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Still Humming the Niggun

Aryeh Ehrlich

Perhaps the greatest legacy 102-year-old Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv ztz”l left to the world was the lesson of diligence, focus, and never losing sight of the goal when it comes to accomplishments in Torah learning. And those close to him were privy to something else — the sweet niggunim that accompanied the holy words of fire. Many strained their ears to hear it; others imbibed it. Toward Rav Elyashiv’s first yahrtzeit, his nephew Rav Yitzchak Shmuel Levin shares the melodies.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

rav eliyashivOne last ray of sunlight casts a reddish hue on the old white paroches — ancient as the shul itself — hanging over the aron in Chevrah Tiferes Bachurim. The last of the mikveh-goers scurry through the streets, as Rav Elyashiv approaches the amud and begins chanting Kol Nidrei. It’s the same niggun that unites Jews everywhere during these holy moments, but there is an oh-so slight variation — an additional musical flourish inspired the greatest masmid of the generation, who created a century of his own unending song.

Rav Elyashiv’s soft, mellifluous singsong might have been the way Torah sounds when the angels sing it, and people knew there were two ways to hear it: either by sneaking into the old, dusty, locked Ohel Sarah shul while Rav Elyashiv was closeted there with his learning, or by standing beneath the tiny metal balcony behind Rechov Chanan while most of the world was still sleeping.      

But the regulars in Rav Elyashiv’s beis medrash were familiar with the angelic voice they heard at special times, and knew he would bring them into niggun as the true music lover he was. On Yom Kippur night he would pray for purification, on the first day of Pesach and on Shemini Atzeres he would daven for rain or dew, and on Shabbos Mevarchim he would lead his small congregation in passionate prayer for a life of peace, of Torah, and yiras Shamayim.

For the past 30 years, Rav Elyashiv shared the bimah with another music aficionado: his nephew, Rav Yitzchak Shmuel Levin, one of the roshei yeshivah of Yeshivas Toras Chaim and a grandson of Rav Aryeh Levin (Rebbetzin Elyashiv was Rav Aryeh Levins’s daughter), served as both baal tefillah and the baal korei in Tiferes Bachurim. And every day during the last months of Rav Elyashiv’s life, Rav Levin would come to the Rav’s home where the two would learn together; and although the Rav could barely see and his frail body was racked with pain, those sweet, famous niggunim that accompanied his learning for 100 years were still on his lips.

As more and more stories of Rav Elyashiv’s superhuman diligence have emerged in the year since he passed away, people might assume the posek hador had the brain of a computer and the heart to match. But in fact, says Rav Yitzchak Shmuel, “I listened to the Rav’s davening for years and I would say his emotions peaked three times a day, whenever he said the words, ‘Open my heart to Your Torah.’ It was as if the Rav was a young boy having trouble understanding a sugya. We heard him davening in this pleading tone until the very end of his life.”


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