Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin zt”l died peacefully after Musaf on Shabbat Nachamu, 13 Av 5733 (1973), in his apartment on New York’s Lower East Side which also served as a synagogue in his last years. He was 92. 

For many years R. Henkin was a supreme halachic authority in America, recognized worldwide as one of the gaonim and tzaddikim of the generation. His funeral was relatively modest; some twenty or thirty thousand people attended. In Av/August the yeshivas are empty and faculty, students, and many others are out of town, often in the mountains. R. Moshe Feinstein zt”l, R. Yaakov Kaminetzky zt”l, and other Torah Sages delivered eulogies. However, few were able to return to the city during the week of mourning to comfort the family.

R. Yosef Dov Soloveichik zt”l sat at the front during the funeral, although he did not eulogize. Many recalled a wintry morning years earlier, at a memorial for one of the roshei yeshiva at R.I.E.T.S. who had passed away. An elderly man, a fur-lined cap pulled down over his head and ears against the bitter cold, entered the packed hall at the back. R. Soloveichik, who had been sitting on the bimah facing the audience, stood up and hurried to the rear of the auditorium to escort him to the bimah. The whole audience rose, many not knowing for whom. It was R. Henkin.

Years later, R. Avraham Price zt”l of Toronto, the author of Mishnat Avraham on Sefer Chassidim and the Semag, told me about another winter morning. It was at a small synagogue in Manhattan. Barely a minyan was present; it was frigid and blustery, and R. Price said that had he not had to say kaddish he would have stayed home. The door blew open and in walked R. Henkin. He had come to collect for Ezras Torah, the charity he headed, and he
collected a few dollars. R. Price asked him whether for a couple of dollars he really had to go out in such weather. R. Henkin answered: “R. Price, I’m surprised at you. It’s my employment. Am I supposed to receive a salary for nothing?”

Twenty years ago I had the privilege of visiting Orthodox communities throughout the United States and Canada. In one city after another I heard from elderly rabbis: Rav Henkin said this. Rav Henkin ruled that. Rav Henkin determined the name of the city and enabled us to write gittin. In the 1940’s and 50’s, I was told, the rabbi whose rulings were cited in thousands of homes across North America was R. Henkin.

He was born in Climovicz in White Russia in 1881, studied particularly in Slutzk, and spent ten years as a rabbi and rosh mesivta in Georgia, on the Black Sea. At the age of 33, he applied for the post of rabbi in the town of Moholna in what was soon to be war-torn Byelorussia. Part of the selection process involved giving a learned derasha before the community. R. Henkin, seeking a position, began with a discourse on the type of discourses rabbis give when seeking a position. Whether this reflected his sense of humor or his equally salient trait of examining anything he was involved in, is not known.

He was elected rabbi of a different town, Smolien, and nine years later came to America, in 1923. In 1925 he became secretary and later director of Ezras Torah, which he headed for forty-eight years. R. Henkin was in constant contact with rabbis and scholars throughout America and around the world in matters of both tzedaka and halacha. He was recognized as a gadol hador without being a rosh yeshiva with disciples to praise him.

Among many personal memories I have of him are two concerning women. The first is that in birkat hamazon his wife read the “harachaman” section out loud, and he answered amen. Why? To give her “nachat ruach” (satisfaction). The second is from after the Pesach seder a year before his passing. My wife told him how much she enjoyed his tune for ‘chasal sidur Pesach.’ He replied that he had learned it from the Ridba”z in Slutzk, and sang it for her over again from beginning to end.

At a memorial gathering held in Jerusalem thirty days after his death, six prominent roshei yeshiva spoke. All of the yeshivas and their students received support from Ezras Torah, and the bet midrash of the Chebiner Yeshiva was full. The first rosh yeshiva finished speaking, and shortly after got up and left, followed by his students. The second rosh yeshiva spoke at length and he, too, left with his students. And so on, until at the end only a few people remained. At that point I spoke on behalf of the family, as a grandson who had learned with R. Henkin for many years.

Today, not thirty days but thirty years after his passing, how are we to evaluate the life and work of my grandfather, the gaon and tzaddik R. Yosef Eliyahu Henkin? As is only natural, a generation has arisen “that knew not Yosef.” Occasionally I read discussions citing the halachic opinions of rabbis and roshei yeshiva in the United States fifty years ago, with the writers unaware of who was the address for halachic decisions at the time.

But even if the details are not remembered, almost everyone knows that indeed there lived such a rabbi, one who was numbered among the great rabbis of every generation. For those who recall his qualities, a unique blend of great Torah scholarship and halachic authority with fearlessness and originality, of decisiveness tempered by humility, innumerable acts of chesed and devotion to the community, his memory and his example still serve as an inspiration and a guide in life. His memory is a blessing. Would that we had his like today.

Editor’s Note: A detailed account of the life of R. Yosef Eliyahu Henkin zt”l can be found in his grandson’s book Equality Lost published by Urim Publications, in chapter sixteen.


Previous articleJerusalem, 1920: A Very Special Shabbat Nachamu
Next articleShukran (Thank You)!
Rabbi Yehuda-Herzl Henkin is the author of three volumes of Halachic Responsa Bnei Banim. His most recent book in English is Responsa on Contemporary Jewish Women's Issues, published by Ktav. After aliyah to Israel in 1972, he served as district rabbi of the Bet Shean valley. He now lives in Jerusalem.