wolf supported his illustrious son-in-law with great honor. In spite of his young age, he was soon chosen as a member of the Beth Din of Vilna.
Aside from his duties as a member of the Beth Din, Rabbi Shabtai HaKohen was able to devote all his time to the study of the Torah and the service of the Almighty, as he was well provided for. Day and night he spent in study and prayer, and writing his commentaries on his studies. During this period he compiled his gigantic work Sifsei Cohen, popularly known by its Hebrew initials "ShaCh," which are also the initials of his name. It is a very scholarly commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, Yoreb Deab. He published this work at the early age of 24! Eighteen great Torah scholars of that day gave their approval to this great work, and all of them were full of praise for this brilliant work of the young genius.
In the same year that Rabbi Shabtai HaKohen published his work, an elderly "Torah-giant" published a brilliant commentary on the same section of the Shulchan Aruch. He was the famous Rabbi David ben Shmuel HaLevi, and he named his work Turei Zohov ("TaZ"). Because of the latter's fame and age, the TaZ was more readily recognized and acclaimed, and it somewhat overshadowed the work of the younger author. However, it did not take long before the ShaCh came to be regarded just as highly as the TaZ. Although much younger in age, Rabbi Shabtai HaKohen found many points in the work of his older contemporary with which he disagreed. Whereupon he wrote his arguments (Hasogos) in a work which he called Nekudos HaKesef. It should be noted that he chose this title for his work, not only because it came from the same verse in Shir HaSbirim ( 1: 11 ) from where the older scholar drew the name of his work. More significantly, Rabbi Shabtai HaKohen showed thereby that he took a secondary place to that of the elder scholar. For, inasmuch as Turei Zohov means "rows of gold" and Nekudos HaKesef means "silver points," Rabbi Shabtai HaKohen, in his modesty, indicated that his Torah knowledge, in comparison to that of the elderly Gaon Rabbi David, was like silver compared to gold.
Rabbi Shabtai HaKohen then began to write a commentary on another section of the Shulchan Aruch, the Choshen Misbpot. But at this point, the terrible national calamity, known in Jewish history as "Gzeros TaCh vTaT" (the Massacres of the years 5408-5409) struck the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. In those years (1648-9) the Cossacks, under the leadership of Bogdan Chmelnicki, revolted against Poland and put to the sword and flame countless Jewish communities. Untold thousands of Jews (some historians estimate as many as 300,000) were butchered by the Cossacks during their bloody march through the Ukraine, Volhynia, Podolia, Poland proper and Lithuania. Although the revolt of the Cossacks was temporarily halted by peace negotiations, the Cossack attacks continued for more than ten years with undiminished savagery. The great city of Vilna also fell into the hands of the fanatical -Cossacks. They ravaged the city and carried out a mass slaughter of the Jewish inhabitants, giving the Jews the choice of baptism (conversion to christianity) or death. A number of Jews managed to flee from Vilna and surrounding towns and villages. Among the Jews who had escaped was also Rabbi Shabtai HaKohen. It was on Thursday, the 24th of Tammuz, in the year 5415 (1655). Rabbi Shabtai HaKohen came to Lublin, but also here the bloodthirsty bands reached on the first day of Succos and massacred many Jews. The ShaCh once again managed to escape. He wandered a great deal until he finally arrived in Dresnitz, a town in Moravia, where he was appointed Rabbi. While there, he received a call to become the Rabbi of the Jewish community in Helishoi.
Rabbi Shabtai HaKohen recorded the terrible events of those days in a work entitled Megilo Offo ("Flying Scroll"), which is an important historical document.
In addition to the above mentioned works, Rabbi Shabtai HaKohen HaCohen composed Selichos (penitential poems and prayers) for the 20th day of Sivan, which was proclaimed as an annual fast-day in memory of the destruction of the Jewish community of Nernerov, where ten thousand Jews were slaughtered by the savage Cossacks.
Rabbi Shabtai HaKohen HaCohen also wrote Tokfo Cohen, Responsa, and other works.
This brilliant Talmudist, whose works display an extraordinary wide and deep knowledge of all the Talmud and Rabbinic literature, died at the young age of 41, on Rosh Chodesh Adar Rishon, in the year 5423 (1663).
Both the ShaCh and TaZ are now considered absolutely essential for the study of the Shulchan Aruch, a thorough knowledge of which is a basic requirement for Rabbbinic authority. Both these commentaries now appear together along-side the text of the Shulchan Aruch (as Rashi and Tosfos appear with the Gemoro).
In one of the darkest and most tragic periods in Jewish history, the ShaCh enlightened the Jewish world with his Torah, and his light shines brightly to the present day.