Rav Nissim Karelitz championed truth without fear or favors
Photos: Matisyahu Goldberg, Mishpacha archives
Before Rav Nissim Karelitz became engaged, his future father-in-law told the Chazon Ish that his nephew hardly said a word. The Chazon Ish replied, “reticence is a flaw that runs in the family, but you’ll yet hear a lot from him.” Rav Nissim may have been quiet, but this visionary trailblazer set an unmatched tone for the Torah world
Just hours after Simchas Torah, the news rippled through Eretz Yisrael:
The eminent posek of Bnei Brak, Rav Nissim Karelitz, had left his earthly dwelling for the Higher Court. The next morning, tens of thousands of people lined the city as his levayah passed through the central streets of Bnei Brak — Rabi Akiva and Chazon Ish — in a prescient parallel of his life’s work.
Together with renowned posek Rav Shmuel Halevi Wosner ztz”l, Rav Nissim determined the halachic character of Bnei Brak. But his influence was not limited to any one city. As a rosh kollel, a rav, and a visionary av beis din, his behavior and decisions served as beacons for the entire chareidi world.
As leader of Kollel Chazon Ish, Rav Nissim set a clear example of how a kollel should look, what the role of the rosh kollel is, and how the learning there should be conducted. “This is how it is done in Kollel Chazon Ish,” is a standard refrain.
Rav Nissim also served as the rav of the Ramat Aharon neighborhood of Bnei Brak. Here, he was a paragon of the role of rav, serving as a model for what the job entails: Despite the lofty plane he occupied, he could readily understand the reality of a young man or newly married avreich who needs a practical answer from the neighborhood rav.
Many of his talmidim noted that his most outstanding character trait was his softness. He would speak gently, in a near whisper, and never ordered anyone — even his family — to do anything. It was always “perhaps it is a good idea,” or “it is advisable,” and the like. But when a halachic issue was at stake, he displayed a tenacious firmness. This was the halachah and this is what needed to be done.
There was another sphere of Rav Nissim’s influence, perhaps the most visionary of all. A little less than eight years ago this winter, I spent two weeks observing Rav Nissim as he presided over the beis din that he established with great courage and fortitude. It was an awe-inspiring experience. The gamut of issues that he dealt with — and the incredible clarity, confidence, and brevity of his decisions — were unmatched. Watching him in action was watching the power of authority, the power of those few, well-chosen words to set halachic policy.
Those who came before him in the beis din on Rechov Rav Shach 46 were not always aware of that hidden power that lay within his trademark silence — but they got a quick education. Rav Nissim would listen attentively to the two sides — sometimes these heated presentations almost rocked the walls of the room. Then came Rav Nissim’s questions, and silence reigned at once.
He’d ask, clarify, ask again — and surely and steadily, the issue in dispute would be shaved down to its essence. The baalei din were then asked to leave the room and then the psak began to be written. It consisted of just a few lines, but was very clear. In those brief lines lay clarity, authority, and uncontested halachic mastery.
Rav Shmaryahu Yosef Nissim Karelitz was born in 18 Av 5686/1926 in Vilna. The name “Nissim” was added by his grandfather because the new baby miraculously survived a life-threatening complication.
Rav Nissim related that he owned just one photo of himself as a child, because in his parents’ home, babies were not photographed. That single photo was taken by a relative from Vilna. “She asked me if I want to take a picture and I said I wanted to be a live person and not a picture memorial,” Rav Nissim related and added, “The Chazon Ish did not allow anyone to photograph him unless there was a great need, for an official document, and even then, only a gentile could take the picture.”
Around age ten, he moved with his parents to Eretz Yisrael to join the Steipler Gaon and the Chazon Ish in Bnei Brak (both his mother and father had the last name “Karelitz,” and his mother Basya was the sister of the Chazon Ish). Young Nissim was one of the first students to attend the newly established Yeshivas Ponevezh.
During his teenage years, Rav Nissim grew very close to the Chazon Ish. When the Chazon Ish became ill, he was one of the two people who ministered to him. Rav Nissim acquired most of his Torah from his uncle, as well as his proclivity for silence. The family related that he would speak only when he had to and even then, he was terse.
Every now and then, he would share his memories of the Chazon Ish, as they pertained to specific matters of halachah.
When Rav Nissim heard from a family member that he had spent many hours looking for arba minim, he called him and said, “After his marriage, my father saw that the Chazon Ish spent a lot of time buying arba minim. One day, he asked if it wasn’t preferable to buy adequately kosher arba minim and then use the rest of the time to learn. The Chazon Ish replied that he had spent all that time looking for kosher arba minim. Meaning: In the eyes of the Chazon Ish, if there was a slight question or doubt, then he did not have kosher arba minim.” Rav Nissim added to that person: “One can be mevatel Torah for hiddurim but one needs to know what is considered hiddur and what is truly questionable.”
Another time, when asked about the halachic propriety of taking a haircut on Erev Shabbos, Rav Nissim related that he would give the Chazon Ish a haircut on Friday after Minchah, but not after Minchah Ketanah.
Rav Nissim’s close relationship with the Chazon Ish played a role in his shidduch as well. He married Rebbetzin Leah a”h, the daughter of Rav Zvi Hirsh Kopschitz of Jerusalem, and great-granddaughter of Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, ztz”l. His family relates that before he got engaged, his wife’s father told the Chazon Ish that he had spoken to the future chassan, but had hardly heard a word from him. The Chazon Ish replied, “Reticence is a flaw that runs in the family, but you will hear a lot from him yet.”
At the age of 30, Rav Nissim was appointed head of Kollel Chazon Ish, a move directed by all the gedolei hador and talmidim of the Chazon Ish. He held the position until six years ago, when he fell ill, at which time his son, Rav Shaul, was appointed to succeed him.
Being rosh kollel of Chazon Ish was not a simple role. The kollel’s members were all gedolei Torah in their own right, with many faithful followers. Rav Nissim’s learning was rigorous, relate veteran members of the kollel. For example, anyone who wanted to learn with Rav Nissim had to agree to study one daf a day — in a one-hour session. During this one hour they summarized the previous dapim that they had learned up until then, with Gemara, Rashi, and Tosafos, and then the new daf. This pace meant that the avreich had to be unbelievably focused. At the end of the zeman, the avreich usually told his friends that he knew the Gemara they had learned perfectly, but could not maintain such a rigorous session for the following zeman.
Veteran avreichim at the kollel note that he never admonished a young man for coming late or being absent. Several years ago, when he passed on certain responsibilities regarding the learning structure at the kollel and the acceptance of avreichim to family members, Rav Nissim was asked why he didn’t enforce strict attendance. “Learning Torah is not an office job that is managed with specific hours,” he replied. “An avreich and his family need to value Torah learning and know its importance, and then to act based on that principle.”
When a relative wondered if it was not appropriate to penalize an avreich who came late, Rav Nissim expressed his vehement objection. “An avreich is not a factory worker,” he said.
Veteran kollel members still remember those early years when each week on Thursday, he’d arrive with an envelope with cash. The kollel had hundreds of members, and Rav Nissim went over to each and every avreich and paid him in cash, so they wouldn’t have to bother going to the bank. The personalized distribution usually took up a whole seder of Rav Nissim’s time, but he did it anyway.
As noted, many of today’s revered gedolei Torah learned in Kollel Chazon Ish. As they grew older, several incurred trouble climbing the five floors to the kollel. When Rav Nissim heard about this, he instructed that an elevator be built. After the construction was complete, the kollel members were astonished to see Rav Nissim climbing the stairs to the kollel. Eventually his family found out and asked him why he wouldn’t use the elevator. He replied that during its construction, some people had complained that it would disturb them for various reasons. He ruled that their claims had no grounds in halachah, and instructed that the elevator construction continue — but he personally refrained from using it. When they heard that the elderly Rav Nissim was not using the elevator, the claimants quickly came and made it clear that they had no complaints. Only then did he begin to use the elevator.
Rav Nissim felt such personal responsibility for the kollel that during construction of the building on Rashbam Street, he’d go every Friday to track the progress of the construction. Many older residents of Bnei Brak remember seeing him walking on the scaffolding, examining the work, and speaking to the workers; he then reported his findings and comments to the contractors, who realized just how much he knew about construction.
“This is public money that was deposited with me and I have to make sure it is used the way it was intended,” he explained when people asked if it was kavod haTorah for a venerated scholar to be climbing up scaffolding.
In 1977, Rav Nissim was appointed a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. From then on, he was presented with many public issues to decide upon. Here too, his famous silence preserved the secret nature of many of the issues he dealt with.
Rav Nissim established two institutions that are currently considered a given in Eretz Yisrael’s chareidi infrastructure — but were in fact groundbreaking innovations.
The first innovation was the Otzar Beis Din network for ensuring the halachic propriety of produce grown during the shemittah year. The second is an independent beis din that is not under the control of the secular court system or government. With time, Rav Nissim’s beis din grew and flourished, and is currently considered a uniquely powerful and successful institution. Beyond that, many of the dayanim, avos beis din, and rabbanim serving in other courts today are his talmidim.
In the early years of the State, the Chief Rabbinate was the only accepted legal authority for observant Jews, save for the beis din of the Eidah Hachareidis, which at the time was perceived as an isolationist sect. Rav Nissim saw too many observant Jews turning to secular courts, and decided that something had to change. The establishment of a private beis din would be a bold, revolutionary step, and most were doubtful that it could ever hold equivalent power to the State-sanctioned system.
Rav Nissim was undeterred by these concerns. He insisted that there had to be a private beis din — not subject to the authority of the state — for monetary disputes, to be adjudicated according to halachah. The Steipler Gaon urged him to put his plans into action. Rav Chaim Greineman also supported the initiative. Thus it was decided in 1968 to establish a private beis din for monetary matters that would operate according to Torah law, and not subject to the Chief Rabbinate of the State. In an effort to guarantee the authority of the beis din, all those who came for dinei Torah would sign a shtar borerus (arbitration document) worded by lawyers to ensure the enforceability of the ruling.
The beis din would be headed by Rav Nissim. All at once, he was transformed from an anonymous avreich focused solely on his learning to a public figure.
The beis din worked out of Rav Nissim’s home; at the time he lived in an apartment in his father’s house on Rav Blau Street in Bnei Brak. The children slept in the next room. Then one night, one of Rav Nissim’s children’s woke up and was surprised to discover his melamed sitting in his father’s beis din. In the morning, he asked what the melamed was doing at the beis din. That very day, Rav Nissim decided to take the beis din out of the house. To the surprise of all the skeptics, the beis din caught on, and ever-widening streams of people sought to settle their disputes there.
One day, Rav Nissim was summoned to Rav Shach. Waiting there was a man who told him that he had come from America at the behest of Rav Elya Svei to discuss a person who was withholding a get from his wife. The case had been addressed by several batei din but no one could persuade the husband to grant the get. The man related that he had brought the matter to Rav Svei, who told him that the only one in the world who was capable of getting such a get for the woman was Rav Nissim Karelitz.
Until that point, Rav Nissim had involved his beis din only in monetary disputes. But he did not turn down this case; all he said was that the husband and wife had to be brought before his beis din. Some time later, Rav Nissim was informed that the rabbanim and askanim had succeeded in bringing the couple to Israel. The beis din was convened and the couple appeared. Rav Nissim spoke to them extensively, and after a protracted process, to the astonishment of all those involved, the husband acceded and gave his wife a get. From that point on, Rav Nissim’s beis din became an address for gittin as well, and today it includes three chambers that address gittin. The beis din also deals with the sensitive matter of conversion, with clear guidelines and a network of mentor families who help potential converts through the process.
Rav Nissim’s piskei din were admired by the secular legal system as well. In a ruling handed down by the former president of the Tel Aviv District Court, Judge (ret.) Uri Goren, when an appeal was filed with him, he wrote: “I am familiar with many rulings by Rav Karelitz, and I study them. I have not found more straight, logical, and ethical rulings than those of Rav Karelitz.”
Rav Nissim maintained a packed schedule for almost all of his life, until his final years when ill health meant he had to cut back on his rigorous routine. He began learning at 3:30 a.m. and went to bed at 10:30 in the evening. Every waking moment was calculated. His schedule was packed with learning with regular chavrusas, regular shiurim at Kollel Chazon Ish, receiving hours for the public, answering questions from individuals, and relating to public issues; a morning and evening walk as per his doctor’s instructions; and five meals, whose menu, and times, were determined by the doctor who treated him over the years since a heart attack he suffered in 1997.
For as long as the Rebbetzin was alive, Rav Nissim ate only what she prepared. His breakfast was home-made cheese, made from milk brought from Beit Chilkiyah or Tifrach, a cup of milk, a vegetable salad (with vegetables from a private farm), and two pieces of special bread that his doctor recommended. He ate the same thing every morning.
Rav Nissim may have been a formidable halachic authority in his city and throughout the Torah world, but he demanded not even a speck of honor from his fellow Jews, and his home was open to all.
His patience for a fellow Jew in pain was astounding, his family relates. For many years, a woman would come to the house each day of Chanukah and he prepared her menorah for lighting. When his sons and then grandsons tried to volunteer to do it, she refused, and he continued this practice.
One year, a young American avreich came to his house and said he had been sent to spend the Seder night there. It quickly became clear that the young man was mentally unstable. The man insisted, and Rav Nissim instructed that he be allowed to stay. On Seder night, the guest expounded on divrei Torah and stories, and Rav Nissim listened patiently. The next evening, the man said he had to keep Yom Tov Sheini and demanded that Rav Nissim sit down at the Seder with him. Rav Nissim immediately canceled all other plans and sat down at the Seder, to the amazement of his family.
A yeshivah student was once drafted to the IDF. On his first furlough, he found himself walking to the home of Rav Nissim Karelitz. After the Rav asked some general questions, he inquired about the bochur’s mitzvah observance. When the bochur replied that there was a problem with the kashrus of the food, Rav Karelitz realized that the young man had not yet eaten a thing that day. He quickly called the Rebbetzin and together with her, he cut up vegetables and bread, and sat down near the bochur while he ate, to keep him company. But the bochur had a hard time eating in his presence. Rav Nissim quickly realized and packed up the meal.
“I can still taste that breakfast,” the bochur later related.
Rav Nissim’s children say that it was not unusual for other children to come live in their home. Sometimes, these were children from broken or dysfunctional homes. The Karelitz children were used to sharing their clothes and food and helping out with hosting these children. “It was part of the way our house ran,” one of the children explains.
One year, a couple came and asked for advice how to deal with a son whose behavior had them constantly summoned to the principal’s office; the neighbors were also furious with him. After listening to the parents, Rav Nissim said to them: “Bring him to live with me a bit. Tell him I asked for it.” The surprised parents returned home and told their son about the unusual request. He acceded happily.
The boy spent two weeks in Rav Nissim’s home. By the second week, there was a marked improvement in his behavior. At the end of that week, Rav Nissim asked the parents to come speak with him again. After praising the child to them, he discreetly suggested a few things they might want to do to better handle their son. He concluded by advising that they buy him a bike.
The boy’s father was stunned. Rav Nissim Karelitz was known for his opposition to bike riding. The surprise was evident on the father’s face, but Rav Nissim pretended not to notice and noted the importance of educating each child according to his own personal needs.
When the boy was asked by his parents what Rav Nissim spoke to him about when he stayed in the Rav’s home, he replied that there were no long conversations.
“But I saw him,” he said simply. And that answered every question.
Their Day in Court
As the largest private beis din currently operated in Israel, Rav Nissim Karelitz’s beis din currently employs more than 36 dayanim, with separate morning and evening shifts. Each panel comprises three dayanim, and there is always a combination of older and younger dayanim. Most of the panels deal with monetary disputes, but there are others that address divorces and conversions. Approximately 100 cases a month are brought before the beis din, encompassing a wide array of subjects.
The uniqueness of the beis din is manifest in several rules that Rav Nissim established when it opened. The first: The dayanim do not get any salary or stipend for their time. The role is purely voluntary. Another rule: The dayanim sit at the same height as the litigators and not on elevated platforms. The beis din secretary still remembers the instructions he received when initially hired by Rav Nissim: “People who come here are often bitter and they need to be treated with patience, even when that makes it hard for us.”
Rav Nissim also implemented the practice of having the dayanim visit the site of disputes in person, and not rely on the reports they are given. It is not unusual to see dayanim from the beis din visiting a place that is under dispute, often with a tape measure.
One famous story regards a disputed plot where one man claimed that there were just five meters between his wall and the extension that his neighbor wanted to build; therefore he refused to allow the extension. Rav Nissim queried, if there would be 15 meters would he agree? The neighbor replied that he would not. And if there were 20 meters? Rav Nissim asked. “I’d agree,” the neighbor replied.
“You can build the extension,” Rav Nissim declared on the spot to the other neighbor. “There are 45 meters there. We measured it yesterday,” he said to the stunned litigators.
Another time, the litigators were taken aback to see a group of respected dayanim, led by Rav Nissim, climbing a mountain of construction debris so that they could gain access to the scaffolding of a building.
In another din Torah, neighbors complained that one of the building’s residents had opened an improvised falafel store at home and all of them were suffering from the fumes. The owner of the falafel store claimed that his neighbors were just being petty. The dayanim, headed by Rav Nissim, announced that they wanted to visit the homes of the complaining neighbors. The arrived, to the shock of the two sides, and went over to the wall and began to lick it. “There’s a definite taste of oil and falafel here,” the dayanim said, and instructed the neighbor to close his “store.”
Rav Nissim was known for his brevity of speech; his responses where terse and to the point, both in written and oral form. His piskei din rarely included explanations or supporting sources. “Piskei din are not places to write shtiklach Torah,” he once remarked on a rare occasion, when he was asked about it.
Even when longer rulings with detailed halachic explanations are necessary, those longer versions will be filed in the beis din for safekeeping, and the litigators will be given a brief synopsis.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 783)