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Metzorah: Emet L’Yaakov

The 29th of Adar is the Yahrtzeit of Rav Yaakov (ben Binyomin) Kamenetsky (1891-1986). Born on the 21 Adar, in hamlet of Kalushkove (from which his family moved to Dolhinov), he left for Minsk at the age of 11. Among his friends there were the future Rav Reuven Grozovsky, and the young Aaron Kotler. Shortly after Pesach in 1905, Reb Yaakov and Reb Aaron traveled to Slobodka to learn under the supervision of the Alter of Slobodka.


Reb Yaakov also learned in Slutzk. During World War I he took refuge in Lomza in the yeshiva of Reb Yechiel Michel Gordon. On 22 Sivan, 1919, he married the

Rebbetzin Ita Ettel. On 11th Av 1937, he left for America and was appointed Rav in Toronto.

In 1945, he accepted the request of Reb Shraga Feivel Mendelovitz that he take up the position of Rosh Yeshiva in Mesivta Torah Vodaas. He stayed there for the next twenty years, after which he moved to Monsey, officially “retired” but working tirelessly for US and world Jewery. His chidushim were printed in his seforim Emes LeYaakov, on Torah and on Shas. As he requested, he was buried in Mt. Judah Cemetery on the Brooklyn/Queens border, since he pointed out that most of his family live in America and would not always be able to travel to his kever in Eretz Yisrael. From this, his last request we learn yet another chapter of his feelings for others.

The midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 16:2) says: There was once a spice merchant who is traveling through cities close to Sephorris and he would announce and say, “Who wants to buy a potion of life?” People began to gather round. Rabbi Yannai was teaching and overheard him call out, “who wants to buy a potion of life?” The rabbi said to the merchant, “sell some to me.” The merchant responded, “you don’t need it.” The Rabbi insisted, so the merchant took out a book of Psalms and he showed him the verse, “who is the man who desires life? Guard your tongue from evil, turn from evil and do good.” Rabbi Yannai said that King Solomon made a similar proclamation, “he who guards his mouth and his tongue guards his soul from suffering.” He continued and said, “all my days I read this verse and I didn’t know where it was explained until this merchant came and explained.” Therefore, Moses warns Israel and says, “this shall be the Torah of the Metzorah,” this is the law of what happens to one who is Motzi shem rah, who speaks evil of others.

The time would (Avodah Zarah 19b) has a different version of the story: Rabbi Alexandri would announce, “who wants life, who wants life? Come and gather to me.” People gathered and said to him, “give us life.” He said to them, “who is the man who desires life? Guard your tongue from evil.” Perhaps a person will say I guard my tongue from speaking evil when ever I sleep, therefore the verse continues, “turn away from evil and do good,” and the only good is Torah, as the verse says, “For I have given you good merchandise, do not leave my Torah.”

We have to ask a number of questions: first of all why did the midrash have to tell us we adapt and merchant was making his announcement? Why is it important for us to know that Rabbi Yannai was studying Torah when this man was selling his wares? Did Rabbi Yannai not know the verse? What did the Rabbi learned from this spice merchant that he didn’t know before? Who was this spice merchant; if he was really a spice merchant why would he make this announcement about a verse in the Bible? If he was actually a preacher, pretending to be a merchant, why does the midrash referred to him as a merchant? And why did Rabbi Yannai referred to him after the story as a spice merchant?

We are very familiar with the terrible destruction caused by speaking evil of others.

This man was actually a spice merchant who also sold whole books, and when he made his announcement it was in order to sell his books, and used the phrase “potion of life,” because he was selling potions. Rabbi Alexandri did not mention potion of life just like. The man selling the books were selling the “potion of life,” and when he showed the Rabbi who requested the “potion” he showed him that the book was the potion, but the Torah itself is the life. Rabbi Yannai learned from him how easy it is to fulfill this mitzvah of doing good; one can study the potion of life, the Torah and accomplish learning how to guard his mouth and protect himself from evil.

There are two stages: one is the actual protection, which is avoiding negative and destructive speech. There is another stage that must precede this stage, which is Torah study. For it is Torah that imbues us with the life and strength that are necessary to guard our tongues from evil.

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