Monday, Jun 24, 2024

Glimpses of Greatness: Three Years Since the Passing of Rav Elyashiv zt”l

If a person visits the Kosel at a time when it is prohibited to tear kriah, is he obligated to tear his garment at a later date, when it becomes permissible, or has he been exempted from the obligation?

Rav Moshe Feinstein rules in Igros Moshe that he should tear kriah on his next visit to the Kosel, even if 30 days have not elapsed. Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, however, rules, “We do not follow Rav Moshe’s ruling. Even though logic dictates that he is correct, the practice is to be lenient.” 

In honor of Rav Elyashiv’s third yahrtzeit, we have compiled a number of piskei halachah, interesting practices, and vignettes about the gadol hador.

Three years have passed since Wednesday, the 28th of Tammuz, 5772 (July 18, 2012), when the entire world’s attention was focused on Shaare Tzedek Hospital, where news quickly spread that the heart of the posek hador had stopped beating. Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l had been the heart of the Jewish people, and now he was gone. The widespread sense of orphanhood was perceptible that night, at a levayah unlike almost any other in the annals of the history of Yerushalayim.

Now, three years have passed. We will not go into great length about Rav Elyashiv’s biography, since it seems that everything about him has already been recorded in the many books that were released after his petirah, in the hespeidim that were delivered, and in the various articles that were written. We will suffice with only a few tidbits of information, enough to satisfy our obligation to eulogize a talmid chochom properly. Below are a few stories that have not yet been told publicly, and a few of the hanhagos and piskei halachah of Rav Elyashiv.


Weeping Over the Churban

Rav Elyashiv used to spend many long hours on Tishah B’Av reciting the Kinnos slowly and with great intensity. He would continue reciting Kinnos after his return home from shul. Even after chatzos, he remained seated on the ground until he had finished reciting the Kinnos.


When to Eat?

A question that arises on many fast days is whether it is permissible for a person to eat in order to avoid becoming ill. The general rule is that a healthy person is required to fast, but a person who is ill is exempt from fasting. What about a healthy person who is bound to become sick enough, over the course of the fast, to be exempt from fasting? Is he permitted to eat even before he becomes ill? I do not know what Rav Elyashiv would say about this, but he does write that those who are ill are permitted to eat on a taanis tzibbur even before they begin to feel weak. The question that remains open is: Can we infer from this that a person who is completely healthy is also permitted to eat if fasting would cause him to become ill?


Who Must Tear Kriah?

The halachah is that a person who hasn’t seen the Kosel Hamaarovi in thirty days is required to tear kriah upon seeing it. The practice to refrain from tearing kriah is baseless, and even the statement in Sefer Eretz Yisroel and in the Chidah that a person who lives in Yerushalayim is exempt from tearing kriah applies only to someone who lives in the Old City itself. Furthermore, Rav Moshe Feinstein disagrees even with this, ruling that “even someone who lives in Yerushalayim, if he hasn’t seen the place of the Bais Hamikdosh in 30 days, is obligated to tear kriah.”

Rav Elyashiv rules that a person can exempt himself from the obligation of kriah by renouncing ownership of his garments in the presence of three people, or by transferring the ownership to another person through the process of kinyan sudar, by accepting an object such as a handkerchief from the “recipient” of the garments, who will thereby acquire them, and who must then state explicitly that he does not permit the wearer to tear his garments. Nevertheless, it is proper not to employ this tactic. Rather, a person should wear an old garment — if he doesn’t wish to tear an ordinary garment–and perform kriah.

Elsewhere, Rav Elyashiv writes that there is, in fact, no way to exempt oneself from kriah by transferring ownership of a garment to another person, since it is almost certain that the new “owner” of the garment intends to “lend” it to the wearer in such a way that he can fulfill all the mitzvos associated with it, including kriah.

On the subject of kriah, there is an interesting dispute between Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Elyashiv. In Igros Moshe (Yoreh Deiah, vol. 3, sec. 52, par. 4), Rav Moshe rules that if a person visits the Kosel for the first time on Shabbos, Yom Tov, or some other time when it is forbidden to perform kriah, this does not fully exempt him from the obligation. It merely makes him incapable of fulfilling it. Hence, the next time he sees the Kosel, even if it is within 30 days, he will be obligated to tear kriah once again. Rav Elyashiv disagrees with this ruling, noting that even though logic supports Rav Moshe’s view, the accepted practice does not follow it. “Therefore,” he adds, “if a person sees the site of the churban on Shabbos, he is not obligated to perform kriah on Motzoei Shabbos. This is the custom of the elders of Yerushalayim for many generations: If 30 days elapse during which they do not see the site of the Bais Hamikdosh, they go to the Kosel on Shabbos. Even if a person remains there until Motzoei Shabbos, he would still not be obligated to perform kriah. But if he arrives at the Kosel only on Motzoei Shabbos, even if he is wearing his Shabbos clothes, he must tear kriah.” Several possible explanations may be advanced for the basis of this dispute.


What Is Worse Than Murder?

Chazal teach us that the punishment of a ben sorer umoreh is based on what he will become in the future. Many meforshim point out, though, that the general rule is that a person is judged only according to his present status, without regard for what he will do in the future. Evidently, the punishment of a ben sorer umoreh is a product of Divine kindness; it is due to Hashem’s mercy that he is judged on what he is destined to become. This is the implication of Rashi’s statement, “A ben sorer umoreh is killed because of his future. The Torah penetrates the depths of his nature and recognizes that he will ultimately use up his father’s money and seek to satisfy his habits, but he will be unable to. Then he will stand at a crossroads and rob passersby. The Torah therefore calls for him to die as an innocent, rather than dying guilty [of severe crimes].” The same explanation appears in the Gemara (Sanhedrin 71a), but the Yerushalmi (ibid. 8:7) has an entirely different explanation for the ben sorer umoreh’s punishment: “Chazal say…Hashem foresees that he is ultimately destined to exhaust his father’s property and his mother’s property, and then he will sit at a crossroads, robbing people and committing murder, and he will ultimately forget his learning. The Torah therefore says that it is better for him to die innocent than to die guilty.” There is an obvious difficulty regarding this passage: Presumably, the most egregious offense is to rob and murder other human beings, yet the Yerushalmi follows that with the prediction that the ben sorer umoreh will ultimately forget his learning. Is forgetting one’s Torah knowledge worse than murder?

Indeed, Rav Elyashiv explains, this indicates that the worst possible offense is to forget one’s Torah learning. The reason, he adds, is that as long as a person still retains his knowledge of the Torah, there is hope for him to improve. Once the rebellious son has forgotten his learning, it is guaranteed that he will never repent. As a result, he must be judged based on his future as well. The departure from the Torah — the Tree of Life — is literally the end. Indeed, the Gemara states (Chagigah 15a), “Just as gold and glass vessels can be repaired even if they have been broken, a talmid chochom who has sinned still has a means of repairing himself.” That means of rectifying his past misdeeds is through his Torah knowledge, but if he lacks Torah knowledge, then he is beyond hope.

In a similar vein, Rav Elyashiv once pointed out Chazal’s teaching, “A person who sees that he is experiencing suffering should examine his deeds, and if he finds nothing, he should attribute it to bittul Torah.” He explained this to mean that if a person cannot determine the reason for his suffering, he should attribute it to his detachment from the Torah. Had he been attached to the Torah, he would have been capable of identifying his flaws. This, he added, is also the reason that we ask Hashem in Shemoneh Esrei, “Return us, our Father, to Your Torah,” and only then do we beseech Him to “bring us back in complete teshuvah before You,” for without the Torah, a person has no hope.


Where to Pray for Success in Torah

Rav Elyashiv was once asked where in the Shemoneh Esrei a person should daven for siyata diShmaya in learning. The most reasonable place for such a request seems to be the brachah of “Hashiveinu,” in which we pray to Hashem to “return us, our Father, to Your Torah.” But Rav Elyashiv ruled that the proper place for such a request is in the preceding brachah, in which we pray for wisdom. A person who lacks Torah knowledge, he explained, lacks wisdom as well.


Vestiges of the Vilna Gaon’s Visit

Occasionally, in the course of his shiurim, Rav Elyashiv would share an anecdote that was germane to the shiur. Once, when he taught the halachah that a mourner must change his seat in shul, Rav Elyashiv added, “There is a story about a Jew from Vilkomir who once needed to change his seat in shul for 30 days, during a period of aveilus. While he was sitting in his new seat, he felt an inexplicable sense of pleasantness and spiritual elevation. He questioned the elders of the shul about it, and they revealed to him that the Vilna Gaon had once come to Vilkomir and davened in that exact spot.

On another occasion, he told a story about Rav Yisroel Salanter’s visit to an inn in a certain village. When the innkeeper took note of his guest’s distinctly Jewish appearance, he asked Rav Yisroel if he knew how to shecht animals. The innkeeper needed to shecht cattle in order to provide meat for his guests, but he did not have a shochet. Rav Yisroel replied that he was not a shochet. After a day or two had passed, Rav Yisroel asked the innkeeper for a loan of one ruble, explaining that a messenger was due to arrive soon with his money. The innkeeper’s automatic response was, “How could I loan money to you when I don’t know you?”

Rav Yisroel responded, “You mean that you wouldn’t give me a loan because you don’t know me, but you would be willing to trust my shechitah?”


Concern for a Donkey

Once, on Purim, Rav Elyashiv returned home from the megillah reading to find a white donkey standing in the courtyard outside his home. The perpetrators of the prank had hoped to elicit a smile from the ever serious rov. Rav Elyashiv indeed laughed, but he immediately asked, “Have you fed it?”


Long Enough for a Photograph

There are a number of shiurim in halachah that are expressed in terms of a specific amount of time, such as the span of “kedei achilas pras” or “toch kedei dibbur.” Rav Elyashiv invented a new concept: “kedei temunah” — the amount of time required to take a picture.

Rav Elyashiv always gave priority to attending the simchos of his talmidim, but on one occasion, when he attended a bar mitzvah, his time was severely limited, and he instructed his grandson to help him leave the event as quickly as possible.

“How long does Saba wish to stay?” the grandson asked.

Kedei temunah — long enough to take a picture,” Rav Elyashiv replied. He explained, “How do I bring joy to the baalei simchah? By allowing the bar mitzvah boy, as well as the grandfathers and the father, to be photographed with me. After those pictures, we can leave.”


The Seforim Shelf

Rav Elyashiv’s home was filled with seforim, even though the entire apartment contained only a single room, to the point that it became necessary to add an additional wooden bookcase in the narrow vestibule where visitors waited to see him. Once, one of his grandsons asked why Rav Elyashiv didn’t occasionally remove seforim from the shelves that he did not use. Those seforim, he suggested, could be donated to an otzar haseforim or given away as a gift, thus clearing up valuable space. Rav Elyashiv was surprised at the suggestion. “People bring me seforim as gifts and want them to remain in my possession,” he said. “Imagine how one of them would feel if he came here and saw that his sefer was gone.”


Calculations of Kavod

Twenty years ago, Rav Elyashiv’s son-in-law, Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein, was sitting shivah for his mother, who passed away immediately after Rosh Hashanah, and he was uncertain as to whether he should deliver his drashah on Shabbos Shuvah. On the one hand, it was a drashah that was attended by hundreds of residents of Ramat Elchonon and other neighborhoods in Bnei Brak, and he did not wish to deprive them of it. On the other hand, he was in the middle of shivah and it did not seem appropriate to deliver the drashah. Yet, he also felt that if all those people observed that he was not delivering the shiur, it would be considered a public display of aveilus, which is forbidden on Shabbos. To resolve this dilemma, he sought the p’sak of his father-in-law, Rav Elyashiv.

Rav Elyashiv listened to the question, thought for a while, and then said, “There is a mara d’asra in Bnei Brak. Go ask Rav [Shmuel] Wosner.” It was clear that Rav Elyashiv had not been deliberating over the question itself. Rather, he was debating whether he should answer it at all, and he ultimately concluded that it was preferable to defer to the mara d’asra.


The Laws of Chessed

Rav Elyashiv answered many questions pertaining to matters of life or death. The following is an example of a question that could be answered only by a posek with extremely broad shoulders.

The Bostoner Rebbe once went to Rav Elyashiv and told him about the chessed organization that he had founded in Boston, which provides accommodations for Jews from all over the world who go to Boston to avail themselves of the medical services there. One of the rooms, the Rebbe related, was constructed to accommodate a person confined to a wheelchair: It has a wider door, lower door handles, and other details that are beneficial to a person in that unfortunate situation. A visiting patient was once placed in the room, when another patient suddenly arrived in Boston. He was also confined to a wheelchair and was in even greater need of such accommodations, and perhaps even more dangerously ill. The Rebbe’s question was whether the patient who was already in the room should be removed in order for it to be provided to the second patient, whose situation was even more critical. The Rebbe added that the organization occasionally faced other questions regarding how to prioritize its services, even in cases that did not involve the special room. Rav Elyashiv ruled that with respect to chessed, there are no halachos requiring priority to be given to one individual over another.


“What Do You Like to Eat?”

Dr. Gabriel Munter is the head of the endocrinology department at Shaare Tzedek Hospital in Yerushalayim. He was asked to fill in for the doctor in charge of monitoring Rav Elyashiv’s glucose levels, and he ultimately became the rov’s personal physician at the time when Rav Elyashiv was hovering between life and death and Dr. Daniel Clair was called in from the United States to perform a lifesaving operation. The entire Jewish people were focused on Rav Elyashiv’s condition at the time and were davening for his recovery. Ultimately, the gadol hador was miraculously healed. Dr. Munter recently related that Rav Elyashiv once had a problem with his sugar levels and it was necessary to correct the imbalance. In order to prepare a personalized menu for him, the doctor asked, “What do you like to eat?”

“What does that mean?” Rav Elyashiv replied. “I will eat whatever you tell me to eat.”


Cakes for the Soldiers

During the Lebanon War, a program was arranged in a certain chareidi neighborhood to bake cakes for the soldiers. The cakes were baked in private homes and brought by Bais Yaakov students to the local community center. From there, they were shipped to various army bases or to the front lines in Lebanon. One avreich told Rav Elyashiv that his wife did not participate in the program, feeling that it was not a mitzvah to bake cakes for soldiers who did not observe Shabbos.

Rav Elyashiv replied, “I wonder if she would have said the same thing if her own brother was among the soldiers.”




Walking the Walk Have you ever had the experience of recognizing someone in the distance simply by the way they walk? I have, many times.

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