Rabbi Yoel Kahan: The Life and Times of the Rebbe’s Chozer




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    Rabbi Yoel Kahan: The Life and Times of the Rebbe’s Chozer

    In honor of the first Yahrzeit of the Reb Yoel Kahan A”H: Boarding a ship leaving Tel Aviv for 770 on Yud Aleph Shevat 5710, hours before Chassidim in Tel Aviv heard the terrible news of the Frierdiker Rebbe’s histalkus on the day prior, he arrived just on time… From that day onward, Reb Yoel was at the Rebbe’s side • By Beis Moshiach Magazine • Full Article

    Menachem Ziegelbaum, Beis Moshiach

    Rabbi Yoel Kahn was born on 16 Shevat 5690 in Russia. His father was Rabbi Refael Nachman Kahn who was a tamim who learned in Lubavitch.

    His family left Russia in 5696 when he was five and a half. The Iron Curtain was firmly closed at the time and yet, the Kahn family was miraculously able to get visas and leave. They went to Eretz Yisrael via Vienna.


    While in Purkersdorf in Austria, they wanted to see the Rebbe Rayatz who was there for his health at the time. This is what his father, R’ Fole, wrote in his memoirs:

    “There was my wife, myself and our four children, the oldest of whom was thirteen, and my young son Yoel who was only five. The weather was wintry and all was covered with snow. We made slow forward progress. When we reached the sanatorium, I asked for Rabbi Schneerson. How surprised I was when they asked me whether I sought the young Schneerson or the older one. I realized that Ramash (= the Rebbe), the Rebbe’s son-in-law, was there and asked to see him first.

    “When I entered his room, he was very happy to see me and asked about my family. I said they were waiting for me outside. He warmly told me that he prepared a suitable room for us as his father-in-law instructed him, and had even sent a special messenger to meet us at the train station but he did not find us for some reason.

    “Within a short while I was informed that the Rebbe [Rayatz] would receive me for yechidus in another half hour … Toward the end of the yechidus I asked whether I could bring in my young son, Yoel, for a bracha. He said the entire family should come in. At four in the afternoon, we all went in for a bracha.”

    At the end of that day, the Kahn family boarded a train on their way to Eretz Yisrael. “How great was our surprise when we saw the Rebbe’s son-in-law arriving with chocolate for the children.

    “I asked him, ‘How did we merit that your honor came here?’ He said, ‘My father-in-law asked me to see how you traveled.’ We parted and the train set out for Trieste on our journey to Eretz Yisrael.”


    Upon the Kahn family’s arrival in Eretz Yisrael, they settled in Tel Aviv where they suffered from dire poverty. R’ Refael Nachman worked paving roads. After a few years, they moved to Ramat Gan where he worked as a milkman.

    “After we moved from Russia to Eretz Yisrael,” R’ Yoel related over fifty years later, “our family lived in Ramat Gan and my father distributed milk in the city. He would ride on a small donkey that he bought and distribute milk to residents of the neighborhood. In those days, there wasn’t even a minyan of Chabad Chassidim in Ramat Gan, but the Chassidishe atmosphere as well as the friendship among the Chassidim who lived there were extraordinary.

    “I remember that at a certain point they were looking for a good melamed for the boys and they went from one to the next to ascertain whether he was suitable. What they were looking for was a real yerei shomayim who had emunas tzaddikim. They once recommended a Poilishe Chassid for the job. My father inquired as to his yiras shomayim and was happy that they had finally found someone who seemed suitable. In the middle of things, someone said, ‘But what about money? How will we pay him?’ My father said, ‘What does money matter? The main thing is that he should be a genuine yerei shomayim!’

    “This was a time when there simply wasn’t money! I think that there weren’t even chairs at home. Just a bench… But they weren’t concerned by how much they would have to pay and how much effort would be needed to obtain the money. The main thing was that the children should have a melamed a yerei shomayim. This is what preoccupied them and what was important to them.”

    At that time, the six members of the Kahn family lived in two rooms. Despite this, one room was designated for the new cheder and Mrs. Kahn served cookies and drinks to the teacher and the children.

    They say that a meshulach once came collecting money for a yeshiva. R’ Refael Nachman replied in earnest, “I don’t have money to give to the Rebbe but I am giving him something else, more precious, my son. I give Yoel to the Rebbe.”

    R’ Yoel went on to describe the Chassidishe atmosphere of those days among the few Anash who lived in Ramat Gan:

    “I remember how one Shabbos some of the Chassidim sat and farbrenged and R’ Avrohom Dovid Yanovsky taught an old niggun that he remembered. The Chassid R’ Meir Blizinsky was very excited by the niggun and sang it again and again.

    “A day or two after Shabbos I saw R’ Meir from a distance riding on a donkey as he sold bread among the households. When he noticed me he called out, ‘Yoel, Yoel, come here.’ I went over to him and he asked me whether I remembered how the niggun that R’ Avrohom Dovid taught began. I reminded him of the beginning and he began to sing it. I remember how he slowly entered into a state of deveikus, dropped the reins of the donkey and paid no mind to where the donkey was leading him.

    “It was a natural emotional feeling that was awakened inside him. He didn’t plan it and it wasn’t artificial. He was simply moved by the niggun so that he focused entirely on it and altogether forgot that he was sitting on a donkey.”


    Young Yoel was sent to learn in Yeshiva Achei Tmimim in Tel Aviv under the mashpiim R’ Chaim Shaul Brook and R’ Shlomo Chaim Kesselman. He also absorbed the passionate Chassidic spirit from the various great Chassidim in whose shadow he grew up including the Chassid and maskil R’ Moshe Gurary, R’ Nachum Goldschmid, R’ Meir Blizinsky, and other elder Chassidim.

    Over the years, he would occasionally reminisce about that period of his youth in which he fully absorbed the ways of Chassidim from those Chassidic figures. R’ Yoel, as was his way, did not just tell stories; he would derive lessons in avodas Hashem.

    “In my youth I learned, like nearly all the other bachurim from the families of Anash, in yeshiva in Tel Aviv. In yeshiva and also in the Chabad shul on Rechov Nachalat Binyamin which was near the yeshiva, there were unique Chassidic characters who had a profound influence on the bachurim. We would sleep in an apartment not far from the yeshiva and the shul was on the way there, so that nearly every time we went from our apartment to the yeshiva we would stop in at the shul to see what was happening and nearly every time there was something to hear.

    “In the Chabad shul in Nachalat Binyamin there were ‘beautiful’ Chassidim. There were no mashpiim or big ovdim but the Chassidishe atmosphere there was special. I am unsure as to what made a greater impact on us, the yeshiva or the shul but both together made a deep impression on each of the bachurim.

    “On special calendar days, for example, there was an extraordinary atmosphere in the shul. For example, on Beis Nissan, you could really feel that this was a yahrtzeit. One sat and learned mishnayos, another reminisced about the Rebbe Rashab, while a third said a bit of l’chaim. After saying l’chaim they would mainly reminisce about the Rebbe Rashab and Lubavitch.

    “There are a few people who stood out for me from those days, from the yeshiva and the shul. One of them was R’ Maishke Gurary. He was a very deep thinker in Chassidus. What was special about him was not just his power of deep thinking but that he was always completely absorbed in the topic. Whenever you spoke with him, you could see that he was completely absorbed and not just remembering what he had previously learned.

    “I was once in the shul while he debated someone about the mashal brought in Chassidus about the first tzimtzum that is in a manner of ‘removal,’ from a teacher and student who are incomparable to one another. The debate was whether the mashal about the vast distance between the level of the teacher and the level of the student was possible only in abstract G-dly intellect, or if such a gap could exist even in lower forms of intellectual pursuits such as the wisdom of the natural world.

    “Suddenly, in walked R’ Nachum Goldschmid and they decided to ask him. However, the other person made it conditional on not telling him what each of them held since then R’ Nachum would definitely side with R’ Maishke.

    “They went over to R’ Nachum and told him about the debate without specifying who held what. R’ Nachum immediately said, ‘I can’t tell you who is right, I don’t know, but I can tell you who said what …’

    “R’ Maishke would teach us bachurim three times a week, twice on weekdays, in his home, and on Shabbos he gave another shiur in yeshiva.

    “R’ Maishke did not want to give any shiurim to the bachurim. He was a businessman and was busy. It was the mashpia R’ Shaul Brook who pressured him a lot and when he finally acceded an argument ensued about how many times a week he would teach. R’ Maishke, because of his busy work schedule wanted only twice a week while R’ Shaul demanded three times a week. They ultimately compromised: he would teach twice a week on weekdays and once on Shabbos. On weekdays, the bachurim would go to his house but on Shabbos he would go to the yeshiva.

    “I remember the first shiur he gave us. We were sixteen and barely knew the basic concepts. The shiur was on Hemshech 5661. It took us a while until we began understanding him. By the time we got used to him, he stopped giving shiurim since he broke his hand.

    “We got one essential thing from these shiurim. Until then, we thought that Chassidus is a sort of spiritual segula. After the shiurim with him, we began to understand that there is a lot of deep content involved. We realized that we needed to put a lot of thought into Chassidus.

    “Although R’ Maishke was a man of the mind, I remember a Purim farbrengen in his house where we saw another side of him. Many of the participants had learned in Lubavitch. They sat together, took l’chaim, related memories of Lubavitch and sang many niggunim that they remembered from Lubavitch. You could tangibly see the elevation of spirit that they were experiencing at the time.

    “Suddenly, R’ Maishke went to his room and brought back a letter from the Rebbe Rayatz. When he returned, he stood on a bench and said, ‘I have the original letter that the Rebbe wrote to the Chassidim when he was on the train as he left Russia.’ He wrote this letter with a pencil as he traveled on Isru Chag Simchas Torah 5688 out of Russia. The Rebbe gave the letter to R’ Maishke who was also on the train at that time, for him to give it to the Chassidim.

    “He read the letter with great emotion. It said that the Rebbe is never separated from the Chassidim. I remember how the Chassidim listened avidly and emotionally. You could see the tears in everyone’s eyes.”


    The Chassidishe spirit that suffused the bachurim both within the yeshiva in Tel Aviv and within the shul and the Chassidishe surroundings, made a deep impression on the young generation. R’ Yoel related:

    “I remember that once, my father and R’ Maishke sat and talked about whether the yeshiva in Tel Aviv was successful or not. They said that, generally speaking, one could say that there was success. The yeshiva succeeded in instilling Chassidishkeit and the spirit of Lubavitch in the bachurim.

    “But R’ Maishke said that they had not been that successful in conveying to the young bachurim the value of the yeshiva in Lubavitch. He said, ‘Why weren’t they interested in how many windows there were in the zal in Lubavitch?’

    “I am sure that he himself did not know how many windows there were but he had a very warm feeling about the period that they learned in Lubavitch and he tried to instill in us that special atmosphere.”

    Another personality who left a deep impression was R’ Nachum Goldschmid, who was extremely knowledgeable in Chassidus, as well as an extremely talented speaker with a rare power of explication. In addition, he was full of Chassidic feeling.

    “Once, on motzoei 13 Tammuz, some of us bachurim went from the apartment to yeshiva and as we passed the shul, we debated about whether to go in or perhaps the farbrengen was over. We decided to enter and as we did, we saw R’ Nachum who was already a bit inebriated, going about among those present – there were few people at that hour, just four or five – holding a bowl with some coins. He asked them to join him in buying more mashke. I remember how he turned to one of the Chassidim sitting there, as he snapped his fingers, and said to him in a singsong, ‘Give something; literally right here (pointing to his pocket) is where the essence of the neshama is revealed!’

    “When he finished collecting a little money, someone went to buy mashke and when he brought it from the store, R’ Nachum wanted to start the farbrengen again. However, he drank and said l’chaim while the other people there did not participate and did not say l’chaim with him. The nature of those who are ‘under the influence’ is that when they speak and say l’chaim together they become inspired and elevated, but if they say l’chaim alone they feel like it’s just for show and this is not pleasant. He told his friends to say l’chaim but they just wet their lips a bit. Since he felt it wasn’t ‘going,’ and it was somewhat unpleasant for him to sit and try to become inspired alone as everyone looked at him, he decided there was no point and he headed for home.

    “Since, as I mentioned, he was inebriated, we decided not to allow him to go alone but would walk behind him and escort him. He started going down the stairs of the shul and when he finished descending he stopped and we heard him mumble to himself, ‘What a lunatic! It’s 13 Tammuz today and there is mashke and you’re going home?!’ He immediately turned around and went back to the shul and then he started the farbrengen!”

    R’ Yoel finished this story and said, “That story was typical of him. On the one hand, there’s nothing special here; on the other hand, we see how his personality was suffused with a warm Chassidic feeling.”

    At that time, there were bachurim from the yeshiva who went to learn in Ponovezh which was already developing a good reputation. However, Yoel Kahn refused to consider this idea. Even when his good friends in learning, Berel (R’ Boruch Dov) Povarsky and Shlomke (R’ Shlomo) Berman switched from Yeshivas Achei Tmimim to Ponovezh, he refused to hear of learning in a non-Chabad yeshiva.

    Years later, in 5724, Sholom Ber Levin went from Kfar Chabad to spend time with the Rebbe. The night before he went, R’ Yoel’s parents went to his house to ask him to send regards to their son. It was then that R’ Yoel’s mother said that before her son left for the Rebbe [Rayatz] in 5710, the heads of Ponovezh asked her to try and convince her son to switch to Ponovezh and after learning there for five years, he would get a respected position as Rosh Yeshiva.

    When he heard about this, R’ Yoel told his mother, “They say about you that you also have a good head. Learn there for ten years and become a Rosh Yeshiva in Ponovezh. I’m going to the Rebbe.”


    Over the years, R’ Yoel yearned to go to the United States to be with the Rebbe Rayatz. He asked the Rebbe several times for permission but the Rebbe did not give it to him. Shortly before Yud Shevat 5710, the day the Rebbe passed away, he gave permission for the trip.

    They say that a year earlier, Rashag, the Rebbe’s son-in-law, visited Eretz Yisrael and when he visited Achei Tmimim in Tel Aviv he reviewed a maamar said by the Rebbe Rayatz. Yoel Kahn then asked him to review another maamar. “Do you already know the first maamar?” asked Rashag in surprise and R’ Yoel said he did and repeated the entire maamar to him. Rashag, seeing his tremendous thirst, reviewed a different maamar.

    When Rashag returned to 770, he asked the Rebbe Rayatz to allow bachurim to come and learn in the yeshiva in 770. At the beginning of 5710, the Rebbe allowed six tmimim to come to 770, including Yoel Kahn. On the 14 Kislev, the Rebbe wrote a letter addressed to the six, replete with blessings for a successful journey and success in their learning.

    As soon as he got the papers, R’ Yoel began preparing for his trip. He boarded the ship the morning of 11 Shevat 5710. It sailed from the port in Haifa for America. When he boarded, he did not yet know about the passing of the Rebbe Rayatz. He found out on the way.

    When he arrived in 770, he asked the Rebbe whether he should return to Eretz Yisrael. The Rebbe told him, “The Rebbe [Rayatz] surely knew ahead of time what would be and he certainly did not mean for you come here for just two weeks.”

    “I arrived at 770 two weeks after Yud Shevat so I wasn’t there at the time of the histalkus and funeral but I heard from others about what occurred at that time,” R’ Yoel later said.

    At that fateful time which bridged the nesius of the sixth generation and the seventh generation, R’ Yoel was one of the bachurim who closely followed events in 770. He even wrote down what went on (long before they dreamed of writing “yomanim/diaries”). The description of events that he recorded during that period eventually came to be considered one of the most reliable and accurate documentations of the fateful events of those days when the baton was being handed over to the seventh generation.

    Regarding the next period, when requests were made of the Rebbe that he accept the nesius, R’ Yoel wrote a lot about it in letters to his father, in detail, throughout the year.

    “In the period after Yud Shevat, calls, requests and pleadings were made that the Rebbe accept the Chabad leadership. These were communal letters from communities of Anash from all over the world as well as letters from individuals.

    “We bachurim did not know about these many letters. It was only after a while that we found out the scope of the requests. The Chassidim who were on site also begged the Rebbe to accept the nesius. But the Rebbe firmly refused and said that the Rebbe [Rayatz] continued to lead as before. The Rebbe often quoted what it says in Igeres HaKodesh, chapter 27 of Tanya that, “A tzaddik who passes away is present in all worlds more than in his lifetime.”

    “However to us bachurim in 770, after the passing of the Rebbe Rayatz, two things were clear: first, that the current situation without a Rebbe could not go on, it was out of the question; and second, that he was the one.

    To be continued, G-d willing


    Beis Moshiach magazine can be obtained in stores around Crown Heights. To purchase a subscription, please go to: bmoshiach.org


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