Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (1865-1935) was the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Eretz Yisrael. After serving in rabbinical positions in Lithuania and Latvia, Rav Kook accepted the position of Rabbi of Jaffa, the bustling Mediterranean port city.
When he arrived in 1904, he found the Jews of Eretz Yisrael severely factionalized. Groups were divided along the lines of the “Old Yishuv” – pietists concentrated in the four cities of Jerusalem, Hebron, Tzefat and Tiberias; and the “New Yishuv” – secular-minded settlers whose stronghold was the Galilee and the Jezreel Valley. Rav Kook set out to bridge the gap and heal the wounds within the “people dwelling in Zion.”
It did not take long before the religious leader who was known for his Ahavat Yisrael, his love of the Jewish people, found himself under attack both from isolationist haredim at one extreme and the left wing of the Zionist movement at the other.
The religious zealots or “kanna’im” of Jerusalem especially made a concerted effort to vilify Rav Kook and to tarnish his good name. Due to these tragic circumstances, Rav Kook’s final years as rabbi of Jerusalem, from 1920 to 1935, were a time of persecution. (One historian even referred to that period in his life as “Galut Yerushalayim,” the “Exile of Jerusalem.”)
As it says in Shir HaShirim (8:7): “Many waters could not extinguish the love.”
Like Rabbi Akiva of old, Rav Kook was able to laugh in the face of adversity, while his contemporaries could only cry. Where others saw darkness, Rav Kook saw light. As such, most of the titles of his sefarim include the word orot, “lights”: Orot (Rav Kook’s seminal work, published upon his arrival in Jerusalem in 1920); Orot ha-Teshuvah (Lights of Return, especially appropriate for study during the penitential month of Elul); Orot ha-Torah (Lights of Torah, a philosophy of the study of Torah) and Orot ha-Kodesh (Lights of Holiness, considered the magnum opus of “Kookian philosophy”).
This Chanukah there is another work we should celebrate: the release of the new Rav Kook Siddur by the venerable Koren Publishers, headquartered in Jerusalem. This new siddur introduces the English-speaking world to the brilliant thoughts of Rav Kook on the Prayer Book.
Let’s have a look at Rav Kook’s thoughts on Hag ha-Urim, the Festival of Lights, which are as startling as they are profound.
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There was a famous controversy between the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel as to the proper method of kindling the lights on the eight nights of Chanukah.
“Beit Shammai say: The first day, one lights eight [candles]; from then on, one progressively decreases. And Beit Hillel say: The first day, one lights one [candle]; from then on, one progressively increases.” (Shabbat 21b)
The Talmud provides two sets of reasons for the differing opinions of the Shammaites and Hillelites. According to one rationale, Beit Shammai focus on the incoming days (which decrease in number from eight to one), whereas the attention of Beit Hillel is riveted to the outgoing days (which increase in number from one to eight).
According to an alternative explanation, Beit Shammai follow the pattern of the bullocks offered in the Temple on the festival of Sukkot. Their number decreased daily from thirteen bullocks on the first day to seven bullocks on the seventh day. (According to the rabbis, the seventy bullocks were offered to atone for the seventy nations of the world.) Beit Hillel, on the other hand, were guided by the halachic principle “We ascend in holiness and do not descend.”
Rav Kook’s interpretation of Beit Shammai’s position is nothing less than revolutionary. Generally, we understand the vista of the steadily decreasing number of the nations (symbolized by the ever diminished number of bullocks) to portend extinction for the nations of the world. (See Rashi, Numbers 29:11.) Comes Rav Kook and informs us that the number of nations decreases because the barriers between them break down! With the passage of time, mankind gradually becomes unified and singular in its resolve to worship the One God.
Seen through this “Kookian” prism, Beit Shammai emerge as universalists gifted with a global perspective. They are also futurists. “Corresponding to the incoming days.”
Who or what then are the House of Hillel? They are the Jewish nationalists. Theirs is a profound appreciation of the “segulah,” the treasure, the peculiar quality of this unique people. Certainly Israel is destined to be a light to the other peoples on this planet. But this is not Beit Hillel’s primary concern. Rather, they are taken with the inner light of Israel, which throughout the generations, despite the many persecutions – or, truthfully, because of them – continues to glow brighter and brighter.
In order to develop a true appreciation and love for this nation of Israel, one must immerse oneself in its unparalleled history. “Just as the love of family and of parents is built on the past,” so the love of the nation of Israel is founded on its past. Where Beit Shammai orient toward the future, Beit Hillel orient to the past: “Corresponding to the outgoing days.” (Adapted from Eyn Ayah to Shabbat 21b.)
Rav Kook does not mention this in his discussion of kindling the Chanukah lights, but there is a Kabbalistic tradition that in the future the halacha will be in accordance with Beit Shammai (whereas for the present era the halacha was decided in favor of Beit Hillel (see Eruvin 13b). Perhaps on some level this Kabbalistic tradition informed Rav Kook’s perception of the House of Shammai as futurists.
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Yet another beautiful piece from Eyn Ayah appears as commentary on the Chanukah candle-lighting in the Rav Kook Siddur:
“When the Greeks entered the Temple, they polluted all the [olive] oil in the Temple. And when the Hasmonean dynasty grew strong and defeated them, they searched and found but a single cruse of oil deposited with the seal of the high priest. There was in it enough [oil] for but a single day. A miracle occurred and they were able to light from it for eight days.” (Shabbat 21b)
Rav Kook saw great symbolism in this historic event. He wrote: “The pollution of the oil symbolizes the corruption of the character traits and the opinions; the spiritual oppression of the Greeks impacted the very faith of the Jew.”
In every Jew there is an aspect of priesthood (kehunah): “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). Deep within the heart, there dwells the light of the Israelite soul. There is tucked away the inner connection of the Israelite with the core belief in the Lord, God of Israel, and the strong will not to be separated from the “house of life,” from faith. This is the inner world of the Israelite, which is exemplified on the macro level by the high priest who enters into the inner sanctum on the Holy Day. That small cruse deposited with the seal of the high priest, the Greeks were incapable of polluting. No force can uproot from Klal Yisrael their deep, inner bond with the Lord, God of Israel….
But if the cruse remains small; if the faith remains hidden in the heart and does not manifest in actuality, in life, how will it survive? And once life has already taken another direction which is not based on the inner faith, then God forbid, the surviving remnant might be extinguished.
This is the wonderful power of that hidden flame. Even when it finds lifestyles diametrically opposed to it and opinions held by people who don’t even realize that they have embarked on a way at odds with the deepest aspect of their soul – that tiny spark can be fanned into a mighty fire, uprooting all the foreign lifestyles and inimical opinions. The spark can extend to all life’s avenues, returning Israel to their Father in Heaven.”
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Perhaps it is Rav Kook’s belief in the potential of the “tiny spark” evolving into a fire that describes his approach toward prayer.
We see throughout Rav Kook’s writings that prayer is an incessant internal monologue. He writes, “In truth, the soul constantly prays.” What we observe in the formal prayer uttered at the prescribed time is but the eruption of a hidden babbling brook, the surfacing of a subterranean current.
In many ways, this concept is connected to Rambam’s concept of tefillah as “‘avodah she-ba-lev” (“service of the heart”). For the Rambam, prayer is a universal phenomenon. It is not bound by time; neither is its formula prescribed. It transcends both time and language. Not subject to the exigencies of time, its content remains fluid. (For Ramban, on the other hand, prayer is a function of a specific time, and each time impresses upon prayer its specific stamp; its particular needs; its unique supplication.)
In prayer, we tap these hidden spiritual resources; the spark is fanned into flame.
Does this mean that prayer changes God’s plan for us? Not necessarily so.
In Orot HaTefillah (Lights of Prayer, a collection by Rav Kook’s disciple, Rabbi Moshe Tzevi Neriyah), Rav Kook discusses the problem posed by the medieval Spanish Jewish philosopher Rabbi Joseph Albo. Back in the 15th century, Albo asked how prayer is possible; he wondered how “shinuy ha-ratzon” (changing the divine will) is philosophically justified.
This quandary is dealt with at greater length in the introduction to the Rav Kook Siddur. Albo’s solution to the problem is that a divine decree is directed at a certain type of person, but through prayer, a person can be transformed into a different type altogether, thus rendering the previous decree inapplicable. Rav Kook’s own response can be summed up by saying: “Prayer sets out not to change God but man. In the crucible of prayer, man’s will is purified and refined, and ultimately realigned with that of his Maker” (Introduction to the Rav Kook Siddur, p. xvi).
In this regard, the centrality of light can be understood: Deep within the heart, there dwells the light of the Israelite soul.
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Rav Kook spent his life clinging to the concepts of respect, love, spirituality, and holiness. Yet his last years were not easy. He saw social divisions and experienced hardships in his leadership position as Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Israel. His very last year was devoted to saving the life of Avraham Stavsky, unjustly accused of murdering Chaim Arlosoroff, a prominent member of the Labor Zionist movement and political director of the Jewish Agency.
Stavsky belonged to the right-wing Revisionist movement led by Jabotinsky. The atmosphere surrounding the trial was politically charged. For his brave and outspoken defense of the accused, Rav Kook was vilified by many ardent Zionists on the left. (Just as earlier in his career he had been demonized by pious anti-Zionists.)
This did not faze Rav Kook in the least. He was never out to win a popularity contest. He was a peace-seeker who sought the harmonious inclusion of Jews of every background and every persuasion. He sought the good, the light – that small crucible of oil – in every Jew. In this case, he was also “moser nefesh” to save an innocent life, come what may.
Despite intermittent opposition, Rav Kook’s impact was felt by many across the religious spectrum. This impact was sensed most strongly at the time of his passing. On the third of Elul 1935, a colorful tapestry of 80,000 Jews escorted Rav Kook’s funeral bier to the Mount of Olives. This was the beginning of the “or hozer,” the reflection of his light that continues to shine brighter with every year, especially as more books on his thought are released.
It is therefore a tremendous privilege to make Rav Kook’s thought available to the English-speaking world with Koren’s Rav Kook Siddur. For too long, his works have remained in Hebrew, focused on those who likely already had a strong connection to the Land of Israel, and wished to refine that affinity. But as we see, his message, his lifework, speaks to the global Jewish community; a community that is once again dangerously factionalized. It is our fervent hope that Rav Kook’s spiritual balm will serve to bring us back from the abyss.
The Rav Kook Siddur includes rich anecdotes transmitted by Rav Kook’s son, Rabbi Tzevi Yehudah Kook, and his major disciples, Rabbi Harlap and Rabbi David Cohen (the “Nazir”), along with a digest of Rav Kook’s own commentary. The English translation of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks – himself an outstanding thinker – has touched and ennobled many hearts, and will continue to do so for many years to come.
This year, the Festival of Lights offers us an opportunity to enter the spiritual laboratory of Rav Kook, a master of prayer. May this new siddur bring an added element of light to every home and community throughout North America and beyond, and connect us all to the sacred soil of the Land of Israel.
The Rav Kook Siddur is dedicated to the blessed memory of Aaron Stefansky, a well-known Jewish philanthropist who in his tragically short lifetime gave of himself tirelessly and unstintingly to yeshivot in the United States and Eretz Yisrael.