av Nissim Karelitz sits with his head slightly inclined listening intently to the arguments. Suddenly he looks up and pins one of the litigants before him with a piercing gaze and asks a question. Silence fills the beis din. Just moments earlier the walls of the chamber had been shaking from the fierce debate between the two litigants. The dayanim the scribe and the avreichim doing shimush had not been fazed by the shouts; they are accustomed to it. But Rav Nissim’s question has stunned everyone into silence.
The litigant to whom the question was posed thinks for a moment and then answers briefly. His adversary’s face pales. The next question is aimed at him and his response seems forced. Rav Nissim continues to question him relentlessly. As the minutes tick away the issue under contention slowly becomes clarified and the debate moves toward a resolution. Before long a verdict is written. It fills but a few lines but it is unmistakably clear — a perfect application of the din that emerges from the Torah. The litigants leave and another pair take their place. A new debate begins an entirely new sugya filled with vastly complex details. But the Rav is focused ready to ask the probing questions that will clear away all the layers of obfuscation.
Forty-three Years of Torah Law
A flight of stairs with a low ceiling graying walls and a small plastic sign that reads “beis din tzedek” point the way to the second floor of Rechov Rav Shach 46.
Welcome to the beis din of HaGaon Rav Nissim Karelitz.
On a wall across from the reception desk is a list of instructions for opening a file: ask the secretary for a form; enter your name address and telephone number; and describe the nature of the complaint — damages monetary claims unpaid debt and so forth. That’s all it takes and deliberately so. Rav Nissim is committed to making the beis din process as painless as possible.
The beis din employs thirty-six dayanim. “Employs” is a theoretical term because dayanim are unpaid — they don’t even get s’char batalah (the amount they could make if otherwise employed in the hours they devote to the beis din). Most of the dayanim sit on one of ten panels consisting of three judges adjudicating cases throughout the week in morning and evening shifts. Each panel consists has its own area of expertise. Most deal with monetary cases but some handle divorce or conversion. It is the largest nongovernmental beis din handling approximately 100 cases per month.
The beis din has been active for forty-three years under Rav Nissim’s auspices. He selects the dayanim himself using criteria known only to him. What is known is that Rav Nissim maintains that a moreh horaah must be fluent in all four sections of the Shulchan Aruch. “An expert in one area cannot answer the public’s questions” he is wont to say. “What will he do if he is presented with a question that he knows nothing about?”
The unique character of the beis din emerges in several rules that Rav Nissim set forth and that no one has ever challenged. Aside from the rule that dayanim are unpaid he also instituted that they should sit on the same level as the litigants rather than on elevated platforms. Beis din employees must be able to handle difficult people. When the beis din’s secretary was hired Rav Nissim told him “Embittered people come here and you must relate to them with great patience.”
Rav Nissim himself sits on a panel of dayanim each Monday. He used to join on Thursdays as well but after he suffered a heart attack and stroke fifteen years ago his doctors instructed him to curtail his activities in the beis din and appear only on Mondays — and even then only from early morning until noon.
“The Wise Man of the Jews”
Few people are privy to the wide array of questions and decisions that require the Rav’s input on a daily basis. They include particularly complex halachic decisions (Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein relates that his father-in-law, Rav Elyashiv, often instructs people to bring their halachic queries to Rav Nissim), as well as important matters brought to him by public figures. (After the recent massacre in Itamar, for instance, Rav Nissim was asked to determine whether Arab laborers should still be employed in chareidi cities.)
Questions also arrive from all over the world. Answers are often delivered in writing, but some questions are answered over the telephone. Family members admit that they can never predict when Rav Nissim will respond in writing and when he will answer verbally.
Answers from Rav Nissim — both in the beis din and to individuals — are short and to the point, and even when he does explain himself, he keeps it brief. “Halachic rulings are not the place for writing shtiklach Torah,” he once explained. In writing, too, in contrast to other batei din whose rulings are issued with lengthy explanations presenting every possible side of the case, rulings from Rav Nissim’s beis din are limited to the most essential details.
Being inundated with sensitive questions is not new to him. Although he maintains a relatively low profile, he has been on the front lines of every issue that the chareidi population has faced for the last half-century, earning the admiration of the gedolim of that era in the process. Already in 5708/1948, the Ponovezher Rav dispatched Rav Nissim to convince then–prime minister David Ben-Gurion to withdraw on the issue of conscription of yeshivah students into the army. In 5714/1954, the Chazon Ish, Rav Nissim’s uncle, was directing halachic inquiries to him, and in 5724/1964, the Ponovezher Rav demonstrated his admiration for the budding gadol by honoring him with siddur kiddushin at a family wedding. Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein, the great mashgiach, would advise chassanim to use Rav Nissim as their rav, posek, and advisor in all marriage-related matters.
Rav Nissim Karelitz has also become a default address for difficult divorce cases where both sides stubbornly refuse to give in and no resolution is in sight. The Rav — whom Rav Shmuel Wosner refers to as “chakima d’yehudai,” the wise man of the Jews — has managed to resolve many such cases.
In the early days of the beis din, Rav Shach once summoned Rav Nissim to his home. He was seated with an emissary whom Rav Elya Svei, ztz”l, had dispatched to discuss the case of a recalcitrant husband. After years of effort by several batei din, the man still refused to grant his wife a get.
“I discussed the matter with the Rosh Yeshivah,” Rabbi Svei’s emissary told Rav Nissim, “and he said that you would be able to procure a get for the woman through your beis din.”
Rav Nissim accepted the assignment. He ordered both husband and wife to appear in his beis din. A long time passed before askanim succeeded in bringing the couple to Eretz Yisrael. He convened his beis din and the two appeared before him. To the askanim’s surprise, the wife refused to sign a shtar borerus, without which a case cannot begin — effectively imprisoning herself for more years as an agunah. The only person who was not surprised was Rav Nissim.
“She’s embittered from her protracted battle,” he explained to the askanim, and instructed them what to say to convince her. The woman agreed to sign.
Rav Nissim entered into a protracted conversation with the husband on mundane matters, acquiring his trust, and only then bringing up the subject of the get. The husband explained his recalcitrance: he wanted to see his children at certain times, and his wife rejected his request. Rav Nissim then listened to the woman’s explanation for her refusal. Over the course of forty-five days, Rav Nissim engaged in lengthy conversations with both sides, and at the end, to everyone’s astonishment, the husband agreed to give the get. From that point on, Rav Nissim’s beis din became involved in divorce cases.
Today, on any afternoon, three separate chambers of the beis din are devoted to divorce cases. In every case, the beis din first verifies that there is no chance of repairing the marriage, and only then do they begin the get process.
Rav Nissim granted us a rare conversation to explain why his beis din is so active in this area. “In general, the sin of going to secular courts is extremely severe, but in divorce cases it’s even worse because it may result in a get obtained through forms of coercion that invalidate the get.
“Coercing a husband to give a get is a complex issue. Once, a Yemenite man had been in jail for ten years for refusing to follow the State rabbinical court’s ruling that he must give a get. They finally asked to bring him to our beis din so that we could convince him to grant his wife a get. He came with a police escort — the only time that happened in our beis din. Ultimately, he gave the get and declared that he was doing so wholeheartedly.”
Born on 18 Av 5686/1926 in Vilna, Rav Karelitz was named Shmaryahu Yosef Nissim. His father, Reb Nochum Meir, was the rav of a town near Vilna known as Maisiagala. His mother, Batya, was the sister of the Chazon Ish, Rav Avraham Yeshayah Karelitz, ztz”l. (Through a bureaucratic mishap, his paternal grandfather, who married a Karelitz, ended up with his father-in-law’s surname, so both of his parents were named Karelitz.) He immigrated to Eretz Yisrael with his parents in 5796/1936. The family settled in Bnei Brak, and Rav Nissim attended the local Chinuch Atzmai school. He later learned in Yeshivas Tiferes Tzion, where Rav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz was one of his rebbeim, and then continued on to Ponovezh.
His wife, Rebbetzin Leah Karelitz, is the daughter of Rav Tzvi Hirsch Kopshitz of Yerushalayim and a great-granddaughter of Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld. The family relates that before their engagement, the rebbetzin’s father approached the Chazon Ish and remarked that his daughter’s chassan-to-be barely uttered a word when he attempted to engage him in conversation. “Reticence is a fault that runs in the family,” the Chazon Ish replied, “but you will yet hear a lot from him.”
During his youth, Rav Nissim spent much time with the Chazon Ish and was one of the small cadre of devoted members of his household. When the Chazon Ish fell ill, Rav Nissim was one of the two people who cared for him until he recovered. He absorbed much of his Torah from his uncle, along with his staunch habit of silence. On rare occasions when he does reveal practices of the Chazon Ish, he chooses carefully what to share and what to keep to himself.
To illustrate the depth of the obligation to learn Torah, for instance, Rav Nissim related that after the Chazon Ish suffered a heart attack and began to recuperate, he was extremely weak, to the extent that he was able to utter no more than three words each day. The Chazon Ish devoted those words to disseminating Torah. Each day, when Rav Nissim would come to assist him, the Chazon Ish would dictate three words, which eventually filled an entire siman in his sefer on hilchos tzitzis. When asked which siman it was, Rav Nissim replied that the knowledge wouldn’t benefit others, and he refused to reveal which it was.
When it is necessary, however, he jumps at the opportunity to share the information. When the subject of Chol Hamoed came up at some point, Rav Nissim mentions in passing that the Chazon Ish used to write his chiddushei Torah on Chol Hamoed.
“The Chazon Ish wrote on Chol Hamoed?” I ask in surprise, wondering if I could record that practice.
“Why not?” he answered. “It is absolutely permissible to write chiddushei Torah on Chol Hamoed.”
Handpicked by Gedolim
At the age of thirty, Rav Nissim was appointed as the rosh kollel of Kollel Chazon Ish, with the agreement — or more accurately, at the behest of — all of the Chazon Ish’s prominent students, including Rav Aharon Leib Steinman, Rav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, and Rav Tzvi Turchin.
The yungeleit who learned in the kollel during Rav Nissim’s early days there recall how rigorous his own sedorim were, but that he never scolded a yungerman for coming late or being absent. Several years ago, Rav Nissim transferred authority over the kollel to his family. They took the opportunity to ask him why didn’t rebuke latecomers. He replied that limud haTorah is not an office job monitored by a punch clock. “An avreich and his family must value his learning, and act based on that,” he said.
One family member pressed the issue, insisting that it would still seem right to dock latecomers’ pay. “An avreich is not a worker on a production line,” Rav Nissim replied, sealing the issue.
Rav Nissim felt a tremendous sense of responsibility for the kollel. When an additional floor was being added to the kollel building, he would go every Friday with Rav Gedaliah Nadel to monitor the progress. Many of Bnei Brak’s older residents recall how Rav Nissim, already a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, would climb up on the scaffolds, examine the progress, and then give the contractors a list of comments. Some didn’t take him seriously at first, but they soon learned that Rav Nissim had an excellent grasp of all matters pertaining to construction. When someone wondered aloud if it was proper for a Torah scholar to engage in such activities, Rav Nissim said, “People have entrusted me with their money, and it is my responsibility to ensure that it is used for the purpose for which it was donated.”
When Rav Nissim turned forty, Rav Shach requested that he join the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. Most of the issues of public concern that were brought before him remain confidential, in keeping with his instructions to his family. Over the course of two weeks that we spent with his family, few details regarding his decisions were revealed.
Accounting for Every Minute
It is said that tzaddikim of old could calculate how they spent each moment of their lives, and Rav Nissim is no different. Despite his advanced age, his schedule is packed, and every minute is accounted for.
Anyone standing outside his house in the Ramat Aharon neighborhood of Bnei Brak can see the lights come on at exactly 3:30 every morning. Peering through the shades, one might see Rav Nissim sitting down and beginning to learn. At around 5:00, depending on whether it is winter or summer, Rav Nissim leaves his house and heads for the shul where he has been learning with Rav Moshe Singer each day for over twenty years.
Rav Singer tells me that at this time of year, they begin learning together at 4:45 and continue until 6:00, when Shacharis begins, and they finish their learning session after Shacharis. “We are now learning Gemara Pesachim in preparation for the upcoming Yom Tov. Before Succos we learn Succah. The time of our learning session depends on the hour of sunrise. Sometimes we finish after Shacharis if we did not complete our learning quota.”
After his learning session, the Rav takes a fifteen-minute walk on his way home. His evening walk lasts for half an hour. During both, he remains absolutely silent. Family members used to try to take advantage of that “downtime” to ply him for stories about the Chazon Ish, but Rav Nissim told them that the doctor had instructed him to relax during his walks, which, he feels, entails not speaking altogether.
Upon returning home, he rests for exactly forty-five minutes and then rises (without an alarm clock) and eats breakfast. He sticks to the exact menu dictated by his doctor, with almost all his food prepared at home. The rebbetzin produces homemade cheese from milk delivered from Beit Chilkiah or Tifrach, which he has with a special type of bread, a cup of milk, and a vegetable salad (brought from a private farm). The menu never changes, and any suggestion of change is rejected on the grounds that “this is what the doctor ordered.” Only the rebbetzin sits with him at breakfast; no one else is permitted in the vicinity. They do not speak while they eat, as dictated by halachah. After the meal, before bentsching, they converse for a few minutes.
A family member who has been present told me that after each meal, Rav Nissim thanks his wife, placing an emphasis on one particular food that he feels the rebbetzin expended an inordinate amount of effort to prepare. “After decades of marriage, he still finds something special to thank her for after every meal. It’s incredible.”
By the time Rav Nissim finishes bentsching, his chavrusa, grandson Nochum Meir Rosenberg, is already waiting for him. They begin to learn Choshen Mishpat together as soon as Rav Nissim enters the room, and they continue to learn without any interruption until 10:00. On Mondays, when Rav Nissim sits on the beis din, this learning session does not take place.
At 10:00, longtime chavrusa Rav Chaim Aryeh Hochman, who records Rav Nissim’s rulings in the Chut Shani series, arrives at his home. They learn together until 12:30, and the Rav goes to daven Minchah at Kollel Chazon Ish. He returns home for a doctor-ordered lunch of soup, fish, rice, and cooked vegetables. On Rosh Chodesh he eats meat (shechted under the supervision of Rav Shevach Rosenblatt) in place of fish. For the past few years, he has accepted a chumrah that precludes him from eating poultry.
Occasionally, when the Rav returns home, Rav Shimon Badani, a member of the Moetzet Chachmei HaTorah of Shas, awaits his arrival. They converse briefly, and at Rav Nissim’s request, the members of his household stand at a distance while they meet.
At 2:00 he begins receiving the public. His family once attempted to filter out some of the visitors, but they received an unequivocal directive: Everyone may enter.
Nephew Rav Avraham Yeshayah Karelitz, who is extremely close to his uncle, was once summoned urgently to Rav Nissim. Such a summons is extremely rare, and he hurried over.
“There were people here and you didn’t allow them in?” Rav Nissim asked.
“The Rav wasn’t feeling well,” Rav Avraham Yeshayah tried to explain.
“So what?” Rav Nissim demanded.
Rav Avraham Yeshayah understood the implication. Ever since, anyone who wishes to see the Rav is allowed to enter.
Family members emphasize that this was the only time they ever recall Rav Nissim rebuking anyone.
For many years, Rav Nissim sat on a simple plastic chair while receiving visitors, refusing numerous attempts to replace it with something more respectable. When that chair broke, Rav Avraham Yeshayah Karelitz seized the opportunity to replace it with a dignified wooden chair. When Rav Nissim saw it, he looked displeased, but he said, “You exerted yourself to bring it, it might as well be put to good use,” and sat down.
“Ask Me Directly”
Nowadays, it is common to hear things quoted from the “bnei bayis” of this gadol or that, a concept that would bring a hint of displeasure to Rav Nissim Karelitz’s face. His attitude is, Why quote things in my name? I can speak for myself, come ask me directly!
Reception hours conclude at 3:30 in the afternoon. Officially they are over at 2:40, but no one dares to close the door on visitors who are still waiting, because Rav Nissim wouldn’t hear of it, even dismissing his family’s attempts to broach the subject with his doctor.
The array of questions posed to the Rav in a short span is fascinating. At one point, six bochurim enter. On Purim, while slightly inebriated, they had all entered an elevator that was meant for four. The elevator got stuck and had to be repaired. Who is responsible to pay for the damages?
Rav Nissim listens to the question with his head bowed, then peers at them and asks: “What do you think the halachah is?”
The bochurim exchange glances. Can they speak before the gadol? One of them is brave enough to venture, “The last two who entered the elevator should pay.”
“Why?” the gaon presses.
“Because they entered when it was forbidden,” the bochur replied.
“They damaged the elevator by entering it?”
“No,” the bochur responds, “but if not for them, the elevator would not have become stuck.”
“The bochur who pressed the elevator button and caused it to begin moving must pay,” Rav Nissim rules.
The bochurim look at each other with expressions of amazement, grasping the depth of the clear, logical psak.
At 3:30, after responding to dozens of questions covering topics from all four sections of the Shulchan Aruch, speaking countless words of consolation or encouragement, and dispensing brachos to visitors, the Rav goes to rest for an hour; the session has left him drained.
Nineteen Minutes without Moving
At 4:30, Rav Nissim begins another learning session. For fifty-seven years, his chavrusa for this session was Rav Reuven Elitzur, who was known as a scholar well-versed in every area of Torah. When Rav Nissim’s family came to visit Rav Elitzur on his deathbed, he shocked them by saying that he had never engaged in idle conversation with the gadol. “As soon as I arrived — and I was always careful to be punctual — we opened our seforim and learned until the session was over, and then we each went our separate ways.”
Rav Dov Landau, one of the roshei yeshivah of Slabodka, learned with Rav Nissim for many years, first in Ponovezh and then in Kollel Chazon Ish.
“We all knew he was a masmid,” he related, “but we never knew how much he knew and how brilliant he was in learning. It might have continued that way until this very day, but in kollel, he had to give a chaburah in rotation with the rest of us. He spoke quietly, in measured words. Some of the yungeleit there were literally gedolei Torah, and their faces reflected their pleasure as they listened. By the time he finished his chaburah, it was clear that he was the most accomplished scholar among us.”
Since Rav Elitzur’s passing, Rav Nissim has learned Tur and Shulchan Aruch with grandson Rav Nochum Meir Karelitz. That learning session continues until 5:45.
Rav Nissim is so focused when he learns that if family members enter the room and try to attract his attention, he doesn’t notice them. The Sanzer Rebbe once paid a surprise visit during Rav Nissim’s learning session. He was ushered into the Rav’s study with a number of gabbaim. They stood there for nineteen minutes, during which time the Rav’s eyes did not move from the Gemara before him. The Rebbe left with unconcealed admiration.
“I have never seen such concentration,” he told the family.
Rav Zilberstein’s Session
From 5:45, Rav Nissim’s daily schedule varies from day to day. On Mondays, Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein comes to discuss halachic questions he has accumulated through the week for half an hour. He arrives with two yungeleit and immediately launches into the first question, using his rhetorical skills to describe the situation, stringing together the possible halachic issues that are entailed, and forwarding a few halachic arguments for each side of the question.
Those familiar with Rav Nissim Karelitz’s personality perceive the great admiration he has for Rav Zilberstein. Several members of the household relate that throughout Rav Zilberstein’s delivery, Rav Nissim watches him and listens silently. Sometimes, a small smile of admiration creeps onto his face in response to Rav Zilberstein’s description of the issue and his obvious mastery of all the relevant sources. When Rav Zilberstein finishes his presentation, he asks, “So what’s the halachah?”
Rav Nissim issues a brief ruling: “forbidden,” “permitted,” “not appropriate,” “can be done under extenuating circumstances,” and so forth, adding a few brief words of explanation.
Rav Zilberstein’s face lights up at the clarity. He moves on to next question, and Rav Nissim once again responds briefly. But this time the answer is not sufficiently clear to Rav Zilberstein. He thinks for a few moments and presents the question in a slightly different way, and Rav Nissim answers again, adding a few more words of explanation. This time, Rav Zilberstein is satisfied. In that half hour, they deal with questions that reach every corner of Shulchan Aruch, and Rav Nissim rarely has to stop to think before answering.
On other weeknights, he devotes this time frame to various chavrusos. At the end of his learning session, half an hour before he needs to be at Kollel Chazon Ish, the Rav goes for his second walk. On Mondays he delivers a thirty-minute mussar shmuess before Maariv, and on Wednesdays he delivers an hour-long shiur on the masechta being studied in the kollel.
After Maariv in Kollel Chazon Ish, Rav Nissim returns home, where his third repast prepared according to the doctor’s orders awaits him.
From then on, his schedule varies, as he alternates between being mesader kiddushin for converts, attending weddings or bar mitzvahs, and meeting with public figures. With rare exceptions, Rav Nissim goes to sleep at 10:00 every night. A new day is going to begin at three in the morning.
The Uphill Beis Din Battle
For nearly five decades, Rav Nissim Karelitz has consistently devoted his energy towards getting people to stop bringing their disputes to a beis din that does not follow the laws of the Torah, or to a court that is subject to the sovereignty of, or authorized by, the State.
Establishing a private beis din was an uphill battle. When he initially discussed the matter with other gedolei Torah, some argued that no one would agree to appear before a beis din that is not endowed with authority by the State, because there was no way to enforce the dayanim’s rulings. Others agreed that a private beis din was absolutely necessary.
Rav Nissim decided to forge ahead and open his beis din tzedek. He sat on the first panel with Rav Pinchas Schreiber, ztz”l, and yblch”t, Rav Dovid Zvi Ordentlich, currently the rav of Beitar Illit. Skeptics were quickly proven wrong. Before long, so many litigants were streaming to have their cases adjudicated there that Rav Nissim had to establish a second panel, and then a third …
To uphold the beis din’s authority, litigants are required to sign a shtar borerus, composed by two attorneys, which guarantees that the prevailing side can force his opponent to obey the beis din’s decision.
Someone once asked Rav Nissim how he knows which side is telling the truth. “The Torah states, Elokim nitzav be’adas Kel, Hashem stands in the company of judges, and sod Hashem liyerei’av, Hashem’s secrets are revealed to those who fear Him. We can feel the truth based on what the litigants and the witnesses say.”
What if dayanim are unable to feel out the truth?
“Then they must do teshuvah.”
Beis din sessions were initially conducted in Rav Nissim’s own home while his children slept in an adjoining room. It would have continued that way indefinitely, but one night, Rav Nissim’s son awoke and discovered his own melamed seated in his father’s beis din. The next morning, when he asked why his melamed was there, Rav Nissim decided to move the beis din immediately.
What Did “I Hear” Mean?
Aside from halachic matters, Rav Nissim deals constantly with issues that are vital to the chareidi public, meeting with top officials when necessary.
One such official has never forgotten his encounter with the gadol: Defense Minister Ehud Barak. In conversation with Mishpacha, Barak recounted his meeting with the gaon.
“There were a number of issues that had resulted in severe unrest in the chareidi sector. Someone suggested that I meet with Rav Karelitz to explain my position. I came to his home in Bnei Brak and spoke for about half an hour, and he listened. I could tell from his eyes when he agreed with me and when he thoroughly disagreed with either my opinion or with the conclusions I had drawn from the information I presented.
“The truth is that I did not come to argue with him,” he says bluntly. “I wanted to explain why I had chosen to act in a certain way. I had resolved that if an argument developed, I would simply get up and leave. But he was silent. He listened until I had finished speaking and did not interrupt me at all. At the end, he said, ‘I hear,’ and accompanied me outside.
“Despite all the years that have passed, I haven’t forgotten that meeting. I wondered what his comment ‘I hear’ meant. Did he arrive at the conclusion that he wouldn’t be able to change my position? Perhaps he felt that it was either inappropriate or counterproductive to put me on the defensive. I thought of many other possibilities, but I couldn’t know for sure. Later, I tried to ascertain what instructions he had given to the chareidi MKs based on the meeting, but I did not receive a response.”
Sometimes Rav Nissim begs off of getting involved in political decisions, such as when a gathering of gedolim was scheduled to take place in Rav Shmuel Wosner’s home to discuss the Tal Law (which grants temporary exempts from the IDF for yeshivah students). Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro, ztz”l, and, yblch”t, Rav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz and Rav Dovid Soloveitchik were schedule to participate, and Rav Wosner asked Rav Nissim to join as well. Shortly before the meeting, Rav Nissim arrived at Rav Wosner’s house to hear the latter’s position, and then presented his own position. He then explained that since the other participants were older than he was, he felt uncomfortable being part of it. The kinus took place without him, but Rav Wosner nevertheless presented Rav Nissim Karelitz’s position on the subject.
“If It Bothers Someone Else”
Rav Nissim’s piety in dealing with others is legendary. Families from a neighboring building once realized that Rav Nissim would take a detour on his way to shul to avoid their courtyard, which was already more or less a public thoroughfare. The neighbors quickly signed a letter declaring that it would be an honor if he would pass through their courtyard. A day or two passed, and the gadol continued on his usual detour.
The neighbors asked why he still avoided their courtyard.
“People will think that I am walking through it without your permission,” he replied.
“What can we do?” the neighbors asked.
“Allow everyone to pass through.”
The building’s residents convened a hasty meeting and voted to declare that everyone could pass through their courtyard. Since then, Rav Nissim does traverse the courtyard on his way to shul, and every time he encounters a resident of that building, he thanks him warmly for granting him permission to walk across the property.
Family members relate that Rav Nissim tries as much as possible to avoid accepting help from them. When a member of the household wanted to install a fluorescent light in the room where Rav Nissim receives the public, he declined the offer, claiming that it was unnecessary. “With a little bit of effort, I can see the Gemara,” he said. When a visitor mentioned that the entryway was dark, however, Rav Nissim agreed to have the light installed. “If it bothers other people, you can install it.”
Growing Up a Karelitz
One might imagine that such a diligent and quiet father would be daunting to live with, but that turns out to be the exact opposite of the truth.
“If I could isolate his main chinuch secret,” one son says, “it is to deal with your children pleasantly, with loads of patience, and to educate mainly by personal example.”
He cites the example of his father’s weekly “tests” on what they learned, which, he recalls, were actually pleasant conversations on a sugya or the weekly parshah, not interrogation sessions.
The house became a magnet for children with difficult temperaments or family issues. Several years ago, a couple came to Rav Nissim for advice on how to deal with a wild, unruly son who was constantly at loggerheads with his principal and their neighbors. After listening to their description of their son, he said, “Let him come live with me for a while. Tell him that I asked him to come.” The astonished parents returned home and told their son about the unusual request. The son readily agreed.
The boy spent two weeks in Rav Nissim’s home. By the beginning of the second week, there was marked improvement, and at the end of that week, Rav Nissim summoned his parents. After heaping praise upon the boy and subtly pointing several areas in which they should treat him differently, he suggested that they buy him a bicycle.
The father was shocked. Rav Nissim is known as an opponent of bicycle riding. Rav Nissim didn’t address the surprise that registered on the father’s face, and instead mentioned something about the principle of chanoch la’naar al pi darko.
The parents were never called to the principal’s office again. When they asked their son what Rav Nissim had discussed with him during those two weeks, he replied that they did not have lengthy conversations.
“But I saw him,” he said simply.
Rav Nissim’s children relate that it wasn’t unusual for children from other families to live in their home. Some were children whose parents were about to get divorced, with neither side agreeing to accept the children. Other times they were orphans or children whose parents were emotionally unstable. The Karelitz children grew accustomed to sharing their clothes, their food, and their lives with these guests.
“It was just part of living in our house,” a child says.
few months ago, a family member saw Rav Nissim dragging a chair to get a sefer from an upper shelf. He pleaded with the gadol to allow him to bring the sefer, and Rav Nissim relented.
Upon descending from the chair, he said, “I would like to thank the Rav for giving me the opportunity to serve a talmid chacham.”
Rav Nissim waved his hand dismissively and said, “Once the Chazon Ish needed a certain sefer. I asked him to let me get it for him and he refused. Apparently, he was concerned that I wouldn’t care for it properly. But in order not to insult me, he said jokingly that he was concerned that I might have the status of a talmid chacham and it is prohibited to have me serve him.”
A humble interpretation? Rav Nissim’s family says that he truly believes his version of the story. In the mind of a man who embodies humility, the Chazon Ish couldn’t possible have labeled him a talmid chacham.
Hands-On Beis Din
Rav Nissim encourages his dayanim to take a “hands-on” approach, visiting a disputed parcel of land rather than relying on understanding the situation through litigants’ claims. Occasionally, they even come equipped with a measuring tape.
A legendary story makes the rounds. Two neighbors once came to the beis din with a dispute: One of them wanted to build a wall on his property, and his neighbor argued that the wall would damage him because it would stand a mere five meters from his property. “If there were fifteen meters, would you agree?” Rav Nissim asked him. The neighbor answered that it would still bother him. “How about twenty meters?” the Rav asked.
“Then I would agree,” the neighbor admitted.
“You can build the wall,” the Rav ruled. “There are forty-five meters between the wall and his property. We measured it yesterday.”
In another din Torah, a group of apartment owners claimed that the falafel store a neighbor had opened in his home caused theirs to smell of falafel and oil. The falafel store owner maintained that his neighbors were trying to shut down his business because they were jealous. The dayanim, led by Rav Nissim himself, visited the neighbors’ homes, and, to the litigants’ astonishment, began to sniff the walls. Sensing the odor of oil and falafel, they instructed the owner of the store to close up shop immediately.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 355)
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