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From Dawn Through Dark

Eliezer Shulman

His words are measured and few, but his authority is immense. Rav Nissim Karelitz — appointed by Rav Shach to the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah over forty-five years ago — still maintains a grueling daily schedule. Mishpacha was granted a rare opportunity to spend two weeks in the presence of the gadol, capturing a glimpse of the Torah giant’s interactions with his family, the beis din, and the Klal.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Rav Nissim Karelitz sits with his head slightly inclined, listening intently to the arguments. Suddenly, he looks up and pins one of the litigants before him with a piercing gaze and asks a question. Suddenly, he looks up and pins one of the litigants before him with a piercing gaze and asks a question. Silence fills the beis din. Just moments earlier, the walls of the chamber had been shaking from the fierce debate between the two litigants. The dayanim, the scribe, and the avreichim doing shimush had not been fazed by the shouts; they are accustomed to it. But Rav Nissim’s question has stunned everyone into silence.

The litigant to whom the question was posed thinks for a moment and then answers briefly. His adversary’s face pales. The next question is aimed at him, and his response seems forced. Rav Nissim continues to question him relentlessly. As the minutes tick away, the issue under contention slowly becomes clarified, and the debate moves toward a resolution. Before long, a verdict is written. It fills but a few lines, but it is unmistakably clear — a perfect application of the din that emerges from the Torah. The litigants leave, and another pair take their place. A new debate begins, an entirely new sugya, filled with vastly complex details. But the Rav is focused, ready to ask the probing questions that will clear away all the layers of obfuscation.

Forty-three Years of Torah Law

A flight of stairs with a low ceiling, graying walls, and a small plastic sign that reads “beis din tzedek” point the way to the second floor of Rechov Rav Shach 46.

Welcome to the beis din of HaGaon Rav Nissim Karelitz.

On a wall across from the reception desk is a list of instructions for opening a file: ask the secretary for a form; enter your name, address, and telephone number; and describe the nature of the complaint — damages, monetary claims, unpaid debt, and so forth. That’s all it takes, and deliberately so. Rav Nissim is committed to making the beis din process as painless as possible.

The beis din employs thirty-six dayanim. “Employs” is a theoretical term, because dayanim are unpaid — they don’t even get s’char batalah (the amount they could make if otherwise employed in the hours they devote to the beis din). Most of the dayanim sit on one of ten panels consisting of three judges, adjudicating cases throughout the week in morning and evening shifts. Each panel consists has its own area of expertise. Most deal with monetary cases, but some handle divorce or conversion. It is the largest nongovernmental beis din, handling approximately 100 cases per month.

The beis din has been active for forty-three years under Rav Nissim’s auspices. He selects the dayanim himself, using criteria known only to him. What is known is that Rav Nissim maintains that a moreh horaah must be fluent in all four sections of the Shulchan Aruch. “An expert in one area cannot answer the public’s questions,” he is wont to say. “What will he do if he is presented with a question that he knows nothing about?”

The unique character of the beis din emerges in several rules that Rav Nissim set forth, and that no one has ever challenged. Aside from the rule that dayanim are unpaid, he also instituted that they should sit on the same level as the litigants, rather than on elevated platforms. Beis din employees must be able to handle difficult people. When the beis din’s secretary was hired, Rav Nissim told him, “Embittered people come here, and you must relate to them with great patience.”

Rav Nissim himself sits on a panel of dayanim each Monday. He used to join on Thursdays as well, but after he suffered a heart attack and stroke fifteen years ago, his doctors instructed him to curtail his activities in the beis din and appear only on Mondays — and even then, only from early morning until noon.


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