Friday, August 3, 2012

The Passing of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and a Look Back at his Friendship with Rabbi Isaac HaLevi Herzog


Two weeks ago, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the spiritual leader of the Lithuanian Haredi community and a renowned halakhic decisor, passed away at the age of 102. Not many know that Rabbi Elyashiv served from the early 1950s through the 70s as a judge in the rabbinical courts of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate--first in the district court of Jerusalem and afterward in the Great Rabbinical Court there. Likewise, few are aware that Elyashiv was personally close with the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Isaac HaLevi Herzog, who selected him for those appointments. Herzog was a famed Zionist rabbi of great Jewish learning, and also a man of vast secular knowledge with a doctorate from the University of London. Thus, the relationship between him and Rabbi Elyashiv, a Haredi rabbi who was not a Zionist, is a matter of some fascination.

The State Archives contains several interesting papers documenting Rabbi Elyashiv's work as a judge, as well as his connection with Rabbi Herzog. Here we offer a sampling of these to the general public. Most of the documents are drawn from Rabbi Herzog's personal archive, a choice selection of which can be found on the web site of the State Archives. The first document is an official letter from the Chief Rabbinate to Rabbi Elyashiv from the end of 1950 informing him of the decision to appoint him as an acting member of the Jerusalem rabbinical court. It is signed by Rabbi Herzog and the Sefardic Chief Rabbi of the time, Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel. The next document is a section from a letter from 1951 written by Rabbi Elyashiv to Rabbi Herzog in which he praises him for freeing an agunah (a woman unable to remarry according to Jewish law), and refers to Rabbi Herzog with the august honorific "עטרת צבי וצפירת תפארה הגאון האמיתי" ("The crown of nobility and beacon of splendor, the true genius"). The archives also contain several halakhic responsa written by Rabbi Elyashiv. Here is one from 1954 on the subject of sending a get (religious writ of divorce) and a corresponding letter from Rabbi Herzog commenting on this responsum.

All of the documents above are typed, but the archives also possess a selection of handwritten letters from Rabbi Elyashiv, most of which relay to Rabbi Herzog his opinions on various candidates for rabbinic ordination. Here is one such letter from 1958, for anyone who wishes to have a look at Rabbi Elyashiv's own handwriting.

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