The foremost rabbi of the Ashkenazi non-hassidic haredi community, Rabbi Yosef
Shalom Elyashiv, died on Wednesday afternoon
in Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical
Center at the age of 102.
The rabbi may turn out to be the last of the
undisputed leaders of the non-hassidic “Lithuanian” haredi community, whose
members are accustomed to the security of a clear religious and moral authority
to direct their lives.
For more than a decade the ultra-Orthodox world
has looked to Elyashiv for its spiritual and social guidance. The lack of a
consensus leader with the authority of former rabbinic figures may be a turning
point for the haredi community in Israel.
Elyashiv succeeded to the role
of posek hador (leading arbiter of Jewish law) following the death of Rabbi
Menachem Elazar Shach in 2001, and to a large degree continued the conservative
path of his groundbreaking predecessor.
Shach was the fiery haredi leader
who broke with the Agudath Yisrael movement that had traditionally represented
the haredi world in Israel, but is now the domain of hassidic Jewry.
formed the Degel Hatorah Party in 1988 as the home of nonhassidic haredim, and
adopted a hostile approach to wider Israeli society, which Elyashiv largely
Elyashiv, having less charisma and dynamism than Shach, sought
to preserve the established order. Like Shach before him, Elyashiv set the
political stance for Degel Hatorah and instructed the party’s elected
representatives in the Knesset on all matters of public policy. He thereby
exercised significant influence within Israeli political life, as well as over
the lifestyle and direction of the Lithuanian haredi community.
Hatorah and Agudat Yisrael parties today make up United Torah
And on the critical question of ultra-Orthodox accommodation to
the demands of broader Israeli society, Elyashiv took a firm and uncompromising
stance, opposing the growing phenomenon of the “new haredim” – those from a
small but growing segment of the community who serve in the IDF and have joined
the mainstream labor force.
This was in evidence as late as December,
shortly before the severe deterioration in his health, when Elyashiv spoke out
against the integration of haredim into mainstream society, declaring that
haredi educational institutions must be under the control of the rabbis and
exclude all paths that lead to national service, secular studies, or the army,
since this would put haredim under the control and culture of secular
Born in 1910 in Siauliai (Shavel in Yiddish), Lithuania, Elyashiv
was the only child of Rabbi Avraham Erener and Chaya Musha, born to them 17
years after they married. The family immigrated to Mandatory Palestine in
Elyashiv married his wife of 65 years, Sheina Chaya, in 1929, on
the recommendation of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook, the first chief rabbi
of the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine, and the couple had 12
He served for many years as a rabbinical judge in the Chief
Rabbinate and on the Supreme Rabbinical Court, during which time his stature as
one of the most knowledgeable authorities on Jewish law, or Halacha, grew
Recognized for his outstanding scholarship in Talmudic law, the
published works of Elyashiv are largely compilations of his rulings on Jewish
law and responsa to questions posed to him over his many years as a leading
In the late 1980s, Shach, whose health was declining,
called on Elyashiv to take on a greater role in the leadership of the Lithuanian
haredi community that gradually increased during the 1990s as Shach withdrew
from public life.
Shach essentially anointed Elyashiv to be his
successor, a role he assumed in 2001 when Shach died.
For a society used
to being able to turn to an ultimate authority for answers, the death of
Elyashiv may well mark a turning point in the history of the haredi community in
Israel at which the security and sanctuary of one supreme spiritual guide was
taken away and replaced with the uncertainty of several lesser lights.