Haredi world in mourning for departed leader

Over 250,000 attend the rabbi’s funeral procession, coming from across the country to pay their final respects.

Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (photo credit: Beit Hashalom)
Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv
(photo credit: Beit Hashalom)
An outpouring of grief flowed from the haredi world Wednesday night and Thursday following the death of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the foremost spiritual leader of the community.
More than 250,000 people attended the rabbi’s funeral procession on Wednesday night, coming from across the country to pay their final respects. Men, women and children flocked to Jerusalem, expressing deep emotion for the departed leader.
“Rabbi Elyashiv was a spiritual leader and a patriarchal figure for the community, not only the ‘Lithuanian’ [non-hassidic] stream but the whole of the haredi world including the hassidim as well,” said Yisrael Cohen, a haredi journalist for the Kikar Shabbat website. “This is why there was such deep emotion on display last night, because the community is truly grieved.”
The sheer mass of mourners meant that the procession, which started on foot from Elyashiv’s home in Mea She’arim at 10:30 p.m., took till 2 a.m. to reach the Har Hamenuhot cemetery.
Although Elyashiv had asked that eulogies not be said at his funeral, his son-in-law and prominent haredi leader Rabbi Yitzhak Zilberstein spoke briefly at the beginning of the procession.
“Our beloved father,” he said, “we request forgiveness from you, recommend the good for us in heaven and that the Jewish people be judged favorably.”
Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteineman, who has inherited Elyashiv’s status as the leader of the non-hassidic haredi world, spoke before the funeral, saying “the generation’s leader is no longer.” Shteinman tore his clothes in a sign of mourning usually performed only by close relatives.
“He had all the most beloved things of the world and he has taken them with him,” Shteineman said, quoting a passage from the Talmud about the death of one of the sages.
Yated Ne’eman, the influential haredi daily newspaper, printed the biblical verse, “Father, father! Israel’s chariots and horsemen” on its front page, a citation from Kings II uttered by the prophet Elisha upon witnessing the passing of his predecessor, the prophet Elijah.
“The crown of our heads has fallen,” the paper wrote.
“Torah was his entire life; he toiled in it for more than 100 years without limit or measure. He bore on his shoulders this generation.”
Speaking with The Jerusalem Post, Yisrael Cohen said that despite the tremendous grief felt by the ultra-Orthodox community, it remains unclear whether or not there will be a weakening of the leadership following Elyashiv’s departure.
“Rabbi Elyashiv was accepted immediately following the passing of Rabbi Shach [the previous rabbinic leader of the haredi community] and so he was automatically a consensus figure. He had the last word in all matters and people accepted his authority,” Cohen said.
Although this has not been the case with Rabbi Shteinman, Cohen explained, time will tell and it may be that the community coalesces around him and accepts him as it has accepted others before him.
Shteinman has fought something of a leadership battle during Elyashiv’s six-month hospitalization before his death with Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, another leading haredi rabbi.
Shteinman, 98, nevertheless enjoys the support of some of the other leading rabbinical figures including Rabbi Haim Kanievsky and Rabbi Nissim Karelitz.
“Rabbi Shteinman is a different type of person with different qualities, and so his leadership may be different but he could well prove to be a great leader as well,” Cohen said.
“He is more active than Rabbi Elyashiv was, who preferred to study and address questions of Jewish law, and did not like to involve himself in public matters unless forced to do so.”
Cohen added that despite the public perception that there is always only one undisputed rabbinic leader of the generation, there has often been more than one outstanding scholar and authority in the haredi community.
“During the time of the Hazon Ish (Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz) there was also the Brisker Rov (Rabbi Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik), during Rabbi Shach’s time there was also the Steipler (Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky), so the community can be united and strong even when there are several leading scholars,” he added.