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The Chazon Ish

The life and ideals of Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz

By Rabbi Shimon Finkelman

Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz, (or Avrohom Yishayahu), (Hebrew: אברהם ישעיה קרליץ‎, English Abraham Isaiah Karelitz), (1878-1953), popularly known by the name of his magnum opus Chazon Ish, (Hebrew: חזון אי"ש‎), was a Belarusian born Orthodox rabbi who became leader of Haredi Judaism in Israel. His final 20 years, from 1933 to 1953, were spent in the Land of Israel.

Emigration to Israel



Hard Cover
The Chazon Ish


Paper Cover
The Chazon Ish

He moved to Vilna in about 1920, and became close to Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, consulting with him in all religious and communal matters. Encouraged by Grodzinski and with Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kookís help, the Chazon Ish settled in Palestine in 1933. His house in Bnei Brak became the address for thousands who sought his guidance.

Karelitz manifested unusual talent and diligence from an early age. He devoted his life to the study of the Torah and Talmud, although also learning such sciences as astronomy, anatomy, mathematics, and botany, since he felt that knowledge of these subjects was necessary for a full understanding of various aspects of Jewish law and practice. After his marriage, he continued to lead an extremely modest life, his wife providing for their needs while he spent day and night in deep Talmudic study. He did not have any children.

The reputation of the Chazon Ish for saintliness and knowledge was widespread and people from all walks of life would frequent his home, for scholarly discussions or to seek advice on religious, business, or personal problems, or simply to receive his blessing.

Influence

Holding no official position, the Chazon Ish nevertheless became a recognized worldwide authority on all matters relating to Jewish law and life. He was not appointed as communal leader, yet he exerted an enormous influence on the life and institutions of religious Jewry, especially in Israel. He did not publish many responsa, but became a supreme authority on halakha.

He had an immense influence on Haredi Judaism in Israel, whose formative period coincided with his leadership.

David Ben-Gurion, the prime minister of Israel, visited him once to discuss political-religious issues. The Chazon Ish argued that the secular community's needs should defer to those of the religious community. He used the Talmudic discussion (Sanhedrin 32b) of two camels which meet on a narrow mountain pass as a metaphor. A camel without goods was expected to defer to a camel laden with goods; similarly, the Chazon Ish expected secular society to defer to religious society, which bore the "goods" of tradition. [1]

(To this Ben-Gurion responded that the "secular" camel was not in fact "without goods", since secular Zionism had led to the establishment of a state and the physical protection of Israelis. The Chazon Ish replied that this was unimportant, when combined with widespread rejection of Jewish tradition. The story is often misquoted to be about two wagons not two camels; however, the Talmud mentions camels, and witnesses at the meeting have said that the Chazon Ish quoted the Talmud correctly.)

Works

In 1911 he published his first work on Orach Chayim and other parts of the Shulchan Aruch in Vilna, anonymously under the title Chazon Ish, meaning "Vision of Man", the name by which he became almost exclusively known.

Although essentially an academic scholar, he applied himself to practical problems, devoting much effort to the strengthening of religious life and institutions. His rulings on the use of the milking machine on Shabbat and on cultivation by hydroponics during the sabbatical year are two illustrations of his practical approach. A model of modesty and kindness, the Chazon Ish wrote over 40 books in clear Hebrew, in polished and precise style, which are models of lucidity and brilliance.

In contrast to other great Achronim such as R' Chaim Soloveitchik, the Chazon Ish is known for avoiding formulaic or methodical analysis of Talmudic passages, instead preferring a more varied and intuitive approach similar to that of the Rishonim.

The true legacy of the Chazon Ish is the promotion of clarity in Talmud study, devotion in the worship of God, and loving-kindness in human interactions.

Biography

A powerfully moving portrait of Chazon Ish by his onetime disciple, the Yiddish poet and novelist Chaim Grade, is to be found in Grade's epic novel "Tsemakh Atlas: Di Yeshive" (New York & Los Angeles: Yiddish Natzyonaln Arbeiter Farband, 1967-1968); translated in English as "The Yeshiva" [Curt Leviant, tr.] (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1976-1977). Chazon Ish appears there as "Rav Yeshayahu Kossover."

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