Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who passed away last week at 102, was perhaps the least accessible of all recent chareidi leaders, even to members of the community itself. He inspired awe and reverence, but few felt a sense of intimacy. Unless one had an urgent halachic question, one thought long and hard about wasting even a moment of his time.
It is common for chareidi leaders to be referred to by their first names: Reb Aharon (Rabbi Aharon Kotler); Reb Moshe (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein); Reb Yaakov (Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky); Reb Shlomo Zalman (Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach). But Rabbi Elyashiv was never referred to as anything other than Rav Elyashiv.
The reason for that distance is not hard to discern. The quality that he exemplified above all others – total discipline and self-control – is the rarest, and therefore the hardest for most of us to relate to. Rabbi Moshe Grylak, editor ofMishpacha, describes how he was once at a wedding conversing with the chief psychologist of the Israeli Air Force, who had recently become observant, when Rabbi Elyashiv walked in. The latter was sitting alone at the table reserved for leading rabbis, and the psychologist could not take his eyes off of him, even though he did not know who he was. Rabbi Grylak inquired as to the cause of his fascination, and the psychologist replied, "In my entire life, I have never seen anyone with such incredible self-control."
Even his external appearance conveyed who he was. Tall, ramrod straight, until the very end, he walked purposively from place to place, staring ahead, his brow furrowed in thought.
No miracle stories circulate about him. He himself was the greatest miracle: How could a human being maintain such consistency over a lifetime? For ninety years, he sat alone in the same small shul learning almost all day, except for the hours he answered halachic questions or gave his daily Talmud class, open to all. My friend Rabbi Aharon Lopiansky describes at Aish.com how when he first came to Israel in 1970, people would peer through the window of the locked shul, just to watch Rabbi Elyashiv gently swaying in his learning, enthusiastically reciting and explaining the give and take of the Gemara to himself, in his trademark niggun (melody).
For ninety years, he rose every morning between 2:00 and 3:00 a.m. to begin his learning, despite suffering from frail health his whole life. One morning, when he was already in his nineties, he awakened half an hour earlier than usual. The grandson who slept with him at the time asked him why he had arisen early. He explained that the previous day he had missed a half an hour from his daily quota of learning because an Israeli government minister had come to see him and he had to make that up.
His only known pleasure, apart from the learning of Torah, was chazzanut. Once when he was still a young teenager, the world renowned chazzan Yossele Rosenblatt came to Jerusalem. He very much wanted to attend his concert, but, in the end, decided that he could not take the time from his learning. In later years, he attributed much of what he became to that single decision.
MAIMONIDES WRITES in The Guide of the Perplexed of the obligation to imitate G-d's ways – "Just as He is merciful, so too should you be merciful." But even more important is that our motivation come from the same source: Just as G-d's benevolence is determined by His "wisdom," as it were, so too should a man actions be determined by wisdom and truth, not sentiment.
That was Rav Elyashiv. He thought in halachic categories and his responses were determined by those categories. Informed of the birth of a new great great-grandchild, he would respond "kasher l'eidus" (permitted to be a witness) – i.e., the proscription on close relatives giving testimony with respect to one another does not apply to a great great-grandchildren. (An only child himself, Rabbi Elyashiv left behind over 1,500 descendants at the time of his passing, extending into the sixth generation.) His first question whenever someone came to urge a particular course of action was always: What does the Shulchan Aruch say?
He responded to a questioner who asked about taking on a particular stringency, "Why doesn't following the letter of halacha suffice?" And when the same questioner asked about a communal stringency that might have adverse consequences for certain individuals, he expressed his displeasure over any piety at the expense of others.
The same straightness could be seen in everything he did. One time, he needed an electrician to fix something in the one-bedroom apartment, in which he and his wife -- primarily his wife -- raised ten children. (She was the daughter of Rabbi Aryeh Levine, portrayed by Simcha Raz in A Tzaddik in Our Time.) He refused to take the electrician who prayed in the same minyan he did until the man agreed to charge the full price. While the man was doing the repair, Rabbi Elyashiv was informed that one of his daughters had passed away. He sat down and reviewed the laws of mourning. Then he paid the electrician. Only when the debt was taken care of did he leave for the funeral.
He served for 22 years as a dayan (religious court judge) on the Bais Din HaGadol of the Chief Rabbinate, until he resigned in protest over Rabbi Shlomo Goren's ruling in the Langer mamzerut case. Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Halevi Herzog assigned him the task of preparing the protocols for the Chief Rabbinate's batei din, which protocols are still in force today.
Even after resigning, he remained ever a dayan in his conduct, refusing, for instance, to hear one party in a dispute unless the other party was also present. He possessed the great dayan's ability to quickly separate out the extraneous and cut to the core of any issue. After an airliner went down just after takeoff from Kennedy Airport, one of the world's leading experts in DNA identification was brought to meet him in Israel in connection with freeing agunot, women whose husbands disappeared without a trace. The expert was amazed when Rabbi Elyashiv asked him four questions to which he could not give a definitive answer.
ONLY IN HIS last decades did he assume a leadership role within the hareidi community, and even then only when it was forced upon him. He did not seek leadership, and was pained by the time he took from his learning. Apart from his daily Talmud class, he never spoke in public. Kavod (honor) was meaningless in his eyes.
There was nothing of the politician about him. The horse-trading and hondling of politics was both foreign and repugnant to him. Each issue was decided on its merits, as he saw it. No personal emotion ever intruded into his deliberations or affected his conduct. Even those who only half-heartedly executed his instructions for the reform of certain communal institutions were still granted access to ask their halachic questions.
No major policy innovations are associated with Rabbi Elyashiv's name – nothing comparable, for instance, to the Chazon Ish's order in the early '50s to switch the language of instruction in the Chinuch Atzmai system from Yiddish to Hebrew, in response to the mass aliyah from Arab lands. But without his approval of ArtScroll's translation of the Talmud into English, it is doubtful that the project would have been viable or had the enormous impact it has. When an English-speaking rosh yeshiva pointed out to him that the rabbinic leaders of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter's generation had opposed his proposed translation of the Talmud into German, Rabbi Elyahiv replied that he knew, but the situation today was different. He devoted a great deal of time to the lack of places in Bais Yaakov seminaries for all those seeking admission, and attempted to implement systemic changes in the acceptance process, with much success.
He could not be pressured from the right or the left, and chareidi "political correctness" meant nothing to him. He would not tolerate in his presence any disparagement of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchok HaKohen Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, who had proposed the match with his wife and officiated at his wedding. After he put his imprimatur on a certain solution to the problem of building a particular highway over ancient graves, he was pelted by zealots in his own Meah Shearim neighborhood. He was unintimidated.
Above all, his life stands as a monument to the power of discipline and determination. For that discipline – more even than any natural brilliance – allowed him to master the vast halachic literature to the extent that the most complicated life-and-death halachic questions over the last thirty years all eventually reached his door, without his ever having to say, "I don't know."