A Talmid’s Perspective
By Rabbi Elli Bohm
Rabbi Bohm is a musmach of Rav Belsky zt”l and was a close talmid for about 20 years. He authored Halacha Berurah columns on over a hundred halachah topics that were meticulously reviewed by Rav Belsky for halachic and factual accuracy.
I sit down tonight to pen this article about my beloved rebbi, moreh derech, and posek. I had the zechus to have spent thousands of hours listening to Rav Belsky’s shiurim and discussing myriad Torah topics with him. I cherish the time he devoted to reviewing hundreds of halachah articles that I wrote over the years.
It’s so hard to come to terms with the fact that I no longer have access to such a special rebbi, who influenced my life probably more than any other individual. Four years ago, upon seeing him when he returned from the hospital, I made a Shehecheyanu with Sheim Umalchus for the immense joy I felt at that moment. I was so hoping to do the same again now, but the Ribbono Shel Olam had different plans.
An article can’t do justice to describe the impact he had on my life and on the tens of thousands of talmidim in whose lives he played such a pivotal role.
What increases the challenge in writing such a tribute is the fact that when you are so close to someone, you don’t have a list of inspirational stories that stand out as you would have if you just spent a single day visiting a gadol. With someone who you are so close with, you don’t just take notice of extraordinary things. It is all part of one big memory.
My shaychus with Rav Belsky started when I was an eleventh grade talmid at Yeshiva Torah Temimah. I was learning Mishnah Berurah Hilchos Pesach and encountered an apparent stirah in the words of the Mishnah Berurah. I went around asking the question to many rabbonim, who acknowledged that it was a good kashah. I was not ready to give up. At the time, a number of the talmidim in my class went to Camp Agudah’s Masmidim program run by Rav Belsky. They were forever describing his gadlus, telling me how he literally knows everything and that there is not a single question he cannot answer.
I called Rav Belsky one night to ask him the question. Within seconds, he directed me to look in a different cheilek of Mishnah Berurah, and based on what the Chofetz Chaim writes there, one can easily understand why it’s not a stirah and why the Chofetz Chaim specifically chose to write what he wrote in each location. The terutz blew me away.
Rav Belsky went on to say that, often, people think that they found a stirah in the words of the Chofetz Chaim, but with a drop of additional iyun, one can clearly realize how every single word was so meticulously written. Rav Belsky related that Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l said that you can be medayeik in the words of the Mishnah Berurah as if you are learning a Rishon, and the Chofetz Chaim was zocheh to that because he scrutinized every word that came out of his mouth with regard to shemiras halashon.
The following day, I made up my mind that I needed to develop a shaychus with this adam gadol. During lunchtime, I left Torah Temimah and walked the three blocks to Torah Vodaas. I met Rav Belsky as he was walking to Minchah and introduced myself as the caller from the night before. He smiled. I mentioned that I had a few more questions to ask him. He told me that after Minchah, he would be taking the train to Manhattan to go to the Orthodox Union’s offices, where he supervises its kashrus, and that I can walk him to the train.
I readily accepted the opportunity, somewhat surprised that this gadol traveled to the OU by train, unaccompanied by anyone. I prepared my list of questions and the walk began. I soon realized that it was not Rav Belsky’s style to answer questions quickly. Every answer included lengthy explanations along with lots of stories and abstract tidbits. I only got to ask two questions during the fifteen-minute walk. I built up the courage and asked him if I can accompany him on the train. He smiled again and made me feel very comfortable. He even helped me swipe my MetroCard, which had been giving me difficulty.
The shaychus then began.
I quickly realized that Rav Belsky dedicated significant amounts of time to everyone. It did not make a difference if the person was an eleventh grade bochur, a yungerman, a meshulach from Eretz Yisroel, an almanah, a prestigious askan, or a rosh yeshiva.
People were always impressed by his ga’onus. Those who knew him were even more impressed by his tzidkus. He was not able to say no to anyone.
Someone once asked me if I don’t feel awkward calling Rav Belsky so often. Why, the person asked, don’t I let him rest and relax a bit? I responded that apparently this person does not know Rav Belsky. There was no such thing as relaxation time for him. If it would not be me calling or visiting him, I said, it would be someone else. There seemed to always be people waiting by his house. He did not know the meaning of locking his door. Almost every second of his day, he was with someone. His entire life was dedicated to Klal Yisroel.
I was once sitting in his house reviewing a Halacha Berurah article I wrote, and every five seconds, the phone was ringing. I mentioned to him gently that if he takes every call, we will never get done with the article and the deadline was approaching. He looked at me in disbelief. “How can I not answer? There might be a pikuach nefesh issue on the line.”
This was his very selfless essence. He was always there for the klal.
One time, we were really up against a deadline the next morning, yet his phone just kept ringing. He politely apologized and told me that he will call me when things quiet down and promised to finish reviewing the article before the deadline. My phone rang at 2 a.m. That was when things first quieted down in the Belsky household.
People would line up to ask him shailos and for eitzos, haskamos and tzedakah.
The tzedakah was something I would not have believed if I did not see it with my own eyes hundreds of times. Meshulachim heard that there is a big baal tzedakah in Torah Vodaas and his name is Rabbi Belsky. They would come to pour out their hearts to him, and the smallest check he wrote was $20.
For many years, there were lines out his door for tzedakah. I once asked him if he had a fund. He responded that all the meshulachim definitely think that he has a fund, but it is all from his personal checking account. I asked him how he can afford it. He told me, “That’s the Ribono Shel Olam’s job – to make sure there is money in the account. When people come pouring out their hearts to me, how can I not offer my personal financial assistance?”
He was so careful not to embarrass or hurt any person’s feelings. There was once a Yid who kept on coming to him and cried out his heart. I once commented to Rav Belsky that this person comes so often. He told me, “I gave him advice and he doesn’t listen to me, but he still comes back crying when things are not working out.” I asked him, if the person is not taking his advice, why does he still spend so much time talking to the person when he is so busy? Rav Belsky said, “He is in such pain. How can I send him out and hurt his feelings? I must listen to him cry.”
To further illustrate his sense of concern for each person’s feelings, four years ago, when he was taken to Maimonides Hospital and was being treated by a doctor, some people advised him that he can probably get better treatment if he switched to a Manhattan hospital. Rav Belsky refused to be transferred, saying that his present doctor is confident he can help, and if he switches, it will hurt the doctor’s feelings. He refused to let that happen.
When the immigration of Russian Jewry began with the fall of the Iron Curtain, the newly-arrived immigrants needed guidance and someone to turn to. Rav Belsky became the address. He didn’t just help the Russian Jews. He actually taught himself Russian in a short period of time so that he would be able to communicate effectively with them.
Nothing he did was half-baked. Everything he touched was influenced by his expert approach.
Standing Up For the Truth
Rav Belsky’s selfless dedication to all people often ended up with him personally receiving a lot of flack, as he did not hesitate to go up against powerful and influential people if he felt that they were wronging someone. In most of these cases, no other person would touch the issue, as they knew good and well that going up against powerful individuals would ultimately come back and hurt them. But Rav Belsky’s door was always open. He was such a mevakeish ha’emes and possessed a tzidkus of wanting to help people. He couldn’t stand by as someone was taking advantage of another person shelo kadin. He put his neck on the line to help others.
People knew that if they had a din Torah and wanted a fair shake, regardless of the stature of the other litigant, Rav Belsky’s bais din was the place to go.
Rav Belsky once commented that he doesn’t get discouraged by the negativity some people falsely spewed about him. He described it with a moshol. He said that when a person is climbing a high mountain, as long as he keeps on looking up, he will succeed. As soon as he looks down around him, he will slowly get frightened by his situation and that might cause him to fall. The same is true in life, said Rav Belsky. A person must focus only on the Ribono Shel Olam and on doing what is right, not taking a look at any of his surroundings.
He had such an enormous bikkush for emes. When he would come back from a din Torah where it was evident that one of the baalei din or to’anim were lying, it pained him physically. He had such agmas nefesh over it. It also hurt him to see people fighting about petty things and not be able to separate themselves and recognize the bigger picture. When he was able to persuade the parties to do what was yashrusdik, he experienced the greatest simcha.
In two decades, there was not a single question that I asked him on any topic to which I did not receive a lengthy response, whether it was in Tanach, Shas, Daled Chelkei Shulchan Aruch, or, lehavdil, chochmas chitzoniyus. He had such a mastery of astronomy, mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, history, and virtually every other subject.
There was not a posuk in Chumash or Nach that he could not rattle off baal peh. Every time I mentioned a Gemara to him, he was instantly able to show it to me.
He had the same geshmak in every area of Torah, whether it was hilchos Shabbos or a sugya in Kodshim. I was once discussing with him a sugyah in Ohalos. It was an abstract sugyah, not one he is asked about daily. I was blown away by how well he remembered it. It was as if he just learned it the day before.
I was once discussing with him the Chazal that one should learn mah shelibo chofetz, what his heart desires. He told me that he has a hard time relating to that, as all parts of the Torah give him equal enjoyment.
His son once mentioned to me that he observed Rav Belsky finish the entire Maseches Kesubos on a flight to Eretz Yisroel.
On Shabbos, he studied Masechtos Shabbos and Eruvin, finishing these masechtos hundreds, if not thousands, of times.
He possessed his remarkable knowledge already 40 years ago. His younger years were devoted to learning with such intense hasmadah and a thirst for knowledge. Once he became a rebbi, almost all his time was consumed by shiurim and helping be madrich people. At that point, he spent very little time on his own personal learning; it was always dedicated to others.
Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l once commented that if Rav Belsky would’ve spent another ten years of his life focused on his personal learning, with the extraordinary kishron he had, he would’ve been the greatest Torah giant in the entire world. Rav Belsky understood his calling and he was there for the klal, and he still merited to be among the most prominent gedolei Torah of his generation.
Anyone who knew Rav Belsky saw how it pained him when people started a tumult based on false information or false sevaros.
False tumults especially bothered him, as they created a hullabaloo and uproar, scaring people unnecessarily.
He once related that years ago, there was a shailah about the kashrus of cast iron pots. He went to ask the shailah to Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l. Rav Yaakov said that such a shailah should be brought to Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l. Together, they traveled to the Lower East Side to ask Rav Moshe. Rav Moshe thought long and hard, and said that to assur it would cause a major kashrus issue in everyone’s kitchens and he needs to give it more thought. Rav Moshe stressed that they should not disclose this finding to anyone until he has a final answer in order to avoid causing an unnecessary tumult. Eventually, Rav Moshe came up with a heter that he felt comfortable relying on and the issue was put to rest.
Rav Belsky commented that the kohein gadol is warned not to stay inside the Kodesh Hakodoshim on Yom Kippur for too long, despite it being the holiest day and the fact that he is representing Klal Yisroel. He is advised, nonetheless, to keep it short in other not to frighten the people that something bad had happened to him.
Such is the achrayus not to frighten people unnecessarily, said Rav Belsky.
Years ago, Rav Belsky related that there was a meeting with rabbonim to discuss a shailah regarding the kashrus of milk based on a new discovery. Even before the meeting was over, with a decision rendered, information somehow leaked to the public and there were kol korehs already posted all over. Rav Belsky was greatly bothered by this.
When the shaitel tumult erupted a number of years ago, I worked very closely with Rav Belsky on researching the facts. Rav Belsky sent a letter to Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l with a few questions on his p’sak on the matter. A few days later, I walked into the coffee room at Bais Medrash Govoah in Lakewood and saw a group of people looking at a letter written by Rav Elyashiv in response to Rav Belsky’s letter to him. I immediately called Rav Belsky to hear his take on it. He was shocked. He didn’t even know that Rav Elyashiv had responded to him and that it was already posted in Lakewood. It turned out that his fax machine was out of paper, but the fact that the olam in Bais Medrash Govoah saw it first demonstrated how quickly, in this day and age, kol korehs and letters are spread.
Rav Belsky told me that most tumults result from some people learning a sugya for the first time and thinking that they discovered something, not knowing that it was already addressed year ago by gedolei Torah. Generally, every 20 years, the same tumults resurface.
Nothing bothered him more than when people denigrated gedolim of previous generations. During a certain eruv tumult, I observed how he spoke so passionately about those who just dismiss the words of previous gedolim. He fought fervently for the sake of emes. It pained him so greatly to see people being mechalel Shabbos. It had detrimental effect on his health at the time.
He fought an issue to the very end, whether it was lekulah or lechumrah. The personal consequences didn’t matter to him. He wished to make sure that people were not megaleh ponim shelo kehalachah.
I fear what will be now when future tumults arise, without someone like Rav Belsky, who had the achrayus, the seichel hayoshor, the knowledge of all the facts, and the power to set the record straight.
Style of P’sak
Rav Belsky utilized his vast knowledge to see a complete picture in every sugya in Shas. He had an extraordinary power of reason and could quickly dismiss any sevara that lacked truth. His bikkush ha’emes was even more noticeable when talking to him in learning. He could not stomach when someone would say a pilpul or come to a conclusion that he felt was halachically incorrect.
He once showed me an algebra formula in which once you substitute ‘x’ and ‘y’ on both sides of the equation, you end up with a result of 1=0. Obviously, that’s impossible. He used this to illustrate that, often, a pilpul might sound good, but if it produces a conclusion that is absurd, then it means that somewhere along the way, you made a mistake, despite how accurate it might seem. His glattkeit in p’sak did not allow him to accept anything that sounded remotely contrary to what clear logic dictated.
It often troubled him when people offered a lomdishe shtickel and, based on that, established new dinim in halachah that are not mentioned in any of the Rishonim or Acharonim. He often said that unless we are dealing with a new shailah, the fact that certain obvious dinim did not appear in any of the earlier poskim is generally a good indication that it’s not accurate.
He strongly opposed the attitude of some people who distinguished contemporary scenarios from earlier times, thus calling for a change in halachah. He said that in order to make such a distinction, one must be very fluent in 1) the metzius in earlier times, 2) the current metzius, and 3) the related sugyos. Without proficiency in all three of these areas, it’s impossible to make any distinctions.
Rav Belsky had such a common sense approach to halachah. When people listened to a shiur from him, it often did not contain major pilpulim, yet when he was asked a question, he gave the most brilliant pilpul to explain what he had said. Pilpulim did not create his pesakim. Rather, his extraordinary knowledge of all aspects of Torah and, lehavdil, secular subjects gave him a deep understanding of the underlying root, concepts and sevaros of each sugya. With this depth of understanding, the pesakim for each practical issue were simple extensions of the sugya. His rayos and pilpulim were generally only a by-product of his p’sak, demonstrating why he was right; they were not the source or basis of the p’sak.
Rav Belsky did not just pasken from behind his shtender in the bais medrash. He would roll up his sleeves and take apart machinery, also traveling to remote places if giving an accurate p’sak required that.
It was because of his clarity and knowledge that he was able to revolutionize kashrus in America. He earned everyone’s admiration. People yearned to hear his expert opinion on all matters.
He once mentioned to me that he was in a slaughterhouse and the menaker did not remove a piece of fat that was cheilev. He pointed it out to those on the production line, but they disagreed, saying that the fat he was pointing to was permitted fat, as that piece of meat is from a different part of the animal. Rav Belsky felt that he had no choice, so he stopped the production line and pieced together the entire animal. He was able to clearly demonstrate that he was correct.
His shiurim and pesakim often included many stories. I once asked him why he spent so much time telling stories. He said that stories do a very good job in being madrich people and teaching them hanhagos for life. His role, he said, was not just to be a posek, but to be a rebbi. He was not just a posek hador. He was a rebbi hador.
Maggidei shiur work hard on preparing shiurim. Rav Belsky almost never prepared for his shiurim. He just did not have the time. He was busy helping Klal Yisroel. He was not a performer looking to impress his audience, concerned with what a crowd would like to hear. Nonetheless, talmidim eagerly awaited his shiurim, because he taught them how to think logically and how to find the truth. He prepared them for life.
His question-and-answer shiurim on halachah were probably his most popular. The crowd dictated what he would speak about, and he made it fascinating. Thousands of people would flock to these halachah shiurim, and thousands listen to tapes of them. He was not just answering shailos. He was a rebbi teaching the background needed, and the correct logic and approach, for each shailah.
His office at Yeshiva Torah Vodaas was his classroom. People were often puzzled by the fact that he didn’t have an office. But he didn’t need one. He was a rebbi. That role never changed despite what stage of life he was at.
He would play paddleball in camp with talmidim, he went tubing down the Delaware with them, he went on hikes and star-gazing walks, and he traveled on coach buses on camp trips. Rav Belsky had no concern about his image. He was focused on how he could connect better with his talmidim. These trips and outings are among the fondest memories of his talmidim.
During one of his summer star-gazing trips, he noticed a star that was not in its proper position. This bothered him greatly and he expressed to his astonished talmidim that something is wrong, as he never saw that star in that location. The next morning, one of his talmidim contacted NASA. They told him that such an occurrence happens every few hundred years. They were amazed that someone had realized it.
Rav Belsky would spend time teaching his talmidim how to knead dough for matzos. He had everything worked out to a perfect science, with an exact procedure. From baking matzos to deveining an animal, Rav Belsky’s lessons helped shaped his talmidim.
When he reviewed my halachah articles, he spent time commenting on the grammar and sometimes even rewriting paragraphs himself. Everything needed to be perfect.
I merited to spend time in the daled amos of a person whose every step was guided by halachah, with such sincere hergesh in mitzvos, such selfless dedication to everyone, such a bikkush ha’emes, and such care and concern for each member of Klal Yisroel. He cannot be replaced.
I wonder to myself where all the halachah shailos that crossed his table will be directed to now. And who will be the listening ear for all the Yidden who are in pain? Who will go to bat for the emes?
Thousands of Yidden have lost a rebbi, a gadol, a father…
This article first appeared in Yated Ne’eman.