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Karelits, Avraham Yesha‘yahu

(1878–1953), Talmudic scholar and Orthodox religious authority. Avraham Yesha‘yahu Karelitz, known as Ḥazon Ish, was one of the most prominent religious authorities of the twentieth century and a major leader of Ḥaredi Jewry in Israel in the 1940s and 1950s.

Born in Kosowa in Lithuania, Karelits received his education from his father; he never attended a heder or a yeshiva and was never officially ordained as a rabbi. He spent the first 55 years of his life in Lithuania, publishing four books under the name Ḥazon Ish. These works were not very popular, probably because of their difficult style and the interpretive method they employed; he did not use the analytical method that was then fashionable among Lithuanian scholars, but contended that each Talmudic discussion could be understood only by a textual “eye-grip” acquired through extensive mastery of all of the Talmud. Karelits moved with his wife to Vilna in 1920 and subsequently became acquainted with Ḥayim Ozer Grodzenski, one of the most prominent rabbinical scholars of the generation, who showed Karelits great esteem. But even with this connection, he maintained his anonymity.

Karelits moved to Palestine in 1933, settling in the new community of Bene Berak. The town later evolved—largely thanks to him—into a major religious center and became the stronghold of Ḥaredi Jewry in Israel. During this period he published a book nearly each year and became the object of increasing public attention and respect. At first his audience, referred to him by Grodzenski, was a small circle of Poyale Agudas Yisroel kibbutz members who followed his instructions in halakhic-agricultural matters, but later he became known also in rabbinic circles, greatly owing to his exceptional ruling on the halakhic Dateline question (1942), according to which Jews in Japan must observe the Sabbath and holidays on the days they are celebrated in America, not as in the rest of Asia. After the major religious authorities of Eastern Europe had died or perished in the Holocaust, Karelits was regarded as their successor.

Karelits’s consistent doctrine assigned the highest value to the study of the Torah and the strict observance of religious precepts as the basis for the continued existence of the Jewish people. On these grounds he criticized the Musar movement, which advocated the integration of tikun ha-midot (ethical refinement) and yir’ah (fear of God) as major values of Jewish religious life.

Based on similar arguments, Karelits initially opposed the extreme Orthodox circles who called for political “isolationism” or separation from the Zionist-dominated institutions of the Yishuv. Even though he opposed Zionism and regarded it as a danger to Judaism, he believed that no energy and effort should be invested into political activities; instead, he held that efforts should be channeled to education and religious culture by giving religious and educational institutions a solid infrastructure. Indeed, during his period as a de facto rabbinical authority, he encouraged the establishment of numerous yeshivas in Bene Berak and elsewhere.

In the 1940s, Karelits issued a number of rulings that, although controversial, soon became halakhic classics. Particularly noteworthy and well-known was Kuntres ha-shi‘urim (The Treatise on Measurements), in which he prescribed increased measures for the proper observance of the halakhah; he also ruled that the use of electricity on the Sabbath, in any form, constituted a violation of a Torah prohibition, in contrast to the rulings of all other halakhic authorities, who regarded some of the uses of electricity as mere rabbinical prohibitions or as altogether permitted. After the Holocaust, he opposed all suggestions made to commemorate the victims in halakhic ways, such as by prescribing a fast day or declaring a collective mourning week (shiv‘ah). Although he issued some lenient rulings, as a rule he favored strictness and tended to choose relatively stringent solutions. He treated customs and popular practices suspiciously and maintained that they should be adopted only if formed under the supervision of rabbinical authorities. He opposed textual criticism as a method of study of the Talmud, but actually employed it himself in numerous times, often not even using manuscripts to emend the text, but his own reasonable conjecture.

The Holocaust gave a considerable impetus to the absorption of Karelits’s messages, and hence to the realization of his vision. The Ḥaredi community reconstructed yeshivas in Israel, and many of its youths turned to study in them and continued their studies in kolelim after their marriage. As Karelits’s fame increased, many sought his assistance and advice not only on issues of halakhah, but also with regard to public issues and personal matters (livelihood, matchmaking, and health). He thus became a living symbol of da‘at Torah (daas Toyre)—the Ḥaredi doctrine expanding rabbinical authority even to nonhalakhic questions. His fatherly character, modest way of life, and sympathy for the needy increased the admiration toward him, especially in his later years.

After the establishment of the State of Israel, Karelits was the spearhead of Ḥaredi struggles against the “evil decrees” of the government. He was particularly noted for his opposition to the recruitment of religious girls to a compulsory National Service, which he saw as a prohibition upon which “one [should] rather be killed than transgress.” He also struggled against rabbis of the Religious Zionist movement, notably Chief Rabbis Yitsḥak Herzog and Ben-Tsiyon Me’ir Ḥai ‘Uzi’el, who sought to introduce amendments to halakhah so that it might be adopted as the legal system of the State of Israel. On 28 October 1952, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion called at Karelits’s home in an attempt to discuss the relations between Ḥaredi and secular Jews in Israel, but that historic meeting had no practical results.

Karelits’s unfinished theological book, Ḥazon Ish ‘al emunah u-vitaḥon (Ḥazon Ish on Faith and Confidence), was published after his death. His halakhic books were compiled into eight large volumes, all named Ḥazon ish. His collected letters appeared in three volumes (Kovets igrot; 1955–1990), and other writings, many of them unpublished previously, appeared in Teshuvot u-khetavim (Responsa and Writings; 1991). Some of his handwritten comments on various scholarly books were published as appendixes to some editions of those books. The best known of this genre is his collection of comments on Rabbi Ḥayim Soloveichik’s interpretations of Maimonides’ Code. Books describing his personal conduct and citing alleged sayings of his appear from time to time.

Many of Karelits’s rulings were accepted by the whole Orthodox movement, but only a small group within Ḥaredi society, known as the “Ḥazonishniks,” follows all of them. Having no children of his own, Karelits fostered his nephews, who are considered today as the bearers of his legacy.

Suggested Reading

Shlomo Cohen et al., Pe’er ha-dor, 5 vols. (Bene Berak, 1966–1974); Shimon Finkelman, The Chazon Ish: The Life and Ideals of Rabbi Avraham Yeshayah Karelitz (New York, 1989); Kalman Kahana, Ha-Ish va-ḥazono (Tel Aviv, 1964); Lawrence J. Kaplan, “The Hazon Ish: Haredi Critic of Traditional Orthodoxy,” in The Uses of Tradition: Jewish Continuity in the Modern Era, ed. Jack Wertheimer, pp. 145–174 (New York, 1992); Aharon Sorski, Ha-Ḥazon Ish be-dorotav (Bene Berak, 1984).



Translated from Hebrew by Rami Hann