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Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz

KARELITZ, AVRAHAM YESHAYAHU (1878–1953), outstanding talmudic scholar and one of the most prominent halakhic authorities of the 20th century, known from his work as the "Ḥazon Ish." Karelitz received his education from his father, head of the bet din at Kossow; from an early age he manifested unusual talent and diligence. He devoted his life to the study of the Torah, although also learning such sciences as astronomy, anatomy, mathematics, and botany, since he felt that knowledge of them 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 study. His first work, on Oraḥ Ḥayyim and other parts of the Shulḥan Arukh, was published anonymously in Vilna in 1911 under the title Ḥazon Ish, the name by which Karelitz became almost exclusively known. It created a deep impression in the rabbinic world because of its vast knowledge and extreme profundity. He went on to write and publish dozens of volumes on numerous tractates of the Talmud, every section of the Shulḥan Arukh, the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides, and various specific halakhic topics. His collected letters were published in three volumes in 1990. When he moved to Vilna about 1920, he came to the notice of R. Ḥayyim Ozer Grodzinski who, henceforth, used to consult him in all religious and communal matters. Even though he lived in relative anonymity, his reputation for saintliness and knowledge was known 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. When in 1933 he settled in Ereẓ Israel, his house in Bene-Berak became the address for thousands who sought his guidance. Karelitz was an example of a personality, holding no official position, who nevertheless became a recognized worldwide authority on all matters relating to Jewish law and life. He did not head any yeshivah, yet he was teacher and guide to thousands of students. He was not a communal leader, yet he exerted an enormous influence on the life and institutions of religious Jewry. He did not publish many responsa, but became the supreme authority on halakhah. On one occasion, he was consulted by David Ben-Gurion, the prime minister of Israel, on the question of conscription of young women into the Israel army. He was a lover of Zion, yet did not adhere to the official Zionist movement. He was neither a Ḥasid nor an extremist, but was intimate with both these groups. He considered man's duty in life to be the constant and meticulous study of Jewish law aiming at the attainment of a maximum degree of perfection in religious observance. Although essentially a talmudic 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 Sabbath (to overcome the prohibition of milking in the usual way) and on cultivation by hydroponics during the sabbatical year (when he challenged the validity of the permission to cultivate the land given by the chief rabbinate) are two illustrations of his practical approach. He wrote over 40 books which are models of lucidity and are written in a simple style.

Karelitz's theology was an attempt to adjust Maimonidean rationalism to a more Lithuanian, "mitnaggedic" set of values that corresponds to the tenets of halakhah. According to Karelitz, divine wisdom was transmitted directly to man by God through prophecy until the time of the Sages. Beginning with them, all that man could do was to reveal the hidden truths using his intellect. "There is no wisdom in our world unless it is delivered through the soul of a living wise man." Thus, the goal of Jewish life is to be a living wise man, i.e., a talmid ḥakham. The Ḥazon Ish also asserted that trust in God does not mean that God will always do what is best for the individual. Rather we can trust that God will always do what He thinks best.

Karelitz's theology stemmed from the world of halakhah. Even Jewish ethics are based on concrete laws, not on abstract principles. Indeed, Karelitz taught that the practice of halakhah trains a person in the right values.

Since the Ḥazon Ish did not study in any of the standard Lithuanian yeshivot, he developed his own method of Talmud study and halakhic decision-making. He rejected the cold analytical approach of Brisk and instead, integrated a human dimension into his interpretation. He maintained that the sages did not rely on abstract concepts. Rather, they often took into account social or psychological considerations. Contrary to Brisker thinking, where the Torah is the divine "word" detached from earthly reality, Karelitz grounded his interpretations in the real world. Thus, halakhic definitions should be based on the "natural senses" without involving scientific methods or social conventions. His approach was not a systematic methodology. As a result he could be contradictory. On the one hand he rejected critical readings of the talmudic text, yet on occasion he himself amended the text. He regarded the medieval and renaissance sages (the rishonim) as the main interpreters of the Talmud, yet he often disagreed with their comments. For the Ḥazon Ish, it was the individual scholar's own perusal and personal encounter with the text that was significant. Such an encounter was not limited to the words of the text, but also included the spirit of the text.

While he lived in an ultra-Orthodox world in Bene Berak, Karelitz did not follow the ḥaredi mainstream; he forged his own path. He had a tendency to be overly strict (maḥmir) in his halakhic rulings. He was not at all politically involved and criticized the religious Zionist camp for becoming politically involved, thus subjecting religious values to the interests of the Zionist enterprise. He rejected all public commemorations of the Holocaust.

Karelitz's efforts in the social sphere were aimed at building a strong ḥaredi community through the building of more yeshivot, more synagogues, and more mikva'ot. By 1942 he had gained a wide reputation in rabbinic circles because of his participation in halakhic debates. By 1948 he was already recognized as the foremost arbiter of halakhah in Israel. The Ḥazon Ish did not intend to create a revolutionary new ḥaredi society in Israel, but his teachings, his strongly held views, and his very life served as the foundation for the thriving ultra-Orthodox community in today's modern Israel.


K. Kahana, Ha-Ish ve-Ḥazono (1964); O. Feuchtwanger, Righteous Lives (1965), 28–31; Jung (ed.), Men of the Spirit (1964), 147–69; A. Sorasky, Ḥazon Ish (Eng. translation by M. Karelenstein, 1973). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: B. Brown, in: Dinei Yisrael, 20–21 (2001), 123–237; idem., "Ha-Ḥazon Ish: Halakhah, Emunah ve-Ḥevrah bi-Fesakav ha-Boletim be-Ereẓ Israel" (Dissertation) (2003); idem, in: Ereẓ Israel be-Hagut ha-Yehudit be-Me'ah ha-Esrim (2004) 71–103; M.Z. Neriah, Re'iyyah ve-Ḥazon (1982); N. Gutel, in: Ha-Ma'ayan, 38:1 (1997), 19–32; A. Shlosberg in: ibid., 26:3 (1986), 10–25; S.Z. Havlin, in: Sefer Beit Vaad (2003), 13–35; A. Ben-Porath, in: Shema'atin, 139 (2000), 145–157; M. Friedman, in: Masa el ha-Halakhah: Iyyunim Bein-Teḥumiyyim be-Olam ha-Ḥok ha-Yehudi (2003), 196–218; A.H. Goldberg, in: Shevilin, 31–32 (1979), 71–81; B. Efrati, in: Ḥinukh ha-Adam Ve-Yi'udo (1978), 397–408. HAGIOGRAPHICAL BIOGRAPHIES: S. Finkelman, The Chazon Ish: The Life and Ideals of Rabbi Avraham Yeshayah Karelitz (1989); Z. Yavrov, Sefer Ma'aseh Ish: Toldot Ḥayav ve-Hanhagotav shel Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz (1999); R. Halprin, Bi-Mehizat ha-Ḥazon Ish (1991); H.E. Kolitz, ha-Ḥozeh mi-Lita: Perakim be-Hayyei ha-Ḥazon Ish (1990).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.