Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

21 Shevat 5761 - Febuary 14, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







The Shemen Rokeach

In Honor of his Yahrtzeit -- 27th Shevat

The Gaon Reb Elozor was born in 5518 (1758) in Stanislow, Poland. His father R' Arye Leib was a grandson of the baal Ateres Poz of Lask and at a young age Elozor was sent to his grandfather's yeshivah.

When he was thirteen he celebrated three landmarks: his bar mitzvah, his engagement and his completion of Shas. At the age of twenty in 5538 (1778) he became rov in Piltz, Poland. Due to a din Torah that took place soon after his arrival, his great name spread fast. One of the defendants was known to be an influential person who would be sure to take revenge if the court judged him unfavorably. The Shemen Rokeach, without any qualms, gave the correct psak, to the loss of this man. The latter slandered the rov to the mayor of the town but upon summoning the rabbi the mayor saw this was no ordinary person and treated him with due respect, compelling the slanderer to obey his ruling.

During this period, he wrote his sefer Sheilos Uteshuvos Shemen Rokeach [1] in which he printed his correspondence with the Nodoh Beyehudoh. It is interesting to note that the replies of the latter are also found in the sefer of the Nodoh Beyehudoh, the only difference being that the Shemen Rokeach omitted the exalted titles with which the Nodoh Beyehudoh addressed the young rov of only thirty years.

In 5560 (1800) he accepted rabbonus in Tritch, seeing that they had a weaker resistance against the maskilim than his present town Piltz.

In 5572 (1812) he took over the rabbinate of Ransburg and its suburbs and it was there that he waged his famous battle against the reformer Aaron Chaviner [nicknamed by the Chasam Sofer "Acher"] who tried to reform our hallowed customs and abolished parts of the tefillos. Together with the other gedolei hador, the Chasam Sofer, R' Akiva Eiger and R' Chaim Banet zt"l he fought against the reformers in letters that are printed in the sefer Eileh Divrei Habris.

In the year 5590 (1830), already an elderly rov, he took the mantle of leadership in Santov where he spread Torah and yiras Shomayim till the end of his days and fought the reformer Alexanderson. At one point the latter insulted the Shemen Rokeach and was excommunicated by the Chasam Sofer, R' Akiva Eiger and the Yismach Moshe.

Even after he lost his eyesight, he continued teaching Torah every day until his death.

On the night of 27th Shevat 5597 (1837), the Shemen Rokeach requested that the Chevra Kadisha stay with him overnight. As he said farewell to each of his family, a miracle occurred and he opened his heretofore unseeing eyes looking at each one, advising them personally as to the course of their lives and giving them his will.

Seeing their astonishment at the fact that his vision was restored after so many sightless years, the Shemen Rokeach explained, "One who protects his eyes ensuring they see only holiness is the ruler of his eyes and is given the ability by Hashem to open them and see when he wants to."

As dawn broke he put on tefillin and began to daven. Upon reaching the words in Yigdal, "He is One and there is no Oneness like His Oneness," his holy soul left him.


Already advanced in years, the Shemen Rokeach sat in the yeshivah in Santov teaching Torah to his many talmidim, where as usual the atmosphere was charged with holiness. Fiery discussions and arguments, questions and answers thrown back and forth, students and teacher swirling in the sea of learning, oblivious to their surroundings.

All at once the momentum was broken by a cry: "Fire." A man burst into the shul pale and shaken, "Fire! House after house is being consumed and you're all sitting here calmly! Soon the whole city will be engulfed in flames." Then turning to the rabbi, "Rabbeinu, come let us flee for our lives before the fire harms the people as well Rachmono litzlan."

Bewildered and panicky the talmidim wanted to rush out and help those fighting the fire, who were drawing water from the wells and trying unsuccessfully to gain control while the flames spread from house to house, rooftop to rooftop, reducing whole streets to ashes.

Raising his hand, the Shemen Rokeach restrained them, commanding them to continue learning. Calmly, he stood up and walked towards the door where he placed his hand over the mezuzoh. "When I was in Mikolasch a fire broke out in that city. I went to the mezuzoh and pronounced three times: `Vatishka ho'esh,' and that is exactly what happened. Now too I announce: `Vatishkah ho'esh, vatishkah ho'esh, vatishkah ho'esh!'"

The talmidim sitting with him could scarcely believe the miracle they were witnessing. Through the windows of the beis medrash they could see the city silhouetted against an orange-red sky clouded by billowing smoke, bringing despair to even the most hopeful of hearts. Yet after a few minutes the news arrived that the fire had miraculously died down on its own accord.

This wondrous story was passed down the generations together with many others. When the Shemen Rokeach's grandson, the Divrei Yirmiyahu of Ujheil, came to daven at his grandfather's kever in Santov, the people came streaming to greet him and he was surrounded by individuals who retold all the miracles and personal salvations that had been wrought by his holy grandfather, the above story being repeated in graphic detail by the leaders of the community.

"The greatest wonder," replied the Divrei Yirmiyahu, "is that my grandfather the Shemen Rokeach was a boki in Shas and poskim, Sifrei, Safro Tosefta and the whole Torah, and all his days were spent in endless pursuit of more Torah and to ever elevate his service of Hashem, spreading His word and passing on our holy tradition -- that is the greatest wonder of all."

It was a terribly stormy day in the winter of 5593. Torrential rains flooded the country and the howling of ferocious winds was punctuated by crashes of thunder and streaks of lightening. Suddenly the town was lit up for a long moment by a weird white light and then the terrible smell of fire filled the air. Some buildings had been struck by lightning, among them the house of the Shemen Rokeach. In the ensuing confusion it was discovered that the rabbi had lost his vision. All efforts of the greatest doctors were in vain; the Shemen Rokeach our guiding light remained blind until the day of his death [literally, see above!].

However his new handicap did not deter him from furthering the spread of Torah. Almost without any discernible change, he continued teaching. Only those who looked closer could notice the one difference: whereas up to now the Rabbi had quoted the gemora and rishonim from his sefer, he now did so by heart. Hardly believing their eyes and ears, his talmidim sat around him listening to him reciting the exact words that were spread out in the seforim in front of them, and he without a sefer to refer to and without eyes to see the text. Moreover if one of them would stumble over a phrase or word, whether from the Rashbo or Shulchan Oruch, he would assist and correct the mistake.

Neither did his lost vision inhibit his work of publishing seforim. The fact that he had already written chidushim on most masechtos of Shas and hundreds of teshuvos in halocho, and that some of his seforim had already been printed, did not leave him complacent. He dictated to talmidim who wrote down his new chidushim, word for word. At the end of every sugya they would read out all they had written under his instruction and the Shemen Rokeach would counter and check, add and retract, ensuring the text was fit to be printed. (Recently, a handwritten manuscript of his chidushim on Nezikim, written by one of his talmidim, was discovered and at the top was an annotation that the Shemen Rokeach had instructed his talmid to write due to his blindness.)

"As long as Hakodosh Boruch Hu sustains my life," he used to say, "I'll stand like a loyal soldier on duty; and if He took away my eyesight then the power of concentration of my eyes have been transferred to my other senses and I'll use those to serve Him."

Ten days after his passing on 27th of Shevat, the holy Chasam Sofer gave a long hesped during which he said, "The ways of Hashem are hidden, we have no way of understanding the reason behind various concepts such as His distribution of poverty and riches, sickness and health etc. However, it seems to me that the reason why the gaon of Santov became blind in his later years is as follows: Throughout his earthly life, a tzaddik toils, rising ever higher until he almost reaches the peak of holiness. However, his physical body with its mundane qualities keeps him somewhat anchored to the gashmiyus of this world preventing him from reaching the spiritual summit to which his soul aspires. Hashem therefore removed the sight of this angel among us, freeing him from that physical chain so that his soul could ascend the lofty heights unencumbered by his body. Having understood this, let us now appropriately eulogize the tzaddik that has been taken from our midst."

Zechuso yogen oleinu.


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