By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Klal Yisrael has lost an extraordinary rosh yeshiva, a great tzaddik, and a world-class posek.
Moreinu HaRav HaGaon Rav Chaim Yisroel Belsky, zt’l, 77, passed away last Thursday evening. In the words of the maspidim, he was an outstanding talmidchacham and tzaddik who served as a roshyeshiva in Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, a world-class posek in the largest kashrus agency in the world, and the rav of Camp Agudah for many years. Rav Belsky had studied in Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, under Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, and in Beis Medrash Elyon in Monsey.
Rav Elya Katz, shlita, a maggidshiur at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, stated at the levayah last Friday that Rav Belsky was the embodiment of the yeshiva. He was head of the yeshiva, the heart of the yeshiva, and the eyes of the yeshiva.
Rav Belsky served as a maggid shiur in Yeshiva Torah Vodaath for over half a century. He ruled on thousands of halachic questions for the Orthodox Union. Thousands of hours of his recorded shiurim are available in Torah libraries across the country. The shiurim are filled with the classic thinking of gedolei haRishonim and Acharonim as well as his own chiddushim. Rav Belsky gave regular shiurim in the dafyomi, YorehDeah, Chumash and Rashi, and much more.
As rav, masmidim-program director, and general mashpia on thousands and thousands of young men in Camp Agudah in Ferndale, New York, Rav Belsky’s relationship with his talmidim and campers was like that of a loving father. One summer it was arranged that his masmidimshiur was to be taken over by someone else. When he noticed the sadness on the faces of four of the students, he worked out that he would give them a private shiur in the laws of chazarah and shehiyah on Shabbos—at six o’clock in the morning. To this day, the boys—now grown men—remember those halachos particularly well.
On one occasion, a camper was hospitalized with a serious brain tumor in a hospital some four hours away. Entirely unfazed by the distance, Rav Belsky drove the four hours to the hospital, spent a few hours with the young man, and drove the four hours back.
On another occasion, a young student who was confined in a wheelchair quietly expressed to someone that he would love to attend one of the camp’s hikes. Rav Belsky, a man of immense physical strength, carried him on his shoulders for the next hike for five hours straight. Not many people can manage an extra 140 to 160 pounds on one’s shoulders for a full five hours. This was an extraordinary feat of strength. The young man is now a remarkable talmidchacham himself and is a neighbor of this author’s relative.
Yeshiva Torah Vodaath
The story of Rav Yisroel Belsky, zt’l, is intertwined with the story of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath. Reb Binyomin Wilhelm, Rav Belsky’s maternal grandfather, was one of the three founders of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath. In 1919, while attempting to recruit students for his new yeshiva, he had convinced Reb Yisroel and Leah Belsky to enroll their son Berl in the fledgling new yeshiva located in Williamsburg. Reb Berl enrolled and developed a close kesher with Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz. Soon, Reb Berl went back to Europe to study in Radin under the saintly Chofetz Chaim himself. The Chofetz Chaim valued Reb Berl and would often caress his arm lovingly and declare with surprise, “Fuhn America!” The Chofetz Chaim was amazed that such a prized talmid could have emerged from the melting pot of assimilation that was America.
Reb Berl would later teach his son, Reb Yisroel Belsky, the Chofetz Chaim’s niggunim. Reb Yisroel’s mastery of niggunim was legendary as well, and he taught these niggunim to talmidim and campers alike. Thousands of bachurim now sing the unique yeshiva niggunim of a century ago—all because of Rav Belsky. Camp Agudah once published an entire bentcher just of unique and inspiring niggunim that were vouchsafed for the future by Rav Belsky.
When Reb Berl returned from Radin, Reb Shraga Feivel Mendelevitch suggested the shidduch of Reb Binyomin Wilhelm’s daughter, Chana Tzirel. Rav Yisroel Belsky was their bechor.
Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky had asked Rav Belsky, at the age of 24, to take over the shiur of Rav Zelig Epstein, zt’l, one of the venerable zikneiha’rosheiyeshiva. His students then were among the leading bneiTorah in the country. Some of them became rosheiyeshiva in their own right.
Rav Belsky would eventually become a roshyeshiva at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath. Rav Belsky taught at the yeshiva for over half a century.
Close To Great Luminaries
Rav Belsky learned under the great luminaries of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath. He was close with Rav Zelig Epstein, Rav Elya Chazan, and his rebbemuvhak—Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt’l. Rav Yaakov inspired him to master Tanach among his other limudim. He was close to Rav Avrohom Pam, zt’l, as well, and was related to him.
Rav Belsky received semichah from Yeshiva Torah Vodaath in 1962 and then went on to receive shimush from the gadol ha’dor, Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l. He received semichah from Rav Moshe in 1965.
His recall of every Tosfos in Shas was well known. Rav Dovid Kviat, zt’l, told this author that Rav Belsky knew kol haTorah kulah. Rav Yeruchim Olshin, shlita, stated at the levayah that Rav Belsky’s knowledge was not just broad. He knew all the mekoros well and in great depth.
His ability to rule in numerous areas of halachah was uncanny. His proficiency and familiarity with kol HaTorah kulah was veritably unmatched. Aside from his vast knowledge in all these areas, he was also a mohel, shochet, and knew the vast intricacies of safrus. His mastery of nikkur was well known too.
Rav Belsky developed a close bond with campers and masmidim in Camp Agudah. He taught two of my sons who attended the Masmidim program. He taught them Torah—and much more. He taught one of my sons how to tell time at night with just the stars acting as his clock. He taught campers the names of the constellations, the names of all the surrounding trees, and the names of flowers and bushes. He taught them how to swim.
This author once was doing research in libraries and found the original text of Rav Yisroel Salanter’s Iggeres HaMussar. The original text was different than the one printed in the Ohr Yisroel published by Rav Yitzchok Blaser. Rav Belsky gave me a haskamah on my translation of the original and proceeded to recite the Igeres HaMussar by heart.
Rav Belsky, zt’l, had some remarkably innovative halachic rulings. He held that even though an akum does not have ne’emanus regarding checking an egg for bloodspots, if one provides a financial reward for every egg with a blood spot that is found, this can be relied upon halachically.
He issued a ruling once regarding the use of a cell phone to prevent yichud between a married woman and a taxi driver driving her home. He used the cell phone as an additional factor to issue a permissive ruling.
In another innovative p’sak, Rav Belsky held that it was possible to establish an individual chezkaskashrus on a gentile’s ne’emanus by checking upon him or her three times in specific situations where the gentile is unaware of the fact that he is being checked up on. Other poskim, however, were not in agreement with this view.
Rav Belsky also held that a plastic-foam (“styrofoam”) cup does not have the halachic status of a kli sheini because its walls do not absorb the heat from the liquid inside. This too was rather innovative and was not accepted by other poskim. In another stringency, Rav Belsky held that during the Nine Days, underclothing also had to be pre-worn.
When the controversy arose over copepods in the New York City water supply, Rav Belsky was one of the few poskim who ruled leniently. He also issued a lenient ruling regarding the consumption of the anisakis worm in fish.
In the late 1980s, when the controversy arose over the condition of displaced abomasum in cows, he issued a lenient ruling saying that Rav Moshe had already paskened on the issue in his lifetime. The chalavYisrael companies chose not to follow his leniency and to this day make sure that all cows that had DA surgery are removed from the line.
Rav Belsky was a master ba’altefilah. His intent kavanah, and his beautiful nusach, was enrapturing. He was the ba’altefilah on YamimNora’im for Khal Adas Yereim in Kew Gardens for many years. The rav of the shul was Rav Yaakov Teitelbaum, zt’l, the mara d’asra of Camp Agudah prior to Rav Belsky.
One could see him occasionally in the Five Towns at the 11:30 p.m. Ma’arivminyan at Rav Yaakov Horowitz, the Bostoner Rebbe of Lawrence. Rav Horowitz told me recently that Rav Belsky had also been the ba’altefilah at the shul of his great-grandfather in Brooklyn a half-century earlier.
Vast Knowledge Of Nature
He not only gave deep shiurim in Gemara and halachah, but had a vast knowledge in mili d’alma, worldly matters. He had a solid grasp of astronomy, botany, and biology, and would often lead campers in nature walks. In his work as one of the two poskim in the Orthodox Union, he had a deep grasp of the manufacturing process, never refraining from climbing or getting his hands dirty to investigate manufacturing processes.
In a conversation I had with Rav Yisroel Belsky on the 27th of Tishrei 5769, having to do with the halachos of shechitah, he explained that the actual blood-alcohol-content level necessary to be considered “the stage of drunkenness of Lot” would be 0.21% to 0.29% depending upon the person. This was based upon a study by Virginia Tech University, ruled by Rabbi Belsky as authoritative, titled “Alcohol’s Effects.”
Another time I spoke to him about the halachos of how, when a vessel becomes non-kosher only to k’dei klipah, i.e. skin deep, one calculates whether we have shishim of food against the k’dei klipah. Within a minute and a half, he provided the equation to determine whether hot food subsequently placed in the pot is 60 times the amount of the k’dei klipah of the pot (assuming that in this pot we say cham miktzaso cham kulo): x = 6m(r + 2h)/rh, where x isthe percentage of the pot that must be full, m is the depth in mils of the k’dei klipah of that particular metal, r inches is the radius of the pot, and h inches is its height.
Thus, for example, if we assume that the k’dei klipah of an aluminum pot is 1 mil and that the pot is 10 inches high and 10 inches in diameter, the pot must be 3 percent full in order to have shishim against the klipah.
Rabbi Menachem Genack of the OU mentioned this aspect about him at the levayah as well. It was fascinating to hear of someone from the Torahu’Madda school speak in such absolute awe of the mathematical mastery of someone from a Torah-only background.
Another time, I was a rav in a shul where an actual food and fist fight had emerged after an argument between two of the ba’al ha’batim. Rav Belsky was instrumental in deciding how best to deal with both parties. Later, someone had told me that the incident had gotten into one of Rav Belsky’s hashkafah lessons that he delivered to his talmidim in Yeshiva Torah Vodaath.
Empathy For Others
Rav Belsky’s entire nature was such that he would empathize wholly and completely with the problem of whoever approached him or called him. He would cry with them. He would spend time with them.
On one occasion, a man had passed away in Far Rockaway without leaving a child. His only brother was severely developmentally disabled, and the man’s wife faced a difficult halachic question. Could her brother-in-law perform chalitzah or was he considered a halachicshoteh, making him ineligible?
The last time this question arose was in the early 1960s, posed to Rav Moshe Feinstein. I called Rav Belsky at the behest of the man’s rosh yeshiva. Rav Belsky immediately asked if I could pick him up to go to the shivah. I did.
Rav Belsky came down to the shivah home and spent three hours with the deceased man’s family. Rav Belsky consoled and comforted the parents while simultaneously determining the status of the brother. The nichum aveilim was so comforting to the parents that they thanked the rabbi who had brought them this “wonderful holy rabbi.”
Rav Belsky had a special place in his heart for our brethren that are in and came from the Soviet Union. He spent much of his time with them, helping them not only with Torah, but with solving practical problems too.
Rav Belsky’s care and concern for Klal Yisrael was manifest in the time that he had spent consoling and comforting all people that came to him with their problems.
Sense Of Achrayus
Rav Belsky had a strong sense of achrayus for Klal Yisrael. When the Indian sheitel controversy took place, he made great effort to convey to the gedolim in EretzYisrael the research he had done. I was in his office in Yeshiva Torah Vodaath at the time. His purpose, aside from seeking emes, truth, was to save the women of Klal Yisrael vast sums of money.
Once there was a certain chazzan that would pursue underage girls, ply them with alcohol, and do unspeakable things. Rav Belsky issued a p’sak that he should be put in jail and arrested. He issued this p’sak out of a sense of achrayus to KlalYisrael. I was there when he issued this p’sak.
Another time a political issue developed in regard to one of the big chicken plants. The issue required that a second hechsher also be obtained on the plant. Rav Belsky’s role was not personal or political—his efforts were to save someone’s life and he was technically working against his own interest in this shtadlanus.
Rav Belsky authored a few sefarim. He wrote teshuvah sefarim in halachah and shiurim on Chumash. He could have authored many more but he didn’t because his day was fully devoted to matters of Klal Yisrael. He penned hundreds of haskamos to other people’s sefarim, too. Such was his extraordinary sense of selflessness.
Rav Belsky was selfless in numerous ways—with his money, with his reputation, and with his time.
Firm In Torah
Notwithstanding his remarkable ahavas Yisrael, Rav Belsky could be sharp and strong when he disagreed with someone in Torah. People who were not used to this could be intimated. Yet he welcomed conversation and discussion and at times he relented in argument too.
Illness Of Four Years Ago
Four years ago, Rav Belsky developed a life-threatening illness that almost took his life. Miraculously, he recovered to the extent that he was able to resume activities in yeshiva, in the OU, and at Camp Agudah. The amount he had accomplished just in those four years was beyond what many accomplish in a lifetime.
About two months ago, he arranged a get for an agunah whose husband had violated the trust of numerous young people. Rav Belsky’s remarkable personality was instrumental in arranging for this woman’s freedom. She told me all about it the next day. This former agunah had tears of joy as she expressed her remarkable admiration for Rav Belsky, who was so instrumental in freeing her.
Rav Belsky’s imprint on Torah Judaism in the past half a century will certainly have an impact for generations to come. The world is a vastly different place without him. Nafla ateres rosheinu. v
The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.