By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman
The indelible legacy that Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv left on the Torah world is still felt today.
Even after sitting at Rav Elyashiv’s feet for nearly two decades, Rabbi Dov Halbertal, an Israeli attorney, still trembled when he would say good morning to the rov after Shacharis.
“Every day that I would come to him, it was like I was with Moshe Rabbeinu,” Halbertal told JNS.org.
It’s been four years since Rav Elyashiv’s passing. But marking his yahrtzeit last month, tens of thousands of people visited his kever at Har Hamenuchos cemetery. And a new documentary, “The Interpreter of God’s Word in our Time” Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv: 1910-2012,” recently was shown on Israeli TV. Rav Elyashiv passed way on July 18, 2012 at age 102. He and his wife, Rebbetzin Sheina Chaya, nee Levin, had 12 children.
The 90-minute film, which chronicles the rov’s life, tells his story from the perspective of those who knew him as a rov, posek, family member and leader. It focuses on Rav Elyashiv’s uncanny ability to delve into Torah texts. For 90 years, he sat alone in his study or bais medrash with seforim open before him. He rose between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. to begin learning.
For 22 years, he served as a dayan on the Beis Din Hagadol of the Chief Rabbinate, until he resigned in protest over a ruling by the late Rabbi Shlomo Goren. Rav 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 Torah community, which became his legacy.
In the age of modern technology, Halbertal said Rav Elyashiv’s halachic opinions would travel instantly from his shul or house to the rest of the world.
He recalled how on one particular Sukkos, Rav Elyashiv made a statement about the placement of a particular individual’s schach. That statement immediately went abroad. Before the end of Sukkos, thousands had changed the way they positioned their schach.
Rav Elyashiv, however, did not only influence the charedi community, especially in Israel, but his halachic rulings impact Israeli medical ethics and hospitals today.
Rabbi Dr. Avraham Steinberg, director of the Medical Ethics Unit at Shaare Tzedek Medical Center, consulted with Rav Elyashiv on questions pertaining to handling births on Shabbos, 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 Rav 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 sefer and started learning, even if you were still sitting there.”
There were many examples of ERav lyashiv’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 Rav Elyashiv since the procedure is complicated, according to halachah.
“Rav 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. Rav 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 rabbonim, including Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach.
Rav Elyashiv, he said, 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.”
The political arena
Rav Elyashiv also ruled on issues of politics. He was generally not willing to discuss peace or relinquishing land.
Dr. Yosef “Yossi” Beilin, an Israeli statesman and scholar who has served in multiple ministerial and leadership positions in the Israeli government, came to Rav Elyashiv in the 1990s in hopes of garnering support of Agudas Yisroel party members for a peace plan then presented by former President George Bush.
“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 Agudas Yisroel party supported the process. Beilin said to this day, he does not know if Rav Elyashiv pushed for that party support or not.
He was impressed by Rav Elyashiv’s demeanor. He recalled how the rov 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 Rav Elyashiv’s closest followers was Halbertal. After learning for five years under Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, he was looking for a rebbi in Yerushalayim. Rav Elyashiv was recommended to him and after his first shiur, he couldn’t stop himself from going back.
Being a chossid of Rav Elyashiv for Halbertal became like a second job. He began going to his daily shiur, but then attended on Shabbos and Yom Tov, and for Shacharis and the 20-minute shailos uteshuvos 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 chareidi. “But it was very hard on the family. Sometimes I would ask myself, ‘Am I a tzaddik or the opposite> Being so devoted meant being late to happy occasions, bar mitzvos, sheva brachos. 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 Rav 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.”
Halbertal’s documentary tells how no one could deny Rav Elyashiv’s gadlus.
“And then, when he passed away, we have nothing,” Halbertal said.
He continued, “You could talk about Rav Elyashiv like…if such a man would not have lived with us, we wouldn’t believe there could be such a man.”
Based on a JNS.ORG report.