Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who passed away last week at age 102, was perhaps
the least accessible of all recent haredi leaders, even to members of the
community itself. He inspired awe and reverence, but few felt a sense of
intimacy. Unless one had an urgent halachic question, one thought long and hard
about wasting even a moment of his time.
It is common for haredi leaders
to be referred to by their first names: Reb Aharon (Rabbi Aharon Kotler); Reb
Moshe (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein); Reb Ya’acov (Rabbi Ya’acov Kamenetsky); Reb
Shlomo Zalman (Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach). But Rabbi Elyashiv was never
referred to as anything other than Rav Elyashiv.The reason for that
distance is not hard to discern. The quality that he exemplified above all
others – total discipline and self-control – is the rarest, and therefore the
hardest for most of us to relate to.
Rabbi Moshe Grylak, editor of
Mishpacha magazine, describes how he was once at a wedding conversing with the
chief psychologist of the Israel Air Force, who had recently become observant,
when Rabbi Elyashiv walked in. The latter was sitting alone at the table
reserved for leading rabbis, and the psychologist could not take his eyes off
him, even though he did not know who he was. Rabbi Grylak inquired as to the
cause of his fascination, and the psychologist replied, “In my entire life, I
have never seen anyone with such incredible self-control.”
external appearance conveyed who he was. Tall, ramrod-straight until the very
end, he walked purposefully from place to place, staring ahead, his brow
furrowed in thought.
No miracle stories circulate about him.
himself was the greatest miracle: How could a human being maintain such
consistency over a lifetime? For 90 years, he sat alone in the same small
synagogue, studying almost all day long except for the hours he answered
halachic questions or gave his daily Talmud class, which was open to all. My
friend, Rabbi Aharon Lopiansky, describes at Aish.com how when he first came to
Israel in 1970, people would peer through the window of the locked synagogue
just to watch Rabbi Elyashiv gently swaying in his studying, enthusiastically
reciting and explaining the give-and-take of the Gemara to himself in his
trademark niggun (melody).
He rose every morning between 2 and 3 a.m. to
begin his studying, despite suffering from frail health his whole life. One
morning, when he was already in his 90s, he awakened half an hour earlier than
usual. His grandson, who was staying with him at the time, asked him why he had
arisen early. He explained that the previous day he had missed a half an hour
from his daily quota of study because a government minister had come to see him
and he had to make that up.
His only known pleasure, apart from studying
Torah, was hazanut (cantorial singing). Once, when he was still a young
teenager, world-renowned cantor Yossele Rosenblatt came to Jerusalem. Elyashiv
very much wanted to attend his concert, but decided that he could not take the
time from his learning. In later years, he attributed much of what he became to
that single decision.
MAIMONIDES WRITES in his Guide for the Perplexed of
the obligation to imitate God’s ways: “Just as He is merciful, so too should you
be merciful.” But even more important is that our motivation come from the same
source: Just as God’s benevolence is determined by His wisdom, so too should a
man’s actions be determined by wisdom and truth, and not by
That was Rav Elyashiv. He thought in halachic categories and
his responses were determined by those categories.
Informed of the birth
of a new great grandchild, he would respond “kasher l’eidus” (permitted to be a
witness) – i.e., the proscription on close relatives giving testimony with
respect to one another does not apply to great-grandchildren.
child himself, Rabbi Elyashiv left behind over 1,500 descendants at the time of
his passing, extending into the sixth generation.) His first question whenever
someone came to urge a particular course of action was always: “What does the
Shulhan Aruch say?”.
He responded to a questioner who asked about taking
on a particular stringency, “Why doesn’t following the letter of Halacha
suffice?” And when the same questioner asked about a communal stringency that
might have adverse consequences for certain individuals, he expressed his
displeasure over any piety at the expense of others.
straightforwardness could be seen in everything he did. One time he needed an
electrician to fix something in the one-bedroom apartment in which he and his
wife (primarily his wife) raised their 12 children. (She was the daughter of
Rabbi Aryeh Levine, portrayed by Simcha Raz in A Tzaddik in Our Time.) He
refused to hire the electrician, who prayed in the same minyan he did, until the
man agreed to charge the full price. While the man was doing the repair, Rabbi
Elyashiv was informed that one of his daughters had passed away. He sat down and
reviewed the laws of mourning. Then he paid the electrician. Only when the debt
was taken care of did he leave for the funeral.
He served for 22 years as
a dayan (religious court judge) on the Beit Din Hagadol of the Chief Rabbinate,
until he resigned in protest over Rabbi Shlomo Goren’s ruling in the Langer
mamzerut case. Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac Halevi Herzog assigned him the task of
preparing the protocols for the Chief Rabbinate’s batei din, which are still in
Even after resigning, Elyashiv remained ever a dayan in his
conduct, refusing, for instance, to hear one party in a dispute unless the other
party was also present. He possessed the great ability to quickly separate out
the extraneous and cut to the core of any issue. After an airliner went down
just after takeoff from John F. Kennedy Airport, one of the world’s leading
experts in DNA identification was brought to meet him in Israel in connection
with freeing agunot, women whose husbands had disappeared without a trace. The
expert was amazed when Rabbi Elyashiv asked him four questions to which he could
not give a definitive answer.
ONLY IN HIS last decades did he assume a
leadership role within the haredi community, and even then only when it was
forced upon him. He did not seek leadership and was pained by the time he took
from his learning. He never appeared at public events and, apart from his daily
Talmud class, did not speak in public.
Honor was meaningless in his
There was nothing of the politician about him. The horse-trading of
politics was both foreign and repugnant to him. Each issue was decided on its
merits, as he saw them.
No personal emotion ever intruded into his
deliberations or affected his conduct. Even those who only half-heartedly
executed his instructions for the reform of certain communal institutions were
still granted access to ask their halachic questions.
No major policy
innovations are associated with Rabbi Elyashiv’s name – nothing comparable, for
instance, to the Hazon Ish’s order in the early ’50s to switch the language of
instruction in the Hinuch Atzma’i school system from Yiddish to Hebrew in
response to the mass aliya from Arab lands. But without his approval of
ArtScroll’s translation of the Talmud into English, it is doubtful that the
project would have been viable or had the enormous impact it has had. When an
English-speaking yeshiva head pointed out to him that the rabbinic leaders of
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter’s generation had opposed his proposed translation of the
Talmud into German, Rabbi Elyashiv replied that he knew, but the situation today
was different. He devoted a great deal of time to the lack of space in Bais
Yaakov seminaries for all those seeking admission and attempted to implement
systemic changes in the acceptance process, with much success.
be pressured neither from the Right or the Left; haredi “political correctness”
meant nothing to him. He would not tolerate in his presence any disparagement of
Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi, who had
proposed Elyashiv’s match with his wife and officiated at his wedding. After he
put his imprimatur on a certain solution to the problem of building a particular
highway over ancient graves, he was pelted by zealots in his own Mea She’arim
He was unintimidated.
Above all, his life stands as
a monument to the power of discipline and determination.
discipline – more even than any natural brilliance – allowed him to master the
vast halachic literature to the extent that the most complicated life-and-death
halachic questions over the last 30 years all eventually reached his door
without his ever having to say, “I don’t know.”
The writer is director of
Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post
Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish