David Cohen (rabbi)

David Cohen (rabbi)

David Cohen (1887 – 1972) (also known as “Rav Ha-Nazir,” The Nazirite Rabbi) was a rabbi, talmudist, philosopher, and kabbalist. A noted Jewish ascetic, he took a Nazirite vow after making aliyah to Israel.


Cohen was born in Maišiagala, near Vilna (in modern Lithuania), the scion of a distinguished rabbinic family. In his youth he studied at the Raduń Yeshiva, under Yisrael Meir Kagan, the Volozhin yeshiva and the Slabodka yeshiva. Even then his restless and inquiring mind led him to extend his studies beyond the traditional subjects taught in the yeshivot. Thus he turned to Samson Raphael Hirsch and the early writings of Abraham Isaac Kook. He also studied Russian to prepare himself for entrance to the university.

During the Russian Revolution of 1905 he was twice arrested but was not detained. His spiritual unrest and the desire to widen his intellectual horizon led him to enroll in the Academy for Jewish Studies established by Baron David Guenzburg, where one of his close fellow students was Zalman Shazar, later president of Israel. From there he proceeded to Germany to study at the University of Freiburg. At the outbreak of World War I he was interned as an enemy alien, but was released and made his way to Switzerland, studying philosophy, classical literature, and Roman law at University of Basel.

He was for a time chairman of the Jewish Students' Society there and delivered lectures on Jewish philosophy. It was then that he took upon himself a life-long Nazirite vow, which involves complete abstention from cutting one's hair and partaking of any products of the vine. But his asceticism went much further. It included an extreme vegetarianism, which encompassed not only food but any garment made of leather, and a self-imposed silence every Rosh Hodesh eve (Yom Kippur Katan) and from Rosh Hodesh Elul to the morrow of Yom Kippur. In addition, he refused to speak anything but Hebrew, or to leave the Holy City of Jerusalem. However, he was not a recluse, and did not hesitate to express his views on important topical problems.

The turning point in his life came with his meeting with Rabbi Kook, who was then in St. Galen in Switzerland (1915). “My life then stood in the balance,” he noted. “I listened to him and was turned into a new man . . . I had found a master.” He decided to abandon his secular studies and devote himself entirely to Jewish thought. In 1922 he received an invitation from Rabbi Kook, who had returned to the Land of Israel, to become a tutor in the yeshiva which he had established, and helped to draw up the curriculum which was also to include history, philosophy, ethics, Hebrew grammar, and Bible. He was appointed lecturer in Talmud, ethics, and philosophy.

The two used to meet daily and Kook entrusted him with the editing of his philosophical works, to which, along with disseminating Kook's ideas, he dedicated his life, hardly publishing any of his own works, although he left over 30 works in manuscript. The principal exception was the Kol Nevu'ah, of which the first volume appeared shortly before his death. It is the fruit of his life's work and is in two parts, “The Foundations of Jewish Religious Philosophy” and “The Foundations of Inner Wisdom.” The work is based on the premise that there is an original Jewish philosophy and a spiritual Jewish system of logic which is not intuitive speculative but spiritual-acoustic: “Sound and light are the two angels of thought which accompany man everywhere” but “hearing is greater than seeing.” The prophetic power is the beginning of Jewish wisdom, and he was convinced that the renewal of Jewish life in Israel would produce a new generation to which would even be vouchsafed the return of the spirit of prophecy.

A passionate adherent of the doctrine of Kook that the return to Zion and its various stages, of which the establishment of the State of Israel was the latest, was itself only a stage in the fulfillment of the Divine Promise which would bring about the Complete Redemption and the Messianic Age, he did not hesitate to reprove those rabbis who did not accept this belief. He saw in Moses Hayyim Luzzatto the harbinger of this redemption, pointing out that the three significant movements, Hasidism, Musar, and Haskalah, had each made certain of Luzzatto's works their classics, and he claimed that both Rabbi Kook and he himself followed his doctrines.

Cohen had one son, She'ar Yashuv - Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Haifa and one daughter, the wife of Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren.

In 1977 there was published a three-volume Festschrift entitled Nezir Ehav.


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