An Unconventional Gadol

By Yissachar Dov Krakowski

Rabbi Chaim Yisroel Belsky was not your conventional gadol. A gadol, by definition, is someone larger than life. Rabbi Belsky was not just a “larger-than-life” figure, he was truly an enigma. Rabbi Belsky cared for nothing other than learning Torah, doing mitzvot and fulfilling ratzon Hashem. And yet, he could enjoy a spirited game of paddleball or a trip whitewater rafting down the Delaware River. Raised as an all-American boy in Brooklyn in the 1940s and 50s, Rabbi Belsky knew how to enjoy every aspect of life, and yet he was the epitome of piety.

How did Rabbi Belsky become such a gadol? Through hard work, diligence and perseverance. Even his ability to multi-task—which he did in an almost supernatural way—was something he trained himself to do. Rabbi Belsky could learn Mishnah Berurah while simultaneously listening to someone else. My brother was once talking to Rabbi Belsky, and the entire time, Rabbi Belsky was learning Mishnah Berurah. A fellow nearby remarked with a smirk, “Don’t you see the rosh yeshivah is learning and isn’t listening to you?” Rabbi Belsky looked up and said, “Of course I heard him.” He then proceeded to repeat my brother’s monologue, word for word.

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Photo: Shulim Goldring

Rabbi Belsky was not born with this talent. He recounted that when he was a young boy, he actually had to train himself to focus. He would stare at a coin for as long as he could. He would repeat this staring exercise and try to increase the amount of time he could stay focused. He would then twiddle his thumbs in opposite directions in order to split his focus.

Rabbi Belsky was also extraordinarily persistent. The first time he finished Shas he did so over the span of two daf yomi cycles. Why two? Because he would skip every other tractate in order to review the previous one. Most people would be unwilling to embark upon a journey that would take fifteen years. But Rabbi Belsky had the foresight and fortitude to do so—even in his teen years. When he finished his fifteen-year cycle through Shas, he heard that the Chofetz Chaim had once told Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman that it’s important to learn Shas in order, lest one accidentally miss a minor tractate somehow. He immediately began to learn Shas again—this time in order. Rabbi Belsky continued learning the daf and delivered a daf yomi shiur for the rest of his life.

His persistence and determination were evident in so many of his accomplishments. Many people want to have a share in tikkun olam, improving the world, but they often feel incapable of doing so because of one obstacle or another. Rabbi Belsky saw the need to help Russian Jewry—a significant population of Russian Jews lived in his Brooklyn neighborhood—but the language barrier did not deter him. He taught himself how to speak Russian. Nor was he satisfied with just learning the basics—he mastered two different dialects as well as the ability to read Russian.

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Rabbi Belsky was a true scholar. There wasn’t a subject on which he couldn’t comment intelligently. He loved music and nature. He had a burning thirst to understand Hashem’s world. To this end, he mastered much of biology, physics and chemistry. He knew all of the constellations, and was able to reassemble dismembered animals, a skill that was especially useful in his role as a posek for OU Kosher. His love for mankind fostered a love for history. Because of his uniquely broad perspective, he had a tremendous advantage when advising talmidim and when determining complex kashrut issues. It was this vantage point that gave him the ability to explain the most complicated Torah concepts in the most lucid way.

Rabbi Belsky’s fascination with the world around him was evident. He would often quote the expression “youth is wasted on the young” and note that they have it backwards. “The best part of being young is youth,” he would say. He would go on to explain that when one is young, one can experiment and enjoy different experiences without suffering irreparable consequences.

Sports to Rabbi Belsky were a way of enjoying Hashem’s world. He played paddleball, hiked and went swimming during the summers he spent with his “masmidim” (Rabbi Belsky oversaw Camp Agudah’s Masmidim Program). Nonetheless, none of these other studies or activities came at the expense of his learning; Torah was paramount. On the rare occasion that Rabbi Belsky had spare time, he seized the opportunity to engage in more Torah study. Once in camp on a five-hour bus ride he reviewed the entire tractate of Gittin with Rashi and Tosafot.

The Chofetz Chaim was known to spend two hours a day on self-introspection. Rabbi Belsky said that when he first heard this, he thought to himself, “What a waste of time! Imagine how much more the Chofetz Chaim could have learned those two extra hours each day?” Rabbi Belsky realized, however, that it was precisely the time he used for introspection that made the Chofetz Chaim who he was. When one reflects on one’s life, said Rabbi Belsky, he can transform all of it into Torah study.

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Despite his remarkable brilliance, Rabbi Belsky had no airs about him. We all know Rabbi Belsky as the rosh yeshivah of Torah Vodaath, the senior posek for OU Kosher and the rav of Camp Agudah. However, he had humble beginnings: he started out as a math teacher in Torah Vodaath; his first kashrut position was with the Kof-K and he served as a counselor and learning instructor in Camp Agudah.  

No job was too trivial for him. This was an essential part of his ideology. The mishnah in Pirkei Avot (1:10) says: “Ehov et hamelachah u’sena et harabbanut, ve’al titvada larashut—Love work, hate public office and do not become too intimate with the ruling power.” At first glance it appears as if the mishnah is saying that one should avoid the rabbinate and work in a different field. Rabbi Belsky asked the obvious question: how could Chazal tell us to avoid the rabbinate? He answered: the mishnah is saying that one should pursue the aspects of the rabbinate that entail work and develop disdain for the ceremonial and honorary aspects of the rabbinate. This teaching truly personified him. For this reason, he said, he enjoyed working in the kashrut industry, as it offers little honor or glory and entails much hard work.

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Rabbi Belsky was a constant source of positive energy. He never focused on the negative. When people would bring their children to him to receive a berachah, he would tell the children that they should become tzaddikim and talmidei chachamim and that they should have a fun time doing so.

His attitude was “build people, don’t break people.” Parents, he believed, should reproach their children when they misbehave. But he would always advise parents not to rebuke their children too much. He would say, “Tell your child that what he did was wrong or that he cannot do such a thing, but don’t dwell on it. Change the topic immediately afterwards.” He would also emphasize the importance of complimenting and rewarding children whenever possible. Similarly, with regard to shalom bayit, Rabbi Belsky would say, “It’s not your job to correct your spouse’s behavior.”

Rabbi Reuven Cohen, one of Rabbi Belsky’s sons-in-law, recalled how devoted Rabbi Belsky was to his rebbetzin. In recent years, Rabbi Belsky’s wife became afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, a devastating illness that takes an obvious toll on its victims but also on their spouses. Even as the rebbetzins situation deteriorated and she became less and less aware, Rabbi Belsky would always compliment her and ease her worries—over and over again. He truly practiced what he preached.

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The number of chassadim that Rabbi Belsky was involved in is truly extraordinary. He was almost constantly giving to others in some form or another. Seventeen years ago he remarked that he hadn’t learned a proper seder for himself in at least twenty-five years. What he meant was that most of the time he spent learning was for the purpose of giving to others: to prepare a shiur or to decide a difficult halachic query.

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But his chesed went way beyond learning and teaching. Anyone seeking a Friday night meal had an address in Brooklyn to go to—the Belskys. You didn’t need to call up before; all you needed to do was show up. When the meal was over, Rabbi Belsky didn’t bid his guests farewell; he would bring out snacks and sing with whomever wanted to remain. With each song he sang, he would share a story. Because Rabbi Belsky’s kavod habriyot knew no bounds and he had respect for everyone, all sorts of people ended up at his Shabbat table. Not every guest was a dream guest, yet Rabbi Belsky and his rebbetzin treated them as honored and esteemed company.

Rabbi Belsky’s passing leaves a huge void. Let us recall his life as a source of inspiration. His life was a lesson that patience, persistence and perseverance pay off. May his legacy live on.

Rabbi Yissachar Dov Krakowski is rabbinic coordinator for OU Kosher, Israel. He served as rabbi of Kehillas Torah Ve’Chessed in Nachlaot Yerushalayim and currently serves as an official posek in Shaarei Chessed, Jerusalem. An alumnus of Camp Agudah’s Masmidim Program, Rabbi Krakowski spent many summers learning with Rabbi Belsky.

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This article was featured in the Summer 2016 issue of Jewish Action.
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