By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman/JNS.org
The indelible legacy that the late haredi Rabbi Maran HaGaon HaRav Yosef Sholom Elyashiv has left on his community is still felt today.
Even after sitting at Elyashiv’s feet for nearly two decades, Rabbi Dov Halbertal, an Israeli attorney, still trembled when he would say good morning to the rabbi after morning prayers.
“Every day that I would come to him, it was like I was with Moshe Rabbeinu,” referring to the Israeli prophet Moses, Halbertal told JNS.org.
It’s been four years since Elyashiv’s death. But marking his yahrzeit last month, tens of thousands of people visited his grave site at Jerusalem’s Har Menuchot cemetery. And a new documentary, “The Interpreter of God's Word in our Time” Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv: 1910-2012,” recently was shown on Israeli TV. Elyashiv died on July 18, 2012 at age 102. He and his wife, the late Sheina Chaya Levin, had 12 children.
The 90-minute film, which chronicles the rabbi’s life, tells his story from the perspective of those who knew him as a rabbi, teacher, family member and leader. It focuses on Elyashiv’s uncanny ability to delve into Jewish texts. For him, studying was like a drug. For 90 years, he sat alone in his study or synagogue with one book – the Talmud – open before him. He rose between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. to begin studying.
For 22 years, he served as a dayan (religious court judge) on the Beit Din Hagadol of the Chief Rabbinate, until he resigned in protest over a ruling by the late Rabbi Shlomo Goren. However, Elyashiv’s protocols for the Chief Rabbinate’s batei din are still in force today.
In his last decade, he was nearly forced into a leadership role within the haredi (Hebrew for Orthodox) community, which became his legacy.
In the age of modern technology, Halbertal said Elyashiv’s halachic opinions would travel instantly from the synagogue or study to the rest of the world.
He recalled how on one particular Sukkot, Elyashiv made a statement about the placement of a particular individual's schach (sukkah covering). That statement immediately went abroad. Before the end of Sukkot, all of his followers had changed the way they positioned their schach.
Influence in medical ethics
Elyashiv, however, did not only influence the haredi community, especially in Israel, but his Jewish law rulings impact Israeli medical ethics and hospitals today.
Rabbi Dr. Avraham Steinberg, director of the Medical Ethics Unit at Shaare Zedek Medical Center, consulted with Elyashiv on questions pertaining to handling births on Shabbat, uses of modern technology and issues of fertility, among many other medical ethical questions.
“I had an almost open door to him because I asked him questions that pertained to the public at large,” Steinberg said.
And Elyashiv didn’t waste a minute on small talk.
“You would just straight ask the questions,” Steinberg said. “He’d give you an answer and that was it. Then he opened his book and started studying, even if you were still sitting there.”
There were many examples of Elyashiv’s rulings, but the case of his ruling on Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) is perhaps the most descriptive. PGD is a procedure used prior to implantation to help identify genetic defects within embryos created through in vitro fertilization to prevent certain diseases or disorders from being passed on to the baby.
“If you find the disease, then obviously you destroy the fertilized egg,” explained Steinberg. “If you don’t find it, you can implant it.”
Steinberg consulted on PGD with Elyashiv since the procedure is complicated, according to Jewish law. A man must donate his sperm and it could involve discarding fertilized eggs.
“Elyashiv ruled that it could only be done in cases of serious diseases and, secondly, only if through the whole process there’s a chance of finding a healthy fertilized egg, which would lead eventually to procreation,” Steinberg said. Elyashiv’s ruling led to the opening of Shaare Zedek’s PGD department, considered among the best in the country.
During his 40-year medical career, Steinberg said he’d consulted with other great rabbis, including the late Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. In contrast to Auerbach’s rulings, Elyashiv tended to be strict “because he was afraid that physicians or the people that would have to perform certain procedures would not do them correctly,” he said.
The political arena
Elyashiv also ruled on issues of politics. Although he was educated by Zionist leader Abraham Isaac Kook, he was not a Zionist. However, he was generally also not willing to discuss peace or relinquishing land. He believed in a greater Israel.
Dr. Yosef "Yossi" Beilin, an Israeli statesman and scholar who has served in multiple ministerial and leadership positions in the Israeli government, came to Elyashiv in the 1990s in hopes of garnering support of Agudat Israel party members for a peace plan then presented by former President George Bush. Agudat Israel politicians were adherents of Elyashiv.
“I came to him to tell him about the peace process and the need for the religious parties to join us, ”Beilin told JNS.org. “I wanted to be able to answer [then] Secretary of State [James] Baker positively that the Israeli government was united in taking part in an international conference for peace. He didn’t argue with me, he listened to me, but he didn’t say much.”
Eventually, the Agudat Israel party supported the process. Beilin said to this day, he does not know if Elyashiv pushed for that party support or not.
He was impressed by Elyashiv’s demeanor. He recalled how the rabbi was “restrained and behaved” in his actions, and how he lived in poverty, a tiny apartment, with an old bike outside and a fridge that looked like it couldn’t have been plugged into electricity.
The devout centenarian
Among Elyashiv’s closest followers was Halbertal. After learning for five years under the late Aharon Lichtenstein, he was looking for a teacher in Jerusalem. Elyashiv was recommended to him and after his first class, he couldn’t stop himself from going back.
Being an Elyashiv groupie for Halbertal became like a second job. He began going to his daily class, but then attended on Shabbat and holidays, and for the morning prayer service and the 20-minute question and answer sessions that followed each daily minyan.
“It was fascinating being a part of it and listening to his answers,” said Halbertal, who transformed from a Religious Zionist to Haredi under Elyashiv’s guidance. “But it was very hard on the family. Sometimes I would ask myself, ‘Am I a tzadik (righteous person) or the opposite. Being so devoted meant being late to happy occasions, bar mitzvoth, sheva brachot. You were busy, you couldn’t deal with the small children because you had to go to Rav Elyashiv in the morning and stay after. It was so much devotion.”
And yet, Halbertal said that while he believes that Elyashiv knew who he was, “I wouldn’t say I was close with him. To be close with him? I don’t think there is such a concept.”
The documentary tells how Elyashiv’s grandson came to visit him after not seeing him for a year-and-a-half. Elyashiv was engrossed in his studies. When his grandson approached him, he did not embrace the young man nor express any love. Rather he simply said, “Why now?”
Still, no one can deny the man’s greatness, Halbertal said. While at one point, earlier in Elyashiv’s generation, there were many religious leaders ranging from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein to Rabbi Aharon Kotler. But by Elyashiv’s final decade of life, he was the only one left.
“And then when he passed away, we have nothing,” Halbertal said.
He continued, “You could talk about Rav Elyashiv like you would talk about [Mahatma] Gandhi,” he added. “If such a man would not have lived with us, we wouldn’t believe there could be such a man.”