By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
I have seen and heard a lot of talk about the recent passing of an elderly rabbi in Jerusalem and, in my ignorance, fail to see why it is such a source of discussion in a country that has untold numbers of rabbis. Perhaps I don’t understand why there’s such a sense of loss over him in the rabbinical communities of Israel and around the world; I would appreciate it if you could enlighten me.
— Gertrude W.
The rabbi you are referring to was Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (ob’m), who died this month at age 102. He was completely lucid, his mind razor-sharp, up until his very last hours.
Rav Elyashiv was considered the principal authority on Jewish law and Talmud in our generation. He was renowned for his brilliant mind, his instant recall of any and all vast areas of Talmud, its commentaries and supra-commentaries, the Code of Jewish Law and the massive body of post-Talmudic response literature.
All this breathtaking knowledge did not happen by accident. For many decades, Rav Elyashiv has been the paradigm in the Jewish scholarly world for his diligence in study. For more than 70 years, he has slept only three hours in a 24-hour period. After a brief sleep at midnight he would wake himself up at 2 a.m. and study until the morning, only taking a brief, one-hour nap during the day.
Besides his nightly Talmud class (which he stopped delivering only recently) and certain set hours when he accepted petitioners, his study never ceased. This took super-human strength and nerves of steel to continue this way for nearly a century, and paid off by making him one of the greatest Jewish scholars of all time, certainly in our generation.
For 22 years, he was the chief justice of the High Rabbinical Court of Jerusalem, a place where he achieved worldwide scholarly renown, bringing the top rabbinical authorities from around the world to consult Rav Elyashiv on the thorniest and most complicated matters of Jewish law. All were always amazed by his instant recall and unparalleled command of any subject presented to him.
I count myself among the fortunate individuals who knew him; I had the good fortune of spending dozens of hours with the Rav, mostly discussing with him a book I was writing in Jerusalem.
Despite his schedule and demands upon him from the entire generation in Israel and the Diaspora, he patiently discussed each matter with me, reviewed it and clarified with his sources and logic. Each time I walked away amazed, struck by the feeling I have just had a sitting with royalty, a man of complete and absolute control over himself and all material. This, with so much caring for the Jewish people and God’s Torah, and so much love for every Jew.
Within every period of Torah scholars there is what is called “yeridas hadoros.” The further we get on in that period, the more we see a slow, incremental depreciation in the level of scholarship, and the further we get from Sinai.
It is clear, however, that all leaders within that period are all part of the same “period,” such as the period of the Mishna and its scholars. Then, at one point, usually with the death of a certain rabbi of that period, it becomes self-evident that the next level down is not incremental, but like going down a cliff, with miles between what was and what is.
This begins a new period, ending the old. For example, the transition between the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods reflect two completely different scales of scholarship and consequently a new period in Jewish history.
The passing of Rav Elyashiv is such a change; it spells the end of period of Jewish scholarship and the closing of a chapter in Jewish history. He was the last of a generation of giants — names such as Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach, Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Eliezer Schach, Rav Yaakov Kamintzky, Rav Yisrael Yaakov Kinyevsky and others of the past generation who reflected the glory of pre-Holocaust giants of scholarship and greatness of spirit we are hard pressed to find the likes of now — were the crowning glory of the Jewish people.
Rav Elyashiv was the last scion and representative of that grand generation of Torah leaders. The third of a million people who ascended to his funeral at a few hours’ notice were weeping not only over the loss of a great man, but over the sad end of a glorious period in Jewish history.
May we merit to learn from his ways and do what we can to make up for his loss through the strengthening of our own learning and the fulfillment of the will of God.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel, Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.