Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv: The reward of diligence

Unless one had an urgent halachic question, one thought long and hard about wasting even a moment of his time.

Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (photo credit: Beit Hashalom)
Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv
(photo credit: Beit Hashalom)
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.”
Even his 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.
He 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 sentiment.
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.
(An only 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.
The same 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 force today.
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 eyes.
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.
He could 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 neighborhood.
He was unintimidated.
Above all, his life stands as a monument to the power of discipline and determination.
For that 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 leaders.