By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
He was the gadol ha’dor in the United States prior to Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, yet, unfortunately, his rulings and his seforim have, by and large, been 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 Meltzer, zt’l. He received semichah 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 rabbanim across America and beyond. He published three seforim. Yet somehow Rav Henkin has become America’s forgotten poseik.
How did it happen? How did America’s leading poseik 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 ha’dor and headed Ezras Torah, but without a natural constituency demanding the seforim, it was difficult to bring them to the printing house.
Baruch Hashem, this sad reality will soon be addressed.
Rav Daniel Osher Kleinman, a Torah scholar with prodigious talents, has, with the encouragement of his rosh yeshiva, Moreinu HaRav Shmuel Kamenetsky, taken upon himself a remarkable project. Rabbi Kleinman has previously authored Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky’s halachic series. Now 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 California, 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 ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. 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 from Rav Henkin’s family that has not been printed and has found over 100 additional letters in his search.
He is now in his last stretch. This project needs our assistance. If anyone 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. v
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Since this article about Rav Henkin first appeared on 5TJT.com, Rabbi Kleinman received 17 new letters from 5TJT readers. The Five Towns Jewish Times is proud to have participated in this very worthy project.
Rabbi Kleinman wrote the following letter to the 5TJT:
Dear Mr. Gordon,
I would like to express my deepest thanks for your posting R’ Yair Hoffman’s article regarding HaRav Henkin and the project I am currently involved in on your website. It is exceedingly difficult to turn up new teshuvos, and the challenge has been compounded by the many obstacles which have cropped up along the way. The article has helped the project by raising awareness, and has already led to two new teshuvos, b’H, with the hope that more will follow be’H.
When HaRav Shmuel Kamenetsky, shlita, told me to undertake this work, he prefaced it by saying, “Rav Henkin was both the gadol ha’dor and the tzaddik ha’dor together; the zechus of doing this ‘ein lesha’er’, cannot be comprehended. May the zechus of this great gadol and tzaddik be a source of berachah for you and your family.”
Rabbi Daniel Kleinman