“Mr. Shoshani” became famous because he is said to have known the entire Bible, the Mishnah, and the Talmud all by heart, as well as mastering over 20 (!) languages, as well as philosophy, mathematics, history, and world religions. Most did not even know his real name.
For years, Shoshani’s students, scholars and rabbis have tried to decipher passages from his cryptic notebooks, but apart from a few sketchy ideas the attempts have been in vain. The notebooks, written in density and conciseness that require complex decoding have been held for many years in the hands of just a few of his students around the world. Six of the notebooks were previously put up for auction by a manuscript dealer and sold for about $ 17,000. Following the sale and the fear that additional notebooks would be sold or lost, Prof. Shalom Rosenberg, a student of Shoshani, handed over some of the notebooks to the National Library Authority several months ago for preservation and accessibility to the public. Now, 85 notebooks have been made available online in hopes that scholars, rabbis, and students around the world will assist in deciphering Shoshani’s ideas. Many more notebooks will be uploaded soon.
The initiators of setting up the website want to remain anonymous. “It’s just time!” they explained. “For years, Shoshani’s students, scholars and rabbis have tried to decipher passages from the notebooks. But apart from a few ideas – the attempts have not been very successful. We believe the notebooks have secrets and innovations on many topics. A joint effort by the public will succeed in solving the riddles that lie there.”
Shoshani’s students included some of the most famous thinkers of the twentieth century: Emanuel Levinas, Eli Wiesel, Yehuda Leon Ashkenazi (Manito), Prof. Shalom Rosenberg and many others.
Mr. Shoshani chose not to reveal his identity and kept every detail of information from his personal life with great zeal. Over the years, however, evidence has been gathered that makes it possible to trace his character. He was probably born in 1895 as Hillel Perlman. There is a hypothesis that he grew up in Lithuania or Belarus and was a child prodigy who knew how to recite and memorize many sources by heart.
After World War II, during which he twice escaped the Gestapo terror thanks to his immense genius, Mr. Shoshani traveled between different countries, including France and Israel, accompanied by two locked suitcases. His students say they did not know when he would arrive and when he would disappear, where he would live and what his plans were. Mr. Shoshani’s conduct as a character remained mysterious and enigmatic. Numerous testimonies describe Mr. Shoshani as having an unconventional appearance that was perceived as strange and was sometimes described as repulsive. However, Mr. Shoshani’s name as a revered and unique teacher and as a phenomenal intellect went far and wide and his students invested a lot in order to hear his lessons and learn Torah from him. Everywhere he went, a crowd of students gathered around him to hear his lessons.
In 1952 he immigrated to Israel and lived for a time on Kibbutz Be’erot Yitzhak. He studied at Rabbi Kook’s yeshiva in Jaffa as well as at the Kabbalist yeshiva in Beit El. In 1955-1956 he returned to France, then emigrated to Uruguay.
The famous writer Eli Wiesel wrote about him: “No one knew his name or age, where he came from, what made him happy and what was the nature of his fears, what he tried to achieve or forget, we did not know. His origin ranges from Marrakesh to Vilnius, between Chisinau and Safed, between Calcutta and Florence. He was fluent in about thirty ancient and modern languages, including Hindi and Hungarian. His French was pure, his English perfect, and the Yiddish in his mouth matched the accent of whomever he spoke. Felt at home in any culture. Always unkempt, neglected, he was like a beggar or a clown. He wore a tiny hat, always the same hat, on a huge, round, potato head. He was a rabbi and for three years, in Paris, I was also his student. Alongside him, I learned a lot about the dangers of language and reason, about the impulses of the sages, and also of the madman, about the mystery of thought through the centuries, about doubt through thought, but I learned nothing about the secrets he protected in the face of a sick humanity.”
Shoshani died suddenly in 1968 during a seminar for Bnei Akiva trainees (Jewish youth program) and religious teachers in Uruguay. After his death, about a hundred handwritten notebooks and various pages were found in one of his suitcases. In his life he never let anyone see the writings or their contents. These writings, as well as notebooks and other pages he left in the homes of students he stayed with, and these were kept by his closest students. The notebooks, written mainly in Hebrew but also in English, Yiddish, and Spanish, contain Torah innovations, mathematical and physical calculations, and historical notes.
Over the years, various attempts have been made by his students and other scholars to decipher the notebooks or parts of their contents, but due to the difficulties of the task, very few of the cryptic contents have been published. The notebooks are written concisely, full of allusions and seemingly disconnected thoughts. But from the variety of writings and the various signs within the texts, it seems that despite the great difficulty in understanding them, they are evidence of the mysterious and unique genius’s study disciplines and learning methods.