Rabbi Elazar Shach

Rabbi Elazar Menachem Man Shach (Hebrew: אלעזר מנחם מן שך‎) Elazar Shach (January 1, 1899 O.S. – November 2, 2001) was a leading Lithuanian-Jewish Haredi rabbi in Bnei Brak, Israel

Born: January 1, 1899, Vabalninkas,
Died: Tel Aviv, Israel, 2001

Rabbi Elazar Menachem Man Shach served as one of three co-deans of the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, along with Rabbis Shmuel Rozovsky and Dovid Povarsky.

Due to his differences with the Hasidic leadership of the Agudat Yisrael in 1984, he allied with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who had founded the Shas party. Later, in 1988, Shach sharply criticized Ovadia Yosef, and said that, "Sepharadim are not yet ready for leadership positions", and subsequently founded the Degel HaTorah political party representing Lithuanian non-Hasidic Ashkenazi Jews in the Israeli Knesset.


Life in Europe

Passport photo (1920s)                               As a Rabbi

Elazar Menachem Man Shach was born in Vabalninkas (Vaboilnik in Yiddish), a rural village in northern Lithuania, to Rabbi Ezriel and Batsheva Shach. The Shach family had been merchants for generations, but Batsheva's family, the Levitans, were religious scholars who served various Lithuanian communities. Batsheva's brother, Rabbi Osher Nisan Levitan, later became an important figure in the Union of Orthodox Rabbis in the United States. Elazar was an illui (child prodigy).

In 1909, at the age of 11, Shach went to study at the Ponevezh Yeshiva, which at the time was located in the city of Panevėžys, Lithuania, and was headed by Rabbi Isaac Jacob Rabinowitz, known as Rav Itzele Ponovezer. In 1913, Shach started studying in Yeshivas Knesses Yisrael (Slabodka). When World War I began in 1914, many of the Slabodka yeshiva students were dispersed across Europe. Shach initially returned to his family, but then began traveling across Lithuania from town to town, sleeping and eating wherever he could, while continuing to study Torah. In 1915, following the advice of Rabbi Yechezkel Bernstein (author of Divrei Yechezkel), Shach traveled to Slutsk to study at the yeshiva there. It was in Slutsk that he met Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer, and this was the beginning of a close life-long relationship between the two. Shach also met Rabbi Yosef Yozel Horwitz (head of the Novardok yeshiva), who had come to visit the yeshiva in order to introduce its students to the study of mussar (see Musar movement). Around this time, he also met for the first time Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, as Feinstein would often visit Meltzer at his house in Slutsk. In 1921, as a result of regional political changes, the Slutsk yeshiva split up. Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer stayed in the city of Slutsk, while Meltzer's son-in-law, Rabbi Aharon Kotler, took his students and started a yeshiva in the town of Kletsk. Shach joined Kotler in Kletsk, and subsequently was appointed by Kotler as a maggid shiur ("lecturer [in Talmud]") in the yeshiva. In 1923, Shach married Meltzer's niece, Guttel Gilmovski. After the wedding, Shach and his wife moved to Mir, Belarus, the residence of his father-in-law. It was in Mir that Shach established a life-long relationship with the town's rabbi, Rabbi Avraham Tzvi Hirsch Kamai. The two would often discuss Torah together, and even after Shach later moved to Israel, he continued to correspond with Kamai. (These letters were later printed in Shach's Avi Ezri magnum opus).

After spending some time in the city of Mir, Shach moved back to Kletsk to join the yeshiva again. In 1925, his wife's uncle, Rabbi Meltzer, moved to Israel, and it was at this point that Shach became significantly more involved in the daily running of the yeshiva. It was around this time that Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein joined the yeshiva to become its mashgiach ruchani ("spiritual guide"), and thus began a life-long relationship of mutual respect between Shach and Levenstein. After the passing of Rabbi Meir Shapiro, head of the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski sent the yeshivah's administrators a letter, recommending Shach for the position. After delivering a discourse at the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva, Shach traveled to Vilna to consult with Grodzinski about the wisdom of taking on the new position, and upon hearing the various aspects of the question, Grodzinski advised Shach to turn down the offer.

In 1934, Shach was appointed rosh yeshiva of the Novardok yeshiva. This came about as a result of the recommendation of Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz (known as the Chazon Ish) to one of the yeshiva's founders, Rabbi Bentzion Brook. During this time in Shach's life, the rest of his family stayed in Kletsk, while he stayed in the Novardok yeshiva for extended periods of time. After approximately two years, Shach left the yeshiva, because, in his own words, "this is not the place for me for many reasons". In 1935, Shach became rosh yeshiva at the Hasidic Karlin yeshiva in Luninets. He also functioned as the mashgiach ruchani of the yeshiva, giving customary mussar sermons to the yeshiva students. Shach remained at the yeshiva until the outbreak of World War II.

Escaping to the British Mandate of Palestine

Shortly before the start of World War II and the Holocaust, several yeshivas began considering evacuating their rabbis, students, and families. Aharon Kotler escaped to the United States, traveling across Siberia and arriving in the United States during the war. In 1939, Shach first went to Vilna, where he stayed with Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski. Later that year, both Shach's mother and his eldest daughter fell ill, and died. In early 1940, the Shach family decided to leave Lithuania. Shach's maternal uncle, Rabbi Aron Levitan, had helped Kotler get emigration visas to the United States, but Shach, after consulting with Rabbi Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik and Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, decided instead to go to Palestine, where Meltzer was serving as Rosh Yeshiva at Etz Chaim Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Shach would later serve as the Rosh Yeshiva there as well. His uncle helped him and his family get immigration certificates, and took them in after they arrived at his doorstep in a destitute condition.

Several years after the re-establishment of the Ponevezh yeshiva in Bnei Brak, Shach was asked by Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman to be one of its deans. Shach first discussed the proposal with Rabbi Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik, and was encouraged by the latter to take the position. Shach served in that capacity until his death. At this yeshiva, Shach delivered a lecture on the Talmud every Tuesday, and also occasionally gave other classes to the student body of the yeshiva.

Rabbinical career

Shach received rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer, and served as chairman of Chinuch Atzmai and Va'ad HaYeshivos. From 1970 until his death, Shach was generally recognized by Lithuanian Haredim and some other Haredi circles as the Gadol Ha-Dor. During his lifetime, Shach was a revered spiritual mentor of more than 100,000 Orthodox Jews, and was credited by many with promoting the concept of the "society of learners" in the post-war Haredi world. Under his aegis, the phenomenon of Haredi men studying the Talmud in yeshivas and kollels full-time gained popularity.

Although this type of set-up was unprecedented in Jewish history, it became the norm in some Haredi communities in Israel and the United States, with some financial backing and donations from Haredi communities, as well as subsidies to young families with many children from the Israeli government. Shach is also quoted as saying that although the yeshivas are the heart of the Jewish people, it is the ba'alei teshuvah who will be the one's to bring Mashiach.

View of the Holocaust

Shach taught that events like the Holocaust occurred because the sins of the Jewish people accumulated, and they needed to be punished in order to rectify them. He said that, "God kept count of each and every sin, in a running count over hundreds of years, until the count amounted to six million Jews, and that is how the Holocaust occurred. So must a Jew believe, and if a Jew does not completely believe this, he is a heretic, and if we do not accept this as a punishment, then it is as if we don't believe in The Holy One, Blessed be He..."

Views on education

Shach held that any secular education, at any level whatsoever, including high-school, was absolutely forbidden by the Torah. He wrote that any secular studies were banned by the sages of the Talmud, and that specially the study of psychology and history is pure heresy. He also wrote that learning a trade before it became an immediate need, is forbidden.

When Shach was asked about opening a yeshiva exclusively for gifted boys, he said that it is impossible to know beforehand who will grow in Torah knowledge, and who will not, and that all boys should therefore be given equal opportunities.

Political life

For Shach, battling secularism and Zionism was not enough. During the years of his leadership, he also waged bitter wars against anybody he suspected of deviation from the Haredi path. At the behest of Rabbi Aharon Kotler, Shach joined the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. When Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin died in 1966, Shach became president of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, until he resigned from the Moetzes after the other leading rabbis refused to follow him. Shach wrote strongly in support of every observant citizen voting. He felt that a vote not cast for the right party or candidate was effectively a vote for the wrong party and candidate. This theme is consistent in his writings from the time that the State of Israel was established.

Elazar Shach (late 1980s), seated center, looking down, holding book

Shas ran for the 11th Knesset in 1984, and Shach called upon his "Lithuanian" followers to vote for it in the polls, a move that many saw as key political and religious move in Shach's split with the Hasidic-controlled Agudat Yisrael. While initially, Shas was largely under the aegis of Shach, Ovadia Yosef gradually exerted control over the party, culminating in Shas' decision to support the Labor party in the 13th Knesset in 1992.

On the eve of the November 1988 election, Shach officially broke away from Agudat Israel in protest at Hamodia publishing, as paid advertisements, a series of articles based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Shach criticized Schneerson for his presumed messianic aspirations. Shach wanted the Aguda party to oppose Lubavitch; however, all but one (Belz) of the Hasidic groups within the party refused to back him. Shach and his followers then formed the Degel HaTorah ("Flag of Torah") party to represent the non-Hasidic Ashkenazi Haredim. Following a personal visit by Shach to the halachic decisors and leading rabbis, Yosef Shalom Eliashiv and Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, in Jerusalem to seek their support for the new party, they agreed to lend support to the new party.Schneerson's followers mobilized to support the Agudat Yisrael party. In the end, Agudat Yisrael secured nearly three times the amount of votes it had in 1984, and increased its Knesset representation from two seats to five, while Degel HaTorah only picked up two seats. After the bitter contest in the 1988 elections, Degel HaTorah conceded and agreed to work together with Agudat Yisrael. They combined forces in the 1992 elections, under the name of United Torah Judaism (UTJ) Yahadut HaTorah HaMeukhedet in Hebrew, an agreement which has continued to the present.

In a speech delivered prior to the 1992 elections, Shach said that Sephardim were still not fit for leadership, and aroused great anger among Sephardi voters. Following the elections, Shach instructed Shas not to join the government, while Ovadia Yosef instructed them to join - this precipitated an open rift between the parties. Shach then declared that Shas had removed itself from the Jewish community when it joined the wicked...

Around 1995, Shach's political activity diminished, following deterioration in his health, before later ceasing altogether. After that, the two main leaders of the Degel HaTorah party were Rabbis Yosef Shalom Eliashiv (d. 2012) and continued by Aharon Leib Shteinman.

In 1985, four years after the Labor Party supported a liberalized abortion law, Shach refused to meet with Shimon Peres, since he would not even speak with a "murderer of fetuses".

In Haaretz, Shahar Ilan described him as "an ideologue" and "a zealot who repeatedly led his followers into ideological battles".

Shach never seemed concerned over the discord his harsh statements might cause, saying that, "There is no need to worry about machlokes[dispute], because if it is done for the sake of Heaven, in the end, it will is obligated to be a baal-machlokes [disputant]. It is no feat to be in agreement with everybody!"

Shach was also critical of democracy, once referring to it as a "cancer", adding that, "Only the sacred Torah is the true democracy."

Shach supported the withdrawal from land under Israeli control, basing it upon the Halakhic principle of Pikuach Nefesh ("[the] saving [of a] life"), in which the preservation of lives takes precedence over nearly all other obligations in the Torah, including those pertaining to the sanctity of land, though Shach's position was later questioned by Rabbi Shmuel Tuvia Stern, who wondered why Shach hadn't provided halachic references supporting his opinion.

Shach also criticized Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as "a blatant attempt to provoke the international community", and called on Haredi Jews to avoid moving to such communities.

Position on territorial compromise

Shach's often said that for true peace, it was "permitted and necessary to compromise on even half of the Land of Israel". When Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner was asked to support this position, he refused, and stated that, "agreement to other-than-biblical borders was tantamount to denial of the Torah".Shach's position was also questioned by Rabbi Shmuel Tuvia Stern, who wondered why Shach hadn't provided halachic references supporting his opinion.

Opposition to the Lubavitcher Rebbe

Main article: Menachem Mendel Schneerson

Shach launched a number of public attacks against the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, from the 1970s through Schneerson's death in 1994.

He accused Schneerson's followers of false Messianism, and Schneerson of fomenting a cult of crypto-messianism around himself. He objected to Schneerson's call for "demanding" the Messiah's appearance. When some of Schneerson's followers proclaimed him the Messiah, Shach called for a complete boycott of Chabad, its institutions and projects by its constituents. In 1988, Shach explicitly denounced Schneerson as a meshiach sheker (false messiah). Shach also compared Chabad and Schneerson to the followers of the 17th century false messiah Sabbatai Zevi.

Pointing to a statement by Schneerson that a rebbe is "the Essence and Being [of God] clothed a body", Shach described this as nothing short of idolatry. His followers refused to eat meat slaughtered by Lubavitch shochetim, or to recognize Chabad Hasidim as adherents of authentic Judaism. Shach once described Schneerson as "the madman who sits in New York and drives the whole world crazy".

Despite this, Shach explained that he did not hold personal animosity toward Schneerson. When the rebbe became sick, Shach prayed for his recovery by reciting chapters from the Book of Psalms, explaining: "My battle is against his erroneous approach, against the movement, but not against the people in any personal way. I pray for the Rebbe's recovery and simultaneously, also pray that he abandon his invalid way."

In addition to Shach's objections to certain Chabad members proclaiming Schneerson to be the Messiah, he also argued against the Chabad position on many other issues. Schneerson, citing case law in the Shulchan Aruch, strongly opposed both peace talks with the Palestinians and relinquishing territory to them under any circumstances, while Shach supported the "land for peace" approach.

Opposition to other Orthodox rabbis and groups

In addition to his criticism of Schneerson, Shach attacked the following rabbis:

Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik

In a lengthy attack on Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik (d. 1993) of Yeshiva University, Shach accused him of writing "things that are forbidden to hear",  as well as "... endangering the survival of Torah-true Judaism by indoctrinating the masses with actual words of heresy".

The Gerer Rebbe

Shach resigned from the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah ("Council of Torah Greats") following tensions between him and the Gerer Rebbe, Rabbi Simcha Bunim Alter (d. 1992). In the Eleventh Knesset elections of 1984, Shach had already told his supporters to vote for Shas instead of Agudat Yisrael. Some perceived the schism as the reemergence of the dissent between Hasidim and Mitnagdim, as Shach represented the Lithuanian Torah world, while the Gerer Rebbe was among the most important Hasidic Rebbes and represented the most significant Hasidic court in Agudat Yisrael. However, it would not be accurate to base the entire conflict on a renewal of the historic dispute between Hasidim and Mitnagdim which began in the latter half of the eighteenth century.

Rav Adin Steinsaltz

Rav Adin Steinsaltz (Even-Yisrael) (b. 1937) was likewise accused of heresy by Shach, who, in a letter written September 10, 1988, wrote that "... and similarly, all his other works contain heresy. It is forbidden to debate with Steinsaltz, because, as a heretic, all the debates will only cause him to degenerate more. He is not a genuine person (ein tocho ke-baro), and everyone is obliged to distance themselves from him. This is the duty of the hour (mitzvah be-sha’atah). It will generate merit for the forthcoming Day of Judgement."

In the summer of 1989, a group of rabbis, including Elazar Shach, placed a ban on three of Steinsaltz's books.

The Modern Orthodox and Yeshiva University

Shach wrote that Yeshiva University (YU) type institutions are an entirely negative phenomenon posing a threat to the very endurance of authentic Judaism. Shach said that these modern conceptions were "an absolute disaster, causing the destruction of our Holy Torah. Even the so-called 'Touro College' in the USA is a terrible disaster, a ' churban ha-das ' (destruction of the Jewish religion)..." 

Shach further writes that the success of those people who were able to achieve greatness in Torah despite their involvement in secular studies are "ma'aseh satan" (the work of the satanic forces), for the existence of such role models will entice others to follow suit, only to be doomed.

In a conversation that he had with an American rabbi in the 1980s, Shach stated, "The Americans think that I am too controversial and divisive. But in a time when no one else is willing to speak up on behalf of our true tradition, I feel myself impelled to do so."

Position regarding Hasidim and Hasidism in general

Main article: Hasidic Judaism

Shach wrote that he was not at all opposed to Hasidim and Hasidism (including Hasidism of Chabad from the previous generations); he said he recognized them as "yera'im" and "shlaymim" (God-fearing and wholesome), and full of Torah and Mitzvos and fear of heaven.

Regarding his opposition to the present-day Chabad movement, someone mentioned to Shach that, "After 120 years, when you go to Heaven, you will merit a warm handshake from the Vilna Gaon." Shach responded, "The Vilna Gaon will shake my hand!? The Baal HaTanya will be the one to shake my hand!"

On several occasions, Shach said to his students that it pained him deep inside over the sheim ra ["bad name"] he had acquired as a "hater of Hasidim". This was "total sheker ["lie"], he said resolutely. "We are fighting against secularism in the yeshivas. Today, besiyata deShmaya ["with the help of Heaven"], people are learning Torah in both Hasidic and Lithuanian yeshivos. In my view, there is no difference between them; all of them are important and dear to me. In fact, go ahead, and ask your Hasidic friends with us at Ponevezh if I distinguish between Hasidic and Lithuanian bochurim ["unmarried male students"]." 

Support from Haredi leaders

In 1982, the honor and standing of Rabbi Shach were challenged by various segments of the Orthodox press. A group of leading rabbis, including Rabbis (Yaakov Kamenetsky, Shimon Schwab, Mordechai Gifter, Shneur Kotler, Avraham Yaakov Pam, Aharon Schechter, Henoch Leibowitz, Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman, and Elya Svei), decided that a public protest for the honor of Shach was necessary. One protest was held at Kaminetz Yeshiva in New York, and another at Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore.

Death and funeral

Grave of Rabbi Elazar Shach in Bnei Brak

Shach died on November 2, 2001, and was buried in Bnai Brak. He was almost 103 years of age, having been born on January 1, 1899. Approximately 200,000 people attended Shach's funeral, and after his death, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon noted appreciation for his work, saying, "There is no doubt that we have lost an important person who made his mark over many years."

May the merit of the tzadik Rabbi Elazar Shach protect us all. Amen


Shach had three children, all born in Kletsk in the 1920s: Miriam Raisel, Devorah, and Ephraim. Miriam Raisel died as a teenager in 1939 of pneumonia. Devorah married Rabbi Meir Tzvi Bergman, and had 9 children. Ephraim was unsatisfied with the Haredi lifestyle and eventually joined the Religious Zionist camp.

Rav Shach's wife, Guttel Schach, died in 1969 from complications connected to diabetes.

Dr. Ephraim Shach served in the Israel Defense Forces, received a doctorate in history and philosophy from the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Yeshiva University, and worked as a supervisor for the Israel Ministry of Education. He married Tamara Yarlicht-Kowalsky, and had 2 children. He died October 17, 2011, at the age of 81.


  • Avi Ezri – Insights and expositions on various concepts in the Yad HaChazaka of the Rambam
  • Michtavim u'Maamarim – a collection of Shach's letters published in various editions of 4–6 volumes.
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