Pick a street in Lithuania, India, Yaffo, Switzerland, Cincinnati, Algeria, Morocco, Berlin, Paris, or Uruguay; there he roams, the shadow of his silent presence searching, haunting. Hunched over, face darkened, a suitcase in each hand, he walks toward you in the dusk. His clothes are tattered, stained with ink, a misshapen hat sits above his balding head.

But behind his thick-rimmed glasses and the penetrating eyes they frame in black abides a universe shrouded in the most colorful of dark mysteries, a modern-day enigma of epic proportion.

No one knows his true name or personal history which he zealously guards, along with his writings and correspondence. But of “Mr. Shoshani” (or “Mar Ben-Shushan”, or “Monsieur Chouchani”, depending on the place) as he desires to be identified, his pockets of students and admirers across the globe know only one thing for certain: this person, more shadow than man, is an unparalleled and unfathomable genius of almost mythical brilliance.

A homeless wanderer, he secures his basic needs along his journeys by suddenly approaching individuals at random and saying, “Grant me room and board, and I will teach you anything.” An offer this audacious, this curious, isn’t easily turned away, and it doesn’t take long for his hosts to discover that Mr. Shoshani knows the entirety of both Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi by heart, along with the commentaries of the Rishonim and Acharonim. He has mastered the discipline of Kabbalah and Chassidus, having committed the entire Zohar to memory. L’havdil, he is an expert in the entire oeuvre of classical and modern philosophy as well as the sciences from mathematics to nuclear physics. In addition, he speaks 30 languages – English, French, Russian, Hebrew, Yiddish, and Hindi included – fluently, and without accent.

The strangest thing is that he teaches without books. And no one ever sees him studying.

The most well-known of his disciples – philosopher Emanual Levinas, writer Elie Weisel, and Professor Shalom Rosenberg – describe his presence in their lives as defining. Levinas, who met with Mr. Shoshani for an entire night after five years of refusing to speak with this “clochard” and proceeded to study Gemara with him consistently for the next five years, is purported to have said this by way of reflection on their first meeting: “I cannot tell what he knows. But whatever I know, he knows.” Weisel wrote, “He asked us to question him about anything we wanted, the Torah or politics, history or the Midrash, detective stories or the Zohar. He listened to our questions, eyelids drooping, waiting for everyone to finish. And then, like a magician, he gathered it all together to create a mosaic of stunning richness and rigor, harmoniously weaving our questions and his answers together.” And Rosenberg has written, “The world is divided into two kinds of people. Those who knew Mr. Shoshani, and those who did not.”

Who was Mr. Shoshani? Where did he come from? Where was he going? It would seem that his real name was Hillel Perlman, and that he was a student of Rav Kook zy”a (the name Hillel Perlman is mentioned in two of the Rav’s letters, described by Rav Kook as, “One of the most excellent young people… sharp, knowledgeable, complete and multi-minded.”), in the early 1900’s before traveling to the United States. He returned to Europe before the war and traveled from city to city, spending time with both the Satmar Rav zy”a and the future Rebbe of Lubavitch zy”a, conversing with them in all areas of the Torah, as well as corresponding with Albert Einstein.

The details of how he survived the war in Germany-controlled France before escaping to Switzerland, we don’t know. But two episodes have reached us from his students. In the first, Mr. Shoshani escapes death by claiming to be an Arab, reciting the Koran from memory to the head mufti of France with such proficiency that the mufti tells the Nazis to immediately free this “Muslim holy man”. In a second instance of arrest, he claims to be a mathematician. When the Nazi officer tells what he is sure is a lying beggar that he has made a grave error because he himself is a professor of mathematics and would test his empty claims, Mr. Shoshani proposes a deal: He will present a mathematical problem. If the officer solves it, he will be executed. If he fails, Mr. Shoshani will be released. It isn’t long before the stunned Nazi unbolts the door and shows Mr. Shoshani out to his freedom.

On one occasion, Elie Weisel opens one of his suitcases and is shocked to find an abundance of gold and silver. His other suitcase, perhaps the more precious of the two, is filled with his notebooks, secret writings his students are forbidden to see. Recently, 116 of those notebooks have been made public online. Written mostly in a cryptic and encoded Hebrew but also in English, Yiddish, and Spanish, they are near indecipherable. But in the rare cases where scholars have been able to understand sections of the text, Mr. Shoshani’s words are stolen glimpses into varied worlds of thought – physics equations, the navi Malachi, Gamatriyos, thoughts on Teshuvah, Hilchos Tefillin, sections from Shu”t Noda B’Yehuda, Hilchos Hotza’ah M’Reshus L’Reshus, writings on Grammar, Hilchos Shechitah v’Treifus, Mussar, Atronomy, Astrophysics, Hilchos Mumar u’Meshumad, Chassidus Kotzk and Ishbitz, the geography of Eretz Yisroel, the biology of insects, geochronology, Hilchos Giyur, Kiddushin, Yerusha, and Avdus etc. etc. – universes of knowledge swirl in a breathtaking dance on the pages of these notebooks whose unique covers show they were purchased in nearly every continent over a span of decades. Still, even in the cases where sentences can be made out, very little can be discerned of the actual content beyond the nature of the subject.  

A student relates that while staying on a Kibbutz for a brief stretch, Mr. Shochani once gathered the kibbutznikim and told them to sit around him on the grass, announcing, “I will now demonstrate the concept of shivim panim la’Torah.” He began expounding on the pasuk, “Ki sifsei kohen yishmeru daas etc.”, presenting the 70 ways of interpreting the verse. It was nearly three hours when the crowd began to tire and requested a break. He had only covered eight interpretations.

One enduring nugget of insight from this enigmatic genius concerns the pasuk, “Vayedabeir Hashem el Moshe leimor: Dabeir el b’nei Yisroel leimor.” Telling Levinas he was able to explain this verse in 120 ways, he proceeded to reveal just one: the word “Leimor” should be seen as a conjugation of the words “Lo lomar”, “Not to say”. In every one of Hashem’s communications to Moshe Rabbeinu and Moshe’s subsequent communications to the Jewish nation, disclosure needed to be the result of non-disclosure; of holding back more than what was being said. The essence of the communication needed to remain shrouded in mystery so the text would beckon, would elicit the student’s spiritual investment and unique contribution toward the eternally unfolding revelation. Mr. Shoshani did not reveal the other 119 interpretations of the verse. But they were all included in the “leimor” of his first. This was his way.

A shliach Chabad relates:

On one of my trips to Uruguay with a fellow shaliach we heard that there is someone by the name of Professor Shushani who knew the Rebbe in Europe. We looked for him for a while and finally found him sitting in one of the shuls. He was wearing very old clothes and looked neglected. When we introduced ourselves as Chabad Chassidim, he said, “You see the Rebbe, but you don’t know him.”

Mr. Shoshani told those shluchim to ask the Rebbe to send him a big tallis and a Shas, a request the Rebbe told his chassidim to fulfill.

On Friday night, Shabbos Parshas Va’eira (January 26) of the year 1968, not long after receiving the Rebbe’s package, Mr. Shoshani suffered a heart attack during a seminar for youth in Montevideo. He was taken to the hospital, where he passed away in a state of calm and lucidity. He was buried in the tallis the Lubavitcher Rebbe had sent.

In the pocket of the coat he had been wearing that fateful Friday night, a note was found with the phone number in Switzerland of someone he knew. When his students called the number after Shabbos, they found out that this man, too, had died 24 hours earlier. Even in his death, his mysteries endured.

His gravestone in Uruguay, paid for by Elie Weisel, bears the simple inscription: “HaRav V’ha’Chacham Shoshani z”l. His birth and life were shrouded in mystery.” Later, Weisel would write, “I have always lived in expectation of the prophet Elijah who walks in the world always disguised, never recognizable, never behaving like a prophet. So, I was waiting for the prophet Elijah, and I must admit that when I saw Chouchani for the first time, I said to myself: Maybe it’s him!”

This is the legacy of a fascinating and little-known master of the modern age:

“Leimor.” “Lo Lomar.” Whatever he said was only a mask for all that he didn’t say.

As the beggar passes you by on the endless boulevard of Jewish history, you turn around and watch him walk toward the sunset, suitcases in hand. “Orech yamim b’yemina, uv’semolah osher v’chavod.”

You watch, and you wonder.

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R’ Yaakov Klein is the founder of the Lost Princess Initiative, an author, musician, and lecturer devoted to sharing the inner light of Torah through his books, music, and lectures.

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Mendy Brukirer
9 months ago

How can we learn more about him?