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26 Tishrei 5767 - October 18, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








HaRav Pesach Kokis zt'l
12th Elul 5766, His Twenty-Fifth Yahrtzeit

By Yated Ne'eman Staff

HaRav Pesach Kokis zt'l, was born in 5663 (1903) in Ihumen, in the Minsk province of Byelorussia. His father, Rav Zeev zt'l, was an upright Torah scholar whose life was dedicated to teaching and guiding Jewish children to love Torah and their fellow Jews. He was a paramount example of the posuk, "And those who bring merit to the public are like stars forever" (Daniel 12:3), which the gemora (Bava Basra 8) applies to the teachers of young children.

"People say, `You can tell a pumpkin's quality as soon as it buds' " (Brochos 48). A person's nature and potential too, are discernible when he is very young. As a pupil in cheder and later in yeshiva ketanoh in his hometown, young Pesach was one of the foremost talmidim, applying himself steadily to his learning. His teachers in the yeshiva ketanoh, which was founded by Rav Yitzchok Isaac Hirshowitz zt'l, noted his application and his pleasant character. Rav Hirshowitz developed a special bond with Pesach after Rav Zeev passed away at a young age, leaving his young son an orphan.

As a young child, two loves filled Pesach's heart: love of Torah and love of Eretz Yisroel. To indulge these loves he had to leave his home and family and the friends and acquaintances among whom he had grown up, and embark on a long and hard journey. He hoped to first reach the botei medrash of Vilna, to study Torah and elevate himself in mussar and yiras Shomayim and then, spiritually fortified, to travel on to Eretz Yisroel.

This youthful dream involved a bold and dangerous undertaking: escaping from Soviet Russia. At that time many bnei Torah were fleeing Russia and life under the Communists. Many of them experienced miracles in their attempts — open evidence of Heaven's intervention in fulfillment of the promise that Torah "shall not depart from your mouths or your children's or your grandchildren's mouths forever." The Communists wielded absolute power and the lives of those attempting to escape were in very real danger. Trying to escape Russia was punishable by death.

Divine Protection

Pesach endangered his life in order to escape Communist Russia and to reach the Torah centers of Poland and Lithuania. There was a yeshiva in Ihumen that had been opened by Rav Hirshowitz, Pesach's teacher and loving mentor. It was Rav Hirshowitz who smuggled him and several other youngsters from his yeshiva to safety, so that they would able to continue learning Torah.

They made their way in crushing conditions. They hungered for bread to eat and longed to rest on a bed and have some warm clothes to wear. They made their way through storms and snows, feeling alone and isolated. They were cut off from their families and they found themselves in unfamiliar surroundings with empty pockets, without knowing a soul and with their immediate futures unclear. Heavy-hearted and downcast, they pressed on.

At the same time though, they felt that miracles were taking place for them all the time and that Hashem was watching over every step that they took, directing them along the path that led to the centers of Torah and mussar. In later years they stressed the idea expressed by the posuk in Tehillim: "Were it not for Your Torah that is my pastime I would have perished in my suffering" (119:92).

Shortly after Pesach and his friends from the yeshiva of Ihumen arrived in Vilna they applied to the Yeshivas Knesses Beis Yitzchok. They wanted to study Torah under the gaon HaRav Boruch Ber Leibowitz zt'l, one of the foremost talmidim of Rav Chaim of Brisk zt'l. Reb Boruch Ber was renowned both for his vast Torah scholarship and for his great yiras Shomayim as well as for his princely character and the boundless and sincere love that he bore his talmidim .

Under Reb Boruch Ber

Pesach learned with Reb Boruch Ber for four years. His immersion in learning and the wonderful atmosphere that his teacher created in the yeshiva caused him to forget his own suffering. He was a frequent visitor to Reb Boruch Ber's home and became one of his most devoted talmidim. He absorbed Reb Boruch Ber's approach to understanding and probing the depths of a sugya and would not budge an inch in learning from his teacher's methods.

He loved Reb Boruch Ber's shiurim and was inseparable from him until, in time, he made tremendous progress and his teacher asked him to learn together with him. Reb Boruch Ber began preparing his shiurim with Pesach Ihuminer. He remained in contact with Reb Boruch Ber even after he left the yeshiva for Eretz Yisroel. He would send his chidushim to his teacher and Reb Boruch Ber would respond to what he had written, commenting and making suggestions.

HaRav Noach Shimanowitz zt'l, was another of Reb Boruch Ber's leading talmidim and served as Rosh Yeshivas Knesses Chizkiyohu. He related that he came to learn in Knesses Beis Yitzchok years after Reb Pesach had left the yeshiva and had gone to Eretz Yisroel. "The yeshiva had left Vilna by then and settled in Kamenitz. HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky zt'l felt that the yeshiva had too many disturbances in a large city like Vilna and that it should move to Kamenitz, which was a small town. I remember the older, senior talmidim talking admiringly about Pesach Ihuminer, who had learned with such application and whose teacher loved him for his scholarship and straightness."

The Chofetz Chaim zt'l once had to spend some time in Vilna. As soon as he heard about the visit, Reb Boruch Ber sent for a wagon and driver so that he could go and greet the tzaddik and sage. He took a handful of his best talmidim with him, Reb Pesach among them. Years later Reb Pesach would take special pleasure in describing the great merit he'd had in meeting this wondrous tzaddik and hearing him speak, although what the Chofetz Chaim said has been forgotten.

He would relate how, while in Vilna, he and his friends would pay regular visits to HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky. Reb Chaim Ozer's home was a place where Torah scholars converged and where any and every Yid was warmly welcomed by the beaming gaon. Yidden flocked there from all over and Reb Chaim Ozer's advice and rulings were eagerly sought from all corners of the globe. People came to speak with him in learning or to bring him their shailos. Reb Chaim Ozer was especially fond of young bnei Torah and he helped and supported them with all his heart. None of them took a step without first receiving his consent and blessing.

Reb Pesach would excitedly describe the wonderful days that he'd spent in Reb Chaim Ozer's company, receiving his guidance, basking in his holiness and delighting in Torah discussion with him.

Reb Chaim Ozer had a special love for Reb Boruch Ber's talmidim. He would encourage them, bolstering their confidence in view of the problems and pressures of the times for which the Maskilim were responsible. In his humility Reb Chaim Ozer once said to Reb Pesach, "Why do you come to me to speak in Torah? You'd be better occupied in discussing divrei Torah with the gemora itself, enlarging your knowledge of Shas."

Reb Boruch Ber's Letter

Here is the letter that Reb Boruch Ber sent his talmid, Pesach Ihuminer, upon the latter's marriage. It shows the great love that the Kamenitzer Rosh Yeshiva bore him:

"May Heaven bestow life and peace, good fortune, blessing and every honor upon my friend the chosson, the great luminary, who is sharp, tremendously profound and a prolific originator of novel ideas, destined to be a gaon . . . Pesach, shlita, talmid in the holy yeshiva of Yerushalayim . . .

"May Hashem bestow His blessing upon my friend and precious one that the bond you are about to form with the daughter of the gaon Refoel should have good fortune and last for many long and good days and years. May Hashem yisborach bless your Torah honor that you acquire the portion that Hashem has given you, an everlasting acquisition in Torah for Yisroel, in the noble home that Hashem has designated for you.

"May Hashem yisborach bestow every blessing and success upon this union. May her parents, the gaon, his honor Refoel and his family, who have formed the bond, see true satisfaction, lasting joy and satiation of blessing forever... May talmidim find shelter in the shade of your Torah iy"H for many years, gladdening Hashem yisborach and people with your wonderful, profound and genuine chidushim. May you see continued success in Torah and become one of the great gedolim of Yisroel. May we speedily see our salvation and redemption, in our days; then we will all rejoice together in our holy city . . .

"My friend, please accept this blessing that emanates from a friend's heart, although it is late. May Hashem yisborach increase the above a thousandfold, as your pure soul deserves and your friend wishes.

Boruch Dov Leibowitz"

Assuming the Rabbonus of Bat Yam

After spending several years in Vilna absorbing his teacher's Torah, he began to feel a longing for Eretz Yisroel. He decided to go there, to continue his Torah studies in its atmosphere of holiness and to experience the pleasure of serving Hashem in the Holy Land.

When he arrived he went to Chevron, to learn in Yeshivas Knesses Yisroel — Slobodka, known as Chevron Yeshiva. In later years he would say that the best period of his life was the time he spent learning in Chevron. The rosh yeshiva, HaRav Moshe Mordechai Epstein zt'l, befriended him and Reb Pesach would write comments in his notebooks on the topics that he discussed in his Torah conversations with the Rosh Yeshiva.

Several years later, when he had attained further heights in Torah and proficiency in halochoh, circumstances arose that led him to resolve to accept the position of a rov. He requested a letter of consent from his teacher Reb Moshe Mordechai, who had been av beis din as well as rosh yeshiva of Slobodka in Lithuania and then in Chevron. Reb Moshe Mordechai agreed gladly. Here is the letter that he wrote, dated the fifth of Tammuz 5693:

"I hereby introduce his honor, my dear friend, the exalted rov and gaon, of sharp mind and broad knowledge and a great luminary, Rav Pesach Kokis who took shelter in our holy yeshiva, where he grew and was successful. He acquired broad and deep knowledge of Shas and poskim and developed an understanding mind, enabling him to plumb the depths of the ocean of the Talmud, the Rishonim and the Acharonim, posing difficulties and reconciling them and originating wonderful, novel ideas, that are based on sound logic and wondrous comprehension, with a straight, unsullied mind that is right on target.

Such a person deserves to be authorized to rule on questions of Halochoh and the monetary laws. He is great and outstanding in his pure fear of Heaven and in his highly refined, precious character traits. He will be a crown of glory to the holy community that he honors with his dwelling and will lead them alongside fountains of Torah, tranquility and happiness. They will shelter under his Torah and fear of Heaven, in a place of Torah and justice. A talmid chochom is immediately accompanied by a blessing; may Hashem's pleasantness rest upon him and upon them and may they be blessed with every good."

He also received the Yodin Yodin qualification to rule on monetary questions, from HaRav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt'l, who served as av beis din and rosh yeshiva of Slutsk and subsequently as rosh yeshivas Eitz Chaim in Yerushalayim. Reb Pesach would visit Reb Isser Zalman's home regularly to discuss divrei Torah. Here is what Reb Isser Zalman wrote:

"I hereby declare the precious worth and the praise of my honored friend, whom I greatly cherish, the exalted rov and gaon, of sharp mind and broad knowledge . . . Pesach Kokis, one of the great talmidim of Yeshivas Chevron as a bochur and one of the great members of Heichal Hatalmud in Tel Aviv. I have known him for years and have held many discussions with him on matters of "Hashem's word - - this is Halochoh." I have witnessed his great abilities in sharpness and breadth of knowledge in the subjects dealt with in Shas and poskim. I have heard chidushim from him that are outstanding in their depth and straight and clear thinking. I therefore invest him with the authority of a sage... Yoreh Yoreh, Yodin Yodin. May he become a rov and halachic authority according to Torah law. The community that chooses him will have great satisfaction from him for besides his greatness in Torah he is full of the virtues and traits that the Sages listed. With his vast understanding and his broad mind he will guide Hashem's community alongside fountains of Torah and fear of Heaven. May you be blessed with his arrival, as Chazal say, `Blessing immediately accompanies a talmid chochom.' "

His Reluctance to Pasken

Rav Pesach never ruled easily or lightly. He would discuss many of the shailos that were brought to him or that occurred to him with a group of colleagues. In doing so he exemplified Chazal's exposition of the posuk (Vayikra 23:40) " ` Kapos temorim (palm fronds)' — these are the talmidei chachomim who compel themselves to learn Torah from one another" (Vayikra Rabba 30:10).

He was also in constant contact with the senior poskim whose views he wanted to know regarding any difficult or new shailos that arose. He submitted to their opinions, faithfully adhering to Chazal's statement , "Ministering to Torah scholars is superior to Torah study" (Brochos 7). He assigned high priority to consulting talmidei chachomim and always used to talk things over with the gedolim of the time. Chazal tell us, "The elders are always the ones who support Yisroel? When are Yisroel able to stand? When there are elders among them. For whoever seeks the advice of the elders does not fail" (Shemos Rabba 3). Rav Kokis was a prime example of this.

When a mikveh was to be built in the settlement, and earlier when the eruv was erected, Reb Pesach was constantly in contact with the Chazon Ish, zt'l. (They would also discuss divrei Torah. In his sefer, Bircas Pesach, in the chidushim on Sanhedrin 72, Rav Kokis brings a question in the Chazon Ish's name.) The Chazon Ish's emissary, Rav Zelig Shapiro zt'l, would also act as go-between and he made the effort to travel from Bnei Brak to Bat Yam to personally supervise the arrangements for the mikveh's construction, as the Chazon Ish had instructed him.

After the petiroh of the Chazon Ish, Rav Pesach would consult the Steipler zt'l. There were also a number of rabbonim and talmidei chachomim who used to consult Rav Pesach on points of halochoh.

A Determined Stand

He once received a gift in honor of Yom Tov from the owner of one of the halls in the town. When his family told him about the gift he immediately asked his son to return it. When asked why the gift had to be returned and why it had to be done so urgently he explained that events were held in the donor's hall that were far from being in the spirit of Yiddishkeit. "If I accept his present," he concluded, "I won't fight him with the same determination."

The controversy over the curtain dividing the beis haknesses from the ezras noshim serves is an interesting illustration of Rav Pesach's indomitable spirit and his wholehearted yiras Shomayim.

Bat Yam's first and largest beis haknesses was undergoing a major renovation, on a lavish scale. One of the town's oldest and wealthiest inhabitants was among the originators of the idea. He himself gave a donation and also raised funds from his family and his wealthy friends for the rebuilding. Unfortunately, some of those who were involved in this great mitzvah fell prey to the yetzer hora and stridently voiced a demand that the curtain separating the beis haknesses from the ezras noshim be removed.

Naturally, Rav Pesach opposed their wishes and pleasantly and gently explained to them why the curtain was a necessity, stressing the supreme importance of upholding standards of modesty and the obligation to preserve the form of the beis haknesses as it had been set by earlier generations. Although the board of the beis haknesses and members of the community realized the justice of the Rov's arguments, they were intimidated by the powerful donor. In view of the serious doubt whether his donation would be forthcoming if he were thwarted, and fears that he might even obstruct the completion of the work, they requested that his demands be met.

Rav Pesach summoned all his resources to foil the shameful attempt to introduce changes into the running of the beis haknesses. He fought like a lion with every means at his disposal to protect our holy traditions. Many people considered it a lost cause, in view of the strength of the opposition, but Rav Pesach refused to give in.

Taking his lead from the posuk, "Gentle speech can break bones," he repeated his views to the community, and to the donor and his family. He had other people speak to the donor, trying to influence him to respect our traditions and maintain modesty in the communal domain.

He brought admorim and well-known rabbonim in to assist him. Some of them approached the donor while others spoke to his business partners, to try and get them to influence him to desist from his plan. Although the campaign took several months Rav Pesach did not waver. He eventually succeeded, in keeping with Chazal's statement, "Yisroel still uphold every mitzvah for which they made sacrifices" (Shabbos 130).

Getting Along with Others

Though Rav Pesach was Chief Rabbi of Bat Yam and also its senior rabbinical figure he never insisted that others adopt his views. He listened sympathetically to everyone and took other people's opinions into consideration even when he disagreed with them.

Communal representatives once held a meeting to select a rov for one of the neighborhoods of Bat Yam. Rav Pesach feared that the selection committee wouldn't make a point of choosing a Heaven-fearing candidate with sufficient proficiency in halochoh. They were more likely to favor a nice-looking, well-dressed type and eloquent speaker.

He took down a volume of the Rambam's Mishneh Torah from the bookcase and addressed the following comments to the gathering. "Boruch Hashem we have a number of candidates, with various merits and it's hard for us to decide who is the best choice. What are the deciding factors in choosing a rov for a community? Let us therefore see what the Rambam z'l writes and have his words guide us.

"Here is what he says (in Hilchos Sanhedrin 2:7). `Every one [of the dayanim on a beis din] must have seven traits: wisdom, humility, fear of Heaven, hatred of money, love of truth. They should love their fellow men and have a good name.' And in perek 3:8 he writes, `Every Sanhedrin, king, or exilarch who appointed a dayan who is unworthy, unlearned in Torah scholarship and not fit to be a dayan, even though he may be altogether charming and have other good points, have transgressed a Torah prohibition.' "

These words of truth, coming from a man of truth, were effective and a Heaven-fearing rov was chosen.

A certain person once proposed himself as a candidate for a position on the rabbinate. He went to great lengths to try to secure himself the position.

Rav Pesach refused to take him. He explained that the excessive efforts that the man had made showed that he lacked faith and trust in Hashem. Someone who truly believes in Hashem and puts his trust in Him makes only minimal efforts, just enough to fulfill his obligation of not relying on miracles. Faith and trust in Hashem are the first resources that a rov must draw upon.

One night after midnight when Rav Pesach and his family were already asleep, someone knocked at the front door several times. A woman stood there, begging to be let in so that she could speak to the rov.

"Father got up and dressed," relates one of the family, "and received the woman pleasantly. When he asked her what was so urgent to have made her come at such a late hour she replied, `I quarreled with my son, who is getting married in a few days' time. I vowed that I would not go to his wedding but I now regret having done so. I would like to know whether the rov can help me in any way?' Father didn't become angry with her, or tell her that her problem wasn't so urgent to have warranted waking people up at night. Instead he calmed her down and dealt with the matter according to the halochos of hatoras nedorim. The woman left his house beaming from happiness."

That was the way he treated people, youth included, pleasantly, drawing them closer. He would receive people even at unconventional hours, repeating divrei Torah to them "until they were fluent in them."

A Lifelong Bond

His application to Torah study and his love of Torah were deeply rooted and wondrous to see. His heart and mind were immersed in Torah reflection at all hours. Wherever he went a volume of gemora went with him. Once after undergoing an operation, family members asked him what he needed and he replied, "A gemora!"

Even when he went to the Rabbinate or the Religious Council in his capacity as chief rabbi of the city, he would use every spare moment in between appointments for learning. He deeply regretted all the time that his rabbinical duties stole from his Torah studies and was pained that he was unable to immerse himself deeper in the gemora's discussions. He once even said to a grandchild that he felt that suffering had befallen him because of the neglect of Torah that had resulted from his involvement in the affairs of the rabbinate — this, despite the fact that he utilized every single spare moment for Torah.

In his old age, when intense study of gemora became difficult for him, he would ask his sons and grandsons to repeat divrei Torah to him. When he was on his own he would study the teshuvos of Rabbi Akiva Eiger, the Or Somei'ach and Meshech Chochmah, commenting that he was able to learn these seforim even in his present state (despite the reputation of the works of Rabbi Akiva Eiger and Rav Meir Simchah for depth and the need for extensive reflection in order to grasp their profundity).

In the final months of his life Rav Pesach suffered pain and illness. Though his pain sapped his strength and was hard for him to bear, his spirit remained strong and his lips were always moving in prayer and supplication to Hakodosh Boruch Hu. Even when he was ill he dwelt upon divrei Torah and spoke about them.

During the last hours of his life, the light of a hidden tzaddik shone from him, his face illuminated by the fire of Torah and by his nobility of character. His family and the communal leaders of Bat Yam were with him in his last moments. His pure soul departed in holiness, while those present cried "Shema Yisroel . . ." on Yom Shishsi, the twelfth of Elul 5741 (1981), as the sun was about to set.

As Yidden were about to light the candles and usher in Shabbos kodesh, the light that had shone in Bat Yam and illuminated the city with its glory, went out, as one the foremost among Rav Boruch Ber's talmidim passed away.

"Happy is he who grows in Torah and who toils in Torah, giving pleasure to his Creator, whose good reputation grows with him and who passes away with it intact" (Brochos 17).


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