Rav Shachne was born in the small Ukrainian town of Pilver near Mezhibuz, hometown of the Baal Shem Tov, and immigrated with his parents Yitzchok Yaakov and Ettel to the US when he was about nine-years-old. In the biography of her father, All for The Boss, Rebbetzin Ruchama Shain described how Rav Yaakov Yosef Herman drew Rav Shachne to a life of Torah as he attracted so many others before and after him:
â€œRabbi Shachne Zohn, a former rosh yeshiva in Torah Vodaas in Brooklyn, New York, and presently rosh yeshiva of a kollel in Yerushalayim, is a product of Papaâ€™s special care,â€ she wrote. â€œAt thirteen years of age, he was attending public school on the East Side. After school, his father sent him to the Mordechai Rosenblatt Talmud Torah at 134 Henry Street where he received religious training for an hour and a half.
â€œMr. Zohn had a little cap business that kept him occupied all week. The few hours on Shabbos which he was able to spare for his son were too few to instill in Shachne the love for Torah learning. His father therefore was concerned about his sonâ€™s religious education. He knew Papa and had heard of his deep influence on young boys. He brought Shachne to Papa and placed him under Papaâ€™s guidance. Papa immediately withdrew him from public school and registered him at Yeshiva Rabbi Jacob Joseph.
â€œShachne joined the group of forty-five boys to whom Papa taught Ein Yaakov in English each evening at Tiferes Yerushalayim. A short while later after Shachne began studying at the yeshiva, Papa used his tactful pressure to convince Shachne to go to the New Haven Yeshiva where Nochum Dovid, Chaim Scheinberg, Boruch Kaplan, Reuven Epstein and a few of Papaâ€™s other talmidim were already studying at Papaâ€™s urging.â€
â€œPapa checked up on all his talmidim,â€ Ruchama Shain continues. â€œHe was in constant touch with Rabbi Levenberg, founder of New Haven Yeshiva, and the other roshei yeshiva on the progress of his â€˜boys.â€™ When they returned home for the Yomim Tovim, he inquired into every detail of their lives and learning. When Shachne had completed four years of study in the Yeshiva of New Haven, Papa advised him to go to Mir, Poland. Papa was traveling to Europe on business and Shachne and a few of his other talmidim accompanied him.
â€œRav Shachne told me the following: â€˜Had it not been for Rav Yaakov Yosef, I and countless other Jewish boys would have been crushed under the wheels of mundane society and remained street boys our entire lives. The year I sat at your fatherâ€™s table listening to his teachings built the sound foundation of my Torah learning and life. His teachings were from the heart and reached our hearts.â€™â€
FOUR DAYS WITH THE CHOFETZ CHAIM
After arriving in Europe, Rav Yaakov Yosef took his talmid for an interview with Rav Eliezer Yudel Finkel, the Rosh Yeshiva of Mir, who was filled with wonder and said this was the first time he heard a proper shtikel Torah from an American bochur. Rav Shachne learned for three and a half years in Mir and after his marriage he studied a year-and-a-half in the Kamenitzer Yeshiva under Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz after whom he later named his oldest son. Rav Boruch Ber gave him semichah in Ellul 1939, writing in the document:
â€œThe sharp, deep, pure and greatly G-d fearing Rav and gaon Shachne bâ€r Yaakov Zohn of New York learnt in our yeshiva for a few years and saw great blessing in sharpness and erudition. In sharpness he probes to great depths and has straight sevora, and he innovates correct, deep chiddushei Torahâ€¦ He also has yirah and good upright midos as is fitting for a great talmid chochom such as he, may they multiply in Yisroel, etc.â€
Rav Shachneâ€™s wife, Liba, was the daughter of Rav Elchonon Tzvi Gulevsky, head of the Yeshiva Ketana of Mir. Years later when Rav Beinish Finkel of Mir was menachem avel her over the passing of her sister, he told her that although he did not normally come to be menachem avel women sitting shivah by themselves, her case was different – he owed his life to her father who had imbued him with a love of Torah that lasted his whole life.
Rav Shachne often repeated the story of his visit to the Chofetz Chaim, saying that looking at the Chofetz Chaimâ€™s face was like learning from a living mussar sefer. He had wanted to visit him for some time, he said, but his yeshiva schedule made this impossible until he once needed to travel to Warsaw to attend to some matter. On the way back, he and his friend Rav Sender Linchner detoured to Radin instead of returning straight back to Mir. Some time ago he described the subsequent experience to Rav Tuviah Freund, one of the heads of the Otzar Haposkim Institute.
â€œOur arrival there was a miracle,â€ he said. â€œWe left at six in the morning as heavy snow was falling and arrived at the nearest town with a station that was 12.5 miles distant from Radin. Generally, to get to Radin one hired and horse and cart. But the day we arrived by train heavy snow was falling and it was very cold. No wagon driver agreed to go to Radin under such conditions so left with no other choice we went with a sleigh yoked to horses. The snowfall thickened and the road became obliterated. There were moments when we thought we would need to spend Shabbos by the roadside.
â€œHowever, with siyata diShmayah, the driver knew the way and after great efforts we arrived thirty minutes before sundown right at the Chofetz Chaimâ€™s door.
â€œWe put down our muktzah items, took off our soaking wet coats, and immediately davened Minchah and Kabbolas Shabbos and listened to the Chofetz Chaimâ€™s shmooze. There was a minyan in his house where people gathered to daven. After Kabbolas Shabbos before Maariv he used to give a schmooze of chizuk.
â€œThe holy Chofetz Chaim said that when a person reaches the afterworld after a hundred-and-twenty, he will be asked why he lived without cheshbon nefesh, a spiritual reckoning. He compared this to a small shopkeeper who makes a small accounting each evening of his profits and losses and makes his plans for the next day accordingly. The shopkeeper has to know how much he loses or gains every day and if he doesnâ€™t, how will he run his shop the next day? So every person in the world must make a reckoning every day – what I did worthily for the sake of He who gave me life, bread to eat, a garment to wear, children, health, and parnossah.
â€œThe Chofetz Chaim sat close to a table as he spoke and I can never forget how he forcefully banged on the table as he asked, â€˜How can we ignore such a groise gesheft, a great business, and continue functioning for years without making a cheshbon nefesh? How can we live with no reckoning of our relationship with Hashem? Through constant cheshbon nefesh, a person can gain his world to come. A day must never pass without a person reckoning the profits and losses of his mitzvos and good deeds. We must accept upon ourselves to make a cheshbon nefesh.â€™â€
After the droshah, Rav Shachneâ€™s friend presented him to the Chofetz Chaim, telling him he was abochur who had come from America to Poland to study Torah. He was certain the Chofetz Chaim would be impressed at meeting one of the few who made the difficult journey from so far away.
â€œBut the Chofetz Chaim wasnâ€™t excited at all and saw nothing special about it,â€ Rav Shachne recalled. â€œâ€™If Hashem came down from heaven in His glory with the heavenly retinue to give the Torah to Yisroel at Mount Sinai, he said, â€˜certainly one should come even from America to Poland to accept the Torah properly.â€™â€
At the same time, the Chofetz Chaim took a Chumash lying on his table and said, â€œDem Aibershterâ€™s chibur, this is Hashemâ€™s work!â€
The Chofetz Chaim explained that people look at the seforim of the Rambam or even of Rabbi Akiva with tremendous awe and respect. Yet how much reverence we should feel when holding a Chumash, the work of the worldâ€™s creator! Afterwards they began davening Maariv.
Rav Shachne said that when the Chofetz Chaim spoke his simple words they were so full of regesh one felt one could feel his words tangibly as if with oneâ€™s own hands. When he spoke of the moshiach, one felt he was behind the door waiting for someone to open it.
After four days Rav Shachne returned to Mir. He explained that the Chofetz Chaim himself used to advise various bochurim to go to other yeshivos where the physical amenities were better as Radin was a very poor town. But before leaving, Rav Shachne received a powerful brochah from the Chofetz Chaim that included five different perspectives of his life, but what they were, no one has the faintest idea.
As mentioned earlier, Rav Shachne always said that the four days he spent with the tzaddik made an impact as if he was with him for four years. In recent years, Rav Shachne publicized that the Chofetz Chaim had come to him in a dream to inform him that the moshiachâ€™s arrival was imminent.
â€œI had a dream,â€ he said. â€œI saw the Chofetz Chaim, and he said to me to make known in the world that the Redemption is close, and it is necessary to be ready for the redemption.â€
FIGHTING FOR ERETZ YISROEL
After the outbreak of World War II Rav Shachne and his wife left Europe in March 1940 and reached the USA through miracles. â€œBombs were falling and we were running,â€ his rebbetzin recalled. The couple often had nothing to eat and subsisted on potato peels and suchlike.
One Friday they came to a place where their train was bombed and they were left stranded in a hazardous area. All of a sudden a horse and buggy pulled up and the driver asked them where they were going. When he heard where they were going he said he was traveling to the exact same place and took them there along. They always believed it was Eliyohu Hanovi that picked them up that Friday.
The couple left Europe on the last or second last boat to leave that area they reached. During the voyage their boat was shelled by a German boat, its shells falling close enough to the target to convince the Germans they had made a direct hit and leave.
After a six months in Boston, Rav Shachne moved to White Plains in New York where he established a kollel. When he was about to settle in Williamsburg where he became a maggid shiur in YeshivaTorah Vodaas for eighteen years, he gave the White Plains kollel to Rav Nosson Meir Wachtfogel. After Rav Aharon Kotler joined Rav Nosson Meir and began delivering shiurim to the kollelâ€™s avreichim andbochurim, the kollel eventually moved to Lakewood and became the nucleus of todayâ€™s Lakewood Torah Empire.
At Torah Vodaas, Rav Shachneâ€™s shiur was so popular that many bochurim specially came to the yeshiva to learn under him.
In addition to learning and teaching, Rav Shachne also became involved in communal matters. Under the aegis of â€œthe Committee for the Strengthening of Religion in the Path of Yisroel Sabaâ€ he published numerous pamphlets about spiritual matters that need reinforcement such as the mistake of going to regular public pools and the dangers involved in women setting out to work in mixed gender environments.
He was also very involved in fighting the National Service law Israel wanted to introduce as a substitute for army service for religious girls. According to this law, girls who refused to do army service for religious reasons would be required to do community service instead such as helping in hospitals or educational institutions. The gedolim including the Brisker Rov and the Chazon Ish understood the dangers and called on the tzibbur to oppose the idea with messirus nefesh.
Rav Shachne traveled to the two gedolim in Eretz Yisroel, asked what he could do to help, and transferred their warning of the urgency of the situation to American gedolim including Rav Aharon Kotler, Rav Eliezer Silver, and Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky. They told him to organize giant protests in the USA including one next to the Israeli consulate. There was heavy snow in New York on the day of the consulate protest and fearing that this might mean low attendance, many Jews made a special effort to arrive resulting in much larger protest than expected, which made a huge impact. In the end, the Brisker Rov said that Rav Avrohom Aratel in Eretz Yisroel (a Gerrer Chossid who worked in coordination with Rav Shachne) and Rav Shachne Zohn in America were responsible for winning the battle against national service.
Rav Shachne also protested in New York against unnecessary post mortems taking place in Israel and his activities and articles in the Algemeiner Journal signed by the penname S. Zarchi made a tremendous impression on the American public. In recent years when he was living in Eretz Yisroel, he traveled to the USA to speak to the president about a road being excavated in Yerushalayim that was about to destroy ancient graves.
In addition to his teaching and askonus, Rav Shachne also wrote a number of seforim including Chiddushei Ateres Yaakov on various massechtos, shuâ€t Ateres Yaakov, Hazohar on the Torah, and others.
In later years, Rav Shachne became bothered by the thought that his public activities might have detracted from the devotion required for his teaching position in Torah Vodaas and decided to do something about it.
â€œDecades later,â€ Avrohom Biderman, Chairman of Shuvu and member of the Torah Vodaas board recalls, â€œI received a phone call one erev Shabbos at about three-o-clock in the winter, an hour before zâ€™man hadlokah. Rav Shachneâ€™s son, Rav Elchonon, was on the line.
â€œâ€˜I need to speak to you right away,â€™ he said.
â€œâ€˜Itâ€™s already close to Shabbos and I am preparing a Kiddush for a simchah,â€™ I told him.â€™There is a big hullabaloo here. Canâ€™t it wait?â€™
â€œâ€˜No!â€™ said Rav Elchonon.â€™My father just called me; he just turned 90 and he doesnâ€™t whatâ€™s going to beâ€¦â€™
â€œRav Elchonon explained that during the 50s and 60s when his father was a rebbi in Torah Vodaas, he also devoted a lot of time to Achiezer, an organization that organized demonstrations and did other askonus on behalf of the Torah kehillah in Eretz Yisroel, and he was concerned that this may have prevented him devoting full attention to his teaching job. He wanted to make amends for this. At the time he was probably earning about $3,000 a year.
â€œâ€˜I am sure the yeshiva is mochel this,â€™ I told Rav Elchonon.
â€œâ€˜That wonâ€™t satisfy my father,â€™ he said.â€˜He wants to pay the money back.â€™
â€œI told Rav Elchonon that there was to be a board meeting of the yeshiva that Sunday where we would discuss the matter and we would consider formally waiving whatever he thought he owed. Rav Elchonon agreed that this might suffice. After the meeting, I phoned Rav Elchonon and told him the board had formally resolved that any debt owed to the yeshiva was null and void.â€
KODSHIM KOLLEL IN ERETZ YISROEL
In 1970 Rav Shachne fulfilled his dream of moving to Eretz Yisroel where he opened a kollel in the Diskin Institution in Givat Shaul and later a kollel for the study of kodshim n Har Zvi. Through this he felt he was fulfilling the spiritual legacy of the Chofetz Chaim who avidly encouraged the study of this subject in preparation for the moshiachâ€™s coming.
So great was his enthusiasm for kodshim that when he once asked Rav Michel Feinstein of Bnei Brak why he wasnâ€™t learning kodshim in his kollel, and Rav Michel replied that he did not have funds to open an additional kollel, Rav Shachne retorted without blinking, â€œYou open a kollel and every month I will send money for its yungeleit; tell me how many there are and I will send it.â€
He kept his side of the deal for years.
Rav Shachne was constantly optimistic. A son-in-law recalls how he once made a Kiddush in his kollel after a family tragedy (without saying what the Kiddush was for) to impress upon himself the importance of feeling that whatever Hashem does is for the good even if we cannot immediately perceive it.
Rav Shachne also remained fervently active in Torah and mitzvos until his last years.
â€œAbout seven or eight years ago there was heavy snow and my mother asked me to go to him as he would certainly go out to daven and might slip in the snow,â€ a grandson recalled. â€œWhen I told him there was snow outside he looked and said, â€˜Snow! You call that snow! In Russia the snow reached up to a personâ€™s head. He went out with me and I wasnâ€™t sure if he was helping me or I was helping him. He was like a young bochur.â€
When one of his sons recently told him that was sixty and counted as an old man, Rav Shachne began laughing.
â€œHow can you be old at sixty if Iâ€™m still a yungerman!â€ he said.
Only two months ago he published an additional volume of his sefer Chiddushei Ateres Yaakov, this time on Massechtos of Brochos, Shabbos, and Eiruvin. For the past few weeks he suffered from pneumonia. He passed away last Thursday in the Shaarei Zedek hospital in Yerushalayim.
The levayah began at his home in Even Haâ€™ezel Street in the Ezras Torah neighborhood. Thousands participated including gedolei Torah, roshei yeshivah, mashgichim, rabbonim, and bnei Torah. He was eulogized by, among others, Rav Gedalyahu Waldenberg, rov of Ezras Torah; Rav Yitzchok Ezrachi, rosh yeshiva, Mir; the mashgiach, Rav Don Segal; Rav Simcha Scheinberg, Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Ohr; and his grandson, Rav Shaul Dov Felman.
Rav Shachne was interred in Har Hazeisim and is survived by his many talmidim, his wife, his sons Rav Boruch Dov in Baltimore, Rav Elchonon, a noted askan who has been the director of the Chevra Kadisha of the Vaad Harabanim of Queens for decades, his daughters Chaya Perl, Sarah Versicherter, and Ettel Gartenhaus, and his grandchildren and great-children.
Yehi zichro boruch.