By the age of 12 he had become a Nazarite, just like his father, foregoing haircuts and eschewing meat, wine and leather shoes. He stopped a few years later—having explicitly avoided making a vow—although he never did eat fish, poultry and meat, or drink wine again. At age 20 in 1948, with Israel’s War of Independence raging around them, he and a group of fellow yeshivah students snuck into Jerusalem’s embattled Old City to help with its defense—physical and spiritual. He was badly injured and captured by the Jordanian military, joining hundreds of other Jewish fighters as a prisoner of war in Jordan.

“The moment they moved us out of the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem we began to sing,” remembered the young man, Rabbi She’ar Yashuv Cohen—who prominently served as Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Haifa for 36 years—decades later in an interview with Kfar Chabad magazine. “We sang songs of Jerusalem; the Arabs thought we had lost our minds. But it was with the strength of these songs, thank G‑d, that we were able to overcome the hardships of our subsequent seven months of imprisonment, until our return to Jerusalem.”

Cohen, who passed away on Monday at age 88, never did stop defending the territorial integrity of the Holy Land nor the Jewish people’s innate right to it, and over the course of more than half-a-century became one of Israel’s most influential and respected rabbinic figures.

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The scion of a rabbinical family with roots in the Kopust branch of the Chabad movement, he enjoyed a lengthy relationship with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, spending hours with the Rebbe in private audience—first as a politician in Jerusalem, and then while in the rabbinate—and corresponding with him extensively.

“During all of my visits with the Rebbe I felt a sense of reverence and awe,” Cohen told Kfar Chabad’s Rabbi Yitzchak Holtzman. “But from the moment I entered his room, the Rebbe, for his part, made me feel comfortable there. It became like a visit to family.”

Rabbi She’ar Yashuv Cohen (Photo: Refaella Abbo-Evron)
Rabbi She’ar Yashuv Cohen (Photo: Refaella Abbo-Evron)

In a way, it was.

Around 1926, while still in the Soviet Union, the Rebbe went into hiding from Communist authorities at the home of Cohen’s maternal grandparents, Rabbi and Mrs. Chanoch Henich Etkin, in Luga, Russia, where Etkin served as rabbi.

“The Rebbe used the words, ‘I was brought.’ Chassidim who knew my grandfather decided this was a safe place for him,” said Cohen, according to the forthcoming biography The Rebbe’s Early Years, by Rabbis Elkanah Shmotkin and Baruch Oberlander. “He ate, drank and slept there. My late grandmother hosted him, caring for all his needs . . . He had a study session with my grandfather . . . My grandfather wasn’t a chasid, he was a follower of the Musar movement, a student of the Novardok yeshivah . . . they mostly learned Talmud, and a bit of Tanya . . . ”

It was a kindness the Rebbe did not forget. Later, just before departing the Soviet Union for the last time, he visited the Etkins together with his mother, perhaps to thank them for their assistance.

Years later, the Etkin’s grandson, Cohen, by then a Jerusalem city councilor, came to the Rebbe’s headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, N.Y., as a part of the delegation of Israel’s President Zalman Shazar. Shazar pointed to Cohen and asked the Rebbe: “Ir kent dem yungerman?” (Do you know this young man?”)

“And the Rebbe said, avadeh, avadeh, of course, of course,” Cohen told JEM’s “My Encounter with the Rebbe” Oral History Project. “Mir zaynen duch alte gutte freint; we are old, good friends.” Cohen continued: “Not because I [was] old, but because of my grandfather, I’m sure.”

Learning, War and Politics

Cohen’s father was Rabbi Dovid Cohen, known as Harav Hanazir, or the Nazarite of Jerusalem. (Photo: Makor Rishon)
Cohen’s father was Rabbi Dovid Cohen, known as Harav Hanazir, or the Nazarite of Jerusalem. (Photo: Makor Rishon)

Eliyahu Yosef She’ar Yashuv Cohen was born on Nov. 4, 1927, in Jerusalem, the son of Rabbi Dovid Cohen, known as the famed Harav Hanazir, the Nazarite of Jerusalem, and his wife, Sarah.

Dovid Cohen’s own voracious intellectual appetite led him through various institutions of Torah study—from his little hometown in Lithuania to the Slobodka yeshiva across the river from Kovna, and on to Baron David Ginzburg’s academy of higher learning in Petersburg, where the elder Cohen studied alongside Israel’s future president, Shazar. Cohen’s father, Rav Yosef Cohen (for whom She’ar Yashuv was partially named), was a dedicated follower of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Schneersohn, a grandson of the Tzemach Tzedek (third Rebbe of Chabad), who was known as the Magen Avot.

“In his youth my father traveled to Germany to gain a general education,” Cohen recalled to Kfar Chabad. “Before he left his father gave him the Chassidic tract Kuntres Hahispaalus (Treatise on Ecstasy) of Rabbi Dovber of Lubavitch. I have this booklet to this day.”

The chief rabbi was a regular at Chabad events in Israel, seen here speaking at the completion of the first unity Torah scroll. From left: Cohen, Rabbi Nathan Yitzchak Oirechman of Akko and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Oirechman of Chabad of the Krayot.
The chief rabbi was a regular at Chabad events in Israel, seen here speaking at the completion of the first unity Torah scroll. From left: Cohen, Rabbi Nathan Yitzchak Oirechman of Akko and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Oirechman of Chabad of the Krayot.

At the onset of World War I, the elder Cohen became engaged to his first cousin, Sarah Etkin. He left Russia shortly thereafter, and while in Switzerland in 1915 met for the first time the man who would become his mentor and teacher, Rabbi Avraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, the first chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine. Due to war, the couple’s wedding did not take place for 12 years after the initial engagement, eventually taking place at the home of Rav Kook in the Land of Israel.

A Talmudist, Kabbalist and philosopher, the ascetic Cohen became one of Rav Kook’s chief students and expositors of his teachings. From the time of his own birth, She’ar Yashuv was close to Rav Kook, and then later became a close student of his son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, at Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav. His only sister Tzefiya was married to Rabbi Shlomo Goren, the chief chaplain of the Israel Defense Forces, and from 1973-1983 the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel.

While deep internal rifts split Jewish forces during the War of Independence, intra-rival peace was the rule within the ancient fortifications of the Old City of Jerusalem, where Haganah, Irgun and Lechi forces fought together against the invading Arab army. It’s there—as he fought and studied alongside fellow yeshivah students based out of the Jewish Quarter’s Menachem Zion synagogue—that She’ar Yashuv was badly injured in the leg and taken prisoner.

Cohen’s father in his elder years
Cohen’s father in his elder years

Later, he became involved in politics at the municipal level, becoming a Jerusalem city councilor. He was deputy mayor at the time of the Holy City’s reunification following the Six-Day War, having the distinction of being one of the last Jews to be led out of the Old City in 1948 and among the first to re-enter in 1967.

As deputy mayor, Cohen remembers discussing the fate of Jerusalem with the Rebbe on a number of occasions. “Jerusalem is the heart of the Jewish people, and the Temple Mount and the place of the Holy Temple the head of the Jewish people,” Cohen recalls the Rebbe telling him, as he encouraged Israeli authorities to unwaveringly pronounce the eternal Jewish nature of the place. “The body cannot exist without the head and without the heart.”

As a growing political figure, Cohen began to travel to the United States more often, trying hard to visit the Rebbe in Brooklyn during each trip. Once he returned home without having made his regular pilgrimage to the Rebbe.

“You were in the United States and didn’t go to the Rebbe!?!” demanded Cohen’s father, who for the most part was a man of extremely few words.

“I made up at that time that I would visit the Rebbe each time I was in the United States,” Cohen told Kfar Chabad.

Prior to the Nazir’s passing in 1972, he told his son that up to that point he had been able to turn to him, his father, for guidance. “From now on,” the elder Cohen told his son, “when you have big questions, go to the Rebbe.”

Jewish fighters in captivity in Marfraq, Jordan, 1948 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Jewish fighters in captivity in Marfraq, Jordan, 1948 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

‘A Special Person and Kind Man’

Before the 1975 elections for chief rabbi of Haifa, Cohen asked the Rebbe for his blessing. The response was positive, but additionally, he kept steering the conversation towards Cohen’s time in Jordanian captivity, something that confused Cohen.

Cohen soon discovered that a central figure in the Haifa electing body was the deputy mayor, Yosef Blustein. Blustein had been in captivity together with Cohen at Mafraq, Jordan, and Cohen’s ability to navigate between all of the different types of Jews being held together a quarter-century earlier had made an impression on him. Blustein threw his support behind Cohen, who remained chief rabbi of Haifa until 2011.

In addition, Cohen served as president of the Harry Fischel Institute of Talmudic Research and Torah Law, which ordained many of Israel’s rabbis, and was also founder of the Advanced Torah Institute and the Ariel Institute in Jerusalem. In 1993 he was an unsuccessful candidate for Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel.

Rabbi Leibel Schildkraut first met Cohen in 1979, when he arrived in the seaside city with his wife, Rivka, to establish Chabad-Lubavitch of Haifa. While Chabad emissaries regularly reach out to local rabbinical figures whenever they arrive in a new city, Schildkraut says his interactions with Cohen were warm and familial from the get-go.

“He always came to our events—the Siyum HaRambam, groundbreaking, whatever was going on, he would happily participate. He was close with the Rebbe, so he was automatically close with us,” says Schildkraut. “He was a special person, a very kind man.”

Cohen speaks with the Rebbe at a farbrengen. (Photo: JEM/The Living Archive)
Cohen speaks with the Rebbe at a farbrengen. (Photo: JEM/The Living Archive)

Schildkraut recalls a time in 1983 when Cohen requested that the Chabad emissary arrange a private audience for him with the Rebbe. By that point, private audiences had basically ceased, and Schildkraut hesitated to even ask. Encouraged by a colleague, just before 19 Kislev (Yud Tes Kislev), he wrote a note to the Rebbe telling him he would be coming to New York with the mayor of Haifa for the 19th of Kislev gathering at 770. At the end of his note, he added that Cohen had requested a private audience.

The next day came the unexpected answer: The Rebbe would grant a private audience to both the mayor of Haifa and to Cohen; Cohen’s ended up lasting 90 minutes.

Over a public career that spanned 60 years, Cohen took positions that were sometimes unpopular, tenaciously holding on to them despite outside pressures.

Yet he always recalled words the Rebbe once told him: Rabbis may not fear man; “a rav must fear only G‑d Almighty.”

Cohen passed away on Rav Kook’s yahrtzeitthe third day of the Hebrew month of Elul—and was buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, the city he forever called home.

He is survived by his wife, Dr. Naomi Cohen; daughter Eliraz Kraus; six grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren.

Israeli President Zalman Shazar is greeted by Rabbi Shmuel Levitin in the Rebbe’s office during the former’s 1971 visit to the Rebbe. Cohen, to the immediate left of Shazar, was a member of the Israeli delegation. (Photo: JEM/The Living Archive)
Israeli President Zalman Shazar is greeted by Rabbi Shmuel Levitin in the Rebbe’s office during the former’s 1971 visit to the Rebbe. Cohen, to the immediate left of Shazar, was a member of the Israeli delegation. (Photo: JEM/The Living Archive)
Shazar, right, and Rabbi Dovid Cohen greet each other as Rabbi She’ar Yashuv Cohen looks on. To the far left is Rabbi Shlomo and Tzefiya Goren, Rabbi She’ar Yashuv’s brother-in-law and sister.
Shazar, right, and Rabbi Dovid Cohen greet each other as Rabbi She’ar Yashuv Cohen looks on. To the far left is Rabbi Shlomo and Tzefiya Goren, Rabbi She’ar Yashuv’s brother-in-law and sister.