Rabbi Ya’acov Shimshon is credited with the adage: ‘It is easier to take Israel out of the exile than take the exile out of Israel.’
Rabbi Ya’acov Shimshon Shapira of Shepetovka was one of the representatives of hassidism in its formative stages. His talent was recognized at a young age, when he studied under the tutelage of the hassidic masters of the so-called second generation of hassidism, namely Rabbi Dov Ber the Maggid of Mezritch (died 1772) and Rabbi Pinhas Shapira of Koretz (1726-1791). The fame of Rabbi Ya’acov Shimshon of Shepetovka rests particularly on two aspects of his legacy, reflecting two stages in his life: his time in Europe and his journey to the Land of Israel.
In Europe, Rabbi Ya’acov Shimshon became the spokesman of the nascent hassidic movement. In this role, he traveled to the Torah authorities of his day in a bid to quell opposition to Hassidism. Much of the opposition centered on the perceived disregard for the lofty pursuit of Torah study. Rabbi Ya’acov Shimshon’s talmudic erudition was a perfect antidote.
The most famous interaction was with the chief rabbi of Prague, Rabbi Yehezkel Landau (1713-1793), author of a seminal work of responsa, Noda Bihuda, as well as other books. According to hassidic legend, Rabbi Landau had derided the first published hassidic work, Toldot Ya’acov Yosef (Koretz 1780), perhaps even using it as a footstool! Indeed we know that certain passages in this work infuriated Torah scholars, and this may have provided the historical kernel for the legend.
The story continues that the Maggid appeared to Rabbi Ya’acov Shimshon in a dream and instructed him to travel to Prague and confront Rabbi Landau. The discussion first centered around non-normative hassidic homilies, but at Rabbi Ya’acov Shimshon’s suggestion they moved to the realm of Halacha. When Rabbi Landau was impressed by his interlocutor’s acumen, his antagonism to Hassidism subsided.
When Rabbi Ya’acov Shimshon’s father Rabbi Yitzhak, passed away, the son took his post as rabbi of Shepetovka (today Shepetivka, Ukraine). In 1794 he left Europe for the Land of Israel. This journey, the realization of a lifelong dream to have the merit to come to the Holy Land, was apparently also a sobering experience. Rabbi Ya’acov Shimshon is credited with the adage: “It is easier to take Israel out of the exile than take the exile out of Israel.” He settled in the hassidic community of Tiberias where he lived until he passed away on 3 Sivan in 1801.
Hassidic tradition records that as he was about to depart from Istanbul for the final leg of his journey to the Holy Land, he turned to his accompanying evil inclination and said: “A boat ticket is very expensive and I don’t have enough money nor the strength for both of us to travel to the Land of Israel. You choose: Either you go to the Promised Land and I will remain in the Diaspora without you, or you stay in the Diaspora and I will travel alone to the Holy Land.” The evil inclination chose to stay in the Diaspora and Rabbi Ya’acov Shimshon boarded the boat and set sail for his destination with great joy and happiness.
When the boat reached the Land of Israel and docked at the port, he prepared to set foot in the land of the forefathers. He looked up and to his dismay he saw none other than the evil inclination standing at the wharf, waiting for him to disembark. From the depths of his heart, he cried out: “What are you doing here?! I left you in Istanbul! We had a deal! How could you betray my trust and deceive me!”
The evil inclination looked at Rabbi Ya’acov Shimshon as one who looks at a madman: “You are asking me what am I doing here? I live here! This is my home. The chap you spoke to in Istanbul who looks like me, that was probably just my Diaspora emissary.”