One of the most important rabbinic authorities in Israel, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, died Wednesday at Shaarei Zedek Medical Center. He was 102.
Elyashiv was considered by hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel and worldwide to be the most respected living expert on Jewish law and religious practice. He had been ill and hospitalized repeatedly in recent years.
The rabbi was a leader of the so-called “Lithuanian” school – shorthand for the estimated one-third of ultra-Orthodox adherents who do not belong to Hasidic groups and are of European, rather than Middle Eastern descent. But the venerated scholar’s death drew an outpouring of emotion across sectarian lines, and enormous crowds were expected at his funeral.
Inside the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox world, Elyashiv represented a hardline faction opposed to almost any encroaching of modernity into the insular community. This faction is identified with the city of Jerusalem, while its rivals, relative pragmatists, are largely grouped in Israel’s second ultra-Orthodox center in the city of Bnei Brak.
It was not immediately clear who would succeed Elyashiv or how his death would affect the ultra-Orthodox community, an estimated 10 percent of the country’s 8 million people, who are seen to be at a crossroads – facing a choice between greater participation in Israel’s economy and national life, including military service, or greater separatism, religious purism and poverty by choice.
Though ultra-Orthodox rabbis are often mistakenly seen by outsiders as absolute rulers of obedient flocks, Elyashiv’s conservative efforts in the years leading up to his death were frequently unsuccessful, according to the Bar-Ilan University scholar Kimmy Caplan.
An attempt he led to ban secular studies in girls’ high schools failed, for example, as did campaigns against cellphone and Internet use. Modernity and economic realities proved stronger than rabbinic strictures.
Most Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox leaders have been scholars of religious texts, but Elyashiv was unique for being a master not of theory but of the practical application of religious law, Kaplan said – a difference he compared to the one between a law professor and a judge. Elyashiv was the latter, he said: an “excellent practical decision-maker.”
Raised in a home steeped in mysticism
Elyashiv was born into a respected rabbinic family in the town of Gomel, in modern-day Belarus, in 1910, and raised in a home steeped in Jewish mysticism. His grandfather, Shlomo Elyashiv, was a renowned Kabbalist who wrote in a 1924 book that he had been assisted in his work by his grandson, whom he called in one striking passage “his honor our teacher and my rabbi Yosef Shalom, may he be deserving of long life.” When the book was published, the younger Elyashiv was all of 14.
Although he later helped steer Israel’s ultra-Orthodox toward a rejection of the State of Israel, Elyashiv began his rabbinic career in Israel as a protégé of religious Zionist rabbis and as an employee of the government’s religious court system. His marriage was conducted by Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Ha-Cohen Kook, the spiritual father of religious Zionism, and he was an early protégé of Israel’s first Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Isaac Herzog.
After Israel’s creation in 1948, Elyashiv was given a prominent post as a judge in the state-established High Rabbinic Court, part of an official religious system that existed parallel to the secular courts. Elyashiv’s first legal rulings came as a judge in the pay of the state he would later reject, and some were seen as notable for their leniency.
His first ruling dealt with the case of a Yemeni girl who arrived in Israel after having been betrothed by her mother in Yemen to a man who subsequently converted to Islam. In Israel, her status was officially that of an aguna, a wife trapped in marriage, meaning that she could not marry again. Elyashiv found a way out, ruling that because the girl’s father had not been present and she was too young to agree herself to the marriage – she was perhaps 11, though no one knew her precise age – the marriage was annulled.
Avraham Reiner, a Ben-Gurion University scholar who has studied Elyashiv’s life and legal work, termed the ruling “daring, brilliant and lenient.” It showed, according to Reiner, “his desire and ability to arrive at a ruling that would minimize the suffering of the girl and her family.” Herzog, the chief rabbi, wrote to congratulate Elyashiv.
A strict line undiluted by practical considerations
But the rabbi’s life took him and the ultra-Orthodox community in a different direction. Elyashiv left the state court system in the early 1970s, and as time went on his rulings became less inclined to solve problems than to maintain an approach toward Jewish law that was undiluted by practical considerations.
He embraced a strict line on converts to Judaism, for example, ruling that a convert who did not observe religious commandments could retroactively have his or her conversion canceled. That ruling, considered controversial even among ultra-Orthodox rabbis, has helped poison ties between the ultra-Orthodox and the mainstream in Israel and — because so many of Elyashiv’s students hold sway in religious courts and can actually decide the religious status of citizens and immigrants — has also threatened ties between Israel and the more pluralistic Jewish communities of the Diaspora.
He was also among the staunch supporters of the current Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox social system in which lifelong, full-time Torah study is encouraged and most adult males do not work, supporting themselves instead on donations and public welfare payments.
Little is known about Elyashiv’s private life beyond hagiographic depictions in ultra-Orthodox books and print media. One such book praising the rabbi, entitled “Hashakdan,” or “the dedicated one,” portrays him as a stern man who existed for one purpose only – the study of Torah.
Studying, and more studying
According to these accounts, the rabbi spent between 16 and 20 hours a day immersed in holy texts, beginning his day around 2 or 3 a.m. after a few hours of sleep and rarely taking time off even for family celebrations or emergencies. In one popular story recounted by Reiner, the university scholar, when one of Elyashiv’s daughters was terminally ill and had only hours to live, the rabbi went to the synagogue near his home to study as always, asking an acquaintance to inform him when she died. When the news came, Elyashiv closed his Talmud.
Underneath, the acquaintance saw a second book of law already open to the section on rituals governing Jewish mourning. Elyashiv kept studying.
“When we were children, he didn’t know us at all,” his daughter, Batsheva Kanievsky, is quoted as saying in one account. “He didn’t speak to us, whether we were good or bad.” Only on Sabbath afternoons would he go out for a walk with one of the family’s 12 children, she said: “But don’t think that I mean he would talk to us. He would think of his studies the whole time, but it was still an honor for the child to walk with him.”
Elyashiv assumed his prominent leadership position with the death in 2001 of Rabbi Elazar Menachem Shach, the previous head of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox. The matter of succession after Elyashiv’s death has not been settled and is a matter of some contention.
Some onlookers have speculated that a battle among his would-be heirs — there are thought to be four leading candidates, all of them over 80 years old and one of them close to 100 — could split the ultra-Orthodox world if no agreed-upon candidate can be found.
“Rabbi Elyashiv will be remembered as the ultimate assiduous yeshiva scholar of the 20th and early 21st centuries,” said Yossi Elituv, editor of the influential ultra-Orthodox paper Mishpacha.
“He was not seen as a political leader or as the head of group or party. He was a man who made Torah study his entire life, and this will remain an inspiration,” Elituv said.