Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin zt”l, On His 39th Yahrtzeit, Today

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rav-henkinBased on a hesped by Rav Naftoli Zvi Yehuda Riff:

For forty successive years, I had an extremely intimate relationship with Rabbi Henkin. I knew him well. And he was – as we all knew – a man of singular greatness.

He not only shielded the true measure of his gadlus from the public, but he managed to “hide himself” from his immediate family and closest acquaintances, as well. Throughout our entire relationship, I never imagined that this frail human being recited “Tikun Chatzos”, in mourning for the Bais Hamikdash, every midnight. In fact, I did not become aware of this fact until after I had known him for many years, and then only by chance. Night after night he would sit in his house lamenting over the desecration of the Torah and the dispersion of Klal Yisrael, sharing the Shechinah’s grief. But this was only one of the myriad acts of tzidktus he concealed from us all.

Rabbi Henkin carried on his shoulders the plight of literally tens of thousands of families throughout the world – their daily well-being was his daily personal concern – yet he never revealed to a soul who these families were except on the occasion of a government audit.

Rabbi Henkin never turned anyone away without a suitable sum of money. In those few instances when the recipient felt that what he received was not sufficient, he did not react as others might: by telling the beneficiary that his case was not the only one, that there are hundreds of others just as needy. Rather, Rabbi Henkin would send the man or woman away with tears, explaining that he understood how great the need was, only wishing there were additional funds to do more.

Rabbi Emanuel Gettinger of the Young Israel of Upper Manhattan recalled: A wizened old man approached me in Tsfas. “Are you from America?” he asked. “I have a father there.

A father? The man appeared to be over eighty himself! “Yes, a father who takes care of me. His name is Rav Eliyahu Henkin.

His weekly salary as the director of Ezras Torah was $50 – a paltry sum, by any standard. At one of our meetings, a resolution was raised to increase Rabbi Henkin’s salary. He immediately rose from his chair and declared: “Must I leave Ezras Torah?” The less his personal benefit from Ezras Torah, the greater the aid for talmidei chachamim in distress.

He was a baki beShas (thoroughly knowledgeable in the entire Talmud) – both Bavli (Babylonian) and Yerushalmi, as well as the four tracts of the Shulchan Aruch. Once, in my presence, he received an urgent phone call from Eretz Yisrael and he resolved the problem, which apparently defied easy solution to those who called him, relating to marriage laws, without reference to single sefer.

Rabbi Henkin could never be found sitting at home without a sefer in his hand – often a volume of Shulchan Aruch, or the Responsa of the Chasam Sofer.

On several occasions I noticed Rabbi Henkin refer to a mysterious small notebook. He once revealed to me that in this notebook he kept a log of those minutes during the day that he did not utilize for Ezras Torah. He was not involved with his own personal business during those minutes, but when someone came to his office at Ezras Torah to discuss divrei Torah or if he received a telephone call, as he often would, from anywhere in the world requesting his opinion on a particular problem or sha’aila, he immediately looked at the time and noted in his record how many minutes he had borrowed from Ezras Torah. He would then know how many minutes to “make up” on behalf of Ezras Torah-related work.

When Rabbi Henkin was a boy of 15, he traveled to the city of Slutzk hoping to be accepted into the Yeshiva Gedolah of Reb Isser Zalman Meltzer. (One of the maspidim noted that he left for Slutzk when he was only fourteen, but he was detained on the way for a year. During that year of delay he reviewed the entire Masechta Eruvin forty times!) Upon meeting him for the first time, Reb Isser Zalman asked him why he had come all the way to Slutzk. The youngster replied that he wanted to attend the Yeshiva. To the other talmidim standing there this seemed absurd. They were young men already accomplished in their learning, talmidei chachamim in their own right, and here was a mere boy of 15 seeking to join their ranks!

Reb Isse r Zalman continued: “Tell me, my son, what have you learned?’

“Masechtos Shabbos and Eruvin.”

Astonished that a young boy had learned these difficult tractates, he asked: “Are you prepared for an examination?”

“Yes,” the youngster replied, whereupon Reb Isser Zalman questioned the boy on the entire breadth of the two masechtos. He answered all challenges with ease, exhibiting an extraordinary knowledge and understanding of every Rashi and Tosefos. Rav Isser Zalman was flabbergasted: “This child knows these masechtos better than I do!” Rabbi Henkin was immediately admitted to the Slutzker Yeshiva.

His superior acumen notwithstanding, Rabbi Henkin possessed great humility as a talmid and this characteristic remained with him his entire life. Although his knowledge of Torah spanned all basic Talmudic literature as well as the responsa of the latter day sages (Acharonim), Rabbi Henkin always preferred to remain in obscurity.

He was an exceptionally good-hearted and pleasant person, loved by young and old. Yet, when the occasion called for it, Rabbi Henkin asserted his authority.

He once became aware of a certain dispute and intervened. He reprimanded both parties with sharp words. The mere sight of Rabbi Henkin stepping out of character to intercede immediately put an end to the conflict. I remember well the hesped given by Rabbi Henkin for the Chazon Ish, wherein he resolved a seeming contradiction between a statement in the Midrash and a passage in Masechta Rosh Hashanah. The Gemara compares the passing of tzaddikim to the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash, while the Midrash Eichah (Lamentations) declares that the death of the righteous is an even greater calamity. Rabbi Henkin explained that the Gemara in Rosh Hashanah alludes to the death of Gedalia ben Achikam whose authority and dominion was accepted by the entire nation – his death was comparable to the destruction of the Bais HaMikdash.

The Midrash, on the other hand, refers to the passing of a tzaddik whose leadership is not openly manifest, whose authority has not been generally proclaimed by the congregation. This tzaddik prefers to remain obscure, closeted with his sefarim; yet his influence clearly and unmistakably permeates all rabbinical assemblages and lay gatherings. Although he does not personally appear, his convictions and standards are articulated through the expressions of those he has touched, moving heaven and earth in the process. The loss of such a Tzaddik is an even greater tragedy than the loss of our Holiest of Holies…

His words apply equally to himself: He never sat at the dais at conventions or meetings; he never voiced his opinion in public; nor did he even express the worry or apprehension he harbored deep in his heart over the plight of tens of thousands of families throughout the Diaspora. And yet, it was Rabbi Henkin who, from a distance, was the prime mover in many undertaking (such as the establishment of the vast Ezras Torah apartment complex for needy talmidei chachamim in Eretz Yisrael).

“All my years I thought that Rabbi Henkin would lead our generation to greet Moshiach,” said Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky. “Now, who will lead us?”

This past summer, before I left for Eretz Yisrael, I went to take leave of Rabbi Henkin. He asked me when I would return to America because there was so much work to be done. Our parting was marked by tears flowing down Rabbi Henkin’s cheeks over the misfortune of the families he carried in his heart.

Just as he was an advocate for one and all on this world, may he continue to be a meilitz yosher for all of Klal Yisrael from his a place in Gan Eden.

This article originally appeared in the Jewish Observer and is also available in book form in the ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications Judaiscope Series.

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  1. This article brings back nostalgic memories.
    As a child, I grew up in Camden NJ where Rav Riff A”H was the Rav. He was a great Talmid Chocham and answered Shaylos from all over the country. Yet, when he himself had a shaylah, he would call Rav Henkin A”H.
    In the 1970’s I was learning for Semicha in MTJ on the lower East Side. At that time Rav Henkin was still alive and living alone. One of my friends went to learn with him every day. They studied Mishneh Brurah. He told me that not only did Rav Henkin know the Shulchan Aruch by heart but he also knew the Mishneh Brurah by heart as well. My friend asked Rav Henkin to give him Semicha. He replied ” if you will finish the entire Shas I will give you a beautiful Semicha.” May his memorey be blessed.


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