Rav Gamliel HaKohein Rabinowitz fuses the hidden and revealed light to help every broken soul radiate its own holiness
Photos: AEGedolim photos, Eli Cobin
“Tei’ere Yidden, ich hub eich zei’er leeb — Dear Jews, I love you very much.”
For another person, it might sound like a bit of an expansive greeting, but not for Rav Gamliel Rabinowitz, whose recorded messages reach a vast number of Jews.
Not for him.
At Yeshivas Shaar HaShamayim, the Kabbalah yeshivah he heads, nishmas Yisrael — the collective soul of a nation and the many streams that run forth from it — is a sugya, studied just like the halachos of Shabbos or basar b’chalav.
Tei’ere Yidden is the space in which Rav Gamliel HaKohein Rabinowitz, rosh yeshivah of the century-old institution, exists — connected with, enamored of, and dedicated to, nishmas Yisrael.
And “ich hub eich zei’er leeb,” too: “Hamevarech es amo Yisrael b’ahavah,” the right and legacy of the Kohein, the love that flows from this Kohein in particular.
Once, when the living room, dining room, and hallways of the apartment on Rechov Moshe Chagiz were overflowing with people waiting to speak with Rav Gamliel, a large man stood up and shouted in the direction of the room, “HaRav, why do I have to wait for your brachah? I will go to Zichron Moshe in the morning and get it by Bircas Kohanim.”
The door opened a crack and Rav Gamliel peered out, his face serious. “Ken, atah tzodek – You are right.”
There’s no gabbai or office, no mosdos with his name on the letterhead, no assumed rabbinic pomp. To the contrary, even after the crowds were beating a path to his door, his name being passed from one enthusiastic American to another (and it always starts with them), he continued to receive people in the same room, in the same chair. Huge, overstuffed, an old-fashioned recliner that belongs in some retired person’s den. Not your typical mekubal piece of furniture, but nothing is typical in this realm, the world of Rav Gamliel.
Perhaps he’s an unlikely candidate for the global role he has come to fill, this child of Yerushalayim who exudes the charm of the city, yet whose influence is felt across the world.
Born 70 years ago in Meah Shearim, land of steep staircases and fortress-like walls and resolve hewn out of that very stone, his story begins with his father. But his father isn’t just its opening chapter, it’s the chorus that plays constantly in Rav Gamliel’s life.
Once, a wealthy American philanthropist came to speak with Rav Gamliel. Close talmidim hoped that the Rav, who won’t ask for money or even accept it when offered, would make an exception in this case and accept a donation. There were so many needs, so much that could be accomplished with funding.
The gentleman came into the humble apartment and the sliding doors closed behind him. Rav Gamliel chatted with his visitor, and then asked a question.
Had he come with a car?
Yes, the man replied, there was a driver waiting downstairs.
“Great, then let’s go visit my father, that’s a real zechus,” Rav Gamliel said, and just like that, the visit — and opportunity — ended, because as the Rav always tells visitors, again and again, “Kibbud av v’eim, dos iz di yesoid, this is the basis of everything. Start being careful in kibbud av v’eim and you will see such brachah.”
Rav Levi Rabinowitz was a respected talmid chacham and mechaber of the popular sefer Ma’adanei Shulchan, a quiet, saintly man who toiled in Torah in relative obscurity. He’d planned to release his sefer anonymously, but his friend, the great mashpia, Rav Usher Freund, suggested differently.
“You don’t want to include your name because you worry about gaavah,” said Rav Usher, “but if you don’t include your name, the yetzer hara will say, ‘Psssh, Reb Levi, you wrote such an impressive sefer and you didn’t even include your name, you’re a gaon, a tzaddik and also an anav,’ so what will you have accomplished?” Reb Levi accepted the wise argument.
Rav Gamliel often mentions his father in his shmuessen, but he focuses on a much earlier part of his father’s life. Rav Levi, orphaned of both father and mother as a child, was raised in the Diskin Orphan Home. By the time of his passing, Rav Levi Rabinowitz had over 1,000 descendants. “A person sees nothing, we have no idea what kind of seeds we carry within us, the unlimited potential of a human being,” Rav Gamliel says. It’s a message he shares with struggling young people, persuading them that the future is bright, infinite, filled with possibility.
At Rav Levi’s levayah, his brokenhearted eldest son Rav Gamliel insisted that his younger brother, Rav Elchanan, speak first. Rav Elchanan was especially devoted to their father, assisting him in the publication of the seforim, and Rav Gamliel felt that since his younger brother had outdone him in kibbud av, he should give the first hesped.
The respect between the brothers, and what it showed about the chinuch they received, was, in a sense, itself a hesped on Rav Levi .
Rav Gamliel followed the usual Meah Shearim route, learning in Torah V’yirah before marrying Rebbetzin Tzipora, a daughter of the Abraham family from Bnei Brak, settling down to the life of a Yerushalmi kollel avreich.
But then he took a slight detour.
One day Rav Levi’s son slipped into the back of the beis medrash of Shaar HaShamayim, the yeshivah for mekubalim in the Mekor Baruch neighborhood, and asked if he could join the kollel as an unpaid member.
Only accomplished talmidei chachamim were admitted to the yeshivah, after passing an acceptance bechinah on Shas and the classic poskim. The young man passed and took his place in the beis medrash, speaking little, but listening intently to what was being studied.
He was still in his twenties, far younger than the other talmidim, but the rosh yeshivah, Rav Yechiel Fishel Eisenbach, drew him close. For over 30 years Rav Gamliel learned with the older talmidei chachamim, also products of the Old Yishuv, imbibing the sacred scent of the yeshivah. In 2008, Rav Fishel was niftar and Rav Gamliel was appointed rosh yeshivah, along with Rav Reuven Gross.
The yeshivah had existed in relative obscurity for decades, but under Rav Gamliel’s direction, things changed a bit. He opened the yeshivah’s doors, not to talmidim, but to what only could be described as tourists. The people who streamed through Rav Gamliel’s apartment during the week were invited to come join in the Tikkun Shovavim, special tefillos for teshuvah, for mechilah, for shidduchim, for all sorts of brachos.
In the early 2000s, it wasn’t uncommon to see well-heeled American balabatim or sweet, mildly troubled-looking Israeli teenagers standing in the back of the beis medrash during the long Erev Shabbos Minchah, staring intently into the siddurim with long, filled-out sheimos and many small letters, as if they belonged.
Because they did belong.
This was Rav Gamliel’s accomplishment.
He showed them, these visitors who came for brachos for success with children or business or life, that they really were spiritual seekers, even if they’d never realized that before.
I once asked an affable Yerushalmi yungerman with a raspy voice who could have a been a melamed, a sofer, a book-binder, baker or shoelace/battery/tefillin-mirror vendor, but happened to be among the most respected talmidim of Shaar HaShamayim, how he viewed the phenomenon.
He conceded that, at the beginning, he was wary. The beis medrash, sort of a society of the initiated, was being overrun by people concerned about parking their rented Mazdas and their dinner reservations at Rimon, clueless in the ways of Kabbalah and the meaning and depth of the various tikkunim.
“But over time, I began to see what Reb Gamliel was doing. The very same faces returned several times a year, and you could notice the change in their davening, in their focus. They were becoming elevated people.
“Until Rav Gamliel, Kabbalah was a closed society, but now, even if the masses don’t learn Kabbalah, they have all tasted the sublime feeling of being in a cloud of ruchniyus, of tefillah with actual kavanah. If balabatim in chutz l’Aretz aren’t talking in their shuls, it’s because they’ve davened Minchah with Rav Gamliel here.”
And for the ones who wouldn’t come to Shaar HaShamayim, Rav Gamliel created another path to the gate of Heaven, too. He led weekly gatherings in various shuls around the Zichron Moshe neighborhood, moving around as the crowds grew.
Thursday nights, there would be cholent, song, and Torah — but most of all, it was the conversation. The kugel and cholent weren’t in heating dishes and there were no charcuterie boards; the cholent was coldish, in large foil pans, the sodas Israeli off-brands, warm and flat. But the Rav — or the Rebbe, as they called him — would be there, often with his jacket off, his huge tallis kattan dominating his small frame, leaning over a railing, chatting with this one or another.
I went a few times. Many of the faces were familiar to me, counter boys at the juice shops and music stores of Geula, Yerushalmi faces, the peyos gelled, glasses frames a bit cooler than the rest of the family. A friend and neighbor of mine in Maalot Dafna who also had a nice relationship with Rav Gamliel was called upon to play guitar, and back then, Rabbi Baruch Levine was there each week, strumming and singing, a backdrop to the flow of warmth and ahavas Yisrael.
Rabbi Levine recalls a vort the Rav shared one week, a particularly elevated moment. Rav Gamliel was explaining why Jews have the custom of sharing their problems with a tzaddik and asking him to pray on their behalf.
He quoted Esther’s words to Achashveirosh, “Ki eichacha uchal v’ra’isi — how can I bear to see the destruction of my people, and how can I bear to see the destruction of my family?” Esther was sharing her pain with the king. I am not okay if my People are not okay, she was saying, and if you want me to be happy, then they must be happy as well.
The tzaddik, Rav Gamliel explained, feels the tzaros of other Yidden so acutely that he turns to Heaven and cries, “How can I bear it? Please have mercy on my family.” His cry is one of “Ki eichacha uchal v’ra’isi, How can I bear it? ”
That was the vort. It was silent when Rav Gamliel finished, because every single person in the small Yerushalmi shul had the same thought.
That’s you, Rav Gamliel, that’s you!
hey loved him, the boys. Over the course of the week, the members of that group had free entrance to the apartment, walking through the waiting room with a proprietary air and peeking into the room, never taking more than a moment: updating him on a kabbalah, sharing a challenge, failure, or triumph, waiting for his smile or comment, and then leaving as quickly as they’d come. On more than one occasion, a bochur interrupted kabbalas kahal to come into the room — the Rav would look at his face and he knew why he’d come. Without a word, he’d hand them the key to the private mikveh in his home and then turn back to his visitor.
The smell of the Rebbetzin’s cooking pervades the apartment. Rav Gamliel will refer to it often, praising his wife’s tolerant nature. “She thought she was marrying a talmid chacham who would sit and learn and bring flowers for Shabbos, and look what I did to this house….”
The aroma of the Rebbetzin’s kugel is tempting and her husband knows that. It’s routine for him to send a visitor to the kitchen, instructing one of the children to make sure that the guest receives a groisse shtickel, a nice piece.
Rav Gamliel started giving regular vaadim to young married men, and he spoke about growth in learning, about kedushah, about having dreams. The members of the chaburah wanted him to speak about shalom bayis in a practical way, and he considered the request.
Fine, the Rav said, next week we’ll speak about shalom bayis, but instead of Tuesday night, he told the vaad members to come on Friday at eleven o’clock in the morning.
They came at the appointed time, but the Rav’s room was empty. He was in the hallway, in his stockinged feet, humming as he did sponja. He peered at the small crowd in the doorway and said, “Hinei, this is the vaad on shalom bayis, watch closely.”
Rav Gamliel never left Shaar HaShamayim, where he still learns and says shiurim regularly. In the afternoons, he used to learn with Rav Zundel Kroizer, one of the revered talmidei chachamim and tzaddikim of Yerushalayim. Rav Zundel would insist that the daily seder be held in the much younger Rav Gamliel’s home, crossing Davidka Square from his home in the Knesses neighborhood and walking to Zichron Moshe. Often, Rav Gamliel would advise petitioners in need of Heavenly mercy to be outside the building when Rav Zundel would approach, so that they could receive a brachah from a real tzaddik.
The railings of the apartment building, Rav Gamliel often says, are holy, since Rav Zundel — who was niftar seven years ago — would hold on to them as he ascended the stairs.
Rav Gamliel would also learn often with his father, and more recently, with his own son Rav Dov, a respected posek in his own right. “He is a talmid chacham, baruch Hashem,” Rav Gamliel comments with pride, “not a ‘baba’ like his father.”
He has a small circle of talmidim who get to drive him, and they know that even if the destinations change — Kever Rochel, Meron, Tzfas, Shmuel Hanavi — there’s a bag that will always come along on these tefillah expeditions.
Because its contents are precious.
Inside the bag are slips of paper, the kabbalos collected week after week, as Rav Gamliel Rabinowitz makes his way through the circuit of yeshivos — not the famous ones, not the large ones, and not the prestigious ones — crossing a landscape of growing neshamos, young people starting and stopping and wondering and doubting, as he blows life into their unexpressed dreams.
He connects with them, Rav Gamliel, making them believe it’s possible, and then he makes the ask.
Take on a new kabbalah. Something small. Break through. Let yourself soar and be great.
And then the boys write down their names, their requests, and their pledges on a slip of paper, and those papers go in the bag, the holy sack of Yiddishe hopes, breaking open doors to Heaven.
And the connection he forges with them? It’s real and lasting. Even if the photos of these visits aren’t featured in the pictures of the week, the Rav carries the struggles of these young people on his heart. One year, he spoke in a yeshivah for American bochurim during the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah. It was a small yeshivah at the top of Meah Shearim, with a relatively small student body.
A few weeks later, on Motzaei Simchas Torah, Rav Gamliel was walking to Meah Shearim to join in hakafos sheniyos by the Mishkenos Haro’im Rebbe, and he walked by that yeshivah building.
“My bochurim!” he exclaimed, and changed the itinerary, making a surprise visit to what was, for the American bochurim, actual hakafos, dancing and singing with them for a while before continuing on his original route.
The Eidah Hachareidis is far more than a kashrus certification agency: It’s the umbrella under which the various chassidic courts and groups that stem from the Old Yishuv converge, an approach shared by these heirs to the path of the Baal Shem Tov, the Chasam Sofer, and the Vilna Gaon, those who’d come to live on holy soil years before a formal government had sprung up and declared a state.
Rav Gamliel is part of that community, and will even participate at Eidah events, yet his conduct reveals the not-often-told story of the ahavas Yisrael of this community, the way fierce ideology is no impediment to fierce acceptance.
The door opens to welcome all sorts. He is among the few tzaddikim of the Holy City who accepts men and women, bochurim and seminary girls — in separate lines and waiting areas. The causes he champions apply to all demographics. He speaks about kibbud av v’eim, about learning Kitzur Shulchan Aruch each day, about davening with a minyan. He asks people to start looking inside the siddur as they daven.
And with passion that seems to tear at him like an open wound, he begs the people not to talk in shul.
The shul is a fortress, a shelter, and words of casual conversation create holes in the wall. They weaken the foundation. Protecting the sanctity of the shul is protecting the tefillah itself, ensuring it can rise to Heaven unimpeded.
This has always been the Rav’s call, but over the last 12 months, it has become a near fixation.
Ich beht eich. Ani mevakesh mimchem. I beg you. Don’t talk in shul. Keep the walls holy. Allow the tefillos to ascend.
A certain rav explained to Rav Gamliel that it was hard to uproot talking in his congregation because the people only came to socialize. If they couldn’t talk, they wouldn’t come at all.
“Make a generous kiddush, and they should sit and eat and drink,” Rav Gamliel said. “It’s good for them to be in a shul too. But they shouldn’t come during davening if they need to talk, only once it’s over.”
The mussar, too, flows from a place of rachamim; he doesn’t castigate or rebuke.
“I think it would be good if you took on … ” is how he’ll share advice. “It would be beneficial to be more careful with…”
A young man came in and made sure the sliding doors were completely closed. He sat down near the Rav. Rav Gamliel removed his glasses, as he usually does when meeting new people, and gazed at the visitor.
The bochur confided that he struggled terribly with his yetzer hara, and when his dirah was quiet, he used his phone to access inappropriate images.
“Are there ever moments when you wish to turn on your phone, but you hold yourself back?” Rav Gamliel asked.
“Yes,” the bochur replied, “sometimes I’m able to push it off.”
Rav Gamliel’s eyes shone. “Then you are truly holy, those moments of struggle envelop you with such great light. Tell me, my friend, which hand you use to hold the phone.”
The bochur indicated his right hand and the Rav lifted it to his lips. “This is a heilege hant, a holy hand that fights the yetzer hara, pushing it away, fighting and fighting….” Then Rav Gamliel kissed the bochur’s hand.
It was quiet in the room. The mekubal who sees so deep, who will scan the name of a proposed shidduch with his eyes and predict if it will work out, sees even a greater mystery: the limitless glory and purity of a Jewish soul.
And along with the recognition of the greatness of a Jewish soul is a determination to never hurt another Yid. The greatest of all segulos, Rav Gamliel believes, the one that has the potential to break all barriers, doesn’t involve Divine Names and permutations, not fasting or even intense prayer. What the mekubal suggests, again and again, is to avoid causing anguish to others. To be mevater, to take up less space, to allow others to shine and flourish whenever possible.
Rav Gamliel had a yearning to daven at the kever of Yosef Hatzaddik, in Shechem, which involves complicated logistics. The permits were arranged, security coordinated, but at the last minute, the trip was canceled.
Rav Gamliel casually explained that he’d noticed that the Rebbetzin was worried about a trip she considered unsafe, “and there is no way that we can earn Heavenly favor while causing pain to another.”
Rav Gamliel’s formal role, his “day job,” is within the yeshivah, but he addresses the global community through shiurim and writings. The Torah disseminated to the masses — the published shiurim in Tiv Haparshah, Tiv Hakehillah, Tiv HaTehillim and other seforim — are primarily nigleh, the revealed parts of Torah.
But privately, many of Rav Gamliel’s practices are rooted in Kabbalah. He frequently spends Shabbos in Meron, where he allows himself to share more esoteric Torah than usual. Each morning, he can be seen in Zichron Moshe with his large siddur, the kavanos of the earlier mekubalim on every page. At the weddings of his grandchildren, his face is radiant with longing, particularly when he dances with the kallah while holding a large hadas, a fragrant myrtle branch, pleading for the union between HaKadosh Baruch Hu and His nation.
But one of his more common habits seems to run counter to kabbalistic practice. Not only does he record every single public talk, he has no issue with people taking pictures or even videos of him, something many mekubalim consider harmful. Rav Gamliel will invite visitors from abroad to pose for a picture with him, often grabbing a child on his lap or placing an arm around the shoulders of a teenage boy.
A talmid asked about it, and Rav Gamliel shrugged. “In Heaven, they are constantly recording and constantly taking pictures. It’s good practice to always remember that.”
Rav Gamliel wears this awareness like a cloak, raising his eyes suddenly, unexpectedly, sighing and directly addressing his Creator.
And when that happens, everyone is swept in, somehow feeling whatever it is that he perceives; they experience a longing to get closer, a desperate yearning to hear the same song as he does.
And he lets them in, coming from wherever they’re coming, carrying whatever they’re carrying. He shows them that a brachah with kavanah, extra care with a halachah, a bit more respect for tefillah — these are ladders that can lead them so high.
When the mekubal swings around in his chair, playing with a pen or paper clip, his slippered feet crossed at the ankles, he is letting you into the sacred garden too.
When visitors come out of his room, it’s with bright eyes, shoulders a bit straighter than when they entered, feeling seen, heard, and understood. And this is why when they tell the stories of Rav Gamliel, they rarely talk about the mofsim, the miracles. It’s not about the end of the story, but about the journey itself: getting there has meaning too.
The greatest moifes of all, said the Rebbe of Karlin, is to shine the light of G-d into the soul of another Jew.
Rav Gamliel HaKohein Rabinowitz is working wonders all day long.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 854)
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