Rabbi Elyashiv, 101, in critical condition

Generation’s top arbitrator of Jewish law on respirator, under anesthesia.

Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (photo credit: Beit Hashalom)
Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv
(photo credit: Beit Hashalom)
Hundreds of family members and strangers converged on Monday and Tuesday on the capital’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center out of concern for the health of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the leading haredi Ashkenazi rabbinical arbiter of the generation, who suffers from congestive heart failure and was in critical but stable condition.
The 101-year-old Jerusalemite, who has been hospitalized at Shaare Zedek several times in recent months, is in the cardiac intensive care unit of the Jesselson Heart Center under the supervision of cardiology branch head Prof. Dan Tzivoni and his personal physician.
Elyashiv, whose great-grandchildren have grandchildren, was put on a respirator and under general anesthesia to prevent him from “fighting” the machine.
He was admitted due to an acute condition of edema of the lungs and congestion in the heart. There was some improvement on Tuesday, his doctors said, and he was not in pain. He was alert before he was anesthetized.
The medical center’s entire 10th floor is dedicated to cardiac care, from diagnosis and treatment to prevention and rehabilitation. Thus the large foyer managed to accommodate the rabbi’s family members who came to pray for him, consult with the medical staff and “stand guard.” But police were needed to keep out curious onlookers and nonrelatives, who reached the main fourth-floor lobby.
Only 20 or 30 relatives were allowed on the 10th floor on Tuesday.
Doctors gave the rabbi supportive treatment, cardiology drugs, diuretics, infusions and other interventions.
Only a few months ago, Elyashiv – who lives is a very modest apartment in Mea She’arim – underwent the insertion of a supportive stent in his aorta because of a leak.
The hospital said that hundreds of people from around the world, including physicians who offered advice to their Shaare Zedek counterparts, have called in the past few days. One suggested surgery to implant a ventricular support device to strengthen the pumping of his own heart, but this was ruled out because of the patient’s age and condition.
Elyashiv, an only child, was born in Siauliai (Shavel in Yiddish), Lithuania, came to Mandatory Palestine in 1922 when he was 12 years old. He lost his wife, Sheina Chaya, (a daughter of the famed Rabbi Aryeh Levin) in 1994, as well as five of their 12 children; his surviving “children” are in their 70s and even older.
Elyashiv controls the “Lithuanian” Degel Hatorah political party that, together with the hassidic Agudat Yisrael party, make up the United Torah Judaism faction in the Knesset. Additionally, Elyashiv, as the leading figure in Lithuanian haredi Jewry, has huge influence over the outlook and stance of the community toward contemporary issues within Israeli society.
He is widely seen as having continued along the same conservative path that was laid out by Degel Hatorah founder Rabbi Elazar Shach, who split from Agudat Yisrael in the late 1980s.
Shach, who died in 2001 at age 103, came to lead the Lithuanian, or nonhassidic, haredi world and opposed haredi integration within Israeli society, such as service in the army and integration in the workforce.
According to Yisroel Cohen, a haredi journalist for the Kikar Shabbat news website, “Rabbi Shach could be compared to [former Supreme Court president] Aharon Barak, and Rabbi Elyashiv to [current Supreme Court President] Dorit Beinisch.”
Shach, Cohen told The Jerusalem Post, “created something from nothing, he formed the Degel Hatorah party and its newspaper, Yated Ne’eman, in his own image.”
Elyashiv, on the other hand, having less charisma and dynamism than Shach, has sought to preserve the established order and has opposed what some refer to as the “new haredim,” those from a small but growing community who serve in the IDF and have joined the mainstream labor force.
In December, Elyashiv spoke out against the integration of haredim into mainstream society, saying that “haredi educational institutions must be under the control of the rabbis...
and must exclude all paths that lead to national service, secular studies or the army, even if they have a special programs for haredim. Such a programs put haredim under the control and culture of secular Jews.”
There are two leading haredi figures who may succeed Elyashiv as the spiritual and political leader of the Lithuanian community: Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, who lives in Bnei Brak and heads the Ponovitz Yeshiva kollel; and Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, who lives in Jerusalem, heads the Maalot Hatorah yeshiva and is the son of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, who was the greatest haredi arbiter of Jewish law before his death in 1995.
Shach, in the years before he died, unofficially designated Elyashiv as his heir apparent, overlooking Shteinman, who is now 97.
Shteinman is seen as slightly more moderate than Elyashiv, and has supported the Nahal Haredi army battalion set up to enable ultra-Orthodox Jews to serve in the IDF and preserve their lifestyle. He also does not oppose the increasing trend of haredim joining the army and the general workforce.
Auerbach, however, is closer to Elyashiv and is more inclined to his conservative outlook, opposing the “new haredim” and seeking to preserve the old order. He is charismatic and has many devoted followers.
According to Cohen, because of Schteinman’s advanced age, along with the deep-seated suspicion that has taken root in the haredi world for broader society in recent years, it would be hard for him to bring the ultra-Orthodox community closer to Israeli society despite his slightly more moderate tendencies.