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The Life Of A Legendary Posek

Rabbi Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, zt"l

Rabbi Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, zt"l

The birth of Rabbi Yosef Sholom Elyashiv – who died in Jerusalem last week at the age of 102 – is thought by many to be a miracle.

Despite sixteen years of prayer and longing for a child, the chief rabbi of Homel, Rabbi Avraham Erener, and his wife, Chaya Musha, remained childless. According to one story – often repeated by Rabbi Elyashiv’s children – it was only after an incident when Rebbetzin Erener displayed tremendous compassion by curbing well-deserved anger after a display of cruelty by a distraught neighbor, that Rebbetzin Erener was told by her father, Rabbi Shlomo Elyashiv (author of the classic kabbalistic work Leshem Shevo V’achlamah), that her selfless actions would merit the blessing of a child who was destined to greatness. Rabbi Yosef Sholom Elyashiv was born one year later on April 10, 1910 in Lithuania.

His survival throughout the years faced additional hurdles, as numerous times from childhood on Rabbi Elyashiv was stricken with serious illnesses from which he was not expected to recover. Upon the advice of the Chofetz Chaim, in 1922, Rabbi Avraham Erener took on his wife’s family name, Elyashiv, in order to consolidate the two families and obtain a uniform immigration certificate allowing them to enter the British mandate of Palestine. This move was facilitated by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Israel. Seven years later, Rabbi Kook once again took on an important role in the life of then 19-year-old Rabbi Elyashiv, arranging his marriage to Sheina Chaya Levin, daughter of esteemed Jerusalem Rabbi Aryeh Levin.

When they arrived in Palestine, Rabbi Avraham founded Tiferes Bachurim, a beis medrash in Meah Shearim, where he would deliver a nightly lecture. After his sudden passing, his only son, 32-year-old Rabbi Yosef Sholom Elyashiv succeeded him. Until close to the turn of the century, Rabbi Elyashiv was available every night to individuals seeking answers to various halachic inquiries. Rabbi Elyashiv’s vast Torah knowledge was acquired without ever attending a formal yeshiva. From when he was a small child until his father’s death, the two learned for several hours daily. The pair covered the entire Shas, Rambam, and all of Shulchan Aruch by the time Rabbi Elyashiv was married in 1930. After his marriage, Rabbi Elyashiv began studying at Ohel Sarah, another beis medrash in the neighborhood.

Rabbi Elyashiv fathered five sons and seven daughters, two of whom did not survive to adulthood. A son, Yitzchak, succumbed to an illness at a young age and a daughter, Rivka, died in a Jordanian shelling attack in 1948. Sons Shlomo, Moshe, Binyamin and Avraham Elyashiv are all considered great scholars in their own right and all of Rabbi Elyashiv’s daughters married prominent rabbis. The eldest of Rabbi Elyashiv’s daughters was the renowned and beloved Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky, a”h, wife of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky. She passed away just months ago.

Rabbi Elyashiv, serving as a judge with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate until 1972, was close with other great Torah leaders, including Rabbi Betzalel Zolty, Rabbi Yaakov Ades, Rabbi Eliezer Goldsmidt and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. He ultimately earned a position on the Supreme Rabbinical Court. Rabbi Elyashiv was persuaded by Rabbi Elazar Menachem Mann Shach, zt”l, the rosh yeshiva of the famed Ponovitch Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, to take a more active role in Jewish public life in 1989 and was the spiritual leader of the Degel HaTorah Party.

Unlike many of today’s widely respected rabbinical figures, Rabbi Elyashiv was not the head of any congregation, yeshiva or community but was still one of the most widely sought out authorities in our generation and was considered by many to be a gadol hador and the leading posek for Ashkenazic Jewry. Rabbi Elyashiv began his day at 3 a.m. and was known to sleep for not more than three or four hours nightly, spending the remainder of his day deeply immersed in Torah studies, delivering shiurim, answering often complex halachic questions and receiving the many visitors who flocked to see him from all over the world. He was known not only as a man of great learning, but also as a man who appreciated and respected the value and dignity of every person.

Rabbi Elyashiv lived a life of simplicity in his small apartment on Rechov Chanan in Meah Shearim, and his reputation for impeccable integrity and concern for others was beyond compare. As a young couple, Rabbi Elyashiv and his wife moved into that apartment at the request of his parents who wished to be close to their only child. They lived together in that two-bedroom apartment for approximately twenty-five years. That was where all the Elyashiv children were raised and where Rabbi Elyashiv lived until his last day.

Many of Rabbi Elyashiv’s rulings and words, many dating back over fifty years, have been collected in writing and have been published – not by Rabbi Elyashiv himself, but by his students and relatives – in sefarim, offering insights on the Torah. The published works include a Pesach Haggadah; the multi-volume responsa Kovetz Teshuvos; a work of his halachic rulings, Yashiv Moshe; and a collection on Jewish thought called Divrei Aggadah, among others. Rabbi Elyashiv was also respected as a kabbalist and was once described by Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman as the only person in our generation who understands Kabbalah.

Despite several difficult illnesses, Rabbi Elyashiv continued his rigorous schedule until his final days, outliving the many doctors who had forecast his imminent passing from his youth onward.

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