Rabbi Shabbatai ben Meir HaKohen (1621–1662) was a noted 17th century talmudist, an important and influential halakhic authority known as Shakh. He became known as the Shakh, which is an abbreviation of his most important work, Siftei Kohen (literally Lips of the Priest), and his rulings were considered authoritative by later halakhists.
Shabbatai HaKohen was born either in Amstibovo or in Vilna, Lithuania in 1621 and died at Holleschau, Moravia on the 1st of Adar, 1662. He first studied with his father. His father and grandfather served as rabbis in important communities; his father-in-law was a wealthy grandson of Mosheh Isserles. Though he quotes his father, and less frequently his teachers — Yehoshu‘a Heshel ben Yosef of Kraków and Yehoshu‘a Heshel ben Ya‘akov of Lublin — it appears that most of his scholarship was independently acquired. and in 1633 he entered the yeshivah of Rabbi Joshua Höschel ben Joseph at Tykotzin, moving later to Cracow and Lublin, where he studied under Naphtali ben Isaac HaKohen.
Returning to Vilna, he married the daughter of the wealthy Shimon Wolf, a great-grandson of Moses Isserles, and shortly after was appointed to the Beit Din as one of the assistants of Moses ben Isaac Judah Lima, author of Chelkat Mechokek. In 1655, during fighting between Polish forces and the invading Swedish army in the Northern War, Shabbatai HaKohen fled Vilna with the entire Jewish community.
After the pogroms of 1648–1649, Shabetai, in his capacity as a communal rabbi, was involved in the proclamation of the 20th of Sivan as a fast day commemorating the massacre in Nemirov, and he composed penitential prayers to be recited along with a literary description of the events of that day (published as Megilat ‘efah).
It appears that he then settled in Holesov, Moravia, where he served as communal rabbi until his death.
Shabetai began to write about at an early age, and was an active participant in the critical-legal discourse of East European Jewry. Sifte Kohen is written with clarity and is characterized by exceptional acuity, and prodigious expertise. In 1654, his work on the Ḥoshen mishpat section of the Arba'ah turim. It was enthusiastically approved by the rabbis of the va‘ad arba‘ aratsot) The four lands were Great Poland, Little Poland, Ruthenia, and Volhynia. The Council of Four Lands functioned from about 1580 to 1764. Delegates from regions and leading communities met at the fairs of Lublin and Jarosław to discuss the apportionment of the national tax on Jews to the Polish government, which was paid collectively, as well as a great variety of other matters such as educational policies, the age of majority, banning heretics, bankruptcy procedures, interest rates, and rules for the Sabbath. In their endorsement of his work and to ensure its success, the rabbis issued an unprecedented ruling that no other work on the Ḥoshen mishpat was to be published “unless he had first brought his work before us for our approval”.
Despite his youth, Shabetai was considered to be the primary disputant of David ben Shemu’el ha-Levi (TaZ), author of Turei Zahav, one of the senior rabbinic authorities of the day. Shabetai’s works were accepted as authoritative in the circle of Talmudists, so much so that almost none of the later commentators on the Shulḥan ‘arukh dared to disagree with him explicitly.
As a commentator, Shabetai offered creative and original interpretations. In Siftei Kohen on the Yoreh de‘ah section of the Shulḥan ‘arukh, which dates to his earlier writings, Shabetai’s discussions with earlier authorities, or prominent and venerable contemporaries, are expressed in relatively cautious language. However, in his later writings, as his status as a leading scholar grew, he became more assertive and polemicized vehemently against them. He views the Shulḥan ‘arukh and Isserles’ codifications on it as a point of departure for discussion but not as absolutely binding.
The service of God was Shabetai’s primary concern, and as such he tended to demand stringency in matters that were the subject of debate or controversy, ruling that a stricter opinion was to be followed even if it represented a minority of one, or a lesser authority against a greater one. His legal decisions assign little consideration of human conditions; even when he maintained that “it is forbidden to forbid that which is permissible... because usually, in another case, it will be a basis for leniency,” it is on the basis of a legalistic construct.
Shabetai’s tendency was to limit the introduction of nonhalakhic practices into Jewish business law, even norms that had been accepted by earlier communities, or had become “the law of the land.” He maintained that the task of a rabbi was to apply norms arising from the Jewish legal system itself, and not from outside sources.
In addition to his commentaries on the Shulḥan ‘arukh, Shakh’s polemics with TaZ (Nekudot ha-kesef, Kuntres Aḥaron), his writings connected to the events of 1648–1649, and a number of treatises on divorce and other halakhic topics survive.
After a short stay at Lublin he went to Prague and later to Strážnice in Moravia, from where he was called to the rabbinate of Holešov, where he remained until his death in 1662. While in Holešov, he gained the friendship of Magister Valentino Wiedreich of Leipzig. The Shakh′s grave in the Jewish cemetery of Holešov still exists and is visited by people from all over the world.
A Synagogue in Holešov is called Shakh Synagogue after Shabbatai HaKohen. It was built in the late 16th century, after the former synagogue had burned down in 1560. In the early 17th century the synagogue was enlarged with a sidehall and a women's gallery. Between 1725 and 1737 the interior was designed in a baroque decoration in the so-called “Polish style”. The synagogue is an isolated plain building. It has a rectangular ground plan. In the eastern side of the main hall is the Aron Kodesh - built in the baroque altar style. In the centre of the hall is the Almemor, built as an octagonal platform with a metal railing. Some parts of the walls and the vault are decorated with ornamental paintings with herbal and faunal motifs and Hebrew texts.
So, this brilliant Talmudist, whose works display an extraordinary wide and deep knowledge of all the Talmud and Rabbinic literature, died at the young age of 41, on Rosh Chodesh Adar Rishon, in the year 5423 (1663).
Both the ShaCh and TaZ are now considered absolutely essential for the study of the Shulchan Aruch, a thorough knowledge of which is a basic requirement for Rabbbinic authority. Both these commentaries now appear together along-side the text of the Shulchan Aruch (as Rashi and Tosfos appear with the Gemoro).
In one of the darkest and most tragic periods in Jewish history, the ShaCh enlightened the Jewish world with his Torah, and his light shines brightly to the present day.
Sources: Me'oros Ha'Tzaddikim; chinuch.org; David Bass "Shabetai ben Me’ir ha-Kohen Article in: The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe", 2 Volumes, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2008.