By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for the Five Towns Jewish Times
Klal Yisroel has lost an extraordinary Rosh Yeshiva, a great Tzaddik, and a world-class Posek.
Moreinu HaRav HaGaon Rav Chaim Yisroel Belsky zatzal, 77, passed away last Thursday evening. In the words of the maspidim – he was an outstanding Talmid Chochom and Tzaddik that served as a Rosh Yeshiva in Torah v’Daas, a world-class Posek in the largest kashrus agency in the world, and the Rav of Camp Agudah for many years. Rav Belsky had studied in Yeshiva Torah VaDaas, under Rav Moshe Feinstein zatzal, and in Beis Medrash Elyon in Monsey.
Rav Elya Katz Shlita, a Maggid Shiur at Yeshiva Torah VaDaas, stated at the levaya last Friday that Rav Belsky was the embodiment of the Yeshiva. He was head of the Yeshiva, the heart of the Yeshiva and the eyes of the Yeshiva.
Rav Belsky’s prodigious accomplishment range the full gamut of activity. He served as a magid shiur in Yeshiva Torah Vodaas for over half a century. He ruled on thousands of halachic questions for the Orthodox Union. And there are literally thousands of hours of his recorded shiurim available in Torah libraries across the country – all delivered by him. The shiurim are filled with the classic thinking of Gedolei HaRishonim and Acharonim as well as his own chiddushim.
Rav Belsky gave regular shiurim in the Daf Yomi, Yore Deah, Chumash and Rashi, and much more.
Aside from all this he served as Rav, Masmidim Program Director and general mashpia on thousands and thousands of young men in Camp Agudah in Ferndale, New York.
Rav Belsky’s relationship with his Talmidim and campers was like that of a loving father. One summer it was arranged that his masmidim shiur was to be taken over by someone else. When he noticed the sadness on the faces of four of the students, he worked out that he would give them a private shiur in the laws of chazara and shehiya on Shabbos – at six o’clock in the morning. To this day, the boys – now grown men, remember those halachos particularly well.
On one occasion, a camper was hospitalized with a serious brain tumor in a hospital some four hours away. Entirely unfazed by the distance, Rav Belsky drove the four hours to the hospital, spent a few hours with the young man, and drove the four hours back.
On another occasion, a young student who was confined in a wheelchair quietly expressed to someone that he would love to attend one of the camps’ hikes. Rav Belsky, a man of immense physical strength, carried him on his shoulders for the next hike for five hours straight. Not many people can manage an extra 140 to 160 pounds on one’s shoulders for a full five hours. This was an extraordinary feat of strength. The young man is now a remarkable Talmid Chochom himself and is a neighbor of this author’s relative.
INTERTWINED WITH YESHIVA TORAH VODAAS
The story of Rav Yisroel Belsky zatzal is intertwined with the story of Yeshiva Torah VaDaas. Reb Binyomin Wilhelm, Rav Belsky’s maternal grandfather, was one of the three founders of yeshiva Torah VaDaas. In 1919, while attempting to recruit students for his new yeshiva, he had convinced Reb Yisroel and Leah Belsky to enroll their son Berl in the fledgling new Yeshiva located in Williamsburg. Reb Berl enrolled and developed a close kesher with Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz. Soon, Reb Berl went back to Europe to study in Radin under the saintly Chofetz Chaim himself. The Chofetz Chaim valued Reb Berl and would often caress his arm lovingly and declare with surprise , “Fuhn America!” The Chofetz Chaim was amazed that such a prize Talmid could have emerged from the melting pot of assimilation that was America.
Reb Berl would later teach his son, Reb Yisroel Belsky the Chofetz Chaim’s niggunim. Reb Yisroel’s mastery of niggunim was legendary as well, and he taught these niggunim to Talmidim and campers alike. There are literally thousands of bochurim now singing the unique Yeshiva niggunim of a century ago – all because of Rav Belsky. Indeed, camp Agudah once published an entire bentcher just of unique and inspiring Niggunim that were vouchsafed for the future by Rav Belsky.
When Reb Berl returned from Radin, Reb Shraga Feivel Mendelevitch suggested the shidduch of Reb Binyomin Wilhelm’s daughter, Chana Tzirel. Rav Yisroel Belsky was their b’chor.
At the age of 24, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky had asked Rav Belsky to take over the shiur of Rav Zelig Epstein zt”l – one of the venerable ziknei HaRoshei yeshiva. His students then were among the leading Bnei Torah in the country. Some of them became Roshei yeshiva in their own right.
Rav Belsky would eventually become a Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva Torah Vodaas. Rav Belsky taught at the Yeshiva for over half a century.
CLOSE TO GREAT LUMINARIES
Rav Belsky learned under the great luminaries of Torah Vodaas. He was very close with Rav Zelig Epstein, Rav Elya Chazan, and his Rebbe Muvhak – Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l. Rav Yaakov inspired him to master Tanach among his other limmudim too. He was very close to Rav Avrohom Pam zt”l and was also related to him.
Rav Belsky received Smicha from Torah VaDaas in 1962 and then went on to receive shimush from the Gadol haDor, Rav Moshe Feinstein zatzal. He received Smicha from Rav Moshe in 1965.
His recall of every Tosfos in Shas was well known. Rav Dovid Kviat zatzal told this author that Rav Belsky knew kol HaTorah kulah. Rav Yerucham Olshin Shlita stated at the levaya that Rav Belsky’s knowledge was not just broad. He knew all the mekoros well and in great depth.
His ability to rule in numerous areas of halacha was uncanny. His proficiency and familiarity with Kol HaTorah kullah was veritably unmatched. Aside from his vast knowledge in all these areas, he was also a mohel, Schochet and knew the vast intricacies of Safrus too. His mastery of Nikkur was well known too.
Rav Belsky developed a close bond with campers and masmidim in Camp Agudah. He taught two of my sons who attended the Masmidim program. He taught them Torah and much more as well. He taught one of my sons how to tell time at night with just the stars acting as his clock. He taught campers how to swim. He taught them the names of the constellations, the names of all the surrounding trees, and the names of flowers and bushes.
This author once was doing research in libraries and found the original text of Rav Yisroel Salanter’s Iggeres HaMussar. The original text was different than the one printed in the Ohr Yisroel published by Rav Yitzchok Blaser. Rav Belsky gave me a haskama on my translation of the original and proceeded to recite the Igeres HaMussar by heart.
Rav Belsky zt”l did have some remarkably innovative halachic rulings. He held that even though an akum does not have ne’emanus regarding checking egg for bloodspots, if one provides a financial reward for every egg with a blood spot that is found, this can be relied upon halachically.
He issued a ruling once regarding the use of a cell phone to prevent yichud in a taxi ride home between a married woman and a taxi driver. He used the cell phone as an additional factor to issue a permissive ruling.
In another innovative psak, Rav Belsky held that it was possible to establish an individual chezkas kashrus on a gentile’s ne’emanus by checking upon him or her three times in specific situations where the gentile is unaware of the fact that he is being checked up on. Other Poskim, however, were not in agreement with this view.
Rav Belsky also held that Styrofoam cups did not have the halachic status of a kli shaini because its walls did not absorb the heat from the liquid inside. This too was rather innovative and was not accepted by other Poskim. In another stringency, Rav Belsky held that during the Nine Days underclothing also had to be pre-worn and otherwise would have been considered freshly laundered.
When the copepod in the New York City water controversy arose, Rav Belsky was one of the few Poskim who ruled leniently. He also issued a lenient ruling regarding the consumption of the anisakis worm in fish.
In the late 1980’s when the Displaced Abomasum of cows controversy arose, he issued a lenient ruling saying that Rav Moshe had already paskened on the issue in his lifetime. The Cholov Yisroel companies chose not to follow his leniency and to this day make sure that all cows that had DA surgery are removed from the line.
Rav Belsky was a master Baal Tefilah. His intent kavanah, and his beautiful nusach was enrapturing. He was the Baal Tefilah on Yomim Noraim for Khal Adas Yereim in Kew Gardens for many years. The Rav of the shul was Rav Yaakov teitelbaum zatzal, the Morah d’Asra of Camp Agudah prior to Rav Belsky.
One could see him ocassionally at the late Maariv in the Five Towns at the 11:30 PM minyan at Rav Yaakov Horowitz, the Bostoner Rebbe of Lawrence. Rav Horowitz told me recently that Rav Belsky had also been the Baabl Tefilah at the shul of his great-grandfather in Brooklyn a half century earlier.
VAST KNOWLEDGE OF MILI D’ALMA
He not only gave deep shiurim in Gemorah and Halacha, but had a vast knowledge in mili d’alma, worldly matters. He had a solid grasp of astronomy, botany, and biology and would often lead campers in trips where he identified for them every tree, plant, insect and star charts. In his work as one of the two Poskim in the Orthodox Union he had a deep grasp of the manufacturing process, never refraining from climbing or getting his hands dirty to investigate manufacturing processes.
In a conversation I had with Rav Yisroel Belsky having to do with the halachos of Shechita on the 27th of Tishrei 5769, he explained that the actual Blood Alcohol Content level necessary to be considered “The stage of drunkenness of Lot” would be 0.21% to 0.29% depending upon the person. This was based upon a study by Virginia Tech University ruled by Rabbi Belsky as authoritative entitled “Alcohol’s Effects.”
Another time I spoke to him about the halachos of when a vessel becomes non-kosher only to Kdai Klipah, i.e. skin deep, how one calculates whether we have shishim of food against the kdai klipah. Within a minute and a half he provided the equation to determine whether hot food subseqeuntly placed in the pot is sixty times the ration of the kdai klipah of the pot [assuming that in this pot we say cham miktzaso cham kulo]. X represents the percentage of the pot that must be full and m represents in mills the kdai klipah of that particular metal.
Thus, for example, if one were to assume that the kdai klipah of an aluminum pot is one mil and that the pot is ten inches high and ten inches wide the pot must be 3 percent full in order to have shishim against the klipah.
Rabbi Menachem Genack of the OU mentioned this aspect about him at the levaya as well. It was fascinating to hear of someone from the Torah uMadah school speak in such absolute awe of the mathematical mastery of someone from a Torah-only background.
Another time, I was a Rav in a shul where an actual food and fist fight had emerged after an argument between two of the Baal HaBatim. Rav Belsky was instrumental in deciding how best to deal with both parties. Later, someone had told me that the incident had gotten on one of Rav Belsky’s Hashkafa lessons that he delivered to his Talmidim in Torah Vodaas.
OHEV ES HABRIOS
Rav Belsky’s entire nature was such that he would empathize wholly and completely with the problem of whoever approached him or called him. He would cry with them. He would spend time with them.
On one occasion, a man had passed away in Far Rockaway without leaving a child. His only brother was severely developmentally disabled, and the man’s wife faced a difficult halachic question. Could her brother-in-law perform Chalitza or was he considered a halachic shoteh making him ineligible?
The last time this question arose was in the early 1960’s with Rav Moshe Feinstein. I called Rav Belsky at the behest of the man’s Rosh Yeshiva. Rav Belsky immediately asked if I could pick him up to go to the Shiva. I did.
Rav Belsky came down to the shiva home and spent three hours with the deceased man’s family. Rav Belsky consoled and comforted the parents while simultaneously determining the status of the brother. The nichum aveilim was so comforting to the parents that they thanked the Rabbi who had brought them this “wonderful holy Rabbi.”
Rav Belsky had a special place in his heart for our brethren that are in and came from the Soviet Union. He spent much of his time with them, helping them not only with Torah, but with solving practical problems too.
Rav Belsky’s care and concern for Klal Yisroel was manifest in the time that he had spent consoling and comforting all people that came to him with their problems.
SENSE OF ACHRAYUS
Rav Belsky had a strong sense of achrayus for Klal Yisroel. When the Indian Sheitel controversy took place he made great effort to convey to the Gedolim in Eretz Yisroel the research he had done. I was in his office in Torah vodaas at the time. His purpose, aside from seeking emes – truth, was to save the women of Klal Yisroel vast sums of money.
Once there was a certain chazzan that would pursue under-age girls, ply them with alcohol and do unspeakable things. Rav Belsky issued a psak that he should be put in jail and arrested. He issued this psak out of sense of achrayus to Klal Yisroel. I was there when he issued this psak.
Another time a political issue developed in regard to one of the big chicken plants. The issue required that a second hechsher also be obtained on the plant. Rav Belsky’s role was not personal or political – his efforts were to save someone’s life and he was technically working against his own interest in this shtadlanus.
Rav Belsky was selfless in numerous ways, with his money, with his reputation, and with his time.
Rav Belsky authored a few seforim. He wrote teshuvah seforim in halacha and shiurim on chumash. He could have authored many more but he didn’t because his day was fully devoted to matters of Klal Yisroel. He penned hundreds of haskamos to other people’s seforim too. Such was his extraordinary sense of selflessness.
FIRM IN TORAH
Notwithstanding his remarkable Ahavas Yisroel, Rav Belsky could be very sharp and strong when he disagreed with someone in Torah. People who were not used to this could be intimated. Yet, he did welcome conversation and discussion and at times he relented in argument too.
Once he recollected how his Rebbe, Rav Moshe Feinstein, read and reread Rav Akiva Eiger’s view about a Mezuzah on a room that was less than 4 cubits by cubits that was adjacent to a room that was fully obligated in a Mezuzah. He explained how Rav Moshe zatzal reread that Rav Akiva Eiger ten times and finally stated that he did not understand his view.
ILLNESS OF FOUR YEARS AGO
Four years ago Rav Belsky developed a life-threatening illness which almost took his life. Miraculously, he recovered to the extent that he was able to resume activities in Yeshiva, in the OU and at Camp Agudah. The amount he had accomplished just in those four years was beyond what many accomplish in a lifetime.
About two months ago he arranged a Get for an Agunah whose husband had violated the trust of numerous young people. Rav Belsky’s remarkable personality was instrumental in arranging for this woman’s freedom. She told me all about it the next day. This former Agunah had tears of joy as she expressed her remarkable admiration for Rav Belsky who was so instrumental in freeing her.
Rav Belsky’s imprint on Torah Judaism in the past half century will certainly have an impact for generations to come. The world is a vastly different place without him. Chaval al d’avdin. Nafla Ateres Rosheinu.
The author can be reached at email@example.com.