He was the Gadol haDor in the United States prior to Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l. And, unfortunately, his rulings and his seforim have, by and large, been completely forgotten.
Walk into any shul or Seforim store and you will be hard-pressed to find a sefer written by Rav Yoseph Eliyahu Henkin zt”l. Open up a contemporary Halachic work and you will rarely find a ruling quoted in his name.
Rav Henkin studied in Yeshiva Etz Chaim in Slutzk, Russia under Rav Isser Zalman Melter zt”l. He received Smicha from Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz, the Ridbaz, and the Aruch HaShulchan and served as a Rav in Russia. He arrived in this country in 1923, and eventually founded and headed the organization called Ezras Torah. Rav Henkin issued tens of thousands of rulings and wrote responsa to Rabbonim across America and beyond. He published three Seforim.
Yet somehow, Rav Henkin has become “America’s Forgotten Posek.”
How did it happen? How did America’s leading Posek fall into such halachic obscurity? This author’s theory is that there were three factors. Firstly, Rav Henkin spent most of his time dedicating himself to others, through the vehicle of his remarkable organization Ezras Torah. He did not make photo offset copies of his letters or rulings or write them again for posterity because he gave every spare moment to raising much needed funds for Torah scholars. Secondly, Rav Henkin lived in a time quite different from ours. Then, the Torah scholars were refugees, suffering in misery and distress. They could barely put food on the table. Who thought to put out Seforim? Even those that eventually were issued rarely had the name of the recipient of the letter. Finally, Rav Henkin did not have a Yeshiva or an official Rabbinic Shteller like other great Rabbis and Torah leaders. He was the Gadol HaDor and headed Ezras Torah true, but without a natural constituency demanding the Seforim, it was difficult to bring them to the printing house again.
Boruch Hashem, this sad reality will soon be addressed.
With the encouragement of his Rosh Yeshiva, Moreinu HaRav Shmuel Kamenetsky, a Torah scholar with prodigious talents, Rav Daniel Osher Kleineman, has taken upon himself a remarkable project. Reb Daniel has started the painstaking task of reissuing, or rather newly issuing, Rav Henkin’s incisive and groundbreaking rulings that have been almost lost to oblivion.
Reb Daniel has carefully scoured the letters and archives found in the inner recesses of university libraries across the country for Rav Henkin’s letters. He has called nearly one thousand people from Maine to Los Angeles in his search for correspondences.
At times he has struck gold, finding a cache of letters back and forth from descendants of Rabbis who were active in the 20’s. 30’s and 40’s. Most of the time Reb Daniel comes up empty-handed, but he does not give up.
He has done a fantastic job in putting together the extant material. He has organized Rav Henkin’s writings in the order of the Shulchan Aruch, and has gathered all that is available in print. He has gathered material that has not been printed from Rav Henkin’s family and has found over 100 additional letters in his search.
He is now in his last stretch. This project needs our assistance. If anyone out there is a descendant of a Rav who may have corresponded with Rav Henkin zt”l, now is the time to speak up. If anyone has any such letters in their possession, please reach out to Reb Daniel at MachonRavHenkin@gmail.com or by calling him at 732 370-0995.
The author can be reached at email@example.com