Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb explores the little-known relationship between two Torah giants
Two facts stand out in every obituary written about Rav Elyashiv. One, of course, is the advanced age at which he died. He lived to be 102; thus, his lifetime spanned several generations and he witnessed several important eras in Jewish history. The other is that he was a “shakdan,” a very diligent student of Torah, who devoted his entire life to Torah study, which he carried out in relative seclusion.
A more comprehensive analysis of the events and milestones of his life, however, reveals that his longevity brought him into contact with a diverse range of Jewish leaders. Additionally, his life was not as monochromous as some would have it.
Specifically, most published accounts of his life disregard, or perhaps suppress, the many connections he had with the first chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook. Furthermore, his close relationship with Rav Kook’s successor, Rabbi Isaac HaLevi Herzog, and the several decades during which he served as a judge in the Court of the Chief Rabbinate, are mentioned only in passing in accounts of his life—if not totally overlooked.
In response to this lacuna, in the days immediately following Rav Elyashiv’s demise, a group known as “Or HaOrot” published a book, in Hebrew, summarizing some of the many connections between Rav Kook and Rav Elyashiv, emphasizing the great esteem in which the latter held the former. This book also details the relationship between Rav Elyashiv and Rav Herzog and outlines the highlights of the former’s tenure on the High Court of the Chief Rabbinate.
The book’s title, Yisa Shalom: Choveret al Rav Kook v’Rav Elyashiv, alludes to Rav Elyashiv’s full name, Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. Below, I have summarized some of the key points covered in the book.
The relationship between Rav Elyashiv and Rav Kook can be traced to the days before either sage reached the shores of the Land of Israel. Rav Elyashiv’s famous grandfather, Rav Shlomo Elyashiv, was an eminent kabbalist and prolific author of several works on Jewish mysticism. One of these works was entitled Leshem Shevo V’Achlama; hence, the elder Rav Elyashiv’s pseudonym, the Baal HaLeshem, or more commonly, just the “Leshem.” Rav Kook, as the fledgling rabbi of the town of Zoimel in Lithuania, was familiar with the elder kabbalist and would spend entire nights with him studying Lurianic Kabbalah (the writings of the sainted Ari, zt”l).
Several years later, while Rav Kook was serving as the spiritual leader of the town of Boisk, Latvia, he spent summers at a nearby seashore resort. The Leshem’s son-in-law, Rabbi Avrohom Levinson, who eventually assumed his father-in-law’s surname, Elyashiv, would also frequent that seashore town, and a very close relationship developed between the two. It was during that time that Rabbi Avrohom Elyashiv received semichah, rabbinic ordination, from Rav Kook.
It is no wonder, then, that in 1922, when Rav Kook had already immigrated to Eretz Yisrael and had been ordained chief rabbi of Jerusalem, the Elyashiv family turned to him for assistance in leaving Russia and settling in the Holy Land. The letter in which the Leshem turns to his now-influential former chavruta for assistance is extant, and a copy of it is reproduced in the booklet. Eventually, the great kabbalist, his son-in-law, daughter and eleven-year-old grandson, were able to emigrate to the Land of Israel due to Rav Kook’s intervention. That eleven-year-old grandson grew up to be the great sage whom we are now mourning, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv.
Records demonstrate the numerous contacts that Rabbi Kook had with the senior Rav Elyashiv during the years they both sojourned in Jerusalem. One particularly poignant story tells of a visit the revered Leshem paid to the chief rabbi. It was a bitterly cold winter evening and Rav Kook noted that the Leshem had no coat. Rav Kook immediately took his own fur-lined coat from his closet and gave it to the elderly man as a gift. This coat remained in the Elyashiv family as an heirloom and was periodically worn by Rav Yosef Shalom on wintry days.
Rav Kook was so impressed by the young Rav Elyashiv that he proposed him as a groom for the daughter of his close colleague and disciple, the famed “Tzaddik of Yerushalayim,” Rabbi Aryeh Levin. This proposal initiated long deliberations by all parties of the shidduch. Eventually the match was agreed upon, and Rav Kook was not only the shadchan, but also hosted the engagement party in his home. He soon served as the mesader kiddushin at the wedding of Rav Elyashiv to Rav Levin’s daughter Shaina. Later, Rav Kook was selected by Rav Elyashiv to be the Kohen at the pidyon haben of his eldest son, Shlomo.
The link between Rav Kook and Rav Elyashiv was not limited to their personal connections. Rav Elyashiv revered Rav Kook for both his piety and his Talmudic erudition. Rav Elyashiv would do all he could to silence those who would criticize Rav Kook and attempt to diminish his stature. He would frequently describe Rav Kook’s saintliness at his Shabbat table and occasionally reminisce about the times he attended seudah shelishit in his home.
The book quotes by name quite an array of individuals who recount occasions during which Rav Elyashiv would speak about Rav Kook admiringly, asserting that “he was a gaon and tzaddik, with his head in the heavens—der greste foon alle, the greatest of them all.”
A recently published book, in Hebrew, details the many connections between Rav Kook and Rav Elyashiv.
Rav Elyashiv would frequently refer to some of Rav Kook’s published works, particularly his collection of correspondence. He kept a copy of the first volume of Iggerot HaReiyah, Rav Kook’s letters, near his study desk and would regularly read it. In fact, when young yeshivah students, and occasionally even great Torah scholars, would ask his advice for securing success in Talmud study, he would refer them to the sixth letter in this volume. In this letter, Rav Kook counsels his brother Shmuel:
I am happy that you have informed me of your studies. I must confess to having been shocked to discover that you only review your lessons three times. Please be aware, my dear brother, that I can testify from personal experience that it is impossible to master Torah with merely three review sessions. I therefore ask you, my dear brother, to become accustomed to review each chapter you study of Talmud at least ten times before continuing on to the next chapter . . .”
Rav Elyashiv would characteristically quote this letter, and emphasize the line, “I am shocked that you only review your lessons three times.”
Most published accounts of Rav Elyashiv’s life disregard, or perhaps suppress, the many connections he had with the first chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook.
The book quotes one of Rav Elyashiv’s sons, who reports that his father was especially fond of the book Shabbat Ha’aretz, Rav Kook’s masterpiece on the subject of shemittah, the Sabbatical year. He relates that on one specific occasion he remembers his father pounding on the table and insisting that “the time had come to annotate and publish a new and expanded edition of Shabbat Ha’aretz.”
After relating dozens of episodes indicating the high regard Rav Elyashiv had for Rav Kook, the authors of the book conclude with a thorough description of Rav Elyashiv’s close working relationship with Rav Herzog, including Rav Elyashiv’s participation in the Friday gatherings which Rav Herzog hosted each week in his home for the prominent sages of Jerusalem. The older participants in these gatherings included Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer and Rav Yechezkel Abramsky, while the younger group consisted of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rav Bezalel Zolty, Rav Avraham Shapiro and Rav Elyashiv.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, a much more recent chief rabbi of Israel, is quoted as saying that Rav Elyashiv would not actively become involved in the intense discussions at Rav Herzog’s home, but would wait his turn and insert just a well-timed sentence or two which would cause all present to pause and listen attentively to the young scholar.
Interestingly, there was a bit of a family connection between Rav Elyashiv and Rav Herzog. Very early in his career, Rav Elyashiv studied in the kollel of Rav Shmuel Yitzchak Hillman, who was Rav Herzog’s father-in-law.
The book concludes with several anecdotes illustrating the respect which Rav Elyashiv had for the Office of the Chief Rabbinate in the final years of his life. Rabbi Yona Metzger, the current chief rabbi, tells how Rav Elyashiv would ask his daughter, who helped tend to the small apartment in which he lived, to ensure that all was neat in expectation of a visit from him, the chief rabbi.
Rav Metzger also relates that Rav Elyashiv would stand in his presence. “Surely,” he comments modestly, “he was not standing for me, but rather for the office which I happen to occupy.”
It is my hope that the readers of Jewish Action will come to a more comprehensive appreciation of the rich life and diverse experiences of one of the greatest sages of recent Jewish history. May his memory, and the memories of those great individuals with whom he associated, be a blessing for us, and for all of Israel.
For those interested in obtaining a copy of the book Yisa Shalom: Choveret al Rav Kook v’Rav Elyashiv, contact the publisher at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president, emeritus of the Orthodox Union.