A few weeks have passed since the petirah of Rav Chaim Yisroel Belsky zt”l, and the pain is still acute. Rav Belsky was my twelfth-grade rebbi. I grew up in Kensington, where he resided, and had the zechus to spend many summers with him in Camp Agudah. As recently as last summer, he was still so vibrant, so busy, so warm and accessible.
One of my fondest memories of Rav Belsky, which encapsulates so much of his greatness, is something that occurred every Friday night in camp before Kiddush.
Rav Belsky entered Shabbos after a very busy Erev Shabbos, packed with shiurim, private meetings, phone calls, and Shabbos preparation. He spent only the first part of the seudah with his family; then he would join his beloved Masmidim in their dining room for zemiros. Yet, upon entering the staff dining room after Maariv, this extremely busy person would not go directly to his family’s table. First, he would take a seat at the waiters’ table. Their job required them to daven Maariv early and eat a somewhat hurried seudah so that they could serve the staff families. Rav Belsky would sit and sing zemiros with them, transforming an otherwise unremarkable seudah to one that they will cherish for the rest of their lives.
That was Rav Belsky. His brilliance, his greatness in Torah and p’sak halachah, was matched by his great heart, his concern for everyone, young and old.
Rav Belsky was fluent and issued pesakim on dalet chelkei Shulchan Aruch. The margins of virtually every page of his personal set of Shulchan Aruch are filled with his comments.
In the summer of 5771, my father z”l was hospitalized and seriously ill. One day, I left camp to visit my father. While I was there, my father’s doctor, who is a ben Torah, mentioned to me that a certain complication in my father’s condition had created a serious halachic question. I rushed out of the room, called Rabbi Dovid Frischman at camp, and asked if he could get Rav Belsky on the phone immediately. I presented the question. Rav Belsky did not have to think one second before answering. He told me that the answer was actually a Gemara mefureshes (explicit statement in Gemara), explained the Gemara to me, and assured me that the issue the doctor had raised was not a problem.
Rabbi Frischman pointed out that in general, when Rav Belsky was asked a shailah in halachah, he would cite the Gemara that is the source of the halachah. He would tell his talmidim that the way to learn halachah is to begin from the source — the Gemara — and work one’s way down through the Rishonim, Tur, Shulchan Aruch and further. But it all begins with the Gemara.
• • • • •
Immediately following the attack on the Twin Towers, Rav Belsky began to review the final perakim in Maseches Yevamos that deal with the laws of agunos. He knew that these halachos would now be relevant, and he needed to be prepared.
Once, a man came to a sofer to purchase a Sefer Torah. The sofer showed him four beautiful Sifrei Torah. The prospective buyer could not decide on his own which of the four was the most beautiful, so he photographed a column from each Sefer Torah and showed the pictures to others. No one saw anything unique in any particular one; they were all excellent.
Rabbi Frischman arranged for the man to meet with Rav Belsky. Rav Belsky took two of the photos, placed them alongside each other, and selected the better of the two. Then he took the better one and placed it alongside one of the other two photos, and after making that selection, placed the better one alongside the final photo, and then selected one. “This,” he told the man, “is the most beautiful of the four.”
The man smiled. “The sofer is asking $2,000 more for this one than for the other three,” he said.
Until the last years of his life, his Tishah B’Av schedule consisted of virtually non-stop shiurim. (He would fast on his mother’s yahrtzeit, the 11th of Av. Even this past summer, when Tishah B’Av fell on Shabbos and was observed on the 10th of Av, he also fasted on his mother’s yahrtzeit, the next day.) After the reading of Eichah on Tishah B’Av night, Rav Belsky would explain the few Kinnos in Maariv to the hundreds of campers, staff, and Masmidim. Later, he delivered a shiur on Eichah in which he would begin from where he had left off the previous summer.
In the morning during Shacharis, he would introduce each Kinnah as only he could, drawing on his vast knowledge of Chazal and Jewish history, presenting it with the emotion not of a historian or lecturer, but of a pure tzaddik who truly felt the absence of the Bais Hamikdosh and the tzaar of the Shechinah. He had a gift for speaking in a manner that both young and old could understand and appreciate.
Kinnos ended well after chatzos. From there (after listening to a second reading of Eichah), Rav Belsky went directly to Minchah, delivered an appeal on behalf of Chinuch Atzmai, and spent the rest of the afternoon delivering a shiur in Sefer Iyov. (In his last years, he would nap for one hour in the afternoon and use the remainder of the day for the shiur.)
One year, he completed a perek with only a few minutes remaining until Maariv. He did not want that time to go to waste. Since it was raining at the time, he said, “Let’s go through all the pesukim in Iyov in which rain is mentioned.” He proceeded to do so, and finished explaining the last posuk as Maariv was about to begin.
Hasmadah and Ameilus
As is well-known by now, he would accompany his beloved Masmidim on all their summer excursions, no matter how distant. Always, he would take along a Gemara for the bus ride. For trips that were not far from camp, he would squeeze his 6’4’’ frame into the seat of a hot school bus. He could have been driven in an air-conditioned car, but he wanted to travel together with his Masmidim. As he learned in the front seat, Rav Belsky was frequently interrupted by bochurim who were also learning and had questions that he was happy to answer.
At the end of one trip to Niagara Falls, Rabbi Frischman noticed that Rav Belsky had completed the entire first perek of Maseches Kiddushin — 40 blatt! — during the round trip. When asked about this, Rav Belsky explained that Daf Yomi was soon going to be completing Kiddushin. He wanted to be mesayeim, but there had been many nights in June when he was busy attending weddings and had not learned that day’s daf in the first perek of Kiddushin. In order to make sure that he had learned the entire masechta, he had undertaken to learn the entire first perek during this trip.
He would return late at night from an exhausting trip with the Masmidim, daven Maariv, and then announce that he was giving his nightly Daf Yomi shiur for anyone who wanted to attend. And if only one person showed up, he would give the shiur for that person. He did this in yeshivah as well.
• • • • •
In his hesped during the shivah, his talmid, Rabbi Yosef Eisen, pointed out that while we cannot replicate Rav Belsky’s kishronos, we can learn from his ameilus, from his ahavas haTorah, from his intense desire to achieve clarity in whatever he learned. He offered the following anecdote as an example.
For a number of years, Rav Belsky learned b’chavrusah with a talmid every Sunday from 4 to 6 p.m. He was always prompt. One Sunday, however, Rav Belsky arrived half an hour late. He explained that he and his rebbetzin had gone to visit his father z”l, who was staying at a rehab facility. On the way home, they were involved in a serious car accident. Boruch Hashem, neither of them was hurt, so he arranged a ride home for his wife and came to yeshivah as quickly as possible.
They opened their volumes of Shulchan Aruch and proceeded to spend the next hour and a half learning a se’if koton of the Taz in Hilchos Lulav. Their seder ended with Rav Belsky saying that he did not fully understand p’shat in this Taz.
The next two Sundays, they delved into the seforim relevant to this Taz, beginning with the Gemara and proceeding to the Rif, Rosh and Tur. Finally, after having learned this Taz for five and a half hours, Rav Belsky said, “I have a kasha on the Taz,” and proceeded to explain what was bothering him.
His talmid immediately responded with an answer. Rav Belsky looked at the young man and said softly, “I’ve spent five and a half hours on this Taz and also reviewed it by heart seven or eight times. Don’t be madcheh my kasha so easily.”
• • • • •
For a number of years, Rav Belsky delivered a shiur on Monday nights at Torah Vodaath for bochurim who had been in the Camp Agudah Masmidim program during the summer. Once, when they had completed learning a topic, a discussion began as to what they should learn next. Rav Belsky told his talmidim, “I can’t involve myself in this discussion. I’ve trained myself to have the same geshmak in any topic of Torah that I learn. So you will have to decide what you want to learn. Let me know.”
He delivered a Daf Yomi shiur in yeshivah to a small group of talmidim during their lunch break, except on Erev Shabbos, when the shiur took place after Shacharis. On a regular day, he covered one blatt in under half an hour, and on Friday mornings, when he had more time, he would do two blatt. One Friday morning, he covered two blatt, then closed his Gemara and stood up to leave. The door to the room opened and in walked a distinguished member of the kollel who regularly attended the shiur. He apologized for coming so late and was about to leave. Rav Belsky, however, turned to the others and asked, “Have we covered tomorrow’s blatt?” They responded that they had been one blatt behind, and now, with the extra blatt that they had just learned, they had caught up. “Nu,” said Rav Belsky, “we just learned Gemaros about kavod talmid chochom.” And for the sake of the talmid who had just walked in, Rav Belsky sat down, opened his Gemara, and taught the next blatt.
A Toras Chaim
To Rav Belsky, everything found in Torah was a reality to put into practice in everyday life whenever applicable, as Rabbi Eisen illustrated with another incident:
A former talmid and his wife came to Rav Belsky to discuss a shidduch in which their daughter was involved. The boy was a yasom. The parents explained their doubts concerning the shidduch, and Rav Belsky listened in silence. When they were finished, he said, “I know whom to call about this. Let me look into it so that we can clarify things.”
The father responded, “Rebbi, I think we should just drop it. She’s a young girl — there are other boys. Why should we continue with something if there’s even a small doubt?”
Rav Belsky looked at the man in disbelief. “And ‘Kol almanah v’yasom lo s’anun’ (Do not afflict a yasom or almanah — Shemos 22:21) means nothing to you? I told you that I would make inquiries for you.”
The couple is happily married and, in the father’s words, “I could not have handpicked a better husband for my daughter, father for my grandchildren and son-in-law for myself.”
His Great Heart
In Rabbi Frischman’s words: “Rav Belsky loved everyone and cared for everyone. There was nothing that he wouldn’t do for someone else.” This was especially true when at stake was a bochur’s success in limud haTorah.
One summer, a bochur from Sinai Academy joined the Masmidim program. His desire to grow was great, but his Torah knowledge at that time was very poor. He would walk around the bais medrash asking the translation of words, which he would then write into his Gemara. Arrangements were made for someone to tutor him throughout the summer, and by summer’s end he had made significant progress.
Rav Belsky kept in touch with this boy throughout the year, learning with him and hosting him for Shabbos seudos. The following summer, the boy celebrated a siyum on Maseches Megillah. His parents, who were not at all happy about his desire to continue with post-high school Torah learning, attended the siyum. Rav Belsky spoke at the siyum and cried tears of joy that bochurim whose families had emigrated from Russia were now developing into talmidei chachochim. The boy’s father then asked to say a few words. He told the gathering that he did not really understand what his son was accomplishing with his learning, but now that he saw how much it was valued by everyone in camp, he would no longer try to hold him back from pursuing these studies.
The following Pesach, the boy and his parents were guests at Rav Belsky’s Seder. For the first part of the Seder, the parents were very quiet and appeared uncomfortable. Noticing this, Rav Belsky began to sing old Russian-Yiddish songs, and the couple became very excited. After that, they began to draw closer to Yiddishkeit. Their son went on to learn in Bais Medrash Govoah and is building a Torah-true home.
One summer, a counselor was hired to learn privately with a thirteen-year-old camper who showed little interest in learning. When asked what to learn with the boy, Rav Belsky responded, “Teach him the basics of hilchos bosor b’cholov and tell him that, at the end of the summer, I will farher him.”
This motivated the boy, and he learned that entire month with great hasmadah. Rav Belsky farhered him and was pleased at how well the boy knew the material. Rav Belsky asked that the boy visit him after the summer in Brooklyn so that he could present him with a handwritten “semichah” of sorts and have a picture taken with him.
Following is a translation of the “semichah”:
“The bochur ____________ learned many chapters in Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, on the halachos of bosor b’cholov, together with ____________ (his chavrusah’s name). He reviewed them well and then was tested on them by me. His knowledge was outstanding. Praiseworthy is this bochur for having applied his heart so well to his learning. May it be Hashem’s will that he should continue along this beautiful path and be successful, ascending ever higher with the help of Hashem.
Yisroel Halevi Belsky”
To this day, that bochur keeps the framed photograph of Rav Belsky and himself on his dresser. And he continues to learn with great hasmadah.
Chesed, Big and Small
He cared for others in ways big and small.
One summer, a Masmid’s eyeglasses broke. When he mentioned this to a member of the married staff, he was told, “There is an optician in the ShopRite plaza. Next time I go to ShopRite, I’ll take you along.” A day or two later, the bochur told this person, “My glasses are fixed. As soon as I mentioned to Rav Belsky that they had broken, he got into his car and drove me to the optician.”
Two years ago, during one of the Masmidim’s trips, a bochur suddenly developed terrible pain from what appeared to be a hernia. It was time for the bonfire and kumzitz led by Rav Belsky, the highlight of the trip. The camp doctor was called; he said that there was no need to rush back to camp, but that the boy should go to the camp van and lie down. As the kumzitz began, Rav Belsky asked how the bochur was feeling. Hearing that he was in pain, Rav Belsky walked to the van, climbed inside, and spent 40 minutes shmoozing with the bochur to distract him from his pain, while the kumzitz continued without him.
One morning in camp, Rav Belsky had reason to leave the bais medrash in the middle of Shacharis, wrapped in his tallis and tefillin. As he walked across the camp grounds, he saw a staff member walking with his tefillin bag in his hand towards the shul, obviously quite late for davening. Not wanting the bochur to feel embarrassed, Rav Belsky wrapped his tallis around his face until the boy passed.
His love and concern were reflected in his infinite patience. At seudah shlishis in camp, campers would march into the Masmidim dining room to ask Rav Belsky if their cereals were kosher, what brachah one should recite on certain foods, etc. During the week, he ate supper with the Masmidim in their dining room. His meal was interrupted frequently by bochurim who had questions. Always, he responded in a friendly, down-to-earth manner that made each boy feel he was speaking to a friend.
One Erev Rosh Chodesh, Rav Belsky was asked four or five times during supper whether one recites Yaaleh Veyavo in bentching if his meal began on Erev Rosh Chodesh and concluded on Rosh Chodesh. Each time, he put down his knife and fork, and rather than give a simple “Yes” or “No” answer, spent a few minutes discussing the relevant halachos upon which the answer was based.
• • • • •
From the late 1960s, when Torah Vodaath moved to its present location on East Ninth Street, until his passing, room 206 on the second floor served as Rav Belsky’s shiur room and office. In recent years, the other classrooms on that floor have been used for the seventh- and eighth-grade mechinah. As the mechinah schedule is not the same as that of the bais medrash, it happened on occasion that there was noise in the hall as Rav Belsky was delivering his Yoreh Deah shiur. On very rare occasions, he was forced to go out into the hall and ask the youngsters to quiet down. Once, before resuming the shiur, he smiled and said, “The sounds of Yiddishe kinderlach playing is music to my ears, but even music can be disturbing when I am trying to say a shiur.”
Another time he said, “Rabbosai, I’m not upset at the children. Don’t ever get upset at children for acting like children. That is what they are supposed to do.”
He would tell his talmidim, “The best question is, ‘Rebbi, I didn’t understand that. Can you please repeat it again?’”
At the OU
Every Thursday, Rav Belsky would spend much of the day at the offices of the Orthodox Union, answering questions from within and without the organization. He would take along a few of his talmidim who were learning Yoreh Deah so that they could gain practical experience in rendering p’sak. The first time he took along a new talmid, he said to him, “Come. Let me give you a tour of this floor.” And he proceeded to take him from office to office, pointing out different items of interest.
A company based overseas applied to the OU for its hechsher so that its product could be marketed in the United States. A rov from that country wrote a letter to the OU explaining why, from his perspective, the product was kosher already, despite certain halachic issues relating to its production. Rav Belsky, as well as others at the OU, were very unhappy with the rov’s position.
Rav Belsky wrote a letter to the rov stating why the OU could not give the product its certification at that time. Upon reading the letter, an OU rov commented to Rav Belsky, “The rosh yeshivah was very nice in the way he responded.” Rav Belsky smiled and cited a Gemara that derives from V’ahavta lerei’acha kamocha that when bais din has to execute someone, they should choose as painless a method as possible (beror lo misah yafeh — Pesachim 75a). “Nu,” concluded Rav Belsky, “if that’s how we treat a murderer or some other serious sinner, then shouldn’t we do the same for a rov whose p’sak is wrong?”
hem for his help in preparing this article.
Saving a Life
One summer, it was discovered that a girl in Camp Bnos was suffering from anorexia. Sending the girl home was not a simple matter, so the director of Agudath Israel’s camps, R’ Meir Frischman, asked Rav Belsky how to proceed. “Send her to me,” he said. After two sessions of about two hours each, the girl was cured. Today, she is married with a beautiful family.
Yes, Rav Belsky was brilliant, but not every genius uses his G-d-given talents to help others the way that he did.
In some instances, his greatness as a posek combined with his greatness of heart to offer comfort and relief to those in distress.
One day, Rav Belsky received a phone call from a talmid concerning a young woman whose husband had just passed away. They had no children, and the husband had one brother, which meant that the woman required chalitzah before she could marry again. The problem was that some felt that the brother was not sane. If this was true, then his chalitzah would not be valid and the woman would remain an agunah.
Rav Belsky wasted no time in traveling to the shivah house. There, he first sat with the widow and her parents, speaking with them about their loss and offering words of nechamah. (They later asked, “Who is this holy person who was so concerned about our loss?”) Then he sat privately with the niftar’s brother for some 25 minutes. He determined that according to the parameters of halachah, the man was of sound mind, and wrote a letter to that effect to the woman’s rov. The chalitzah was performed.
His gevurah, the strength of his spirit, was evident in many ways, most prominently in the way he fearlessly voiced his p’sak halachah even at times when he knew it would be unpopular. Rabbi Frischman related an incident that illustrated a different aspect of his gevurah.
Each year on Chol Hamoed Sukkos, Rav Belsky would host a Simchas Bais Hashoeivah in his sukkah for his beloved Masmidim. One year, after setting up the tables in the sukkah, Rabbi Frischman entered the Belsky kitchen and found Rav Belsky sitting at the table, shivering and looking ill. Very concerned, a family member called the doctor. The doctor asked Rav Belsky if he had recently stopped taking a pain medication that was prescribed because of a back condition. “Yes,” replied Rav Belsky, to which the doctor responded, “That’s probably what it is. When you stop taking that medication, there are withdrawal symptoms such as those that are you are describing.”
Rav Belsky hung up the phone and broke into a huge smile. “So I’m not sick!” he exclaimed. He took hold of his walker and quickly propelled himself toward the sukkah, where he joined his talmidim. A son-in-law asked him if he planned to sleep in the sukkah that night, and he replied, “Of course.”
That incident also illustrates how precious mitzvos were to Rav Belsky, in particular Shabbos and Yom Tov. For each Yom Tov, he learned through the entire masechta related to that Yom Tov. For Pesach, he learned all of Masechtos Pesachim and Chagigah. For Sukkos, he learned Masechtos Sukkah and Chagigah. He would tell his talmidim that it was important to learn Chagigah to have a connection with the korbanos that were brought in honor of the Yom Tov.
Every Shabbos, he would learn parts of Masechtos Shabbos and Eruvin, blatt after blatt, until, eventually, he would complete those masechtos and then begin anew.
A Generous Hand
To Rav Belsky, money held no importance, other than to be used in the service of Hashem. R’ Meir Frischman related that in his 47 years as mara d’asra of Camp Agudah, Rav Belsky never asked for a raise. Had he not been offered one, he would have been satisfied with the salary he began with in 1969.
As was said at the levayah, he dispensed tzedakah in a manner that was far beyond his means. He felt that it was not right to give a meshulach less than $20. Word of his generosity spread, and meshulachim knocked on his door at home and in yeshivah on a daily basis. Sometimes, the solicitor could be difficult and demanding, but Rav Belsky never became angry. He gave generously even when the solicitor did not show proper respect.
Once, at Minchah in the bais medrash of Mesivta Torah Vodaath, a pair of meshulachim approached Rav Belsky after Ashrei had already started. They began to relate their story, but Rav Belsky did not acknowledge them; he continued to daven. They continued to tell him their story. A talmid came over to them and said that they should wait until Minchah ended to speak to the rosh yeshivah. The two responded sharply that he should not mix in, but they did step to the side and allowed Rav Belsky to daven. The moment Minchah ended, they approached Rav Belsky and told him their story again. His wallet was empty, so he approached a talmid and borrowed some money to give to them.
On a Higher Plane
He would implore his talmidim to raise themselves above the havlei olam hazeh and focus on what is truly important in life.
One summer, in a shmuess delivered in camp, Rav Belsky mentioned what to him was a most irritating moment: when at a simchah, a waiter would ask him, “Chicken or meat?” Rabbi Dovid Frischman was with him at a wedding when a waiter asked Rav Belsky which soup he would prefer. Rav Belsky responded, “Whatever you have is fine.” When the waiter left, Rav Belsky remarked with a tone of frustration, “Why should I waste my mind on such a question? What difference does it make?”
As Rabbi Frischman points out, Rav Belsky did enjoy a hot dog or marshmallow at a campfire with his Masmidim. But food was not an important factor in his life. He ate whatever he was served.
For many years, he drove a dilapidated station wagon. Then he acquired a fairly new car in very good condition. Shortly thereafter, a talmid arrived at Rav Belsky’s home for a Simchas Bais Hashoeivah, and when he parked in the driveway, he crashed into Rav Belsky’s new car, causing damage to the brake light cover.
The bochur was beside himself. He told Rabbi Frischman that he knew he had to apologize to his rebbi, but he was embarrassed and a bit scared to do so. When Rabbi Frischman told this to Rav Belsky, he reacted with disbelief. “He thinks I would be upset? Who cares about the headlight? It’s Sukkos, zeman simchaseinu, and you think I would allow such things to interfere with my simchas Yom Tov?” He then spoke to the bochur directly and assured him that what had happened did not upset him in the least.
• • • • •
Rav Matisyahu Salomon notes that in Chazal, the expression used when an adam gadol leaves this world is noch nafshei, his soul was at rest. He explains that a tzaddik never really rests in this world, for he values every moment of his time — and devotes it to avodas Hashem. Watching Rav Belsky go about his day was a living illustration of this concept. He went from davening to shiur, from shiur to answering the phone, from there to another shiur, and so went his day. Now, after 77 years, he is finally at rest.
May the memory of his days on this world, which he used so productively, enrich our lives forever.
Many of the anecdotes in this piece were drawn from a hesped delivered at Mesivta Chaim Shlomo by Rabbi Dovid Frischman, who has been menahel of Camp Agudah’s Masmidim program for the past nineteen years, and in that capacity worked hand in hand with Rav Belsky on a daily basis.
The author thanks his son Yisroel Menac