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Rofeh Neeman

In tribute to Professor Zeev Yaakovson

Once my long-time chavrusa, Professor Zeev Yaakovson a”h, who passed away last month, was approached with the idea that someone might want to write a book about him.

He laughed out loud. “Why would anyone care to read anything about me? I’m just a boring old man who retired from medicine and have been trying to learn a little bit of Torah.”

It wasn’t exactly true, though. Dr. Yaakovson lived a fascinating life as the legendary doctor of the Old City, was still providing consultations at age 86, and was a walking Shas.

I once merited having a personal audience with the Belzer Rebbe, and brought warm regards from my chavrusa. The Rebbe’s eyes sparkled as I mentioned his name, and gave me a unique brachah. “You learn with Professor Yaakovson? You should be as brilliant a doctor, as dedicated a father, and as great a talmid chacham as your chavrusa.”


Born in St. Louis to an immigrant family back in 1935, Reb Zeev (a.k.a. Dr. Warren Jacobson) grew up with a love of Yiddishkeit and Yidden.

“They thought I had a gutte kup so they made me go to medical school instead of yeshivah, what kind of narishkeit is that?” he once told me.

Reb Zeev married Sheila before starting medical school, and even amid the long hours of study, he took jobs to help support his young family. And although he had top grades, he faced an all-too-common battle.

“Back in the day, there was no such thing as a shomer Shabbos med program. I told my teachers that I couldn’t take exams on Saturdays and everyone was fine with that, except the Jewish biochemistry professor, who told me I’d flunk his class and be kicked out of school if I didn’t show for his final exam exactly when he wanted. But the Eibeshter protected me, and the dean, who was Catholic, told my nice Jewish professor to give me the test on Sunday. I scored a 98 and he gave me a C-minus for the class.”

He faced a similar challenge when he asked not to work on Shabbos as a senior resident.

“I told them I’d work Sunday through Thursday straight if I could keep Shabbos, as they had other trainees who were happy to switch off with me. But the department chair told me that I didn’t have a future at the hospital, and so I asked the chief resident for a letter of recommendation to apply for a new program. An hour later I started getting urgent messages on my pager, and the hospital loudspeaker called me down STAT to the department chair. He admitted that the entire residency program had resigned because I was leaving the program, and promised me I wouldn’t have to work on Shabbos. Can you imagine close to a hundred non-Jews going on strike for me?  I guess they liked their Jewish friend after all.”

Reb Zeev was drafted into the US Army during the Vietnam War, and ended up one of a few Jews living with his wife and young kids in Augusta, Georgia.

“They put me in charge of a hepatology unit, and I was suddenly forced to become a gastroenterologist even though I had zero training. I begged them not to have me do it as I didn’t know a thing about it, but they didn’t care.”

After completing his army service, Reb Zeev and his family made aliyah in 1969.  Even though he was a senior physician at this point, Ministry of Health regulations made him start all over again as a newly-minted doctor fresh out of medical school. He found a position at Shaare Zedek Medical Center.

“There was a patient on the ward with a complex issue that clearly needed an ERCP procedure, which combines an X-ray with the use of an endoscope — a long, flexible lighted tube that’s inserted through the esophagus to the organs,” he once shared. “This was a very new procedure at the time, and no one in the hospital had ever done it before. So they brought in a big professor for a consultation and he recommended against it. I remember that he came up to me afterward and told me, ‘They can’t do this because no one here even knows what it is.’ I whispered to him that I knew all about it and had done it before… and it wasn’t long afterward that I was heading the gastroenterology department at Shaare Zedek.”

It was at Shaare Zedek where Reb Zeev spent decades treating patients and forging relationships with gedolei Yisrael. They included the Tzitz Eliezer — Rav Eliezer Waldenberg — who used to take Professor Yaakovson and his children to pick out arba minim in return for sharing his clinical wisdom; and the Belzer Rebbe, with whom he’d bake matzos.

“I remember walking in to bake matzos for the first time and being shoved around by hundreds of chassidim who wanted to stand close to the Rebbe,” Professor Yaakovson told me. “Suddenly, there was a parting of the sea and the Rebbe pulled me right next to him and even gave me his gartel to wear.”

Reb Zeev used to joke that he wished he could have become a chassid but he didn’t look good in a shtreimel.

For decades, Reb Zeev was in constant contact with Rav Elyashiv, for both medical and personal sh’eilahs. When his father passed away, Reb Zeev asked Rav Elyashiv if he should fly back for the levayah.

“The Rav told me, ‘Maybe you should ask if you can even keep the shivah if the hospital needs you?’ That’s how much he valued the work of a physician. In the end we arranged coverage for my patients and I went back to be with my sisters and my mother, but I was ready to forgo it. That’s what the Rav’s word meant to me.”

Reb Zeev also had a close relationship with Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, who for many years was the posek of Shaare Zedek.

“The Rav was so humble,” he once told me. “Every time I would drive him home or pick him up, he’d always tell me that he was sorry for wasting my time. ‘Wasting my time, Harav?’ I’d ask him. ‘I’d pay a fortune for this zechus!’ Even when he’d call the house to ask me about a patient or to clarify a medical issue, he’d always say the same thing when my wife picked up. ‘Rebbetzin, I know it’s after work, but could you tell Professor Yaakovson that Shlomo Zalman called?’ That’s the kind of anivus that he had.

“He was one of the warmest people I ever met. Did you know that he used to come to the hospital beis medrash in the evening and take each of the younger bochurim by the hand to bring them back to their beds?  He knew how important it was for everyone to get enough sleep at night.”

Reb Zeev chuckled, as getting enough sleep was never one of his strengths: He often slept only two or three hours at night. He was makpid on a very serious learning seder before haneitz, which meant getting out of bed by 4 a.m. latest, even during the winter.

And even with his busy schedule — sometimes seeing patients 16 hours a day (he was the unofficial physician of the Old City for half a century) — Reb Zeev still found time to attend the daily shiurim of the Old City’s Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl. For decades, he leined at the Kosel’s haneitz minyan, and was a favorite baal korei of Rav Chaim Pinchas Sheinberg, who would stand next to him every time he davened in the Old City.

In his hesped, Sruly Yaakovson, popular Jerusalem tour guide, described his father’s kavanah. “People would come from all over just to see Abba daven. Minchah on a weekday for him looked like Neilah on Yom Kippur.”

While he was among the great clinicians of modern-day Israel, his greatest simchah was inviting non-religious guests to his table for Shabbos and Yom Tov.

“I always told my medical students two things: No riding a motorcycle while you’re here in Israel because it’s too dangerous, and let me know if you want to come for Shabbos dinner because there is nothing like Shabbos in The Old City.” Many of his Shabbos guests ended up becoming frum men and women.

When he would pick up a Gemara, his face became illuminated. “I love to get to know the Rashba, the Ritva, all of these great guys who are just waiting for us to come and learn with them,” he’d smile as we’d take meforshim off the shelves.

Learning was a simchah, but it was a serious one. If I’d show up a few minutes late for our daily morning seder, Reb Zeev would let me have it.

My chavrusa was niftar on Tu B’Shevat. We learned our last Tosafos together in the ICU that day. Now he’s surely having the best chavrusas ever, with “all of those great guys who are just waiting for him to come and learn with them.”

Yehi zichro baruch. 


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 902)

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