February 4, 2015
Dov Levanon in #960, Profile

RYaakov Elishevitz was moser nefesh in Russia to circumcise Jewish babies and to train mohalim. After moving to Eretz Yisroel, he enabled thousands of people to put on tfillin at the Chabad tfillin stand at the Kosel. * Profile of a Chassid to mark his passing on 20 Shvat 5753.

The Chassid, RYaakov Elishevitz was born on Simchas Torah 5673 in Dnepropetrovsk, formerly Yekaterinoslav, in the Ukraine. This was the city where the Rebbes father, RLevi Yitzchok Schneersohn, was the rav. In his early childhood he learned in a regular Chassidic school. This was before the communists closed down the chadarim.

When he was only eight years old his mother died in a typhus epidemic, leaving behind three young orphans and a husband who did not recover from the tragedy. Yaakov and his brothers moved to live with his uncle.

When R’ Yaakov was bar mitzva, his uncle sent him to learn in Yeshivas Tomchei T’mimim in Kremenchug and this was the beginning of the child’s many travels and travails. After the Dnieper overflowed its banks and nearly destroyed Kremenchug, the talmidim of the yeshiva dispersed. Yaakov went to the branch in Vitebsk, but not for long. The communists’ watchful eye forced the boys to flee to Odessa. After a short period they were arrested and upon being released they fled to Charkov.

The final stop in his wandering among underground yeshivos was in Dnepropetrovsk where he forged a relationship with the rav, R’ Levi Yitzchok. When the rav’s oldest son, later to be the Rebbe, was married, Yaakov attended the farbrengen which was held that night in the rav’s home. All his life he remembered that moving event.

During those harsh days, R’ Yaakov began to study sh’chita. When he went to the rav to receive kabbala (certification), R’ Levik took a volume of Tzemach Tzedek from his bookcase and showed him the Halacha that a shochet ought to have a beard. R’ Yaakov, who at that time shaved because of fear of the authorities, understood that the rav could not give him the necessary certification and he went to get it from another rav. Upon receiving kabbala, R’ Levik allowed some of those who were close to him to eat from R’ Yaakov’s sh’chita, knowing that he was G-d fearing.


During World War II, R’ Yaakov, who was considered highly fit for military service, was drafted and sent to the front in Stalingrad, where one of the most famous battles of the war took place. Stalin could not allow himself to lose the city named for himself, and the Germans, who were well aware of this, put in supreme efforts to conquer the city.

The two armies bombed one another every day as the number of bodies strewn around the outskirts of the city grew. According to estimates, out of a little more than two million soldiers sent to that battle, nearly 1,800,000 soldiers were either killed or wounded. One of the few who survived was Yaakov. He saw, throughout the months of battle, how G-d protected him time after time.

It was one of the usual days of heavy bombing as German warplanes targeted the city beyond the Volga River. The Jewish soldier found himself a hiding place in a little trench that sufficed for one soldier when he heard a voice shout, “Zhid, get out of here right now!” There was no purpose in arguing with the burly soldier who was making his way to the relatively safe ditch.

R’ Yaakov began running among the soldiers who were lying there, in the attempt to find himself someplace where he could hide himself. Seconds later they heard the explosion which meant a bomb had landed not far away. R’ Yaakov glanced backward and saw that his “refuge” had been targeted and the gentile soldier had been killed.


When R’ Yaakov returned from the war, he discovered that he had no family left. They had all been killed by the cursed Nazis. Despite his pain over his terrible loss, he did not despair. He decided that his revenge would be to learn mila and bring Jewish children into the covenant of Avrohom Avinu.

With the last of his money he traveled to Moscow where there were a few elderly mohalim from whom he hoped to learn the craft. Since he had no money even to buy clothes he arrived in Moscow while still in uniform.

He then encountered an unexpected problem. The veteran mohalim, who were afraid for their livelihood, were unwilling to teach young mohalim who would be their competition. After he pleaded with them, he found two mohalim who were willing to train him. However, before returning to Dnepropetrovsk, after completing his training, they refused to give him a written certification that he had mastered the craft. They were afraid that the authorities would find the paper and they would be sent to Siberia.

When he arrived in Dnepropetrovsk, he found his work cut out for him in more ways than one. For one thing, there were no mohalim left at all and anyone who wanted to circumcise his son had to use the young mohel. He soon became known as an expert mohel.

Second, since the Russian government wanted to eradicate bris mila, they taxed mohalim heavily so that working legally was out of the question. However, in Russia of those days, anyone who did not work at an official job was labeled a parasite and could be sent to a labor camp for being a burden on the regime. R’ Yaakov had to find various odd jobs so that he wouldn’t be designated a parasite.

After some time in Dnepropetrovsk, during which he taught the first of his students, R’ Chaim Ber Zoldin, a quarrel broke out in the community. When R’ Yaakov refused to support those who had connections with the government, they decided to get rid of him by doing something commonly done to get rid of Jews who did holy work – they reported that he earned a fortune as a mohel. The government would do the rest.

After the case miraculously ended in R’ Yaakov’s favor he realized he could no longer stay in the city. He and his family moved to Moscow.


The move to Moscow was a salvation for the Jews of Moscow where there was no mohel under the age of sixty and people who did not want to use older mohalim stopped circumcising their sons. At the same time, the elderly mohalim sought to protect their livelihoods and did not train any young men.

When the Chassidim in Moscow saw that R’ Yaakov was G-d fearing, and also saw him when he was b’koso, “in his cups,” they decided he ought to have an official position in the shul. This was tremendously dangerous. The KGB, who were inclined to look away from the “crimes” of those too old to change, were very much on top of younger people.

It only remained to convince Rabbi Shleifer, rav of the shul, to allow him to accept an official position. However, R’ Shleifer was apprehensive. He finally agreed to allow R’ Yaakov to serve as shochet, but not as mohel.

R’ Yaakov, who was new in Moscow, made do with sh’chita but was unable to do brissin. People were afraid to allow an unfamiliar mohel to circumcise their babies. But the Chassidim got together and made sure that a few people gave him their sons and from then on, he became known as a mohel.

Here is where R’ Yaakov also became known b’kiso (his pocket). He wasn’t satisfied with the brissin he did; he began to secretly teach mila to all kinds of youth who were “dangerous to the regime,” such as those sentenced to decades in Siberia and were pardoned following the death of the evil Stalin. When R’ Shleifer opened a yeshiva in the shul, R’ Yaakov also taught sh’chita and mila to the bachurim.

Fear of what tomorrow would bring had an effect on the learning. Nobody knew what tomorrow would bring or when and if they would arrest R’ Yaakov. He taught the talmidim quickly. The problem was that no one wanted to sacrifice his son to a student who had just finished a crash course in mila. What did R’ Yaakov do? He arranged with the baby’s father that he would be the mohel and during the bris he would recite the brachos. Before the baby’s father had time to react, R’ Yaakov would give the knife to one of his students who quickly did the circumcision.

Having to deal with the father and the risks involved did not deter him. Obviously, if something had happened to one of the babies and the father would have reported him, R’ Yaakov would have ended his life in the icy wilderness of Siberia. But before him was the holy goal, to train more and more mohalim and shochtim so that Russian Jewry would not remain without klei kodesh who were trained to perform these mitzvos upon which Judaism stands. He did not earn a cent and did not concern himself with his livelihood being encroached upon as the elders did. Before his eyes was only the future of Russian Jewry, nothing else.

His reputation as an expert shochet and mohel grew and he could have earned a lot of money. Despite this, poverty reigned in his house. First, he was not called upon for every bris. He made sure his students could do circumcisions, and nothing made him happier than when he heard that one of his students had enabled a Jew to do the mitzva of mila.

When he was called upon to do a bris, he made sure to tell those who were hard up that there was no obligation to pay him and that everyone gave him what they were able to give. In Russia of those days, nearly every Jew fell into the category of being hard up. The little bit that he earned he generously dispersed to the poor.


It was a summer day in 5725/1965, in the afternoon. All the minyanim in the shul had finished and only R’ Yaakov and the shul accountant, a man by the name of Shmuel, were there. Suddenly there were cries of, “Fire! Fire!”

The two men ran outside and were horrified to discover fire rising from the room of the shul guard who had disappeared. R’ Yaakov quickly called the fire department and ran inside, trying to contain the huge fire with the help of a fire extinguisher. When he had to give up and he ran outside after a few minutes, he found the firemen moving sluggishly as a crowd of gentiles urged them to leave and let the shul go up in flames.

“Why aren’t you extinguishing the fire?” R’ Yaakov screamed. “Water!”

The firemen seemed to wake up and they connected the hoses to faucets and began dousing the flames which had spread throughout the shul and had reached the Aron Kodesh. The shul was saved in the end but the fire singed some of the sifrei Torah.

After a few minutes, the gabbaim of the shul came. They, of course, had been appointed by the KGB, along with the guard. There were also several other grim looking men who clearly belonged to the dreaded “initials.” After a short look around, they left.

The next day, they returned in force, and this time R’ Yaakov was called for questioning for the purpose of discovering who had ignited the fire. R’ Yaakov knew that if he revealed the truth that the fire had been set from inside, it would cause an altogether unnecessary investigation of people in the Jewish community. So he said that a few hooligans who would go up on the roof of the shul were probably the ones who did it. The story wasn’t that convincing and one of the KGB agents decided to take him in for further questioning.

One of the men stepped out of the group. “No, I will not allow that,” he said in Russian. Apparently the man had a senior position, for the others accepted what he said, but not for long. Four months later, R’ Yaakov was called for further questioning and it was only because he stuck to his version that he was released.

After this incident, R’ Yaakov realized that he wasn’t safe, even in Moscow, but he was afraid to submit a request to be allowed to emigrate. It was only after a visa was sent to him from Eretz Yisroel by R’ Shmuel Pruss and several of his students also received visas that he agreed to submit a request. A miracle occurred and he received permission to emigrate.

Mr. A Cohen, of the Israeli consulate in Moscow, related:

“I was witness to this on February 20, 1967. That night, he [R’ Yaakov] left Moscow on his way to Eretz Yisroel, by train, with a stop in Vienna. When I went to the train to see off the olim I was amazed to find hundreds of people who had come to escort R’ Yaakov and his family. At the time it was unbelievable, unheard of.”

When R’ Yaakov arrived in Eretz Yisroel and settled in Yerushalayim, he no longer had his reputation. As Chazal say, “Traveling reduces your reputation.” Nor could he find work as a shochet because he suffered from asthma which had gotten worse. R’ Yaakov did not complain. He went to the Rebbe four times in his life, the first time for Rosh HaShana 5732, when the Rebbe invited and paid for the Chassidim who had come out of Russia.

He did not have material parnasa but he had spiritual parnasa in abundance. For nearly twenty years, R’ Yaakov manned the t’fillin stand at the Kosel. He once explained the particulars of this holy work. It was when his old friend, Emanuel Michlin, the son-in-law of R’ Shleifer of Moscow, invited him to come vacation for a few days in Nahariya.

R’ Yaakov responded:

“If only I could do so. All day I run about the Kosel plaza, from morning until sunset, and put t’fillin on people. Many of them don’t know what t’fillin are and are afraid to put them on. I need to convince them that it’s not an injection and that it doesn’t hurt … Many have not put on t’fillin in 20 and even 30 years. Many don’t know how to make a bracha or to read. They forgot how to put them on and are embarrassed and they have all kinds of excuses: I put them on already, I have t’fillin at home, I’ll come back tomorrow, I don’t have time, etc. The Russian immigrants have an additional excuse: they already did a bris mila for me, etc. My fellow Chassidim and I put t’fillin on hundreds of Jews every day from around seven in the morning until sunset. It is called Mivtza T’fillin.”

Additionally, R’ Yaakov explained that he was also involved in Mivtza Chinuch with children who visited the Kosel with whom he said Shma etc. He concluded as follows:

“In the evening, when I go home, I am already exhausted and my feet refuse to move. Now tell me, when can I go to you?”

R’ Yaakov passed away on 20 Shvat 5753 when he was over 80.

Source: articles published about him in Kfar Chabad, Tishrei 5755


Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (
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