We go to print with news of the petirah of Maran HaRav Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, zt’l. Although time does not permit an elaborate essay or even the composition of a properly ordered piece, I wanted to share thoughts that came to mind.
The first thought is the timing of his passing, less than 24 hours after the Israeli coalition government dissolved, an event that effectively delays the attempts by ardent secularists to implement enforced conscription of yeshivah students.
The fact is that Torah is the greatest shemirah (protection). More dangerous than Iran with the bomb is a situation of Jews without Torah, c’v. As the Gadol Hador, HaRav Elyashiv not only taught and exemplified Torah values, but was a fountainhead through which Torah flowed down into the world, and which ultimately protected the generation from all sorts of physical and spiritual dangers.
Who knows if during his last days, as his body lay in a debilitated state, his holy neshamah was not rampaging through the heavens to get the decree of forced conscription torn up, and that only after he succeeded was he recalled by the Heavenly Court? Who knows…? It would certainly be a fitting final act for a man who literally dedicated every moment of his life to Torah.
As the mantle of Torah leadership now passes to the next generation, it is worth noting that Torah leadership is not determined by election but rather by the force of the Gadol’s greatness in Torah and middos.
Secularists have a hard time understanding that.
HaRav Elyashiv was not the central address for the nation’s most difficult questions because an electoral body chose him as the Posek Hador (the highest arbiter of Jewish law). He was the leading halachic authority because as the most difficult issues were funneled upward, those at the highest echelons naturally looked to the man with the most profound understanding. And that was HaRav Elyashiv.
Despite his stature, he shunned any type of material benefit or recognition. The broader world equates stature with possessions; position with pomp. The highest officials are accompanied by entourages and bands announcing their arrival. They reside in mansions of glory. How different the Torah world! Despite his Torah nobility, HaRav Elyashiv lived in a small, rundown two-room apartment off an alleyway in Mea Shearim.
Haaretz, that media bastion of strident Israeli secularism (“ultra”-secularism), suggested that HaRav Elyashiv’s passing heralded a vacuum of leadership that could lead to a fatal splintering of the Torah world or that as a result, “It may even crumble and fall apart.” Wishful thinking on their part; Freudian projection of their own deep-seated fears, even.
There is no doubt that HaRav Elyashiv’s spiritual strength will be missed. Indeed, his strength is a major part of his enduring legacy and contribution to Jewish life in the 20th century and beyond. But “a generation departs and a generation enters” (Koheles 1:4). His candle has gone out. A new candle will be lit.
Still, our world will never be the same.
HaRav Elyashiv was born in 1910 in the Lithuanian town of Shavell. His parents waited 17 years to have him, their first and only child. In 1924, the entire family — grandfather, parents and son – moved to Eretz Yisrael. They settled in Yerushalayim, which would become the Rav’s home for the rest of his life. (He lived in the same house for nearly a century!)
After years of study, HaRav Elyashiv received semichah (ordination) to become a dayan (judge) from Yerushalayim’s leading rabbis. He began serving as a dayan in 1938, meaning he was the oldest and longest serving posek.
The recently published biography of HaRav Elyashiv, entitled HaShakdan, describes at length numerous anecdotes that portray his incredible loyalty to the Torah and his sharpness of mind. His hasmadah (diligence) was legendary. He would awaken at 3:00 every morning and learn Torah for 16 to 20 hours each day. And he maintained this regimen for 90 years!
Despite this almost incomprehensible lifetime of total immersion in Torah, Hashem made him the “most wanted” man in the Torah world. People flocked from all over to ask questions and seek his blessings. “He was answering questions up to the day he was taken to the hospital,” Rabbi Nachum Eisenstein related.
His penchant for learning alone notwithstanding, HaRav Elyashiv delivered a daily shiur in Gemara with Rashi and Tosafos to a group of laymen. Although this lecture was intended to cover the simple meaning of the Talmud, the various points that the Rav mentioned in passing have been compiled into the series of sefarim known as He’aros on many masechtos of Shas. Over the years, in fact, his students published many of his shiurim and teshuvos.
His yichus was impeccable. His mother, Rebbetzin Chaya Musha, was a daughter of the mekubal, Rav Shlomo Elyashiv, author of Leshem Shvo V’Achlamah. The Chofetz Chaim encouraged people to seek out Rav Shlomo Elyashiv, adding that, “Although in olam hazeh (this world) we can see him and come close to him, in olam haba (the next world) who knows if we’ll merit such an opportunity?”
HaRav Elyashiv’s father was Rav Avrohom Levinson (the family changed its name to Elyashiv upon the advice of the Chofetz Chaim so that they could travel under a single certificate of entry into Palestine under the British Mandate). He studied under the Chofetz Chaim and served as rabbi of the city of Hommel in Russia. He authored a halachic work entitled Bikurei Avrohom, and founded in Yerushalayim the yeshivah Tiferes Bochurim.
At age 20, HaRav Elyashiv married Rebbetzin Sheina Chaya, the daughter of the legendary Rav Aryeh Levin, memorialized in one of the first English-language Torah bestsellers, “A Tzaddik in Our Times,” for his extraordinary acts of chesed in war-torn Yerushalayim, and who was himself a son-in-law of Rabbi Eliyahu Dovid Rabbinowitz-Teumim, the Chief Rabbi of Yerushalayim, who was known as the Aderes.
Appreciation for the role his Rebbetzin played in his Torah learning – and the role a Jewish woman in general plays in the Torah learning of every man — can be seen from a passage in his sefer, Divrei Aggadah. In Parashas Bo, Pharaoh offers to allow the men to go serve Hashem in the wilderness – only if the women and children would remain in Mitzrayim. In Divrei Aggadah, HaRav Elyashiv explains why. Pharaoh realized that if the men were allowed to serve Hashem on their own, they would not last long. They could only succeed if the women were backing and supporting them in their efforts.
HaRav Elyashiv cites a Midrash as proof. The Midrash cites the case of a righteous man married to a righteous woman, but who did not merit having any children. They decided to divorce and each married another person. The man married a wicked woman and he became wicked. The woman married a wicked man and she made him righteous. We see, concludes the Midrash, that “everything comes from the woman.”
HaRav Elyashiv not only came from yichus, but produced it. He and his Rebbetzin had 12 children, including Rebbetzin Bas Sheva, who married HaGaon HaRav Chaim Kanievsky. In 2009, HaRav Elyashiv became a great-great-great-grandfather when a child was born to Rav Yonasan Honigsberg, son of Rav Gedalya Honigsberg, son-in-law of Rav Shraga Shteinman (son of Rav Aryeh Leib Shteinman), son-in-law of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, son-in-law of HaRav Elyashiv.
The number of the Rav’s survivors at the time of his petirah was close to a thousand!
HaRav Elyashiv was 102 when he left us. He told his students that “the secret to his long life is never to get angry and never take things personally or to heart – except Torah study, which should be taken straight to the heart.”
HaRav Chaim Kanievsky had his own opinion how his father-in-law, HaRav Elyashiv, merited such longevity. Rav Chaim said that, while such decisions are of course made in Heaven, it may be that he was blessed with many years because of his habit of studying Torah out loud, even when he sat alone in the privacy of his own study, even late at night when there was nobody around to hear.
We mourn the loss of his voice in this world. Even if you never heard it with your ears, it resonated from one end of the world to the other. Indeed, it resonates now. It resonates in every discussion of a knotty Tosafos; every deep svara; every clarification of the halachah. It resonates in the hearts of Bais Yaakov girls who want to dedicate their lives to Torah; every mother who hugs her children tightly and sends them off to yeshivah.
Stand by the entrance of a bais midrash or a yeshivah. Listen to the voice of children singing the song of Torah. HaRav Elyashiv is gone, but his voice still resonates among them. It thunders and echoes through forests and trees; through time and eternity; through history and destiny.
HaRav Elyashiv is no longer here for us to visit, but his legacy reverberates everywhere… if we only open our hearts to listen for it….