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Postscript: Rav Elyashiv

The highly influential rabbi and power broker was mentored by Rav Kook

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(Beit Shalom)

We often conceive of Judaism as a religion devoid of central authority. There is no Jewish pope, no governing body to issue fatwas, no assumed powers of edict. In my time as a Jew (read: my entire life), I’ve found this to be largely true, no doubt because I didn’t grow up within the Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, community of mainly Lithuanian, non-Hasidic Jews.


Within that community, which numbers in the hundreds of thousands in Israel and the United States, there have always been rabbis and halachic adjudicators called Gadolim, literally translated as “Great Ones,” who issue legal decisions about nearly every aspect of an adherent’s social and political life.

Today, the ultra-Orthodox community has lost perhaps the last man of that breed. His name was Rabbi Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, and he died this afternoon in the Jerusalem hospital Shaare Tzedek of multiple-organ failure. He was 102.

One cannot easily eulogize a life that spanned more than a century, but it’s hard to overstate Rav Elyashiv’s (as he is universally known) influence in the Haredi community as its spiritual and political leader for the past thirty years. Yosef Sholom Elyashiv was born in a small village in Lithuania and emigrated with his parents to British-controlled Palestine in 1924 at the age of twelve. His father Avrohom Elyashiv was the head rabbi in their Lithuanian hometown, and he established a yeshiva in Jerusalem when they arrived. The young Elyashiv studied in his father’s yeshiva and was quickly recognized as a talmudic prodigy.

He was brought up by a generation of Orthodox rabbis who established the theological bridge between strict Orthodoxy and the idea of a modern and secularized Jewish state. Abraham Isaac Kook, the Chief Rabbi of Palestine, and the progenitor of that movement, was Elyashiv’s mentor. Kook introduced Elyashiv to his wife, Sheina Chaya Levin, the daughter of Rabbi Aryeh Levin, the tzaddik (greatly righteous man) of Jerusalem.

Over time, after the Jewish state’s establishment in 1948, Elyashiv began taking over official rabbinical duties. He at first served as the chief rabbi of the Israeli city of Ramle and then became a judge in Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, the authority that decides policy on a variety of social issues in Israel related to marital status, burial processes, and a variety of other issues.
Elyashiv’s mentorship by Kook and other rabbis including his father-in-law, and most notably, Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac Herzog, Israel’s first Chief Rabbi, gave the young rabbi a chance to contend for a leading part in Israel’s well-established Rabbinate as that generation passed. But, he broke from that path in 1974, when he resigned from the Rabbinate’s court over a decision made by its chief adjudicator, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, in a marital-status case that became a national controversy when the Rabbinate initially refused to marry two children because they had determined that they were mamzers, bastards, under Jewish law. Powerful secular leaders in Israel were calling for the establishment of civil marriage to avoid such complications, and Goren’s decision was seen by Elyashiv and the rest of the ultra-Orthodox world as a concession to the secularists rather than a decision made following the strictest interpretations of Jewish law.

The Langer case, called after the family name of the “bastards”, is illustrative of Elyashiv’s worldview and important for two reasons. First, because it prohibited him politically from becoming the Chief Rabbi, as Goren did, but more importantly, because it allowed him to maintain an intellectual rigidity in his legal rulings without dealing with the political fallout that an official position would come with.

As he ascended among the ranks of the Haredi community, out-thinking and out-learning his contemporaries, Elyashiv developed a reputation for his obdurate treatment of halacha, Jewish law. The law, to him, was set firmly in stone, a never-changing guide for every aspect of life codified by previous Gedolim, those great rabbis.

Elyashiv, who reportedly sung his talmudic studies to complicated melodies while learning, possessed enough intellectual acumen to become a Gadol himself, and in the ‘90s he began taking over the decision-making authority within the Haredi community. Though the ultra-Orthodox philosophy favors a cemented halacha, many complicated cases arise within the Haredi community that need to be brought in front of a halachic decision maker, or posek. The old joke is that some Orthodox Jews can’t even order dinner or decide what to wear without consulting their rabbi first. Since the ‘90s, Elyashiv has acted like a one-man Supreme Court within the community, handing down decisions in the most complicated or politically fraught cases.

During that time he has maintained his reputation as both a master of halachic theory, and as a guard for the Haredi’s Old World mentality. Though he never held official positions, he soon became known under the unofficial title of posek ha’dor, or decision maker of the generation. With that, Elyashiv was able to exercise unparalleled control over Israel’s religious climate. The Chief Rabbi effectively served at his favor: one not approved by Elyashiv would find little acceptance in Israel’s relatively small, but politically powerful Haredi community. As a result, the Rabbinate has maintained and, in cases bolstered, socially regressive policies, prohibiting civil marriages, non-religious burial, or Haredi service in the army.

Elyashiv was a masterful political tactician. Harnessing his community’s lemming-like tendency to follow his every word, the rabbi spurred the Haredi population in Israel to vote for Haredi political parties in every election. Elyashiv ensured that the Haredi community always enjoyed Israel’s highest voter turnout rate and thus gained a critical number of seats in Israel’s party-based Knesset. Elyashiv would then often team up with the ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party, Shas, to lend their key coalition seats to whichever major party would grant them power over socially-minded institutions like the education or interior ministry.

Elyashiv leaves this world amidst signs that the Haredi community’s vise on Israeli politics might be weakening. Much of the popular “tent” protests that sprung up in the past year vocally challenged Haredi influence, leading to serious conversation of reforming the Rabbinate and ending many programs that favorable to the community—including most controversially the Tal law that exempts Haredi men from serving in the otherwise compulsory military. Just yesterday, talks to reform the Tal law fell apart and the Kadima party withdrew from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s governing coalition.

Within the Haredi world, there are few who could possibly play heir apparent to Elyashiv. He leaves behind no one who can be as readily deemed a Gadol and posek ha’dor for the next generation as he was. Without the guiding, almost dictatorial role that Elyashiv assumed, the Haredi community might find itself under the influence of multiple rabbis struggling for power. Whether that happens, and whether Elyashiv’s death means the fall of Haredi political power in Israel, will be revealed in the following months.

In the meantime, Jerusalem, and the entire Orthodox Jewish world mourns. Tens of thousands are gathering outside Rav Elyashiv’s home in Mea Shearim, the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, in preparation for a funeral service that will begin there at 10:00 PM and wind its way through Jerusalem’s cobble-stoned streets until it reaches Har Menuchot, a mountain cemetery on the outskirts of the city, where Elyashiv will be put to rest tonight. The memorial will be attended by Israel’s ruling class along with a large majority of Jerusalem’s population. For one night, all else will be suspended and Israel will remember a man they called “Giant.” Tomorrow, the politics will resume, and Israel may very well be facing a new day.


Leading Rabbi Yosef Sholom Elyashiv dies [JPost]

Rav Elyashiv [Yeshiva World]

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Mr. Fine needs to do better fact-checking.
Moved to Mandate Palestine in 1924, not 1922.
Hi father’s surname was Levinson, not Elyashiv. His surname was a Hebraization of his mother’s maiden name (Eliasov). He most certainly did hold official public positions, even after the Langer case. R. AharoN Yehuda Leib Steiman is almost universally recognized as R. Elyashiv’s heir apparent. The list goes on.
The analyses of contemporary Haredism, of the Langer case, of the Tal Law, etc. leave much to be desired. It is not merely simplistic – it is occasionally wrong and often demeaning (Old jokes about asking the rabbi what to have for dinner? lemming-like?)
It is a shame, because I generally enjoy Fine’s writing. R. Elyashiv deserves better treatment than this, and Fine should stick with writing what he knows, like Columbia politics and Dallas JCC pickup basketball.

    Dear Rabbi Fischer, I respect your disagreement with my analysis of the political and religious events surrounding Rav Elyashiv’s life. However, your poorly veiled attempt to attack my analysis by accusing me of “false facts” in this piece is shameful. The 1922 date is widely quoted and has been used in every obituary I’ve seen—it is the date in the public domain but if you have conclusive proof that it is otherwise, please send it over. His father certainly did have a different name when he lived in Lithuania, but he changed it for visa reasons when he emigrated from there to Palestine. He changed his last name, so that’s the one that is used, much like when Michael Oren changed his last name from Bornstein. It is not almost universally recognized who Rav Elyashiv’s heir apparent will be and many experts believe that the Haredi community might rally around a number of different rabbis.

      I have not seen a single Hebrew document, obituary or earlier article, that lists the date of immigration as anything but 1924 or 5684. This is probably because the brief biography of R. Elyashiv’s grandfather (R. Yosef Eliasov, author of “Leshem Shevo Veachlama) penned by R. Aryeh Levin (later R. Elyashiv’s father-in-law) and published in the introduction to the 1935 version of R. Eliasov’s work, lists the date of arrival as 5684 (1924). See

      R. Elyashiv’s grandfather began corresponding with R. Kook about the issue in 1922 (pp. 210-213 of R. Kook’s published letter, Igrot Ha-Re’ayah), but the move did not take place until 1924.

      You are right, of course, that nearly every single English-language obituary lists 1922. This tells me that one person made a mistake (probably whomever wrote the Wikipedia entry) and everyone else copied off of him or her. Not consulting primary sources – or even sources in the language of the vast majority of the literature about the man – more than justifies my acerbic response above.

      You are correct that R. Elyashiv’s father took his wife’s last name of Eliasov (spelled עליאשאוו) for the purpose of obtaining a visa. However, he never Hebraicized his name to Elyashiv. See, from the same 1935 volume,

      Of course, it is much harder to pin down mischaracterizations not pertaining to hard facts. How does one demonstrate that Haredim do not tend to follow a single rabbinic figure like lemmings? How does one prove that R. Elyashiv’s significance did not step from telling people what to have for dinner?

      Your paragraphs about political acumen seem much more apropos of R. Elyashiv’s predecessor, R. Elazar Menachem Man Shach. R. Elyashiv was actually suspected of being manipulated by a small number of handlers, and of having very little actual control.
      Yet how does one “prove” that?

      And of course only time will tell whether the prognostications of your penultimate paragraph bear out. Of course, if I were a betting man, I would not put any money on a Haredi power vacuum or the dissolution of Haredi political power. Of course, hope springs eternal. I still think the Orioles have a chance of making the playoff in 2012.

      One other source – thus far there has been only one serious scholarly treatment of R. Elyashiv’s halakhic ouevre, by Rami Reiner. Alas, it, too, is in Hebrew:

thinking_outlouds says:

Furthering the issue with regard to the “lemmings” comment.
It was broadly known, even outside the ultra-orthodox community, that many of Rabbi Eliyahsiv’s positions were totally ignored by his “constituents” (itself a poor term, because the author’s views notwithstanding, orthodox Judaism does not have a “central authority”), including his positions on the internet, cell phones, secular education in girls’ seminaries, and some very divisive issues related to admissions in some ultra-orthodox institutions, to give a couple of examples.
Not only is this piece a poor presentation of the man, but it paints the entire community unfairly. I expected better.

I am sure the man was a great scholar and a saint, but could someone please tell me what problems he solved, against which injustices he fought, what new thoughts he brought to Judaism? Really, all of the obituaries talk about how great he was, but what exactly was his contribution?

    A good question, as opposed to, for my generation (middle aged) R. Moshe Feinstein, whose incisive piskei halakhah could be cited by any baalhabos.

      I just glanced at the article on Rav Elyashiv’s halakhic output cited in a comment above: . It seems that in his first published responsa, he successfully freed a young women from being an aguna in a particularly difficult situation (so difficult that Rav Herzog sought his help!). I haven’t read much else of the article yet.

Do the candidates for Chief Rabbi not supported by R Eliashiv have a different position regarding non-religious burial and civil marriage? Has Chief Rabbi Metzger (the only one who owes his election to the R Eliashiv machine, have any position regarding Haredim and the army? R Eliashiv’s main influence on day to day life here involved the Rabbinate’s backtracking regarding the Heter Mechira (which R Eliashiv vehemently opposed).
Moreover I don’t know what you mean about coalition politics here. UTJ, or the Agudah before them never served in a non-Likud coalition since they were still part of the Religious Front in 1951!! That’s not what one can call “lending their seats to the whichever party…” .On top of that no Haredi party has ever been given control of the Education Ministry.

First of all I would like to tell all of my friends and defenders that I, David Fine, Bona Fide Orthodox rabbi and resident of Modiin did NOT write this obituary of Rav Elyashiv zt”l. I also want to say that while I appreciate all of the offers- I am in no need of protecting myself from my friend and colleague Elli Fischer. Even I did have such a need I think I am and able to do so on my own! :). Folks should know that there are many many David Fine’s (I know at least three other Rabbi David Fines). I, unfortunately, must say that I believe that this obituary is: 1) not at all a true reflection of Rav Elyashiv. Before I saw any of these posts today I read much of the Reiner article that Elli posted the link for (actually I read much of it immediately after returning home from the levaya at 3:45 am last wed. night) The article makes it quite clear that Rav Herzog zt”l)(whom Rav Elyashiv addressed quite honorifically in terms of the titles he bestowed upon him despite the fact that these words were edited out when they were later printed – see Footnote 12 on page 78) gave many of his most difficult shailot involving Agunot to Rav Elyashiv who was able to be matir them. This points to Rav Elyashiv’s being a great Meikel in many ways – very different from the obdurate man that is painted by the obituary and 2) an outright insult to the Charedi community (and by extension Rav Elyashiv himself). Lemmings are small rodents. Enuf said!


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Postscript: Rav Elyashiv

The highly influential rabbi and power broker was mentored by Rav Kook

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