Harav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, ZT"L
The Gaon in Torah, The Gaon in Chessed
13 Av, we will enter the 40th year since the petira of Hagaon
Harav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, zt"l, one of America's premier poskim
in the pre and post-World War II generations and the legendary leader of the
Ezras Torah Tzedaka Relief Organization. The name, "Rav Henkin" was greater and
more prestigious than any other title, he could have possessed. Just invoking
his name conjured up the image of a gadol possessed of the gaonus,
erudition of the spiritual giants who were molded in the great Lithuanian
yeshivos of pre-World War I and a posek who ruled on the most complex
halachic questions, covering the entire gamut of the four sections of the
Shulchan Aruch. Perhaps more than all of the above, Rav Henkin represented a
unique and beautiful blend of Torah scholarship, humility and a lifelong
dedication to the highest levels of discreetly preformed chesed. During
his almost half a century at the helm of Ezras Torah, he secretly saved and
improved the lives of countless individuals by distributing many millions of
dollars to needy talmidei chachomim throughout the world.
Henkin was born on Rosh Chodesh Adar I, 5641 (1881) in Byelorussia. His
father, Rav Eliezer Klonymus, z"l, was a talmid chacham who headed
a yeshiva in the town. As a young boy Eliyahu Henkin learned Chumash
with his great-grandfather Rav Yitzchak for a year. The following year he was
taught by his grandfather, Rav Avrohom and for the three subsequent years he
learned gemara and other topics with his father. At the age of
15, Rav Henkin traveled to the city of Slutzk hoping to be accepted into the
Yeshiva Gedola of Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, zt"l. In the year prior to
his arrival in Slutsk, Rav Henkin reviewed the entire Mesechta Eruvin
forty times! Upon meeting him for the first time Rav Isser Zalman asked him why
he had come all the way to Slutzk. The youngster replied that he wanted to
attend the Yeshiva. To the other talmidim standing there, this seemed
absurd. They were young men already accomplished in their learning, talmidei
chachomim in their own right, and here was a mere boy of 15 seeking to join
Rav Isser Zalman continued, "Tell me, my son, what have you learned lately?"
"Mesechtos Shabbos and Eruvin."
Astonished that a young boy had learned these difficult tractates, he asked,
"Are you prepared for an examination?"
"Yes," the youngster replied, whereupon Rav Isser Zalman questioned the boy on
the entire breadth of the two mesechtos. He answered all the challenges
with ease, exhibiting an extraordinary knowledge and understanding of every
Rashi and Tosefos. Rav Isser Zalman was flabbergasted, "This child
knows these mesechtos better than I do!" Rav Henkin was immediately
admitted to the Slutzker Yeshiva.
At the age of
twenty, Rav Henkin received semicha from the Rav Yaakov Dovid Willensky,
zt'l know as the Ridvaz, who served as the Rav of Slutzk, Rav Baruch Ber
Leibowitz, zt"l and from Harav Yechiel Michel Epstein, zt"l, Rav
of Novorhodok and author of Aruch Hashulchan.
In 5663 (1903)
Rav Henkin married Freida Rivka Kreindel, the daughter of Rav Yehuda Leib
Kreindel, the Rav of Kritschev. For the following ten years, Rav Henkin served
as Rav in numerous small comunities in White Russia and Georgia. He then took up
a post as Rav in Smalian, a town in the Vitebsk region of White Russia, where he
remained for nine years. Already then, his reputation as a posek of
great stature was growing and rabbanim from the neighboring towns consulted him.
In 5680 (1920),
Rav Henkin's wife and her newborn child succumbed to an epidemic that had took
both their lives. She had been busily engaged in the mitzva of bikur
cholim, tending the contagious sick people, for there was nobody to bring
them food, and became infected herself. Rav Henkin extolled his wife's selfless
devotion to the constant provision of the needs of others, despite tremendous
hardships and personal frailty.
married his second wife Chana Kazakovz, the daughter of Rav Yaakov Leib Kazakovz.
His second wife stood by him for 43 years raising his six young orphaned
children from his first marriage.
In 5681 (1921),
Mohliev and half of White Russia were annexed to Soviet Russia, coming under
Communist rule. As the communist oppression of all Torah observant Jews and
especially Rabbis became acute, Rav Henkin realized that their was no
alternative other than emigration. Two years after the communists came to power,
Rav and Rebbetzin Henkin and family left Russia for the United States with the
help of Rebbetzin Henkin's brother who already lived there. After spending five
long weeks in detention on Ellis Island, the Henkin family was finally released
and settled in the neigborhood that had become the home to tens of thousands of
impoverished Jewish immigrants, the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Soon after,
Rav Henkin was appointed as Rav of Beis Hakenesses Anshei Stutchin Greiva. Rav
Henkin always spoke with great warmth about the members of his Kehilla,
who stood behind him with both moral and financial support in all of his
Rav Henkin was
also a prolific writer and authored seforim on some of the most complex
talmudic and halachic topics. In 1925 he wrote Perushei Ibrah. The first
half was devoted to topics related to marriage and the laws of testimony, the
second half were Rav Henkin's derashos. In 1946, he published, Edus
L'Yisrael, a compilation of complex practical halachos and in 1955,
he published 32 of his halachic and hashkafic discourses entitled Lev Ibrah.
In addition he wrote numerous halachic and hashkafic essays in rabbinical
journals and in the Hebrew and Yiddish newspapers. Eventually all of his
writings were published in 1982, in a two volume set of seforim called Kisvei
Hagaon Harav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, zt'l.
The year 1926
proved to be a turning point in the life of Rav Henkin and perhaps more
importantly in the lives of thousands of talmidei chachomim world over,
whose plight eased with his appointment as the director of the legendary
tzedakah and relief organization, Ezras Torah. Ezras Torah had been founded
during the First World War (1915) by the Agudas Harabbonim (Union of Orthodox
Rabbis of the United States and Canada) at the behest of the Chafetz Chaim,
zt'l and Harav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, zt'l to aid newly destitute
rabbis including some foremost Rosh Yeshivas, in war-torn Europe. Its founding
president, Rav Yisrael Rosenberg, zt"l felt that to subject rabbanim
and bnei Torah to the humiliation of waiting in line for meager
relief would erode even further the already dangerously low prestige and
authority of Torah and its representatives. In the depression years (late 1920's
and early 30's) and the subsequent anti-Jewish boycott years prior to World War
II, Ezras Torah, under Rav Henkin's leadership provided financial aid to
thousands in Europe, Russia and China (Shanghai). After the war, Ezras Torah
also saved thousands from becoming belated casualties through the support and
shelter it extended.
After the lives
of the Torah learned refugees had stabilized and they were absorbed into their
respective countries, Ezras Torah focused its efforts on aiding the struggling
bnei Torah of the yishuv in Eretz Yisrael. Today, as the
precarious security situation has paralyzed the economy, Ezras Torah is sending
enormous sums monthly to support struggling talmidei chachomim in Eretz
As Hagaon Harav
Yechezkal Abramsky, zt"l wrote after moving to Eretz Yisrael, "Today I
received 15,000 marks from Ezras Torah. Praised be the name of Hashem who
has shown me grace, kindness and mercy. I cannot describe the severity of my
All of this
amazing chesed was performed with the active participation of Rav Henkin.
For more than four decades, Rav Henkin invested his heart and soul into the
operations of Ezras Torah. He spent full days working in the office.
Throughout the year, particularly in the summer, he would visit different shuls
on Shabbos, where he would make appeals. Even when it meant traveling to far
off cities and having to pack his own food for Shabbos, Rav Henkin never
hesitated. He traveled far and near to give as many Jews as possible the
opportunity to help Ezras Torah help ease the plight of more Torah Scholars. It
is no wonder that Rav Isser Zalmen Meltzer, zt'l, once remarked, " All
tzedakos are kodesh, but Ezras Torah is kodesh kodashim!"
dedication to Ezras Torah was legendary. As Rabbi Naftoli Riff zt'l,
president of Ezras Torah (1958-1976) recalled, "On several occasions I
noticed Rav Henkin refer to a mysterious small notebook. He once revealed to me
that in this notebook he kept a log of those minutes during the day that he did
not utilize for Ezras Torah. He was not involved with his own personal business
during those minutes, but when someone came to his office to discuss divrei
Torah or if he received a telephone call, as he often would, from anywhere in
the world requesting his opinion on a particular problem or sheaila, he
immediately looked at the time and noted in his record how many minutes he had
borrowed from Ezras Torah. He would then know how many minutes to "make up"
on behalf of Ezras Torah related work."
carried on his shoulders the plight of literally tens of thousands of Torah
dedicated families throughout the world - their daily well-being was his daily
personal concern - yet he never revealed to a soul who these families were. Rav
Henkin never turned anyone away without a suitable sum of money. On rare
occasions when a recipient felt that what he had received was insufficient, Rav
Henkin did not respond bureaucratically. Rav Henkin was know to cry with these
individuals explaining that he understood how great their need was and he only
wished that there were additional funds to provide.
In the 1960's,
his weekly salary as the director of Ezras Torah was paltry $50.00. However,
when a resolution to increase his salary was made at one of their meetings, Rav
Henkin immediately rose from his chair and declared, "Must I leave Ezras Torah?
The less I personally benefit from Ezras Torah, the greater the aid for
talmidei chachomim in distress."
Presently 95% of
Ezras Torah's funds are directed towards Eretz Yisrael. It distributes more than
1 million dollars in financial aid that reaches out to over 10,000 families per
year in addition to over 1 million dollars circulating as free loans. Ezras
Torah assists countless families of Torah scholars to help pay not only for
wedding expenses but also, they advance substantial interest free loans to help
pay for housing for young couples. Another focus of Ezras Torah's extension of
Tzedakah is its rapidly growing assistance for emergency medical needs.
In view of Israel's current security crisis, decreased economy and huge
government budgetary cut to Yeshivas, Chadorim and large families, a
great burden has been placed upon these families who have no hinterland of
savings that could meet these enormous costs. These anguished families turn to
Ezras Torah for help. Indeed, the growing number of scholars that sacrifice and
devote their lives to Torah study, Torah teaching and Torah leadership and the
large number of people that are in need of Yom Tov grants, widow-orphan grants
and maternity grants has placed a tremendous responsibility upon Ezras Torah to
meet the increased requests that are coming in.
As in 1926 when
Rav Henkin took over at the helm of Ezras Torah, Ezras Torah continues to be at
the forefront of discreet tzedakah giving for needy talmidei chachomim
and their families.
As Harav Emanuel
Gettinger, shlita, the current president of Ezras Torah recalls:
"While on a visit to Eretz Yisrael, a wizened old man approached me in Tzfas.
"Are you from America?" he asked. Yes replied Rav Gettinger. "Oh, I have a
father there." A father? Thought Rav Gettinger. The man appeared to
be over eighty himself! "Yes, a father who takes care of me. His
name is Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin."
RABBI NAFTALI RIFF ABOUT RAV HENKIN
Based on a eulogy by the late Rabbi Naftoli
Zvi Yehuda Riff
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Observer.
It is reprinted here with permission.
Rabbi Yosef Elyahu Henkin
For forty successive years, I had an extremely intimate
relationship with Rabbi Henkin. I knew him well. And
he was - as we all knew - a man of singular greatness.
He not only shielded the true measure of his gadlus from the public, but he managed to "hide
himself" from his immediate family and closest acquaintances, as well.
Throughout our entire relationship, I never imagined that this frail human
being recited "Tikun Chatzos",
in mourning for the Bais Hamikdash, every midnight.
In fact, I did not become aware of this fact until after I had known him for
many years, and then only by chance. Night after night he would sit in his
house lamenting over the desecration of the Torah and the dispersion of Klal Yisrael, sharing the Shechinah's
grief. But this was only one of the myriad acts of tzidktus
he concealed from us all.
Rabbi Henkin carried on his
shoulders the plight of literally tens of thousands of families throughout the
world - their daily well-being was his daily personal concern - yet he never
revealed to a soul who these families were except on the occasion of a
Rabbi Henkin never turned anyone
away without a suitable sum of money. In those few instances when the recipient
felt that what he received was not sufficient, he did not react as others
might: by telling the beneficiary that his case was not the only one, that
there are hundreds of others just as needy. Rather, Rabbi Henkin
would send the man or woman away with tears, explaining that he understood how
great the need was, only wishing there were additional funds to do more.
Rabbi Emanuel Gettinger of the Young Israel of Upper
Manhattan recalled: A wizened old man approached me in Tsfas.
"Are you from America?" he asked. "I have a father there.
A father? The man appeared to be over eighty himself!
"Yes, a father who takes care of me. His name is Rav Eliyahu Henkin.
His weekly salary as the director of Ezras Torah was $50 - a
paltry sum, by any standard. At one of our meetings, a resolution was raised to
increase Rabbi Henkin's salary. He immediately rose
from his chair and declared: "Must I leave Ezras Torah?" The less his
personal benefit from Ezras Torah, the greater the aid for talmidei
chachamim in distress.
He was a baki beShas
(thoroughly knowledgeable in the entire Talmud) - both Bavli
(Babylonian) and Yerushalmi, as well as the four
tracts of the Shulchan Aruch.
Once, in my presence, he received an urgent phone call from Eretz Yisrael and he resolved the problem, which apparently
defied easy solution to those who called him, relating to marriage laws,
without reference to single sefer.
Rabbi Henkin could never be found
sitting at home without a sefer in his hand - often a volume of Shulchan Aruch, or the Responsa of the Chasam Sofer.
On several occasions I noticed Rabbi Henkin
refer to a mysterious small notebook. He once revealed to me that in this
notebook he kept a log of those minutes during the day that he did not utilize
for Ezras Torah. He was not involved with his own personal business during
those minutes, but when someone came to his office at Ezras Torah to discuss divrei Torah or if he received a telephone call, as he
often would, from anywhere in the world requesting his opinion on a particular
problem or sha'aila, he immediately looked at the
time and noted in his record how many minutes he had borrowed from Ezras Torah.
He would then know how many minutes to "make up" on behalf of Ezras
When Rabbi Henkin was a boy of 15,
he traveled to the city of Slutzk hoping to be
accepted into the Yeshiva Gedolah of Reb Isser Zalman
Meltzer. (One of the maspidim noted that he left for Slutzk when he was only fourteen, but he was detained on
the way for a year. During that year of delay he reviewed the entire Masechta Eruvin forty times!)
Upon meeting him for the first time, Reb Isser Zalman asked him why he had
come all the way to Slutzk. The youngster replied
that he wanted to attend the Yeshiva. To the other talmidim
standing there this seemed absurd. They were young men already accomplished in
their learning, talmidei chachamim
in their own right, and here was a mere boy of 15 seeking to join their
r Zalman continued: "Tell me, my son, what have
"Masechtos Shabbos and Eruvin."
Astonished that a young boy had learned these difficult
tractates, he asked: "Are you prepared for an examination?"
"Yes," the youngster replied, whereupon Reb Isser Zalman
questioned the boy on the entire breadth of the two masechtos.
He answered all challenges with ease, exhibiting an extraordinary knowledge and
understanding of every Rashi and Tosefos.
Rav Isser Zalman was
flabbergasted: "This child knows these masechtos
better than I do!" Rabbi Henkin was immediately
admitted to the Slutzker Yeshiva.
His superior acumen notwithstanding, Rabbi Henkin possessed great humility as a talmid
and this characteristic remained with him his entire life. Although his
knowledge of Torah spanned all basic Talmudic literature as well as the responsa of the latter day sages (Acharonim),
Rabbi Henkin always preferred to remain in
He was an exceptionally good-hearted and pleasant person,
loved by young and old. Yet, when the occasion called for it, Rabbi Henkin asserted his authority.
He once became aware of a certain dispute and intervened. He
reprimanded both parties with sharp words. The mere sight of Rabbi Henkin stepping out of character to intercede immediately
put an end to the conflict. I remember well the hesped
given by Rabbi Henkin for the Chazon
Ish, wherein he resolved a seeming contradiction
between a statement in the Midrash and a passage in Masechta
Rosh Hashanah. The Gemara compares the passing of tzaddikim
to the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash, while the
Midrash Eichah (Lamentations) declares that the death
of the righteous is an even greater calamity. Rabbi Henkin
explained that the Gemara in Rosh Hashanah alludes to the death of Gedalia ben Achikam whose
authority and dominion was accepted by the entire nation - his death was
comparable to the destruction of the Bais HaMikdash.
The Midrash, on the other hand, refers to the passing of a tzaddik whose leadership is not openly manifest, whose
authority has not been generally proclaimed by the congregation. This tzaddik prefers to remain obscure, closeted with his sefarim; yet his influence clearly and unmistakably
permeates all rabbinical assemblages and lay gatherings. Although he does not
personally appear, his convictions and standards are articulated through the
expressions of those he has touched, moving heaven and earth in the process.
The loss of such a Tzaddik is an even greater tragedy
than the loss of our Holiest of Holies...
His words apply equally to himself: He never sat at the dais
at conventions or meetings; he never voiced his opinion in public; nor did he
even express the worry or apprehension he harbored deep in his heart over the
plight of tens of thousands of families throughout the Diaspora. And yet, it
was Rabbi Henkin who, from a distance, was the prime
mover in many undertaking (such as the establishment of the vast Ezras Torah
apartment complex for needy talmidei chachamim in Eretz Yisrael).
"All my years I thought that Rabbi Henkin
would lead our generation to greet Moshiach,"
said Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky. "Now, who will
This past summer, before I left for Eretz Yisrael, I went to take leave of Rabbi Henkin.
He asked me when I would return to America because there was so much work to be
done. Our parting was marked by tears flowing down Rabbi Henkin's
cheeks over the misfortune of the families he carried in his heart.
Just as he was an advocate for one and all on this world,
may he continue to be a meilitz yosher
for all of Klal Yisrael from his a place in Gan Eden.