A Portrait of Greatness
Who was Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv?
Last week, over 300,000 people flocked the streets of Jerusalem to mourn the passing of Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, age 102. Rabbi Elyashiv was the undisputed leader of the Lithuanian Torah community and to a great degree his legal rulings were respected across the board in Chassidic, Sefardi, and Modern Orthodox communities around the world. He was viewed by many to be the contemporary leading authority on halacha, Jewish law. Despite his exceptional scholarship and influence, Rav Elyashiv was neither the head of a congregation, yeshiva, or particular community.
Destined for Greatness
Rav Elyashiv was the son of Rabbi Avraham Erener and Chaya Musha, the daughter of the kabbalist Rabbi Shlomo Elyashiv known as the Leshem. Born in 1910 in Šiauliai, Lithuania, Rav Elyashiv was the only child, born to his parents after 17 years of marriage. He arrived with them to British Mandate Palestine in 1922 at the age 12. His father adopted his father-in-law's surname, Elyashiv, in order to gain a certificate to enter the country at the advice of the famed Chofetz Chaim of Rodin, Poland.
At the time of his death, Rav Elyashiv had nearly 1,000 descendants and had seen the birth of a sixth generation of offspring.
In 1929, Rav Elyashiv married Sheina Chaya Levin, the daughter of the esteemed “Tzaddik of Jerusalem,” Rabbi Aryeh Levin, also known affectionately as the "father of the prisoners" due to the care he showed to the Jewish underground members incarcerated by the British during the Mandate period. The couple had 12 children – all of whom were raised in their modest two room apartment in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Meah Shearim. At the time of his death, Rav Elyashiv had nearly 1,000 descendants and had seen the birth of a sixth generation of offspring when one of his great-great-grandchildren gave birth to a son in 2009.
Although Rav Elyashiv never attended a formal yeshiva framework, he was recognized as a genius in Talmud study at a young age. He was appointed as a Rabbinic Court Judge (dayan) to the High Court of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel by Israel’s Chief Rabbi at the time, Rav Yitzchak Herzog – who exempted him from the rabbinical examinations due to his high level of scholarship. He resigned from this position in 1972 and for the next 40 years of his life, held no official positions. Although he never wrote any Torah works, his family members and students wrote down numerous volumes of his halachic rulings and Talmudic insights, while he devoted all of his time to his incessant studies and daily lectures.
Although Rav Elyashiv was the spiritual leader of the Degel HaTorah political party for the past 30 years, he only entered politics at the behest of the great Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Menachem Mann Shach. He personally despised politics and only agreed to get involved because he felt that he was genuinely needed, as it says in Ethics of Our Fathers, “In a place where there are no leaders, strive to be a leader.”
“He had one interest – to help the Jewish people,” said Rabbi Nachum Eisenstein, the rabbi of the Maalot Dafna neighborhood of Jerusalem and a close disciple of Rav Elyashiv. “He had no ulterior motives or personal interests.”
Maximizing Every Single Moment
For the past 80+ years since his wedding, Rabbi Elyashiv's daily schedule began at 2 a.m. and included anywhere between 16 to 20 hours of intensive Torah study – despite the fact that he was stricken with several illnesses throughout his childhood and adult life. On one occasion, members of his household noticed that he had been standing during his learning and asked why he did not sit down. He answered that since he was tired, he feared that he may drowse while learning. If he stood, he would be sure not to doze off. Rav Elyashiv used to receive visitors from around the globe on a daily basis in addition to leading rabbis and politicians of Israel, answering their complex halachic inquiries. Despite his advanced age and illness, he continued responding to questions from rabbis around the world with total lucidity until the very end. Even when he was sick in hospital, he continued to rise at 2:00 a.m. for his regular studies.
Rabbi Hillel Weinberg with Rav Elyashiv, zt”l
For many years, Rabbi Hillel Weinberg, the Rosh Yeshiva of Aish HaTorah, would visit Rav Elyashiv almost every week, on Friday afternoons. Rav Elyashiv would receive people about an hour before the beginning of Shabbat, usually in the synagogue, where he would sit and study without interruption all day. “I always tried to arrive a little earlier than his official ‘office hours’ to watch him learn aloud,” Rav Hillel said. “Although he usually studied alone, he would explain the Gemara to himself, out loud, as if he were sitting with a study partner. He embodied the fulfillment of all the 48 Ways to wisdom which facilitate the acquisition of Torah, with an ear that listens, with lips that explain, and learning by teaching.
“He was meticulous about utilizing every moment of the day to study Torah, even during the hours he would receive people. When one person would leave the room and the next entered, Rav Elyashiv’s eyes would be on the page of the book before him, and his attention was wholly on the subject that he was presently studying to such an extent that one could stand before him for several minutes until he noticed that someone had come into the room.”
Every word of Torah was so dear to him that he never forgot it.
In his classes and writings he often quoted obscure texts entirely from memory. “If you have so much love for something, your brain remembers,” Rabbi Eisenstein explained. “Every word of Torah was so dear to him that he never forgot it. The only pleasure he had in this world was learning Torah.”
Whenever he issued a legal ruling, he made sure to examine the issue from all possible sides. When dealing with a question of technology he would always assign experts to research the situation in depth, so as to assure himself that he fully understood the facts before ruling.
The Wisdom of Silence
Despite his busy learning schedule, Rav Elyashiv used to meet with dozens, if not hundreds of people a day from every walk of life. Many were world renowned rabbis or politicians. “He would welcome all who came to him, treating them kindly and respectfully, and patiently answering any questions without hurrying the person who had come to seek his advice,” Rav Hillel recalled. “He also always gave priority to women and their questions.”
He made a point to never try to argue with someone unless he felt his opinion might be heeded. There are those who say that he attributed his long life to the fact that he never got angry. “He never told anyone what to do,” Rabbi Eisenstein said. “If anyone asked his opinion, he would gladly tell them, but if someone came to argue with him, he always remained silent. He never raised his voice, never gave people admonishment, and never insulted anyone. Even if he disagreed with something someone said, he wouldn’t say they were wrong unless he knew that they wanted to hear his opinion. Many people left a meeting with him thinking that he agreed with them even though he was vehemently opposed, simply because he remained silent. Why try to convince someone of something if he knew they wouldn’t listen? He spoke only when he felt he could make a difference.”
There was one exception to this rule: his students. “He was very demanding from his students and never supported them in something that he disagreed with,” Rabbi Eisenstein continued. “He didn’t cover up for their mistakes and he was fast to tell them if he felt that they were wrong because he knew that they wanted him to guide them.”
One time, someone accidentally pushed into the Rav at a crowded event. The man was devastated and asked for permission to request forgiveness from the Rav. Rav Elyashiv’s response was that he didn’t feel a thing and therefore there was nothing to ask forgiveness for. He knew that even if he forgave the man, that he would still feel bad, so instead he acted as if the incident had never even happened.
Gratitude for Life
Eight years ago, a vein in his heart burst, and the doctors said there were two options: if they operated on him, the chances of success were only three percent. If the surgery were not performed, he would live no longer than three days. The decision had to be made there and then, on a Shabbat. The Rav’s relatives travelled to his son-in-law, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky in Bnei Brak on Shabbat, to hear his opinion on the matter, and he ruled that in the meantime, nothing should be done. On Saturday night, they found out about a specialist from the U.S. who could take care of the matter without anesthesia and surgery. The doctor, together with all his instruments, was flown to Israel and, miraculously, the treatment was successful. Everyone could see that God had answered the prayers of those hundreds of thousands who had prayed for Rav Elyashiv’s recovery.
He defied medical statistics again and again and attributed his recovery to the prayers of the Jewish people around the world.
“He defied medical statistics again and again,” Rabbi Eisenstein said. “There were many times that the doctors gave up, but he always pulled through. He attributed his recovery to the prayers of the Jewish people around the world.”
The Rav used to receive numerous invitations to serve as the sandek, or godfather, at circumcision ceremonies each day, but he traditionally only made rare exceptions to take time off from his busy schedule. After his miraculous recovery eight years ago, however, he began accepting every single offer that came to him. For the last eight years of his life he often attended three to five circumcision ceremonies each day – even when he was too sick to attend prayer services in synagogue. “He felt tremendous gratitude to the Jewish people for praying for him and wanted to pay back a minimum by becoming more accessible,” Rabbi Eisenstein said. “Although it was difficult for him to walk or even go to synagogue to pray – he still accepted each invitation. He had given them his word that he would attend, and his word was set in stone.”
Rabbi Elyashiv didn’t want to accept gifts from anyone. Each year, Rabbi Eisenstein used to bring him a set of the four species for the holiday of Sukkot. Rav Elyashiv used to force him to accept a check in return for them. When he saw that the checks weren’t being deposited, he started giving cash.
A world renowned heart specialist from America used to check him whenever he was in Israel, but refused to take any money. Rav Elyashiv didn’t understand that this was the doctor’s greatest honor of his career. At the Bar Mitzvah of the doctor’s son, Rav Elyashiv had someone buy him a huge, beautiful leather bound set of books on his behalf. He was so happy to be able to finally pay him back. On the inside cover of one of the books, he wrote a handwritten inscription. “It was probably the best present that the boy got,” Rabbi Eisenstein said, “but Rav Elyashiv didn’t realize that the greatest part about it was the inscription!”
Rav Elyashiv’s wish was that no eulogies be recited at his funeral and that he be buried at the Har Hamenuchot cemetery alongside his wife, despite the fact that a burial plot was reserved for him at the Mount of Olives – the traditional burial place for renowned Torah luminaries. This is testament, once again, to the fact that this Torah giant and leader of the Jewish people saw himself as nothing more than a simple Jew.