The New York Times once asked Rabbi Moshe Feinstein how he became a posek hador, one of the generation’s foremost authorities on Jewish law. Rabbi Feinstein answered that, “people came and asked me questions and they liked what I said and it was accepted, and then more people came and eventually I became widely accepted as a posek.”
Similarly, the late Rabbi Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, zt”l, a man who did not even hold an official rabbinic position, was revered by most Jews as one of the world’s greatest poskim. From his small apartment in the old neighborhood of Meah Shearim, Rabbi Elyashiv would receive questions from people around the world regarding halacha and public policy. Over the decades Rabbi Elyashiv became an integral component of American Jewry, interacting with individual rabbis, laymen, and organizations like the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America.
Although Rabbi Elyashiv was a member of the Israeli Supreme Rabbinical Court for several decades, his primary connection to American Jews was developed somewhat later, after his retirement. In an interview with The Jewish Press, Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of OU Kosher, explained that “following the deaths of Reb Moshe [Feinstein in 1986] and Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach [in 1995], there was a shift in [halacha] to Eretz Yisrael,” thrusting Rabbi Elyashiv into the forefront.
As an example, Rabbi Steven Weil, executive vice president of the OU, told The Jewish Press, “Rabbi Elyashiv was consulted with to determine how to construct the eruv for the Los Angeles community.”
Senior poskim at the OU, such as Rabbi Hershel Schachter, rosh yeshiva of the YU-affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, and Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, rosh yeshiva of Torah Vodaath, would visit and correspond with Rabbi Elyashiv regarding many emerging halachic issues. Some of the more publicized questions concerned the status of wigs made from Indian women’s hair that were allegedly sacrificed to deities, and insect infestations in vegetables. Rabbi Elyashiv was also involved in formulating kashrut policies for industrial food corporations regarding frozen produce and hechsher keilim, cleaning out utensils for kosher food. Many of these correspondences were conducted with the help of Rabbi Yosef Efrati, Rabbi Elyashiv’s assistant.
In addition to answering questions in halacha, Rabbi Elyashiv also played an important role in setting political and communal policies in Israel and abroad. At the request of Rabbi Elazar Menachem Mann Shach, Rabbi Elyashiv agreed to help guide the religious political party Degel HaTorah. When Rabbi Shach began to limit his public activities after 1995, Rabbi Elyashiv and Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman became the foremost spiritual leaders of Degel HaTorah and were consulted before every major decision.
Rabbi Elyashiv’s decisions have shaped American communal policies through his relationships with various rabbis and the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of America. Like its Israeli counterpart, the Moetzes is the spiritual leadership branch of the Agudath Israel of America, comprised of roshei yeshiva and chassidic rebbes. Members of the Moetzes would frequently consult with Rabbi Elyashiv and cite his views as a final authority on Torah halacha and hashkafa. Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, told The Jewish Press, “Agudah and Moetzes members had tremendous respect for, and deference to, Rabbi Elyashiv.” Rabbi Elyashiv’s decisions helped shape the Agudah’s approach to the interaction between rabbinic leaders and elected officials, along with medical ethics regarding end-of-life situations.
Rabbi Sheftel Neuberger, president of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel, expressed similar sentiment, namely that American rabbis had “great respect” for Rabbi Elyashiv. Rabbi Neuberger said that Rabbi Aharon Feldman, rosh yeshiva of Ner Yisroel and a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, had been particularly close with Rabbi Elyashiv, as the former had lived in Israel for much of his life. Over the years Rabbi Feldman would consult and learn with Rabbi Elyashiv, even after he returned to the U.S.
To the individual, however, Rabbi Elyashiv was more than a decider of Jewish law. Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president emeritus of the OU, noted that, “while most are incapable of fully appreciating the depth of his piety and breadth of his erudition, we can all grasp the fact that he was the last link to a previous generation.” He was a window to an era in which individuals possessed a total command of every facet of Torah, both revealed and hidden, inherently fused with a passionate dedication to God and His people.