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Rav Elyashiv, zt”l

One of the many delightful and memorable aspects of my recent visit to Highland Park, NJ was being the guest of Rabbi Eliyahu Kaufman, who regaled me with stories of his illustrious ancestor, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. These were stories that I had never heard, nor were they ever recorded. This got me thinking that I know of stories about gedolim because of my own personal encounters that are surely worthy of publication and I should not squander the opportunity. (Thank you again, The Jewish Press.)

But first, a caveat about stories that are often written about Gedolei Yisrael, and I know not why. It is not complimentary to write about a rabbinic scholar that he performed a mitzvah that most everyone does. Likewise ascribing to a gadol behavior no different than you would expect from any observant Jew. The very commonness of the act (and that the author deemed it worthy of inclusion in a biography) is belittling.


More specifically, the fact that the gadol hador returned a lost item, that a renowned posek was patient with an orphan, or that a beloved rosh yeshiva remembered a former student’s name contributes nothing to our veneration of the tzaddik and should be as common in biographies as the likelihood of the Coca-Cola Museum serving Pepsi. And yet people continue to write volumes of hagiography composed of demeaning material.

In this column I will recall a single, as well as a weekly encounter that I was privileged to have with Rav Elyashiv, zt”l, in that order. On an early morning in Nissan 1981 I made my way down Shivtei Yisrael Street to the Kosel to participate in a spectacular and colossal birkas hachama. As a matter of fact, this event was so memorable that I cannot even recall the more recent one which was but 14 years ago. That earlier one was so special because it was right before Pesach, it was raining and not clear if the sun would break free, and most significantly, because of what happened on my way there (and back).

At the juncture of Meah Shearim and Shivtei Yisrael, Rav Elyashiv turned the corner heading to my very same destination. Nowadays it seems incredible that a major rabbinic figure, the on-deck gadol hador, would be walking somewhere by himself, not driven by hand-picked chauffeurs. But trust me, I was there, and to my great fortune, no one else was. I was privileged to accompany the Gaon the entire way and ask him any question I ever had about Pesach, real or imagined.

I didn’t let go of what I correctly perceived was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and accompanied Rav Elyashiv all the way home – again just the two of us. When we passed Toldos Aaron, a chassidic court of Hungarian ancestry, known for their zealousness and (not sure exactly how to say this…) major gender separation, the women’s section was letting out. Numerous senior-aged women with black head coverings pulled tightly over their heads saw the great posek and circled all around. Rapturous over having reached this milestone, their standard decorum lapsed and they approached the great Gaon, begging his blessing that they be privileged to recite birkas hachama again in another 28 years.

With laudable patience, and the kind of emotion that he was not famous for, he addressed each and every woman, dispensing blessings with such sincerity and joy that they departed on a cloud.

Now for the weekly encounter which occurred every Shabbos afternoon when I attended Rav Elyashiv’s Gemara shiur over a period of nine years. There were numerous high-caliber talmidei chachamim who took part in the shiur and were not intimidated to lock horns with the Gaon. They would ask the hardest questions, raise glaring contradictions, and highlight inconsistencies – difficulties formidable enough to rattle any first-class rosh yeshiva. Rav Elyashiv would sit through each question without concern and then pounce back with the answer. No matter where they were coming from, he had already been there, thought through the issue, and was clear and prepared.

For the non-talmidei chachamim of the shiur – myself very much among them – posing a question was enough to invest you with the screaming meemies on steroids. Remember the time you got pulled over by a trooper, got lost in Harlem with no gas in the tank, or received a letter from the IRS that seemed to spell “audit?” That was nothing compared to the hard fist of fear that would grow in your stomach and the whisper of terror that flowed through your veins as you contemplated questioning Rav Elyashiv.

If you possessed enough temerity to undertake the challenge, you would have to get up and approach the nonagenarian so that you would be heard. For those who remember weak-kneed Dorothy approaching the Wizard of Oz, that was soggy milquetoast next to this. With a quick intake of breath like someone about to plunge into freezing water, you would tremulously articulate your question, bracing for a put-down that usually came with either a turn of the wrist or a finger pointed to the skull, implying the IQ of an Ice Age vegetarian.

In the course of nine years I posed only two questions. The first query resulted in the Gaon’s index finger ascending to display prenatal iodine depravation-induced oligophrenia, but thankfully, the finger was retracted in mid-flight and actually merited an answer. Don’t ask me what that response was; I did not resume breathing until at least half an hour later.

The second time I posed a question it looked like I was a candidate for the wrist-dismissal, but mercifully, he did address (better put, “dismiss”) my query with a terse response. Ditto for remembering what he said; a tranquilizer that would have put a gorilla out of business would not have been adequate for me at the time.

Lest anyone be confused, Rav Elyashiv was not a scary person – he was the quintessential image of nobility and dignity, was always neatly attired, and projected a royal aura of calmness and serenity. Yet everyone in that shiur had lucid clarity that we were being addressed by the gadol hador and if you were about to interrupt him, it had better be worth it!


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Rabbi Hanoch Teller is the award-winning producer of three films, a popular teacher in Jerusalem yeshivos and seminaries, and the author of 28 books, the latest entitled Heroic Children, chronicling the lives of nine child survivors of the Holocaust. Rabbi Teller is also a senior docent in Yad Vashem and is frequently invited to lecture to different communities throughout the world.