DOT... LETTER... WORD...
The Life and Teachings of the Master of Kabbalah, the Righteous “Foundation of the World,” Rabbi Shlomo Elyashiv, Author of the Volumes of Leshem Shevo Ve’achlamah, on the Occasion of his Fiftieth Yahrzeit
27 Adar 5686 - 27 Adar 5736
by Rabbi Deblitzki (Rabbi Deblitzki's first name, שריה, should presumably be pronounced Srayah, but it appears in a Google search also as Sroyah and Sheriah)
The 22nd of Adar in this year of 5736 (according to the Rema, on Adar I [see Orach Chaim 568:7]) marks the fiftieth year since the angels conquered the righteous man, one of the greatest men and tzaddikim of the generation, a master of kabbalah whose like had not arisen in a number of generations, a genius awesome in his standing and attainments, our master, Rabbi Shlomo Elyashiv, famed and known in particular as the author of the Leshem Shevo Ve’achlamah.
His greatness in the secrets of the holy Torah reached the heavens—something that may be appreciated from his great books, which will be discussed later on, from which one may see his power and might, like that of a messenger sent from on high to decipher hidden, concealed matters. However, he did not attain the measure of fame that he deserved—apparently for the reason that “[God] does the will of those who fear Him” (Psalms 145:19) and he, being humble, “during his lifetime concealed his holy ways, so that few were privileged to come close to him” (in the words of his son-in-law, the gaon, Rabbi Avraham Elyashiv, in his introduction to Chelek Habiurim). Because of that, many people have never even heard of him.
As a result, I found it necessary—for the sake of the honor of God’s name, and His holy Torah, in all of its parts, revealed and hidden, which are perfectly aligned with each other—to explain the portion acquired by this tzaddik, the “foundation of the world,” on his fiftieth yahrzeit, to inform and reveal at least a fraction of his ways, deeds and customs, his awesome Torah and his holy ways, so that we—each person on his level—may yearn to acquire and attain something of his holy customs and ways. As is known, the most useful and inspiring works of ethical instruction are books that tell the praise of righteous people, relate their stories and describe their customs. From that, we learn the levels that a human being can attain when he controls his abilities and his will with a strong commitment. Then, in accordance with the great strength of the yearning of his will and determination, he is given Divine assistance tenfold or a hundredfold.
To a certain extent, the words of Rabbi Yaakov Tzemach (in the introduction to the Eitz Chaim) have been realized:
This wisdom is being revealed in these lowly generations so that we will now have a shield, and we will be able to grasp our Father in heaven with all our heart…. Now the hidden things are as though revealed, because in this generation licentiousness, denunciation, slander and hatred in the heart rule, and the “husks” have spread…. What will shield us if not our study of this awesome and deep wisdom…?
(He wrote these holy words for his generation almost 400 years ago—how much more are they relevant now.) In this last generation, over the last two decades a relatively large number of people have been learning the secrets of the Torah. And from the best and greatest Torah scholars both young and old, communities and circles are involved in this holy learning with review and proper understanding, in groups and as individuals. Almost all of the carefully-edited books of the Arizal and the books of other supernal, holy people have been published and republished after an interruption of almost fifty years. This phenomenon is one of the reasons that impelled me to publish this booklet with the thought that it is timely to describe this awesome man of God to some degree, something that will certainly contribute a great deal to inspire people, strengthening this holy learning so that people will cling to the Tree of Life, sit in its shadow and eat of its fruits and goodness—in particular, in the atmosphere of the Holy Land, from which the light of the world shines forth (may it soon be revealed, quickly, in our days).
About ten years after Rabbi Elyashiv passed away, his Chelek Habiurim was published in 5695 with a preface dedicated to his memory, including a brief description of his life by the gaon and tzaddik, Rabbi Aryeh Levin, who was one of Rabbi Elyashiv’s frequent guests and who was also related to him by marriage. That essay was republished by the same publisher that same year as a separate booklet with a few additions.
In this essay of mine, I will include a very brief summary of the words of the gaon Rabbi Aryeh Levin, with additions from a number of other books and sources, together with an overview of Rabbi Elyashiv’s approach in kabbalah and a few other important matters.
The gaon, the tzaddik, Rabbi Aryeh Levin, introduces his impressions with the following words:
This author deserves a full-length biography so that we might appreciate him: a Godly man who lived in our generation, a messenger sent from the heights to decipher hidden matters, to illuminate the world with the volumes that comprise his Leshem Shevo Ve’achlamah. “Greater are tzaddikim in their deaths…”—for, following his death, volumes continued to be published, containing the revelation of vast amounts of hidden matters, peerless secrets of the wisdom of truth. He achieved this wondrously and tremendously in his holy works.
And knowledge of the biographies of tzaddikim encourages a person to improve his behavior by giving him the yearning to cling to their deeds.
1. A Brief Summary of Rabbi Elyashiv’s Life
Rabbi Elyashiv was born in 5701 in Zagar, Lithuania, to his righteous parents, who were related to the Arizal and to Rabbi Shimshon of Ostropolye.
In his deeds, he was recognized even as a young person as possessing great talents, with all of the good qualities and traits needed by someone striving to engage in the task and labor leading to holiness. His father, the tzaddik, Rabbi Chaykel, was known among the leaders of the generation as one of the 36 tzaddikim upon whom the world depends. Every night, Rabbi Chaykel stayed awake learning Torah. When one of the tzaddikim of that generation, the gaon and tzaddik, Rabbi Shraga Meir Leizorovitz, had a son, he asked the tzaddik, Rabbi Chaykel, who at the time was in a distant city, to come to the circumcision and be honored as sandek. As for Rabbi Elyashiv, his mother, the righteous Mrs. Setira Gita, tells that when she was pregnant with him she knew that she would bear a tzaddik and supernal holy being because she always saw a light before her.
In Rabbi Elyashiv’s youth, after he spent few years learning with his father, he exiled himself to a place of Torah, Minsk, to seek Torah from the great genius, Rabbi Gershon Tanchum. Over the next few years, that gaon learned regularly with him, including a special lesson with him, until he taught him the entire Talmud.
When he turned twenty, he married Bas Sheva Esther, the daughter of one of the important men of the city of Shavel, Lithuania, a man loved and appreciated by the rabbis, and a Torah scholar in his own right, Rabbi Dovid Fein. Rabbi Elyashiv’s righteous wife served as a helpmeet in the full sense of the word. Over the years, wherever they went, she was of great assistance in accepting upon herself the
responsibility of financially supporting her family and making do with little so as not to disturb her holy husband whatsoever from serving the Creator. “Women—with what do they gain merit?” (Berachos 17a). Her portion was great in that she helped her holy husband attain the hidden light of the secrets of the Torah on the highest level.
Despite Rabbi Elyashiv’s difficulties and poverty, he adamantly refused to accept any public rabbinic post that was offered him. Instead, after he established his home in the city of his father-in-law and his wife’s family, Shavel, Lithuania, he dedicated and sanctified all of his time to Hashem. And when he realized that there still remained disturbances preventing him from reaching the levels that he had set as his goal, he did not hesitate to emulate the ways of the great Torah sages in those generations by leaving his home. He traveled to the city of Telz, where he learned in self-abnegation for a period of ten years.
There he learned in a state of self-abnegation, engaged in Torah and worship with great diligence that cannot be described, sleeping only a few hours every night. During the day, he learned all of the branches of the revealed Torah, and at night he learned the wisdom of truth, for which his soul had yearned since his youth.
He was initially guided in the wisdom of truth in Telz by two men. One was the gaon, the tzaddik, the beauty of the generation, Rabbi Yosef Reizen (Rozen; author of the responsa Eidus Bihosef), who served as rabbi and av beis din (head of the court) of Telz, and from an older Torah scholar who learned there in self-abnegation, a wondrous man humble in his ways, a pious man who was summoned to the heavenly yeshiva in the midst of his days and whose name is not known, for Rabbi Elyashiv did not reveal it.
From then on, Rabbi Elyashiv’s powerful longing to attain the crown of the Torah of the wisdom of truth increased. According to the testimony of the gaon and tzaddik, Rabbi Yosef Leib Bloch of Telz, whatever Rabbi Elyashiv attained was due to his great toil to the point of self-sacrifice in this wisdom, accompanied by intense weeping with an outpouring of the soul as he asked Hashem to illuminate his eyes in His Torah. In this, Rabbi Elyashiv practiced that which is suggested in the name of Rabbi Chaim Vital in his introduction to the Eitz Chaim, in the “Conditions of Attaining Wisdom”: that one should weep as much as one can regarding any words of Torah that one does not understand.
Similarly, it is known that the gaon of kabbalah, the author of Shemen Sasson, learned every expression and chapter of the Arizal 101 times, and whenever he did not understand something he wept copiously.
However, prior to entering the orchard of the true wisdom, Rabbi Elyashiv first filled his belly with the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds and halachic works, and learned many books of ethics and the fear of God—in particular, the holy work, Reishis Chochmah, which he knew by heart—as well as works of philosophy and thought. Only then did he enter the orchard by learning the works of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero and afterwards the Torah of our rabbi, the Arizal, in accordance with the words of the gaon, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, in Kesser Rosh (61) that the wisdom of kabbalah begins where philosophy ends, and the kabbalah of the Arizal begins where the kabbalah of the Ramak ends.
When Rabbi Elyashiv returned after years of separation to his city of Shavel, he worked to assure his Torah learning and service of God by refraining from mundane, unnecessary conversation, and he remained closed in his room crowned in tallis and tefillin, learning the revealed and hidden Torah with awesome diligence day and night, entirely dedicated to Hashem. The elder gaon, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Ferber of London, describes him in his memoirs as follows: “Once I had the privilege of entering the room of that man of God. I trembled before his shining face, wrapped in tallis and tefillin and clinging to his Torah.” There Rabbi Elyashiv had the merit of composing all of the volumes of his awesome, great works, which he gave the inclusive title, Leshem Shevo Ve’achlamah.
As stated earlier, Rabbi Elyashiv composed his books in holiness and purity. He himself made the ink and prepared the quills. The act of writing was itself almost miraculous because, although his right hand was feeble, he wrote with wondrous swiftness, almost fitting the description of “causing a quill to write of its own accord.” Later, his writings were protected and saved during the First World War, when he had to travel to the cities of inner Russia, and when made aliyah from there to the Holy Land, in ways that people saw as supernatural.
In principal, he wrote all of his works only until his fiftieth
year. From then on, his thoughts could not be constricted, and he only engaged in editing his previous writings and arranging them in new editions.
After his soul yearned to the point of expiration for the courtyards of the house of Hashem, he had the privilege in his very old age—after years of suffering and exile due to the First World War—to come to our Holy Land. That was in Adar of 5682, when he was 81 years old. He arrived with his family. A modest reception was arranged for him at the gates of Jerusalem by the elite, precious leaders of Jerusalem and its men great in the revealed and hidden Torah, where they expressed their respect and appreciation.
He established his home in Batei Neitin in Jerusalem, where his home quickly became a meeting place to all who turned to him, whether in matters of the hidden wisdom regarding which many of the sages of Jerusalem and the Holy Land sought him, or whether in requests for prayer, advice and counsel. He received everyone pleasantly and answered each individual.
Unfortunately, Rabbi Elyashiv did not live long in Jerusalem. After a brief illness, his pure soul rose to the hidden heights on the eve of the holy Sabbath, and he was called up in sanctity, Parshat Vayikra, on the 22nd of Adar, 5686.
His funeral took place on Saturday night, attended by many people, and he was eulogized by the great men of the generation who understood their great loss.
“My father, my father, chariot of Israel and its horses!” cried one of the great leaders and tzaddikim of the generation in his eulogy, and he continued, “If we had the merit, we would see with our own eyes how the pillar of fire separated him from us, as is fitting for one or two people in a generation, because the holy gaon was unique in the generation in the wisdom of truth.”
“And indeed,” writes the gaon and tzaddik, Rabbi Aryeh Levin, “all of us who participated had the privilege of seeing with our own eyes a pillar of fire in the shape of a rainbow beneath the vault of heaven stretching from east to west until the grave was covered. Everyone saw this and was stunned.”
My friend, Rabbi Chaim Yaakov Elkonik of Bnei Brak, who grew up in Jerusalem, told me that he recalls that his honorable father, serving Hashem with faith, told him something wondrous when he returned from the funeral: that he saw the pillar of light with his own eyes.
Also, the great chronicler of the lives and deeds of the tzaddikim, the famous rabbi and gaon, Rabbi Avraham Stern, may Hashem avenge his blood, writes in his book, Melitzei Eish (Adar, p. 71):
The gaon and rabbi, Tzvi Ferber, av beis din of the holy community of London, wrote me that when the coffin of the holy Rabbi Shlomo Elyashiv (may his memory be for a blessing) was buried, an awesome sight appeared before the eyes of all the people: a pillar of fire from east to west, until the grave was filled in—something that had not appeared in the holy city of Jerusalem for a few hundred years.
This has constituted a very brief summary of Rabbi Elyashiv’s life. We will also discuss a number of other topics that have a special connection with him. But first we will mention some more members of his extended family in our Holy land, who are all great men and gaonim of Torah. Our rabbi had a number of daughters who were married to great men of Torah, and he also had a son who served in the rabbinate outside the Holy Land. It appears that the offspring of his extended family outside the Holy Land did not remain alive, tragically, for our many sins.
When Rabbi Elyashiv made aliyah to the Holy Land, he was accompanied by one of his daughters, her husband and their children. This daughter served her holy father in the full meaning of the word while outside the Holy Land and, even more so, in the Holy Land when he was very old. Her husband was the rabbi and gaon, Rabbi Avraham Elyashiv, who was known in Jerusalem as the Hamla rabbi. After Rabbi Avraham Elyashiv made aliyah to Jerusalem, he founded Chevras Tiferes Bachurim in Meah Shearim, where he delivered regular daily lessons to tens of God-fearing workers who over the course of the years became learned. Their only son, who made aliyah with them, had the privilege in his youth of serving his holy grandfather. After writing was all but impossible for Rabbi Elyashiv because of his impaired sight, this grandson wrote down and edited his teachings and holy books. Today he is the great gaon, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who is known and recognized as one of the leaders of the generation in all areas and branches of the holy Torah; and all of his sons and sons-in-law are great, famous men in Torah in the Holy Land.
2. Rabbi Elyashiv’s Relationship with the Leaders of the Generation
Rabbi Elyashiv was praised by the leaders of the generation of that era as a holy personality.
When Rabbi Elyashiv was living in Shavel, the gaonim would visit him when they passed through. Some came to him especially to learn the wisdom of truth with him. Among these were the gaonim and tzaddikim, Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer-Peterburger, Rabbi Tzvi Livayasan (also known as Rabbi Hershel Slabodker) and Rabbi Yosef Yozel of Novardok, who would travel to him and spend time with him from time to time. And Rabbi Elyashiv spent hours alone together with the gaon, Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer, and they also exchanged correspondence. Similarly, the gaon and tzaddik, Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian, traveled to him and stayed with him for about a year.
Especial ties of affection existed between Rabbi Elyashiv and the Chafetz Chaim. The Chafetz Chaim deeply appreciated and valued Rabbi Elyashiv. When Rabbi Elyashiv was exiled to the city of Hamla in Russia, the Chafetz Chaim visited him and said of him in his sweet language, “We build below and reach up to the world above, whereas he, since the pathways of the upper worlds are clear to him, builds his parlors in heaven.” Also, when Rabbi Elyashiv was in Shavel, the Chafetz Chaim visited him and they ate together. And when the Chafetz Chaim remained with him for the holy Sabbath, the arrangements in Rabbi Elyashiv’s house were changed so that the girls and women ate separately and not at the table where the two tzaddikim were seated.
There is a story about the Chafetz Chaim’s outstanding student, the gaon and tzaddik, Rabbi Eliyahu HaCohen Dushnitzer. He once took leave of his rabbi in order to travel to the city of Shavel, where Rabbi Elyashiv lived, for some purpose. After Rabbi Dushnitzer had left the Chafetz Chaim he suddenly noticed the Chafetz Chaim’s son-in-law hurrying after him. When the son-in-law reached him, he said that the Chafetz Chaim had sent him to tell Rabbi Dushnitzer that when in Shavel he should try for God’s sake to visit the tzaddik, Rabbi Elyashiv, “for in this world it is still possible to see him and come close to him, whereas in the world-to-come, who knows if we will merit that.”
Rabbi Elyashiv had particular appreciation for the gaon, the tzaddik and foundation of the world, Rabbi Israel of Salant. However, they never met face to face because, since Rabbi Elyashiv was young when they were near each other, he was afraid that Rabbi Israel Salanter would forbid him to study the hidden wisdom. But there was someone especially close to the gaon, Rabbi Israel Salanter, would regularly tell Rabbi Elyashiv every word that he heard from Rabbi Israel Salanter’s holy mouth and what his eyes had seen. And when this man told the gaon Rabbi Israel Salanter of Rabbi Elyashiv’s concern, which had kept Rabbi Elyashiv from visiting him, the gaon Rabbi Israel Salanter said, “To the contrary, it would never occur to me to prevent anyone from going in the path of serving Hashem that he has chosen for himself.” As a matter of fact, the gaon Rabbi Israel Salanter was great in the wisdom of the kabbalah, in keeping with the way of the gaonim and tzaddikim of Lithuania from the school of the students and students’ students of the Vilna Gaon, but as was the way of many gaonim and world-class tzaddikim, this was with the greatest reticence possible, because the gaon, Rabbi Israel of Salant, hid his ways in many things. In Leshem Shevo Ve’achlamah (Chelek Sefer Hadeah: Derushei Olam Hatohu, Part 1, p. 38b), Rabbi Elyashiv cited what he had heard in the name of the gaon, Rabbi Israel of Salant: “Whoever proceeds deeply in this [hidden wisdom] will be successful and find [what he has sought]. And this is true only since the year 5600, because until then [the kabbalah] was still sealed and closed to all but a few special individuals.”
Rabbi Elyashiv did not refrain from expressing his surprise that many of the sages of the generation did not involve themselves in this wisdom. “I am astonished,” he writes, “at those sages of the generation who have no knowledge of this, for how can they refrain from studying the wisdom of truth, which is the core of the Torah?”
Rabbi Elyashiv’s reputation reached Baghdad, the home of the honorable, great genius in the revealed and hidden Torah, Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, author of the Ben Ish Chai and [works on] Shas. The gaon, Rabbi Tzvi Ferber, writes,
Childishly, I asked Rabbi Elyashiv why he does not accept approbations. He told me that he knew of a person, unique in the generation in the revealed and hidden Torah, the awesome genius, Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, [from whom he would accept an approbation]. Rabbi Elyashiv saw Rabbi Yosef Chaim’s books on the revealed and hidden Torah and recognized his vast greatness, unique in the generation. [Rabbi Elyashiv] sent his writings [to the Ben Ish Chai] and waited many weeks for his response—which indicated that he was examining them carefully—and [the Ben Ish Chai] approved. I asked [Rabbi Elyashiv] what [the Ben Ish Chai] had written. He laughed and told me that he would only tell me the first words of his letter: Ari bamistarim—“lion of mysteries.” That is to say, [the Ben Ish Chai] wrote his honorific beginning with the phrase, Ari bamistarim.
When the first volume of the Leshem, beautifully published, was brought to the gaon, the tzaddik, [Rabbi Elyashiv,] and his sons, the great rabbis, they recited the blessing of shehechiyanu. Similarly, when Rabbi Elyashiv’s books came into the hands of the gaon and tzaddik, Rabbi Avraham Abba Werner, av beis din of Machazikei Hadas in London, tears of joy welled from his eyes and he said, “The author is of the remnant of the Great Assembly. Upon him shone the light of the sun of the Vilna Gaon in accordance with the way of absolute truth that he paved in the wisdom of truth.”
In the year 5640, when Rabbi Elyashiv was about forty years old—an age associated with understanding—the great men of the generation authorized him to publish and edit the holy writings of the Vilna Gaon, the gaon Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Rabbi Yitzchak Eizik Chaver and others. In the spirit of his great understanding, he edited and published them. With God’s help, we will further on address his attitude to the books of the Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto). Many of the books that he edited and published contained statements from those who initiated the publication blessing and thanking him.
The great light, Rabbi Shmuel Luria of Mogilev (Mohilev), who was the faithful friend of the house of the great gaon, Rabbi Dovid Luria (the Radal), brought Rabbi Elyashiv the holy writings of the Vilna Gaon from the archives of the gaon and philanthropist, Rabbi Shmaryahu Tzuckerman of Mogilev, whose honorable wife was the daughter of the gaon, Rabbi Avraham, son of the Vilna Gaon. When Rabbi Tzuckerman brought Rabbi Elyashiv the writings, he was astonished at Rabbi Elyashiv’s greatness and said that his clear learning would even have gained the favor of the Vilna Gaon.
3. Rabbi Elyashiv’s Students
I do not particularly know those who regarded themselves as Rabbi Elyashiv’s close students. But the gaon and kabbalist, the author of To’ameha Chaim Zachu (a commentary on the Eitz Chaim), who lived in Batei Neitin in Jerusalem and considered himself to be a student of Rabbi Elyashiv, said that after Rabbi Elyashiv passed away nothing was difficult for him any more, because Rabbi Elyashiv came to him in dreams to reveal the meaning and solution of every difficult topic.
4. Rabbi Elyashiv’s Approach to Understanding Kabbalistic Concepts
This is not the place to discuss the ways that the great men across the generations viewed and understood the kabbalah’s concepts, which they expressed in their books, each following his own approach and particular way—which apparently depended on the root of his soul and was related to his literary style. It would appear that these great men across the generations disagreed in their understanding and view of these concepts. However, in my humble opinion, at the root they might not have been disagreeing.
It is possible that these great men across the generations were attempting to make spiritual concepts intellectually accessible, to inspire people and distance from them from the slightest trace of attributing materiality to Godliness. To that end, each one utilized his own style and his particular approach. In the limited framework of this essay, there is no room to explain and clarify these deep matters that stand at the peak of the world and embrace the world.
Rabbi Elyashiv’s approach regarding kabbalah concepts and the manner of transmitting them was close in spirit to and almost identical with the approach of the great Sephardic kabbalists, in a transmission generation after generation that continued the approach of the early masters.
This approach states that everything discussed in the holy Zohar and in the writings of the Arizal possesses a true spiritual reality. This is in contradiction to the view of those whose words imply that they deny true existence to all of these elevated and awesome matters and concepts, and understand them in other ways. The gaon, the great kabbalist, our teacher, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch of Ziditshov, addressed this lucidly in his work, Sur Meyra Va’asei Tov (Va’asei Tov):
I have addressed all of this at length, for I saw that there are sages, the sages of this generation, who explain all of the words of the Zohar and Idros and the words of the Arizal by saying that this is all metaphor and riddles, etc., and explain the matters not as they are in order to make everything accessible to the sensory intellect, etc. But this is not my approach. I was taught to reject this way of thinking, in which one takes matters out of the simple meaning of what they are to make them accessible to the human intellect, etc. Rather, one must believe (as above) that all of the narratives in the Idros and Sifra Detzniusa and the words of the Arizal are real and exist: they are spiritual, refined lights, concepts in the form of the chariot, etc. Therefore, my brother, guard yourself from philosophy and metaphor as applied to Godliness….
This was also Rabbi Elyashiv’s approach. In his great books, he addressed this at great length in many places, explaining how one should understand all of the kabbalah’s concepts. “In my view,” Rabbi Elyashiv writes in his Sefer Hadeah (Chelek 1, Derush 8, p. 57a):
all of the revelations in the Idra, which are themselves the core of the words of the Arizal, are not at all imagery and illustration, etc. Rather, they are complete, true and established forever, entities from the time that the Emanator, blessed be His name, emanated and brought them into being, and He clothes Himself and unites in them (as above). And heaven forbid that one entertain other conjectures about this and that one express such conjectures and concepts regarding their character.
Rabbi Elyashiv was inclined to think that the Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto) as well tended from the way of thought regarding their necessarily true existence. “And I say” he writes there:
that although the books of the Ramchal are very precious and they contain many pearls and much fine gold, and almost all of his books that we have available in our day were edited and made available for publication through my efforts, etc., nevertheless, I say that whenever the Ramchal combined the words of the holy Zohar and the Arizal with the vision of prophecy—as in the words of the verse, “in the hand of the prophets I will be visualized” (Isaiah 30:10)—and he burdened them with visions and images, my mind is not at all at ease with this, because there is not a single early or later authority who says anything of the sort, nor do the words of the holy Zohar and the Arizal at all bear the meaning of his words in this matter.
Our rabbi, the gaon, Rabbi Moshe Charlop, desired to entirely justify the tzaddik, the Ramchal. In his Mei Marom, in a discussion regarding the Rambam’s Shmoneh Perakim, p. 191, Rabbi Charlop writes:
This is the place to note that there are people who wish to describe emanated beings as abstract categories and deny that they truly have existence. But these people stray from the way of understanding. They misinterpret the words of the living God in order to turn kabbalah into philosophy. Even the Ramchal terms all of the midot [sefirot] as hanhagos [modes of guidance]. But heaven forbid that we disrespect this tzaddik by saying that he denies the existence of the sefirot, heaven forbid. Rather, just like the previous kabbalists—who, wanting to break free of physical imagery, termed [the sefirot] “lights”—the Ramchal, seeing that there still existed fools who imagined that [these “lights”] are fire and flame and who strayed and erred, saw fit to term [the sefiros] by the term hanhagah, something that people will certainly not make material. But he certainly did not deny the true existence [of the sefirot]. And heaven forbid that a person err in this matter.
Some people have wished to attribute such metaphorical interpretations to our great rabbi, the Vilna Gaon, on the basis of a passage that they found in a letter of the kabbalist, Rabbi Avraham Simchah of Amsitzlav (the son of the sister of the gaon, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin; as was recently published in Da’as Tevunos [Bnei Brak, 5733, p. 236]. He writes, “The Vilna Gaon said that the writings of the Arizal are entirely only parable.” Similar words appear in the Likutim at the end of Sifra Detzniusa Im Biur Hagra in the name of the Vilna Gaon himself: “They speak employing parable and people do not understand at all.” But all of this is of no consequence, because such words literally are also found in the writings of the Arizal and in the words of the Rashash. It is true that Rabbi Chaim Vital writes in Shaar Hahakdamos (p. 5b; and copied from there to Eitz Chaim: Sha’ar 1, Anaf 4), “It is obvious that up above exist only subtle lights with an ultimate spirituality that is not at all graspable…,” words that clearly indicate the existence of spiritual entities. Nevertheless, he wrote (ibid., p. 36b) that from the ten sefirot and below it is only possible to speak employing parable and imagery. Similarly, the Rashash (in Eitz Chaim: Sha’ar 37, Chapter 2) writes that these words are not to be understood according to their simple meaning, and “I know that that no thought can grasp the truth of these matters at all.” If it were possible to understand the truth of these matters, there would be no place to raise questions.
Thus, we see that is no contradiction at all between the concept of a spiritual entity and the term “parable.” Rabbi Elyashiv (ibid., p. 56d) explains at length how it is that both exist, and how this is related to two verses. “As for the statement found in a few sources that all matters in the realm of atzilut are only parable,” he writes, “that is in terms of what we grasp of these matters, because their true existence is certainly beyond the evaluation and imagery of our understanding and comprehension.”
Before concluding this chapter, which has provided some very general outlines of Rabbi Elyashiv’s approach in kabbalah, it is relevant to make a comment on a related matter.
There are those who, for some reason, have voiced the falsehood that the Sephardic approach in learning kabbalah, which is the approach of the early masters, is mere reading without comprehension—that is to say, superficial learning, something almost useless. It appears that the purveyors of this view, which unfortunately has been accepted in some places, have conflated kabbalah learning with a practice found particularly among the Sephardic masses: that of simply reading the holy Zohar—which is in truth for the most part reading without comprehension or at most with very superficial comprehension.
This claim dissuades people who have a desire to begin learning kabbalah so as to be of the children of the palace of the King and taste from the Tree of Life and live and dwell in its shadow. These people who wish to begin learning attempt to start immediately, without any background, following the explanations of one approach or another. That begins and ends in marked failure, in disordered confused, in superficial knowledge, in lack of success or in an imagined success that is not at all real.
In truth, the Sephardic method, which is the method of the early masters and also the path upon which Rabbi Elyashiv walked, is a way of learning that allows a person to learn and engage in a deeply intellectual fashion, with questions, answers, distinctions, and resolutions and clarifications of approaches—in the same way that one analyzes the revealed aspect of the holy Torah. Witness to this statement are the tens of books that have been composed by the great men of the generations applying this approach to the writings of the Arizal and the Rashash. And witness to this statement are Rabbi Elyashiv’s great and profound books, all of which were written in this manner and with this approach, although with some greater breadth.
Those who wish to succeed in learning kabbalah and in rising ever higher must begin learning in this simple way—of course, making maximum usage of their abilities in Talmudic analysis of distinction and clarification that each person has been granted in accordance with his makeup and nature. After learning in such a way for a number of years, in proper and good order and with much review, organizing matters and topics as much as he is able, a person can then reach the explanatory stage and align himself with a particular approach in accordance with his nature, or to blend all of the approaches. And with that will come complete success.
The same applies to the Vilna Gaon’s kabbalah—including his profound commentary on Sifra Detzniusa, his commentary on Tikunei Zohar, his commentary on the parts of the Zohar as found in Sefer Yahel Or and in many other collections. There are people—in particular, from communities close to the Vilna Gaon’s home—who, wishing to begin learning kabbalah, although they possess a very limited knowledge of kabbalah go directly to gain the knowledge of the Vilna Gaon’s approach, learning the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on Sifra Detzniusa or his commentaries on Tikunei Zohar. These men are wasting their time and do not attain anything outside of mere impressions of confused and disorganized knowledge. And their portion is like that of those who seek explanations, whom we described above.
Those who wish to begin learning the Vilna Gaon’s kabbalah and understand his words properly must first go through the writings of the Arizal, at least in the Eitz Chaim, with a good and ordered review. Similarly, in order to understand the Vilna Gaon’s words in his commentary on Sifra Detzniusa, one must first review the two Idros a number of times with the commentary, Yayin Harekach, by the gaon, Rabbi Yehudah Fatiyah, since the Idros are to a great degree the foundation of kabbalah.
After all of this, they will be able to approach the commentaries of the Vilna Gaon on Sifra Detzniusa and with God’s help they will easily understand everything, and they will also immediately recognize wherever his approach differs from the approach of our rabbi, the Arizal. And this should suffice for those who wish to attain the truth.
Those who have no appetite for learning in the way that we have described and who, even after disciplining their will, still find it hard to grow accustomed to this so that their learning is as hard as iron for them and they attempt to slake their thirst for the secrets of God by fleeing and turning directly to the various explanatory approaches, and similarly, those who in general lack any natural aptitude for this holy learning, must know that their portion is in the revealed aspects of the holy Torah, and they must completely set aside kabbalah learning and invest all of their might and strength in learning whatever part of the revealed Torah their heart desires.
From the earliest days and years of all generations, the portion of those who engage in the secrets of God has been relatively small among the totality of the Torah sages and students of the Torah—something that apparently was established by God’s wisdom, blessed be His name.
5. The Order of Rabbi Elyashiv’s Prayer and His approach to the Kavanos of Prayer, and his Service in Performing the Mitzvos
Those who are familiar with the kavanos [mystical intentions] of the Arizal know that there are two overall approaches to them. The approach of the majority of kabbalists—in particular, those who have lived outside the land of Israel—is basically to focus on the names and cognomens of the sefirot. That is the approach of the Maharam Zacuta. In his Letters (6) he writes, “It is not proper to connect the names of Hashem to the words, etc. Rather, it is proper to simply have in mind the name of the sefirot, which includes every level in every midah [spiritual category].” The other approach is that of our rabbi, the Rashash, as expressed in his Sidurei Kavanos: to have in mind only the kavanah of the holy names and not the names of the sefiros. In his Hakdamos Ushe’arim (p. 43a), Rabbi Elyashiv decides in accord with the approach of the Rashash, writing:
Those who enter into the secrets of Hashem and delve into the kavanos in accordance with the kavanos of the Arizal must be very careful to have in mind only the holy names or the letters of the names in each case according to the context, and not the names of the partzufim [clusters of sefiros] such as Atik, Arich, and so on—i.e., [one should concentrate on the names] as they are arranged in the siddur of the holy rabbi, Maharash Sharabi [the Rashash]. As for a person who does not have the power to direct and focus his idea and thought on the names only … it is much preferable that he have in mind the words, like a schoolchild, and simply focus on them, for regarding focusing on the sefiros, [the masters] have said, “[We must focus] on God and not on His traits….”
Rabbi Elyashiv continues describing the great level of those who engage in kavanos. He writes, “Such a person’s level is very high. He is alluded to in the Sages’ statement: ‘Why do Israel pray and are not answered? Because they do not know the secret of the Shem Hameforash. As the verse states, “When he who knows My name will call me, I will elevate him…” (Psalms 91:14)’ (Pesikta Rabasi: end of 22).”
Practically, Rabbi Elyashiv maintained the practice of Rabbi Shimshon of Chinon (Rash Mikinon) who testified of himself—as cited in Responsa Maharshal (98)—that even after he learned all of the secrets of the wisdom of truth he prayed like a day-old baby—i.e., simply focused solely on the meaning of the words.
A story is told about the great gaon, Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer, who once yearned to study the way in which the tzaddik, Rabbi Elyashiv, prayed. One evening, Rabbi Meltzer got up and went to the synagogue where the tzaddik used to pray. When Rabbi Meltzer returned, his excitement was palpable. When he was asked the meaning of that excitement, he answered that it came from having seen the simplicity of the prayer of the tzaddik, Rabbi Elyashiv, who prayed as part of the congregation and from a regular siddur, word by word (as told by the rabbi, the gaon, Rabbi Yosef Aryeh Leib Zusman).
Although Rabbi Elyashiv’s prayers were, at least externally, unexceptional, as he sat at his regular seat in a quiet and normal way, nevertheless in certain parts of the prayers his feelings broke out. My friend, Rabbi Ephraim Gelis, told me that when he was a child he had the custom of praying vasikin in the Neitin synagogue in which the tzaddik, Rabbi Elyashiv, prayed regularly. He saw Rabbi Elyashiv every day tremble wondrously before he arose to pray the Shmoneh Esrei. Trembling seized his entire body and his knees knocked against each other in his fear of Hashem and awareness of the splendor of His exaltedness. That occurred every day. Fortunate is the eye that saw all this!
Despite Rabbi Elyashiv’s sufferings due to the deprivations of poverty, he dedicated his soul to every detail of Torah and mitzvos, including the minutiae of the Scribes, keeping all of the mitzvos and all of their fine points with tremendous joy. Every time that a mitzvah came to his hand he would pray to Hashem, may He be blessed, with many tears to give him the privilege of performing the mitzvah fully. Anyone who did not see—for instance—his soul’s joy on Simchas Torah during the hakafos dancing never saw joy in his life.
Rav Elyashiv’s family members could not keep pace with him during the Passover seders, because the fervor of his holy joy so overwhelmed him that he was not even aware of himself. His relating of the Exodus from Egypt lasted the entire night, with fervor and tremendous joy, as though that night he himself had left Egypt.
Although throughout the entire year Rabbi Elyashiv was one of the “masters of accounts,” maintaining solitude and examining his deeds (although they were not marked by the slightest trace of sin, heaven forbid), on the holy days of selichos and judgment people saw him standing with his head bent as his knees knocked together out of his fear of Hashem and his awareness of the splendor of His exaltedness, as He came to judge the earth.
6. Rabbi Elyashiv’s Holy Books
In all of the volumes of his holy work, Leshem Shevo Ve’achlamah, Rabbi Elyashiv is revealed in all his radiance and splendor as the prince of the wisdom of kabbalah. His expertise is displayed on every page of his holy books and literally rises to the heavens. Tens of citations and references are to be found on every page. Some of his books are straightforward commentaries on Eitz Hachaim. His books consist in the main of introductory material, and clarification of matters and topics that has a homiletical character. Rav Elyashiv was gifted with a light style and a language that might be understood by anyone to whom the concepts of kabbalah were not completely unfamiliar. A large part of his books is devoted to explaining his overall view that all of the revelations and processes that exist in the highest worlds exist as well in detail in every world. And of course he presents that view with a combination of proofs and sources. To this end, he also allowed himself to speak in great detail about the partzufim and the most supernal and highest worlds, in accordance with the simple presentation of these matters in Eitz Chaim (Sha’ar 1, Anaf 5), “for there are no questions in regard to kesser and chochmah.” Regarding the foundation of his approach, he explains in Chelek Habiurim (p. 21) that God’s wisdom decreed (may His name be blessed) “that every day more light of the Infinite One spreads out in atzilus and new revelations are revealed…. Thus, at first it was forbidden to study the gimel rishonos and afterwards it was permitted (as above).” That is to say, as we grow closer to the end time, it is gradually permitted to reveal more and more.
Rabbi Elyashiv was among the few of the generation before whom the entire kabbalah of our rabbi, the Vilna Gaon, was open like a spread garment. Whatever topic he discusses, he cites the view of the Vilna Gaon and notes whether or not his view is in accord with that of the Arizal. In one of his letters, he has a partial list of the issues in the concealed Torah regarding which the Vilna Gaon and the Arizal disagree. In the introduction to his Chelek Habiurim he writes, “Hashem awakened my spirit in the outpouring of His kindness and goodness, creating an opening through which I could draw knowledge from the deep wells of the Ari and the Vilna Gaon.”
Regarding the kabbalah of the Vilna Gaon overall, I wrote a survey at the beginning of the Vilna Gaon’s old siddur that was republished in the year 5732, but this is not the place to review what I said there.
Since Rabbi Elyashiv viewed the Vilna Gaon and the Arizal as being on the same level, he delved equally into the kabbalah of the Vilna Gaon and the Arizal.
A gracious wind of holiness and purity flows and rises from every line in Rabbi Elyashiv’s books. A person who learns his books with the requisite holiness and purity will—besides receiving clear and well-organized explanations of all the matters and topics that were difficult for him and that had always remained puzzling and unresolved—attain an enhanced spirit of holiness and purity, love and yearning, to the point of the expiration of the soul, as in the verse, “My soul thirsts for You…” (Psalms 63:2). That is all in accord with the student’s preparation and in accordance with the extent of the opening that he has made with the effort of his own powers from below.
Let us address one more detail in Rabbi Elyashiv’s teachings.
As is known, the Eitz Chaim, the Shmoneh She’arim and Mevo She’arim contain the words that were orally transmitted to Rabbi Chaim Vital by our rabbi, the Arizal. The Chida in Shem Hagedolim (Ma’areches Gedolim: Erech Rabbi Chaim Vital) writes that a person who wants to learn the most authentic texts should learn Shmoneh Sh’earim and so forth, and the other books that were written by Rabbi Chaim Vital.
Similarly, our rabbi the Rashash in his Nahar Shalom admonishes in a number of places (p. 32a and p. 33c) that a person should only learn these writings mentioned above, and not the words of the other students of the Arizal, which were not transmitted by Rabbi Chaim Vital.
The teachings in Eitz Chaim and the writings mentioned above begin by describing a certain world called Adam Kadmon. That is the beginning of atzilus in general, although in a very hidden way, and from that everything else devolves. There is no mention in Eitz Chaim of any world before that, besides a subtle hint to this effect: “a few worlds preceded them, which—because they are so hidden—are only alluded to in the Zohar” (Eitz Chaim: Sha’ar 1, Anaf 4). That hint cannot be deciphered by a person who knows nothing about the existence of those worlds to which it alludes. However, the kabbalah of another student of the Arizal, Rabbi Israel Sarug, does describe the existence of a world before the first world mentioned in Eitz Chaim. And all of the teachings about that world—which also is divided into “worlds” and “gates”—is described in a number of books such as Emek Hamelech, Vayakhel Moshe and Shever Yosef.
These teachings were publicized more fully by Menachem Azariah da Fano (Rema MiPano), who is considered to be a student of the gaon, Rabbi Israel Sarug. Those worlds are called olam hamalbush, hatehiru ila’ah, and so forth.
The great Sephardic kabbalists said almost nothing about this and did not deal with it, for the great majority of them were faithful to the admonition of the Rashash not to learn and study the words of the other students of the Arizal. An exception to these kabbalists was the gaon, the Ben Ish Chai, who—despite his tendency to follow all of the ways of the Rashash almost without reservation—delved into this matter in his great work, Da’as Usevunah.
However, the great Ashkenazi kabbalists accepted these teachings of Rabbi Sarug almost without reservation and even built complete systems upon them. Some of these kabbalists used these teachings as foundations for their own teachings. In Sefer Hazichronos (p. 14), the gaon, Rabbi Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin, approves and authorizes all of these teachings on olam hamalbush and hatehiru ila’ah:
Rabbi Israel Sarug, who was clearly the greatest of the students of the Arizal besides Rabbi Chaim Vital, went to Italy immediately after the Ari passed away, where he published all of the words of the Arizal that were known to him by oral transmission and from the Arizal’s writings. And his student the Rema MiPano later published more of these teachings.
Because Rabbi Israel Sarug went to Italy, his writings were unknown to Rabbi Chaim Vital, and therefore Rabbi Vital did not gather them as a source for his writings when he gathered the writings of his other comrades. Therefore, for no valid reason a few of those whose books follow in the footsteps of Rabbi Chaim Vital piously refrain from speaking of these matters.
These teachings were also accepted as true and authoritative by the great Hasidic kabbalists. In Sefer Baal Shem Tov by Rabbi Shimon Menachem Mendel (Mekor Chaim 9, Parshas Ki Sisa), the author writes:
There is a tradition in the hands of the masters of Chabad handed down from one master to another, going back to our holy rabbi, Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezeritch—and possibly going back to the Baal Shem Tov, and indeed I heard that it does go back to the Baal Shem Tov—that the Baal Shem Tov accepted the kabbalah (of the author of Emek Hamelech). And on the basis of this kabbalah, the teachings of Chabad always cite the words of the author of the Emek Hamelech. And it appears as well that the words of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov that address levels higher than atzilus are based on this kabbalah.
Rabbi Elyashiv also relied on these teachings, and he argued (in Hakdamos Ushe’arim, p. 59b) that the Vilna Gaon and Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin also authorized and discussed them. “For this reason,” he writes, “I decided to focus on these words and I saw fit to organize them concisely in proper order from beginning to end, and I called this Sha’ar Haponeh Kadim.” This appears as an essay, about 34 pages long, in Sefer Hakdamos Ushe’arim. In it, Rabbi Elyashiv explains at length all of the profound matters addressed in these teachings about olam hamalbush, hatehiru ila’ah, and so on. And he is almost alone in having discoursed so fully on these profound matters.
In a similar vein, we will take note of the words of the gaon and kabbalist, Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, in his Igeres Hapesichah to Alfasi Zuta by the Rema MiPano (Part 1, Jerusalem 5632):
The master, the author of the Leshem, decided and clarified that many things that are not found in the writings of Rabbi Chaim Vital and which are found solely in the words of Rabbi Israel Sarug were approved by the school of the Vilna Gaon…. If not for the Rema MiPano, we would not have been privileged to access any of the revelations of the Ari that were not included in the teachings of Rabbi Chaim Vital.
Besides Rabbi Elyashiv’s published books, a number of books in manuscript remained. Similarly, we were privileged to receive his notes and anthologized teachings on the Eitz Chaim and, in particular, on the introductory Rechovos Hanahar by our rabbi, the Rashash, that were published in Eitz Hachaim Hagadol that now exists (Warsaw) and were merged into the main text with notes and explanations by a “Rabbi Shevach”—who is Rabbi Shlomo ben Chaykel, who had requested that he only be referred to in that way.
In this booklet, I have reviewed with great concision the history of the tzaddik, Rabbi Elyashiv. However, I left out a great deal of his life that was related in the booklet of the gaon, the tzaddik, Rabbi Aryeh Levin. Similarly, I described only a very little of his approach to kabbalah, his books and some other important matters with extreme brevity. In conclusion, it remains only to mention that since the time of our rabbi, the Vilna Gaon, until now there has been no other great Jew than Rabbi Elyashiv before whom all of the secrets of kabbalah were organized in such order and with such unequalled, wondrous clarity, as is evident from his awesome books.
In conclusion, one more comment should be made. In recent years, Torah scholars have arisen from time to time to assure those who ask them and believe them—assuring them orally or in writing—that the messiah will come and bring the complete redemption at a date that they specify. Simple people are beguiled by them, and some in their great faith borrow money to be repaid after that date, thinking that then they will be able to repay their debt in a miraculous fashion, since the rules of creation will have changed. When these dates pass without the prediction being realized, these people are disappointed and depressed, but then they are immediately beguiled by a new date predicted by some other person. This approach is absolutely forbidden and very dangerous. The gaon, the tzaddik, Rabbi Tzvi Ferber, writes:
In the year 5661, when I was with (our rabbi, [Rabbi Elyashiv]), I told him that people were saying that according to the holy Zohar the messiah will come in the year 5666. He told me, “At first glance, it seems that this is the simple meaning of the holy Zohar. But in truth it is not the simple meaning, because the holy Zohar possesses both an inner and an outer meaning.” And he said humorously, “The holy Zohar discusses Rachel and Leah, but Rachel is not Rachel and Leah is not Leah, because there are inner meanings to all of the words of the holy Zohar.”
And with this I have concluded the booklet, Ari Bamistarim, on Thursday of Parshat Mishpatim, the eve of an early Yom Kippur Katan before Adar 1 5736.
Yaacov David Shulman
New! Jewish Spiritual Growth: The Step-to-Step Guide of a Hasidic Master